Godly sorrow is a deep remorse and regret over sin that leads to repentance and salvation. It is contrasted with worldly sorrow, which is sorrow over the consequences of sin rather than over the offense against God. Godly sorrow is produced by the Holy Spirit and brings life, while worldly sorrow leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The Bible refers to godly sorrow in several key passages:
2 Corinthians 7:8-11
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about the sorrow they felt after he rebuked them for tolerating sexual immorality in their midst. He says:
“Even if I made you sorrowful with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:8-10 ESV)
Paul makes a distinction between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. The Corinthians felt a deep remorse over their sin, which led them to earnestly repent. This “godly grief” produced repentance that led to salvation. In contrast, worldly grief over sin leads only to despair and death.
Psalm 51 is King David’s prayer of repentance after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged the death of her husband Uriah. David cried out:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:1-2 ESV)
David’s heart was broken and contrite over his grievous sins against God. He did not try to justify himself but threw himself upon God’s mercy, repenting in dust and ashes. This “broken and contrite heart” that David exemplifies is a mark of godly sorrow (Psalm 51:17).
After betraying Jesus three times, Peter “wept bitterly” in godly sorrow over his sin (Matthew 26:75). His remorse led him to repentance, and Jesus restored him with the words “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Peter’s godly sorrow contrasted with Judas’ worldly sorrow that led to suicide rather than repentance (Matthew 27:3-5).
The Prodigal Son
In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the wayward son finally “came to himself” and felt deep remorse over his sin. He returned home to ask forgiveness from his father, saying “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Luke 15:21). This picture of humility and contrition illustrates godly sorrow that leads to repentance.
Elements of Godly Sorrow
Based on these examples, we can identify several elements that characterize godly sorrow:
– Brokenness over sin – Godly sorrow involves an acute sense of personal sinfulness and grief over one’s offense against a holy God. Like David in Psalm 51, it recognizes that sin is first and foremost against God. There is no attempt to justify oneself or make excuses.
– Hatred of sin – Godly sorrow hates sin itself, not just its consequences. The sinner recognizes the intrinsic evil of sin as rebellion against God’s law and wants to be cleansed and freed from its power.
– Willingness to confess sin – Those with godly sorrow are quick to agree with God about their sin and confess it openly, like the prodigal son. They do not continue covering up but bring their sin into the light through heartfelt confession.
– Repentance from sin – Godly sorrow always leads to repentance, which is a sincere turning away from sin and back to God. Like Peter’s tears, it turns from sin in order to be restored to fellowship with God.
– Humility – Godly sorrow humbles the heart before God and men, recognizing one’s complete unworthiness of grace. In humility, the sorrowful sinner casts himself upon God’s mercy and grace.
– Fruit of changed living – Godly sorrow leads to lasting life change, as we see in Peter’s restored ministry. If sorrow does not lead to changed thinking and behavior, it is merely worldly sorrow. True repentance bears fruit in a new way of life.
– Hope in God’s mercy – Those with godly sorrow do not fall into despair but cling to God’s abundant mercy, patience and forgiveness, as we see in Psalm 51. They know that where sin abounds, God’s grace abounds even more.
Causes of Godly Sorrow
The Bible teaches that godly sorrow is produced in the heart by the Holy Spirit. Natural man does not feel grief over sin or its offense against God. The following are ways the Spirit brings about godly sorrow:
– Illumination – The Holy Spirit illumines human hearts to make them aware of sin and to understand its seriousness. This spiritual awakening to the reality of sin is a necessary precursor to godly sorrow.
– Conviction – The Spirit powerfully convicts hearts of particular sins, leading to remorse and godly sorrow over them (John 16:8). This conviction of conscience makes sin exceedingly sinful.
– Revelation of God’s holiness – Seeing the glory and holiness of God causes us to see our own exceeding sinfulness, humbling us in godly sorrow. Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6 is a vivid example.
– Revelation of God’s love – The Holy Spirit pours out God’s love in our hearts, leading to godly sorrow as we realize how our sins grieve the God who so loved us and gave His Son to redeem us.
– Chastening/Pruning – As a loving Father, God disciplines those He loves, and this chastening produces sorrow that leads to repentance (Hebrews 12:5-11). It is evidence of sonship.
While godly sorrow is produced by the Spirit, the word of God is a key instrument in bringing it about. Scripture reveals the character of God and His commands to us, awakening sinners to their guilt before God. For this reason, godly sorrow will always align with the truths of Scripture regarding sin and righteousness. Sorrow that flows from a source other than God’s word is suspect.
Purposes of Godly Sorrow
In 2 Corinthians and elsewhere, we see godly sorrow serves several spiritual purposes:
– Leads to repentance – Godly sorrow causes sinners to genuinely turn from sin and turn back to God. It leads to a fundamental reorientation of the heart.
– Produces life change – Godly sorrow results in changed thinking, affections, behavior and obedience to God. The fruit of repentance will be evident in a new way of life.
– Restores joy – Initially grief-inducing, godly sorrow leads to joy as sins are forgiven and fellowship with God is restored. It enables sinners to taste God’s kindness.
– Reconciles relationships – Godly sorrow causes people to seek forgiveness from those they’ve sinned against, restoring human relationships.
– Motivates worship – Those forgiven much, love much. Godly sorrow humbles the heart in worship and praise of God’s mercy.
– Makes Christ’s death real – Godly sorrow allows Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to become more than a historical fact; it becomes a living reality.
– Warns and deters – Godly sorrow over past sins deters the believer from wandering into sin again, encouraging faithfulness. It causes renewed fear of God.
– Brings God glory – As sinners repent in godly sorrow, they radiate God’s glory and grace. His power to save and transform lives is displayed.
Worldly Sorrow vs. Godly Sorrow
Paul draws a sharp contrast between godly sorrow that leads to salvation and worldly sorrow that leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10). Judas is the classic example of worldly sorrow. What are the key differences?
– Worldly sorrow is self-focused, being sorrow over the consequences of sin more than the sin itself. Godly sorrow grieves over the offense against God.
– Worldly sorrow leads to despair and suicidal tendencies, as in Judas. Godly sorrow leads to renewed hope and life in Christ.
– Worldly sorrow breeds excuses, denial and self-justification. Godly sorrow freely confesses and admits wrongdoing.
– Worldly sorrow is superficial and short-lived. Godly sorrow causes permanent heart change.
– Worldly sorrow sinks into depression due to pride. Godly sorrow humbles the heart before God and men.
– Worldly sorrow rejects grace. Godly sorrow eagerly desires God’s grace and forgiveness.
– Worldly sorrow follows sin. Godly sorrow precedes it, warning believers away from sin.
– Worldly sorrow produces death. Godly sorrow leads to salvation and spiritual life.
Biblical Examples of Godly Sorrow
In addition to the individuals already mentioned, the Bible contains many examples of godly sorrow leading to repentance:
– Jacob was broken over his sins and had to limp after wrestling with God (Genesis 32:24-32).
– Josiah tore his robes and wept before God upon hearing the Book of the Law, leading Israel into national repentance (2 Kings 22:11).
– Job abhorred himself when confronted by God and repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:1-6).
– The people of Nineveh repented immediately when Jonah preached coming judgment for their sin (Jonah 3:5-9).
– Zacchaeus voluntarily pledged to make restitution for his sins when Christ visited his home (Luke 19:1-10).
– The criminal on the cross repented of his sin and asked Jesus to remember him (Luke 23:40-43).
– Members of the early church burned their sorcery books publicly due to godly sorrow over their sin (Acts 19:18-20).
Cultivating Godly Sorrow in Our Lives
Though godly sorrow is produced by the Spirit, there are ways believers can prepare their hearts to experience it:
– Study and meditate on the word of God – Seeing the perfect law of the Lord enlightens sin and humbles the heart before Him.
– Pray for the Holy Spirit’s conviction and illumination of sin – We need the Spirit’s work in order to feel godly sorrow.
– Take communion in remembrance of Christ’s death – Communion awakens believers to the seriousness of sin and Christ’s sacrifice for it.
– Sing songs and hymns of repentance – Music softens and humbles the heart toward repentance.
– Fast and intercede for unsaved loved ones – Fasting often breaks our hearts for those enslaved to sin.
– Think upon your death and standing before God – Remembering your mortality and future judgment fosters necessary sorrow over sin.
– Contemplate hell and Christ’s sufferings – Meditating on eternal punishment in hell motivates repentance, as does looking intently at Christ’s sufferings on our behalf.
– Find a gospel-centered community – The wise rebukes of spiritual brothers provoke sorrow leading to repentance.
Godly sorrow is a precious gift that originates from the Spirit of God and the word of God. It softens hard hearts through conviction of sin and leads to salvation through repentance. Believers should pray for godly sorrow when convicted by the Spirit or confronted through the word. God desires broken and contrite hearts that grieve over sin and gladly run to Christ for mercy and grace. Just like the prodigal son, we can only come to ourselves when we come to godly sorrow.