We’ve all been there: someone has done something to deeply harm or offend us, and they’re standing in front of us having just spoken the words, “I’m sorry”. But something is off. You can’t quite put your finger on it. It doesn’t seem like there has been an adequate understanding of the damage done, nor does it seem like there is a genuine sorrow over the sin. Instead, they have spoken paltry words like a talisman aimed at making all things better, and there you are, forced to respond, feeling the pressure of Christ’s command to forgive, but not knowing how to formulate your next sentence. Do you say “It’s okay”, even though it’s far from okay? Do you say “I forgive you”, even though the person has not repented nor have they asked for forgiveness? And what does this mean moving forward? Is all just forgotten and now the relationship has to “go back to normal”—whatever that means?
This all-too-common illustration of our lives reveals that Christian circles have a long way to go in reclaiming a biblical understanding of relational restoration. Sadly, in the evangelical and reformed world, there is a troubling oversimplification of the reconciliation process. How do we begin to regain ground in walking through repentance and forgiveness in a Christ-honoring way?
In the first place, we must recognize that there are many moving parts to being “restored” to our brother or sister. The origin point of the problem is conflating all the parts into one single concept, or boiling it down to a single transaction, such as “I’m sorry”. That “sorry” is meant to bear the weight of confession, acknowledgement of wrong done, and asking for forgiveness—all in one fell swoop. Such a short sentence—nay, a single word—cannot possibly bear such a load. But in speaking of these components, we’ve already begun to tease-out some of the elements of what Christ would have us work through in the reconciliation process. The main aspects of biblical restoration are at least as follows:
- Confession - For there to be any rebuilding of the relationship after sin has caused separation and division between two people, there must at least be an initial agreement. That “agreement” is admitting what took place, concurring that it violated God’s law, and acknowledging how the sin harmed the other person. This is confession—to agree with reality, to agree with God, and to agree with the offended party in the Lord. One must acknowledge, first and foremost, that sin actually took place. If we can’t begin there, how can we begin at all? The best we can do in such a situation is simply saying “I’m sorry”—which is essentially, “I’m sorry you were offended”—and we all know that is no confession at all.
Once we agree that something has indeed transpired, that sin has happened, one must also acknowledge that it was sin. By this I mean the offending party must agree with God, that this word, action, or omission was truly a violation of his holy law.
And finally one must agree with the person offended, that harm was genuinely caused. My previous sentence does not mean the offended party is always right in their interpretation—by no means. But it does mean for there to be true confession, the one who has been sinned against needs to hear: “my sinful offenses were against you”.
In what immediately preceded above, notice that confession is not enough. Mere confession is never sufficient. If all one ever did was say “yes, I have sinned”, all we would be doing is declaring what is plain from creation itself: that we stand condemned (Romans 1:20). No, we must press on in the biblical process.
- Repentance - One must not only call sin “sin”, but one must understand the odiousness of sin, the cost and consequence of sin, and turn from those sinful ways. While scripture may not require a “formula” for how to go about repenting; owning the sin itself, without making excuses, speaking aloud how the sin has brought harm to the other person, and saying the words “would you please forgive me?” is far, far biblically superior than “I’m sorry” could ever produce. What is more, an abiding biblical repentance will always involve sorrow over one’s sin, a holy hatred of the sin, and a purposing after new obedience. This may sound like an awful lot, all wrapped up in a single “step” of moving back toward the offended party, but as these principles parallel the Lord’s teaching on repentance from death to life, then they are worth the time and energy even when we’re speaking of human relationships.
Having covered the two foundational components of what is needed to secure relational restoration, let me leave you with the simple statements of the three remaining points, and we’ll circle back next time to flesh them out more fully: