Dealing with Sin in the Church, Part 2 (Mike Riccardi)

2 Corinthians 2:5–11   |   Sunday, March 1, 2015   |   Code: 2015-03-01-MR



We return this morning to our study of the Book of 2 Corinthians, so I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to Paul’s Second Letter to the church at Corinth.


Last week, we began our study of 2 Corinthians 2, verses 5 through 11, on the theme of dealing with sin in the church. Although we rejoice that, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we who trust in Him are freed from the penalty of sin as well as the power of sin, in the inscrutable wisdom of God Christians have not yet been set free from the presence of sin in our flesh. The Spirit within us does battle against the remaining sin in our flesh (Gal 5:17). Every Christian is at constant war, as Paul says in Romans 7:21–23. He writes, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” And so it falls to each one of us, Romans 8:13, to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit. We are to be constantly engaged in this work of the mortification of sin—the putting off of sin and the putting on of righteousness.


And the Bible tells us that in order to do that, we need the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ. In Hebrews 3:13, the author exhorts the church, “But encourage one another day after day . . . so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Sin is so deceitful that each one of us is susceptible to being hardened by it—to dropping our guard against it and allowing it to seize control of our lives. And so one way to protect ourselves against that is to put ourselves in the way of the encouragement of other believers. Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” We need the help of our brothers and sisters to encourage us, exhort us, reprove us, and correct us in the matter of our sanctification.


The people of God are called to be holy, as He is holy. And yet we constantly battle with remaining sin. That means that the church must know how to deal with sin in its midst. In a civil society, there is an absolutely essential need for law and order. For any society to avoid absolute chaos, it must have just laws that restrain evil, and it must have a system of order to enforce those laws—to punish and rehabilitate offenders. Well the same is true in the church. If the church is to avoid the absolute chaos that is the inevitable result of unchecked sin, there needs to be a system of law and order—a standard of conduct that restrains evil and promotes spiritual well-being, and a process for identifying, disciplining, and rehabilitating those who violate that law.


And we mentioned last time that the Lord Jesus has provided that law and order. He’s provided us the standard for our conduct in His Word—especially in the New Testament Scriptures. We are to conduct ourselves according to God’s Word as revealed in the Bible. But in addition to that rule of law, the Lord Jesus Christ instituted a system to be followed when the law was broken, in order to restrain sin in the church. We often call that system: “church discipline.” It’s laid out for us in Matthew 18. If there is sin in the church, there is to be private rebuke: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” If he does not repent, but persists in his sin, there is to be plural rebuke: “Take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” If he still doesn’t repent, there is to be public rebuke: his sin is made known to the church, and the church is to pursue him. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, then he is to be put out of the church and regarded as unbeliever—because in refusing to let go of his sin he’s acting like an unbeliever, and may even be showing himself to truly be an unbeliever, despite his profession of faith.


But just as it is the case in secular society that sinful people can corrupt even a just system of law and order, so also is it the case in the church. Sinful people like you and me can fail to properly execute the system of order ordained by our Lord. And that means we in the church need to be consistently reminded and properly equipped to deal with sin in the church biblically.


And as we said last week, the situation that was going on between the Apostle Paul and the Corinthians provides a prime example of how church discipline is to be carried out.


When Paul had made his second visit to Corinth, one of the men who belonged to the church was being deceived by the false apostles who were challenging Paul’s legitimacy as an Apostle of Christ. As Paul was attempting to bring clarity to the situation and put down this rebellion, this man—whom we know only as “the offender” (2 Cor 7:12)—openly defied Paul, and publicly insulted him before the church. And rather than coming to the defense of Paul and Paul’s Gospel—rather than dealing with sin in the church properly, the Corinthians did not confront this man’s factiousness. They did not take the appropriate disciplinary action. Instead, they were taken in by the false teaching of the false apostles, allowed themselves to become suspicious of Paul, and sided with this rebellious offender.


Paul returned immediately to Ephesus, and sent the Corinthians what he calls a tearful letter (2 Cor 2:4), severely reproving them for failing to deal with sin in the church properly. And we learn in chapter 7 that God had worked through that severe letter, such that the majority of the Corinthians repented of their attitude toward Paul! The sting of his severe letter made them sorrowful according to the will of God, and that godly sorrow brought about repentance. And they bore fruit in keeping with repentance, as they exercised church discipline against the offender. They carried out the process that the Lord Jesus laid out in Matthew 18, and they had put this man out of the church.


But now we learn that, by the grace of God, this man who was put out of the church had repented of his factiousness! God had humbled this man through the church’s practice of discipline. He confessed his defiance as sin, repudiated it, and desired to be restored to the fellowship of the church! But now the Corinthians—who at one time were so ambivalent about the man’s sin that they were hesitant to discipline him at all—now they realize what a terrible sin it was to take sides against Christ’s Apostle, and they’re unwilling to forgive this man and receive him back into the church!


So in 2 Corinthians 2, verses 5 to 11, Paul is writing to them about properly executing church discipline. In this passage, he instructs the Corinthians as to how they are to restore this man who has been disciplined out of the church, but who is now repentant. Follow along as I read the text. “But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree—in order not to say too much—to all of you. 6Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, 7so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. 10But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, 11so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.”


As Paul instructs the church at Corinth as to how to properly carry out its responsibility in regards to church discipline, he outlines five stages of faithful and successful church discipline. And we examined the first two stages in detail last week, which I want to review briefly.


Review: I. Harmful Sin (v. 5)


The first stage of church discipline is, of course, the sin that makes discipline necessary. Stage number one is harmful sin. And we focused particularly on the corporate nature of sin in the church. Paul says in verse 5: “But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree—in order not to say too much—to all of you.”


See, even though there had been a conflict between this man and the Apostle Paul, sin’s harm is never restricted to the offender and the offended. Because of the essential interconnectedness of the body of Christ, sin in even one part of the body brings sorrow to the entire church. 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” You see, just as the health of one member of my physical body affects the health of the other members, so also is it the case in the body of Christ. The spiritual health of the body as a whole depends on the spiritual health of each member. Unrepentant sin in the body of Christ is a spiritual cancer. If left unchecked, sin will infect the whole body until it destroys all spiritual life. Because sin is so serious, it must be confronted and dealt with.


Review: II. Corporate Discipline (vv. 6, 9–10)


And that brought us to the second stage of faithful church discipline, which is the discipline itself. Stage number one is harmful sin. Stage number two is corporate discipline. Paul speaks about this corporate discipline in verse 6. He speaks in verse of “this punishment which was inflicted by the majority.”


And we mentioned that this word that gets translated “punishment,” is a technical, legal term that refers to an official disciplinary act (Kistemaker, 78; MacArthur, 56). And note, Paul says that this official act of discipline was carried out “by the majority.” That is to say, the church had a formal gathering, and deliberated upon this matter, and rendered a verdict. This is none other than the outworking of the process of formal, organized, official church discipline.


This is what Jesus spoke about in Matthew 18:17. If a man refuses to repent after receiving a private rebuke, a plural rebuke, and a public rebuke, Jesus commands His church, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, consider him as one who is outside the fellowship of the people of God. This is excommunication. The sinner who refuses to repent after repeated confrontation is not permitted to associate with the church. In a form of spiritual tough love, this person is not to be admitted to the Lord’s Table, and is to be excluded from social relations with other church members.


While some might think this to be spiteful or harsh, it is, in actuality, the most loving thing that the church can do for a sinning brother. He needs to be made to feel the error of his ways, and though it may be painful, excluding him from the life of the church may be the only way to induce that godly sorrow that leads to repentance.


And we observed something of the seriousness of these issues of sin and repentance in the church, when we read about the church’s work of binding and loosing. In Matthew 18:18, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” And in John 20:23, He says, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” This means that when the people of God follow this process of confrontation of sin and plead with sinners to repent, their deliberation on earth reflects the reality of things in heaven. The church is given the authority to ratify what has already taken place in heaven. In a real sense, the church speaks for God Himself and says, “Your sins are bound to you,” or “Your sins are loosed from you.”


Church discipline is no trifle, friends. It is not to be taken lightly. It’s not as if it’s just a disagreement between you and your elders as to whether or not you’ve sinned. God Himself works through the deliberations and decisions of His church. This is God’s own mechanism for binding and loosing on earth what He Himself has bound or loosed in heaven. Even Paul, as an Apostle, submits himself to the church’s ruling in cases of discipline. That’s why he says in 2 Corinthians 2:10, “But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also.” “Whatever you, as the local church, have loosed, I recognize as having been loosed in heaven, and do forgive also.” And while no church or group of elders are promised to be invested with infallibility, it is a serious matter for any professing Christian to stand obstinately against the correction of the assembly of God’s people and of the elders that God has placed over them. In many cases, it is the telltale sign that such a person has never truly repented of their sins, is enslaved to their pride, and is now finally showing themselves to be what they always have been: an unbeliever who has been self-deceived. At the very least, this is how the Lord Jesus instructs us to regard them.


III. Genuine Repentance (v. 6)


But faithful and successful church discipline does not stop with excommunication. As we continue on in this passage, we see very clearly that the goal of all correction, all rebuke, all discipline, is that our sinning brother might be brought to repentance, would forsake his sin, and would be restored to fellowship.


That brings us to the third stage of faithful church discipline. First there is harmful sin, and secondly there is corporate discipline. The third stage of faithful church discipline is, number three: genuine repentance. Look again at verse 6. Paul says, “Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority.”


The punishment was sufficient. The corporate discipline that the church carried out upon the offender had achieved its intended effect. He says again in verse 9, “For to this end also I wrote. . . .” “I wrote so that you would administer discipline, and you have. And that punishment is now sufficient. It has served the purpose for which it was instituted and produced a godly sorrow, which led to genuine repentance.” Friends, this is the goal of church discipline. Church discipline is not some sadistic form of vindictive retribution for proud men with wounded egos. The aim of church discipline is not to embarrass people; it’s not to shame them, or ostracize them. It’s not to subjugate them and show them who’s boss. No, church discipline is not retaliatory, but remedial; not retributive, but restorative. The goal is to bring the sinning brother or sister to genuine repentance.


We see that emphasis in all of the major texts about church discipline. Matthew 18:15 speaks about winning your brother. You are to go to him in private and show him his fault with the hope that he will listen to you, see his sin demonstrated from Scripture, confess it, and forsake it. That is repentance. And Jesus says if that happens, you have won your brother. You have gained him back. And turn over to 1 Corinthians 5. Paul is speaking about another discipline case in the church of Corinth—the man who had been sleeping with his step-mother. And even in the case of such gross immorality not even named among the pagans, the aim of Paul’s discipline is restorative. 1 Corinthians 5:5: “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan”—that’s how serious the punishment of church discipline is, that excommunication can be likened to delivering someone over to Satan. But note the purpose: “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” “My goal is that the sinfulness of his flesh would be destroyed. I need him to feel the weight of the seriousness of his sin, so that he would forsake his sin, and finally be saved on that last day.”


And the same is so in 2 Thessalonians 3:14. Paul writes there, “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.” Why? Just because we like shaming people? No! The sinning brother needs to be made to feel the weight of his error. He needs to recognize that failure to repent of sin, even after repeated and patient warnings from brothers and sisters in the Lord, is absolutely perilous. It is, in effect, to set yourself against the entire community of the people of God and to say, “I know better than all of you!” Dear friends, that is the kind of pride that will destroy a man’s soul! If that is what a man is in his spirit, then he is revealing himself to be an unbeliever—a man unchanged in the depths of his heart, not awakened by the divine light of regenerating grace, but still dead in his trespasses and sins. His church attendance record doesn’t matter! The check marks on the Bible-reading plan don’t mean a thing! If that spirit is left unchecked, that man will meet Christ on the Day of Judgment, and he will hear those haunting words, “I never knew you.” And because we can’t stand to think of our friend—one who has been entrusted into our care—meeting such a miserable fate, we aim at his genuine repentance, even if it means that he must be made to feel the shame of being excluded from the fellowship of the people of God because it is that shame that leads to godly sorrow, and it is godly sorrow which leads to genuine repentance.


Paul speaks about this in 2 Corinthians chapter 7. Turn there with me. In chapter 7, Paul is recounting how he was refreshed by Titus’s report that the Corinthians had repented. And he speaks there of the sorrow that he caused them by his letter. 2 Corinthians 7, starting in verse 8: “For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while—9I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. 10For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation.”


So you see, even though Paul’s severe letter had made the Corinthians sorrowful, he rejoices! He doesn’t rejoice in their grief in and of itself, but that they were made sorrowful unto repentance. You see, friends, discipline is designed to sting. It is designed to make an unrepentant sinner sorrowful. Because it is not until the sinner has been truly made to feel the seriousness of his sin that he is able to genuinely repent of that sin.


Genuine repentance is not merely an intellectual acknowledgement of having sinned. It is not less than that; but if your “repentance” remains only in the intellectual realm, it has fallen short of genuine repentance. Pharaoh is the perfect example of that, isn’t he? God sends plague after plague, and after each one Pharaoh “repents” and decides that he’ll let the children of Israel go. But as soon as the pressure is off, he shows that his repentance was not genuine at all. Why? What does the text say? “He hardened his heart.” You see, you can change your mind all you want. You can think differently about your sin in the evening and be right back to it in the morning, because your heart is hard. The heart is what matters in repentance. That’s why Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those who mourn over their sin in Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Because it is only those who feel the shame of their sin—who feel the offense it is to the holiness of God and who feel the pollution it is to the purity of the church—it is only those who truly mourn over their sin that turn from it in genuine repentance, and therefore experience the genuine comfort of forgiveness.


This is what we’re after when we deal with sin in the church. It’s true: when we put a sinning man or woman out of the church, we aim to make them sorrowful, absolutely. But we do not aim at their sorrow in and of itself. We desire that they come to grips with the seriousness of their offense—that they would be made to grieve over the sin that has offended God and polluted the church—that they would be made to feel the sorrow that is according to the will of God, which produces a genuine repentance without regret, and leads to salvation (cf. 2 Cor 7:10).


IV. Comforting Forgiveness (vv. 7, 9–10)


But what happens then? After there has been harmful sin, corporate discipline, and genuine repentance, the fourth stage of successful church discipline is, number four: comforting forgiveness. Look again at verses 6 and 7: “Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, 7so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” And here we glean a principle that needs to take root in the soil of every Christian’s heart: where there is repentance, there is forgiveness. When a sinner repents, the church forgives. And though the original events of this text lead me to apply this principle first of all to cases of corporate church discipline, I want you to hear this point in light of your own duty to forgive those who sin against you personally. When a sinner repents, Christians forgive.


But the Corinthians were not abiding by this principle. Remember, they had come to grips with how serious it was for them to take sides with the offender against the Apostle Paul. Through Paul’s severe letter, they had experienced that godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Turn over to chapter 7 verse 11. Paul speaks about the fruit of Corinthians’ godly sorrow and genuine repentance as it related to the offender.  He writes, “For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!” They repudiated their factiousness! Though they had been hesitant to discipline him, they were now indignant with the man who had challenged Paul’s authority! Paul speaks of their zeal, and their avenging of wrongdoing in this matter of disciplining him.


And by the grace of God, corporate discipline had had its intended effect; it brought this sinning brother to repentance! But the problem is: the Corinthians weren’t satisfied! They refused to forgive him and welcome him back into the church! In fact, the fact that Paul says in verse 6 that the punishment was sufficient, and in verse 7, “on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him” implies that they were looking to impose even severer punishment! They believed that he needed to suffer further before being restored to the church (cf. MacArthur, 57). He needed to be made to wallow in the grief of his sin. In a real sense, the Corinthians were demanding that this man do penance. His repentance was not enough; they were requiring that he now further atone for his sins by suffering further shame, further grief, and further sorrow. Once he had felt bad enough about his sin, then they would welcome him back.


But friends, self-atoning penance like that is no more acceptable to the true church than it is to God Himself! Think for a moment about the times when you find yourself on your face before God, confessing a familiar sin to Him and asking for forgiveness again. He has every right to be indignant with you! He has every right to rake you over the coals for sinning against Him again—especially after He has forgiven you countless times after you’ve confessed that same sin over and over again! But when you come to your Father in repentance, seeking forgiveness for your sins and restored fellowship with Him, He doesn’t require you to perform a laundry list of duties before He welcomes you back! He doesn’t say, “Nope, you need to sit in the dog house a little while and feel worse about what you’ve done.”


And why not?! Because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient atonement for all your sins! Because when the Son of God hung on that cross, and received in Himself the full exercise of the wrath of His Father against the sins of His people, He did not fail to nail every single one of your sins to that cross! He did not dodge the slightest stroke of His Father’s rod! He drank every last drop of that miserable cup of His Father’s wrath, and cried, “It is finished!” There is nothing more that you could do to pay for your sins! And to suppose that you can pay for them—whether it be by reciting Hail Marys, or by wallowing in your grief trying to feel sorry enough so God will take you back—is absolute blasphemy! You could fill the oceans with sorrow, and there would never be enough sorrow to atone for even a single sin!


And if that is the case with God’s forgiveness of you, dear friends, how can it be any different with your forgiveness of your brothers and sisters?! Or how could a church demand from its members more than God Himself demands of them?! When a sinner repents, church discipline has achieved the purpose for which it was instituted. For the church to withhold forgiveness at that point is to abandon the remedial and restorative blessings of discipline, and to move into cruel domineering (cf. Calvin, 151). Philip Edgcumbe Hughes writes, “Discipline which is so inflexible as to leave no place for repentance and reconciliation has ceased to be truly Christian; for it is no less a scandal to cut off the penitent sinner from all hope of re-entry into the comfort and security of the fellowship of the redeemed community than it is to permit flagrant wickedness to continue unpunished in the Body of Christ” (66–67).


And do you know what the fruit of that kind of domineering over-lordship is? Utter despair. Paul says, “Forgive him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” The word, “overwhelmed,” is the Greek term for “swallowed,” “drowned,” or “devoured.” Paul is concerned that this repentant man be forgiven and comforted, lest he be swallowed up and drowned by excessive sorrow. Now, it might sound a bit melodramatic, but think for a moment about the sheer power of the despair for ever being forgiven. If you have sinned grievously, and, because of your stubborn refusal of the correction of your brothers and sisters, have been put out of the fellowship of the church, but now by the grace of God you have owned your folly as sin and have sought to abandon your error and be restored to God’s people, and you go to them expressing repentance, but they tell you that you’re not forgiven and still not welcome——how helpless and alone would you feel?


You would feel as if there is absolutely nothing that could ever be done to help your estate. It’s one thing to feel like a stranger and alien among the world; they are of their father and you are of yours. But to be made to feel like you’re a stranger and alien even among the people of God is a thought that is just unbearable. It would be to make a spiritual orphan out of you. How long would it be before your flesh convinced you that there’s no point to repentance—no point to pursuing holiness at all? If repentance from sin gets you isolated and cut off from the people of God, it will only be a matter of time before you plunge headlong into sin without any hope of ever being restored to fellowship. Friends, the power to fight sin comes from the freedom of Christ’s forgiveness. For the church to withhold forgiveness from repentant sinners is to imprison those whom Christ had made free—to cripple them, to weigh them down with despair.


That kind of sorrow is the sorrow that devours a person—that swallows him up. You see, just as properly-administered discipline brings godly sorrow, so poorly-administered discipline brings worldly sorrow. “Godly sorrow,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” God does not mean for believers to be totally consumed by grief over their sin; He wants them to experience the godly sorrow that leads to a repentance without regret. Excessive sorrow is crippling for a believer’s spiritual life. It can be so unbearable that it even leads to death. And there’s no better illustration of that than Judas. Judas had felt remorse over what he had done, so much so that he went to return the blood money he was given. But when he saw that there was nothing he could do to take back what he had done, he became so overwhelmed with sorrow that he hanged himself.


One writer, commenting on this situation Paul was dealing with, says, “Any further discipline would be strictly punitive and could only lead to grief of a worldly sort, unrelieved by any redemptive value” (Furnish, 162). And so Paul says, “In order for that not to happen, you must forgive and comfort him.” As surely as correction and discipline are to follow sin, forgiveness is to follow repentance. Just as it is grossly unfaithful for a church to fail to deal with sin in its midst by failing to administer discipline, it is just as grossly unfaithful for a church to fail to forgive a sinner who repents. Charles Hodge captured it nicely when he wrote, “Undue severity is as much to be avoided as undue leniency” (413).


Now, why is undue severity just as unfaithful as undue leniency? Because it is so outrageously out of tune with the Gospel! I’ve always been struck by the utter wisdom of the Holy Spirit to place the parable of the unmerciful slave immediately after Christ’s teaching on church discipline. Back in Matthew 18, immediately after Christ finishes speaking about binding and loosing, Peter pipes up. And he asks, not, “Lord, how many times should I be forgiven if I’m a bonehead and sin against my brother over and over again?” but, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” And Jesus said, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven. As often as there is repentance, so often is there to be forgiveness.” And then he tells the story of a man who owed his master an incalculable debt—ten thousand talents was equivalent to 150,000 years’ wages! And of course he couldn’t pay the debt, and so he and his whole family were to be sold into slavery. And the man threw himself to the ground and begged his master to give him time to pay. And the master had such compassion on him that he didn’t just give him time to pay, but forgave the entire debt! But then the slave came across one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii—equivalent to about 100 days’ wages—and he grabbed his friend by the throat and demanded to be paid! And just as he had done with his master, his friend fell to the ground and begged him to give him time to pay. And this man, who had just been forgiven, threw his fellow slave in prison until he was paid back a debt that was 0.000183% of the debt that he was just forgiven!


Now what would you say about such a man? This is absolutely absurd! This is an utterly wicked man! He has no appreciation whatsoever of what it meant for him to be forgiven of his debt! Well, the other slaves went and told the master what this man had done. And he summoned his slave to him and said, verse 32, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” And then Jesus comments, “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”


Friends, we who have been declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s work for us have been forgiven an incalculable debt! Not 150,000  years, but eternity! In hell! That is what we deserved! That is the just payment that our sins demanded! And because of the unspeakable grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t pay a thing! We have been forgiven! And yet what happens? We are so prideful, that when our brother or sister sins against us, we are intransigent! “It isn’t right! She sinned against me! And I demand justice!”


“But she’s come and confessed. She’s admitted her sin and has asked for your forgiveness.”


“I don’t care! She’s not getting off that easy!”


Now, you don’t always give voice to that kind of severity, but whenever you refuse to forgive someone who has come to you in repentance and has asked for your forgiveness, that is the reality that is going on in your heart.


Do you understand the Gospel? Do you understand the unspeakable magnitude of your sin against a holy God? Do you understand that the perfect sacrifice of Christ has paid your debt, so that you are forgiven? Then how in the world can you, who have sinned against God and have been spared the tortures of hell, refuse to forgive such an insignificant crime committed against yourself, and insist on your pound of flesh? It simply cannot happen. For those who have truly experienced the forgiveness that the Gospel brings, it is an utter delight to extend forgiveness to others who trespass against us! Those who have been forgiven by God are eager to forgive those who sin against them, because it gives them an opportunity to be an imitator of their Father! That’s why in Matthew 6:14 and 15 Jesus says, “If you forgive others, God will forgive you, but if you don’t forgive others God won’t forgive you.” He’s not saying that salvation is conditioned upon forgiveness. He’s saying that if you can profess to be forgiven of such an incalculable debt as eternity in hell, and then refuse forgiveness to those who come to you in repentance, then you give evidence that your heart is a stranger to the grace of God in Christ, and that you aren’t even a believer yourself.


Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also as forgiven you.” Colossians 3:12 and 13: “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; 13bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” Do you see the Gospel-logic? Forgiven people forgive.


And so Paul says, “The punishment already past is sufficient. He’s repented! Forgive this man, and comfort him, otherwise he might be swallowed up by sorrow and despair.”


“But Paul, don’t you remember how he stood up and defied you in front of the whole church—”


“Don’t worry about me,” verse 10, “I’ve forgiven him—if even there was anything to forgive.”


“Anything to forgive? How can you say that?”


“Dear friends, because I am ever so conscious of the sin that I’ve been forgiven by Christ. And in light of the cross, sin against me looks a thing so miniscule and infinitesimal that I’m not sure it even registers as a crime.” You see? That’s how forgiven people talk.




Do you talk like that? And more than talk like it: do you act like that? And even more than acting like it: does your heart pulse with that kind of forgiving spirit? Is it the reflex of your heart to forgive a sinning brother or sister?


There are some of you in this room who have to answer, “No,” to those questions. Too often, I have to answer, “No,” to them. And that answer can mean one of two things. It can mean that we’ve lost our grasp on the enormity of God’s forgiveness of us—that the spiritual sight of the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ has become clouded in the eyes of our heart. We have somehow been distracted from the amazing grace of God, and are failing to bring the Gospel of Christ to bear on our lives.


And the remedy for that, friends, is to look to Christ afresh. It is to lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles, and to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:1–2). It is to mourn over our sin in the light of His glory, and it is to be comforted by the reality that He has obeyed where we have failed—and that God’s forgiveness is freely granted to those who by faith have had Christ’s record of righteousness imputed to their account. And it is to behold the loveliness of the Triune God, who forgives sin so lavishly, so freely, and so enduringly. And it is to have the heart warmed by the sight of that loveliness—so that all hardness of heart is melted away in His presence, so that we can forgive our sinning brothers and sisters, as Jesus says, “from your heart” (Matt 18:35). To my brothers and sisters, who are sinning against God by withholding forgiveness from others, look to Christ afresh. See in Him so much greater of a satisfaction than the false-pleasure that unforgiveness promises. And repent. Be freed to open your heart in forgiveness to your brothers and sisters in Christ, and be reconciled (cf. Matt 5:23–24).


But there’s another possibility. Failing to forgive one another from the heart can mean that you’ve simply lost sight of God’s forgiveness of us. But it may also mean that you’ve never experienced that forgiveness in the first place. For all of your professions of faith—all the years you attended church, all the years you called yourself a Christian—your unwillingness to forgive reveals a heart of stone that has never been changed into a heart of flesh. To hold onto grudges, to nurse bitterness, to brood in resentment—those are evidences of a natural human heart, untouched by the grace of God and devoid of the divine life of regeneration. Your unforgiveness is evidence that you’re not a Christian at all.


And the remedy for that, friends, is to look to Christ. It is to raise your eyes to the cross, and to see in that cross how unspeakably offensive your sin is to a holy God—that sin is so abhorrent to God’s nature and character that He must punish it with the utmost severity! But it is also to see in that cross the great love of God demonstrated toward you, that He should give His only Son—His innocent Son, His righteous Son—to bear in His own person the full measure of divine wrath against the very sins that you committed. It is to see the Son of God laying aside His glory—to see the Author of Life humbly submitting Himself to the most shameful kind of death—in order to pay the debt that your sin incurred but which you could never pay back. And in seeing Him there—in beholding the awful payment that your sin demanded—it is to mourn over your wretchedness, and to cry out to God in repentance, begging His forgiveness on the basis of that perfect sacrifice. Dear friend, if you’ve never truly turned from your sins and trusted in Christ alone for righteousness—if you’ve never tasted the sweetness of divine forgiveness—I plead with you to repent and believe the Gospel today.


Well, we almost made it, but we’ve still got one more stage of successful church discipline left. In our next time together, we’ll talk about loving reaffirmation, as well as the purpose of disciplining and restoring sinners, as it relates to the spiritual warfare between Christ’s Church and Her enemy. Be sure not to miss that.