This week gave occasion to reflect upon my lack of weeping over my own sin—a lack I also see in the church of God today. Manifest brokenness over sin is so uncommon in our day it is suspect at first sight. This is understandable since emotionalism runs high in good performances, of which there is no shortage, and there are few things more repelling than fake godliness.
But stoicism, while perhaps more comfortable, is not more pious. As I reflected upon the matter, I was convicted by just how much the Scripture demonstrates weeping for sin. It is found throughout God’s word and often exhorted or commended to God’s people (e.g. 2 Sam 15:30; Ezra 10:1; Ps 119:136; Jer 13:16-17; 31:9; Joel 2:12; Zech 7:1-7; Mt 26:75; Lk 7:37-38; James 4:8-9; etc.). Our lack of true penitent sorrow over sin is characteristic of a low view of God and a lack of intimacy with Him.
In striking contrast, the devout of old, and particularly the Puritans, speak so abundantly on the matter that it appears as though we are dead to a whole branch of Christian life. Thomas Adams wrote, “The word doth in many places, as it were, weep for our sins, panting out the grievance of a compassionate God. What prophet hath written without sorrow?”
John Calvin described weeping for sin as a common part of the Christian sojourn: “So far, truly, as those things which had been polluted in Adam are repaired by the grace of Christ, the pious feel more deeply that God is good, and enjoy the sweetness of his paternal indulgence. But because, even in the best, the flesh is to be subdued, it not unfrequently happens that the pious themselves are worn down with hard labours and with hunger. There is, therefore, nothing better for us than that we, being admonished of the miseries of the present life, should weep over our sins, and seek that relief from the grace of Christ which may not only assuage the bitterness of grief, but mingle its own sweetness with it.”
Whole sermons were preached on the subject. Like in Richard Sibbes’ sermon, Spiritual Mourning. After observing that there are many things for which we weep in this life, all of which for the saint will someday be reversed or “unsorrowed” except one, Sibbes writes, “when a man sets himself apart to weep over Christ, and sees his sins for the dishonour that is offered to God’s name, and that his mourning is holy and spiritual mourning, he shall never have cause to repent of this time that is so spent, although he have spent many days and hours in that action.”
Appropriate for Conversion
To be sure, this was a subject of true conversion. The Scripture says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Charles Spurgeon said, “The hard heart is selfish and coldly demands, ‘Why should I weep for sin? Why should I love the Lord?’ But the heart of flesh says; ‘Lord, thou knowest that I love thee; help me to love thee more!’” Henry Law said that in Scripture, it was the hardened heart that “did not confess their sin, or humble themselves, or weep tears of sorrow.” Stephen Charnock warned, “The comforts of Christ’s blood are not dropped into, nor can they enter into, a heart that cannot weep and bleed for sin.” Richard Baxter warned, “A man unconverted doth neither see any such evil in sin as to drive him to this confession, nor to break his heart in godly sorrow; nor will his heart be brought to consent to the faithful performance of that. A heart unhumbled and unchanged doth think it but a piece of childish folly to weep and mourn for sin, and lament it before the world: they are too stout to stoop to a disgraceful acknowledgment.”
Charles Spurgeon said, “I fear that not a few who dream that they possess strong faith are under a strong delusion to believe a lie; and instead of having the confidence which is wrought of the Spirit of God, which is quite consistent with holy mourning, they feel a false confidence based upon themselves, and therefore founded upon the sand. … Lord, let my portion be with the mourners, and not with the boasters. Let me take my share with those who weep for sin, and weep after thee.”
Appropriate for Christians
But more than an interest in conversion, weeping for sin was seen and exercised as a living part of the Christian experience in this world. Thomas Manton said, “You that say that justified persons must no more mourn for sin, you may as well say they shall no longer have a heart of flesh or a spirit of grace and supplications, that they shall no longer have a tender conscience. Be not deceived; there must be some time to weep for your own sins, as Peter went out and wept bitterly. Sorrow must have its turn in the Christian life.” Hugh Binning wrote, “the believer when he sins, and his heart goes wrong, he weeps over his heart, and has no peace till it be cleansed. He washes in the fountain of Christ’s blood.” John Trapp exhorted Christians, “Even after sins pardoned, there will be continual cause of weeping, till such time as God, who hath remitted our sins, shall, by the same grace, have wiped away all tears from our eyes.” Thomas Brooks wrote, “Faith puts the soul upon grieving for sin, upon combating with sin, upon weeping over sin, upon trembling at the occasions of sin, upon resisting temptations that lead to sin, upon fighting it out to the death with sin.”
Thomas Watson warned that a sign of not growing in grace but rather falling into spiritual complacency is signaled when we have lost our spiritual appetite, when we grow more worldly, and when we are less troubled about sin. He urged that the least sin should grieve us, “as the least hair makes the eye weep.”
William Gurnall warned that spending ourselves on worldly matters with little care and devotion to God will rob us of a sensitivity to Christ and the heinousness of sin: “The heart of man hath not room enough for God and the world too. Worldly affections do not befriend spiritual. The heart which spends itself in mourning for worldly crosses, will find the stream runs low when he should weep for his sins. If the cares of this life fill his head and heart he will have little list to wait on God for spiritual purposes.”
Wilhelmus Brakel included weeping for sin as an ordinary part of the new nature opposing the old and the offense of sin: “The new nature opposes the old nature. She does so, first of all, by a heartfelt mourning and being grieved that she is so surrounded by sin and is made so polluted and abominable by it; this causes her to abhor herself. It grieves her that she is thereby prevented from living in sweet communion with God … All sorrow over other matters is as nothing compared to the evil motions, sorrow, and abominableness of sin. She mourns like a dove and chatters as a swallow; she goes about mournfully and sin can even cause her to be thin in the face. She does not avoid this mourning, but seeks to increase this sorrow and to spiritualize it. She brings herself into the presence of the Holy Spirit as she is and sinks away in shame. There she makes wholehearted confession, weeps, enlarges the sinfulness of sin, grieves, and prays for forgiveness. There she flees to Jesus, receives Him as her ransom, and with that atonement goes to the Father and wrestles until she is justified and becomes conscious of peace. She thus comes into a more upright condition and becomes more fearful of sin. ‘For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of’ (2 Cor 7:10); ‘Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better’ (Eccles 7:3).
J. C. Philpot said, “Godly sorrow is always attended with self-loathing and self-abhorrence; with deep and unreserved confession of sin and forsaking it; with most hearty, sincere and earnest petitions to be kept from all evil; and a holy longing to live to the praise and glory of God.”
Charles Spurgeon once asked his congregation, “Did you come here to get something to laugh at? The grace of God may send you away weeping for your sins. I pray it may.” In another place, he said, “tears for sin—would God I could see them in every eye—betoken some degree of spiritual life.”
Specifically for Sin
Spurgeon enjoined Christians to see that our sorrow should be particularly for sin: “When one has been describing the cross of Christ, and all the griefs He suffered there—it has seemed right, and we have thought it also a holy thing that hearts should be affected, and that tears should flow, but there is something that ought to be wept for more than this. There is a grief that lies deeper than this, though this seems to reach even to the abyss—it is sin. It is sin for which the daughters of Jerusalem were to weep, sin that would destroy them. And Christ to-night seems to tell us that sin is more to be wept for than even His death. Now let me show you how this is. In the first place, if we weep for what He suffered, but mourn not for sin, we mourn the effect, but forget the cause, for it was sin that lay at the bottom of all that He suffered.”
We do not weep for feeling sorry for Jesus (Luke 23:28); we weep specifically for the offenses that we so lightly and mindlessly hurl at Him. The deepest importance of His outward sufferings was not the physical but rather the spiritual agony. The whole sensible event serves as an illustration of the much greater reality of God’s wrath against sin, a reality to which we are most often terribly insensible. All was to ironically exalt Christ, to stir our affections unto deeper love and hate: a deeper love to God and a deeper hatred of our own sin.
So notice that it is not primarily suffering that we mourn over, but as it relates to Christ we are chiefly concerned with the cause and reality behind it—sin. So too in our own experiences, Christians really should not mourn suffering more than sin. Jeremiah Burroughs insightfully distinguished sin as that particular cause of our sorrow, even over suffering: “when at any time we suffer in [Christ’s] cause, whatever we do when we suffer for our sin, there we may manifest the work of sorrow. But when we suffer persecution for Christ’s sake, Christ would not have our hearts to be sorrowful at that time, but calls for rejoicing. Here is the difference between suffering for sin, and suffering for the sake of Christ: there the Lord calls for mourning and weeping when affliction is on you for your sin, but when you suffer for Christ’s sake, there the Scripture doth not call for any mourning or weeping or any humiliation, but for rejoicing and blessing God that they are accounted worthy to suffer for him.”
This principle of identifying sin as our chief cause for weeping is captured in an old Trinity hymn (B. Beddome, 1818):
Lord, let me weep for nought but sin,
And after none but thee,
And then I would, O that I might!
A constant weeper be.
Appropriate for Worship
Psalm 84:6 says, “As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.” This has been rendered, “the valley of weeping,” and the Latin version has it, “the valley of tears.” John Gill reflects on this passage, noting, “The way to Zion, or to the house and ordinances of God below, lies through the valley of weeping; none come rightly thither but who come weeping over their sins and unworthiness; or by repentance towards God, and by looking by faith to Christ whom they have pierced, and mourning for it.” So the prophet Jeremiah stated, “In those days and in that time, declares the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the LORD their God” (50:4). Gill continues, “the way to Zion above lies through a vale of tears, shed in plenty by reason of sin, a man’s own, original and actual, the sins of professors and profane, by reason of Satan’s temptations, the hidings of God’s face, and the distresses, divisions, and declensions of Zion; yet relief is afforded, help is given, refreshment is had, in this valley.”
Appropriate for Repentance
A key ingredient to repentance is true sorrow over our personal offenses against God. Charles Spurgeon said, “Repentance looks upon the past with a weeping eye, and upon the future with a watchful eye.” In another place, he said, “Repentance is wrought by the Spirit of God. But he works it in us by leading us to think upon the evil of sin. Peter could not help weeping when he remembered his grievous fault.” Again, he wrote, “I have been alarmed when I have heard repentance spoken so lightly of by some. It is a mere change of mind, they say, and they quote the Greek word for it. Believe me, it is a change of mind, but it is no superficial change of mind. It is not such a change of mind as some suppose it to be. If you have never wept for sin, I weep for you; and if you have a faith in Christ that never made you regret your transgressions and loathe yourself in God’s sight because you committed them, then your faith is but a dream; you have never looked on Him whom you pierced, or else you would mourn and be in bitterness as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.”
Thomas Watson observes, “The eye is made both for seeing and weeping. Sin must first be seen— before it can be wept for.” Later he writes, “’I will be sorry for my sin’ (Psalm 38:18). Ambrose calls sorrow the embittering of the soul. The Hebrew word ‘to be sorrowful’ signifies ‘to have the soul, as it were, crucified’. This must be in true repentance: ‘They shall look upon me whom they have pierced—and they shall mourn’ (Zech. 12:10), as if they did feel the nails of the cross sticking in their sides. A woman may as well expect to have a child without pangs—as one can have repentance without sorrow! He who can repent without sorrowing, suspect his repentance. Martyrs shed blood for Christ, and penitents shed tears for sin: ‘she stood at Jesus’ feet weeping’ (Luke 7:38). See how this tear dropped from her heart. The sorrow of her heart— ran out at her eye!”
Watson urged that sorrow for sin be not superficial: “it is a holy agony. It is called in scripture a breaking of the heart: ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken and a contrite heart’ (Psalm 51:17); and a rending of the heart: ‘Rend your heart’ (Joel 2:13). The expressions of smiting on the thigh (Jer. 31:19), beating on the breast (Luke 18:13), putting on of sackcloth (Isaiah 22:12), plucking off the hair (Ezra 9:3), all these are but outward signs of inward sorrow.” He goes on to say that this sorrow is: (a) to make Christ precious; (b) to drive out sin; and (c) to make way for solid comfort. Adding that true godly sorrow is (1) internal, (2) sincere, (3) always intermixed with faith, (4) a great sorrow, (5) is joined when possible with restitution, and (6) is abiding.
But we must remember that sorrow over sin is not always a sure mark of repentance. True repentance will always include sorrow over offending God, but outward displays of sorrow do not prove inward repentance from sin to God. Hebrews 12:17 teaches us that though a person may weep, it may still be that there is no repentance in his heart; Esau “found no chance to repent, though he sought [blessing] with tears.” Jonathan Edwards said, “Don’t presently think that you have true repentance because you weep for your sins.” So also, John Flavel wrote, “For let a man break his heart for sin, let him weep out his eyes, let him mourn as a dove, and shed as many tears for sin (if it were possible) as ever there fell drops of rain upon the ground, yet if he come not to Christ by faith, his repentance shall not save him, nor all his sorrows bring him to true rest.” Richard Baxter warned, “Many an unsanctified person hath very much of it, which yet are desperately hardhearted sinners. It dependeth far more on the temper of the body, than of the grace in the soul. Women usually can weep easily (and yet not all), and children, and old men. Some complexions incline to it, and others not. Many can weep at a passion-sermon, or any moving duty, and yet will not be persuaded to obedience; these are hardhearted sinners for all their tears.”
True repentance, as Watson urged, involves not only sorrow but confession of sin, shame for sin, hatred of sin, and a turning from sin to God. John Calvin put it this way: “to repent is to weep over former sins, and not to commit sins to be wept over; … it is sorrow of heart and bitterness of soul for the evil deeds that one has committed, or to which one has consented.” Again, Baxter said, “I will tell you how you shall know whose heart is truly sorrowful for sin, and tender; he that would be at the greatest cost or pains to be rid of sin, or that he had not sinned. You cannot weep for sin, but you would give all that you have to be rid of sin; you could wish when you dishonoured God by sin, that you had spent that time in suffering rather.”
Not the Same for All
But Baxter also reasoned that weeping for sin is neither a guarantee of authentic remorse and repentance of sin nor something that is equally experienced among the truly penitent: “Many a tender, godly person cannot weep for sin, partly through the temper of their minds, which are more judicious and solid, and less passionate; but mostly from the temper of their bodies, which dispose them not that way.”
Not the Goal
Lest there be any misunderstanding, weeping over sin is not the goal to be sought after—Christ is. There is great danger in seeking outward displays rather than the inward realities that produce them. This article is not intended to encourage fake and fabricated attempts at godliness through weeping over sin. To walk away with that impression is to miss the point entirely. The goal is true and sincere, authentic and intimate, God-ward affections, sensitivities, and apprehensions. We must be careful not to obsess over our sinfulness on the one hand—losing sight of Christ, and careful not to diminish the utter tragedy of sin on the other—belittling the worth of Christ. These things are written so that we may be compelled to pause and consider more deeply our intimacy with God, the sensitivity of our consciences before Him, our view of His holiness and ineffable worth. The intention of recounting these devotional thoughts is to encourage a deeper God-centeredness in our daily lives and promote within us the disciplined labor of cultivating our thought-lives for the glory of Christ and our deeper, more satisfying, joy.
Richard Baxter insightfully addressed a wrong take on weeping over sin: “Many Christians look upon brokenheartedness, and much grieving, and weeping for sin, as if it were the great thing that God delighteth in, and requireth of them; and therefore they bend their endeavours this way; and are still striving with their hearts to break them more, and wringing their consciences to squeeze out some tears; and they think no sermon, no prayer, no meditation, speeds so well with them, as that which can help them to grieve or weep. I am far from persuading men against humiliation and godly sorrow, and tenderness of heart. But yet I must tell you, that this is a sore error that you lay so much upon it, and so much overlook that great and noble work and state to which it tendeth. Do you think that God hath any pleasure in your sorrows as such? Doth it do him good to see you dejected, afflicted, and tormented? Alas, it is only as your sorrows do kill your sins, and mortify your fleshly lusts, and prepare for your peace and joys, that God regards them.”
I pray that this meditation will stimulate sanctification through more heartfelt reading of Scripture, prayer, and God-ward thought.