(David) I've been thinking about apologies lately as I've watched (and in the eyes of some, no doubt, participated in) the conflict surrounding the Federal Vision movement in the Presbyterian Church in America. And what I find striking is how difficult--well nigh impossible--apologies become in the midst of such strife.

Apologies aren't the American way. The president of Toyota may apologize over a recall, but Americans of note rarely apologize. And on the rare occasions they do, the apology signals not so much sorrow as desperation. Michael Vick apologizes. Ted Haggard apologizes. Senator Craig apologizes. You and I never want to come near the point of needing to apologize publicly.

The most common cause of neglected apologies is pride. But pride isn't the only reason we fail to apologize. Failure to apologize is often the product of fear.

Some years ago a young man approached me as I was browsing in a bookstore to tell me that he could now look me in the eye without malice because he had forgiven me the harm I'd done him several years before. Now, the harm I had done him had been the harm of biblical discipline; my conscience was entirely clean in the matter. But he had been hurt, what I had done had been painful and he was extending forgiveness. What should I do? Tell him I didn't need his forgiveness, shove the matter back in his face as matter of principle? Or acknowledge his pain, express sorrow for it and accept the possibility that he might parade my statement as a moral victory?

After a split-second of furious thought I told him I was glad that he had forgiven me and that I was sorry for the pain I had caused him--though I regretted being unable to apologize for the act that caused the pain. He accepted my apology, understanding, I think, exactly what I was saying.

The Christian should be ready to apologize in every situation, not arrogantly unbending because of pride or fear. But fear is a very real antagonist of apologies: fear that the apology will be construed as a confession of sin, fear that apologizing in a limited area will be viewed as surrender in the larger battle, fear of smallness or triumphalism in the one apologized to

How should we approach apologizing and apologies as Christians? The following are several suggestions for how we should address the business of tendering and receiving apologies. Remember, apologies are good. We should act in a manner that will promote rather than hinder apologies. And acting in such a manner is the responsibility of both parties to the apology:

1. Let's begin with the basic assumption that a person possessing red-blooded Christian faith will need to apologize for both sin and error. We are errant, not inerrant, sinners, not sinless. Even our best deeds have sin mingled in them. Even our most righteous deeds contain elements of error. Paul apologized to the chief priest despite being in the right. You and I will need to do likewise. This is especially true when we engage in public ministry. This is doubly especially true when we engage in public debate.

2. We must understand both in extending and in receiving apologies that apologies are distinct from confessions. Apologies are often for non-sinful things we do, either intentionally or unintentionally, that cause pain or harm. The nurse apologizes for the needle. This is simply good manners.

3. When receiving an apology we must distinguish between an apology for an action and an apology for the consequence of an action. When I apologize for stepping on your foot I'm not confessing moral error. I regret the painful consequences of something I did. Nothing makes an apology curdle in the mouth more rapidly than a condescending attitude in the recipient.

4. Apologies thrive in an atmosphere of grace. Accept apologies as gifts. Be willing, even, to accept those which strike you as falling short. Graciousness in response to a less-than-full apology may lead to further repentance.

5. Leave room for honest differences of opinion in accepting apologies.

6. Do not twist apologies into acts of abject surrender. An admission of sin is not necessarily concession on the overall argument.

7. Apologize all the more readily if you're in the right on the underlying issue. Only a fool thinks the winning side never sins in war. Only fools despise magnanimity in victory.

8. Be precise in apologies. Don't apologize for more or less than you intend to. Frame your apology as fully and as narrowly as necessary.

9. Remember to practice noblesse oblige in your life as a child of God. There are obligations attendant upon privilege and power. A big man will always apologize more rapidly and frequently than a small man. The winner should apologize more rapidly than the loser, the strong man more frequently than the weak. In all things we are "more than conquerors."

10. Christians should be especially ready to apologize when warring for the Kingdom of Heaven. Why? Because we are to be all things to all men, wise as serpents yet harmless as doves, because Paul had Timothy circumcised to win the Jews, and paid for the purification of the young men in the temple. Magnanimity is always a chief characteristic of godly victors.

11. Apologize in faith. The Christian advancing the cause of Christ should never fear overall defeat as a consequence of apologizing in a limited realm.


Good words! I am preaching on Ecclesiastes 7:19-8:1 this weekend, and was needing a closing admonition. Do you mind if I use this? Appropriate credit will be given!

Of course you can use anything here. We welcome that. But I would prefer, if possible that you NOT attribute.

Your brother in Christ,


Thank you very much for this post. You capture, far more fully, many of my recent thoughts.

I find it very appropriate that you filed this under "Feminization of discourse". While that particular anti-Christ (anti-Word) approach tends to urge capitulation and compromise in many ways, it also lends itself to a self-justifying and prideful refusal to admit error, and the "everything is about power" mindset fills one with fear that any show of weakness will be used to dominate them.

But we are the children of God, the Triune God, and mustn't submit to such a disgrace of the spoken and written word.



David, maybe I'm slow here, but why do you ask that brother McDonald not credit you with your thoughts here?

Many thanks for your thoughts here; it saddens me the way believers often treat one another.


Thank you so much for this. It reminds me of how often the road to true friendship is paved with apologies given and accepted, forgiveness sought and granted.



Dear Robert,

I said that because I hate the whole idea of copyright and attribution. If it's Calvin or Spurgeon we're quoting, telling who said it may boost the weight of what's said. Otherwise, it's usually just boosting egos. On our old site we had a Creative Commons link saying that people were free to "share" and "remix" content on our site. But even the least restrictive Creative Commons level requires attribution and Tim and I don't want to ask for that.

Your brother in Christ,


An apology in the hands of a sincere man is a powerful tool. I have found that it dispels the offence of sin and brings focus back to the core of the issue, opposed to the method used to address the issue. I been married for five months and I apologize often, as you can imagine.

I learned how to apologize from my father. He was a small business owner, so I witnessed many heated exchanges between him and his employees. (I was one too) After the dust settled, like clockwork, he’d come out of his office to apologize for blowing up in anger. At the time we all thought it was weird thinking, “If your going to do something that is going to require an apology in the first place- then don’t do it!” But, hindsight is 20/20, and life is not that easy.

My father’s apologies would always quench the murmuring and bring an atmosphere of peace back into the shop. Ultimately, they restored relationships and improved productivity/morale that day. How powerful! What can be perceived as a weakness is actually a great strength.

I really thank God for my father’s example in this.

Someone once mentioned to me that he saw a difference between apologizing and asking for forgiveness. The suggestion was that when you say you are sorry you are giving something, your apology, to the other person. When you ask forgiveness you are asking for the offended party to give something to you. I have always liked the distinction and try to say I’m sorry if I bump into someone, and humble myself by asking for forgiveness if I sin against them.

This is not to say it is easy to say you are sorry or that it allows you to avoid humility. But I have experienced times when I have told someone I am sorry and then thought I needed to ask for their forgiveness. The asking of forgiveness seemed to exist across a line that I still hadn’t crossed with the apology, and it took some more work to humble myself and ask their forgiveness.

"And what I find striking is how difficult--well nigh impossible--apologies become in the midst of such strife."

This helps me get a little closer to putting my finger on what I find bothersome about serrated edginess. My thoughts are still too vague, too intuitive, for me to express them articulately enough, so bear with me.

There's something about strong rhetoric that goes beyond making the point, goes beyond revealing the other person's flaws, and provokes a defensive, prideful response that is much more difficult to overcome than that which a gentler rhetoric might have prompted. It's hard enough to have to acknowledge that your opponent has gotten in a good blow. It's harder when he's gotten in the good blow and also said "Ha, ha, ha!"

Excellent thoughts. I plan to incorporate some of this into an article for our church's newsletter, attributed to "a PCA pastor" so that people won't think it's my original work. I have one additional point:

12. Do not use your apology as a launching point for further criticism of the other person's position. Whatever you have to say about that, save it for another day.


Your comment reminds me of Proverbs 18:19: "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, And contentions are like the bars of a citadel."

Once the bullets start flying, the talking stops.

There's a time for that sort of thing, but in the present fracas I think shots have been fired prematurely by a number of people on both sides and the result has been a "debate" environment where the audience/bystanders may be persuaded one way or another but the actual debaters are thoroughly fortified in their positions and have no intentions of coming out. Might get hit, you know.



Hi! James and Stacy sent me your way. Good article! I was wondering how you would suggest we respond when the other party refuses our apology, even when we've done our best to offer a "perfect" apology.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. (Romans 12:18)

Assuming we haven't minced our apology, or followed it with an "if," "and," or "but," the Holy Spirit here indicates there are times when it doesn't depend on us. Then we must live meekly and not self-righteously.

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