2 Corinthians 7:10 (ESV) … “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
Paul contrasts that with deadly remorse: “whereas worldly grief produces death” (7:10b). The kind of sorrow God looks for is the sorrow which leads to a change of mind and heart and thus to salvation. The world’s sorrow is such a hopeless thing that it often proves deadly. Although the concept of repentance is prominent in the New Testament, Paul seldom uses it. It occurs in his writings in Romans 2:4 and in 2 Timothy 2:25 and here, and that’s about all. John the Baptist and Jesus were the ones who preached repentance. But Paul was well aware of the need for repentance even though he did not harp upon the theme.
The Bible gives numerous illustrations which highlight the difference between repentance and remorse.
There is the case of Esau, for example, who sold his birthright to Jacob for a mere morsel of meat. When he discovered that his total disinterest in spiritual things had cost him the blessing also and that the preeminence belonged henceforth to Jacob, he tried to persuade his father, Isaac, to change his mind. The Holy Spirit bluntly labels Esau as a “profane person” and says “he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:16–17). That sounds well enough until we reread the text and see that all Esau exhibited was remorse at having lost the blessing—which involved possession of the divine promises. The “repentance” he sought was not a change of mind and heart in himself, but in Isaac! When he found he could not change his father’s mind he vowed to get back what he had lost by murdering Jacob (Gen. 27:30; Heb. 12:16–17).
There is the case of Shimei, whose hatred of David found expression at the time of the Absalom rebellion. He cursed David vehemently and threw stones at him. His outburst was premature. David returned victorious and Shimei came crawling, professing sorrow and repentance. David granted him a stay of execution but he saw through Shimei’s professed repentance and on his deathbed he charged Solomon to put Shimei to death. Solomon devised a clever test which eventually exposed Shimei to be the same rebel he had always been. Solomon executed him (2 Sam. 16:1–9; 19:16–23; 1 Kings 2:7–9, 36–46).
The classical biblical example, however, is that of Judas. When he saw that Jesus, thanks to him, was arrested, arraigned, condemned to death, and handed over to the Romans for ratification of the sentence and for execution, Judas was filled with remorse. He “repented himself,” Scripture says (Matt. 27:3–4). The word for repentance is metamelomai, which means “to regret.” It implies that Judas was upset at the consequences of his treachery, not at its cause. The deadly remorse of Judas found graphic expression. He hurled the cursed coins he had earned onto the temple floor and then went out and hanged himself.
Finally, Peter stands in contrast with Judas. Peter denied the Lord with oaths and curses, only he, when he realized what he had done, went out and wept bitterly. His was that “godly sorrow” which “worketh repentance to salvation.”
This was the kind of genuine repentance Paul believed the Corinthians to have exhibited. It was a divine repentance, not just a deadly remorse.