You have embarked on biblical correction. You went to your sinning brother or sister as the case may be and you confronted them with their sin. Somewhere in the process, either after step one or perhaps even after being excommunicated, the individual repents. How do we respond to their repentance? In the last post we talked about the conditions necessary to engage in the process of biblical correction. They were humility and value which are both borne out of love for God and love for our brother. We talked about how we tend not to be so humble, having a higher opinion of ourselves than we should. Moreover, we talked about how we sinfully devalue someone who has sinned and is in need of correction. Jesus corrected both of these sinful tendencies as a necessary precondition to rightly execute loving, biblical discipline. But we are not finished. We now have to deal with our sinful attitudes after the fact. You see, not only do we tend to judge, criticize and condemn those who need correction unjustly and in an unloving manner, we also tend to withhold forgiveness in a number of different ways. And the remainder of Matthew 18 deals with this fact. Our question is how do we know someone has really repented of their sin? This was the basis of Peter’s question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” This is a question borne directly from the sinful nature. We are a self-righteous lot and it shows in more ways than one. This is the subject of today’s post.
Peter’s question is one that we still ask today when dealing with church discipline. Somehow, we think we are in charge of forgiveness when it comes to biblical correction. The reason for this may be the power that is invested in the church in v. 18: “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatsoever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Indeed the church has been granted to eyes of forgiveness, but not the power. She can see and declare. But she is not free to determine who is forgiven and who is not. She has been given strict guidelines for whom she is to declare forgiven and who has not been. At bottom, the church is to declare those whom Christ says is forgiven, as forgiven, and those whom Christ says are to be treated as Gentiles, to be treated as Gentiles. But what the church is tempted to do, as she is filled with sinning Christians, is to set up some system of requirements that are designed to “prove” repentance before forgiveness is extended. This is unfortunate and regrettable. Our model of forgiveness must follow God’s model. This is where much abuse takes place. Hence, this whole thinking process is exactly what inspired Peter to ask his question about forgiveness.
“Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” Jesus’ answer was not designed to quantify this for Peter so that Peter could come up with a formula. Isn’t that how we think? Once you cross the line, that’s it. You are done! Jesus’ answer was that, like God’s forgiveness of you, your forgiveness of others must be unlimited. Luke records it this way, “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times saying, I repent, forgive him.” (Luke 17:4) But we certainly do not like this system. We demand some form of payment as proof that the individual has genuinely repented! Such proof is not ours to demand. Payment for sin was made by God to God for us. It was not made to us. This is exactly where the concept of penance comes from. We want proof! And here is the rub: what is it in us that really wants proof? Search your heart O sinner and understand why you want this proof! Is it really out of love for this sinning brother? Is it really out of a genuine desire for the purity of the church? Or, could it be that you demand proof for your own satisfaction. Is there a desire, even a slight desire, for retribution and punishment. Bring forth fruit that demonstrates repentance is important. But it takes time. What then should be your attitude? Calvin comments on this struggle,
“And this is what I have formerly remarked, that in this passage Christ does not only speak of injuries which have been done to us, but of every kind of offences; for he desires that, by our compassion, we shall raise up those who have fallen. This doctrine is very necessary, because naturally almost all of us are peevish beyond measure; and Satan, under the pretence of severity, drives us to cruel rigour, so that wretched men, to whom pardon is refused, are swallowed up by grief and despair.” [Calvin, John. Matthew, 365]
That is simple. You forgive and pray for your brother and treat him with the same love and respect you do every other believer. Notice Calvin's use of the word compassion. Biblical correction must be an act of heartfelt compassion. Otherwise, we end up engaging in the cruel rigour, and driving people to grief and despair. Heart examintion should be sober and deliberate prior to engaging in such practices. If all you want to do is indict and finger point and prove that someone sinned, your motives are laced with the wickedness of Satan and of the sinful flesh. Such approach to discipline is antithetical to Christ's mandate and not at all indicative of Christian charity. Here is the thing; sin is a heart issue. If this person is an unbeliever, time will bear that out. They will go out from you in all likelihood. There is a chance they may remain with you and live in secret sin for the rest of their lives. God will deal with that. It is not your place to walk around worrying about ferreting out every hypocrite you can find. There is will always be hypocrites in the church. Follow Christ’s instructions here and you will be fine. It is when you want to cut corners or add complexities that you run into problems. And that is our sin nature doing what the sin nature does best.
Jesus said on two occasions about forgiveness that if we do not extend forgiveness to others, our heavenly Father will not extend forgiveness to us. Someone once said we are never more like God than when are forgiving each other and we are never more unlike God than when we are not. Jesus follows Peter’s question with a second parable. The parable of the unjust slaved is an excellent illustration on the seriousness of unforgiveness. This is the third component of biblical correction. The first two were humility and value, and now we come to forgiveness. Those who have to engage in biblical correction, (and that will likely be everyone who is a Christian in time) must also possess an attitude of humility, value others, and a forgiving heart. These are the true marks of a Christian.
Jesus finishes this chapter with a parable that illustrates what Christian forgiveness really looks like. He wants there to be no ambiguity around Christian forgiveness. He tells us the story of a slave who could not meet his debt. The master of this slave ordered that the slave, his wife and children, and all his possessions be sold in order to settle the debt. Sound familiar? Did you have a debt with God that you could not pay? The slave fell prostrate and begged for patience and mercy from the master. The lord of that slave felt compassion for him and released him of his debt. His debt was so high that all he had was to be sold in order to settle it. That slave in turn, went out and found a fellow slave who owed him 100 days wages and refused to do the same. He threw the man in jail for three months salary. The unjust slave was unwilling to extend the same patience with his fellow slave as his lord (a non-slave) extended to him. Do we not do this to one another? God has forgiven us of so much, but we cannot forgive each other of the smallest things. The point here is that this slave was not free not to forgive in the first place. Second, if he was a recipient of mercy himself, who was he to not be the dispenser of mercy when the chance presented itself? Such unjust and hypocritical behavior is entirely out of step with Christianity.
The lord of this unjust slave heard of this mistreatment and had the slave handed over to the torturers until he repaid all that he owed. This slave was described as wicked because of his unforgiveness. His lord said to him, “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” And so we should. Remember that the process of discipline is given in the context of humility, value, the lost sheep, and forgiveness. Out of 35 verses in Matthew 18, Jesus spends 4 on the process of church discipline and the rest on the attitudes for church discipline. Jesus sums this parable up by saying, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
Forgiveness is extended, conditioned on the person’s repentance. It is sometimes in this condition that we get ourselves in trouble. Repentance is something that is immediately only known by God because only God knows the heart. But repentance is followed by steady improvement in the person’s behavior. We do not withhold forgiveness until we see this steady improvement ourselves. We take the individual at his or her word (Lu. 17:4) and provide gentle care over the course of time in an attempt to raise the person who has fallen up. Calvin comments, It must be observed that, when any man, through his light and unsteady behaviour, has exposed himself to suspicion, we may grant pardon when he asked it; and yet may do so in such a manner as to watch over his conduct for the future, that our forbearance and meekness, which proceed from the Spirit of Christ, may not become the subject of his ridicule. For we must observe the design of the our Lord himself, that we ought, by our gentleness, to assist those who have fallen to rise again.” [Calvin, John. Matthew. 366]
Repentance is a change of heart that can be viewed in a change of action. This action could be immediate or it could take some time to demonstrate. One example would be a couple who are living together outside of marriage. Repentance for this couple could be seen immediately in the couple’s decision to either get marriage or move into separate dwellings. That is repentance. It would not be possible for this couple to repent and still live together. That is precisely what repentance is not! Such an expectation is biblical and reasonable. Perhaps you have a married couple who are separated or have even divorced without biblical justification. What does repentance look like for them? Repentance means an end to the separation and the restoration of the couple living together under one roof. In the case of unbiblical divorce, repentance means remarriage so long as both of them are still living and have not remarried. (1 Cor. 7:11) Anything short of this is not biblical repentance. It reflects a rebellious heart that seeks to live apart from the law of Christ. Care must be taken not to cross the line from biblical repentance to man-centered penance. We cannot require community service, or have someone go back to everyone they have ever offended over the course of their lives in order to demonstrate true repentance. Let’s say you have someone who has cheated people repeatedly in business. This person’s behavior carries over into their Christian walk in the beginning. It is pointed out by a fellow believer and the businessman desire to repent. He should make restitution where possible within reason. Is he required to go back over all the years he has cheated others and bankrupt himself in order to demonstrate repentance? Of course he is not required to do such non-sense. Even if he did, this does not ensure true repentance. This is an outward activity that anyone could do. The best indication of repentance is that his current sinful lifestyle changes going forward and his cheating ways come to an abrupt end. All his future dealings are above board. This may take some time, but you extend forgiveness initially and then watch his behavior to see if his behavior matches his profession of repentance. You expect that it will and respond appropriately when it doesn’t. There will be relapses into sin because we all have a sin nature. Great care and patience must always be coupled with gentle accountability.
This is the biblical paradigm for sanctification. It rests on the foundation of love for God and love for our neighbor. The three components mentioned are humility, value, and forgiveness. Our motivation is to glorify God with our lives in all that we do. That goal begins with loving God and loving our brother enough to go to them, humbly, valuing them, and confront them with the single goal of restoration at the center of our action. We are sworn to help one another walk the sanctified life. That is what biblical confrontation is all about. And if the individual proves themselves to be an unbeliever, we are sworn to preserve the purity of the church above friendships with those who prove to be pseudo Christians. It is never easy to watch someone we care about refuse to respond to loving correction. It is extremely difficult to set there and listen to their name read in public as one who refuses to submit to God’s word. The emotions rage within and we are tempted to run from such unpleasant circumstances. On the flip side, some of us take a disliking to a person and do all we can to run them out of the church. Our goals for discipline are to see them vanquished from our midst for whatever reason. We gravel in the thought of getting rid of them. The refusal to engage in biblical correction and the eagerness to engage in it incorrectly or for all the wrong reasons represent unacceptable perversions of Christ’s mandate on the subject. Like everything other mandate in Scripture, it is not our place to decide if we will obey it or ignore it. Like any good disciple would do, we must decide to engage in biblical discipline, adhering to the spirit and the steps outlined Christ in Matthew 18. By doing so, we love our Lord and Master, and we love one another. By rejecting this teaching, we love neither our Lord, nor our brother.