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Why the Words “I’m Sorry” Are Highly Overrated

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
–Luke 15:20

One of the greatest myths about forgiveness is the idea that we can never forgive somebody who is not willing to say “I’m sorry.” Does the Bible teach that repentance is a prerequisite for forgiveness? Christians are divided on this issue. Many would say it is impossible to forgive somebody who demonstrates no repentance. Why do people make such an assertion?

When somebody wrongs us, that person creates a debt he owes to us. We all understand that. Wrongs create an obligation. Some people say that this debt must be satisfied and that it is fundamentally wrong to let somebody off the hook without ever hearing “I’m sorry.”

People who insist on the offender’s repentance often use the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. In this story, the younger son went to his father and demanded his share of the inheritance. The father gave his son his portion of the estate. The boy left and wasted his wealth on wine, women, and wild living. Soon he was reduced to slopping the hogs. Finally, he came to his senses and realized, “This is ridiculous. My father’s slaves have more than I do.” Jesus described what happened next: “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly … let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found’” (vv. 20-24). Some people say that the father didn’t forgive his son until he heard the words “I have sinned.” And only after that did he put the robe and the ring on his son.

There are two problems with that interpretation. First, it violates the story that Jesus told. Jesus made it clear that the father forgave the son before the son ever said “I’m sorry.” While the son was still a long way off, the father saw him and felt compassion for him. Notice that the father felt compassion for him before the son ever uttered the words: “Father, I have sinned.” The father, like God, made the first move.

But beyond a misreading of this story, those who say that forgiveness has to be earned fail to understand that there is always a deficit between what our offender owes us and what he is able to pay us. Hearing the words “I’m sorry” may bring momentary relief, but those two words cannot repay the debt that you are owed any more than those two words can repay the debt that we owe God.


Today’s devotion is excerpted from “Why the Words “I’m Sorry” Are Highly Overrated” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2015.

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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