The Vital Difference Between Godly and Worldly Sorrow

How do you discern the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow? Though the question may seem to be your “run-of-the-mill” Bible question, how you answer it will determine the quality of your life and relationships.

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What I am talking about here is your view on repentance, and your thoughts on biblical repentance will be the difference between life and death, restoration and dysfunction, and joy and sorrow. And to truly discern your daily practice of repentance, it may be wise to talk to a friend about this life-altering question.

  • When God shows you that there is something wrong with you, what do you do?
  • How do you respond to Him?
  • When the Spirit is calling you out of specific nonsense, what does transformation look like for you?

The Bible says the proper response to these questions is repentance. Interestingly enough, the first point of the Ninety-Five Theses that Martin Luther nailed on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints Day in 1517 said the following:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He called the entire life of the believer to be one of repentance.”

Though this can sound bleak or overly introspective to some, it is not. What it points to is the victory we have through Christ. Because of the conquering gospel, we are the winners. Christians are the only people in the world who can continually repent.

Luther understood the gospel of Jesus Christ and knew that the only way a person could make progress in the Christian life was through daily, active repentance. How goes it with you? Do you do this?

Just like the gospel, repentance is an act of strength and wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). The “richest” men and women in the world are repenting men and women. They have discovered and are regularly applying the Christian’s “secret weapon” of active repentance.

For some Christians, repentance is not good news at all. They see it as bleak and overly introspective. They don’t see the need or they do not want to do it. Others believe the Bible does not talk about repentance for the believer.

This latter group puts forth a teaching that we are no longer under condemnation and therefore we don’t have to repent. They would see repentance for the unbeliever and all the Christian needs to do is to accept the forgiveness already provided.

Bible truth would not agree with this teaching, but say that repentance is the key to saving grace and repentance is the key to sanctifying grace. From start to finish repentance is a necessary and ongoing lifestyle for all believers. Tim Keller said, “All of life is repentance.”

Paul Called Christians To Repent

The letters to the Corinthians were Paul’s attempt to encourage the Corinthian Christians to change their ways. The biblical term for this is called repentance. He was writing to give those Christians a wake-up call—a call to repent.

It was in these writings where we come across the teaching of godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. In 2 Corinthians 7:8-11 Paul was writing to commend these Christians for their godly repentance. Here is what he said:

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see 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. 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.

Paul previously wrote a stern rebuke to the Corinthians. In this letter that we call 2 Corinthians, he was commending them because his confrontational first letter helped bring them to godly repentance. These Christians genuinely changed.

This type of response is what godly sorrow is. It produces a repentance that leads to the spiritual life that has no regret. It is not a self-focused sorrow that leads to regret, but sadness that fully releases a Christian from the sins he committed.

What Is Worldly Sorrow?

Worldly sorrow is different from the godly sorrow that Paul was commending the Corinthian Christians for having. “Worldly sorrow” has non-repentive characteristics. Here are a few of them.

  • Self-pity – I can’t believe I did this.
  • Personal embarrassment – What are others going to think about me now?
  • Shameful regret – I will never be able to forget what I have done.
  • Unbelieving guilt – I can’t forgive myself.

Worldly sorrow–simply put–is feeling sorry for yourself, but not sorry enough to turn to God in real life change. If you are unsure about your repentance, a functional assessment question for you would be to think through how often you fall into any of the traps that I mentioned.

The Corinthians did not respond with worldly sorrow. They walked out godly sorrow, which they demonstrated by moving from an ongoing self-centered lifestyle to a gospel-centered way of thinking and living.

What Is Godly Sorrow?

Turning from something that is bad, while switching to something that is good is the essence of repentance. You can say it this way: from something to something. Repentance is a “from/to dynamic.” Note how the Corinthian Christians repented.

  • They turned from loathing Paul to longing to see Paul.
  • They turned from rejecting Paul’s apostolic authority to embracing him.
  • They turned from being influenced by false teachers to the resentment of false teachers.
  • They turned from being proud and defensive of their sin to mourning over their sin.
  • They turned from refusing to exercise church discipline to following Paul’s instruction to discipline an erring brother.

Repentance expresses itself as a visible, tangible, and practical life change. It is a continual turning from a former way of life to a gospel-motivated kind of life. You can do this because it is the victory you own because of the conquering Christ. Repentance is the blank check that you can cash anytime.

The reason this is important is that even though you have a new identity in Christ, you continue to sin. Yes, the Lord saved all Christians from the penalty of sin, which happened at salvation, but all Christians still need daily transformation from the entangling power of sin.

Godly repentance keeps you walking in obedience and holiness. Repentance is how you experience “continual salvation” from yourself. It is a continual movement from what used to be to what should be. This kind of living is the central theme of the Christian life.

What Is Your Life Like?

In Colossians 3:5-12 and Ephesians 4:22-24 Paul talks about repentance in a putting off-putting on a framework. Though he is using different terminology in these letters, he is making the same appeal: Christians need to be changing each day. Daily repentance is what believers do. Unbelievers can’t practice daily change.

This type of active repentance means you live in a state of openness, transparency, and humility–giving God moment by moment opportunity to convict you. And because of His merciful confrontations, you have the privilege of turning from your selfishness to a better representation of His dear Son.

We all live in the already, but not yet tension. We are already positionally perfect in Christ, but we are “not yet” functionally perfect. God did not make us sinlessly perfect when He saved us. As the saying goes, “He’s still working on me.”

As you think about your need to change, how would you answer the following questions? If you have a close friend or spouse, how about if you talk through these questions.

  • Would you say that you often repent, occasionally, seldom, or never?
  • Are you more apt to talk about the sins of others or your sins?
  • How often would you say you repent of your sins to other people–often, occasionally, seldom, or never?
  • How often do you go to people and say, “I’m sorry I have hurt you. It was a sin, and I wronged you. I’m sorry I have wronged you. I don’t want to do it again. Will you forgive me?”

The Bible teaches us that this kind of thinking and practice should be a lifestyle. Parents, your kids need to know that you are the biggest sinner in your home (Matthew 7:3-5). If you want your kids to grow up with humble hearts, you’re going to have to model repentance to them.

The life you live will have either a positive or negative influence on your children. Why not show them how to live out repentance? If you don’t, there is a strong chance your kids could grow up to be self-righteous religious kids, who don’t know how to change because they have not seen an authentic example of what repentance looked like in you.

Genuine Repentance

Sin takes no prisoners. That is not the way sin works. It comes to divide, kill, and destroy. It is relentless. If allowed, sin will kill a church, a small group, a family, a marriage, or a relationship.

It’s my choice. It’s your choice. Either we will allow our sin to kill relationships or we will permit the Spirit of God to work through us to put sin to death so our lives can experience ongoing transformation.

I need the favor to be a quick repenter. Quick repenters are grace-empowered, humble people. They don’t play around with sin. They have a clear understanding of what sin is, and they regularly practice repentance in their lives. For example:

  • Repentance is not worldly sorrow or pouting, which is more concerned about the consequences of your actions than the possibilities of change.
  • Repentance is not penance or some form of self-atonement where you have to pay for what you did. It’s not about good works outweighing your evil works.
  • Repentance is not merely a confession where the person says he is sorry but does not seek forgiveness. Saying “I sinned” is good, but not good enough.
  • Repentance is not a partial confession where a person tells part of the truth, but not all of it. True confession typically reveals more than what others already knew.
  • Repentance is not selfish motivation with the intent on getting some reward because of the confession. The award of repentance is a clean conscience and right relationships.
  • Repentance is not “damage control” to save face or not suffer too many losses. The repentant man does not care about his failures. (See Luke 15:17-21)
  • Repentance is not morbid introspection or going on a sin-hunt. You’re not called to hunt sin down, but to deal with it when it comes up. You won’t have to look for it because it will come looking for you.

Genuine repentance carries a true heartfelt desire to change before God. You are crying out for Jesus to bring rest to your soul. You are moving into a 180-degree life change. It’s a constant desire to repent because you want to make God’s name wonderfully great in your life and if possible, you want to restore your relationships.

Genuine repentance listens to God’s Spirit right now–at this moment–and begins to turn from whatever foolishness is going on to a new life of Christ-centered obedience and holiness.

Call to Action

  1. How does your spouse lead or shepherd you through active repentance–whether the spouse is the husband or the wife?
  2. Do you regularly repent?
  3. Spouse, how do you model walking out active repentance to your partner?
  4. Parent, how do you model the repenting process for your children?
  5. What has the repenting process looked like in your home?
  6. How do you need to change? If you need to change (repent), will you?
  7. How has your life, home, small group, and the church moved closer to a “community of repentance?”
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