Repentance is at the heart of the lived Christian life. Martin Luther famously wrote as the first of his 95 theses that our Lord “willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Augustine, in one of my favorite quotes of his, prayed, “Lord, save me from that wicked man—myself.” Repentance and faith are inseparably related—distinguished, but not separable. Both are necessary for true conversion, and both (and their increase and refinement) are necessary for the living and maturation of the Christian life.
Scripturally informed churches are keen to create a culture of repentance and humility in their congregations. This ought not be a police state, where Christians arrogantly monitor one another and pick apart minutiae in the name of some oppressive “accountability”; proper repentance is most concerned with one’s own rebellion and unbelief, while also cultivating a proper Godward desire for the increased purity and consecration of other believers. This concern for holiness must also have a properly informed theology of sin; it must understand what is morally culpable sin, and what is simple humanness (even fallen humanness), and what is sinful in that is results from the Fall but is not morally culpable. To confuse these categories aborts genuine repentance because it causes the believer to feel guilt and anguish over things for which God does not condemn them, and it trains the conscience to be unable to distinguish between sin and human frailty/weakness—creating a mindset of withdrawal ad despair, not greater holiness!
Because repentance is so vital to conversion and the Christian life, we ought not be surprised that errors like these and others plague God’s people. And we must recognize these for what they are: Satanic fiery darts that are attempting to thwart the genuine work of God in His people for His glory! A biblically informed understanding of repentance is vital to exposing Satan’s schemes. Paul gives us an excellent overview of mature repentance in his second letter to the Corinthians.
Written to reclaim one of Christ’s churches from the false teaching that had ensnared it, 2 Corinthians does this in part by elucidating Paul’s credentials as a genuine apostle. For the Corinthians to forsake him and pursue false apostles was to reject the divine program—a scandalous sin that required repentance! Most of the Corinthians have repented, and Paul explores this for our benefit as he explains what their—and our—repentance entailed.
A. A Shepherd’s Anguish (vv. 5-6a, 8)
Sometime before this letter was written, Paul had visited the Corinthian church and had been attacked and humiliated by the false teachers there. Paul had been instrumental in founding that assembly and had personally led many of its members to Christ, but these dear believers were so deceived that they did not defend Paul or the truth he proclaimed. Paul had written them a letter rebuking their defection, called “the sorrowful letter”, and sometime after sent Titus to Corinth to see how it had been received.
Meanwhile, Paul has found an opportunity to go to Troas—both to minister and to meet with Titus; both are included in his statement that he was there “for the gospel of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:12)—but is so beside himself with concern over the Corinthians that he leaves and journeys through Macedonia to meet Titus and get his report.
“Conflicts without” of course refer to the opposition and persecution he suffered continually, both at the hands of Jews and Gentiles. The message Paul proclaimed was rejected by a hostile and rebellious culture (sound familiar?), and he was not alleviated of this while he was going through this other more personal (yet cosmic) trial.
“Fears within” denotes his concern over the Corinthians. I do not believe Paul was an insecure person in the least, but conversion had made him into a tender man. It is not easy to distinguish between Paul’s concern over their personal relationship with him and the bigger issue of their leaving New Covenant leadership and doctrine for false teachers, and we should not try to. Both matter to God. His fear over losing years of ministry through defection should not be separated from the pain of his dear friends abandoning him and losing their fellowship as they return hatred for his love.
The letter Paul had written confronting them weighs on his heart. He does not want to hurt them, but he also knows that exposure to the truth can be painful and humiliating, even traumatic, when one has been deceived. He does not write to retaliate or intentionally hurt them, but to expose them to truth. At the same time, he is quite naturally concerned that this might only make things worse—the fleshly heart is unwilling to accept divine truth, and fleshly people do not react well when hurt or embarrassed. He even regretted writing the letter if it pained them. Perhaps all was lost. But he did not stay here, as we will see now.
B. Good News (vv. 6b-7)
Paul eventually does find Titus, and with him the glorious news he has to share. “But God”—what glorious words! Paul recognizes the ultimate source of his joy—God’s merciful and gracious New Covenant work in His kingdom people. It is that work that has made Titus willing to minister to sin-deceived believers, and that work has also broken the stronghold in which these believers have barricaded themselves against the rule of God. Indeed, Titus’s comfort and relief at the Corinthians’ repentance comforts Paul, so deeply were their hearts knit in His work!
Paul notes some of the fruits of repentance here, and all of them in the Greek text are modified by the “for me”; they long for Paul, mourn for him, and are zealous for him. Longing—the relationship has been broken and they miss him; they desire fellowship and communion with him. Mourning—they weep over the pain they have caused him and the work of God. They are no longer indifferent to his suffering but grieve over their hand in it! Zeal—their affections for Paul have been inflamed and revived and with that they have a hatred for what they have done that has hurt him.
This is repentance.
C. The Joy of True Repentance (vv. 9-11)
Recall that Paul had said he regretted writing the letter because it caused them pain. He does not regret it anymore because the sorrow has been of God and produced repentance. He sees the letter and its effects with the eye of faith and sight. They are sorrowful “according to God.” The heart of God in producing the repentance is displayed beautifully here in one facet: They have repented so that they might not suffer loss in anything through Paul. What that means is as long as they were in sin, they were missing out on all God would and could do for and through them through fellowship with Paul that had been lost. God wishes to proper His people, and He does so through the body of believers and the tender heart that accompanies true brokenness (a hard heart cannot give or receive much no matter how much the person is externally invested). Isn’t that something—part of why God intends your repentance is because of what He has for you on the other side, things that you would forfeit if you continued in sin. How kind God is to sinners!
Paul gives another reason for his rejoicing in verse 10: Godly sorrow produces repentance without regret, leading to salvation. “Salvation” here is not simply conversion (the Corinthians were already saved), but also final salvation in heaven; true repentance is the necessary pathway we walk all the way to heaven. This is underscored by the fact that Paul continues by saying worldly sorrow produces death—clearly condemnation in eternal hellfire. By repenting in this way, the Corinthians have stayed on the narrow way to heaven!
Paul describes the fruits of true repentance in verse 11. He uses “what” before each phrase to denote its quality and intensity. “Earnestness” is an eagerness towards righteousness and obedience that ends indifference to ungodliness and iniquity. “Vindication” is their desire to clear their name of wrongdoing. “Indignation” is holy anger at their sin and the shame they have brought on the name and cause of Christ. “Fear” is that grand OT concept of the fear of Yahweh—a humble, faith-filled, Word-driven awe and surrender and consecration to a holy God. Of course, it is not wrong to see literal holy terror to some degree in the phrase. Our unholiness ought to make us fearful in the presence of a holy God, though always answered by the glories of the gospel upon repentance. “Longing” and “zeal” are repeated from verse 7, though here they are broader—longing and zeal for God, for greater understanding of and obedience to truth, for God’s people, for the kingdom to come, for holiness, for assurance of love and pardon. Finally, “avenging of wrong.” Likely, this refers to the discipline or ejection of the false teachers and their enablers within the Corinthian church. They were the human source of the problem, the human instigators of the rupture. They had started the lies and ungodliness that infected the church and hurt Paul, and true repentance led the Corinthians to not only clear their own names, but to see that justice was done.
Marveling, Paul says in everything they have proved themselves innocent. This is shocking, given how deeply they have sinned against him and the Lord! However, “innocent” here is really the word for pure or holy, and denotes they proved themselves holy, humble, repentant, pure men and women by the way their behavior and attitudes changed. How magnificent that when God brings a soul to repentance, it has visible results!
I said at the beginning that this was a picture of mature repentance. I do not believe repentance this thorough is necessary to be converted, and I also believe that as long as we are in unredeemed flesh our repentance will be imperfect (and certainly never meritorious). But what an example to pray God cultivates and grows into our lives!
The good shepherd, like the Great Shepherd, desires the obedience, repentance, and growing faith of his people. The New Covenant promises new hearts with the internalized holy law of God (Ezek. 36:26–27). The greatest effect of this new heart, by God’s grace, is a lifestyle of continuing, growing, grace-enabled repentance.