Good Friday is the proper context for examining another misunderstanding of repentance. The Gospel of Matthew sets in juxtaposition the dastardly deeds of two of Jesus’ intimates. It tells of Peter’s denial he ever knew Jesus—not once but three times, and in the end Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” (Matthew 26:75) It also tells of the betrayal by Judas and his recantation by giving back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and confessing to them that he had betrayed innocent blood. Then “he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5) So, if you did not know the end of the story, who would you say seemed more repentant?
We often make the mistake of equating repentance with sorrow. While there is a place for sorrow, the danger is that a person may be filled with remorse but not be truly repentant. We have had examples of preachers and presidents caught in the web of infidelity and adultery. They have stood before us and confessed their sin with tears. We have also known others in public office or church ministry who have been “caught” and responded with great sorrow. We ourselves know of the remorse and regret we experience when we see the messes we have made. Some of our friends have been filled with such remorse that they have taken their own lives. Surely, both Peter and Judas were terribly sorry for what they did. On the surface, Judas looked even more repentant, but was he?
In 2 Corinthians 7 Paul regretted sending a harsh letter to the church which caused them great sorrow. Yet, at the same time, he did not regret it because it produced a godly sorrow. What is the difference between sorrow and sorrow? “For godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly sorrow produces death.” (v. 10)
CH Spurgeon preached a message in 1881 entitled “Sorrow and Sorrow” and this is part of what he said: Some persons seem to think that mere sorrow of mind in reference to sin is repentance; but it is not. Read the text…”Godly sorrow worketh repentance.” Therefore, it is not itself repentance. It is an agent employed in producing repentance, but it is not itself repentance. There is, in the world, a great deal of sorrow on account of sin which is certainly not repentance, and never leads to it. Some transgressors are sorry for sin for a time; they are convicted of guilt, with a transitory conviction, which soon passes away. Many are sorry for sin because of its temporal consequences; and many more because of its eternal consequences… They are as fond of sin as ever they were, but they sorrow because they see that it is bringing them down to the gulf of perdition. Now, that kind of sorrow is not repentance. A moth may burn its wings in the candle, and then, full of pain, fly back to the flame. There is no repentance in the moth, though there is pain; and so, there is no repentance in some men, though there is in them a measure of sorrow on account of their sin. Do not, therefore, make a mistake in this matter, and think that sorrow for sin is, or even necessarily leads to, repentance.
Spurgeon continues: Next, do not fall into the other mistake, and imagine that there can be such a thing as repentance without sorrow for sin, for there can never be such a thing… It is an entire and total change of mind, a turning of the mind right round, so that it hates what once it loved and loves what once it hated… Here is a man who says, “I repent.” But are you really sorry that you sinned? “No,” he replies. Then, my dear sir, you cannot have truly repented; for a man, who has not got even so far as repentance, is often sorry for having done wrong. When a man is convinced that he has transgressed against God he ought to be sorry; and if you tell me that there can be such a thing as Spiritual repentance, and yet no sorrow for having broken the law of God, I tell you that you do not know what you are talking about… If there is no such sorrow as that in your heart, one of the things necessary to a genuine repentance is absent.
Judas and Peter were both filled with sorrow on that first Maundy Thursday/ Good Friday. The worldly sorrow of one led to death; the godly sorrow of the other led to repentance and life. There have been many who have known the way of tears and even the mutilation of the flesh, but have never come near to true repentance because it was more about them than it was about their own sin. Like Esau, they have sought repentance with tears but could not find it (Hebrews 12:17).
“Lord, let me weep for nought but sin, And after none but thee; And then I would – oh, that I might! A constant weeper be.” (Spurgeon)