The Church Made New by Godly Grief
2 Corinthians 7:2–16
What kind of church would the apostle Paul want to visit? And what kind of church would want the apostle Paul to visit?
Paul affectionately called the church in chapter 6 to cut the root to false brothers in the church so they could be wholly devoted to God and the ministry of the gospel. Now, the apostle is intent on building them up through sharing his experience of moving from doubt over himself, his ministry, and the church, to confidence in his ministry, the Word, and joy over the church at Corinth. The intelligence gathered about the church’s godly grief received from a pastor-missionary named Titus made what was once a church that brought the apostle grief, the church that brought him a new and glorious joy. This was the type of church Paul wanted to be with. And this was the type of church that wanted to be with him.
It was a church that emboldened his defense of ministry.
It was a church that lifted his depression and relieved his doubts.
It was a church that practiced church discipline.
It was a church that participated in or fulfilled God’s design.
1. It was a church that emboldened the defense of his ministry.
2 Corinthians 7:2–4 ESV “¶ Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one.
I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together.
I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.”
The apostle like any other human being in controversy would have questioned if he had wronged, corrupted, or taken advantage of anyone. Amid the battle, this brought him great sorrow. Yet, as a result of what is revealed in this experience of the apostle, we find him in a state of vindication and joy over how God used the Corinthians in his life and ministry.
A. He came to confidently say that he wronged no one.
The word “wronged” αδικεω has its root as “right” and means to not do right or as it is translated, “wronged.” The apostle did not wrong the church. Jesus in Matthew 20:13 told a parable where the workers who worked longer were complaining of getting the same wage as the workers who worked less time. He used the same word saying,
Matt. 20:13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?
The apostle used the same word in Acts 25:10–11,
But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
B. He came to confidently say that he corrupted no one.
The word “corrupted” φθείρω implies that he did not guard, protect, and preserve the church, but rather brought it to a worse state. The apostle used this word in 1 Corinthians 3:17 saying,
“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Paul likely thought at some point that his letter to them caused them to pine or waste away. He may have felt very much to blame for that if it was the case.
C. He came to confidently say that he took advantage of no one.
The words “taken advantage” πλεονεκτέω means to covet or defraud. In another place, the apostle uses this to speak of Satan attempting to outwit or take advantage of the church (2 Cor 2:11). He restates this defense in 12:17–18
Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?
What is important here is that this defense is explained to be not to condemn the Corinthians. He states that this is not about the Corinthians, it is about what he came to be able to confidently assert as a result of the Corinthians godly grief. Their response to his letter played a major role in his confidence concerning his ministry and life. He, therefore, grows in boldness, in appreciation for the Corinthians, and joy (v.4).
A Christian believer wants to make sure his actions are right. Sometimes he or she doesn’t know if they are to blame. They doubt themselves, but in time, God is a God who vindicates his people and comforts them greatly. As 1 Peter 5:10 states, on the other side of spiritual battle:
After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you!
2. It was a church that lifted his depression and doubts.
2 Corinthians 7:5–8 ESV “¶ For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within.
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. 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.”
The apostle experienced seasons of depression and doubt as any other person may experience. By God’s grace, the Corinthian’s godly grief over the letter he wrote them lifted him out of his depression and doubts.
A. His depression and it solved by God’s work (v.5–7).
The backdrop of the apostle’s experience involved no rest, affliction, and fighting without and fear within. The words “no rest” are used in 2:12 with the clarification that this dealt with mental rest, “in spirit.” He was afflicted. He had fighting without likely concerning the heathen and also the anxiety about the church’s welfare (Hodge/Calvin). And he had fears within that involved painful apprehensions that his labor be in vain in some places like Corinth (Hodge).
Nonetheless, “But God!” in .6 in his character comforts him. He speaks of the “downcast” with means a depressing circumstance. It is characteristic of the work of God to lift the depressed. They are the proper objects of his compassion (Hodge).
God did this through instruments. He used Titus whom the apostle sent to Corinth to find out the state of the church. Titus was sent to gather intelligence, and this intelligence was the means of lifting Paul out of depression. This intelligence included three aspects in v.7:
1. News of their longing. The word “longing” speaks of an earnest desire to see Paul and secure his approval.
2. News of their mourning. The word “mourning” was on account of sins or pains that were brought on the apostle.
3. News of their zeal. The word “zeal” signified the great interest they took in the apostle Paul.
While the church of Corinth brought Paul so much opposition at one time, the majority of this church proved themselves devoted to him. As a result, he “rejoiced still more.”
B. His doubts were revealed and then solved by godly grief (v.8–9).
The apostle’s letter had called for discipline in the church by the church. It makes the most sense to take this as the case of 1 Corinthians 5, as verses 12 indicate the letter concerned someone in the church who had done wrong. The apostle obviously experienced regret, a sign of doubt either about himself, but most drastically about his ministry being true. The destruction of the church at Corinth as a result of Paul’s letter would have brought into question the apostle’s foundational role in reaching the Gentiles. Thus, he speaks in terms of regret and no regret (v.8). The word “regret” is used in Matthew 21:29, 32 regarding changing your mind.
In the context of the prodigal son…Matthew 21:29 ESV “And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.”
Matthew 21:32 ESV “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
There is therefore a mix of regret and non-regret for different reasons in the apostle Paul. But what made the God-given difference was the godly grief that the Corinthians experienced. It was godly grief that produced repentance as opposed to a worldly one that produced rebellion (More on that below). For now, we should at least stress that there was a lot at stake here.
The apostle would have questioned the infallibility of the Word perhaps. At least he would have questioned himself. However, it has to be more. We are not talking about someone ordinary, but someone who saw the Lord. If the ministry he was appointed to do and the letters he was writing were not Scripture by proof there would be indeed a crisis of doubt. This incident and the church’s response played a major role in affirming the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, in particular Paul’s writings.
Do you trust God’s Word when times are difficult? Do you expect times of doubt, but face them with the revelation of Paul’s experience here? If you would have the comfort Paul had, you would not test the Lord your God by doubting, but trust the Lord by this doctrine!
We read in biographies of Christians of the past how they did this initially at conversion and later in sanctification. Abraham is said to have believed in hope against hope,
Romans 4:17–21 ESV “as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
We read the history of faith in Hebrews 11 of those who believed God existed and rewarded those who diligently followed him. Did Abraham not doubt? Of course, he did. He sought to make Hagar his wife and Ishmael his promised son, but God said no! And later God explains that this was to illustrate a covenant of works versus a covenant of grace. God will have us depend on him not only at conversion but lifelong. Let us learn this from others, rather than by the painful experiences of life only.
3. It was a church that practiced church discipline.
2 Corinthians 7:10–13a ESV “¶ 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.
Therefore we are comforted.”
Although this Scripture is commonly employed to teach repentance (and incidentally it does), it is talking preeminently about what corporate repentance is to look like when a single member in the congregation gravely sins. They were to carry out the discipline that the apostle instructed them of (likely in 1 Cor. 5).
A. The Details of their Corporate Repentance (Church Discipline) vv.10–12
“Earnestness” here is opposed to indifference and neglect. It is a feeling that leads to taking the place of no concern. It is the inward feeling that leads to hatred of sin.
“Eagerness to clear yourselves” is not a mere apology but seeking of forgiveness to restore or gain a good opinion, in this case of the apostle.
“Indignation” means they were angry at sin or themselves or both.
“Fear” means that they joined together in agreement over God’s displeasure with sin or were standing in fear of the power the apostle may wield by his apostolic office.
“Longing” is an affectionate desire for the apostle Paul, like he had for heaven in 5:6–7.
“Zeal” was for reform and taking sides with Paul.
Each of these details of corporate repentance for one man’s sin in the body of their church was preceded by an emphatic “What!” These are again details of what a Christian does, not how one becomes a Christian; details of what a church does, not how a church becomes a church. A church that the apostle wants to be in practices church discipline. They want to be right with themselves as a church, with God as his children, and with the apostle’s teaching as charged.
B. The Result toward the Apostle’s ministry v.13a
The result was that they were made right in all three areas and brought the apostle joy! Are you right in regards to yourself? That is, is there concern and lack of indifference in your life regarding sin in your personal life and your church? And is there an eagerness to be regarded as disciples of Jesus both personally and corporately? Second, are you right in regards to God? That is, is your life and church characteristically fearing God and hating sin? Third, are you right in regards to the apostle’s teaching? That is, is it heaven on earth for you to be in line with Scripture? Are you zealous for those things to the extent that you are willing to practice and participate in church discipline?
4. It was a church that participated in or fulfilled God’s design.
2 Corinthians 7:12–16 ESV “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.
Therefore we are comforted. ¶ And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.
For whatever boasts I made to him about you, I was not put to shame. But just as everything we said to you was true, so also our boasting before Titus has proved true.
And his affection for you is even greater, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling.
I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you.”
A. The design of God was to manifest their care or true devotion to the apostle in God’s sight (v.12).
The church had to see they were true to the apostle’s teaching.
B. The design of God was to affirm the ministry of others like Titus and Paul, and ultimately the Word that Paul brought (vv.13–16).
The apostles had to see the church was true and God’s Word as well. This is manifest in the destruction of Paul’s doubts and strengthened confidence in the Corinthian church. The Lord Jesus should have no less confidence in us, for it says in Proverbs 31 of the bride and her husband,
Proverbs 31:11 ESV “The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.”
Oh, that we would give a reason for our Lord to be confident of us, and bring him no lack of praise and glory in this world! The apostle did not know the design of everything at the time, but it became clear that the whole ordeal with the Corinthians was part of God’s design to strengthen the church as well as the apostles.
Do not doubt God’s Word along the way of painful experiences especially with God’s church. The church that brought Paul the most grief and presented the most questions and obstacles proved in God’s design to bring the most joy to both him and his hearers! Do you trust God in this way? Would you benefit from the apostle’s teaching now, and what he did to fill up the sufferings of Christ? Then you must trust God’s Word and its design for good for you as a member of Christ’s bride.
The long conflict with the Corinthian church that made Paul doubtful and downcast ended with full restoration of confidence (Hodge). Sometimes we are in the dark about the church, but in time if you labor for her, you too will find God is faithful. There are times when it is hard, depressing, and causes all kinds of doubts. However, those who put forth their lives and service for God’s bride will not be disappointed. The apostle bears witness, for a church to be made new it takes painful ministry, but it is so worth it in the end.
What has there ever been in life that was lasting in joy that did not take hard work? Whether it be rearing children, finding a wife (hopefully not in that order), searching for a job, earning credibility, and gaining favor with your employer, or with your congregation. It all takes hard work, but the hard work of ministry teaches us the hard work of Christian living also pays off. We will be restored, confirmed, strengthened, and established by the God of all grace (after suffering not before). It will be little in comparison to the fruit we gain. Let us rejoice that the result for Paul and the congregation at Corinth was confidence and joy and a desire to be with one another. The church was made new, and affections for each other were like the beginning of a new relationship!
The most important relationship is the one we have with Jesus Christ. We can’t experience a new relationship with the church if we haven’t first experienced a new relationship with Jesus. Come to Jesus Christ today! Do not endeavor to get yourself right with God because if you could get yourself right you would mess it up. What about repentance like we see in our text today? You won’t even repent right. Christians repent, and if you are not a Christian, your repentance will be a work trying to earn favor with God. You need to look to Jesus and be saved. He is the only Savior. You must look outside of what you can do, to what God has done for you! You may try to have a feeling of faith today to save yourself. Again, you are lost, dead in sins. You can’t feel yourself to God. As close as you could get, it will not be close enough. If you could save yourself Christ would not have needed to come. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity who is fully God and fully man. He had to be fully God to bear your punishment for sin. He had to be fully man to be a substitute for you. He is the only Savior, look to Jesus Christ and be saved! Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ!