"For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter" (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
It is truly a joyous occasion when a Christian who has "wandered from the truth" (cf. James 5:19-20) returns to God. As James points out, his soul is saved from "death" and a multitude of sins are "covered." When the invitation is offered, and a tender hearted brother or sister in Christ steps into the aisle with tears in their eyes and a spirit humbled before God, our hearts soar. We rejoice that God's word has worked upon their heart, and their zeal to serve Him has returned.
Occasionally as a preacher I have assisted a Christian in making such a public confession, and have had my joy tempered with concern about the legitimacy of the expression. Certainly our responsibility as loving Christians is to "believe all things" (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:7). We must accept at face value the claim of sorrow for sin committed, and the spoken resolve to do better. Too often, however, subsequent behavior creates doubt as to the genuineness of the claimed repentance.
A distinction needs to be made here. We do not speak of a brother who is beset with weakness and who falters. One who comes from a worldly background may fall into sin from time to time (even the same sin time and again), and be truly sorrowful for his transgression. His resolve, though heartfelt, weakens when the allurement of sin is present. Such an individual needs to be encouraged and edified. Paul said, "...uphold the weak, be patient with all" (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
No, we speak of the individual who makes a confession, but exhibits no real sorrow, and especially no real change in his behavior. His words do not match his actions, and he fails as the Pharisees and Sadducees to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (cf. Matthew 3:8).
There are several indications of such a flawed demeanor which may strike a familiar chord.
Sin has a way of coming out. It is possible to deceive brethren for a while, but eventually the truth is revealed. Some, when the initial concerns are expressed, deny everything. They seek to hide their sin. They lie to cover it up, and only when the evidence becomes overwhelming do they admit to their sin. A question arises, "Is their sorrow godly?" Are they sorry they were caught in their sin, and now find it necessary to save face? ("the sorrow of the world produces death"). Or, are they truly sorrowful for the sin they have committed against God. ("godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation"). Their behavior after their confession will reveal the truth.
David is a wonderful example of a man who exhibited godly sorrow, though it took the exposure of his sin to bring him to repentance. David was guilty of adultery, lying and murder. He continued in his sin until Nathan confronted him with his sin, "You are the man" (cf. 2 Samuel 12:7). In response, David said, "I have sinned against the Lord" (vs. 13), and more importantly reformed his behavior before the Almighty.
An interesting aspect of the Corinthians repentance, as indicated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 7, is the obvious acceptance of responsibility for their actions. They were freely willing to make amends. Paul said they were "diligent", that their failure created in them "indignation" (that is, they were upset with themselves over what they had done), they had "vehement desire" to make things right, and "zeal."
Too many resent the efforts of brethren to exhort and warn as intrusions into their personal business. They lack the fortitude and humility to regain the confidence of their brethren.
In contrast note the example of David again. He bore with dignity and resolve the consequence of his sin (the death of his son). He diligently fasted "Who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me" (vs. 22), but he did not resent it when the Lord took the child as punishment for his sin. David did not cry "foul", or contend that his treatment was unfair. He knew he was the sole cause of his suffering, and his punishment was just.
It is true that we can be a contributing factor to the sin of others. For example, a man can "cause" his wife to commit adultery by divorcing her (Matthew 5:32). A father can "provoke" his children to wrath (Ephesians 6:4). However, no man who has sinned can justifiably excuse his actions because of any outside influence. Such actions indicate that the sinner is unwilling to express the "mea culpa" required as a consequence of sin. "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself" (Ezekiel 18:20).
This desire to put blame on others is as old as humanity. Adam said to God, "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate" (Genesis 3:12). Aaron said to Moses, "Do not let the anger of my lord become hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil" (Exodus 32:22). Saul sought to excuse his sin by pointing out Samuel's tardiness, "When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, then I said, 'The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the LORD.' Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering." (1 Samuel 13:11-12). In all of these examples, God rejected as excuses their attempts at shifting blame, and held them accountable for their actions.
This behavior often indicates a lack of humility. It is simply too hard for some to admit that they have failed, and they alone are at fault. Such pride is destructive. As the writer of Proverbs wrote, "Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).
An adulterous man does not indicate penitence by pointing at the failings of his wife. A shrewish woman is not showing "godly sorrow" as she blames her husband and her children for provocation. A rebellious child can not stand before God and excuse his actions because of unreasonable parents. And a fomenter of strife can not with impunity blame his brethren for his contentious ways.
Again, David's example serves to illustrate the proper attitude. There is absolutely no expression of blame to Bathsheba, Nathan or God for his sin, or the troubles his sin caused. Though Bathsheba was responsible for her immodest behavior, and her response to his advances, he offered no defense for his lust. He did not accuse Nathan of impure motives or tactics in the admonition given, and did not blame God for the stiff punishment. In fact, a psalm was written by David, in admitting his sin. In it he takes full responsibility for his actions. "For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight; That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge" (Psalms 51:3-4).
This behavior is almost inexplicable, but very common. The supposed penitent will profess sorrow and a desire to reform to his brethren, but make no effort to change when out of their presence. He will say of the elders, "They will just have to wait until I am ready to talk to them"; and of the preacher, "He is being too judgmental"; but will make a show of humility when face to face with them.
The hypocrite's only purpose is to deceive men. Ungodliness can not be hidden from God. However, men sometimes wish to hide their sins from the brethren. This may be to "save face" or to attain some perceived advantage.
In Acts 5, Luke records the lies of Ananias and Sapphira. Their desire was to be known as more generous than they actually were. Their desire to be "seen of men" brought them death. "But Peter said, 'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.' Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things" (3-5).
"Then Peter said to her, 'How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.' Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband" (9-10).
Such hypocrisy is manipulative, and indicative of moral cowardice. It clearly indicates a lack of godly sorrow. It is also self-destructive, as such behavior is most often easily and quickly exposed, and compounds the consequence of the sin.
The aforementioned indicators show a person who is lacking the godly sorrow necessary to bring about true repentance. In contrast, note again the actions of the Corinthians, mentioned by Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:11:
"For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter."
A public confession of sin should not be a ritual that Christians endure because it is "expected." Rather, it should be an expression of humility and indignation, as a child of God prostrates himself in sorrow before his Master.
A Christian who is truly sorry for sin will prove himself to be clear in the matter. Using Paul's language, he will be diligent in his actions, seeking every opportunity to atone for his sin. He will express indignation toward himself, rather than blaming others for his transgression. He will be motivated by fear, recognizing the seriousness of his failures. His desire to make amends will be abundantly obvious to all, and no one will have cause to doubt his true sincerity. His zeal will not flag, and with time, his vindication will be complete! May we all show such godly sorrow when we are guilty of sin. Anything less is only "the sorrow of the world" which "produces death."