The Expository Files

Regret, Remorse, or Repentance?

2 Corinthians 7:10

For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. (NKJV)

I am sure that every teacher of the Gospel commiserates with Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel. God told Isaiah that even if he did preach the Word as he was instructed to do so, no one would listen. (Isa. 6:8-10.) In the beginning of his ministry Ezekiel had no serious listeners and even after his oracles concerning the fall of Jerusalem came true and his notoriety increased, the listeners were willing to listen, but were still not obedient. (Eze. 33:30-33.)

Why would the people not hear the prophecy of God? Or if they did listen, why would they not heed the warnings of impending judgment? Our text suggests that it is “godly sorrow” that produces repentance which in turn leads to salvation. Isaiah and Ezekiel’s listeners obviously did not come to feel this “godly sorrow.”

The members of the Corinthian church were in need of repentance as seen in Paul’s first letter to them. Our text shows that they took his rebuke and exhortation just the way they should and changed their mind and sought forgiveness.

Wiersbe suggests that a distinction can be made between regret, remorse and repentance. Regret is that activity of the mind (intellect) that causes us to say, “Why did I do that?” Remorse touches us a little deeper causing us to feel disgust and pain (involving both the intellect and the heart), but not causing us to change our ways. True repentance brings in the third aspect of our minds – our will. To truly repent one must have a change of will. “Godly sorrow” is the catalyst that brings us to true repentance. [Warren Wiersbe, Be Reverent, p. 149.]

I am reminded of the chorus of an obscure song from the late nineties that counseled, “If you are going to change, you better start changing your mind.” We must change our minds (intellect-heart-will) about our sins, agree with what God says about them, hate ourselves for what we have done, turn from our sin and turn to God for mercy and forgiveness. Compare and contrast the cases of Peter’s denial and Judas’ betrayal. Both sinned, but only Peter felt “godly sorrow.” When the rooster crowed he remembered his sin of denial and immediately experienced the kind of sorrow that we are discussing (Mt. 26:75). On the other hand Judas only
felt regret and remorse (Mt. 27:3); so, feeling only self-sorrow he went out and hanged himself. Forgiveness (and ultimately our salvation) hinges on whether the sinner is willing to turn from his sins and turn towards God and faith in Christ (Acts 20:21). [Wiersbe, p. 149.]

This attitude of “godly sorrow” is exactly what was expressed by David as he came to realize that he was the man of Nathan’s parable (2 Sam. 12:13). Cain and Esau however are examples of men who suffered the sorrow of this world and the consequences that it brings.

Worldly sorrow could involve such things as loss of property, loss of friends, disappointment, or disgrace. It could be that kind of sorrow that is expressed as “I am just sorry I got caught!” Cain of course was sorry his sacrifice did not please the Lord; in his remorse he killed his brother (Gen 4:3-8). Esau was sorry that his physical appetites caused him to lose his birthright, but he and his ancestors never came back to the Lord (Gen. 25:30ff).

Are we willing to give up our sins with the proper attitude of “godly sorrow?” Or are we more likely to begrudge any changes we have to make?

Regret and remorse did nothing for the spiritual lives of Judas, Cain or Esau; it can do nothing for ours either!

Only “godly sorrow” will lead to true repentance!

By Carey Dillinger
From Expository Files 11.6; June 2004