In both the Old and New Testaments, the Scriptures speak about the importance of repenting. But what is repentance, anyway? Does repenting mean the same thing as being sorry for our sins? Does repenting mean the same thing as confessing our sins? Does repenting mean trying to make things right?
The doctrine of repentance is frequently misunderstood by Christians. And, what a shame that is since repentance is such an integral part of the faith! Thankfully, one may gain significant insight into what repentance really is, and how it works, by studying 2nd Corinthians 7:10.
“Godly sorrow produces repentance, which leads to salvation, leaving no regret. On the other hand, worldly sorrow produces death.” (2nd Corinthians 7:10).
Let’s start at the beginning here. Many people think that “godly sorrow” means being sorry because they love God. However, this passage of Scripture makes it clear that sorrow and repentance are not the same thing at all! Instead, godly sorrow PRODUCES repentance. Furthermore, godly sorrow isn’t something that you and I can produce ourselves. Only God can produce “godly sorrow” which means that only God can produce true repentance.
Honestly, it’s a horrible corruption of Christian doctrine to tell an alarmed sinner that he must first be sorry enough or repentant enough BEFORE God will forgive him. To expect someone to be sorry enough or to expect that person to go ponder what he or she has done so that they can change their own hearts in the hope that God will forgive them or so that they will escape punishment is, quite frankly, to cause the “worldly sorrow that can only produce death”.
If we could ever be sorry enough to be forgiven, then we wouldn’t need Jesus.
If we could repent in our own strength, and thus be forgiven… then the cross was useless.
If our confession was all that was required, there would be no need for the Gospel.
You and I can be sorrier for what we’ve done than any person in the history of the world. But on our own, all that sorrow will do is drag us deeper and deeper into despair with no hope of recovery. That is very much the worldly sorrow that produces death. Therefore, we must not imagine that repentance is a “good work” that we somehow do. Not at all!
Repentance is something that God works in us.
In His Word, God gives us both Law and Gospel. We really like to focus on the Gospel! But we should recognize that we have the Gospel because of the law, which IS still active, even in the New Testament, and which is very much at work in our lives. Martin Luther once wrote that the Law is the thunderbolt of God (SA 111:3, 2). It’s through the Law that God reveals our true sinful state, the true afflictions of our heart and the fear of the death that you and I very much deserve.
God, through His Law, then leads us to confess our sins. Our confession is nothing more than our acknowledgement that God is right and that we are not. Our confession is to agree with God’s verdict: that we are guilty and that we are in bondage to sin and death and we can do absolutely nothing to free ourselves.
But even our confession is not what saves us.
As such, God’s Law then produces a godly sorrow in us; the realization that we are dead.
Once God has produced godly sorrow in us, it is God and God alone who produces true repentance in us. To repent is to change. And, for the record, any attempt to do so on our own will fail 100% of the time. We cannot change our hearts in our own strength. Not even a little bit. We are powerless to change our trajectory and turn ourselves toward God. We are powerless to fix or change anything about our spiritual condition at all!
Now, it should be noted that while the Law brings death, the Law is also a gracious gift from God because it is only under God’s Law that we finally realize how much we truly need to be saved by Him! This is the very core of the repentance that God works in us. Simply put, the Law is what points us to the Gospel. And, it is only then, when we finally experience that godly sorrow which produces true repentance – the knowledge that we need to be changed and that only God can change us – that God enables us to truly receive the sweet, sweet consolation of the Gospel. Thus, godly repentance leads to salvation. And, salvation is 100% Gospel!
The Gospel is God’s pure gift to you! Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God, in his great love for you, has chosen to be merciful and gracious to you. It is through the Gospel that we hear God’s words of absolution, through which He personally declares to you that you are forgiven of all your sin – ALL of it! Everything that you were guilty of under the Law has been washed away by the Gospel, washed away by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. It is through the Gospel that God reaches down and pulls you out of your pit of despair, lifts you up from your place of sorrow, quenches your thirst, refreshes your soul, creates a new heart in you, floods you with His peace, makes you his own holy and blessed child and ultimately sets you free.
Thank the Lord that our repentance isn’t left up to us anymore than our salvation is. We can do neither on our own, nor can we contribute to either in any way. But God has worked both your repentance and your salvation so that you will have life! This is not at all by your own doing, but is the gift of God for you.
 Walther, C.F.W. In Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, edited by Charles P. Schaum, John P. Hellwege, Jr., and Thomas E. Manteufel, translated by Christian C. Lewis. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010, pg. 264.