Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. [Matthew 5:4 ESV]
For even if I made you grieve 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. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. [2 Cor. 7:8-12 ESV]
Paul lived in Corinth for 18 months teaching these new Christians all they needed to know to live a righteous life before God in their world. He left, driven out by an unruly mob of Jews who accused him of teaching false ideas about God. When the Roman authority refused to do act against Paul the mob beat Sosthenes, the leader of the local synagogue. See Acts 18 and 1 Corinthians 1:1.
Sometime after Paul left the city the Corinthian Christians wrote him a letter asking questions about eating food offered to idols. Before he answered their specific questions he dealt with many others sinful actions into which they had fallen. He heard about their soiled reputation from the many people who traveled to see him who described the struggles with sin plaguing the Corinthian Christians.
Paul’s first letter was a deliberate confrontation of sin which compromised their redeemed character as Christians and sent a misleading message about Jesus Christ to the world. Their sin was blatant and demanded a rebuke by their spiritual authority. There is no teaching in the first letter to the Corinthians until you reach chapter 15 and 16 in which Paul is commending the Corinthian Christians. Not even chapter 12-14, Paul’s teaching on grace gifts of God is a positive reflection on the work of the Corinthians. They got just about everything wrong. God inspired Paul’s letter designing the words to cause grieve, to cause mourning because of sin and then to bring repentance. His letter worked.
Two things happened when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians. He was grieving and mourning over their sin. At first his letter probably caused anger at such a sharp, documented rebuke. But finally his letter caused them to grieve and mourn. “For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” [2 Cor. 2:4 ESV]. It was astounding to him they should sin so grievously. They argued and quarreled, they ate and got drunk, they took each other to court before the gentiles, they allowed sexual sin to occur unabated within their midst. Instead of going to them and rebuking them face to face, which would have caused much more grief he wrote them a letter outlining their sin.
Used here the word for “grief” or “sorrow” or “pain” is a verb denoting action on the part of the person. Paul wanted them to know the full extent of his grief and sorrow so they might identify with him. He wanted to test them to force them to look at themselves, to examine themselves and recognize sin. It is not the same word used in Matthew 5:3 for “mourning” but its effect is almost identical. They saw what they were doing and it caused them Godly sorrow.
God uses the Corinthian’s dilemma with sin as examples for us for at least two good reasons. First and foremost, we have the Word of God divinely inspired part of the Scripture. We also have a splendid example of how God wants the church to approach discipline within the Body of Christ. It is important the Church confront sin uncompromisingly. There can be no vacillating when it comes to sin within the Body of Christ. But this confrontation must be done in a way which allows God to convict the person, or group of people, breaking their will without breaking their spirit. We are His instruments. We do not wield ourselves against sin but allow God to wield us as He see fit. This is a difficult place and is only attained by having a right relationship with Him who directs.
Paul draws a distinction between godly and worldly grief. Godly mourning brings repentance. Worldly grieving brings remorse. There is a huge difference between these two words and the motivations they describe. Repentance is turning away from sin. Remorse is being hurt because of being caught. Repentance happens whether others know of the sin or not. Remorse always happens in a crowd and is more akin to embarrassment. No one feels remorse without being prompted. Only the Holy Spirit prompts to repentance.
We see in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians how they, touched by God, turned away from specific sins. There was one specific sin Paul confronted in his letter where he suggested they turn the evil person over to Satan so his flesh would die but his spirit be saved. “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” [1 Corinthians 5:5 ESV]. Here is another instance where God will allow a person to sin to a point but no further. God’s judgment against sin is death, which is separation from that which sustains life. All physically die because of sin. There is the possibility of being removed from the world through death because the Christian embraces sin to the detriment of the Body of Christ, to the questioning of their place before God. However, we know, because of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, God will not separate Himself from any He has redeemed in Christ. This does not excuse sin but demonstrates the limits to the divine patience.
As servants of God we are directed by Him to live His will in an intimate relationship with Him, not just do His will mechanically without thinking. Our lives are a confrontation of sin by a life of righteousness. Christians who confront sin in the Church according to the will of God, by His direction, will affect the one sinning. Christians who do not confront sin in themselves and the Church will eventually cease serving God. This is dangerous for God will not abide unrepented sin in His people.