“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” -2 Corinthians 7.10-11
Looking at the way in which the indwelling sin of my flesh has grieved me so, I think another major hang-up I have come across is the question of genuine repentance.
When I commit a sin, say for instance by speaking harshly to my wife (Colossians 3.19), there is almost instantaneously a part of me which knows that I should not have done that. But I did. And what’s more, I rationalize it and explain it away, both to myself and to my wife as to why it happened. Then, most always, there comes a point at which I stop trying to rationalize it and accept that I did something wrong and that I need to repent over it. So I do, apologizing to my wife, maybe even apologizing specifically over it to God, and then I move on. However, when the next day comes, or the next stressful situation, I find myself speaking harshly to my wife again. Why?
It is this that troubles me. Was I not genuinely repentant the day before? I felt that way. It seemed to me that I had an honest assessment of my own failure, of my own need for forgiveness, and for my own necessity to confess and repent what I’d done. But, turning around and doing it again such a short time later makes me question that initial experience. Was I truly repentant? Did I sincerely see my sin and desire that it be gone?
This is the reason I believe a lot of people get into Free Grace theology, arguing that it is alright for a “Christian” to live like hell as long as they have “trusted” in Christ. But as I have stated before (and before) this approach just doesn’t hold water for me. Just looking at the penitential psalms which I addressed yesterday we see that God desires true repentance (Psalm 32.5, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin“; Psalm 38.18, “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.”). Then if this is so, it is true repentance, and not just temporary grief that I must find.
So, with this in view, I turn to 2 Corinthians 7.10-11 (above) because I know this passage makes the distinction most clearly. What does Paul tell us true repentance causes? Earnestness, eagerness for cleanliness, indignation, fear, longing, zeal, punishment (i.e. a feeling of being distraught). All of these characterize true repentance. It is through this lens that I must view my actions. Was I appalled by my treatment of my wife? Was I afraid of the vengeance of the Lord upon my sin? Was there a longing to do better than I had? Yes, I did fail again (and most certainly again and again), but these successive failures neither invalidate my repentance nor destroy God’s grace. Is it alright for me to live however the hell I choose? No. Flatly no. But at the same time, there is still a warring in my flesh (Romans 7.23), there is still an evil lying “close at hand” (Romans 7.21), and though “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13) I am not always very quick on the draw to seek his strength.
Thanks be to God who both tears us down and builds us up in his Word. He tears down our worldly comforts and builds up in us an obedient heart. And I thank him for the sufficiency of his revelation, that it truly is “profitable . . . for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16) and is “a lamp to my feet” to walk in his ways (Psalm 119.105). Amen.