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It seems God is pleased to teach much of the evangelical world how to make confessions and to extend forgiveness. From comments made in panel discussions about Christian hip hop to radio confrontations over proper citation of written material, we’ve seen a lot of calls for apologies and opportunities for practicing the difficult discipline of forgiving.

This morning I woke up thinking about one of the most helpful and simple set of guidelines for making full confessions of wrongdoing in the hopes of being forgiven and extending complete and joyful forgiveness of the same. It’s called “The Seven A’s of Confession” and “The Four Promises of Forgiveness” published by Peacemaker Ministries. You can read more about these principles at the Peacemaker website or in Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker

Here are the principles with a brief sentence of explanation.

The Seven A’s of Confession (see Matt. 7:3-5; 1 John 1:8-9; Prov. 28:13)

1. Address everyone involved.

We haven’t fully confessed a sin or wrongdoing until we engage all those affected. If the situation happened between two people, then the two involved should be addressed. If I wronged someone before a group, then the group should be addressed.

2. Avoid “if,” “but” and “maybe.”

These are magic words that actually erase the apology. They shift blame or nullify the apology. “If you hadn’t….” “I wouldn’t have ____ but you….” “Maybe things would have been different if… but….” Rarely does this feel like a sincere apology to those who have been wounded or wronged.

3. Admit specifically.

General “I’m sorry” statements without identifying the wrong leave the impression we’re not actually aware of what we’ve done or that we’re unwilling to account for it. The more specific the apology the more thoughtful and genuine it is.

4. Acknowledge the hurt.

Sometimes we leave off this step. Sometimes facing the hurt can overwhelm the guilty. But until we show some empathy and compassion by saying, “My words must have made you feel small… embarrassed you… or angered you,” then we haven’t fully acknowledged the humanity of the one we’ve wronged. Acknowledging the hurt goes some distance in repairing the breach.

5. Accept the consequences.

Sometimes we want “I’m sorry” to erase all consequences. We can use apologies as a “get out of jail free” card. “I said I’m sorry; what more do you want?” indicates that our repentance is incomplete. But a genuine confession accepts that there may be consequences to follow our confession. We accept that we may need to pay for some damaged property, lose a friendship for our transgression, or endure a bad reputation. In either event, we play the adult and accept whatever outcomes result from our wrong.

6. Alter your behavior.

We’re not truly repentant until we do this. And failing to do this undermines our apology and any trust we’re trying to rebuild.

7. Ask for forgiveness.

Actually make the ask. “Will you forgive me?” We should give the person we’ve wronged the dignity of processing their hurt and responding honestly. We may have to wait a long time before forgiveness comes. We ought not assume everything can be instantly waived away. So we ask and we wait a reply when we’re genuine in our confession.

Here’s a  wonderful example of applying these principles. It’s the 2007 public confession of former Olympic track star, Marion Jones. Take a look:

The Four Promises of Forgiveness (see Matt. 6:12; 1 Cor. 13:5; Eph. 4:32)

1. “I will not dwell on this incident.”

We haven’t forgiven if we can’t let it go. If we’re brooding on an injury or transgression after a confession then we’re holding the guilt over a person’s head. “I will forgive you but I will not forget” may in fact be unforgiveness. I love Corrie Ten Boom’s comment in reply to a former colleague asking if she remembered the colleague’s transgression from some years prior. Corrie said, “I distinctly remember forgetting.”

2. I will not bring this incident up and use it against you.

When we haven’t forgiven, we can store a transgression until that “right time” when we can attack with it, leverage some future outcome or gain some advantage. That’s not forgiveness; that’s manipulation. It’s old fashioned “pay back.” Then we’re in need of confessing our wrongdoing.

3. I will not talk to others about this incident.

If we forgive a person then the matter should not be spread to others. Apart from serious situations requiring counseling or the like, we never raise the matter with others.

4. I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.

This is sometimes the most difficult part. And it’s this part that requires something akin to the seven A’s of confession. Full confessions enable full reconciliation. The aim is redemption and restoration of the relationship and a truly forgiving person seeks that.

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34 thoughts on “How to Make a Confession and Extend Forgiveness”

  1. Scott W says:

    Thank you Thabiti for posting this. Here is another helpful resource by Jim Elliff from his site titled 15 Resolves for maintaining spiritual balance in severe interpersonal conflicts: Grace & Peace, my brother.

  2. Adam Shields says:

    I think that Sande’s books are very helpful at thinking about forgiveness and repentance. But another author that I found very helpful is Miroslov Volf. The more accessible of his books is Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. He can be a bit dense, but the theological reflections on the relationship between God’s forgiveness of us and our ability to give forgiveness to others is very well done. And Volf is writing from a context of genocide and murder, not just seemingly small sins like gossip or plagiarism or offensive language. For all of the importance of those small sins, if forgiveness and repentance can happen in the context of genocide and murder, it can certainly happen with gossip and plagiarism.

  3. Ray Ortlund says:

    “But until we show some empathy and compassion by saying, ‘My words must have made you feel small… embarrassed you… or angered you,’ then we haven’t fully acknowledged the humanity of the one we’ve wronged.”

    Great post, Thabiti — as always. I’m cautious about this part, however. I don’t see this part in Scripture. There is a difference between giving offense and taking offense. Any of us can take offense where none is given. Certainly, it is good to sympathize with another person’s hurt feelings. But their hurt feelings might be, for example, the kind of negative dynamic described in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16, which is not due to an offense given but indeed to the faithful ministry of the gospel.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Ray,

      Thanks for the encouragement, brother. I really appreciate it.

      I would be in complete agreement with you. And, in fact, we live in a day and age where it’s all too easy to be held hostage by “hurt feelings.”

      In the post, I was assuming that both parties would acknowledge a real wrong and see the need for reconciliation.


      1. Ray Ortlund says:

        Got it. Thanks, brother. I see now.

    2. george canady says:

      Ray, What would you say to (someones) who have been giving offense for multiple generations but is just now beginning to be exposed by a new medium and was forced to admit the hurt always there?

  4. Caleb B says:

    One question I have is what is the definition of ‘serious situations’ (the phrase shows up in the third “promise of forgiveness”).
    Also, how else would such ‘serious situations’ affect/change the “promises of forgiveness”?

    1. I think one of the principles of avoiding gossip might fit in here: Is the person I want to share this with someone who can really help? A genuinely repentant person should *want* that kind of sharing to happen. He should be humble enough to receive help from, for instance, a godly pastor or counselor. Love covers a multitude of sins, but not in a way that’s afraid of the light.

  5. Wouldn’t a fifth principle of forgiveness be to graciously receive the other guy’s confession as genuine…especially if it meets the standards listed above? I’m always saddened to see a humble apology met with a host of suspicious, nitpicky comments, and I’ve seen that in more than one comment thread this week. But bitterness is never the moral high ground. When we refuse to let somebody else off the hook, it’s ourselves we’re leaving on the hook: bitterness is like taking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.

  6. Annemarie says:

    I have a question regarding the 7th A, ask forgiveness. I went through a situation about 3 years ago where someone sinned against me, confessed and asked forgiveness. My forgiveness was genuinely given, yet this person returned again and again to ask forgiveness. It prompted me to do a study of the Word centered around this widely accepted procedure, asking forgiveness.

    I was intrigued to find that the passages normally cited to back this do not contain a request for forgiveness, but rather a genuine show of repentance (or even a seemingly false repentance as seen in Luke 17) and forgiveness then readily extended by the person sinned against. The more I study this issue of asking forgiveness, the more puzzled I have become that this practice is touted as biblical. I think that it causes confusion in understanding mercy, peace, and reconciliation. I also think that it causes the true understanding of forgiveness to become shallow and superficial. Forgiveness is a wrong freely released by the person “holding it” of their own free will. As believers, we drop it because we see that the offense is not ultimately against us anyway, but against a holy God.

    I will say that this understanding has deepened my fear of sinning against someone, since I no longer feel that I have the right to ask for forgiveness. And when I do sin, repent and confess, and someone grants me forgiveness, I am filled with deep gratitude recognizing that forgiveness is something I do not deserve.

    The few that I have shared this with have expressed a concern as to how we restore a relationship without the concluding “Will you forgive me?” I can only say that it must be possible to seek reconciliation, to seek to be at peace with each other because that it what the bible commands in Matthew 5:23-24. The other concern expressed is how will we teach our children the necessity of forgiveness. The answer to this is wonderfully obvious, by quickly and genuinely forgiving them!

    All of that to ask you where do you see biblical support for this concept of asking forgiveness of others?

    1. LJS says:

      I think you are saying the same thing. A person can’t demand or expect forgiveness. But, a person should want forgiveness from the other person. If you don’t want forgiveness, then you aren’t repentant because you don’t think what you did was wrong. Asking for forgiveness is an expression of humility because you are saying that you understand the depth of your sin and you value the other person and their feelings and their well being. At the same time, you have to relent and leave the ball in their court. Their granting of forgiveness is on their timing and volition.

    2. Susan says:

      Annemarie, I agree that the concept of asking forgiveness is not found in scripture. It is a cultural thing which is deeply engrained. I once went to a pastor who flared up in anger at me when I tried to discuss how we might incorporate evangelism more from our church. I was encouraged by an elder to seek reconciliation with the pastor. The pastor’s quick response was to say, “Will you forgive me?”. He didn’t apologize or confess to having wronged me in any way. He was obviously just trying to get rid of me as quickly as possible.

      Even is someone does apologize I don’t think it’s right for them to quickly volley back with a request to be forgiven. That cheapens the apology and confession. Scripture tells us to confess our wrongs. We should confess in a way that takes full ownership of how we have sinned against a person and leave it at that. It is wrong to then expect something from the person. Asking a person you have wronged if they will forgive you does nothing to restore the relationship. They need to process things in their own time. If they see that your confession is true and genuinely heartfelt they will return to the relationship. Sometimes forgiveness takes time.

  7. Thank you for the helpful reminders! A complimentary list you might find interesting is my 7 signs of true repentance,

  8. Dan Phillips says:

    Thanks for this, Thabiti. Very timely.

    If I may, I’d like to mention the best book I’ve ever read on forgiveness: Unpacking Forgiveness, by Chris Brauns. Very Biblical, very pastoral, very practical, and a real page-turner. Can’t praise it highly enough.

    1. Susan says:

      Dan, I don’t think it’s biblical to ask a person if they will forgive you once you’ve apologized. Read my comment to Annemarie and tell me your thoughts, if you even see my comment…

  9. Frank Turk says:

    Thabiti –

    As usual, a wise, pastoral, and practical post.

    I’m filing it for future use.

    1. Susan says:

      OK Frank, I’ve posed this question to Dan Phillips as well: Do you really think it’s biblical to ask a person you’ve wronged if they will forgive you? I think it’s a mistake to do so. Read my comment to Annemarie and tell me your thoughts.

      Also, acknowledging the hurt of the other person can sidetrack from purely confessing what you’ve done wrong. Sometimes we can focus on guessing how the other person feels and it becomes sort of the easy way out. I have on two occasions received a “sorry I hurt you” sort of apology. In both cases I wasn’t feeling hurt, I was feeling wronged…but there was no ownership by the other of what they had done wrong. Thabiti is right to address the need to confess specifically…I would add that we should be specific about how we have sinned against someone. A true confession should be all about owning our own wrong and spelling it out…confessing in a way that is somewhat painful for the one doing the confessing. That’s what is necessary.

  10. Nathan Barber says:

    Is number #4 in forgiveness optional depending on the situation, or must we seek to maintain the relationship no matter what the offense?

  11. ken says:

    I really appreciate the wisdom clearly displayed here. As a professional toe-stepper-oner I have to walk very circumspectly to avoid unnecessary offense. When it comes to being offensive, I’m really good. However, that really shoots ones credibility full of holes. However, there are those folks out there who are bound and determined to not like me and take offense at merely breathing their air. These folks often go through life as miserable people who do not realize that they are their own worst enemy.

    As far as forgiving is concerned, very very wise counsel. The one element that will aid in forgiving is, humility. True biblical humility equips us to forgive like nothing else. Ok, I’m done now.

    1. george canady says:

      “Professional toe-stepper-oner” might be a synonym for living by convictions. It seems even the most kind and gentle people are marginalized if they stand for truth. I’m in that group however, more like you describe yourself; those who have much to learn about delivery and in need of much forgiveness.

  12. Susan says:

    Great reminder from a great book. I am a bit concerned about stating the MD issue is related to misciting references. It is clearly plagiarism- 14 pages of material. Additionally, he had been personally confronted in the past about similar issues, and several other issues have surfaced. In two other circumstances, he lifted, word for word, sections of Carson’s Bible Commentary. This is a very serious issue that makes me doubt his standing as above reproach and being thought well of by outsiders. Plagiarism ends secular careers, and there should be a higher standard in the ministry of the Word, a messenger of TRUTH. Point 5 is relevant- financial amends must be made, and he may need to give up his position as pastor and teacher.

  13. Grace says:

    Thank you, Mr. Anyabwile. Do you have any comments on this recent letter?

  14. Kate says:

    Well, I’m stuck on the first A- address everyone involved. I’ve sinned against my (government) employer by wasting time on facebook etc in work hours. So who do I address? My non-believing supervisor encourages me to take more breaks (that aren’t specified in my contract)…

  15. Emily L says:

    Thank you for this–I note this as a great reminder to say the things outlined here instead of skating by with an “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt” type of pseudo-apology.

    As a side note, Marion Jones was one of my heroes as a middle school girl–I thought she was the most amazing athlete and wanted to be like her when I grew up! (Minus the world class athletic abilities of course. ;) Like most USATF fans, I was disillusioned and disappointed by the steroid scandal–though to be fair she was certainly not the only one. I am glad I took the time to watch her apology–a great example of how to ask forgiveness.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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