There is a clear link between repentance and the comfort of forgiveness. Please read 2 Corinthians 7:8-13a. There are a lot of repeated words here, but if you allow those to inform the path Paul’s taking the reader on this discussion, you’ll see where he’s leading the Corinthians and us.
Answering a Letter…
He knew that the previous letter he wrote (a letter of chastisement because there were some problems in the church at Corinth) had opened their eyes to the need for repentance. As 2 Corinthians 7:8-9 indicates, they took his words – God’s words – to heart. So much so that they were grieved at what he said.
Have you ever been struck with the realization that something in your life was no what it should be? That it was, in fact, sinful and needed repenting from and change? It can be that sinking-in-your-gut feeling, that washed-over-with-icy-water feeling, or maybe simply a vague discomfort that grows and grows until you can’t live with it any longer. The Holy Spirit works in the lives of people to move them to repentance.
Repentance in action, in the knowledge of Christ’s atoning sacrifice…
Paul goes on, in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11, to describe what repentance produced does in the life of a Christian. The earnestness and eagerness, the indignation, the fear and longing and zeal and even punishment that he mentions are all stirred in the heart of a believer who knows what follows repentance for a believer.
For a greater purpose…
Repentance is not a comfortable thing. It isn’t meant to be; it’s admission of wrong, and regret over it. My wrong, and no one else’s. I can’t push my blame onto another. I can’t pretend that what I’ve done isn’t as bad as someone else’s wrongdoing, because Christ died for it all. But repentance, and godly grief, isn’t meant to leave you in the bad-feeling. It’s meant to break down the pride that can’t coexist with the Holy Spirit’s work. 2 Corinthians 12-13a looks at it as a growing-tool in the life of a Christian. Paul doesn’t say that the Corinthians, in their grief and repentance, proved to God that they were in earnest. Nor did they prove it to Paul. It was for their benefit, and revealed to them. God already knew their hearts, just as He knows yours.
This is a pivotal component in repentance. Without knowledge of Christ, repentance leads to heartache, despair, even death. Paul knew he was speaking to Christians, to people who knew and believed that Christ was their Redeemer. When repentance does its work, though, we must speak the forgiveness that is poured out from the cross. In that Gospel is the only lasting comfort, the only sufficient answer to a repentant plea.
Let’s look briefly at the example of Joseph and his brothers. If you aren’t familiar with the story, I encourage you to take time to read Genesis 29-49 for a full detailing of what happened (or start with chapter 37 and Joseph’s dreams for a shorter read).
Here is the abbreviated version. 😉 Jacob had two wives and a lot of sons. Joseph was the firstborn of his favorite wife, so Joseph was his favorite son…and he let everyone know he loved Joseph more. His brothers were jealous, so jealous that they wanted to kill him. Rather than have his blood on their hands, they sold him to some people traveling to Egypt. Joseph was bought by someone, falsely accused by the man’s wife, imprisoned for several years, and eventually brought before Pharaoh to interpret a difficult dream. God had been with Joseph throughout, and before Pharaoh, God enabled Joseph to not only interpret the dream correctly, but to propose a plan to deal with the coming famine. Pharaoh was pleased with what Joseph had to say, and put him in charge of everything, under Pharaoh only. Eventually, the famine strikes Jacob’s family, and he sends his sons to buy grain from Egypt…from Joseph. After some back-and-forth, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and brings them and their families to live in Egypt.
When he first revealed himself to them in Genesis 45:1-15, he told them with tears not to be fearful or angry with themselves, because God had a greater purpose for Joseph: to preserve life. It seemed at that time that the brothers were reconciled to Joseph. But several chapters later, we see in Genesis 50:15 that Joseph’s brothers are terrified of him.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”
It would seem that their remorse was, to borrow Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 7:10, more worldly than godly. Joseph had assured them of forgiveness, but they didn’t hear it.
Why might someone not hear forgiveness when it is offered?
This, my dear friends, demonstrates how important it is to listen to one another. Yes, it is God alone who can reach a person’s heart. But as He chooses to use us as His instruments, we strive to meet the tasks He gives us with as much humility and earnestness as possible. Sometimes, people need to be reassured more than once. Satan whispers lies into each of our ears.
“How can you think you’re really forgiven? What you did was terrible.”
“There is no way that God really wants you for His own. You’re so broken!”
“You’ll just mess it up again, you sinner!”
We could go on, but we won’t.
To further illustrate how important it is to speak grace to one another, let me share a little of the inner-workings of Sarah’s mind and heart.
Today, amid more tasks than I could possibly complete and several things not going as I’d planned, I was texting my husband between his classes (he is a history professor) about everything on my plate and how I can’t possible do it all; I ended with a dramatic “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write any novel ever again.” He replied that he would pray for me, and reminded me that this season of life is busy because a lot of things came together at the same time, and it wouldn’t always be like that. A little while later, I texted him that one of the things I was stressed about had been solved. Our conversation went something like this:
Karl: See? God provides.
Sarah: Yes He does. I’m just worried my sinner-self will miss it all up.
Karl: I don’t think your sin is stronger than God’s love.
Actually, I’m sure of that.
Your sin is not stronger than God’s love.
It stopped me in my tracks and was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. I hadn’t even realized it was a repentance-matter, but I was imagining that somehow, my sin was bigger than God could redeem. My husband’s words hit me hard, in exactly the right place. And here’s the thing about repentance: When not met with or followed by forgiveness, it can lead to dangerous places.
Just look at Joseph’s brothers. They didn’t hear his proclamation of forgiveness – or maybe weren’t ready to hear it? – and they had an invisible fear that eventually came to the fore in the absence of the protection afforded by their father Jacob’s presence.
We can regret, bemoan, and lament our sin as deeply or as sincerely as we will. But that in itself isn’t able to remove the stain from our hearts. Only the redemption won on the cross by Christ can cleanse us. His blood alone atones for our sins.
Let’s share that with one another, dear friends.
For quiet devotional time, I invite you to pray Psalm 139.
For further contemplation or journaling: Where might it be difficult to hear God’s redemptive love and forgiveness in Christ? Are there any places in your life that you would ask Him to shine the light of His atonement?