Effective Repentance - 2 Corinthians 7:2-16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The 25th January 2006 is not a day 42 year old Nick Flynn wants to remember. Nick Flynn was a enjoying an apparently innocent visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when he tripped over his shoelace, was catapulted down a staircase and crashed into three extremely expensive 300 year old Qing Dynasty vases from China, some of the museum’s most prized assets. The vases shattered into hundreds of pieces and Mr Flynn was left with a bruised leg and a red face. The museum were left with a very tricky repair job, and a huge bill, as well as barely concealed wrath against what they thought was a clumsy fool who couldn’t keep his balance. What was interesting about this story though, as it gained worldwide coverage through the media, was Mr Flynn’s unashamed denial that he had done anything wrong, and his flat refusal to apologise, although he admitted the incident was regrettable. In an interview with Radio Four in the weeks following, he explained his actions in the following way: “I snagged my shoelace, missed a step and crash, bang, wallop there was a million pieces of high quality Qing ceramics lying around underneath me.” He then went on to blame everyone else apart from himself, saying: “I suppose that seeing as they were the prize possession of the museum, they were just left lying on a windowsill. I thought they might take a bit better care of them…. If those vases had been at the British Museum, they would have been secure and not left where someone could bump into them. And, if there had been a handrail, I would have been able to grab hold of it.” Asked if he was a clumsy person, Mr Flynn said: “Well, I've been driving for a considerable amount of time and not had any serious accidents, and I seem to have most of my faculties. I have a few household accidents, maybe drop a cup or two, smash a plate, but nothing like this has ever happened to me before.” The Museum however when asked to comment, merely said: “The museum director has written to Mr Flynn asking him not to visit again in the near future”.
Well as Elton John once sang, it appears that “sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But in order to re-establish broken relationships sorry is one the words that needs to be said first, whether it be for Nick Flynn, or a politician, a church leader, a husband or wife, a friend or colleague. And yet sorry seems to be the hardest word. And when it comes to the Bible’s understanding saying sorry is part of what it means by the word repentance. To repent means basically to turn around. It begins in the mind and leads to a change of action. It might begin with the word sorry but it always leads to a change of life. Just saying the word is not enough. Doing the action is what really counts. And we might say that the quality of our repentance is one of the key indicators of the depth and reality of our relationship with God. Deep love for God is accompanied by deep change of heart and action, not just at the start of the Christian life, but all the way through.
Now it’s the topic of repentance that is the theme of our passage for this morning from 2 Corinthians, as the apostle Paul explains to the Corinthians the delight he felt when he discovered that they had repented of their sinful actions towards Paul. Now in order to understand this passage properly we do need to remind ourselves of some of the background story. Paul had had a rocky relationship with the Corinthians after he himself had founded the church. And most recently he had had to go to Corinth and confront a particularly difficult situation. There had been an issue of gross immorality and Paul had had to act against the person who was guilty of the crime. But it appears that Paul was publicly opposed by the person, and the rest of the church did nothing to back Paul up. And added to that false teachers had stirred up much of the church against Paul. So Paul comes away resolved not to make another painful visit to Corinth, but instead to send a letter. And this is a letter which is sharp and to the point. He puts it in the hand of his friend Titus, and waits to see what happens. Will the Corinthians repent of their attitudes to him? Will they come back to him? Will they deal with the person who has caused all the problems? And we need to see too that this was not just an issue of personal pique. Paul wasn’t so full of himself that he was desperate for friendship and anyone who slighted him got the full lash of his tongue. No the reason he was so concerned for the Corinthians was not just because he had genuine affection for them, but also because he was an apostle of Jesus Christ. He had Jesus’ authority as a teacher. So to reject Paul was to reject Christ. If you pushed Paul and his teaching out of your church, then you were rejecting Jesus himself. That’s how serious it was. So Paul fires off this letter, and he waits for news. I don’t know if you have ever fired off a letter or an email and then worried about how it’s going to be received. “Was I too strong? Will I be misunderstood? Should I have written this or that?” Well those were Paul’s thoughts. He is desperate to hear how his letter has been received. Is it good news or bad news? Have they been won over and have they repented? Or are they so outraged by the letter that the relationship is over? Well at first Paul doesn’t hear any news. His plan was to meet Titus in Troas, in western Turkey with the news, but Titus never shows, something Paul had explained back in chapter 2. So Paul heads on to Macedonia in northern Greece which was the next rendezvous point. So see what he says in verse 5 as he describes how he is feeling as he enters Macedonia: “For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within.” Quite frankly it looks like Paul is a nervous wreck. Actually the words he uses here are those used to describe depression. Paul was seriously down hearted. He had numerous problems in Macedonia to deal with as well as all the worries of the Corinthian situation. But then fantastic news, verse 6: “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.” Titus brings good news. The Corinthians have repented. They’ve come back to Paul and all is well again. Well almost! There is still the problem of the false teachers, which Paul will tackle later in the letter, but at least the relationship is restored. And in this chapter, Paul describes for us what true repentance looks like. He is commenting on this whole situation and showing us what it means to repent. Because as we’ll see, true repentance is far more than words. And it is something that we do not just at the start of our Christian lives, but all the way though. So Paul, what does genuine repentance look like? Well he tells us by outlining three steps.
1) True repentance begins with genuine sorrow (Vv 5-8)
2) True repentance leads to a changed life (Vv 9-13)
3) True repentance results in transformed relationships (Vv 2-4; 13-16)
1) True repentance begins with genuine sorrow (Vv 5-8)
So first then, Paul shows us that true repentance begins with genuine sorrow. So let’s read from verse 5: “For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his
coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for
me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.” Do you notice the news that Titus brings back from Corinth? What is one of the key things the Corinthians felt? Deep sorrow. They felt deep sorrow over their sin, how they had treated Paul, what they had done or not done, what they said and not said. Interestingly the word Paul uses here for ‘sorrow’ means something like ‘deep mourning’. And the only other occurrence of that word in the NT is in Matthew 2 where Herod kills all the children under two in Bethlehem and there is “deep mourning”. That’s the feeling we’re talking about here. That is how strongly the Corinthians felt about their sin. Deep mourning. There were tears, great sorrow at how they had treated Paul and how they had failed to act. That was how they felt about their sin.
Now I guess they could have used every excuse in the book couldn’t they, to weasel out of accepting the responsibility. “What right does Paul have to feel upset. He needs to get a life. It’s his problem! What have we done wrong. After all we can’t be held responsible if someone else does something wrong?” And again and again that is exactly what we do with our sin isn’t it? We want to pass the buck. We hate to admit we are wrong. I discovered recently that some of the best examples of total failure to admit wrong come on insurance claims. Here’s a sample. “Leaving home for work I drove out of my drive straight into a bus; the bus was five minutes early.” Or take another: “I consider neither vehicle to blame, but if either was to blame it was the other one.” Again: “I was sure the old fellow would never make it to the other side of the road when I struck him.” Perhaps the most ridiculous: “In attempting to kill a fly I drove into a telephone pole.” And finally my favourite: “I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment.”
And when it comes to admitting wrong, we do exactly the same don’t we? “Well he started it. I was just reacting to provocation. I had to defend myself.” “Yes, I know I lied, but it was so much easier than telling the truth. I didn’t want to hurt her.” “Well if you hadn’t have made me late, then I wouldn’t have got that speeding ticket.” It’s been happening since the Garden of Eden. Defensive self justification. Passing the buck. A total unwillingness to admit we’re in the wrong. But if we want to change, and I trust all genuine Christians want to change, then we must first admit our sin and feel deep sorrow over it. Crocodile tears are worth nothing at all. Because we haven’t realised the wrong we’ve done. But the Corinthians realised their sin. And the result? Deep sorrow. And notice that Paul is not worried at causing them sorrow, verse 8: “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while.” Yes, he doesn’t like causing them pain, but he knows that pain in the short term is good for them. They need to see the reality of their sin.
Now we need to ask ourselves if this is our attitude to our sin? Do we feel deep sorrow? Do we mourn over it? When was the last time we wept over our sin? The trouble is in our flippant, skin deep society, we Christians have taken on those same attitudes. We’re flippant about our sin. Confessions trip off our tongues as if they were shopping lists. We no longer see sin for what it is. We don’t realise the deep offence it is to the Almighty holy God. We don’t realise how alien sin is to be in the Christian’s life. By way of example listen to this prayer from the 17th century. It was written in 1662, and is in the official prayer book of the Church of England. “Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” It seems to quaint to our ears doesn’t it? To bewail our manifold sins and wickedness. To say that the remembrance of them is grievous unto us. But then compare that to the modern version, in the prayer book of 1982: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our fellow men, in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us, forgive all that is past, and grant that we may serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your name. Amen.”
Can you see the difference? There’s nothing wrong theologically with the second one, but it’s much less strong on sin isn’t it? And that reflects our own cultural values. We have become much less concerned about the awful grimness of sin. Four hundred years ago, Christians were weeping over their sin. And that is what the Bible urges us to do. It’s what the Corinthians did. They saw their sin for what it was, and they had deep sorrow. And that’s the first step in repentance. For true repentance begins with genuine sorrow for what we’ve done wrong.
2) True repentance leads to a changed life (Vv 9-13)
But secondly true repentance leads to a changed life. Let’s read from verse 9: “Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Paul is saying that they weren’t just sorrowful for their sin. Their sorrow led to repentance. It led to a changed life. Genuine repentance is always seen by a changed life. That’s why Paul can say here that repentance leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Now how can that be? How can they have no regret? After all, there are many things in our lives which we could regret. Some small, others very serious. But Paul is saying that these people do not have regret. How come? Well Paul does not develop a full blown explanation of how repentance leads to salvation and no regret, but he does elsewhere. And there are hints here. He talks about godly sorrow. And the fact they were sorrowful as God intended. You see there is a big difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. Worldly sorrow is saying sorry but not meaning it. Or even saying sorry and meaning it, but having the inability to change your life and so all that is left is bitterness and regret. And that says Paul leads death. It’s a living death having to deal with your own guilt and bitterness. And unforgiven sin leads to death, in the sense of being cut off from God. The difference with godly sorrow is that there is forgiveness and power to change. How can that be? Because the sorrow that Paul is talking about here admits before God that they are wrong. And God has done something about that. He is able to clean up the wrong doing. He is able to set right the record though the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. We can be forgiven, we can be washed clean for the wrong things we have done. Amazingly regret can be purged from us. We can look back and say, “yes I know I did wrong, but I am forgiven”. Do you believe that? Do you really in your heart of hearts believe it is possible to be forgiven for the things you and I have done wrong? Because that is the power of repentance. It’s one thing to admit you’re in the wrong, quite another to know forgiveness and have the power to change. And wonderfully when we admit our wrong, when we fling ourselves on the mercy of Jesus Christ trusting his forgiveness, then we can be washed clean and set free from guilt and regret. What we need to do is admit our need and come to him. Worldly sorrow though knows that wrong has been committed, but the guilt and the bitterness eat away until it’s unbearable. And if that is you this morning, if that is your experience today, years of bitterness and regret, flash backs of things done or things said which you bitterly regret, then I say to you, leave it at the foot of the cross. Bring that burden to Christ and he will set you free. And that applies to us whether we are not yet Christians, or have been Christians for many years. Because even as Christians we can bear burdens of regret and bitterness which weigh us down. And the best place for them is at the foot of the cross. Maybe you been deeply wronged, maybe many words out of place, an action which has deeply hurt someone you love. Bring it to the cross. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.”
And notice how such release and forgiveness affected the Corinthians. Verse 11: “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.” Do you see the change? The Corinthians have been transformed! They are now eager to clear their name, to see justice done. They want the situation sorted out. In that sense Paul says they are innocent. Now that they have dealt with the situation and have repented, there is a change in their lives. The guilt is washed away. And in that sense they are innocent. The crime has been dealt with, the mess cleared up. There is now nothing for them to been guilty about or to feel sorrowful about. It’s dealt with, gone. And all because they recognised their wrong, and came back to God and were changed. Can you see the difference then between saying sorry and genuine Christian repentance? The one is just words. The other is genuine sorrow followed by a changed life. It’s the easiest thing in the world to say sorry in one sense isn’t it. We know that from children. Little Johnny bashes his sister over the head with a Lego pirate’s ship, and there are tears and anger. Dad comes in, witnesses the scene and tells Johnny to say sorry. What happens? Johnny begrudgingly says “sorry” and five minutes later is up to his old tricks again. That’s not repentance. That’s worldly sorrow. Johnny might even feel guilty. But he’s not changed. But genuine Christian repentance leads to a changed life.
Just this week I have been reading a story which is one of the most extraordinary examples of genuine sorrow and repentance. It concerns the story of a man called Mincaye, who lives in the Rain Forest in Ecuador and who in 1956 speared to death five missionaries who had come to his lands to tell him about Jesus Christ. Mincaye and his tribe were one of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty tribes on the planet. Feared by men and willing to kill virtually anything that moved. But today Mincaye is an evangelist. He’s changed. He tells people about Jesus Christ. Years ago he laid aside his spear, and bowed the knee to Jesus Christ. He is a changed man. How did it happen? Because a while after those five men had been brutally murdered, some of their wives and relatives came to live with that same tribe. They lived with them, and eventually led some of them to Christ, including the very men who had killed their husbands and brothers. This is how Mincaye put it in his own words: “We acted badly, badly, until they brought us God's carvings (the Bible). Then, seeing His carvings and following His good trail, now we live happily and in peace.” Mincaye came to see he had done wrong, felt deep sorrow and brought his guilt and shame to the cross of Christ. Do you believe change is possible? Do you really believe those hidden regrets and shame can be forgiven. Well believe it, because it’s true. And when you admit your sin, turn around and come back to God, receiving God’s forgiveness, then he gives you his power, his Spirit, to live his way. We’re not left to do it on our own. Mincaye could never have changed without God’s Spirit. And neither can we. But change is possible, because God is in the business of transforming lives. And true repentance leads to changed lives.
3) True repentance results in transformed relationships (Vv 2-4; 13-16)
But there’s one last thing to learn from Paul this morning and that is that true repentance results in transformed relationships. And that transformation is seen both in Paul to the Corinthians and the Corinthians towards Paul and Titus. Notice first Paul’s own attitude to the Corinthians in verse 2: “Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.” Given all that Paul has suffered at the hands of the Corinthians, this really is a remarkable statement. His love for them is such that he would happily die with them. He takes great pride in them. Now Paul doesn’t say this just because he’s got back together with the Corinthians and they are now friends again. No he feels this before they said sorry and repented, otherwise he wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to sort out the relationship. So how can this be? How can he have such affection for people who have seriously wronged him? Well again only through the work of God in his life. Only by Paul entrusting his feelings and attitudes to God. There’s no bitterness here, no anger. Just love. And that is only possible through the Spirit of God.
Or how about the Corinthians attitude to Paul and Titus. It’s possible isn’t it that your attitude to someone who had rebuked you would be one of anger and bitterness. What right do they have to talk to me like that? Why should they treat me like that? But not the Corinthians. Verse 13: “In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. I had boasted to him about you, and you have not embarrassed me. But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true as well. And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.” Do you see how the Corinthians have treated Titus, Paul’s messenger boy. They refreshed him. Instead of having a go at him, they receive him lovingly. He loves them, and they love him. And as we have already seen in verse 7, the Corinthians have ardent concern for Paul. The love is reciprocated. Now again, how is it possible that relationships so badly damaged can be restored. Well only by the power of God. Only when genuine sorrow is followed by repentance. Only when an admission of wrongdoing leads to a changed life, all made possible by an acceptance of God’s forgiveness and power at work in our lives.
It may be that we think some relationships can never be restored. They are so badly damaged, people so badly hurt, that reconciliation is not possible. Well it needs to be said that sometimes one party flatly refuses to be reconciled. Maybe forgiveness is not offered, or wrong is not admitted, the hand of friendship not held out. But there can be healing from our side. We can ask God to deal with our anger and bitterness. We can know his healing hand. We can forgive. It may take weeks, months or even years, but healing is possible by the Spirit of God. But let’s take seriously what happened in Corinth. Two parties deeply divided, but brought together in humility and tears and love again. Wrong was admitted, lives were changed. It may that there are people we need to admit wrong to, relationships that need to be restored because of wrong we have done. Forgiveness needs to be sought. Sin needs to be admitted. Or we may need to offer forgiveness to someone who has wronged us. Is it possible those relationships can be healed? Well it is possible. Perhaps not always in the way we imagine, but God is more loving and powerful than we can possibly imagine. Maybe the Lord is prompting us this morning to learn from Paul and the Corinthians and see how relationships can be restored. Love can be seen again.
Amazingly such love and reconciliation was seen in the jungle of Ecuador. Because Mincaye’s story didn’t end with him becoming a Christian. For one the men he murdered was a man called Nate Saint. And a few years after the murder, his son, Steve, went back into the jungle to meet his father’s killers. Now you would have thought that hatred and bitterness would fester for years over this event. Imagine shaking the hand of the man who murdered your father in cold blood. How can it possibly be that people like that can be reconciled. Well it’s possible. Because Steve Saint not only forgave Mincaye for what he did, he actually became part of his family. For Steve went back to live with the Waodani people, and Mincaye adopted Steve to be his son. Mincaye considers Steve’s own children to be his grandchildren. They say they consider themselves family and harbour no resentment. And whilst Steve says he still feels the pain of losing his father, yet he says: “I cannot imagine not loving Mincaye, one who has adopted me into his family.” Can relationships be restored? Yes they can. But only by the Spirit of God at work in people’s lives. Lives can be changed. And it begins with a genuine sorrow over sin. For godly sorrow brings repentance that leaves to salvation and leaves no regret.
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