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“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 redress legitimate crimes against the Divine and each other (Romans 1:16). Many of the Christians that I have counseled do not practice biblical forgiveness in their relationships, partly because they don’t know any better and partly because “I’m sorry” is the path of least resistance. 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” does not have the divine efficacy to neutralize and remove actual sin.
“I’m sorry” is better suited for non-sin events like running out the door and closing it in front of my wife while not realizing she was behind me. My heart’s motivation was not sinful, as though I was thinking about how to punish my wife. It was a brain cramp at best that did not serve her but never rose to the level of transgressing God’s Word. In such a case, it would be more appropriate to say, “I’m sorry,” to express my love for her and my desire not to harm her. To be sorrowful is good, but to equate a biblical transgression with a mistake is too much pesticide for non-threatening weeds. Inappropriate discretions do not need repentance because you have not sinned. Thus, I can make a case for saying, “I’m sorry,” but never when there is sin, and the two people need to enter a transactional moment.
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).
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 across the threshold first and slammed the door in front of her as she was attempting to exit. Saying “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, manifesting as sinful anger toward my wife. James would say I have transgressed God’s Word, offended the Lord, and sinned against my wife. He would appeal to me to do the more profound heart work to root out such offenses, which would begin with cleaning up the mess by asking God and my wife to forgive me. Only biblical forgiveness can communicate what is required when a sin like this is involved.
“I’m sorry” does not allow two people in a relational dust-up to accomplish any of these 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. “I’m sorry” is a statement that does not require a response from the one who was hurt. Forgiveness is different. 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 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 unbiblical, un-releasing, and unkind because there was an objective sin between the offended and the offender. If I do not ask Lucia for forgiveness, she would not have had the opportunity to release me from my sin. The same applies to the Lord: if I do not ask God to forgive me, He cannot free me from what I did. (See 1 John 1:9.) Furthermore, 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 sin’s deadly possibilities because the power of the gospel never neutralized it. The only recourse would be 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. I must ask for forgiveness from God and Lucia, and they must grant it.
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 forgiveness conversation always begins with a confession. To confess our sin to another person means that we agree with that person that what we did was wrong. The word “confess” means “to agree.” We cannot experience biblical forgiveness without confessing—without agreeing with those we have offended that what we did was wrong (sinful). The person sinned against—the offended—needs to know that we understand how bad what we did was to them. We want to make it crystal clear in their minds that what we did was awful, wrong, and unjustified. All people within the offense’s sphere 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 actionable, accurate, and articulate in how he goes about prosecuting himself. This kind of confession puts everyone involved on the same page—they all agree.
Proper confession positions all appropriate parties to ask for forgiveness, grant it, and receive it, which is why it’s crucial to own the specifics of our sin by naming and claiming it. Do not let any person you have sinned against go away wondering whether or not you were fully aware of what you did, that you understood how what you did hurt them, and that your request for forgiveness does not lack clarity because of a murky confession. In short, you’re bringing a solid case against yourself, making it impossible for them not to forgive you. Here is a suggestive template that frames this concept.
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 did not edify you (Ephesians 4:29). My speech was corrupting and 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?
What I am describing here is a far cry from apologizing or saying, “I’m sorry.” What I am illustrating takes you to the heart of the gospel. The gospel informs us that sin is actual and binds souls, whether the soul belongs to the offended or the offender. The gospel tells us that there is healing for our sins. But we are responsible for biblically cleaning up our messes before God and others. If we do not admit our sins, seek forgiveness for our sins, or require others to forgive us of our sins, 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 for the rest of our lives in our progressive sanctification. If we embrace our culture’s habit of 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 obliterated 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 us.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).