I should really have dealt with verses 2 and 3 and 4 of today’s passage last week, because those verses mark the end of one section of Paul’s letter. But we ran out of time last week. And the section which they close began way back in 2:14, which we studied in March 2020 before Covid put us into the first lockdown. But if you turn back to 2:14, you’ll see that’s where Paul began to write about his gospel ministry. Some people in Corinth were criticising Paul and his ministry. And so, one of the reasons Paul had for writing this letter was to defend himself and his ministry. So, though he had to change his travel plans — so that he didn’t come to Corinth as he said he would — it wasn’t because he was wandering around the Roman world randomly. No, he was being led by God. God was leading him from place to place. And so, it was God who was determining his itinerary. And God was leading him in a triumphal procession, because God had won a great victory for his people over sin and Satan and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And God was now leading Paul and his preaching companions on a great triumphal procession across the Roman world. And as they went, they proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ, which for some was the fragrance of life and which for others was the smell of death. For those who were being saved, the gospel message was the fragrance of life. For those who were perishing in their sins, the gospel message was the smell of death.
And then he went on to explain that his gospel ministry is a glorious ministry, because through Paul’s gospel ministry the glory of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ; and sinners are transformed by it. And though some do not believe his message, it’s not because his ministry is faulty, but it’s because the Devil is blinding the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing God’s glory in the gospel.
And though Paul and his companions often had to suffer and they were frequently hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down, nevertheless God was working through them to bring life to those who believe. Death is at work in us, he said, but life is at work in you.
Those who rely on appearances, and not character, and on what is seen, rather than on what is unseen, would look at Paul and his ministry and they’d said it can’t be the real thing, because he and his ministry looked unimpressive and weak and ordinary. And they’d be taken in by the new preachers who had come to Corinth who looked and sounded impressive. But Paul’s ministry was the real thing, whereas the new preachers were only false teachers, who were preaching a false gospel.
And so, Paul has been defending himself and his ministry and he appealed to his readers not to be taken in by the new preachers who were leading them away from the true gospel and from the Lord himself. And Paul appealed to his readers to be reconciled to God: you need to be reconciled to God all over again because you’ve wandered away from the truth, because of these new preachers. And he told them no to be yoked together with those false preachers, who are really unbelievers. Separate yourself from them. Have nothing to do with them. And instead of withholding your affection from me and my companions, open wide your hearts to us. Open wide your hearts and let love and affection run freely from you to me.
Verses 2 to 4
That’s the kind of thing Paul has been saying to his readers in Corinth since 2:14. And that section of his letter ends in verses 2 to 4 of chapter 7 where he says to them:
Make room for us in your hearts.
The Greek word translated ‘make room for’ was used in Mark 2 to describe the house where the Lord was when he healed the paralytic who was let down to him through the roof. Remember? The friends had to go through the roof, because there was no room in the house and they couldn’t get in. And so, it seems to Paul that some of the Corinthians have no room in their hearts for him. They’ve shut him out of their hearts. They’ve closed the door to him. Their love and affection for him has been squeezed out. But he’s pleading with them now to open their hearts to him and to regard him with love and affection once again.
And he adds that he has done nothing to deserve being shut out of their hearts. They have wronged no one. They have corrupted no one. They have exploited no one. When he says they have wronged no one, he means they have not mistreated anyone or treated them unjustly. They have not been bullies. Sometimes you hear reports of ministers or preachers who bully their people. They think the people are there to serve them, instead of remembering that they are they to serve the people.
And when he says they have corrupted no one, he’s referring to what he taught them. So, he did not corrupt or spoil them by leading them astray or by leading them from the truth. The minister’s job is to lead the people to the Saviour and whenever he stands up to preach, he’s to take the congregation by the hand, as it were, and lead them through the Scriptures to the Saviour. He’s to give them a clear view of Christ. But the false preachers in Corinth were leading the people astray. Rather than bringing them to Christ, they were leading them in the wrong direction.
And when Paul says they have exploited no one, he means they haven’t taken advantage of anyone. He accused the false preachers of being those who peddle the word of God for profit. But the true preacher will not be greedy for gain and will not take advantage of the people and he will not defraud them or exploit them in any way.
John Calvin says that it is usually in one of these three ways that pastors alienate or antagonise the people. And so, here are three more questions to ask about any preacher. Remember the first three questions from two weeks ago? What’s his message? What’s his character? Does he just want an easy life? And here’s the next three questions: Does he wrong the people by oppressing them? Does he corrupt the people by leading them away from the Saviour? Does he take advantage of the people by being greedy? Paul assures his readers that he and his companions have done none of these things. And therefore, don’t shut us out of your hearts. Instead make room for us in your hearts.
And, according to verse 3, he’s not saying any of this to condemn them or to hurt them. After all, he has opened his heart to them and he loves them very much. In fact, he says, we would live or die with you. The commentators think this is a Roman expression which refers to true friendship: true friends are prepared to live and die together. Well, I regard you as my true friends, Paul is saying. I’m prepared to live and die with you. We’re friends for life. That’s how I regard you. In fact, he says, I have great confidence in you and I take great pride in you. And I am also greatly encouraged by you, so that in all my troubles, you fill me with joy.
Despite all of his troubles and trials as an apostle, and despite his fears concerning their spiritual well-being, Paul remained confident that the Corinthians will listen to him and that they will separate themselves from the unbelieving preachers; and that they will return to God with all their heart.
Verses 5 to 7
And so, Paul closes that part of his letter in verse 4 and he begins the next part of his letter in verse 5. But, this part of the letter resumes what he was saying earlier about his travel plans and about Titus. So, back in verses 12 and 13 of chapter 2, he said:
Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and went on to Macedonia.
And now, in verse 5 of chapter 7, he refers to Macedonia and in verse 6 he refers to Titus. And then, in verse 8 he refers to a letter which he had sent the Corinthians which caused them sorrow.
Here’s the background to these verses. Paul intended to visit Corinth on two occasions: once on the way to Macedonia and once on the way back from Macedonia. However, the first visit to Corinth had been difficult, because Paul had become aware of an issue in the church which required church discipline. Someone in the congregation was guilty of some kind of public sin. We don’t know what it was, but it seems that the congregation had done nothing about it and they were tolerating this person’s sin among them. When Paul became aware of this, he urged the congregation to take action against the member who was at fault. And it seems that while some agreed with Paul, others did not. And so, it was a difficult visit, because of this disagreement over church discipline. In fact, Paul referred to it as a ‘painful visit’ in chapter 2.
After he left, he sent a letter to the congregation by the hand of Titus. That letter is now lost, but it’s the letter which he refers to in verse 8 and presumably he used that letter to tell them once again that they should take action and exercise church discipline. And after sending the letter, Paul waited for Titus to return to see how the congregation received it. Did it do any good? Or did it make matters worse? How would they respond to his letter to them? And so, that’s why he wrote in 2:13 that he had no peace of mind. He had no peace of mind, because he was waiting for Titus to return.
And so, we come to 7:5. In Macedonia, they had no rest. They were harassed at every turn. There were conflicts on the outside and there were fears within. Well, he’s just been writing about the troubles and trials he experienced in his ministry and how he was hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down and how he had to endure troubles and hardships and distresses and beatings and imprisonments and riots and hard work and sleepless nights and hunger and so on. He carried in his body the dying of Christ. Suffering marked his ministry. And no doubt, the fears within included his fears concerning the Corinthians and how they would respond to his letter.
But then it’s as if the clouds moved away and the sun came out, because in verse 6 Paul refers to God, who comforts the downcast, and who comforted Paul and his companions. The clouds have passed; the sun has come out; it’s a glorious, sunny day again.
And how did God comfort Paul and his companions? It was by the arrival of Titus, wasn’t it? And Titus was able to report to Paul how the Corinthians had comforted Titus. No doubt Titus had gone to Corinth in fear and trembling, wondering himself how they would respond to Paul’s letter. If it made them angry, then they would no doubt be angry with Titus. And so, perhaps he went with fear and trembling. And yet, he was able to return to Paul with good news. Paul’s letter did not make them angry. In fact, they now longed to see Paul. And they were filled with great sorrow because of their sins and shortcomings. And they expressed their concern or their zeal for Paul to put into practice the things he said in his letter. And so, not only did God comfort Paul by the arrival of Titus, but Paul was now filled with joy, because of Titus’s report.
Before we move on, you might be wondering how this passage fits with the previous passage? In the previous passage, Paul has been defending himself and his ministry because the people in Corinth were having doubts about Paul. They had shut him out of their hearts. They thought he was unimpressive and weak and ordinary and they compared him unfavourably with the new, super-apostles who had arrived in Corinth. That’s what the previous passage was about. And yet, now Paul is talking about the joy he felt because of the Corinthians. How do these two passages fit together?
Perhaps you’ve heard a speaker who addresses one part of the congregation for part of the time; and then he addresses another part of the congregation for the rest of the time. For part of the time, he’s addressing the young people; for the rest of the time, he’s addressing the rest of the congregation. Or for part of the time, he’s addressing the women in the congregation; and for the rest of the time, he’s addressing the men. Or for part of the time, he’s addressing unbelievers; and for the rest of the time, he’s addressing believers. Well, it seems that in the previous passage, Paul was addressing part of the congregation: those who had been taken in by the new preachers. And now, in this passage, he’s addressing the rest of the congregation, who were willing to listen to Paul.
You see, Titus had been to Corinth. He knew what was happening in the congregation. He knew that there were some who responded positively to Paul’s letter and he knew that there were others who were still against Paul. And so, Titus was able to report this to Paul. And so, in this letter, Paul addressed one group first and then he addressed the other group. The first group still concerned him, because they were in danger of going astray. But this second group brought him great joy.
Verses 8 to 13a
And this second group brought him great joy, because they had turned in repentance from their sins and shortcomings. And that’s what verses 8 to the first part of verse 13 are about. Paul acknowledges in verse 8 that his letter to them caused them sorrow. On the one hand, he regrets that it hurt them. However, on the other hand, he’s happy because of what his letter led to, because his letter led to sorrow that led to repentance. And then he distinguishes between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. Do you see that in verse 10? Godly sorrow — or the sort of sorrow that God intends — leads to salvation. But worldly sorrow brings death.
Why does godly sorrow lead to salvation, but worldly sorrow only brings death? It’s because godly sorrow leads to repentance and repentance leads us to God for forgiveness.
So, when people do wrong, they can feel sorry about what they have done. They can have regrets. They feel remorse. They can feel shame. They’re embarrassed. They’ll admit they’ve done wrong. They’ll be sorry about it. They will ask for forgiveness from the person they’ve hurt. And their feelings of sorrow and remorse are genuine. They’re not pretending. They’re not play-acting. They really do feel sorry for what they have done. They really are ashamed. So, a husband upsets his wife by something he said, and he really is very sorry for what he did to her. A mother loses patience with her child and snaps at him. And afterwards she’s miserable because of how she reacted. A person breaks a promise to a friend and is ashamed because of it. And, of course, we’re familiar with public people who have been caught out and who are often full of remorse and they may resign their position because they genuinely realise it wouldn’t be right for them to continue in their position after doing what they have done. Someone in the public eye has cheated on their spouse. Someone has embezzled funds. Someone has mistreated their staff. Someone has been found out telling lies. And they are genuinely ashamed and remorseful and they resign their position, because it’s the right thing to do.
So, lots of people feel sorry and remorseful. But the kind of sorrow that leads to salvation is the kind of sorrow that leads to repentance; and repentance leads us to God for forgiveness.
This is what our church’s Shorter Catechism says about repentance:
Repentance leading to life is a saving grace by which a sinner having truly realised his sin and grasped the mercy of God in Christ, turns from his sin with grief and hatred and turns to God with full resolve and effort after new obedience.
It’s a saving grace, which means God graciously gives us repentance. He freely enables us to repent. If it were not for God and his kindness to us, we would never ever repent and we’d only ever feel that godly sorrow which does not lead to salvation.
And then, before a person repents, he must realise his sin. He must realise he’s a sinner who has done wrong. He’s broken God’s law. He’s fallen short of doing God’s will. He’s done wrong.
And then, not only must he realise he’s a sinner, but he must also realise that God is merciful. He must know that — for the sake of Christ who died for sinners — God is willing to show mercy to sinners. Unless we know that God is merciful, then we’ll never come to him in repentance. If we think God will only condemn us, we’ll never turn to him. The Prodigal Son decided to return home, because he was hopeful his Father would pardon him.
And having realised his sin and God’s mercy in Christ, the sinner turns from his sin with grief and hatred. Some people love their sins; they want to cling on to them; they want to hold on to them. But other people are sorry for their sins and they hate their sins, because their sins are contrary to God’s holy nature and to his law. And so, they will turn from their sins and they’ll turn to God.
And they’ll turn to God, because they know that God is willing to pardon them for the sake of Christ, who died for sinners. So, they’ll turn to God for forgiveness. They’ll turn to God to be washed and cleansed and forgiven.
And having received God’s forgiveness for the sake of Christ, they’ll resolve from now — and out of gratitude to God — to obey him.
And repentance is not something we do once, at the beginning of the Christian life, and never again. Just as we’re to confess our sins every day and ask for God’s forgiveness every day, so we must repent every day. Every day, we must acknowledge our sins and shortcomings, and turn from them, and turn to God for forgiveness. And every day we must resolve to do better the next day. The Christian life is a life of repentance. And so, you mustn’t think it’s only for beginners, because so long as you remain a sinner, you must continually turn from your sin and turn to God in Christ for forgiveness.
And so, while Paul’s letter to the Corinthians caused many of them to feel sorrow, he was glad, because the sorrow they felt was godly sorrow which led to repentance which led them to God for forgiveness. And in verse 11 Paul refers to the effect it had in their lives. Remember John the Baptist who said to the crowds who came to him in the wilderness that they were to produce fruit in keeping with repentance? In other words, true repentance will have an effect on our lives. And in the case of the Corinthians, their repentance produced earnestness. That is, they were eager to make haste and to put into action everything Paul said in his letter. Instead of putting it off to tomorrow, they wanted to act immediately. And they became eager to clear themselves, says Paul. The best way to clear ourselves when we’re accused of any sin is to put things right immediately. Paul refers to their indignation, which perhaps refers to the indignation or displeasure they now felt over how they had once treated Paul. He also mentions their alarm. The Greek word is actually ‘fear’. Perhaps Paul means they became afraid that if they continued to disregard Paul, God would discipline them; he would have to chastise them. He also refers to their longing and concern. When Paul left Corinth after that painful visit, they were probably glad to see the back of him. But now they realised he was right; and they have repented of their sin; and they’re eager to see him again and to renew their friendship and fellowship. And they’re ready to see justice done. Since Paul was urging them to exercise church discipline, they now want to see that justice is done and that the guilty person is disciplined for what he has done wrong.
Titus had reported to Paul how the Corinthians were filled with sorrow because of Paul’s letter. Instead of disregarding what he had written, they accepted what he said and they acted quickly to do what Paul had said. And so at every point, they had proved themselves innocent in this matter, in the sense that they had repented and done what was necessary and were no longer guilty of disregarding Paul’s instructions. And all of this was a great encouragement to Paul. While he was waiting for Titus to come, Paul was anxious about the letter. Would it do any good? Would it make the situation worse? But thanks be to God: Titus was able to report to Paul how they had repented and had made up their mind to do what Paul had said.
Verses 13b to 17
And in the remainder of the passage — verse 13b to 17 — Paul wrote of the joy he felt because of the way they had treated Titus. Paul had boasted about the Corinthians to Titus. And perhaps he was nervous that the Corinthians would let him down and they would have been unkind to Titus. But it seems that Paul had no reason to be nervous, and he had been right to boast about them, because of the way they had welcomed Titus and obeyed Paul’s letter.
So, this today’s passage is about repentance. The Christian life is a life of repentance. Think of a boat out on the water. Not a big boat, but a small boat which is affected by the wind and the waves and the current. You’re trying to get somewhere, but the waves are pushing the boat off-course. You’re trying to get somewhere, but the wind is pushing the boat off-course. You’re trying to get somewhere, but the current is pulling the boat off-course. And so, as you make your way, you’re having to correct course continually. You’ve gone too far to the left: better steer to the right again. You’ve gone too far to the right; better steer to the left again. You have to correct course continually. And that’s the Christian life, because as we live our lives each day, the Devil comes at us with his temptations to push us off-course; and an unbelieving world puts us under pressure to conform to its wicked ways; and our own sinful nature and weakness pushes us in the wrong way; and then we don’t pay attention to the reading and preaching of God’s word and that makes us vulnerable to going off-course. Every day we sin against the Lord and we go off course. And so, every day we have to correct course by turning from our sins and turning back to the Lord.
And how wonderful, because no matter how far any of us have drifted off-course, we know that the Lord our God is able to pardon all who return to him in repentance and faith. He’s able to pardon us, because the blood of Christ our Saviour is able to cover over all of our sins. And so, when we sin, when we go astray and off-course, we don’t need to be afraid that he’ll drive us away when we return to him, because he’s always ready to welcome his children who come to him, confessing their sin, asking for his pardon, asking for help to obey him more. And day by day, as we keep turning back to him, we make our way slowly but surely to the safety of the new heavens and earth where we’ll never sin again, and where we’ll rest in the presence of Christ our Saviour and God our Father forever.