What’s the difference between an apology and repentance? I have spent more time than I care to in recent weeks dealing with the issue of forgiveness, though in all fairness as someone who has had to forgive much in life, I suppose it is a useful lesson. There are really several lessons regarding forgiveness and repentance that are of importance. As the subject is massive, I would like to deal with the essential aspects of the apology on both sides.
The Peccavi: On The Forms and Content of an Apology
The Peccavi is a very fancy way of saying, “I have sinned.” In an apology the key element for the person who has caused offense is to recognize that he did wrong by causing the offense, if indeed he did wrong by the absolute standard of the Bible. Wishing someone dead 490 times, for example, is doing wrong. Some people are prickly and easily offended, but at the same time some people lack the self-control to keep from offending others. The content of a genuine apology is a recognition that one’s failure to control one’s tongue has caused another offense and grief, and that one repents of one’s sins. The Bible is full of warning about the tongue (Ephesians 4:15, James 3, Proverbs 15:1-2, 17:27-28, 21:23, 26:28). Matthew 12:36-37 gives the most chilling advice, though, in my opinion: “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Given the serious nature of our conversation, then, a humble and repentant attitude about our words and the damage they can cause is very important, especially among those of us (myself included) who speak at length. However, there are many people who wish to follow the form of an apology, especially to smooth over an offense, rather than to actually show repentance for having said or done amiss. Let us compare the form of three apologies to examine how different an apology looks when there is genuine repentance behind it from the mere form of an apology:
Apology #1: “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of the things which you have spoken will come upon me.” (The “apology” of Simon Magus in Acts 8:24)
Apology #2: “I wish to apologize and retract any statements of offense made to Mr. Albright. I hope he will forgive me for saying anything that has been stated.”
Apology #3: “I did write the `Lost Township’ letter which appeared in the Journal of the 2nd. Inst. but had no participation, in any form, in any other article alluding to you. I wrote that, wholly for political effect. I had no intention of injuring your personal or private character or standing as a man or a gentleman; and I did not then think, and do not now think that that article, could produce or has produced that effect against you, and had I anticipated such an effect I would have forborne to write it. And I will add, that your conduct towards me, so far as I knew, had always been gentlemanly; and that I had no personal pique against you, and no cause for any.”  
Both the second and the third apology conform to the Code Duello, by which gentleman recognized each other as being of elite status and recognized that retracting hostile words was necessary to avoid very unpleasant consequences. The genuineness of the third apology (given by Abraham Lincoln to James Shields over some libelous writing) was demonstrated by the fact that the wrong was not repeated by Lincoln ever again.
Avoiding The Root of Bitterness
It is the responsibility of the person receiving the apology, on the other hand, whether that apology is genuine or merely a form to avoid public repercussions (such as libel lawsuits or duels), to avoid holding a grudge and in letting God judge the heart of the person who gave the apology to determine if it was a genuine and heartfelt apology based on repentance or merely the form of an apology. God knows the heart, and will judge accordingly. It is therefore His responsibility to avenge and not our own (Romans 12:17-21).
As someone who lamentably has had to forgive a lot of very serious offenses and wrongs over the course of my life, I have learned very personally that forgiveness takes a lot of strength and courage to do, for it is easy (and destructive) to hold on to wrongs and to grouse over them and to let them embitter you, poisoning your spirit and preventing you from developing the capacity to love as one ought to. To forgive means to let go of the wrong, to put it in God’s hands, and not to hold on to the feelings of spite and hurt that lead one to develop ferocious “righteous” anger at the party that has done the wrong. Such hurts and resentments can last for years, long after the person who has done the wrong has forgotten the original offense, if indeed he ever knew it or realized it.
Recognizing that we cannot hold on to the wrongs of the past but must bury them with honor , using them as object lessons of the sinful and fallen nature of humanity rather than as unfinished personal business, requires a big heart. But the human heart must either be filled with love or filled with hate and resentment. It cannot be filled with both–resentment will poison the heart so that love cannot grow. Such a thing can be done with the help of God, but it requires that we move beyond ourselves and see the bigger picture.
So, apologies bring with them responsibilities for both the offending party and the offended one. For the person who has caused offense, an apology offers a change to humble one’s self and to repent for sin, to be washed of the eternal death penalty, so long as one admits wrong and commits to changing one’s evil ways and does not merely seek to avoid punishment. For the offended brother, forgiving those who have caused offense is a requirement to move beyond one’s own hurts and to develop the forgiving and merciful nature of God and Jesus Christ through acting as they do to not hold the sins of others to their account. It is a painful acquisition of the character of God, but an important one, as we are to acquire the image and likeness of God and to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). This glorious state is not reached without a great deal of hard and painful work on our own natures.