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For too many of us, the “I’m sorry” terminology has taken over almost all relational indiscretions, which becomes particularly problematic when the depth and extent of our offenses toward each other need more biblical power to fully redress (Romans 1:16). Many of the Christians that I have counseled do not practice biblical forgiveness in their relationships. When I ask them to walk me through how they forgive each other, in nearly all cases they present some version of the “I’m sorry” mantra.
“I’m sorry” was never meant to be used to neutralize and remove real sin. “I’m sorry” is better suited for non-sin events like when I run out the door and close it in front of my wife, while not realizing she was behind me. Closing the door while not realizing that she was there is not an act motivated by sin, even though my action did not serve her at that moment.
In such a case, it would be more appropriate to say, “I’m sorry” as a way to express my love for her and my desire not to harm her. To be sorrowful over a mistake does not necessarily mean you have to be repentant because you have not sinned.
Let’s spice up the scene a bit? Suppose I was angry with my wife, and we both were heading out the door. I passed through the door first and slammed it in front of her as she was about to exit. To say, “I’m sorry” would be a woefully incomplete and unbiblical response. I desired to hurt her through sinful anger. James identified my problem as a wicked heart at war within, which manifested as sinful anger toward my wife.
What causes quarrels, and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. – James 4:1-2
In such a sin-motivated situation, I would need to pursue God and my wife, seeking forgiveness from both of them to thoroughly clean up the mess I created. When a sin like this is involved, only biblical forgiveness can communicate what is needed.
“I’m sorry” does not allow two people in a relational dust up to accomplish these kinds of things. “I’m sorry” sucks the life and the force out of repentance while leaving the offense unresolved. “I’m sorry” is not a request for the offended to do anything; it is a statement that does not require a response from the one who was hurt.
Forgiveness is different from “I’m sorry.” It requires the offender and the offended to actively engage each other for the express purpose of neutralizing and removing the sin that occurred between them.
Technically speaking, “I’m sorry” does not require a response because it implies the act committed was in the realm of “no harm, no foul.” Asking for forgiveness puts a responsibility on the person offended to respond to the request of the offender who is asking for forgiveness.
If you go back to my slamming the door in front of my wife illustration where the sin of anger was in play, you can now see how “I’m sorry” won’t cut it. To say “I’m sorry” is (1) unbiblical, (2) un-releasing, and (3) unkind because there was objective sin between the victim and the offender.
If I do not ask Lucia for forgiveness, my wife would not have the opportunity to release me from my sin. (The same applies to the Lord: if I do not ask God to forgive me for my sin, then He cannot release me from my sin. See 1 John 1:9.)
The Spheres of Confession and Forgiveness
I would leave Lucia with my sin affecting her soul, with no opportunity for her to deal with it transactionally. Minimally, she could forgive me attitudinally by working it out with the Lord (Luke 23:34), but without transactional forgiveness that removes sin, our relationship would have tension, which would keep us from enjoying true koinonia (communication).
The plot thickens: In addition to Lucia not being free from the effects of my sin, I would never be released from it either. Like a cancerous cyst on my body, I would always be vulnerable to the deadly possibilities because the power of the gospel never neutralized it. The only recourse would be for me to humble myself before Lucia and the Lord, pleading for their forgiveness.
There has never been a time in our marriage when it was acceptable to apologize to Lucia by saying, “I’m sorry” for my sin toward her, and leaving it at that. Though “I’m sorry” may be an excellent start to a forgiveness conversation, it should never be the warp and woof of that conversation. Forgiveness must be asked from and granted by God and Lucia, and the forgiveness conversation always begins with a confession.
To confess your sin to another person means that you agree with that person that what you did was wrong. The word “confess” means “to agree.” You cannot experience biblical forgiveness without confessing—without agreeing with those you have offended that what you did was wrong (sinful).
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9
The person sinned against—the victim, the offended—need to know that you understand how bad what you did was to them. You want to make it crystal clear in their minds how what you did was awful, wrong, and not justified in any way. All of the people within the sphere of the offense need to agree regarding what happened.
It is as though the offender is a prosecuting attorney, prosecuting himself for the crime he committed. This need is where half-hearted apologies will never work. Have you ever been asked to forgive someone, but you were left wondering if they perceived how what they did was wrong or how bad what they did hurt you?
Biblical forgiveness does not leave anything to chance. It is as though the convicted person is on a mission to find release from his crime, and he will not rest until he is fully exonerated (forgiven) by God and any other person that he has offended. This biblical worldview is why he wants to be clear, accurate, and articulate with how he goes about prosecuting himself. This kind of confession puts everyone involved on the same page—they all agree.
Proper confession positions all parties to (1) begin asking for forgiveness, (2) granting it, and (3) receiving it, which is why it’s crucial to own the specifics of your sin by naming and claiming it. Here is a suggestive template that frames what I’m teaching.
Lucia, what I did to you was wrong. I was angry when I responded to you that way. It was not pleasing to God, and it did not edify you (Ephesians 4:29). My speech was corrupting, and it hurt you. I wanted what I wanted more than what God wanted or what you deserved from me. I love you, and I do understand what I did. Will you forgive me?
Do not let any person that you have sinned against go away wondering whether or not (1) you were fully aware of what you did, (2) that you understood how what you did hurt them, and (3) your request for forgiveness is not lacking clarity because of a murky confession.
What I am describing here is a far cry from apologizing or saying, “I’m sorry.” What I am describing takes you to the heart of the gospel. The gospel informs us that sin is real, and it binds souls, whether the soul belongs to the offended or the offender. The gospel tells us that there is healing for our sin.
But we have a responsibility before God and others to biblically clean up our messes. If we do not admit our sin, seek forgiveness for our sin, or require others to forgive us of our sin, we have dishonored the gospel by muting its power and marginalizing its purpose.
The point of the gospel is to release sinners from their sins. Christ came to set the captive free, which happens at salvation, and it happens for the rest of our lives in our progressive sanctification. If we choose to embrace our culture’s habit by saying, “I’m sorry,” we may as well embrace their Jesus too: He was merely a good man, but not the Son of God who died for and obliterates our sins.
Christians know better, and we can do better. Don’t apologize. Don’t say, “I’m sorry” when more is needed. Ask for forgiveness when you sin, and freely forgive those who ask for it: that is the power of the gospel working in you.