Regret Vs. Repentance
“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” –II Corinthians 7:10
SOMETIMES, WHEN A famous person dies, we learn from the family bits of their final conversations. A son says of his father, “He had no regrets,” and the world is a little less sad and somewhat relieved to know that nothing would have been changed in the course of that life.
But to say that you lived with no regret also means that you were never sorry about anything—never mourned a loss, suffered a disappointment, or missed an opportunity. How many in the human race can honestly say that? The answer is none. Experts say all of us have things we regret from our decisions around education and career choices to romance, parenting, and finances—usually in that order.
If we allow it, regret can touch every area of our lives. And, if we allow Satan, he will point his accusatory finger toward something behind us until we find ourselves saying, “I should have.” I should have been there when my parent died. I should have had the courage to speak up when I was being abused. I should have stayed in school and applied myself more. I should have risked rejection and told that person how much I loved him. I should have been braver and unafraid of failure.
Notice all of the I’s in that list? That’s because regret is about blaming self, which affects our emotions. We feel sorry for the ways we hurt people. When it’s clear we’ve made a bad decision, we get sad. When it’s realized that the opportunity we just missed will not come our way again, there is disappointment. The Bible calls these sorrows of the world, and they work death.
The bad thing about regret is that it takes us a while to realize it’s been sown. Years pass between the time the seed of regret—the doing or not doing—and its bitter fruit blooms in the heart of the saved and the unsaved.
Every day that we live in this world, we buy and sell with decisions we make, and, in the process, our hearts are revealed.
Esau made a bad decision when he sold his birthright to Jacob for a meal. The Bible says Esau “did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34).
Bible commentator Matthew Henry said, “Esau ate and drank, pleased his palate, satisfied his appetite, and then carelessly rose up and went his way, without any serious thought, or any regret, about the bad bargain he had made.”
But years later, when Isaac was old and ready to bless, Esau realized the high cost of his mistake: “And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father” (Gen. 27:34).
Esau did receive a blessing, but it was common. Henry notes, “There is nothing in Esau’s blessing which points at Christ, and without that, the fatness of the earth and the plunder of the field will stand in little stead.”
Out of regret, Esau lifted up his voice and wept, but he did not repent.
Let’s look at Judas. In the end, he betrayed the Lord Jesus Christ with 30 pieces of silver and a kiss. But in the beginning of the Lord’s ministry, Judas was there, one of the Twelve. He saw the miracles—all manner of sickness and disease healed, demoniacs delivered, the dead raised, and multitudes miraculously fed. Judas, however, valued none of it, demonstrated so clearly in John 12, when Mary anoints the feet of Jesus. As soon as Judas saw the expensive ointment spent on Jesus, he demanded to know why it hadn’t been sold to benefit the poor. “This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein” (Jn. 12:6).
Likewise, Judas went about caring nothing for the Lord—from the anointing of His feet to the kiss of betrayal on His face.
And then, realization. When Judas saw what the religious leaders had done to Jesus, he confessed—to them—that he had sinned, and he threw down their silver on the temple floor. The Bible says Judas “repented himself,” but the Greek word for this phrase, according to Ellicott’s commentary, is “not that commonly used for ‘repentance,’ as involving a change of mind and heart, but is rather ‘regret,’ a simple change of feeling.”
After leaving the Sanhedrin, theologian John Gill points out that Judas went out of the temple, “not to God, nor to the throne of His grace, nor to his Master to ask pardon of Him, but to some secret solitary place, to cherish his grief and black despair.”
Judas sided with the sorrows of the world, and they worked death in him until he hanged himself—some say he strangled himself—but either way, Judas died violently. Luke tells us,“falling headlong, he burst asunder the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).
Out of regret, Judas confessed his sin to sinful men, but he did not repent.
So what is the difference between regret and repentance?
If we gave them voice, regret would repeat itself again and again: “If only I had it to do over, I would have done it differently. I would have done it right.”
Regret, energized by guilt, is a replay of what was done, or not done, and the pain associated with that decision. As with Esau and Judas, regret may cause us to shed some bitter tears, and maybe even confess to others what we did, but that’s as far as it goes. Regret stops short of repentance.
Repentance, on the other hand, acknowledges from the heart, “I see what I have done and I am so sorry. I realize that I have no way to help myself. I need God and His forgiveness. Only God can help me.”
Repentance is to understand the root cause of our sadness, fear, or disappointment—sin. It’s a spiritual reaction to Holy Spirit conviction and revelation—a reaction that helps turn the human heart toward God and ask Him for His mercy and forgiveness.
It’s been said that few have sinned as David sinned, but fewer still have repented as he repented. David, the boy shepherd and psalmist. Slayer of the lion, the bear, and Goliath. David, the man after God’s own heart. Yet at the time when kings went to battle, David stayed behind. He sinned with Bathsheba, and when he learned that she was carrying his child, David ordered her husband Uriah to be “in the forefront of the hottest battle” ensuring his death and hiding David’s sin. But God saw, and “the thing that David had done displeased the LORD” (II Sam. 11:27).
The prophet Nathan was sent by God to let David know that what he had attempted to hide, the Lord would openly and fully reveal.
Unlike regret, where only the mind and emotions are affected, repentance involves the heart—the spirit of man—which is susceptible to the conviction and revelation of the Holy Spirit.
“And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD.” My husband notes, “David had a true knowledge of God and, therefore, when charged with his sin, his first thought was not the punishment that would surely follow, but the injury done to God.”
All sins boil down to one. The displeasing thing that King David did was to despise the commandment of the Lord to do evil in His sight. David knew this, which is why he would later write Psalm 51, the truest prayer of repentance ever prayed. It begins:
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.”
Regret is behind us, but repentance is before us. “Mock penitents confess their sins and straightway forget them,” Pulpit says. “Real genuine ones find it impossible to forget.”
Out of repentance, David confessed his sin and need for God’s mercy, and he received forgiveness.
And then there’s Peter, who denied even knowing the Lord. Before any of us get too judgmental of the great fisherman, we should examine our own hearts and remember that Peter loved the Lord. Peter believed Him. It was Peter who walked on the water to Jesus:
“And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus” (Matthew 14:28-29).
At the close of the Lord’s earthly ministry, in the hours between the Last Supper and the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told His disciples what was about to happen to Him and how His disciples would be scattered.
“But Peter said unto him, Although all shall be offended, yet will not I. And Jesus saith unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. But he spake the more vehemently, If I should die with thee, I will not deny thee in any wise. Likewise also said they all” (Mk. 14:29-31).
The Lord listened, but He knew how Peter would react that night, the same way He knew how Peter, while walking on the water, would suddenly see the wind boisterous, become afraid, and begin to sink.
Just as the Lord had said, when confronted that night, Peter denied Him three times, with oaths and cursings: “I know not the man!” Then, the painful realization: “And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly” (Mat. 26:75).
Like Judas and Esau, Peter also went out and wept bitterly. The difference with Peter was the trigger of emotion. Like David, Peter remembered the word of the Lord. He remembered some of the first words he heard Him say, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.” There was the revelation he received from God about who Jesus was. Surely Peter heard the echo of his own words, “Thou art the Christ.” He remembered that day on the water, when he cried out, “Lord, save me,” and Jesus immediately stretched forth His hand, caught him, and asked, “Why did you doubt?” And the most painful memory of all, after that third denial, “the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter.”
Pulpit says Peter “rushed from that evil company into the night, a brokenhearted man, that no human eye might witness his anguish, that alone with his conscience and God he might wrestle out repentance. Tradition asserts that all his life long Peter hereafter never could hear a cock crow without falling on his knees and weeping.”
Out of repentance, Peter realized that he was helpless without Christ, and he allowed godly sorrow to work repentance to salvation. And this work takes time.
When Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, went to the sepulcher to anoint the body of Jesus, they found the stone rolled away, and an angel who said, “Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you” (Mark 16:6-7).
Henry points out, “Peter is particularly named. Tell Peter—it will be most welcome to him, for he is in sorrow for sin. A sight of Christ will be very welcome to a true penitent, and a true penitent is very welcome to a sight of Christ.”
In the book of John, we read of the reunion:
“Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea” (Jn. 21:5-7).
Upon hearing that it was Jesus, Peter jumped without pride or hesitation. He wanted to be the first one to reach the Lord, who was waiting to restore him. Later, Jesus would ask Peter three times, “Do you love Me?” and, in new humility, he answered, “You know that I love you.” Then, in a show of complete confidence in Peter, the Lord tells him, “Feed my sheep.”
Whether you’ve filled your life with regrets or separated yourself from God through sin, the Lord of Glory has one word for you today: Come. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18).
Come if you’re thirsty or weary. Come if you’re heavy-laden. Look ahead to the shore, like Peter did, and see the risen Lord. He’s waiting for you—the fish are laid on the fire of coals with bread, and He’s saying to you, “Come and dine.”