2 Corinthians 7:11 “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.”
There has been a little local controversy in the USA this year about whether it is correct to say that the Holy Spirit ‘was not present’ at an evangelical church service. “The Holy Spirit is God, and he is omnipresent” wrote one minister, adding that it was “Welsh pietism” and erroneous thinking that denies the Spirit’s presence in orthodox church meetings. Yet while the Lord Jesus is the Son of God he was not present at the church at Laodicea. He was standing outside at the door of that church and knocking for admission. Robert Murray M’Cheyne once preached a famous sermon on “Why is God a Stranger in the Land?” in which he points out how few conversions are in our midst, how much deadness there is among professing Christians, and how great is the boldness of sinners in their rejection of God. David cried to God that he would not take his holy spirit from him (Ps. 51:11). David was there referring to the operations of the Spirit in his life.
In the Corinthian congregation there had been much sin tolerated, to the grief of the Spirit, and the apostle Paul had brought the word of God to them in a carefully weighted letter. He had directed them as to what their God-honouring conduct should be, and in our text he describes the great change which had taken place when the Spirit blessed the Word read aloud to the congregation. What occurred was not an ordinary meeting of the Corinthian assembly. There took place what we have come to call a revival or a great awakening. There was an outbreak of the most profound and life-changing godly sorrow as the people realised for themselves the state in which they were in. It is not possible to manufacture such a response to the Word, any more than men can awaken the dead. Such an outburst of spiritual earnestness and zeal occurs when the Spirit comes upon the Word and works mightily in the church. Notice how he describes these seven characteristics of godly sorrow: earnestness, eagerness to clear yourselves, indignation, alarm, longing, concern, readiness to see justice done. These are the ingredients of normative biblical repentance. This is the godly sorrow that leads to salvation.
All the evangelical church has stressed that the Christian is characterised by faith in Christ. He is a believer. But the Christian is also characterised by godly grief and sensitivity to his sins. He is a ‘repenter,’ and the great challenge is to educate and expand our experience of both these graces. It is not enough to be in our place in church on Sundays, and to remain firmly within the bounds of orthodoxy. We can yet be starved of knowing the love of Christ and also of being broken for our sins. We need to experience the full thanksgiving of Psalm 23 as well as the full penitence of Psalm 51. Is Christ dwelling in every part of our lives by faith, and are we also rending our hearts? Both those experiences are absolutely indispensable for a blessed walk with God to heaven. Rich living faith and also sincere repentance are the characteristics of a mature believer.
In our text the apostle is going to teach us the multi-perspectival response of godly grief. The whole process is awakened by the coming of the Spirit. “When he is come, he will reprove the world of sin…” (Jn. 16:8). Men see their sin as never before – the plague of plagues, a monstrous, unnatural, miserable force, an off-cutting, a degeneracy and a corruption. Sin and death are seen as ugly anomalies in God’s world. Sin planned the death of God the Son. Sin is a cancer, which, if it could spread itself unchecked, would eat up everything, and dethrone God himself. Sin wants to do to you and me what those two hijacked planes did to the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, absolutely destroy us. In fact Sin wants to topple the throne of God. To think that such sin dwells in me now! To think of having that hellish thing in me as long as I live! To have to acknowledge that I have never done a sinless act in all my sixty years. If we had a sight of New York’s sin for one day – oh what a terrible sight it would be! All New York would be struck with horror. But if I could see the living God for one moment and then look straight into my life I would be crying out with Isaiah, “Woe is me for I am ruined! I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 6:5). Paul is setting before us this extraordinary standard for evangelical repentance – and remember there is no salvation without repentance, That repentance must be commensurate with the state of our own lives, and characterised by the graces of our text – earnestness, eagerness to clear ourselves, indignation, alarm, longing, concern, readiness to see justice done.
To help us you must understand this, that as there are varying degrees of faith, so there are varying degrees of repentance. There is greater and lesser faith – the disciples prayed, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). So we can pray, “Lord, increase our repentance.” Both faith and repentance vary from Christian to Christian. They also vary in our own lives from period to period. We are not saved by great faith but by true faith. How often have I quoted to you the words I heard from John Murray, “If your faith is as thin as a spider’s thread, if it is lodged in Christ it is saving faith.” So too I believe we can say this, that we are not saved by great repentance but by true repentance, and if your repentance is as brief as the dying thief’s was – a few hours at the end of wasted lifetime – if the sadness of guilt is then all taken to Christ and wept over at his feet, it is evangelical repentance.
Every day we desire to produce the fruit of godly sorrow. Blessed are they who mourn every day, for they shall be comforted every day. So we hope to know these seven companions – earnestness, eagerness to clear ourselves, indignation, alarm, longing, concern, readiness to see justice done – with us year after year until we get to heaven. That is the Christian life. God puts you in situations where your faith will be tested so that you can grow in faith. God also puts you in situations where you need to confess your sins and grow in repentance. How much did Peter grow through denying the Lord and weeping bitterly in godly sorrow? There is the famous observation made by the pianist Paderewski, that just one day’s absence from practising the piano and he would notice the difference. Two days without practice and his wife would notice, and after three days the public would notice. So it is for every Christian: one week without repentance and you’ll know it; two weeks and your family will notice it: three weeks and the rest of the congregation will see it: four weeks and the world will think you are just like them.
Christian maturity is not deluding ourselves into thinking that we have attained perfection. A mature Christian is someone who is willing to honestly face up to what he is, and name before God what is offensive in his life. It is then that we begin to get purpose and control and direction back into our lives. It is not vague feelings of religion that we bring to the Saviour but specific sins. Of course, we also bring specific thanks and specific requests, but we are called to accept the forgiveness Christ freely offers us as we’ve faced up to sins and taken them to him. The point we are making is that actually doing what Paul tells us to do here in our text brings us closer to the Lord. It was Corrie Ten Boom who gave this definition of a repenting Christian, that he was someone who told his sins to the Lord five minutes before his fierce accuser told him. I would much prefer saying to God, “I’m sorry, Lord” through clenched teeth, still feeling cross, than saying nothing at all to God. However ungracious our repentance it is better than no repentance. I think it was James Thurber who said that in every Little Nell there was a Lady Macbeth trying to get out. We must let her out! No one might suspect the kind of sins we fall into, but we have to go to the Lord with them and tell him about those black spots which nothing can remove but the blood of Christ. We know a fount where sin is washed away. Again the point we are trying to make is that the way of usefulness lies in our brokenness, and the degree of brokenness depends on how well we have learned about godly sorrow. We have believed hitherto that there are just two marks of Christian maturity – a great grasp of biblical doctrine, and a true living of biblical morality, but I am now telling you of another mark of Christian maturity and that is of true godly sorrow. A stranger to repentance is a stranger to maturity.
Notice then, how Paul introduces this important definition of godly sorrow. “See!” he says. “Look!” In other words, “Pay attention to this.” He has used this phrase ‘godly sorrow’ three times in three verses, while the word ‘produced’ is the same word in the Greek as the word ‘brings’ in the previous verse. The church militant is on earth, and the church triumphant is in heaven. We can actually witness what happens in the church on earth. “See the dramatic reaction to my letter being read out in the church!” Look at these emotions, one after another, running over the faces of the congregation, first, earnest attention to what his letter said – and then there should be the phrase “not only but also” between each of these words – eagerness to clear themselves, and then not only that but indignation, and not only that but alarm, and then not only that but longing, and not only that but concern, and not only that but also a readiness to see justice done. They are all strong and vivid words. They show the animated reaction in the congregation to the Word which had proved to an apostle that this was genuine Spirit-created godly sorrow.
But what was happening at the same time in the church triumphant in heaven? Joy! Heaven is a world of joy, yet there are times when there is exultant joy and praise. If one sinner repenting can make God glad what happens when an entire congregation repents? As far as you can see around the sea of glass there are the spirits of just men made perfect, and the archangels and seraphim responding to the joy of God himself, sharing in his delight. Godly sorrow on earth. Earnestness within the church – that is where it starts – but the repercussions affect heaven itself. Joy unspeakable and full of glory! There is to the ear of God, more music in the sighs of his people than in the songs of angels. The apostolic word came from Paul to Greece; it was absolutely central in the congregation in Corinth that day, and the impact of that word reached the heaven of heavens. We are not told that there was any music or laughter in the Corinthian church – plenty of that in professing churches today – but we are told that there was earnestness, eagerness to clear themselves, indignation, alarm, longing, concern and readiness to see justice done. When heaven witnessed it there was joy above, and that is the only thing that matters about our gatherings. Does God say, “That is what gives me delight?”
Paul is clearly moved as he writes this sentence. Even the grammar and the structure are not very smooth. He is writing as a man gripped by strong emotion. What then are the seven marks of godly sorrow?
1. WHAT EARNESTNESS!
This is the most important evidence that someone has truly grasped Christianity, and Paul gives it pride of place. This characteristic of earnestness is so fearful to parents when they see their children getting interested in Christianity: “I don’t mind them becoming religious, but I don’t want them to become fanatical.” We are not fanatical – not fanatical at all. Fanaticism is sending crusades across Europe to capture Jerusalem. Fanaticism is burning people at the stake. Fanaticism is children who through some cult cease being loving obedient sons and daughters to their parents. Fanaticism is living in communes, and pooling all the money which you get from begging on the streets, and being under the authority of some freaky tyrant who thinks he has a direct line to God. Those are some of the marks of fanaticism. Being earnest is very different. It is taking God seriously, and taking seriously your own behaviour and the consequences of what you do on the lives of other people.
Would parents say to their son as he began a new job, “Don’t take it all too seriously. It’s only a game.”? Or would they say, “Show them you’re in earnest about this.” What would they say to their son appearing in a court of law on trial for a serious charge? Would it be, “Have a good old laugh”? There was a book written in the 19th century by John Angell James the minister in Carrs Lane Congregational Church in Birmingham for fifty-five years. The sub-title of the book was, “The Want of the Times.” Now what do you think is the want or need of our times? James entitled his book, “An Earnest Ministry.” The chapters on earnestness are worth the price of the book. James has five headings:-
i] Earnestness comes from selecting one object which you especially pursue. “This one thing I do.”
ii] Earnestness means that that one object has taken over your heart and mind. God is more important to you than anything else.
iii] Earnestness means you use every legitimate means to serve that object.
iv] Earnestness means that you subordinate everything to second place to accomplish that end.
v] Earnestness means that you use all your energy untiringly to achieve that end.
No Christian will be really effective in anything he does, however intelligent he is, unless he has three qualities, strong faith, true godliness and deep earnestness. Earnestness is Abraham’s immediate obedience when God called him to leave Ur of the Chaldees. Earnestness is Noah going on building that ark for decades when there was no hint that there was going to be a flood. Earnestness is Stephen preaching to the Sanhedrin as they gnashed their teeth with murderous rage at him. Earnestness is C.T.Studd saying, “If Jesus Christ be the Son of God and died for me then nothing I can do can be too great for him” Earnestness is Thomas Brooks saying that, “It is our duty and glory to do every day what we would willingly do on our dying day.” Earnestness is William Carey saying, “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.”
Earnestness was the whole demeanour of Robert Murray M’Cheyne as he led the worship and preached to the congregation in Dundee. It is the very antithesis of the laid-back casual folksiness of some of today’s churches. And they are perplexed why revival tarries! So it was in Corinth; they were once careless about the Christian message and about their behaviour. They were getting indifferent to God, but Paul wrote his letter to them and as soon as they heard those sentences a tremendous change took place. They began to see sin as God saw it. That always happens. A man who shows true repentance is someone who looks at his life from the divine perspective. He becomes an earnest man.
2. WHAT EAGERNESS TO CLEAR YOURSELVES.
They were immediately active. Once their utter folly was pointed out to them, that is, their cynical indifference to sin in the congregation, their grieving of the Spirit and disregard for the honour of the Lord of the church, they were aroused. They would not spare their sin a moment longer, and they cleared all that out of the life of the church.
This is the work of the Spirit of God alone. There is no explanation for it in the eloquence of man. Paul was not even there. Merely a letter of his was read to the people, and the congregation looked to for their response, and yet a staggering change took place. We can think of other similar occasions in the history of the church. In 1745 David Brainerd, then in his late twenties, was preaching to small bands of Delaware Indians near Trenton, New Jersey. They had no knowledge of the Bible, and the interpreter who translated Brainerd’s sermons was occasionally drunk. The weather was oppressive, summer heat and winter cold, while Brainerd was seriously ill with tuberculosis from which he was to die two years later. Yet there came a season when many Indians came to believe in the Lord. It was the consequence of sheer, vertical, sovereign grace. Brainerd said, “I seemed to do nothing, and indeed to have nothing to do, but to ‘stand still, and see the salvation of God’; and I found myself obliged and delighted to say, ‘Not unto us’, not unto instruments and means, ‘but to thy name be glory’. God appeared to work entirely alone, and I saw no reason to attribute any part of this work to any created arm.”
What eagerness the Delaware Indians showed to clear themselves, just as Paul noticed in the Corinthian church. Once the Indians professed faith in Christ they abandoned their pagan superstitions and gave up their idolatry. Drunkenness, which was a sin which easily beset them, became virtually unknown in their villages. Those who had debts and always had excuses for not paying, discharged their debts. Marriage was given a place of honour. The Lord’s Day was carefully kept, family prayers were set up in the homes. There was little bitterness or petty arguments amongst them. A spirit of love was poured out upon them. Brainerd wrote, “Never did I see such an appearance of Christian love among any people in all my life. It was so remarkable that one might well have cried with surprise, ‘Behold how they love one another.'” There was an eagerness among the new converts to learn more of the Word of God. Every evening the people made their way to Brainerd’s house and he answered their questions and taught them until his strength and spirits were utterly exhausted. He remained there for 18 months until he was to ill to continue, but then he was followed by his brother John under whom the ministry flourished.
We are reminded of the fruits of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, how the thousands of new converts continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and breaking of bread and prayers. They couldn’t get enough instruction. No pressures needed to be brought to bear upon them to come to meetings for prayer or fellowship or for teaching the Word of God. There was no cajoling and no rebuking. They were there waiting in expectation before the preacher arrived. If they discovered something was forbidden by the Lord they were eager to clear themselves of the guilt.
3. WHAT INDIGNATION.
The Heidelberg Catechism (Q.89) asks, “What is the dying-away of the old self?” It answers, “It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.” Again that was seen in Corinth There was a vexation with themselves, a new attitude of opposition and even hatred to what they had been and how they behaved hitherto. “What fools we were!” they said. “How blind! How could we have acted in that way?” They were angry with the son who had taken his father’s own wife. They were angry with the woman for breaking her marriage vows. But they were angry with themselves for tolerating this situation in the church for so long, and feeling proud about their congregation. What indignation!
We find this same word used by Matthew to describe the response of the chief priests to the behaviour of children who were gathered in excited groups around the temple thrilled with Christ. We are told that the chief priests were ‘indignant’ – “how dare those children shout out their hosannas to the Lord!” That is the very same word used here by Paul to describe the new attitude of those Christians to how they once used to behave – “how could we have acted in that way!”.
You remember that there were two men in the temple praying, and they were observed by the Lord Jesus. One stood and thanked God that he was not like other men, in fact he was telling God of all he’d done for God, and that he was especially glad to be “just little old me. Thank you for making me me! I am certainly glad you did not make me a despised money-collector for the Romans.” But the money-collector in the temple near to him was exactly as Paul describes. He was indignant with himself and all he had done, wasting his life away without God, giving feeble excuses for all his wrong-doing. He couldn’t look up to heaven. His eyes were on the dust, and he beat his chest with such vigour: “God be merciful to me a sinner,” he cried with his blows.
On the feast of Pentecost Peter stood in Jerusalem and preached to its inhabitants. This was less then two months after the representatives of these people had crucified their Messiah, while they did nothing. Peter told them that now “God made him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). How did they feel when the Spirit came upon those words and convicted them of this wickedness? All they were facing was an open-ended encounter with the God whose Son they had killed. They were appalled. They had killed the “Author of life” (Acts 3:15). “When they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren what shall we do?'” (Acts 2:37). What indignation. They were indignant with nothing but sin, and indignant with themselves only because they had behaved so badly.
Only when the Spirit comes and convicts them of the sin of not believing in Jesus will the great change be wrought. Then what indignation about their former blindness and the wasted years of rebellion. That unbelief kills your love to God. That unbelief feeds your pride. Sinner, you are far away from God, and you can never prosper being far away from God. Sinner you must go back to God. You must go back to God.
4. WHAT ALARM.
Paul is talking about fear. The Greek word is what we get our word ‘phobia’ from. Step back for a moment and realise where we’ve got to. We have before us in this verse one of the best descriptions in the Bible of the consequences of a local religious awakening, that is, a time when the Holy Spirit began to work powerfully in the Corinthian church. What Paul is telling us here is something that moved even him very greatly. This was not a typical time in a New Testament church. These were not characteristic services even for the church in Corinth. Everything changed in that church after this event – for many years, I would guess, certainly for a considerable period of time after the Word came to them, and the Spirit used and blessed it mightily. This great lasting change is what we are praying for when we gather in our prayer meetings for revivals. When someone asks me to give a definition or an example of a revival in the New Testament then I turn to this verse.
Paul is now saying that the fear of God also came upon them. The NIV translates it helpfully by the word ‘alarm.’ You are asleep and the alarm sounds and it awakens you. You are on duty in the Fire Station and the alarm sounds telling the firemen they must awake. Churches go into a century of slumber and God awakens them by his word, and one indispensable mark of such times is the fear of God coming upon them.
We are living at a period when the church takes its cue and defines its role by the ways of the world. It accommodates a consumer-oriented culture that wants, above all else, to feel good. There is nothing wrong with seeking to meet people’s needs or creating educational, social, musical programmes to do so. This congregation should be a place where people not yet Christians are welcomed. But when it is people who become the focus of the programmes and when church growth is measured not in spiritual terms but in terms of numbers then the church is in danger of abandoning her first love. Such a church is in danger of trivialising the holy. I mean that it is possible to take the holy presence of God and make it common by picking it up on your way to what you consider to be the heart of the assembly’s activities which is the music group, or some human personality, or some special programme. That is what you get excited about, and that is to take the Lord’s name in vain. The word ‘vain’ comes from the Latin word ‘vanus’ which means empty. A van is a vehicle without people in it. It is empty of people.
God can be treated as though he were not fiercely and graciously present. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain!” he thundered from Mount Sinai. Have we forgotten that? We do so at our peril. The church is not our creation. The Lord is building it. He has loved it from all eternity. It is not a little enterprise which he founded two thousand years ago which now, from his retirement home above the skies, he watches indulgently.
The Lord bought the church with his blood. It is his holy city that will shine with light for all eternity. It is the Bride of the coming King. It is the assembly of redeemed believers and ‘repenters’ who have been saved by grace, who must give an account for every word to their Judge. So we need, as the Corinthian church needed, to know the fe ar of the Lord coming upon us. I mean by that the overwhelming, compelling awe and reverence of a holy God. We realise that we are in the presence of the one Isaiah saw, Saul of Tarsus was blinded by and John on Patmos fell before as though he were dead. That Lord is here now, and who fears him?
That was the beginning of wisdom for the Corinthian church. They got the right perspective at last on what God required for his congregation. That sense of awe and perfection made the proud Corinthians dwarfs so that they bowed and worshipped and gloried in his great name. The fear of the Lord was the essence of the early church. Luke writes about the growth of the New Testament in one of his periodic summaries in the book of Acts in these words, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, continued to increase” (Acts 9:31).
A condemned prisoner on death row in South Carolina was named Rusty Woomer. He became a true Christian some time before he went to the electric chair in 1991 for the terrible crimes which he had committed a dozen years earlier. He talked about fear a few days before he died. It was not the fear of a man about to die but about true Christian holy awe. He said, “I think of God’s radiance, his power, his love. Doesn’t it scare you that someone loves you enough that he can forgive you for anything that you have done? It scares me sometimes. He is something that we haven’t got any idea what it’s going to be like when we meet him. His love is so strong that it might hurt us when we meet him.” Three days later the repentant murderer, Rusty Woomer, found out.
5. WHAT LONGING.
There is a Welsh word, ‘hiraeth’ which speaks of man’s longing for home and all that is dear to him, his loved ones, and the place where he spent those long blessed years of childhood. One great mark that things are going to get better in a congregation is a ‘hiraeth’ for God, to have him as the blessed Father in the midst of his assembled children. That the Lord is no longer outside the church, standing at the door and knocking, but the welcomed Guest and Head of his congregation.
This congregation had learned to live without God. It had its services, its worship, its breaking of bread, its evangelism, its church meetings with the grieved Spirit absent from them all, and nobody noticed. There were so many activities in the Corinthian church, so much back-up for the absence of God that that congregation could go on for a thousand years without anyone noticing God wasn’t there. The impressive rituals, the eloquence, the music, the planning all resulted in a momentum in which God was not needed to keep it going in those ways- think of the Medieval church.
But once the Word came, blessed by the Spirit, the people had an experience of a divine reality they had not known before. It was like the taste of fresh milk after drinking powdered milk. It was like looking at a pearl of great price after seeing only plastic pearls. It was like hearing a CD record when one had heard only 78 rpm records that had been played hundreds of times. It was like having cataracts removed and seeing colour and light again. It was like having an operation on your ears which transformed your sense of hearing.
These years are such sad times for all preachers because we can remember men who brought the gospel to us not in word only but in power and in the Holy Ghost and with much assurance. We have been spoiled for all other claims, “Lo here is the presence and blessing of God,” because we once saw the Saviour in his glory presented to us, we once were broken for our sins, we were once thrilled by God, and knew something of his presence, and that is what we have longed for ever since – one of the days of the right hand of the Most High. “Kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart,” we cry as we go to church or to conferences. We have this longing that nothing is going to be able to satisfy but the living God himself. It was there in Corinth when the word came to them.
6. WHAT CONCERN.
This is a zealous concern. It is the word often translated by ‘zeal.’ What was a characteristic of too many in the Corinthian congregation? They had been neither hot nor cold. William Booth said that he liked his religion like his tea – hot. They had been lukewarm in serving God, but the coming of the Word and Spirit on that day transformed all that. There was a new concern. They were concerned to be real Christians, and concerned to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God, and concerned to put on all the armour of God, and concerned to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit. They were determined not to go on serving Jesus Christ with their words while their lives didn’t match up. Amy Carmichael said,
“Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointment tire,
The passion that will burn like fire.
Let me not sink to be a clod;
Make me thy fuel, Flame of God.”
That was the vital concern that the Corinthians now displayed. Just as a woman is either pregnant or not so a person is either in Christ or not. There is no middle, neutral ground. If we are in Christ we are alive and this new life should be bringing glory to God by our actions and our love. We have to start with ourselves, with a concern to deal with our own sins. The snuffers in the temple were of pure gold, so that they who want other men’s lights to shine ought to be pure men themselves. Spurgeon exhorts his fellow pastors wonderfully powerfully. He says:
“Brothers, I beseech you, keep to the old gospel, and let your souls be filled with it, and then you may be set on fire with it! When the wick is saturated, let the flame be applied. ‘Fire from heaven’ is still the need of the age. They call it ‘go,’ and there is nothing which goes like it; for when the fire once starts upon a vast prairie or forest, all that is dry and withered must disappear before its terrible advance. May God himself, who is a consuming fire, ever burn in you as did the bush at Horeb!
“All other things being equal, that man will do most who has most of the divine fire. That subtle, mysterious element called fire – who knoweth what it is? It is a force inconceivably mighty. Perhaps it is the motive force of all forces, for light and heat from the sun are the soul of power. Certainly fire, as it is in God, and comes upon his servants, is power omnipotent. The consecrated flame will, perhaps, consume you, burning up the bodily health with too great ardour of soul, even as a sharp sword wears away the scabbard; but what of that? The zeal of God’s house ate up the Master, and it is but a small matter that it should consume his servants” (C.H.Spurgeon, “An All Round Ministry,” reprinted Banner of Truth, 1972, p.126).
Spurgeon is saying that our inner lives must be gripped through and through by the message of the Cross. Spurgeon had modelled himself on the life of Whitefield, and that evangelist’s zeal for God had begotten Spurgeon’s concern. They were both men who made their lives and preaching a “whole burnt offering.”
The Corinthian congregation were not a wonderfully perfect church. They were proud and ignorant. They defied God’s word and tolerated the intolerable. When this word of God came to them they brought themselves, just as they were, to God. They brought their weakness to God. They did not come as strong all-sufficient men and women, but as a people broken by the Word and Spirit. What the word of God did to them was to give them godly sorrow and that created in them this chain reaction – earnestness, eagerness to clear themselves, indignation, alarm. longing, and concern – zeal. This zeal was not the first step. It came after all the other fruit of godly sorrow had appeared. This is the way to zeal. We can lament the lack of zeal in our own congregation and in our own individual lives today, but do we see here the manner in which that zeal can burn again? Is there any other road from lukewarmness to true spiritual zeal but this specific path?
7. READINESS TO SEE JUSTICE DONE.
The word literally means ‘vengeance’ but Paul is not commending them for setting up a vigilante group exacting revenge on sinners in the congregation. He is commending them for the way they took their revenge on their own sin! Paul felt that when he cried out, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” He who had set out to Damascus to gain vengeance on people there was now seeing justice done against his own sin. He is acting the part of accuser, advocate and judge against himself. In the Old Testament the humble penitent is pictured by Jeremiah as smiting on his own thigh (Jer. 31:19), as if to say, “Legs, if you run into sin again I will punish you!” What resentment he has for the hurt he has caused himself and those who love him the most and those upon whom he depends.
Remember the spirit of Zacchaeus. He collected taxes for the Roman authorities none to honestly, and he was a hated man, but Jesus came to him and forgave him and Zacchaeus was ready to see justice done making reparation and restoration for his sins whenever possible. He declared war on his own bank account – and how precious that is to most people. “What ungrateful, what a vile, what loathsome, what wretched sinners we have been!” said the Corinthians congregation, and consequently their divisions between Jew and Greek, Master and slave, rich and poor, weak and strong began to be overcome. Can you imagine the moving scene as they walked across the meeting room and apologised to one another and promised they would be around in the morning to pay the bill? What readiness to see justice done! “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it” (Prov.3:27). Isn’t this essential if there is to be true justice done? Think of Judas. He had counterfeit repentance but even he was impelled to restore the payment he had received for his iniquity. Can you refuse to do to other what you would expect from them? Should there not be a readiness to see justice done in the church which is Christ’s righteous kingdom?
So in these seven ways the great revival of the church of Corinth was displayed. The great word of the Lord was read and the Spirit of God came and convicted of sin, and the church was transformed, the whole congregation being pervasively affected. They were vindicated as true Christians by their godly sorrow. There was no point of comprehensive God-created repentance at which they failed to prove themselves utterly blameless. What a transformation, from this compromising proud congregation to a holy obedient people. That is what the Spirit and the Word wrought. It moved the apostle greatly and it has moved the whole church ever since. This is what can happen in a church. This is not what is happening in many churches today. The Spirit of God is not at work as he has in years gone by because the professing church is now under God’s judgment, and we must cry mightily that the Spirit will take the word once again so that people will rend their hearts before God. There can be no restoration without that.
16th September 2001 GEOFF THOMAS