What is the difference between remorse and repentance? Did Joseph’s brothers experience true sorrow for their actions, or simply a twinge of momentary guilt when they thought they’d have to account for their actions? Alistair Begg takes a look at the biblical definition of genuine repentance, noting that a radical change in our lifestyle should be the evidence of our salvation. Godly sorrow, Scripture says, inclines us to continually turn from sin to God.
Father, your Word says, “And we will seek you and we will find you when we search for you with all of our hearts.” We pray that now, in the hearing of your Word, there may be the unmistakable voice of God. So we wait in expectation. In Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
Having read the second half of chapter 42, it ought to be clear to all of us that this story is building, that the pressure in it is building up, and that the famine which had happened—as God said it would—has turned the thoughts of Jacob towards Egypt because only in Egypt was there food to be found at this time; and he has dispatched his sons, ten of them at least, to make the journey into Egypt, taking with them money, etc., so that they would secure the provisions necessary for the starving households that they had left behind. And last time, as we looked at the opening half of chapter 42, we had described for us this quite amazing scene whereby Joseph, as it says in verse 6, the governor of the land, selling the grain to the people in some encounter which was probably unique insofar as we can’t imagine that Joseph was involved in giving out all the grain to the multitudes of people who came, but it was providential that he would be present on this particular occasion, and when he looks out on the crowd—in the midst of all of those unnamed and unknown faces—he suddenly picks out his ten brothers. And suddenly, twenty years of his life presumably flashes back before him, and he’s back instantaneously in his mind’s eye to that cruel scene whereby these same fellows had taken him—because they were so despitefully jealous of him—and had sold him, after a spell in the pit which almost led to his death, had sold him to these Ishmaelite travelers who had, of course, in turn, sold him into the custody of Potiphar’s household.
Now, if you try and get underneath the story, if you try and enter into the event thinking, as you do, of what it would be like for you to be in the circumstances of Joseph, who, after all, was simply an ordinary man of like passions as we, how do you think you would have reacted on that occasion in looking out and seeing the fellows who had been responsible for the last twenty years of your life, over which you had had no control at all? Would it be that twenty years of hatred would spew out from him, that twenty years of harboring hurt feelings, of having said to himself night after night, “If it hadn’t been for my brothers, if it hadn’t been for that coat, if it hadn’t been for this or for that, then I would never have been in this dreadful predicament, and even at my best days, I’m still a long way from home …” If that had been inside of Joseph, then clearly that would have come out, but it’s going to become obvious that God had been working in Joseph’s heart, as we’ve seen, fashioning all the events of his life for him in such a way that Joseph recognized that the good days and the bad days, the difficult days and the delightful days—as in each of our lives—were all under the sovereign, providential care of a God who loved him with an everlasting love.
And so he recognizes them while they do not recognize him. The time has not come for his disclosure. He had struggled with it as you see there. His distress in seeing them is enough to make him weep, as verse 24 says, and he has to turn away from them and get ahold of himself and then turn back to them again, and you can imagine all of the emotion that is coursing inside of the guy. In fact, when it says that he spoke harshly to them—“Pretending to be a stranger, he spoke harshly to them”—my initial reading of that was that it was sort of an attempt to disguise his voice from them in case, if he spoke in his normal voice, they would recognize him. It’s highly unlikely because his voice at the age of forty would be distinctly different from what it was at the age of seventeen, and the more I thought about it, I concluded this: that the reason he spoke harshly to them was in order to prevent himself from breaking down. You know what I mean? You know those experiences in life where you’re frightened to even talk because you know, if you speak—just, like, try and speak in your normal voice—you’ll burst into tears? At some great moment of success, at a triumph or at a failure, in the face of bereavement, or in seeing someone that you haven’t seen for a long time, and you can’t trust yourself just to speak naturally, and so you adopt an accent to cover for it? Or you speak with a sort of feigned humor, and the people wonder why you would, and the reason all the time is because you can’t trust yourself just to speak as you would, for fear that you’d burst into tears, and you’d give the game away. I think there’s something of that—but we’ll have to wait until heaven to find out—but I think there’s something of that in Joseph here. He spoke harshly to them because, if he didn’t sort of get himself up for it and be brusque with them, I don’t think he could find it in himself just to be able to look them in the eyes and treat them with his normal voice and in a normal way.
He has to decide on a course of action, and so he does. He contrives a way to get his brother Benjamin down here. He longs to see his brother Benjamin, and so he puts his brothers under this most severe pressure: imprisoning them all and then taking them out after three days and putting one back in—namely, Simeon, whom he binds and puts in. Judah he lets out. Judah was the only one that spoke in his defense on that day when he was cast off into Egypt, and in the process of all of this, he is struck by the fact that his brothers themselves are moved and distressed by these events as they unfold. And the fact is, as he recognizes, that the cruelty that they had shown to Joseph twenty years previously is still heavy on their consciences. He would never have known this, you see. He could have surmised a number of things, but as he listens to them speak—they don’t know that he knows, but he knows—and as they talk to one another, they say in verse 21, “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we wouldn’t listen,” and they are particularly struck by their unwillingness to respond to his cries for mercy. Nothing reveals the hardness of our hearts more than to turn deaf ears to genuine cries for help, and their brother had cried out of absolute necessity: “Get me out of here! Don’t leave me here! Don’t send me there! Don’t send me away! Can’t I stay? Don’t do this to me!” And twenty years on, although they had tried to do many things in the interim to press it from their minds—to cover it over with all the events of their lives—twenty years on, they reckoned clearly that the reason for their distress lies in the fact that they treated their brother as they did, and as verse 22 says, they are going to have to give an account for his blood.
Now, what brought this on? Well, God used these circumstances to stir their consciences. He puts them on the receiving end of injustice, places them on the receiving end of ill-treatment. They’re being accused as spies. They’re not spies, and no matter how much they protest their innocence, still Joseph comes back at them and says, “Oh, yes you are. You only came here to see about the borders of the country, to provide an opportunity to infiltrate and to do certain things,” and all the time they’re saying, “Oh no, no, no! We’re not spies,” and in that experience suddenly it dawns on them, they’re saying to themselves, “This is something as to how Joseph must have felt when he was on the receiving end of our injustice and of our ill-treatment.” In the same way that God will bring things into our lives to remind us of things that we have done to others in the past—for which we have never repented and which we have never cleaned up and which we have never settled—and the experience that we now face brings to us again the awfulness of what we did then, in order that we might genuinely acknowledge our sorrow for that guilt.
And so, as the story unfolds, their consciences are stirred, not simply by the accusations of Joseph but, further, by these undeserved expressions of grace, and we’ll come to that where, in verse 25, they not only had the grain but they had these provisions, and they have the money in the sack—one man finds it and another finds it—and hence their question in verse 28, which is not an unusual question: “What is this that God has done to us?” “Their hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, ‘What is this that God has done to us?’” You see, if you’ve had a really bad case of the flu, then it only takes a marginal banging of a bedroom door for you to go, “Oh, goodness, gracious!” And if you have lived with twenty years of unrepented sin, unless your conscience has become completely seared, then it will only take the slightest of things to transport you right back to the point of departure. That, you see, is what was happening— providentially—in the lives of these individuals. God was ordering all of these events because, in his purpose, all of this family restored, all of the twelve sons intact, were going to take up residence in Egypt so that out of Egypt and out of the experience of liberation by Moses, there may be the people of God moving forward and on to the promised land, and God was working in all of these events the unfolding of his plan.
Now, as I was studying this week and thinking along these lines and thinking if there wasn’t possibly a way that I could advance this story by multiple chapters in one fell swoop, I made it even more difficult for myself to move ahead, by asking the question that appeared to me. For as I look at these fellows and their expressions of distress, and as I recognize that these brothers were stirred by the recollection of what they had done to Joseph, the question is this: Was what we experience here simply a momentary twinge of remorse or do we have here an example of genuine biblical repentance? In other words, are the brothers just having a bad day, and they’re having one of these flashbacks that makes them feel not so good for a moment, but it will be over and, after they have reflected on the fact that they really shouldn’t have done that, they’ll be back to business as usual, and indeed, when it comes to dealing with Benjamin, if they have to leave him behind, they’ll leave him, too? Indeed, they’ll do whatever it takes in order to fulfill their own selfish agenda? That must have been the question that was uppermost in Joseph’s mind. In listening to his brothers speak as he did, he must have been saying to himself, “Now are they really genuinely repentant, or are they simply expressing a momentary sorrow because back to their minds comes the recollection of the offense that they had caused?” So what do we have here: a momentary expression of regret or an expression of genuine biblical repentance?
Well, then, that leads me in my thinking to ask the question: Well, what is genuine biblical repentance? And if I’m asking the question, I figure maybe you would be asking the question. And in fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that repentance is “Christianese” to many of you. It is the equivalent of one of these computer words to which I referred around Christmastime. It’s the equivalent of “megahertz” or “gigabits” or whatever those things are, which in computer stores are, frankly, “double Dutch” to many of us. But people use them all the time, and if you hang around them, you start to use them, too—whether you really know what they are or not—and you’re frightened, actually, to put up your hand and say, “Excuse me, what is one of those hertz things, the ‘megahertz’? Is that a special car rental system or what exactly is that?” You say, “Everybody would know that it wasn’t that.” Don’t you be too sure, and if I passed out blank sheets of paper right now and asked you to write down in fifty words or less the nature of genuine biblical repentance, I’m not sure that there would be a lot of As, and since I’m the teacher, that doesn’t make me feel good. So, in order that I might prepare you for the test, I have to provide you with the information so that you can answer the test. So I want to purposefully pause and ask the question along with you: What is the nature of genuine biblical repentance?
Let me tell you what it isn’t, first of all. Biblical repentance is not merely a sense of being sorry because we were found out, nor is it merely a sense of regret that leaves us where it found us. You know, for example, the mother calls through into the kitchen and says to the child, who’s just learning to tell the time, “What is the big hand on?” And the little fellow takes his hand away from the freshly made cookies, feeling somehow or another that his mother can see through the walls and can’t believe that she would ask what is his hand on. She’s actually asking, “What is the big hand on, on the clock?” But his conscience is such that it’s touched. She comes through, and she finds him all covered in the chocolate chips. She goes, “I thought I told you not to touch those,” and he does one of those, “Oh, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m really, really, really, really, really sorry.” Now, is that an expression of genuine biblical repentance? We don’t know yet. We don’t know until she goes upstairs. As soon as she goes upstairs, we find out. Soon as the vacuum cleaner turns on, and his hand goes right back in the jar for another one, you know that what he expressed was momentary sorrow at having been caught, but it was not a genuine desire to turn from something that had been identified as wrongful activity for him. And when the Bible speaks about the nature of repentance, it describes it as a radical reversal taking us back down on the road of our sinful wanderings and creating within us a completely different mindset.
Repentance is a mind-altering experience. It is not simply a change of direction, it is not simply a change of heart, but it is a change of mind. The Westminster Divines put it so helpfully in the Confession of Faith, and I quote from it when they said, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it [un]to God with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” And Calvin in his Institutes says, “Repentance is the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of him, and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit.” Now, I’ll come back to that and say it in layman’s terms in a moment or two from now, but for those who get the tape, at least they have two helpful quotes.
Let me turn you to the New Testament and give a classic illustration of this radical reversal. Luke’s gospel and chapter 15. Luke 15: the story of the lost sheep, the lost coins, and the lost son. We don’t have time to work our way through it, nor should we, but I simply want you to notice the change in this boy between verse 12 and verse 19. In verse 12, he says to his father, “Give me my share of the estate.” His life is marked by the demand “give me.” In verse 19, his life is marked by the request “make me.” In 12: “Give me what I am due. It’s mine, and I will do with it what I choose.” In 19: “Make me as one of your hired servants.” And why is this? Simply because he doesn’t like the pigsty? Simply because his friends are gone and he has no money left for his riotous living? Simply because he regrets it all? No, but because he has come to an awareness of his condition. The Bible says that “he came to himself.” “And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my [father] have food enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!” And then he traces the roots of his condition to that which he is about to confess: “I will arise and I will go to my father, and I will say unto him, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.”
Now, if you turn forward again to 2 Corinthians 7, we can further advance our understanding of genuine biblical repentance. 2 Corinthians 7:10: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” In other words, the change of mindset expressed in repentance is accompanied by a lifelong moral and spiritual turnaround. Indeed, the verb that is used, or the word that is used, most routinely in the Bible concerning this is the word metanoia, which means simply to do an about turn or an about face, I think it is, that is said in the American military. (In Britain, the sergeant major says, “About turn.” I believe he says, “About face” here, is that correct?) In other words, “Turn your face around. You were going in this direction facing clearly there, and now you have turned around, and you are going in this direction.” It is a radical reversal. Once you were going one way, and now you are going another. And it is to be distinguished from a momentary flush of regret, a momentary experience of being found out. For example, in 1 Thessalonians in chapter 1 when Paul writes to encourage the Thessalonians, he says, “You know, the news of the Gospel is going out everywhere and indeed your faith is being proclaimed in Macedonia and Achaia. We really don’t need to say anything about it because the people there are reporting the kind of reception you gave us,” and in verse 9b they tell how “you turned to God from idols.”—“You turned to God from idols.” There’s a radical reversal. It was not that you were going along in a certain direction, you had a bad day, somebody gave you an emotional surge, you decided to buy into the Christian thing, and then you continued in the exact same direction in which you had always been going. That’s not salvation. That’s someone going in the wrong direction with an interest in Christian things. So it is imperative that we understand the nature of biblical repentance for, without that repentance, there is no salvation. You have the same thing, for example, in Colossians chapter 3, in a different metaphor. Paul uses there the picture of clothing, and he says, “You put off all these things.” In Colossians 3: “Since you have been crucified with Christ, you no longer are a part of these things. Therefore, you put off the old self with all of its practices, and you put on the new self which is being renewed in the knowledge in the image of its creator.” That’s Colossians 3:10.
Now, the further thing that we need to say is simply this: that repentance does not merely begin the Christian life. According to Scripture, the Christian life is repentance from beginning to end. When Martin Luther, on All Saints Eve in 1517, nailed his theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he was putting the ax to the root of all the obscurities and nonsenses of medieval theology. And although certain things from his theses are made much of, it is often overlooked that he begins right here, and this is what he says: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ He meant the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.” Now, interestingly, if you recall the Calvin quote, that is exactly what Calvin was saying as well. He said that “the experience of repentance is the experience of the Christian life in the mortification of the flesh and of the revivification of life by the Spirit”—in other words, in dying to that which is no longer to be ours and in living in the power of the Spirit. Now, you see, this was most significant because the Latin Vulgate translation of Matthew 4:17—the words of Jesus right at the outset of his ministry, where “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,’”—the Latin Vulgate translation of that, poenitentiam agite, was translated “do penance.” Do penance. When Erasmus translates the New Testament into Greek and using the word metanoia, it makes clear to the minds of people that what is being described here is not a call for an act of penance, but for a radical change of mind and an equally deep transformation of life.
Now, loved ones, this hits at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. There are more roads opened up to me as I stand here down which I daren’t walk, but for example, in this whole notion of a coalition between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, the very nature of what it means to be a Christian is substantive, and there cannot be two separate ways to be a Christian. There is the way that the Bible outlines, and at the very heart of it is the nature of genuine biblical repentance. Now, some people are listening to this, and they’re saying, “I don’t know if this really matters at all.” Well, I want you to know that it matters a great deal. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t take as long as I’m doing to make this known to you. Let me quote to you a good friend, Sinclair Ferguson, on this very subject. He says, “Seeing repentance as an isolated completed act at the beginning of the Christian life has been a staple principle of much modern evangelicalism.” Now let me say that another way: those of us who have grown up in evangelicalism have grown up with the idea that repentance is something that you do once— which you’re responsible for—it starts everything off, and you’ve “been there, done that, got the T-shirt,” as it were. Says Sinclair Ferguson, “This has been the staple diet of evangelicalism, certainly in the twentieth century.” Result: “It has spawned a generation who look back upon a single act, abstracted from its consequences, as determinative of salvation. The altar call has replaced the sacrament of penance. Thus, repentance has been divorced from genuine regeneration, and sanctification has been severed from justification.” You see what he’s saying? In medieval theology, people lived with the idea that if you just do penance, you’re ok. And in contemporary evangelicalism people have lived with the idea that, if you have a sense of remorse in some event where someone is speaking and gets rather emotional about it, and you do whatever the man tells you to do from the front—whether that is to walk forward or raise your hand or sign a card—and you complete that, then that’s it, and you can always and forever look back to that one moment where you did that or responded in that way, and on that you can hang the nature of your whole spiritual experience. But if there has not been in that genuine biblical repentance, then what have you got? You’ve got an isolated, abstracted event in your past that involved an emotional surge which had religious connotations but has produced no change in life.
I talk to people all the time—in fact, in the baptismal pool, I hear it all the time—“Well, I came, you know, I gave my life to Jesus on such-and-such a day, and then I didn’t do anything. You know, then I did this, and then I went away to college, and then I did drugs, and then I had a number of girlfriends, and then and this and that, and finally, you know, in such-and-such a day, I woke up, and I decided to get serious about it.” I got news for you: in the majority of those cases—and heaven will reveal it—I don’t think those people became Christians when they thought they did in 1970-whatever-it-was because what they’re saying is, “It’s possible to be justified without being sanctified. It’s possible to have a Savior who doesn’t save. It’s possible to have new life with no accompanying lifestyle,” and that’s impossible, the New Testament says. What possible reason is there for believing that I have been radically altered—that there has been a radical reversal in my life—when I have no interest in reading the Word of God? When I have no concern for worship amongst the people of God? When, instead of sitting listening under the Word of God and saying, “This is food for my soul. This is light for my path. This is meat for my portion,” —instead of saying that—I’m looking at my watch and going, “I hope we’re going to be able to get out of here by twelve o’clock, you know, because I have a lot of things still on my calendar to do today”? That’s okay for somebody to feel that way because that’s an indication of an unbelieving and hardened heart, but it’s not the expression of the individual who has been transformed. When is the last time any of us put our heads on our pillow at night on a Sunday evening, regretting the fact that the day was over, regretting the fact that the opportunities now for fellowship and worship and the enjoyments of one another’s company have been taken from us, and now we must go back and face the week, largely on our own? It just reminds me of the need for genuine repentance in my own life.
Now, the extent to which this has rooted itself in contemporary thinking was never better revealed than in the “Lordship Controversy” as it was described in the last decade or so, and in that debate—and some of you read those books and took sides—people erroneously suggested that it was possible to receive justification without sanctification, to receive new birth that doesn’t actually give new life, or to have a faith that is not radically repentant, despite uniting us to a crucified and risen Christ. Let me try and drop it down a couple of notches here. On the sixteenth of August 1975, when I was married—in a rather muggy church in suburban Philadelphia with the temperature approaching a hundred degrees—I, along with Susan, went through the routine that I performed yesterday of responding to the questions which were fairly straightforward: “Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of marriage,” and so on, “and will you keep yourself only unto her, so long as you both shall live?” In other words, “Are you prepared to enter into an absolutely exclusive relationship with this girl?” “Yes.” So they sign it three times: one, a big one that goes in your case; one, a wee one that goes to the court; and another one that the guy says he’ll keep, which he usually just crumples up in a ball and puts in the wastepaper basket because it’s not necessary. (I shouldn’t let you know what I do, but anyway …) So now we have the sheet, and now we have the life in front of us. Now, what is the indication that there has been a genuine turnaround that is represented in that declaration? It’s twenty-one years of married life, right? It’s twenty-one years of saying no to temptation and saying yes to fidelity. It’s twenty-one years of ratifying in our daily experience the expressions that were made in that moment in time, but the working out of sickness and health and joy and sorrow and good and bad is the arena in which that testimony is authenticated. And if, for example, three months after I had walked down the aisle there in Philadelphia, I began to call girls from my high school in England or acquaintances that I’d known in the past, then both Sue and everyone else who knows us would be forced to conclude whatever that was about at 1:30 in the afternoon in that muggy church, it was spurious because there is no lifestyle which attaches to the profession of a new life.
Someone put it in a little poem which is not a great poem, but it notches it down again for us. Here it is:
’Tis not enough to say
“I’m sorry,” and repent,
And then go on from day to day
Just living as we went.
Repentance is to leave
The sins we loved before,
And show that we did earnest grieve
By doing them no more.
I hope that none of us are hanging our hats on a date that we arbitrarily wrote in the flyleaf of our Bibles or on the recollection of a moment in time where somebody asked us to do some external thing. “Why?” you say. “Because that is irrelevant?” Absolutely not, but because the nature of biblical repentance is not locked in a moment in time but is expressed throughout the totality of our days, and the question for the unbeliever has to do with repentance in its initial expression. The question for the believer is: When did you last repent?
Now, that brings us back to the story of Joseph—remember Joseph?—but what we’ll do is, we’ll return to Joseph, we’ll pick up the narrative this evening because I want us simply to concentrate in the conclusion on this issue in our own lives because there are people here this morning—indeed, there are people all across America—who are confused about who and what they are, because they did, at some point, what someone told them to do, but there’s no change in their lives, and they figured that what it is about, is about somebody telling you to do something and then you do that and then you just kind of muster it up from that point out. No. In salvation, God grants to us the grace of repentance and places within our lives the reality of his Spirit, so that he not only justifies us as a legal transaction, declaring us in a right standing before him in the person of his Son, but he also regenerates us by the power of his Spirit, so that he implants within us the principle of new life. And our new lifestyle is an evidence of the change which he has wrought. May God grant to us the discovery of genuine biblical repentance.
Let us pray together:
O God, our Father, we thank you this morning that your Word shines as a light on our path. We thank you, too, that it is sharp as a two-edged sword. We thank you that it relieves the teacher of the responsibility of trying to make people happy and sets each of us as listeners free from the quest to feel good about everything. We thank you for the wonder of godly sorrow which produces a radical turnaround that becomes central to our Christian experience and allows us to bear testimony to your saving grace. So work in us, we pray, that which is pleasing in your sight. Comfort those who are unnecessarily distressed; discomfort those who are unfoundedly assured; and grant that we might know what it is to take up our cross every day, to die to ourselves, and to follow hard after the person of your Son.
And it is “unto him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, that we give glory and majesty, dominion, and power, now and forevermore.” Amen.
 Jeremiah 29:13 (paraphrased).
 Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 87.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.3.5.
 Luke 15:17 (KJV).
 Luke 15:17 (KJV).
 Luke 15:18–19 (paraphrased).
 1 Thessalonians 1:9 (paraphrased).
 Colossians 3:10 (paraphrased).
 Martin Luther, “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (1517),” in Adolph Spaeth, L. D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, eds., Works of Martin Luther, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman, 1915), 29.
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Medieval Mistakes,” Evangelical Times, Oct. 1997, https://www.evangelical-times.org/27783/medieval-mistakes/.
 Original source unknown.
 Jude 24–25 (paraphrased).