Worldly sorrow doesn’t lead to repentance; it only leads to death. Worldly sorrow does not lead to true repentance because it is not a mourning over one’s sin, but simply a mourning over one’s loss. Worldly sorrow may seem very real, and even be ‘full of tears’ yet it is not a grieving over one’s sin as an offense to God, but is instead full of self-pity. Worldly sorrow is that which Esau displayed. On the other hand, godly sorrow (which is according to the will of God) produces true repentance that leads to salvation.
After the sermon this past Sunday from Hebrews 12:4-17, someone asked me the following question: “Why was Esau rejected by God and found no place for repentance, even though he sought for it with tears?” Here’s the verses (along with the preceding verse to provide some context):
15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; 16 that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears. (Hebrews 12:15-17)
This is a reference to an event that takes place at the end of Genesis 25, where we read of how Esau was famished, having just come in from the field. He asked his brother Jacob for some stew, but Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” So, giving in to the god of his stomach (Philippians 3:18-19), Esau sold his birthright as the firstborn son to his younger twin brother for a single meal.
Basically, the writer of Hebrews is here calling for believers to help guard others in the church from falling away from the faith and becoming like Esau. He’s also calling for believers to guard the body of Christ from the ‘root of bitterness’ that might spring up from such a person. This is similar to Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 5:4-7 where he warns that a little leaven (the sin of an immoral person) might leaven the whole lump (spread to others in the church).
Hebrews 12:17, however, provides a theological interpretation (and warning!) of what happened to Esau after he sold his birthright for a single meal. Later, in Genesis 27, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn that was intended for Esau (something that was actually in accordance with God’s plan all along: for the older brother to serve the younger (Genesis 25:23)). After Isaac blessed Jacob, Esau became embittered and pleaded with his father to bless him, but no blessing remained (Genesis 27:34-41).
Interpreting and Applying Hebrews 12:17
Speaking of this episode, the writer of Hebrews says, “even afterwards, when he [Esau] desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears” (Hebrews 12:17). At this point, it might help to ask and answer two questions with regard to this verse:
1. Why could Esau find no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears?
The answer to this question can best be found, I think, in how the Apostle Paul differentiates between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow: “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Worldly sorrow doesn’t lead to repentance; it only leads to death. Worldly sorrow does not lead to true repentance because it is not a mourning over one’s sin, but simply a mourning over one’s loss. Worldly sorrow may seem very real, and even be ‘full of tears’ yet it is not a grieving over one’s sin as an offense to God, but is instead full of self-pity. Worldly sorrow is that which Esau displayed.
On the other hand, godly sorrow (which is according to the will of God) produces true repentance that leads to salvation. According to 2 Corinthians 7:11, godly sorrow is marked by a seeking to vindicate oneself, indignation over one’s sin, fear of God’s judgment, a longing and zeal to be restored to fellowship, and an avenging (or putting right) one’s sin. This is true repentance “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 unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience” (WSC 87). Esau displayed none of these characteristics of a godly sorrow that leads to repentance.
2. Is there no place for repentance for those who have previously rejected Christ?
The recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews were in danger of turning away from faith in Jesus Christ and the blessings of the new covenant. Thus, the writer of Hebrews exhorts them time and again to not drift or fall away from the faith; he warns them of the very real danger of apostasy (Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:12; 6:4-8; 10:35-39; 13:9). Hebrews 12:17 is in keeping with this warning of the dangers of apostasy. Commenting on this verse, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes writes, “These Hebrew Christians will be guilty of a much greater act of profanity if, disheartened by the difficulties of the contest, they barter not an earthly but a heavenly birthright for a short period of worldly ease and prosperity.”
So, we must not take anything away from these warnings concerning the danger of apostasy. We must not think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience; we must recognize that the kindness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). Every Christian must heed and take seriously the warnings about apostasy in this letter – the warnings about the eternal consequences of denying Christ and falling away from the faith.
At the same time, we also know that all those whom God has appointed to eternal life will repent of their sins and believe (Acts 13:48). And so, because we do not know the end from the beginning – as the Lord does (Isaiah 46:9-10) – we ought to pray and hope for the salvation of those who have rejected Christ. We ought to pray that the Lord would be merciful and gracious to them and remove the scales from their eyes.
Now as he denounces the same danger on all the despisers of God’s grace, it may be asked, whether no hope of pardon remains, when God’s grace has been treated with contempt and his kingdom less esteemed than the world? To this I answer, that pardon is not expressly denied to such, but that they are warned to take heed, lest the same thing should happen to them also.
As we saw in the sermon on Sunday, this warning about the apostasy of Esau is actually part of a series of “y’all admonitions” (Hebrews 12:12-17) in which the writer of Hebrews is exhorting believers to watch out for one another. In the larger context of this chapter, this watching out for one another is said to be one of the primary ways in which the Lord disciplines His sons in the community of faith, in the church (Hebrews 12:4-11).
I will sometimes joke with my children, admonishing them by quoting a non-existent verse from the Bible: “Remember what third Peter, chapter 1, verse 1 says: ‘Don’t be lazy!’”
Hebrews 12:15-17, however, is very real and it’s no joke: Don’t be like Esau, and see to it that no one else becomes like Esau!
May the Lord use others in the body of Christ – as we keep watch and guard one another – to discipline us as we strive against sin (Hebrews 12:4), pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
Peter M. Dietsch is pastor of Providence PCA in Midland, Texas. This article first appeared on his church website and is used with permission.