When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians he promised to send Timothy to them (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:11). First Corinthians was a difficult letter for Paul to send as things in the church in Corinth were not well. There were divisions in the church threatening the unity the Spirit gives (1:10–17; 3:1–23). They were proud of sexual immorality in the church, thinking they were sophisticated and progressive for allowing it (5:1–13). They were taking one another to court (6:1–11). They were confused about marriage and human sexuality (7:1–16). They were insisting on their rights to the harm of their brothers and sisters in Christ, to the point of participating in pagan feasts (8:1–13). In addition to rebuking and correcting them for these things he answered a number of questions they had sent him, questions about culturally appropriate attire (11:1–16), questions about the Lord’s Supper (11:17–34), questions about spiritual gifts (12:1–31), about orderly and proper worship (14:26–40). They were confused about the resurrection of the dead, with some thinking it had already taken place (15:1–58)! In short, the church in Corinth was a mess and Paul sent a very frank and very firm letter to rebuke them and to teach them and to encourage them.
It is probable that when Timothy visited Corinth on behalf of the apostle, he returned to Paul with dire news: the situation had actually worsened. The details are a bit fuzzy but it seems that Paul interrupted his travel plans and visited Corinth to make the necessary corrections in person (2 Corinthians 13:1). Paul did not find this visit pleasant:
For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you.2 Corinthians 2:1 ESV
After this visit he wrote another letter to them, a letter that has not been preserved in the canon of Scripture:
For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.2 Corinthians 2:4 ESV
Though he had written difficult things to them, and though he had delivered painful words to them in person, it is clear that Paul loved the people of Corinth. In chapter 7 of 2 Corinthians he wrote some truly beautiful words to them:
Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.2 Corinthians 7:2–4 ESV
Paul calls them to make room in their hearts for him and for Timothy. He says he did nothing wrong with his stinging words, yet he is quick to say he is not condemning them. That is, by calling them to love and affection he is not suggesting they have neither, and then he reminds them of his and Timothy’s love and affection for them: “you are in our hearts, to die together and live together”. What a beautiful proclamation! Though they had experienced painful moments, Paul declares he’s sticking with them no matter what! He goes on to write this:
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.2 Corinthians 7:6–10 ESV
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
The same God who comforts the downcast—those who struggle to cope—has comforted Paul and Timothy. He’s saying that he and Timothy were struggling to cope with the pain and the pressure of caring for others. They felt the weight of spiritual leadership and they felt the sting of their own words to the Corinthians, yet when Titus had visited Corinth and reported back to Paul, they were comforted, for his report was of the Corinthians’ repentance. It had taken some time, as it often does, yet God granted repentance and though Paul’s words had grieved them, this grief led them to repent.
When he writes that “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation” it is unlikely that he means salvation in the technical sense of eternal life with the Lord. The word was a common word that referred to deliverance from calamity. If your boat capsized and another boat rescued you, you received salvation from a savior in another boat. Here Paul likely means salvation in this sense: they were rescued from a life of anger and bitterness and un-repentance. Through their repentance they were experiencing a newness of life—salvation.
Too often we think of repentance as a thing you do when you first believe. You acknowledge your sins and perhaps confess them publicly, and then you move on. The truth is that a life of following Jesus is a life of continual repentance. When an airplane pilot plots his course, he must continually make course adjustments throughout the flight, and the longer the flight, the more and the larger the adjustments may be needed. Flying isn’t as straightforward as aiming a plane toward its intended destination. Winds are constantly changing and shifting so a pilot must respond in order to remain on target. So it is with following Jesus. It is easy to begin to drift and when we recognize the drift we must make a course correction. We do not merely say, “Oh, I’m off course! My bad!” and then continue on. Repentance is not simply apologizing or even confessing the sin. Repentance is a continual course adjustment. If you hurt someone, for example, an apology is appropriate, but true repentance seeks to change the behavior by seeking what is causing that behavior in the first place. To say this another way, repentance is first internal and then it becomes outward.
A while back Jim shared in a sermon about getting angry when coffee filters stick together. This story resonated with me as I find myself getting angry at little things: stubbing my toe or my hands slipping when trying to open a jar or when another driver dares try to pass me too closely or—and this one is a doozy—when something slips from my fingers and I am forced to bend down and pick it up. None of these things is worthy of anger! True repentance on my part is not merely acknowledging the sinfulness of my thoughts and often words spoken in frustration, but digging deeply to find what is happening in my heart that leads to these micro-outbursts. In my case, it comes down to pride: how dare life frustrate me. I should live a trouble-free life! I spend so much time serving the Lord, so why hasn’t my stupid lawnmower started after three pulls? Three pulls!
Genuine repentance seeks to change the outward behavior, but merely changing the outward behavior is not repentance. I must confess the sin in my heart and I must pursue the Lord to quell my pride that I might seek his face in those moments of frustration and only by trusting in him and seeing his glory even in the small difficulties life throws at me can I truly repent. As I grapple with the pride in my heart I find these adult temper-tantrums begin to come less frequently.
While the anger grieves me, the pride I recognize inside of me grieves me even more. Paul says godly grief is what produces repentance while worldly grief produces death. That is, a grief that is grief at getting caught or being exposed or failing to keep the facade up is a worldly grief that seeks to hide one’s sinfulness and seeks to repair one’s image in the eyes of others. Godly grief comes from the Holy Spirit and enables us to recognize the true source of our sin. While it may express itself externally through words or actions, it is always, first and foremost, a heart problem. True repentance acknowledges what lies deep below the surface, and submits it to the Lord. This is only possible because of the beauty of the gospel of Jesus. We never had righteousness anyway, save for the righteousness granted to us by Christ. Let’s all seek to own this for ourselves, to be freed to acknowledge our shortcomings and sinfulness, so that we may live lives of continual repentance.