As a sinner interacting with sinners in a sinful world, there is going to be ample opportunity to apologize for something. Preferably, giving and receiving apologies will be few and far between, but most likely, it’ll be more often than we would like. The problem is that often our apologies are not apologies at all or are just lip-service, sort of like Larry the Cable Guy’s famous, “Lord, I apologize, and be with the starving Pygmies down there in New Guinea.” If we are going to honor God and actually work toward peace and reconciliation with those we offended or offended us, we’d better learn to apologize well.
That’s why Ken Sande’s “Seven A‘s of Confession” are so good. They are an extremely helpful, practical guide for learning how to make a clear confession and apology. The “Seven A’s” below have been slightly modified and explained by Alfred Poirier in his book The Peacemaking Pastor, which the following segment has been quoted from:
1. Address Everyone Involved. The first way people weaken their confession of sin is by failing to address everyone involved in the conflict. The first person we must address when we confess our sin is God. As David says in Psalm 51:4, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done evil in your sight.” Though David has sinned against Bathsheba and ultimately confesses to her, he understands that his most grievous sin is against God. Sadly, over my years of pastoring and counseling, when I have asked people in conflict, “Have you confessed your sin to God?” most have admitted that they have not. Conflict truly blinds us to God. Nevertheless, this admission opens the door for pastors to perform the very work to which God has called us-leading people back to God. It also gives opportunity for us to announce to them God’s great promises of forgiveness and cleansing (see 1 John 1:8-9). He forgives us even when we confess our failures in confessing.
Sin affects not only the person we have directly offended but also the others indirectly involved in our conflict…
Our sins may be against a specific person, but they often involve others. Therefore, we need to address everyone involved: God, the person we offended, and the others watching.
2. Avoid If, But, and Maybe. A second way people weaken and often destroy a confession is when they add specific qualifiers to their confessions…
If, but, and maybe are confession stoppers. They effectively erase every word confessed before and after them. Moreover, they turn a confession into a subtle form of blame-shifting and often shift the blame to the one from whom we are seeking forgiveness!
The same can be said for “it wasn’t my intention.” While it may be true that we did not intend to harm anyone by the action we took, “it was never my intention” does more to exonerate ourselves than to admit the real wrong we have done and the offense we have committed. The second A of a good confession, then, is to “avoid” such qualifiers as these.
One way to test the strength of our confession is to say it to God. What would God think if we told him, “Lord, please forgive me by the blood of your Son, Jesus Christ, but know that it wasn’t my intention to sin,” or “If only I wasn’t under so much stress, I would not have sinned against you”? Hearing how these qualified comments minimize our sin before the Lord, we can better understand the inadequacy of our confession. We can see how such a confession diminishes not only our guilt but also Christ’s atonement.
3. Admit Specifically. In teaching people to make a strong confession, we must instruct them to admit their sin specifically. When people confess their sin by simply saying, “I’m sorry,” or “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” it begs the question, “Sorry about what?” What is missing is specificity. Consequently, generic confessions make it appear to the offended party that the offender does not understand the gravity of his or her offense.
It is important to note here that admit specifically does not suggest that forgiveness depends upon our admitting each and every sin in some medieval confessional sense. Rather, by confessing honestly and specifically, we are informing the party from whom we seek forgiveness that we recognize the gravity of our offense and thus how we have sinned against and hurt him or her.
Generic confessions also show little evidence that the offender is truly repentant for his or her sin…
One way I help people in conflict make specific confessions is by presenting them with two examples. I will say, “Of these two, tell me what sounds to you like a sincere confession.” Then I will confess, “I’m sorry you got so upset.” After that, I will make a sincere, specific confession: “John, I want you to know that as I’ve thought about what I did to you, I’ve come to realize that I wronged you. I publicly embarrassed you that night at the party. It was wrong, and I know it must have hurt deeply.” Inevitably, they see the marked difference between the two types of confession, and they are more likely to hear how they can sincerely confess their own sin to the party they have offended…
4. Accept the Consequences. In a good confession, a person acknowledges that he or she must accept the consequences of his or her actions. Many people have trouble forgiving because the one confessing fails to accept the consequences for his or her offensive behavior. Theologically we might say that a person makes such a confession because he or she divorces God’s justification (God forgives) from his sanctification (God’s call for us to produce the fruit of repentance), embracing the former while rejecting the latter.
…we as peacemaking pastors must help the confessor think through and accept the potential consequences of his or her behavior, thus embracing not only God’s forgiveness but also his call to repentance. This process leads naturally to the fifth feature of a good confession.
5. Alter Your Behavior. A good confession will also include one’s commitment, by God’s grace, to alter one’s behavior. If our goal is to grow to be like Christ, then confession is not enough. We need to alter our behavior. We must put our confession into action by replacing sinful habits with holy ones, just as Paul urges in Ephesians 4:31-32: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Furthermore, we will prove the sincerity of our confession if we are earnest about changing our behavior. This desire to change is made tangibly evident when the offender lists in his or her confession the actions he or she will take to remedy the offense. One of the great benefits of sharing these plans is that the offended person is more likely to forgive.
6. Ask Forgiveness. A good confession not only admits sin but it also asks forgiveness. In twenty-five years of pastoring, I could count on both hands the times I have heard, “Will you please forgive me?” Most of the time when confessing, people assume that the request for forgiveness is assumed in their apology. So I commonly hear, “I’m sorry,” and in response, the offended party grants forgiveness.
But this assumption is not correct. A good confession needs to include a real request. We need to ask the person we have offended, hurt, or harmed, “Will you please forgive me?” because by asking, we recognize and acknowledge that we do not and cannot forgive ourselves. We must ask another to forgive us since our offense was against another, and that person alone (besides God) can release us from the debt of our sin against him or her by forgiving us.
7. Allow Time. The final step in making a strong confession is to allow time for the offended party to forgive. Assuming the person we are counseling has made a good confession of sin, it remains incumbent upon us as peacemaking pastors to help the one confessing a sin to distinguish the difference between God’s immediate response to a confession made and the various reasons why the one who has been offended may be slow to respond.
When we ask God to forgive our sins, he forgives us immediately, for he has promised to forgive us when we ask. Thus the apostle John encourages his people, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). As a pastor or spiritual leader, it will be important to point out to those you counsel this and other passages of Scripture that assure us of God’s forgiveness.’
While God forgives us immediately, humans do not. Sometimes people are unwilling or slow to forgive. This response itself can become a cause for a subsequent conflict. Their slowness to forgive may cause the person who confesses his sins to think he remains unforgiven. If the confessor’s conscience is tender, he could continue to be troubled by this lack of forgiveness and develop feelings of bitterness and dejection.
In this kind of case, it is important for us to help the confessor allow the offended person time. We must teach him that the offended party needs time to pray about the confession and work through his or her feelings. Moreover, we must help the confessor separate his responsibilities from those of the people who are called upon to forgive. For example, if I confess my sin to a brother, I cannot and should not be the one who demands he forgive me. Before God, it is my responsibility to confess my sin, while it is his responsibility to forgive.
The counsel to allow time is not a counsel to do nothing. Rather, we can encourage the confessor to use this waiting period to reflect upon the seriousness of his sin and how ruinous it is, while at the same time contemplating how great Christ’s atoning work is on his behalf so that God can forgive the confessor. We also ought to encourage the confessor to pray for the offended person who is struggling to forgive him. The confessor can reflect upon his own slowness to forgive as well as the many things that could tempt the person who was offended not to forgive, which will thus rob the person of his or her joy in the gospel. Thus the confessor can pray that the offended person would be set free from bitterness, thoughts of revenge, and the grief of loss. Taking these steps is a proactive way to allow time.
In summary, these Seven A‘s of Confession are a helpful guide to walking a person through his or her confession of sin to another. They should not be taken woodenly, of course, as if the only true confession requires each A to be fulfilled. Instead, think of these Seven A‘s as a checklist or a rough outline for constructing a meaningful confession of sin.
-Alfred Poirier. Peacemaking Pastor, The: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict (pp. 124-130). Kindle Edition.