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2 Corinthians 7:10

“Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

After Paul’s “painful visit” to the Corinthian church (see 2 Cor. 2:1), he decided to send them a letter to get them to repent and to stop standing by while others opposed his Apostolic ministry. This letter, although it had the intended effect of getting the Corinthians to turn from their sin (7:8–9), raised an issue for the Corinthian believers. It would have grieved the Corinthians because it made clear the strained relationship between the church and its Apostle. Thus, Paul spends time in 2 Corinthians putting their grief in a proper perspective. Although grief in and of itself is not a positive thing, grief in this case was good because it resulted in the repentance of the Corinthians (7:8–9).

This leads Paul to a brief excursus in today’s passage on the relationship between grief and true repentance. He distinguishes the “godly grief” that produces a repentance that leads to salvation from the “worldly grief” that results in eternal death (v. 10). “Godly grief” is a grief that is according to God, toward God, and from God. It refers to grief that is rightly ordered in light of who God is. Such grief recognizes one’s unholiness and is sorry first and foremost for offending the Lord. An example of this grief is found in Psalm 51:4, where David indicates that his sin is first and foremost against the Creator. “Worldly grief,” on the other hand, is grief that is of the nature of the world in its opposition to God. Such a grief is never truly sorry for offending the Lord but is sorry only for the consequences of sin. It is the kind of sorrow and fear of punishment that a child feels for being caught in the act of stealing a cookie from the cookie jar and not for the theft itself.

Importantly, when Paul says that repentance leads to salvation, he is not speaking of repentance as something that causes God to save us. That would turn repentance into a work that produces salvation, and Paul is quite clear elsewhere that we are saved through the open hand of faith alone that receives Christ and His righteousness (Rom. 4; Eph. 2:8–10). Faith and repentance do occur at the same time when we are converted, but faith has the logical priority. Although we experience faith and repentance simultaneously when we turn from our sin to Jesus, repentance is actually the effect of faith. Only by first believing that God is gracious to us in Christ can we truly repent. Faith precedes repentance in logical order, and thus salvation is by faith alone.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

John Calvin writes that since repentance and faith are inseparable, repentance is rightly “represented as an introduction to salvation, but in this way of speaking of it, it is . . . an effect rather than . . . a cause.” If repentance causes salvation, we will never be assured of salvation, for we will look in vain for perfect repentance. But God does not wait for flawless repentance to save us. We are saved by faith, which produces sincere but imperfect repentance.

For Further Study
  • 2 Chronicles 33:1–20
  • Acts 20:21

The Response to Paul’s Letter

Giving and Receiving Love

Keep Reading The Doctrine of Justification

From the October 2021 Issue
Oct 2021 Issue