2 Corinthians 7:8 & 9 “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it – I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while – 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.”
We have rarely heard a memorable message on repentance. I myself must confess to you that I have found preaching on this theme difficult. I suppose we have been a little harsh and heavy when we have spoken on it, and we have sat under men who seemed to shout at us for half an hour about repenting. “Weep! Break your hearts!” We eventually felt like yelling back at them. During the sixties there was a free tabloid magazine which came from America which majored in articles about repentance. The pages had bold headlines and large lettering. Those writers also seemed to be angry. The messages were more like the call from the minaret to the faithful to be ‘up and at it’ than the preaching of good news about Jesus. So there has been a reaction in our hearts against such strident preaching of repentance – which was a sad and foolish response. We rarely preached on it or even puzzled how to do so. Balanced biblical preaching on every theme is the need of the hour. The state of the church pleads one great awakening ministry on repentance. One Whitefield, or one Spurgeon could change the condition of the professing church and the whole climate of the nation.
Once George Whitefield heard the American Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent preaching. Whitefield responded, “I never before heard such a searching sermon.” It must have been an unforgettable sermon because Whitefield lived in an age of preachers. He went on to acknowledge a weakness in his own preaching, “I have given comfort too soon.” If a preacher thinks the most important thing about preaching is to have one’s sermons accepted by the congregation then he is bound to be trimming his messages.
C.S.Lewis said once that repentance is a special problem to us because only bad people need to do it and only good people can do it. That sounds clever but it is not very good theology, is it? In nothing that the natural man needs to do can he please God. Repentance is a gift of God. The flesh cant pump it out of a stony heart. I think there is also a Christian failure in daily exercising the grace of personal repentance and that that is the root cause of the silence on this theme in many preachers, and God must help us all personally deal with that. So this sermon is as much addressed to myself as to anyone else.
Sermons that move congregations to repentance are, we guess, like fine gold in the land. One consequence is that there is Christian ignorance about what repentance is and how it should figure in our lives. So the whole gospel testimony in the UK or even in all the western world is weak. This is compounded by three factors.
i] The appeal of modern evangelism has not been focused on repentance but on enlistment.
ii] Congregations have become simply unwilling and unable to accept the reality of personal guilt and therefore to acknowledge their need of repentance.
iii] The word ‘sin’ is rarely heard in our society except in cases of crime involving children. The churches themselves have no concept of man’s union with Adam, that we all are involved in his rebellion and under the curse. Humanistic values have corrupted pulpits. Without the preaching of repentance we have no expectation that religion has any future whatsoever. The ecumenical movement has never given the tiniest grounds for any optimism at all. That show, as far as ecclesiastical religion and Europe are concerned, is over
How central a place in the Bible is the theme of repentance. Consider the Great Commission. It includes a command to preach repentance: “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk. 24:47). John Miller pointed out that, “This is the age of the Spirit, and the age of the Spirit is the age of repentance. This new day was introduced by John the Baptist and Jesus (Mk.1:4, 14,15). The apostolic message to the unconverted is a testimony of ‘repentance towards God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:21). At Athens the sophisticated Greeks are told that this is a very special time in which they live. By raising Jesus from the dead, God has served notice to all men everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day for judging the world by this same man (Acts 17:30-31). The Spirit has the same message for the churches of Asia Minor. ‘Be zealous and repent,’ says Christ and the Spirit (Rev. 3:19).
“But most important of all it is at Pentecost that the power of the new age descends. Here we discover that the new order does not begin with an invitation to seek the Spirit first of all. Rather, men are commanded to repent for what they have done with Jesus. Then they are assured that they, too, will be filled with the Spirit of promise. Peter says: ‘Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38, see also 3:19&20) [C. John Miller, “Repentance and the Twentieth Century Man”, CLC, 1975, p.13).
So repentance is about turning right around, changing one’s mind so that one’s views, values, goals, and ways are changed and one’s whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgment, will and affection, behaviour and life-style, motives and purposes, are all involved. Repenting means going in a new direction and living a new life. It is like a small outboard fishing boat heading downstream toward a destructive waterfall. The tendency of the captain is to let the stream carry him along. That is easiest, especially if the man doesn’t know or doesn’t care about dangers ahead. Repentance is like turning around in such a situation, a tough and delicate move. The man at the helm must see the danger, shift into reverse, plough stern-first backwards till he get upstream into quieter waters. Then he has to turn carefully around and head against the current in the opposite direction. Repentance is as demanding as a U-turn in traffic. God alone can enable us to do it.
Consider this definition of repentance, made in the 17th century when truth was seen more clearly than in our shadowy days, and concern to honour God transcended any desire to please a congregation. In repentance “a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent; so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with him in all ways of his commandments.” (Westminster Confession XV.2). That is what we believe the Bible teaches, and that is what we want everyone to believe from their hearts.
1. REPENTANCE IS ALL ABOUT PERSONAL CHANGE.
What has helped me to approach this subject of repentance is to understand that it is all about changing men and women, and that the Bible has been given to us by God in order to facilitate change. Consider the most well-known New Testament verse about the Bible itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16&17). These words inform us of the divine inspiration of the whole Bible, but they also tell us why it is so important. It changes people, and this scripture informs us that it does so in four ways:
i] Scripture is useful for teaching us how we should live if we are to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. The Bible tells us, “Be this sort of husband, or wife, child, parent. If you are an officer in a church it tells you how you’re to live. If you are a church member it reminds you of your duties. It tells us who is our neighbour, what is the good life, what duties God requires of us and what we are to believe. Who is God? How can we inherit eternal life? The Bible is the means God uses to teach us these things, and so we are to seize every opportunity to hear the Bible explained. If we are to change our lives we have to be taught what the Scriptures say.
ii] Scripture is useful for convicting someone so that he will change. The original Greek word is a stronger word than the words often used to translate it, ‘reprove’ or ‘rebuke’. The word is referring to the fact that the Scriptures, after giving us priceless information, proceed to convince us of the profit of doing this and the sinfulness of disobeying, so that every excuse we have for not changing is reproved. So the Lord in his Word tells us that the greatest commandment is to love him with all our hearts. Then that same word comes with new authority and proceeds to convict us that we must love him, and how ugly is our lack of love. Think of the Lord Jesus’ words convicting Peter about the crucial importance of loving him. Christ speaks to him and asks him the same question three times, probing and testing Peter: “Simon, son of John do you truly love me more than these? … Simon son of John, do you truly love me? … Simon, son of John do you love me? (John 21:15-17). What was the Lord doing? He was convicting Peter of the sin of lovelessness towards him. The word of God teaches us that the greatest command is to love the Lord, and then it convicts us of its importance and the sin of not doing so. It does this with every command and duty. Its goal is not merely to educate us but to change us. Sermons which are characterised by correct exegesis, and which may flash with history of redemption insights are yet inadequate unless they press on to change how people live. One may as well stay at home and read a commentary. A preacher has to speak with convicting power as well as give the right information.
iii] Scripture is useful for correcting us so that we repent. This third word in 2 Timothy 3:16 was used at the time of Paul for correcting papers. Think of today’s examiner, or of a driving instructor, or the men at mission control keeping the space vehicle on course, or an athletic coach watching a hurdler’s style. So the Bible, day by day, corrects us in our behaviour, in our relationships with the world and with one another. Think of the Lord Jesus Christ correcting the Pharisees, and also his own disciples.
Consider one book in the Bible which is most full of correction, the book of Proverbs. How memorable are its corrections. Charles Oxley was a headmaster and a courageous fighter for Christianity who died in 1987. He was one of the Plymouth Brethren and he was drilled in the knowledge of the Scriptures from a child. When he was 9 years of age he was in a certain Mr Wolfe’s class in the local school, and one morning the teacher was dealing in an English lesson with “Proverbs of the English language”. He asked the class to give him some examples of a proverb and Charles put his hand up immediately. “Well, Oxley, what’s your proverb?” “Please, sir, ‘My son, if sinners entice thee, consent not to them.'” “That’s not a proverb,” said Mr. Wolfe scornfully. “Please, sir, yes it is. It is in the book of Proverbs, chapter one, verse ten. I learned it for Sunday School, sir.” “For your information, Oxley, we are dealing with English proverbs, not Bible proverbs,” said Mr Wolfe. Well done Oxley, and every artless Christian child like him. Now we are talking about the third use of the Bible and that is that it constantly corrects us. It brings such word as this to us, “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent not to them.” Scripture corrects us when we are being tempted.
iv] Scripture is useful for disciplined training in righteousness. It is not enough to know, nor is it enough to be convicted, nor is it enough to be corrected. Disciplined instruction in righteous living is essential from the pulpit week after week. It is essential for the ordinary Christian to sit under such preaching each Sunday, morning and evening, and during the week. We need the discipline of continual training in righteousness. We need constant stirring to put on new biblical patterns of life in the place of the discarded old ones. This establishes our future – if we would he happy and useful Christians. We have to be putting off the old, and then replacing the old with the new. For example, Paul tells the Ephesians, “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour … He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands … Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger … Be kind and compassionate one to another …” (Ephs. 4:25-32). We see there this balance of correcting us in what is unworthy, and then training us in righteousness.
That wholesale change of life is what the Bible – and the Bible alone – achieves, and that is what repentance is all about. The Scripture is God’s great instrument of transforming people. It is how the church becomes the light of the world and its salt. The Lord Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). We may say that there he was praying that God would use the Scriptures as the great means of our repentance. The Spirit has a sword, and that sword is the Word of God. The Holy Spirit uses the word to accomplish holy living. In Psalm 119 the psalmist says, “How shall a young man keep pure? By living according to your word … I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psa. 119:9&11). So we attain and maintain a repentant spirit by the Scriptures. Now when the flesh – your flesh – chafes and you start getting restless about the preaching and the leadership and the fellowship – is it that you are wanting to be under a ministry where there will be greater emphases on the New Testament’s teaching about repentance and about biblical change of life, or less? Are you looking elsewhere to be encouraged to get more holy and be more Christlike, or less? Are you wanting to be where your hungerings and thirstings for righteousness will be more satisfied, or less?
So we claim this, that when the Bible puts repentance at the heart of the Christian message it is saying that a change of beliefs, direction, conduct, values, attitudes and lifestyle is crucial for any who claim to be reconciled to God through Christ. We want you to come to this church every week in order that you will change, that is, to become increasingly repentant people, turning from everything that displeases God and turning to everything that glorifies and enjoys him. People who don’t want to change won’t come back, or will come as infrequently as they feel they have to.
So repentance is a vast theme. It is a description of the life of the Christian. True Christians are ‘repenters’, and never stop repenting. Remember one of the great days in the history of the Christian church, October 31, 1517, the birthday of the Reformation. The professing churches, centrally controlled from Rome, had lost the plot. They had increasingly buried the New Testament gospel under the dung of accumulated traditions. A young man named Martin Luther had begun to study the Scriptures. At 12 o’clock on that day he nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Ninety-five Theses. The door served as a bulletin board for faculty and students at the university. Luther intended these theses (which were written in Latin) to serve as a basis for discussion with his colleagues. The opening words of the first thesis were as follows: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In other words, the Lord did not say, “Do penance,” but that our whole lives should be lives of repentance.
2 THE APOSTLE USED THE WORD TO CAUSE THE CORINTHIANS TO REPENT
“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 – 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” (vv. 8&9).
Now we have these three convictions and we have begun to set them out thus:
i] Repentance is brought about by the ministry of the Word. That ministry involves teaching, exhortation, rebuke, encouragement, and training in practical righteousness.
ii] Repentance is a grace in our hearts created and blessed as the Spirit of God uses the Word as his sword. There can be no repentance without the Spirit accompanying the Word. He is the sovereign divine factor in the process, so the Christian is asking all the time, “Might these words and actions of mine grieve the Spirit and destroy the grace of repentance? Is this ministry of mine one that the Spirit may choose to use?”
iii] The goal of repentance is to bring the Christian closer to the Lord Jesus. So there is a purpose to everything that happens to us – under our heavenly Father – in falls and in restorations, in thorns and in blessings, in providence and in grace. All must further the purpose God has for us of evangelical repentance and Christlikeness.
What Paul writes in the words of our text are quite fascinating. The Corinthian church, just like our own or any congregation, had problems. Paul had written a painful letter to the whole church about the importance of dealing with one or two particular problems. Is the letter he mentions (v.8) Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians? It may be, or it may be another brief letter which subsequently was not preserved. No doubt there were notes which Paul sent to different people, like his letter to Philemon, but which have not been preserved. Whatever the letter may be we are not certain what the precise problem was.
We do know about one very unseemly relationship in the church. It seems Paul has already referred to this earlier in this epistle in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11. At the time of writing those early chapters of this letter he had not received much information about had happened in that case, but now Titus has come with more news of the congregation’s response and now Paul responds with joy. The situation had arisen, you remember, when a Christian in the Corinthian church fancied and seduced his father’s own wife, and the congregation did little about it. Let us read those painful verses in I Corinthians 5:1-6: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?”
Here is a scene of pain. It is all very well in our permissive days to turn this into a farce and mock the older cuckolded father, and picture the excitement and bliss of his wife with the younger man, as if that were justification enough. “It happens,” people shrug. “That is life.” But consider the grief and rage of the father – perhaps he is suicidal, or he wants to kill his wife – and the effect on his family, and the girl’s family, and the wider circle of friends. What about the congregation? What do you do when the girl stops sitting with her husband but sits with her stepson, and they hold hands during the service, utterly shamelessly? How are we going to react? What message is all this saying to the young people, and to the watching world? “You are just like us,” the world says. What a world it is, without God and without hope. Does it see anything better in much of the professing church? If repentance is not a part of that church the answer is no. W.H.Auden writes of one young man in the world, the “ragged urchin” whose daily diet was abuse and cruelty:
“That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third
Were axioms, to him who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.” (“The Shield of Achilles”)
Most people in the world have never seen a person weeping over sin and begun to weep alongside them. They would turn up at the Corinthian church and notice old Joe’s wife sitting with Joe’s son and looking very much in love, and the congregation was looking on indulgently. Consider how the other Christians were reacting to a broken hearted old man and two lustful youngsters? They were ‘proud’, says Paul (I Cors. 5:2). Proud? Of what? They were God’s chosen people! When they gathered in their church meetings the Lord Jesus was present, and visitors fell down and worshipped God crying out, “God is really among you!” (I Cor. 14:25). They were proud of their gifts and their various brilliant preachers. Some of them were actually antinomian boasting that in Christ all things were lawful to them. So they looked at this situation without passing judgment at all, rather proud that it showed their ‘freedom’ in Christ to behave as their feelings led them. “How could it be wrong when it felt so right?”
The Corinthian congregation was a church with such a problem as that, and so Paul’s response was to write a letter to them. In other words he had brought the apostolic word to bear on the situation. Paul laid the law upon them: “Put out of your fellowship the man who did this … Hand this man over to Satan!” (I Cor. 5:2&5) What mysterious and sombre words are that latter phrase. It means to send the man back under the influence of the god of this world – where he came from. He has no place as a member of Christ’s body while he unrepentantly continues that relationship. This is God’s righteous kingdom. This is the New Covenant law. Under the old covenant the woman would have been stoned to death, but Christ has come, and the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but spiritual and mighty through God to pull down the strongholds of permissiveness in our nation. We are not agitating to criminalise adultery, but we do remind Christians of the need of keeping the distinction between the world and the church lest the salt should lose its savour.
Arthur Katz was a Jew who was a cultured intellectual atheist. He went through a long emotional and intellectual search for reality travelling through Europe in the early sixties. Great works of art and literature could not give him peace. He sought the ideal woman but never found her. He went into orthodox Judaism and worked on kibbutzim but failed to find Christ. Then he kept meeting Christians – in Scandinavia, in Switzerland and in Israel. Many were poor but they shared their homes with him, and their faith. Someone gave him a New Testament and Arthur, at 35 years of age, began to read it. He came to the incident of the woman who had been caught in adultery and brought to Jesus who was asked if her accusers should go ahead and stone her. At that point Arthur closed John’s gospel and tried to guess what Jesus’ answer might be. He scratched his head and agitated in vain. There was no answer. So he opened the Bible again and read Jesus’ reply – that the man who was without sin should cast the first stone. Arthur gasped. “A sword had been plunged deep into my being. In one instant those words leaped off the page and engraved themselves upon my heart.” That was the beginning of his first steps following the Lord Jesus as the Messiah (see his book “Ben Israel” by Arthur Katz, Burning Bush Publications, 149 pp., 2001).
The new covenant does not minimise sin but it takes some actions out of the criminal sphere – idolatry, adultery and Sabbath breaking – and makes them matters of the purity of the local church. So it was when in Gentile Corinth the Word of God was read out to the congregation one Lord’s Day as they assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus, and the power of the Lord Jesus was there. The Word did not cry, “Stone them to death!” but it called for rebuke and disfellowship while the couple remained in their adultery.
It certainly marked the end of smugness and the cosy peace in the congregation. What an awakening Word. What an impact it made on the congregation. Think of Dr John Kennedy’s old illustration: you see a lion in a cage, and the beast is asleep. Its lion tamer creeps in and lies down next to his pet and soon they are asleep together. That wouldn’t be beyond imagination. But think of a man who enters that cage with a chain, a steel collar and a light. He is going there to chain the lion. Then he is facing a different lion, an aroused, angry, roaring, biting, tearing, furious lion. We immediately witness a life and death struggle. So it is when the law of God comes to the church and is let loose on a congregation by a preacher in the power of the Spirit. As God convicts the congregation of such and such a sin, and another sin, and yet another sin the enmity in the heart – sin within us – is aroused. That lion resists any restriction of its so-called ‘liberty.’ That is why in the Great Awakening of the 18th century some preachers of repentance were threatened by mobs, and most church doors were closed to them. William Seward was 38 years of age and while preaching on the Green in Hay-on-Wye (today the so-called ‘Book Capital of the World’) was killed by a heavy stone thudding onto his body from close range. He died on October 22, 1740 and is buried in Cusop near Hay – just over an hour’s drive from Aberystwyth. On his tombstone one can read the words, ‘To die is gain.’
Paul exposes this tawdry, ugly sin for what it is, and tells the congregation that they must recognise it as such and change their whole attitude to the situation. The great need was congregational repentance, a different way of thinking and acting regarding this behaviour. Unadorned, full-blooded, God-directed repentance was needed, not just feeling sorry, but a total change of attitude, relationships ended and an emotional response commensurate with the gravity of the sin. Such repentance could not be achieved without the God-breathed Scripture in the hands of the Spirit. It would have been best if Paul could have actually gone to Corinth and personally dealt with the problem, but that was impossible. He was stuck in Macedonia, three hundred miles north of Corinth. There were no other warmer and personal means of communication available and so it had to be by correspondence, cold handwriting, but of course carefully and prayerfully written, with earnest desire that the Holy Spirit would use it to Christ’s glory.
It is at this juncture in the letter that Paul is recounting the fact that Titus has just arrived back from Corinth bringing to Paul the news of the response to his letter, their “deep sorrow” (v.7). So Paul here feels free to tell them how he felt when he sent the letter, and also how he feels now. See what he says:-
i] “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it.” (v.8). When Paul’s letter was read out in the church meeting their wickedness hit them; many of them wept and they were all broken-hearted at their utter failure to respond in a God-honouring way to this sin. There was this true Christian response to their pride. It showed that the heart of the matter was in them. Paul gave the word and people broke down. “I do not regret it,” says Paul. You and your wife went to church one day and your wife felt bad after listening to the sermon. Praise the Lord! A medical man in this community told me curtly that when he went to hear a nearby gospel preacher in ‘his chapel’ he felt depressed. “If you want to get depressed go to that church,” he said. But that medical man is not a Christian Should he feel happy under the word of God while he is a lost man? The Lord Jesus once spoke to a religious young ruler and told him what he had to do to inherit eternal life and the man went away in tears. Christ did not stop him nor apologise. The Lord did not alter the message so that never happened again. The Lord Jesus once told some women they’d better start weeping for themselves and their children.
What is Jesus pleading for? Reality in religion and in life. But you say that you come here to be inspired, and encouraged, and lifted up. I come here to be inspired, and encouraged, and lifted up too. But not at the cost of escaping from reality. A man described a certain church in which he was worshipping, and this is what he could see in it, “… Love which is all charm, friendly and gracious; the absence of truth and frank honesty – the lack of coping with real situations and the real world, the absence of courage to tackle the thorny problems … a number of folk for whom religion or their faith is an escape from reality.” Is that what you want in a church, in this church?
A man met with a certain group of people who had become addicts. They got together each week and they ‘shared.’ They had all been scarred by the addiction. They had made getting ‘dry’ their single goal in life. He too had been a drunk but quickly could not bear the atmosphere in the meetings and after a few weeks left. He wrote this: “I find them frequently self-righteous, intolerant, authoritarian, invincibly ignorant, cultish. One guy named Gerald said to me tonight, ‘I’m liking the space my head is in today – Gerald is happy with Gerald.’ These are smart, well-spoken, middle-class solipsists, with nice homes and good jobs and holidays in Tuscany (and broken marriages bobbing in their wake).” What is wrong with that group? It is not simply that they talk smugly or even humbly about their ‘terminal illness.’ They would be less smug – or ape humility less – if they’d just been diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Cancer is a disease; getting drunk is a bad habit. But that is not their key problem. There is an absence of evangelical repentance. They are not being changed by the Word of God. It is not a 12-step programme they need but the four-fold way of biblical repentance.  Gerald must know what is right and wrong, and how Christ can ‘be of sin the double cure’, cleansing from its guilt and power.  Gerald must be convicted by the Word and Spirit so that through that energy he changes.  Gerald must be constantly corrected by the same means so that he repents, turning from his sin to Christ every day of his life.  Gerald must be trained in a congregation in a disciplined way in righteous living. That is the divinely appointed programme for changing sinners.
When the Holy Spirit is sent to a congregation by Jesus Christ how do they know of his presence? Certainly when the Saviour is exalted and glorified before them, but also when people are convicted of sin and righteousness and judgment. Then the Spirit is doing the work Christ has sent him there to do. When He is come, He convicts of sin; so Christ has promised. Two weeks ago this morning there was a family in the congregation and three days later the father wrote to me telling of that remarkable day which they will never forget. This is what David wrote:
“I think that in all probability our younger son was converted on Sunday evening (not in this congregation you understand). He is eight. For a little over two years he has been deeply troubled about his sin and conscious of his need to be saved. Before we left G. his schoolteacher asked to see me because she had twice found him crying in the school-yard.
When she asked what was wrong he answered, ‘My sin! What am I going to do about my sin?’ As you might imagine, she thought we must have been applying inappropriate pressure.
“Sometime later he was reading ‘Jungle Doctor’ and read how it was no good pretending to be a Christian but something must happen to change us into completely new creatures. He sat up, greatly interested. On reading, “You must be born again” he flopped back on the bed and cried, ‘But what does that mean?’
“Hardly a day has gone by in two years when he has not spoken of his distress at not being a Christian. Whilst walking to chapel three weeks ago he said, ‘I think I shall be among those who will cry for the rocks to fall upon them when Jesus comes!’
“At the end of the service on Sunday evening we sang: ‘Object of my first desire, Jesus crucified for me.’ He hadn’t been paying close attention to the sermon, but he read the first verse and as the hymn was sung he just sat transfixed by the words, ‘Jesus crucified for me’. At the benediction he turned and said, ‘I am a Christian. God has washed away all my sins. Jesus was crucified for me.’
“Well, I was quite taken aback. He has spoken so often about his fears and anxieties, but this was so different. At home he recounted his experience and his assurance that his sins were forgiven, and added three quite remarkable statements. He said that he had thought that he had been seeking God, but he realised now that all along God had been seeking him. Also, he said he had heard a visitor saying after the evening service that people had to choose to be saved and that afterwards they could be lost and go to hell. ‘That cannot be true,’ he said, ‘Because if it were I would have been saved years ago. I have wanted nothing else so much as to be a Christian. And now that God has saved me, He will keep me. When I’ve got something I want, I look after it and I watch that I don’t lose it. God is too good and too powerful to lose me and let me go to hell now that He has saved me.’
“The following day I took him to see an old minister [who had been the preacher that Sunday night two weeks ago today]. Just last week I had asked him to speak some time to my son to try and help him with his spiritual concerns. I left them together for twenty minutes or so during which time he recounted the same things to the minister. He says he’s never heard such things from such a young child.
“Time will perhaps reveal the true nature of his experience. There is an evident change in him, and I think there are grounds to believe that a saving work has been done in him.”
What a remarkable conversion experience. So often when we have heard the testimonies of other Christians we wish that that were our own testimony, especially if ours was an imperceptible change so that we hardly know the year in which we became Christians. We know that at the Equator the sun rises suddenly, while in the far north and south the sun lazily climbs above the horizon. The fact is that it is still the light of the sun that drives the darkness away whether it is by a sudden appearance or a very gradual one, and with you the important thing is not whether you can identify a time but know this, that whereas once you were in great darkness now you are walking in the light of Christ. Still, I would myself love to have been converted young with such convictions as this boy has experienced. Joseph Hart asks,
“What comfort can a Saviour bring
To those who never felt their woe?”
Some who profess to be Christians, years after their initial profession still have little conviction of their sin and need. As one has said, “That twist in the birth will be with them all their days.” They have been led to the Lord by a ‘gospel’ which claims it’s the answer to man’s need for satisfaction, and purpose, and happiness. That is a man-centred ‘gospel’. It is a ‘gospel’ seeking to put man right with himself rather than with God. It is a ‘gospel’ that directs people to find fulfilment rather than forgiveness. John Bunyan says, “You claim that you have come to Christ? Tell me where you’ve come from.”
So this letter was written to me last week by the father, he whose own preaching had caused his son sorrow for two years. Will he ever regret it? Will he say as on old man, “I am sorry, my son, when you were a little boy I pointed out to you and the congregation from the pulpit that you were all lost sinners”? The son will say, “No! Thank you, Dad, for doing that. I wish I’d sorrowed much more about my sins. Dad, listen, ‘Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.'” No. The father will never apologise to his son for telling him about his sin. “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it.” Then Paul says this:
ii] “Though I did regret it – I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while” (v.8). Then Paul says that he did have certain regrets. Does the Bible contradict itself? In one sentence Paul says, “No regrets,” and then in the next, “I did regret it.” How can you reconcile those two? It is not difficult, is it? They are both true. Paul did not regret causing godly sorrow but he hated to see any of his dear brothers and sisters in tears. I have watched one of my grandsons behaving badly, taking something that was his sibling’s, speaking rudely, answering back, not saying thank-you, a frightful display of selfishness provoking his parents to wrath. I have seen his father warn, rebuke, ask for an apology, and then I have seen him take the boy out to another room to spank him for his defiant selfish ways. He did that as reluctantly as any loving father would. When the boy yelled at the brief pain he’d received his father wept with him and held him in his arms and kissed him. How the father regretted causing his son pain, but also at the same time he didn’t regret it at all. It was absolutely necessary. “He who heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray” (Provs. 10:17). For the whole future happiness and usefulness of that boy – or any child – he must learn that he is not the centre of the universe, that others come first, that they have their turn and he waits, and that his great calling in life is to love his neighbour as himself.
The sadness was “only for a little while”. Paul didn’t mind causing short-term pain in order to bring about long-term good. He would hate doing short term good – a quick fix – for long term harm. Dentists and surgeon inflict short-term pain and so must preachers. To every obedient person the pain would be quickly forgotten in the joy of a closer relationship with the Father and all his children. Sorrow for a particular sin for “only a little while” is appropriate, says Paul. How significant those words are – “only a little while.” You must not imagine that the experience of that one boy whose father’s letter you have read is normative, and that sorrow must go on and on – even for years in order for there to be real conversion. C.H.Spurgeon said, “I remember that one young friend, before whom I had set the gospel very simply, said to me, ‘But is that all I have to do? Have I only to believe in Christ in order that I may be saved? Why, my father was six months in trouble of soul before he could find the Saviour, and part of that time he was so bad that he had to be put in a lunatic asylum.’ Yes, that is the kind of notion some people have – that there is a certain amount of alarm, distress, apprehension, and fear which a man has to feel before he is up to the mark in this respect. But there is nothing at all in the Word of God to support that idea … After all, we are not saved by any feelings or alarms that we may have. The source of eternal life is yonder, on that cross; and he who looks there, be he who he may or what he may, shall find salvation in the glance that spies out the wounded God. Not our wounds, but his wounds; not our griefs, but his griefs; not our tears, but his blood must save us. Away, therefore, for ever, with the notion that there is a certain point of grief that has to be reached to qualify us for coming to the Saviour” (C.H.Spurgeon, “Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit,” 1900, Vol. 46, p. 425).
iii] “yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance” (v.9). Paul took no pleasure in giving them pain as such. He was no masochist. He was happy that the sorrow they felt over their sins led them on to true evangelical repentance. That is the great end, that they repent. No change from sinful ways is possible without repentance. The repentance leads to deliverance from the problems. Men have got nothing at all if they lack repentance. Paul was happy just as long as he could lead sinners to repentance. Please understand that the Christian message is not pessimistic, however much we define and delineate man’s lost condition. It doesn’t matter how gloomy is the prognosis because we have the sovereign remedy at hand. For example, here is a man who is sick, but he is not at all worried about the illness or its extent. He knows that it is curable and that the cure is at hand. I had a mole on my body that seemed to change its shape and so I went to the doctor and showed it to him. That’s what they tell you to do, and I did it. He gave me the correct name for it, and explained why it had grown hard, and then he told me how it could be removed with liquid nitrogen that very hour, and it was. I didn’t have a moment’s panic when he gave me the Latin name for it or when told me that it was indeed ugly and hard, because he was saying it in a relaxed and reassuring way. It wasn’t life-threatening. There was a remedy at hand.
So it is when preachers stick to the Bible and diagnose man’s condition in its comprehensive and all-seeing light. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” We have to lay that truth on the world, but we go on immediately to present to men the divine cure. We don’t keep people hanging hour after hour over the bottomless pit by a fine thread which may break at any time. We tell them about the everlasting arms ready outstretched to hold them safe. William Gadsby wrote;
“The vilest sinner out of hell,
Who lives to feel his need,
Is welcome to the throne of grace,
The Saviour’s blood to plead.”
But we do tell them of their danger – just as Jesus did. Who will ever rejoice in the good news who has not first been made aware of the bad news? Rabbi Duncan once said, “There is enough gospel preaching to heal the world of sin-sick souls, but where is the preaching to make souls sin-sick?” Until men are sorry they will feel no need to repent. Paul first made them sad, and when they got sad he was happy because their sorrow led them to repentance.
iv] “You became sorrowful as God intended” (v.9). The Corinthians said, “We are heart-broken for how we have been behaving.” When did that last happen in this congregation, that the word of God made someone sorrow? God intends all mankind first to grieve; he commands all men everywhere to repent. There are three ways this is manifest:
a] There is a sorrowful awareness and confession of our sin. The Lord Jesus was looking for this in the temple where he could see how men were worshipping God. There was one man, a hated figure, a tax-collector for the Romans, who hung his head, deeply ashamed before God, and he beat his breast and prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” God’s intention for that man, before he was born, was that he would come to this time in his life and be broken by his own sin. There was another man in that temple who defied God. He was spitting in the eye of God – in his very temple – because he would never shed a tear about himself. He never changed at all. He felt he was the most religious and righteous man in the world. He felt it was an honour for God to have him in his temple, and every day that he lived God was angry with him because he felt no sorrow for his sins. He was a stranger to repentance. That is not the will of God.
b] There is a sorrow that drives us to change our ways. It drove the prodigal son home from the distant country. He said good-bye to the city, to wasted years, to fair-weather friends, and to all the swine, and he returned to the farm. His sorrow for his foolishness drove him to cast himself on his father’s mercy.
c] There is a sorrow that makes us change our whole-lifestyle. God intended another repentant tax-collector called Zacchaeus to be so sad about the way he had defrauded people that he give half of everything he had to poor people, and that he give a generous sum to everyone he had defrauded. How modest his lifestyle would be from then on. He learned that contentment with godliness was true gain. How often does that happen in our day? Sometimes. Have you ever heard of anyone being converted and giving back to people money they had taken from them by cheating? One does hear of it now and then. God could say to Zacchaeus and others, “You became sorrowful as I intended.” And this same God’s intention for any who are going to know his great salvation is that you too sorrow for your sins, confess them, change your ways and your whole life-style. No repentance; no heaven.
v] “You were not harmed in any way by us” (v.9). There were two brothers, one had made a fool of himself and hurt a lot of people. He went to his father and he said, “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.” The other brother had been a proper worthy son, but he was angry with the father’s joy that a wicked boy had been welcomed home. He couldn’t enter into the festivities. He stayed out in the cold.
Two boys. Which one had been harmed most by life? The one who had sinned much and repented much or the boy who had sinned less but had not repented at all? The boy who was a stranger to repentance was the loser. He was an impenitent boy. He did not know himself and he did not know God. He was a lost boy – and he didn’t even know it. He thought he was the good boy. God commands all men without exception everywhere to repent, and there hasn’t been one person in the whole history of the world who has understood that and repented who has been harmed in any way by it.
We don’t need to be afraid of seriousness in religion, or tears in religion, or the dissolving of a congregation into grief, or a nation declaring a fast and sitting down in sackcloth for forty days. No one was harmed in Nineveh when they did that. There is no better hope for a nation’s future than when that happens. Men will weep over the death of the Princess of Wales, and they will not weep over their own sins?
The Bible requires change of us, and unless we do change our ways there is no hope for us. The Bible calls that change ‘repentance’ and from this passage you have begun to see what such repentance entails, and the blessed consequences of asking God to give you a repentant heart. In Nineveh the rulers themselves knew that their only hope was to repent, so they issued a proclamation to all the people, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:9). How mightily did God answer their prayers when he saw them turn from their evil ways. The destruction he had warned them about was avoided. So it will be with you, if you seek God in repentance you too will be saved from the wrath to come.
2 September 2001 GEOFF THOMAS