If you want to do a very quick study of a topic in Scripture, look at all the passages in the Bible that tell us to apologize. I say it will be very quick, because there are no verses you could look at. Zero. And that is because Scripture does not tell us to apologize.
That seems odd, doesn't it? Apologizing is such a basic, simple and essential virtue that it's one of the first things we teach children to say. Whose heart hasn't melted at the sound of a penitent toddler looking down and saying, "Sowwy"? Apologizing is good manners; but it's not Biblical. Don't worry, I'm not suggesting that we stop teaching our kids to apologize. What I AM suggesting is that we ensure our own response to sin and broken relationships extends beyond apologizing. We need to mature into a more fully biblical response to being confronted with our sin.
Too often, I've heard someone justify their refusal to rebuild a relationship with someone by saying, "I apologized, that's enough. I said I was sorry, they need to accept that and move on." That's a thoroughly unbiblical view of our responsibility. As Christians, we aren't called to just say "I'm sorry" and move on. We can't do that with God and we can't do that with each other. Apologizing is saying, "I feel bad about what I've done." That's a great start. But that is not where we should stop. That's like saying, "Look, I bought everything I need to make a cake. Enjoy!" You've taken the first step, but in the end, you don't have a cake.
When describing how a godly person reacts to being confronted with their sin, the Bible calls us to several things:
We are to confess. (James 5:16, Psalm 32:5, 1 John 1:8-10) Confession is the process of owning our sin. The word itself in Greek is homologeo, literally "to say the same thing." In confession, we ensure that our account of what happens matches the truth, which requires us to examine our hearts in humility. We declare to ourselves and to others, "Yes, I did that, and it was wrong." An apology can fall short, an apology can say, "I'm sorry I hurt you. I'm sorry this happened." Confession says, "I did something wrong. I am to blame."
We are to repent. (Acts 3:19, 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, Ezekiel 18:21-23, Proverbs 28:13) In confession, we own our sin. In repentance, we turn from it. Repentance is following through with our actions on what we confessed. If I spoke hurtfully in my anger, confession says "I was wrong to do that," but repentance says, "I will act differently in the future; I will not do what is wrong." Too often we see repentance as a one-time event. We repent of our sin and turn to Christ when we are saved. In reailty, repentance is a regular, essential Christian practice, something we do as often as we are made aware of our sin - by the Holy Spirit's conviction through the Word, through our conscience, or through the words of others.
We are to be reconciled. (Matthew 5:23-24, Romans 12:18) Sin breaks relationships. It hurts and strains the bonds that connect us to each other. Even after we confess, that damage remains. A careless driver might pay for the damage they caused, but the car they damaged is still broken and needs to be fixed. Reconciliation is the hard work of repairing the relationship that was damaged by sin. Really, reconciliation assumes confession and repentance. It assumes forgiveness on the part of the one who has been offended and hurt. Reconciliation takes time, and it's not entirely something we can control. Sometimes sin makes deep wounds. The call to forgive and be reconciled is not an easy one and may require exercising the same abundant, undeserved grace that God has shown us in Christ. Reconciliation sometimes means we must value our relationships above our rights, our unity above our comfort.
The Bible's plan for responding to our sin is so much more than a simple apology. Save apologies for bumping into people on the street. When we have hurt the people in our lives, let us humbly live out the gospel together by confessing, repenting, and seeking reconciliation.