A Grief Observed: Inwardly humbled, Visibly reformed

“We must grieve more for offending God than for the loss of dear relations” (Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance).

Image by Asif Akbar
Image by Asif Akbar

How does that statement strike you?

As I read that sentence in Watson’s book I experienced a number of different thoughts and emotions.

“This is an overstatement.”

“No, actually it is just reckless.”

“In fact, I think it is just completely wrong!”

However, the point Watson was making was an important one, sin must be grieved.  So the question follows to us, do we grieve our sin?

Perhaps we feel like we do grieve our sin.  But then there is a second question we must ask ourselves, is it a godly grief that overcomes us when we sin?

The Apostle Paul says this, when he writes to the Corinthian Church, ‘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 Cor. 7:9-10 ESV).

Frighteningly, it is possible to feel a worldly grief over our sin.  This is a grief borne out of selfishness – we feel sorrow due to our sin, we feel shame because we got caught in our sin, or we grieve because there are consequences to our sin.  However, this simply leads to death, Paul tells us.

Rather, we need a godly grief which leads to repentance.  A grief which is borne out of a great sense of ownership of sin, an acknowledgment of the disgust of sin and the horror that sin is before God.

What we must recognise though, is that godly grief is not the only thing needed for repentance.  Throughout Scripture repentance is never separated from faith.  These aspects are two sides to the one coin.

We must come to a realisation that “there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation” (The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689 15.5).  This is grief, and perhaps even godly grief which leads to repentance.  But this repentance must be coupled with faith as expressed in the Confession, “yet there is no sin so great that it shall bring damnation on them that repent” (The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689 15.5).

These truths are often connected to conversion, and somehow while faith remains necessary in the Christian life repentance gets left behind at conversion.  At conversion many of us felt and expressed sorrow over sin committed and faith in Jesus Christ’s work.  Presently, however, we only express our faith in Jesus Christ’s work.  Perhaps a good example of this would be the prayers offered by seasoned Christians at prayer meetings – godly sorrow is not always absent, but it is certainly lacking.

Rather, as Watson puts it, “Repentance is never out of season”.  In other words, repentance is to continue throughout our Christian lives (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology pg. 717).

As we know from passages such as Romans 7:15-20 we are in a constant war against sin.  As Christians we are not exempt from this war, and repeatedly we lose battles in that war.  Consequently, “it is every man’s duty to repent of his particular sins particularly” (The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689 15.4).  It is our responsibility to continue to identify individual sins in our lives, to experience godly sorrow over those individual sins, bringing us to repentance, because we have faith in Jesus Christ and his work.

What does that look like?  Well, we turn again to Thomas Watson who explains it like this “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed”.  Repentance is an inward disposition and an outward display.  It is a godly grief which leads to a godly life.  Continually as Christians we must be inwardly humbled and visibly reformed, we must continually repent.

Undoubtedly, “Till sin be bitter Christ will not be sweet” (Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance).  That is as true today in our Christian lives as it was at our conversion.  May we resolve then to find sin bitter and Christ sweet?


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