Our look at what Scripture teaches on prayer concludes today, and our study has been necessarily brief and unable to cover everything the Bible has to say about this topic. We have seen that God-honoring prayer requires us to know who God is and who we are, and that understanding who we are demands repentant prayer. To close out our study before we return to our examination of the Old Testament Wisdom Literature, we will consider the nature of true repentance, the natural outflow of understanding just who we are.
Theologians and preachers typically distinguish two different attitudes that might be described as “repentance,” at least in some sense. The first of these attitudes is attrition. In essence, attrition consists not of sorrow for offending God but is rather sorrow related to a fear of punishment or sorrow for losing a promised blessing. This is the kind of sorrow displayed by Judas, who was repentant for what He had done only in the sense that he wished he could undo it and that he knew betraying innocent blood would put him under the divine curse (Matt. 27:3–10). There is little evidence in Judas that he was sorry for wronging Christ, and we find no awareness in him that the primary problem with his transgression was not that it would incur punishment but that it was an offense against the holy character of God. Judas was sorry for opening himself up to punishment, and instead of submitting himself to God’s mercy, he took matters into his own hands and killed himself.
Contrition is the attitude that marks true repentance. In contrition, the penitent person acknowledges that the primary problem with sin is that it is a direct offense against God Himself. Contrite people understand that they deserve punishment, and they confess that the Lord would be just to inflict punishment if He so desired. They do not despair of the hope of forgiveness; in fact, the hope of forgiveness drives them to go before the Lord and express their sorrow. Nevertheless, they recognize that God does not owe them pardon. The godly grief that Paul describes in today’s passage recognizes that a great injustice has been done against the Lord in breaking His law.
We find an excellent example of contrition in Psalm 51. David recognizes that at the most fundamental level, God is the one whom he has offended, and that the Lord would be blameless to condemn him (vv. 3–4). If we do not have that attitude when we repent, we have not shown true contrition for our sin.