As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:9-10, ESV)
In 2 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul speaks of two kinds of grief or sorrow. There is godly grief that produces a repentance that leads to salvation. There is also a worldly grief that does not and cannot lead to salvation, but rather brings only death. The question a passage like that prompts in us is this: When we get caught in sin, how do we respond? Do we respond with regret (worldly sorrow) or repentance (godly sorrow)?
You see, there is a great deal of difference between regret and repentance. In his book, The Peacemaking Pastor, Alfred Poirier does a great job differentiating between the two. What is the difference between regret and repentance?
1. Regret runs from God, repentance runs to God. When we are merely regretful about sin, we typically try to cover it up. We are regretful that we got caught, and because the regretful person is more concerned about man’s opinion than God’s opinion, we do things like cover our sin, try to win sympathy or garner support for our views. Repentance on the other hand has no desire to hide our sin, rather the repentant person exposes it, first to God (Ps. 51:1), and then to others (James 5:16). The repentant person runs toward the cleansing and forgiveness found in God through Jesus Christ.
2. Regret seeks to make atonement, repentance accepts atonement. The regretful person often has a guilty conscience and seeks to repair the damage. Sometimes they offer substitutes for their sin, like directing attention to all the good things they have done. Repentance does not try to atone, but recognizes and receives the atonement offered through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
3. Regret sorrows over our failure to achieve, repentance sorrows over the state of our hearts. Regret forces a person to admit that they are not as great as they thought. Often they say that they cannot believe they did what they did. They insist they are not that kind of person. They pledge never to do it again. The repentant person knows that statements like these are only attempts to cover up the true state of one’s heart. The repentant person recognizes their own sinfulness and grieves over the state of their heart. Like Paul, they cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)
4. Regret leads to self-righteousness and/or self-condemnation, repentance leads to Christ’s righteousness. The one who is regretful is often quick to beat themselves up, to beat others up, to resent others, to take offense easily and to point out the faults of others. The regretful person either displays an unhealthy self-loathing or an arrogant self-righteousness. The repentant person rejoices that what they could never achieve, Christ already did achieve. They rejoice in the fact that while their sin is serious, because of Jesus they are not condemned. (Rom. 8:1) As a result, they are free to glory in Christ’s perfect obedience and love.
5. Regret moves a person away from the people of God, repentance moves a person toward the people of God. When our attitude is merely regretful, true reconciliation never really happens. Regretful people are unwilling to do what is necessary to bring reconciliation – to truly confess the depths of their sin and humbly, gently seek the forgiveness of others. Repentance leads a person to just that – to recognize the pain their sin has caused in others and to approach them with the goal of forgiveness and true reconciliation.
So, what will it be the next time you are caught in a sin? Will it be a regret that is only sorry about getting caught and leads us away from God’s provision and people? Or will it be a repentance that recognizes our sin, and throws ourselves on the mercy, grace, forgiveness and righteousness provided in Jesus Christ?