What’s the problem? Why do we have to find ourselves in this maddening cycle? Is a Christ-follower resigned to the same sin-slavery as the unbeliever, just with an added dose of conviction?
If you have read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, you know that he definitely didn’t propose this sad existence as an unavoidable reality. In his first letter to Corinth he thanks God because of our “victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:57). That sure doesn’t sound like someone who is resigned to failure! So where is that victory found, and why isn’t sorrow enough to give us that victory?
Paul’s second recorded letter to the Corinthian church describes this very issue in chapter 7 verses 9-10.
“Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.”
The reality that the Holy Spirit used Paul to describe is this: there are two different kinds of sorrows. There is a sorrow that produces death, and a sorrow that produces repentance. The first is a natural feeling that comes because of many reasons (many of them selfish): lost opportunities, lost relationships, the pain of consequences… But this sorrow has no power to do anything but make us feel pain, regret, and worthlessness. There is no hope in this sorrow alone.
What Paul describes as a much better option is a hopeful sorrow. There is a godly sorrow that leads to victory over sin because it leads to repentance. Repentance is more than feeling sorry … it is a response to the knowledge of the person and work of God. First of all, it is a realization that my sin is a violation against a holy God. We must realize that the gravity of our sin is not primarily found in the pain that it causes us or the ones around us, rather in the reality that it is rebellion against God.
But this realization of the person of God could still result in hopeless despondency unless we also remember the work of God. Victory and hope requires remembering and relying on the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection that ensured victory. It is in this gospel that we find the hope that our sorrow must lead to. The gospel of a mercy that endures forever. The gospel of a grace that knows no bounds. Mercy in forgiveness, and grace in the power to change. It’s no wonder that our sorrow leads to more failure when we fail to let it take us to the cross and the empty tomb. It is only in the transformative power of Christ that we will ever find any hope. If He can transform your soul, He can surely transform your flesh! (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24)
So how do we let our sorrow move us in a hopeful direction? By responding to three things:
- Our sin: sin is not just a mistake … it is rebellion against a just and holy God.
- God’s mercy: forgiveness is offered even when judgment is deserved.
- God’s grace: undeserved new life is followed by undeserved empowerment for a new lifestyle.
So when you are made aware of your own guilt, please don’t stop at sorrow. Let that sorrow point you to true repentance! That repentance leads to a resting in the mercy of God and a grace-driven pursuit of Christ-likeness. And when you are helping others become aware of their guilt, don’t think you have done your job just because they feel sorry … show them the hope that is found in the mercy and grace of a loving God!