We need a theology of apology.

Apologizing sounds straightforward, at least in theory. You do something wrong (sin); you feel bad about it (regret); you admit it and accept responsibility (confession); you say sorry to the person or people you have wronged, including God (repentance); and you take appropriate steps to make things right (restitution).

Many apologies take exactly this form. But often they are more complicated. It is possible to apologize without admitting fault or feeling regret. It is possible to feel sorry for things not our fault, like when we learn that a friend has cancer. It is possible to apologize with no intention of making restitution.

And it is possible—as well as increasingly common—for institutions to apologize for things of which only some members are guilty. Matters get harder when it comes to the sins of our ancestors. Should we apologize for things that happened before we were born? Confess them? Repent of them? Make restitution for them?

When we turn to the Scriptures for help, we discover something surprising: Nobody in the Bible ever really “apologizes” or “says sorry” for something. The Greek word apologia denotes an answer or legal defense—hence our word apologetics—but it carries no hint of feeling bad about something or repenting for it.

Sorry, a more flexible word in English, does crop up on occasion; translators might use it to describe the pity Pharaoh’s daughter felt for Moses (Ex. 2:6) or the sadness Herod felt about cutting off John the Baptist’s head (Matt. 14:9, ESV). But these are expressions of pity or sorrow, not apology or repentance.

It might sound, then, like the Bible offers few resources for crafting a theology of apology. In many ways, however, the opposite is true. Instead of using somewhat vague words like sorry and apologize, the New Testament distinguishes between three different but overlapping responses to our sin—and this can help us unbundle what is happening when individuals or institutions “apologize.”

The first word, lupeō, means feeling grief, sorrow, or pain. This is an appropriate response to sin, and it is often the first step, as when the Corinthians are “grieved” into repentance (2 Cor. 7:9, ESV). It does not necessarily imply an acceptance of blame, though. Herod feels bad about beheading John, but he does it anyway. It is not the disciples’ fault that Jesus will be crucified, but they are “filled with grief” nonetheless (Matt. 17:23).

This is quite distinct from homologeō or exomologeō, which both refer to confessing, admitting, or acknowledging something. People “confessed” their wickedness at the preaching of John the Baptist and Paul (Matt. 3:6; Acts 19:18). John reassures his readers, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This is clearly different from grief or regret. It involves owning our failure, taking responsibility for it, and asking for forgiveness.

Then there is the wonderfully rich word metanoeō, which conveys a pattern of repenting, turning around, and changing your mind and life accordingly. It is easy to feel grief or regret over our mistakes. Plenty of us are even happy to admit and confess them, especially the culturally acceptable ones. But Christ calls us to something more: a U-turn, a total reversal of direction and allegiance, a death to self and a new life in him, with all the transformation of behavior that comes with it.

If this turning does not produce good fruit, then it is not real repentance (Matt. 3:8; 7:16–20). But if it changes our lives—even to the point of making restitution to all those we have wronged—then salvation has come to our house today (Luke 19:8–10).

Grief, confession, and repentance are distinct entities. Yet when we see the reality and horror of our sin and the grace of the God who offers forgiveness, we find ourselves practicing all three.

Following the example of Nehemiah, we grieve and mourn (Neh. 1:4). Then we confess and admit (vv. 6–7). Then we return and obey (vv. 8–9). Depending on the context, we may identify with the sins of our ancestors to the extent that we share in them ourselves. And we end by appealing to God’s mercy, trusting that he who has called and redeemed us will hear our prayer (vv. 10–11).

Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and the author of Remaking the World.

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Spirited Life
Spirited Life is a collision between biblical reflection and charismatic practice, aiming to make people happier in God.
Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King's Church London and author most recently of Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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