Theology

What leads to true repentance? Godly vs. worldly sorrow

A child caught stealing a cookie may burst out in tears. But what is it that they are crying about? Is it for their sin? Or is it for getting caught? And even if they are sad about what they’ve done, is that any assurance that they won’t be back at the cookie jar once their guilt feeling fades?

Adults, too, feel sorrow when they are caught sinning. But is this sorrow evidence of true repentance? Charles Spurgeon addressed these questions in a July 31, 1881 sermon exploring what God tells us in 2 Corinthians 7:10:

“For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”

There we learn that there are two kinds of sorrow for sin, and that only one of them produces true repentance. What follows is a modernized excerpt from his sermon.

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Some seem to think that merely being sad about a sin is repentance; but it is not. Read the text, and you will at once see that it is not. “Godly sorrow produces repentance.” It is an agent employed in producing repentance, but it is not itself repentance.

Sorrow is not repentance

We see that out in the world, where there is a great deal of sorrow on account of sin that is certainly not repentance, and never leads to it. Some are sorry for only a time; they are convicted of guilt, but that soon passes. Others are sorry for their sin because of the consequences it will have on their lives here on earth, while many more are brought to grief thinking about sin’s eternal consequences – they are afraid of hell. This last group would be delighted if it could be proved that there is no God. They are actually fond of their sins and would love to keep on committing them, but they sorrow because they know how a just God will deal with them.

That kind of sorrow is also not repentance. A moth may burn its wings in the candle, and then, full of pain, fly back to the flame. There is no repentance in the moth, though there is pain; and so, there is no repentance in some men, though there is in them a measure of sorrow on account of their sin. Do not, therefore, make the mistake of thinking that sorrow for sin is, or even necessarily leads to, repentance.

No repentance without sorrow

Next, do not fall into the other mistake, and imagine that there can be such a thing as repentance without sorrow for sin – there can never be such a thing! I heard a person say, quite flippantly, that it was a great thing to know the Greek language because then you could discover that repentance “simply means a change of mind.” Yes, it does mean a change of mind, but what a change of mind!

It is an entire and total change of mind, a turning of the mind right around, so that it hates what once it loved and loves what once it hated – it no longer puts bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter; darkness for light, and light for darkness. It judges righteous judgment, for the change of mind is thorough and complete; I therefore say that there is no repentance, that is worth anything, which is not accompanied by sorrow for sin.

Just consider the matter for a moment. Here is a man who says, “I repent.” But are you really sorry that you sinned? “No,” he replies. Then, my dear sir, you cannot have truly repented, for even someone who has not yet repented will often still be sorry for having done wrong. So much more then, when a man is convinced that he has transgressed against God, he ought to be sorry. So if you tell me that there can be such a thing as spiritual repentance, and yet no sorrow for having broken the law of God, I tell you that you do not know what you are talking about. The thing is clearly, on the very face of it, impossible.

There must be a deep hatred of the sin that you have committed, and even of the thought of ever committing that sin again. There must be sincere sorrow that you should ever have transgressed against God, and that you should be liable to transgress again. If there is no such sorrow as that in your heart, one of the things which are necessary to a genuine repentance is absent.

No threshold that must be met

I have tried so far to correct two mistakes, but there is a third that I must point out to you. Some seem to think that we must reach a certain point of wretchedness, or else we are not truly repentant. They imagine that we must grieve up to a certain level, or we cannot be saved; and they watch the convicted sinner to see when he gets near to what they consider to be a sufficient measure of brokenness of heart. But there are different methods of measuring this state of the spirit and some apply a very long measure indeed to all cases of this kind. I remember that one young friend, after I presented the gospel to him plainly and simply, said to me, “But is that all I have to do? I have only to believe in Christ in order to be saved? Why, my father was troubled to the depths of his soul for six long months before he could find the Savior, and part of the time he was so bad off that he had to be put in a lunatic asylum.”

Yes, that is the kind of notion some people have: that there is a certain amount of alarm, distress, apprehension, and fear which a man has to feel before he is up to the mark in this respect; but there is nothing at all in the Word of God to support that idea.

I will not waste time by dwelling upon it, because it is altogether a baseless supposition. We are not saved by any feelings or alarms that we may have. The source of eternal life is yonder, on that cross; and he who looks there shall find salvation. So away with the notion that there is a certain degree of wretchedness we must feel before we can come to the Savior!

It isn’t just one-time

Then, again, there is another mistake made by many: that this sorrow for sin only happens once, as a sort of squall, or a hurricane, or thunderstorm, that breaks over a man once, and then he is converted, and he talks about that experience all the rest of his life, but he has nothing more to do with it.

Why, dear friends, nothing could be a greater error. For myself, I freely confess that I have a much greater sorrow for sin today than I had when I came to the Savior more than thirty years ago. I hate sin much more intensely now than I did when I was under conviction; I am sure I do. There are some things that I did not know to be sin then, that I do know to be sin now, and therefore I strive to be rid of them. I have a much keener sense of the vileness of my own heart now than I had when first I came to Christ, and I think that many other believers here will say that it is the same with them.

It is a sweet thing to be sorrowful for sin, to be sorrowful for impurity, to be sorrowful for anything that made Jesus sorrow; it is not a thing that happens once, and then is done with; the godly sorrow of a believer lasts throughout his life.

Godly sorrow is no misery

I want also to correct another mistake, namely, that sorrow for sin is a miserable feeling. The moment the word “sorrow” is mentioned, many people suppose that it must necessarily be grief of a bitter kind.

Ah, but there is a sweet sorrow, a healthy sorrow! In honey, there is a sweetness that cloys after awhile. We may eat too much of it, and make ourselves ill; but in repentance there is a bitter sweetness, or a sweet bitterness – which shall I call it? – of which the more you have the better it is for you. I can truly say that I hardly know a diviner joy than to lay my head in my Heavenly Father’s bosom, and to say, “Father, I have sinned, but you have forgiven me; and, oh, I do love you!”

It does not spoil your happiness, my brother or sister, to confess your sin; the unhappiness is in not making the confession. The older ones among us can recollect that, when you were boys at home, and you had done wrong, you sometimes said, “I won’t own up to it.” And all the while that you hardened your heart against repenting, you were miserable – you know that you were! You missed your father’s goodnight kiss and your mother’s smile; and although, as long as you stubbornly held out you thought yourself very brave, yet you were very miserable. But do you also remember what it was like, afterwards, to go and say, “Father,” or “Mother, I was very wrong to do what I did, and I am truly sorry”? Then, as you received the kiss of full forgiveness, I do not suppose you ever felt more happy than after that.

That is the way for God’s child to always act: whenever you have done wrong, go at once to your Heavenly Father, with godly sorrow for that sin, and receive again the sweet kiss of his forgiving love. That is not misery; it is happiness of the highest kind!

Godly sorrow is concerned with God

We are told there is a godly sorrow, which “produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted.”

This is the sorrow that recognizes the enormity of what has been done, because this sin has been committed against God. That is the very heart of godly sorrow, as penitent David cried, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight;” and as the prodigal said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight.”

Any hypocrite is sorry for sin that hurts his own interests, or which may damage his reputation among men. But men do not generally trouble much about wrong done to God. A crime is usually a wrong done to man, so we think it is a horrible thing. But a sin, inasmuch as it is against God, is something many people don’t care about at all.

Let me illustrate further – if I were to say, “You are a sinner,” you would reply, “Yes, that is true.” But if I were to say to you, “You are a criminal,” you might become angered. After all, a criminal is one who offends men, and that is, in our view, a very horrible thing; but a sinner being only one who offends against God, that is not, according to most people’s notion, anything in particular, so they do not care much about it.

However, when a man is really awakened, he sees that the enormity of offense is that it is an offense against God; that is the worst part of the offense, as he rightly judges, and he therefore sorrows over it. This is a sorrow which is to be cultivated by us, the mourning over sin because it is committed against God.

SUMMARY: Godly vs. worldly sorrow

Godly sorrow that produces repentance leading to salvation is:  

  • sorrow that recognizes the enormity of the offense done to God
  • sorrow that understands no payment is sufficient, but seeks to repair what has been broken and heal the harms they have done, so much as they are able
  • sorrow arising out of an entire change of mind
  • sorrow which joyfully accepts salvation by grace
  • sorrow leading to future obedience
  • sorrow which leads to perpetual perseverance – the sinner now flees from sin

The sorrow of the world that produces death is:

  • sorrow that is self-centered, despairing at the consequences faced (either here, or in the hereafter) rather than the harm done
  • sorrow that seeks forgiveness from, but not healing for, those they have injured
  • sorrow arising from the shame at being found out
  • sorrow which seeks self-justification, by pointing to the sin of others (Genesis 3:12)
  • sorrow leading to a return to their folly (Proverbs 26:11)
  • sorrow which does not concern itself with fleeing from temptation


Spurgeon’s collected sermons amount to more than 20 million words, or the roughly the equivalent of the complete 
Encyclopedia Britannica. This sermon has been abbreviated and modernized by Jon Dykstra, and cut from its original 7,000 words to just under 2,000. If you want to read the original (including some very good material that had to be cut only for space reasons) you can find it at here.

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