2 Corinthians 7:8-11
For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same letter has made you sorry…
I. THE REMEMBRANCE OF SIN IS THE CAUSE OF GODLY SORROW IN THE HEART OF A TRUE PENITENT. The sinner is to be considered in two different periods of time. In the first he is under the infatuation of sin; in the last, after-reflections on his sinful conduct fill his mind.
1. The sinner is affected with the number of his sins. When we reflect on our past lives sins arise from all parts and absorb our minds in their multitude.
2. The true penitent adds to a just notion of the number of his sins that of their enormity. Here we must remove the prejudices that we have imbibed concerning the morality of Jesus Christ; for here also we have altered His doctrine, and taken the world for our casuist, the maxims of loose worldlings for our supreme law. We have reduced great crimes to a few principal enormous vices which few people commit.
3. A third idea that afflicts a penitent is that of the fatal influence which his sins have had on the soul of his neighbour. One sin strikes a thousand blows, while it seems to aim at striking only one. It is a contagious poison which diffuseth itself far and wide, and infects not only him who commits it, but the greatest part of those who see it committed.
4. The weakness of motives to sin is the fourth cause of the sorrow of a penitent. Motives to sin are innumerable and various; but what are they all? Sometimes an imaginary interest, an inch of ground, and sometimes a crown, the conquest of the universe, the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them (Matthew 4:10).
5. I make a fifth article of the penitent's uncertainty of his state. For although the mercy of God is infinite yet it is certain the sinner in the first moments of his penitence hath reason to doubt of his state, and till the evidences of his conversion become clear there is almost as much probability of his destruction as of his salvation.
6. Perhaps hell.
7. In fine, the last arrow that woundeth the heart of a penitent is an arrow of Divine love. The more we love God the more misery we endure when we have been so unhappy as to offend Him. The union of all these causes which produce sorrow in a true penitent forms the grand difference between that which St. Paul calls godly sorrow and that which he calls the sorrow of the world, that is to say, between true repentance and that uneasiness which worldly systems sometimes give another kind of penitents.
II. St. Paul speaks of THE EFFECTS OF GODLY SORROW only in general terms in our text; he says IT WORKETH REPENTANCE TO SALVATION; but in the following verses he speaks more particularly.
1. The first effect of godly sorrow is what our apostle calls carefulness, or, as I would rather read it, vigilance — yea, what vigilance! I understand by this term the disposition of a man who, feeling a sincere sorrow for his sins, and being actually under the afflicting hand of God, is not content with a little vague knowledge of his own irregularities, but uses all his efforts to examine every circumstance of his life, and to dive into the least obvious parts of his own conscience in order to discover whatever is offensive to that God whose favour and clemency he most earnestly implores. The penitence of worldlings, or, as St. Paul expresseth it, "the sorrow of the world," may indeed produce a vague knowledge of sin. Afflicted people very commonly say, We deserve these punishments, we are very great sinners; but those penitents are very rare indeed who possess what our apostle calls carefulness or vigilance.
2. "What clearing of yourselves!" adds St. Paul. The Greek word signifies apology, and it will be best understood by joining the following expression with it, "yea, what indignation!" In the sorrow of the world apology and indignation are usually companions; indignation against him who represents the atrocity of a sin, and apology for him who commits it. The reproved sinner is always fruitful in excuses, always ingenious in finding reasons to exculpate himself, even while he gives himself up to those excesses which admit of the least excuse. Now, change the objects of indignation and apology, and you will have a just notion of the dispositions of the Corinthians, and of the effects which godly sorrow produces in the soul of a true penitent. Let your apology have for its object that ministry which you have treated so unworthily, let your indignation turn against yourselves, and then you will have a right to pretend to the prerogatives of true repentance.
3. The apostle adds, "yea, what fear!" By fear in this place we understand that self-diffidence which an idea of the sins we have committed ought naturally to inspire. In this sense, St. Paul says to the Romans, "Be not high-minded; but fear" (Romans 11:20). Fear — that is to say, distrust thyself. Here you suffered through your inattention and dissipation; fear lest you should fall by the same means again, guard against this weakness, strengthen this feeble part, accustom yourself to attention, examine what relation every circumstance of your life has to your duty. There you fell through your vanity; fear lest you should fall again by the same means. Another time you erred through your excessive complaisance; fear lest you should err again by the same means.
4. "What vehement desire!" This is another vague term. Godly sorrow produceth divers kinds of desire. Here I confine it to one meaning: it signifies, I think, a desire of participating the favour of God, of becoming an object of the merciful promises which He hath made to truly contrite souls, and of resting under the shade of that Cross where an expiatory sacrifice was offered to Divine justice for the sins of mankind.
5. Finally, zeal is the sixth effect of godly sorrow, and it may have three sorts of objects — God, our neighbours, and ourselves.
III. St. Paul expresses himself in a very concise manner on this article; but his language is full of meaning; REPENTANCE PRODUCED BY GODLY SORROW (SAYS HE) IS NOT TO RE REPENTED OF — that is to say, it is always a full source of consolation and joy. Godly sorrow reconciles us to three enemies who, while we live in sin, attack us with implacable rage.
1. The first enemy who attacks us while we live in sin with implacable rage is the justice of God.
2. As godly sorrow reconciles us to Divine justice, so it reconciles us to our own consciences. It is repentance only, it is only godly sorrow that can disarm conscience.
3. In fine, godly sorrow reconciles us to death.
Parallel VersesKJV: For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.