How to Give (and Receive) Repentance

Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.

Imagine you are on Family Feud, and Steve Harvey gives the following prompt:

“We asked 100 sinners, ‘Name one reason why you do not repent of your sin to one another.’ The top seven answers are on the board.” 

What do you think the most common responses would be? I’d offer these seven. 

We don’t repent because. . .  

  1. We’re completely blind to our sin, or we don’t think our sin is bad enough to warrant repentance.
  1. We don’t think the other person deserves our repentance. Maybe we think they sinned first, or they sinned more, or their sin caused our sin, so we refuse to repent until they do.
  1. We don’t think repenting will help anything. Sometimes we fear our repentance will fuel their pride, appear to ignore their fault, or lead to further conflict. So we stay silent.
  1. We are too proud. Repentance means admitting we were wrong—and that we need mercy—which requires Christlike humility. Sometimes we don’t want to stoop that low.
  1. We are too ashamed of our sin or too afraid of the consequences. Repentance also means giving up (the feeling of) control over our own reputation, and putting ourselves at the mercy of others. This takes vulnerability—something many people run from.
  1. We don’t want to change. Biblical repentance requires turning—changing our behavior—which can feel a bit like heart surgery. Many resist confessing their sin because they love it too much to give it up.
  1. We don’t know how to repent. Many people never had repentance clearly modeled in the home or taught in the church, leaving them unequipped to put it into action.

So why should we confess our sins to one another?

James 5:16 gives us a helpful starting point: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

This verse gives us at least two motivations to confess our sins to one another:

  1. Because God commands us to.
  2. Because God commands us to for our healing.

Repentance is not a punishment God makes us pay after we sin; it’s medicine God uses to heal us from our sin’s ravaging effects. God uses our repentance to enliven us (Acts 11:18), refresh us (Acts 3:19–20), restore us (Luke 15:11–24), cleanse us (1 John 1:9), and enrich our fellowship with him and with one another (1 John 1:6–7). Repentance is not a curse to fear, but a gift to cherish.

How do I repent of my sin to someone?

Repentance can be hard, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Below is a simple “1-2-3 model” of repentance: one statement, two omissions, three questions.

One statement:

“I am sorry that I [insert sin].”

We can call this naming the sin. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to one another” Both the words “your” and “sins” are key here.

First, confess your sins. Repentance is not saying:

  • I’m sorry you were hurt.
  • I’m sorry you were offended.
  • I’m sorry you interpreted that the way you did.

Rather, repentance is saying,

  • I’m sorry I spoke harshly with you.
  • I’m sorry I was dishonest with you.
  • I’m sorry I was selfish in demanding my way.

Second, confess your sins. This means taking the offense out of the abstract (“I’m sorry I hurt you”) and getting specific about how you sinned against the other person. Specificity honors the other person, legitimizes her pain, helps both parties come to an agreement, and gives you something specific to work on in the future.

Two omissions:

  1. Finger-pointing: “I am sorry I [insert the sin], but you. . .”
  1. Self justification: “I am sorry I [insert the sin], but I wouldn’t have had to if. . .”

Finger-pointing and self-justification are two of the biggest roadblocks to healing and reconciliation. I once heard a pastor say, “In conflict, always own 100 percent of your 2 percent.” In other words, even if you were only two percent of the problem, own it. Not only does this honor God (our ultimate motivation), but often when we take full ownership of our sin, the other person will reciprocate and confess her sin, too.

Three questions:

  1. “Will you forgive me?”

Trying to forgive someone who hasn’t asked for your forgiveness is like trying to climb a mountain with a bag of rocks strapped to your back. It’s possible, but much harder, more painful, more tiring, and less enjoyable. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t remove the mountain the other person must climb to forgive you, but it can immediately remove a significant amount of weight off her back, which can be immensely freeing. This might be the one question your loved one has been longing to hear from you for days, months, or years.

  1. “Was there any other way that I hurt you in this situation?”

One of the most important aspects of confession is coming to an agreement about the sin committed, the pain caused, and the plan of action going forward. (The Greek word for confess in James 5:16 literally means “to agree.”) Without coming to an agreement, bitterness and distance will continue to thrive.

  1. “How can I love you better in the future?”

Beneath this question is the humble acknowledgement that, “Maybe I don’t know what you need. You tell me how I can love you better.” This question conveys love, facilitates needful communication, and provides a healthy foundation for healing and reconciliation. 

How do I receive repentance?

Because repentance is so rare, it can be difficult to know how to respond when someone actually does confess their sin to us. Consider three simple tips. (In cases of abuse, seek help from others to determine the best way forward.)

  1. Thank them for repenting and grant them forgiveness.
  1. Confess any way that you sinned in this matter. (It is possible that you have not sinned, in which case you shouldn’t make something up.)
  1. Communicate exactly how you were hurt and how you would feel loved in the future, so that they can work on changing.

We have a responsibility to communicate our needs to those closest to us. It’s not loving to sweep their sins under the rug or to tolerate their annoying habits without saying anything. This will only enable their behavior and feed bitterness in our hearts.

Cherish Repentance

Repentance is a gift of God that leads to life and healing (Acts 11:18; James 5:16). Let’s cherish it, cultivate it, and live in gratitude and dependence on God as we seek to model it in our lives.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen)ChurchLeaders.comThe Aquila Report, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better than Clarity” here.

Read “How to Starve Bitterness” here.

Read “Which Memories Should I Dwell On?” here.

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