Apologies vs. repentance

As a father of six children and the possessor of one heart I have had many opportunities to both to practice and to teach the art of acknowledging sin and seeking to make amends. What I have discovered both paternally and internally is that expressions of true repentance are much more rare than the dime-a-dozen-variety apologies.

“I’m sorry” is regarded as some kind of magical phrase that is assumed to give the speaker a free pass from seriously owning up to his wrongs. Adolescent short-hand renders it simply, “Sorry.” Say the word, get out of jail free, as if making an audible declaration completely clears the air and sets things right. “I said, I was sorry!” Right. So now we must simply move over the page and let bygones be bygones. At least that’s what those who trade in this magic formula expect, if not demand.

Worse yet is the more sophisticated apology that goes like this, “If I have done anything to offend you, I’m sorry.” As far as I am concerned you can save your breath rather than trying to pass that as a sincere expression of sorrow. It is an admission of nothing except the possibility that perhaps someone may have taken offense at any number of possible actions that you have taken. The way I see it, if you are not convinced that you have done anything wrong, then do not offer an expression of sorrow. How can you be sorry for something you are not convinced you have done? If you are convinced you have done it, then why the face-saving “If?” Simply admit your wrongdoing and then express your sorrow for doing it. If you genuinely are not sure if you have done wrong, then find out. Ask questions. Seek counsel. After your investigation, if your actions are exonerated, do not express sorrow. If you are found guilty, admit it.

But even such admission of guilt is still far short of what the Bible means by repentance. It is commonly noted that the New Testament Greek word that is behind the English word “repent” means “to change one’s mind.” That mind change inevitably leads to a change in life as well. There are many examples of how repentance works in the Bible. But the classic text on repentance is found in 2 Corinthians 7:9-11.

Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. 10 For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. 11 For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.

Verse 11 is the key verse. Do you want to learn to recognize true repentance? Study verse 11. Teach it to your children (and to your own heart). Godly sorrow leads to repentance–the kind of repentance that results in making things right, setting the record straight, becoming indignant not at those whom you offended, but at your own offending heart. There are not qualifications in biblical repentance.

All of this leads me to note that, so far, Dr. Steve Lemke of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has not responded to my appeal that he issue a statement declaring that he does not indeed believe what he previously wrote concerning the identification of Founders Ministries with hyper-Calvinism.

I made the appeal 3 weeks ago in response to his gracious letter in which he stated, “I apologize to those who felt I misrepresented or caricatured them.” Such an apology is nice…as far as it goes. But if falls far short of the kind of zealous righting of wrongs that Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 7:11.

Perhaps Dr. Lemke will yet display what real repentance looks like by issuing a statement that corrects the misrepresentations he published about many of those who help pay his salary. If he doesn’t, then his “apology” will mean very little.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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