2 Corinthians 7:8-13

2 Corinthians 7:8-13

Fruits of Real Repentance

Not all that glitters is gold; and not all that grieves is good. In this post, we’ll be looking at the signs of real repentance, as demonstrated by the Corinthians. This is not an exhaustive list of what repentance looks like. Remember, the letter to the Corinthians was occasional in nature, meaning that Paul was speaking to particular problems in the church. In chapter 7, Paul is referring back to his letter to them that intervened 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, which we don’t have, also known as the Severe Letter. Moreover, in this chapter, Paul points back to the Corinthians’ handling of the man who sinned in chapter 2. You may recall from last post that there is a progression of greater Corinthian acceptance of Paul as the chapter unfolds. It starts with sadness, continues with sorrow (but a good kind of sorrow), and concludes with joy.

Before we look at real repentance, let’s be reminded of the situation with which Paul is dealing. Back in chapter 2, Paul said that he wouldn’t come personally to Corinth right away, but rather he’d send Titus with the Severe Letter (2:1-4). Now in chapter 7, he’s referring to someone who had done wrong, and most likely to Paul himself (7:12; 2:5). This person was supported by a minority of the Corinthians (2:6). Sadly, even the majority didn’t get behind Paul much by dealing properly with the case of church discipline, which the Severe Letter required (2:9; 7:12). In 2 Corinthians, then, we learn of the Corinthians’ improvement of the situation (2:6; 7:11), brought about by the Spirit’s use of Titus between the time of Paul’s Severe Letter and 2 Corinthians.

There is a lot of grief or sorrow in the present chapter. I’ll pick up the theme of grief in verse 8. It’s there where Paul seems to contradict himself. Does he regret writing to them or not? Well, he did, but “only for a while” (literally, only “for an hour”). For a time he was grieving, because he did not know how well or poorly his Severe Letter would be received. But now that he sees the fruit of their sorrow, he does not regret it. Because relationships are being restored, he is seeing the value of his grief-producing letter. And so, he now rejoices (v. 9). Paul’s no sadist. In verse 3, we remember that Paul is not saying what he’s saying in order to condemn the Corinthians. As hard as the truth is to hear sometimes, it’s coming not from condemnation but love. Paul rejoices, rather, because they grieved into repenting. They experienced a “godly grief.” Literally, this is a grief “according to God,” which means that it is in accordance with God’s way of bringing people to salvation, as opposed to the “grief of the world” which leads to death (v. 10). Therefore, it’s not always a bad thing to grieve. Not all sadness is improper (John 11:35). Of course, this also means that not all grief or sadness is proper. There’s one according to God, and another of the world. And the Corinthians have experienced the former, thanks be to God! One thinks of the parables Jesus told of what was lost being found (Luke 15:7, 10, 32). When what was lost is found (a sheep, a coin, or a son), there’s much joy! Similarly, the angels rejoice over the repentance of a sinner! Do we rejoice when see repentant sinners turn away from their sin and turn to Christ? Or do we withhold forgiveness, cling to bitterness, carry a grudge, and refuse reconciliation? Godly grief is a gain for all involved (v. 9)! Do we treat it as such, or do we view it as a loss?

Let’s now consider the essential difference between grief according to God and that of the world, then see how that good grief was demonstrated by the Corinthians. Note that it is the quality of grief that is at issue, not the quantity or fact of grief. I’ve known people who cry crocodile tears and with those tears tell quite the tale, even deceiving people into thinking that they’re repentant when in truth they are not. Sadness in itself is not grief according to God. Indeed, there are examples in the Bible of people who’ve been truly sad (no feigned sorrow) while unrepentant. Worldly sorrow—however lachrymose, however tristful, however elaborately sad—is deadly: its effects are death (v. 10). Worldly grief works unrepentance, which terminates with death. Consider Cain. Abel’s murderer and brother, Cain was miserable, angry, and sad at his punishment, yet unbelieving (Gen. 4:13-14). Likewise, Esau, when he willingly sold his birthright, was nevertheless full of tears yet unrepentant (Gen. 27:34, 36, 38; Heb. 12:16-17). Perhaps the saddest case of worldly sorrow is that of Judas, one of the Twelve, who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. He never trusted in Christ for salvation. He was sad over what he had done, and he killed himself in unbelief (Matt. 27:3-10). Sadness does not equate repentance. Herman Bavinck summarizes worldly grief thus: “There is a cry of despair that is not borne out of a broken heart but that is brought forth by the terrible consequences of sin. There is a remorse and despondency that does not drive one toward God but that causes one to flee from and rebel against God” (The Sacrifice of Praise, 41). Parents, teachers, and counselors are fairly adept at spotting real sorrow yet unrepentance. If you’re a mom or a dad, you know your kid(s) well enough to know if the sorrow is repentant or not. That was the case for these men, but thankfully not for most of the Corinthians.

Repentance is seen in its effects. It produces salvation and life (v. 10). That’s how we can identify true repentance. We can’t count the tears. We inspect the fruit. And that means that identifying repentance takes time, charitability, and wisdom. The Corinthians were afforded these by Paul when he decided not to be with them, and to send them Titus and a letter instead. They had time to prove their repentance, which proof they eventually did provide (v. 11b). What, then, was this proof? Paul lists seven words that describe their repentance. Again, this is not a complete list of repentance. Paul’s goal is not to give us a list of boxes to check off in order to gauge a person’s repentance. He’s already identified the essence of real repentance: salvation and life as seen in the fruit of obedience (vv. 10, 15). The Corinthians, therefore, have shown that fruit in seven specific ways (v. 11): earnestness, eagerness, indignation, fear, longing, zeal, and punishment. At first blush, some of these sound negative, but in context they’re all good things. These are the evidences cited by Paul with respect to their real, godly sorrow into repenting.

First, the Corinthians showed earnestness (σπουδή): This is a word used by Paul to highlight the Corinthians’ diligent devotion to Paul (7:12; 8:7). That’s an especially big step when we consider that Paul’s apostleship had been challenged at every point. As mentioned in the last post, chapter 7 is something of a turning-point for most Corinthians. Second, they have an eagerness to clear themselves (ἀπολογία). There’s really just one Greek word behind “eagerness to clear yourselves,” and it’s where we have derived the English word “apology” in the sense of a defense. Paul likely alludes to the Corinthians’ self-defense as regards their conduct to the sinner in 2:5-11, and how they’ve taken the time needed to address the matter since Titus’ arrival. Third, the Corinthians displayed indignation (ἀγανάκτησις). That sounds like a negative trait, doesn’t it? In Scripture, it is used only here in its noun form, but it’s used in its verb form often (e.g., Matt. 20:24; Mark 10:14, 41; 14:4; Luke 13:14); as a verb, it is used to express anger at people or at what had been done. At times, this anger is righteous, whereas other instances are those of sinful indignation. In our letter, it likely refers to the rage of the majority of Corinthians over how Paul has been poorly treated, or over how they themselves had related to him prior to Titus’ coming. It’s right to be outraged over sin. Real repentance can be seen in a godly indignation over evils committed, opportunities for sanctification lost, and sin neglected.

Fourth, the Corinthians showed fear (φόβος). Again, this may sound negative, and at times the word does refer to an improper kind of fear. But not so here. This is a good fear, one that Paul speaks of in 5:11 and 7:1, a fear of God that is shown in love for God and others. Paul’s use of it here is also connected to what he says in 7:15. In verse 15, he is commending the Corinthians for their reception of Titus “with fear and trembling.” That phrase is a good sign that when Titus came, they began seeing the weightiness of the Severe Letter, their failings, and Paul’s position as apostle. You don’t accept an apostle or one sent by an apostle “with fear and trembling” if you don’t think he’s come from God. Repentance, then, recognizes the work and Word of God. Fifth, they had a longing (ἐπιπόθησις) for Paul. That’s wonderful, especially when we read the many appeals from Paul for them to widen their hearts to him. With this word, he refers back to his earlier use of it in 7:7. He’s using it to highlight the Corinthians’ longing to see Paul face-to-face and to be assured that now all is well between them.

Sixth, the Corinthians have a zeal or enthusiasm (ζῆλος): This word also appears in 7:7, pointing to the Corinthians’ zealous concern they’ve shown on Paul’s behalf. They’re increasingly zealous for truth and for doing what’s right. Seventh, and perhaps most challengingly, we’re told that “punishment” is a product of their repentance (ἐκδίκησις). This is where the ESV could have been clearer. It is true that the word might mean “vengeance” or “retaliation,” and that it’s translated as “punishment” in chapter 2. However, given its inclusion here in a list of positive fruit of repentance (and knowing that vengeance is not man’s but the Lord’s), the word points to the Corinthians’ doling out justice (i.e., church discipline) to the offender back in 2:6. The Corinthians’ readiness to see justice done has been clearly perceived now.

Real repentance cares about sin in the church and sin in one’s own heart. Paul summarizes in 11b: the Corinthians have in every way changed their view toward him, toward the sin that was in the camp, and toward their own moral responsibility for failing to obey right away. Remarkably, the Corinthians needed to be shown what they were showing! That’s what Paul says in verse 12 on the purpose of his writing to them. It was so that their earnestness for Paul et al. would be revealed to them in the sight of God. Once they saw it, can you picture their encouragement? Paul was rejoicing, and so should they. Real repentance, therefore, springs from the grief over one’s guilt because of sin, a confessed acknowledgment of divine displeasure, and a recognition of the ruinous effects of sins. I’ll let the Westminster Divines have the last word of this post on repentance, as they summarize life-producing repentance very well in the Larger Catechism: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience” (WLC, 76).

  • Romans 11:33-36

    Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!
    For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?
    For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

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