This past week, as our adult Sunday School classes studied the person of Judas Iscariot, a common question was raised: Did Judas, at the end, finally repent of his sin? Did he, in spite of all his sins against Jesus, ultimately turn back so as to be finally saved from those sins? That’s an important question, because it gets to the root of a very important gospel issue.
So then … Was Judas saved in the end?
Well, some time ago, my friend Jonathan and I shared in a one-on-one Bible study of Matthew 26-28 (One-2-One: Book 2) by a man called Andrew Cornes. And, when he comes to the portion in Matthew 27, on the sad end of Judas Iscariot, Cornes asks a very perceptive question – one that I am not sure I had ever pondered before:
Peter ‘wept bitterly’ after his betrayal of Jesus (26 v 75); Judas hanged himself after his (27 v 5). Why the difference?
That’s a very good question, isn’t it? Peter “wept bitterly” when he came to his senses in v.75; when he realized what a great sin he’d committed. And rightly so! But Judas responded far more drastically, didn’t he? Far more drastically! And Andrew Cornes urges us to consider: “Why the difference?” Why the two different responses of these two men?
Well, there are a few things at play here – among them the severity of their respective sins and the sovereignty of God. But, when we were studying this passage, using Andrew Cornes’ booklet, Jonathan made an interesting observation which I am going to borrow, and upon which I want to piggy back in the rest of this article. When he was answering, “Why the difference” in the responses of Peter and Judas, Jonathan pointed out that there is a big difference between mere remorse and true repentance!
There is a big difference between mere remorse and true repentance!
"Judas … felt remorse” for what he did!* We are told as much in Matthew 27:3. And the remorse that Judas felt might at first look like repentance! After all, Judas felt bad about what he had done; and he evidently felt bad for the right reason – not because of any disadvantage his sin might bring to him, but because of the ugliness of the sin itself. “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” he said. And he even returned the betrayal price that he’d received, which was at least a small way of trying to right his wrong. And so the way Judas initially responds to his sin may look like repentance. Remorse … for the right reason … and with some effort to make right what he could.
And yet, what happens next seems to demonstrate that his remorse did not lead him to true and ultimate repentance. The fact that Judas hanged himself, in v.5, is evidence, it seems to me, that Judas did not repent.
‘Really?’ you might ask. Because we might almost be tempted to think that suicide, in this case, might have been the ultimate sign of repentance; the ultimate show that Judas was really sorry for what he’d done. And perhaps he was. But true repentance, while it begins with sorrow, does not end there. True repentance always ends up at the feet of Jesus, trusting Him in faith. Repentance and faith! The two are not the same thing, but they always go together in the gospel. And so any supposed claim of faith in the Lord Jesus, if it is not accompanied by repentance, is not genuine faith! And, more to the point of this article, any hopeful signs of repentance (such as those which Judas at first showed), if they are not accompanied by a turning to Christ in faith, are not genuine, biblical repentance!
You can feel remorse without ever turning to Christ in faith, can you not? And Judas is a most obvious case-in-point! But you cannot truly repent without also placing your faith in the Lord Jesus! Repentance is a hatred of, and a turning away from, our sin! But when we truly turn away from our sin, we also assuredly turn to the Lord Jesus who alone can truly deal with it (both in terms of its guilt, and in its ongoing power)! So that the way to tell if someone has truly repented is not only to observe their level of sorrow over, and attempts to turn from, sin … but also to keep your eye fixed upon them, to see if they also turn to Christ who alone can deal with it! And there is no evidence that Judas ever did the latter (either before or after his betrayal). At the end of his life, he sorrowed over sin, to be sure … and rightly so! But his sorrow drove him to suicide, rather than to the Savior. “Judas … felt remorse” (v.4, emphasis added), but he did not possess repentance!
Now, do not misunderstand me as saying that suicide is an unpardonable sin. That is not what I am saying. Nor is it what the Bible teaches, it seems to me. There surely are people who have genuinely believed upon Christ and repented of their sins who, in a moment of terrible weakness, do the unthinkable. And even this is covered by the blood of Jesus. And so my point is not that Judas’s suicide sent him to hell, but simply that it serves as the final evidence, in this particular case, that Judas was not a true believer. Judas’s suicide was not an aberration in the life of a true believer … but the culmination of a life lived without ever truly turning to Christ. Judas’s actions before the betrayal do not evidence any saving faith in his soul (since the disciples let us in on what he was like behind the scenes). And then his actions at the end of his life do not bespeak a last minute conversion to the hope that is in Jesus, but rather a life snuffed out in the despair of un-dealt-with guilt. The suicide, in this particular case, seems to simply be the final piece of evidence that, while Judas was remorseful, he never seems to have come to Christ in real repentance.
It’s actually hard for me say that, because I genuinely feel sorry for Judas … and for people like him. But given all that we know about Judas, it seems to be the right conclusion. This particular suicide was just further sad evidence that Judas could not bring himself to really turn to Christ. He lived according to his own schemes, and he died in the same way – taking the (supposed) remedy for his anguish into his own hands, rather than placing it into those of Christ.
Peter, on the other hand, seems to have possessed more than mere remorse! Peter surely felt remorse. “He went out and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75) when he realized what he’d done! But Peter evidently possessed more than just remorse! Because, while it’s going to take a few days to see it, Peter did turn back to Christ! Peter didn’t simply weep for sin. He went back to Jesus! And this is what true repentance looks like – turning from sin to Christ!
And so Jonathan was correct! Why the difference between the responses of Judas and Peter? It is the difference between mere remorse and true repentance. Perhaps his faith in Jesus took a few days to find its feet again, but Peter did eventually see a way back to the Lord! He did eventually believe in the pardoning love of God! But Judas could evidently not believe such a thing.
And the upshot of all of this is that we must not be content with (or think we have truly repented because of) a mere feeling of remorse over our sins. We should feel remorse! But that alone is no true sign of grace or salvation. No! The man whose heart has been truly changed by the Holy Spirit will not only sorrow for sin, but do so in such a way that he brings his sin, and his guilt, and his sorrow, and his need for change all to the feet of Jesus. Remorse can lead only to feelings of guilt and despair. But true repentance is always accompanied with faith, and thus with hope, in Christ.
*Some translations use the word “repented” to refer to Judas’s feelings in Matthew 27:3, but commentator R.T. France points out that the Greek word used in Matthew 27:3 is not the same word that the New Testament normally employs for repentance that leads to salvation, but rather a word that refers to something more akin to regret.