The Difference Between Repentance and Remorse
Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? See thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.
— Matthew 27:3-5
In yesterday’s Sparkling Gem, I started talking about the subject repentance. Over the next few days, I’d like to continue to explore this all-important subject further with you, because so many don’t really understand what true repentance is or why it’s so foundational and necessary to the Christian walk.
I remember an experience as a young boy growing up in church that made a huge impact on my life and helped me understand the vast difference between two words: remorse and true repentance. Each year we had annual revival meetings in our church. It was at one of these revival meetings that I heard an evangelist preach about hell, and I became so convicted of my sin that I committed my life to Jesus. However, not long after I walked the aisle and received Christ, I began to seriously doubt whether I had really been saved. This doubt stemmed from watching what happened when others got saved, which was entirely different from my own personal experience. Adults often wept and wept when they bowed at the altar, but I didn’t shed a tear the day I got saved. Preying on my insecurity and fears, the devil began to torment me every day with thoughts, such as:
- Why didn’t you cry when you came forward to give your heart to Christ?
- Maybe you’re not really saved!
- If you were really sincere, shouldn’t you have cried like all the others did when they repented and got saved?
As time passed, I began to notice a very important trend. Frequently the people who cried buckets of tears at the altar were the same people who came forward in the altar calls each year during revival meetings. Growing up in church gives a person time to watch people and learn — and I began to recognize that many of these criers were the same people each year. I noticed that after they walked out the back door of the church, many of them didn’t show their faces in church again until the next year’s revival meeting. Then once again, they ended up back on their knees at the altar — crying buckets of tears and profusely sobbing. Finally, it dawned on me what was happening!
Many of those who cried profusely never changed. Although they nearly used a whole box of tissues sobbing at the altar, it appeared that nothing much deeper occurred than the shedding of tears. I began to realize that a show of emotion isn’t always a sign of repentance; sometimes it’s only evidence of remorse.
Repentance produces change, whereas remorse merely produces sorrow, which is often confused with repentance. But there is an enormous difference between repentance and remorse. A perfect New Testament example of remorse is found in Matthew 27:3-5, where the Bible tells us about Judas Iscariot. It says, “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? See thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.”
Notice the Bible says that Judas “repented” himself. Usually a person who repents doesn’t go out and hang himself afterward, so what really happened in this verse? The answer lies in the word “repented” that is used in this verse. This is not the word metanoeo, the word most often used meaning “repent” in the New Testament. Instead, this particular word for “repent” is the Greek word metamelomai, which portrays a person who is completely overwhelmed with emotions. This word is used five times in the New Testament, and in each instance, it expresses sorrow, mourning, or grief. The word metamelomai rarely gives the picture of someone moved to change, but rather depicts a person who is seized with remorse, guilt, or regret.
- Metamelomai can depict remorse that grips a person because of an act he committed that he knows is wrong. If he were willing to repent, he could change and be forgiven. But because he has no plans to repent, stop his sinful activities, and rectify what he has done, he is therefore gripped with remorse. Consequently, this emotion produces no change in a person’s life.
- Metamelomai can also express the guilt a person feels because he knows that he has done wrong, that he will continue to do wrong, and that he has no plans to change his course of action. He feels shameful about what he is doing but continues to do it anyway, which results in a state of ongoing guilt. This guilt produces no change in a person’s life or behavior. Yet genuine repentance would fix this feeling of guilt and remove it completely.
- Metamelomai best denotes the regret a person feels because he was caught doing something wrong. He isn’t repentant for committing the sin; instead, he is sorrowful only because he got caught. Now he’s in trouble. Rather than being repentant, this person is regretful that he got caught and must now pay the consequences. Chances are that if he’d never been caught, he would have continued his activities. This kind of regret likewise produces no change in a person’s conduct.
Because the word metamelomai is used in Matthew 27:3, it means Judas Iscariot did not “repent” in the sense that he was sorry for what he did and wanted to make it right with God. Rather, it confirms that he was remorseful, seized with guilt, and filled with regret. Because of his actions, Judas blew his opportunity to be a high-ranking member of Jesus’ inner circle. Judas was more sorrowful for himself than he was for his participation in Jesus’ betrayal. This wasn’t a demonstration of repentance that leads to salvation, but of sorrow, guilt, and a deep-seated remorse that ultimately led to death. This is precisely what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote in Second Corinthians 7:10 about “the sorrow of the world that worketh death.”
Don’t misunderstand me — emotion and tears may accompany repentance. If we have sinned against the Holy Spirit, it is normal for us to experience godly sorrow for our actions. In Second Corinthians 7:10, Paul wrote about “godly sorrow.” Unlike the sorrow of the world that produces death, he wrote that “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation.” But godly sorrow produces more than tears; it produces a desire to change that leads us to deliverance, freedom, and salvation. What a contrast to the sorrow of the world that produces hopelessness, defeat, and despair.
When I was a child and Satan tormented me because I didn’t cry at the altar when I got saved, I was as saved as it was possible to be saved. I had no tears to cry about my horrid sins because I was five years old when I committed my life to Christ. Even though I didn’t cry, my decision to serve Him was firm and therefore absolutely real. As a result of this experience, I learned not to confuse sobbing with repentance, for although tears and emotions may accompany this act, they’re not requirements, nor are they necessarily evidence that repentance has occurred.
Remember, the word “repent” is metanoeo — referring to a complete turn in the way one thinks, lives, or acts. For a person to repent, he must simply make up his mind to change.
So what is the difference between guilt, remorse, regret, and repentance?
- Guilt is a prison that will keep you perpetually bound and unchanged.
- Remorse enslaves you in sorrow that engulfs you emotionally and leaves you feeling sad, depressed, hopeless, and unchanged.
- Regret is self-pity that is focused more on your own personal loss than on the pain or loss you caused to others or to the heart of God, and it leaves you unchanged.
- Repentance is a quality decision to change — and when genuine repentance occurs in a person’s heart and mind, you can be sure the Holy Spirit will release His power to effect change in that person’s life and lead him to freedom!
So in light of what you have read today, are there any areas in your life in which you have felt guilty, remorseful, or regretful — but unchanged? Could it be that you’ve never really made a firm decision to change, and that’s why you’ve had no enduring victory in these areas of your life?
If you’ve confused tears with repentance, now you know that you don’t have to depend on your emotions to repent. If God is dealing with you about something that needs to change in your life, you can repent right now at this very moment, regardless of what you do or do not feel. God is waiting for you to make a decision!
MY PRAYER FOR TODAY
Heavenly Father, I thank You that You have given me the power to choose life. Today I make the decision to turn away from those actions and thought processes that are negative, detrimental, and destructive to my life. I don’t want to grieve Your heart in any way. What a joy to know I don’t have to wait for emotions to repent! I made the mistake of thinking I had to “feel” something in order to repent, but now I realize that feelings and tears are not requirements for repentance. Therefore, I am responding to the Word of God and to the voice of the Spirit who is speaking to me about making concrete changes in certain areas of my life. Right now I choose to repent of those things that I know are wrong. I make the decision to walk free of them and to stay free of them for the rest of my life. This is my point of no return.
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
MY CONFESSION FOR TODAY
I joyfully declare that I walk free of things that have long bound me. God is on my side! He sent His Son to die for my freedom and deliverance; He sent His Spirit to empower me; and I do not have to sit in a spiritual prison any longer. I proclaim that today is the day of deliverance for me! I permanently walk free of those things that have been a hindrance to me. Jesus died so I can be free, and I am free! Today is the day that I begin walking in my victory!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!