Our hearts always break when one departs from their faith and refuses to listen to any of the steps of discipline outlined in Matt. 18:15-20. There is private confrontation which goes unheeded. There is an additional two or three witnesses and they have seen the impenitence and their admonitions go unheeded. Finally, the church is informed and becomes active in seeking the offender’s repentance. The praying church, in her pleading, is ignored. The very voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd, is ignored.
The final step of obligation is to put out the offender. This is an ecclesiastical judgment which reflects the judgment of Christ, hence the significance of “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst.” Jesus adds His testimony to the witnesses. Jesus then says the decision the church has made had already been made in heaven (Matt. 18:18-20). It is a sobering event. It is indeed an event. It is a sobering obligation if the church is to be faithful. Faithfulness is not always easy or comfortable. Sometimes faithfulness brings tears.
But what happens when the offender repents? Jesus says, “You have won Your brother.” Although this phrase is not repeated in each step, it is most definitely implied. If he listens to the two or three witnesses, you have won your brother. If he listens to the church, you have won your brother. You have won your brother is another way of saying that the offender, because he listened to Jesus through the church, shows he is a brother. How sweet is this repentance! It is the best possible outcome when someone strays. It is a joyful event. It is a saving event.
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).
When a saving event like this happens, someone has been “the brand plucked from the burning” (Zech. 3:1-2). The one who has turned has been snatched from Satan’s clutches. However, Satan is not done. There is another danger the church faces when a sinner repents. That danger comes not from taking sin too lightly (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1-5), but from being more scrupulous than God. Some are shocked that certain people can commit certain sins. A thorough reading of the Bible would disabuse us of such shock, but it nevertheless remains among those who have a streak of self-righteousness. Paul addresses the danger of successful discipline in 2 Cor. 2:5-11.
Paul is dealing with a grievous offender in 2 Cor. In all likelihood, this offender is not the same man in 1 Cor. 5, but rather one who sinned, probably against Paul and the Corinthian body. The sorrow this man caused, the disappointment he inflicted, was immense. The body responded to Paul’s instruction and disciplined this man. And he repented! But some were not satisfied. Some believed that his repentance was not good enough, the punishment and consequences were not severe enough. Paul then exhorts the Corinthians to “forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him” (2 Cor. 2:7-8). For Paul, forgiveness and affirmation of love was a test of the Corinthians’ obedience. Just as sure as discipline was a test of obedience (would they do what they were supposed to do?) so also love and forgiveness was a test of obedience.
Paul says he has forgiven and they should too. Then Paul tells them what is at stake. “So that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11). If the Corinthians would not forgive and love this man, they were opening themselves to the strategy of Satan. If a church refuses to discipline, then Satan takes advantage of the church. But if the church seeks to faithfully deal with offenders, then that advantage is removed.
But Satan does not throw in the towel. He looks for a new angle. The new angle is to cause the offender excessive sorrow through the unforgiveness and lack of acceptance by the body. If the offender is grieved by the lack of forgiveness, then he is not rejoicing in grace. If he is not rejoicing in grace, then he is not moving ahead. Satan’s scheme now shifts to the attitudes within the body. If he cannot ensnare them through taking sin too lightly, then he will ensnare them by causing them to have different standards than Jesus Christ.
Once the offender repents, the matter is done. Certainly, the repentance must have the marks of godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10). Certainly, there may be consequences because of the sin, especially if the man is in leadership. Certainly, there may be counseling and help so that the repentant offender stays on the right track.
But it is not the church’s job to exact a pound of flesh, or to impose one more ounce of discipline than is warranted in the Word. So, let us, who take God’s Word seriously, take all of God’s Word seriously and make certain that when discipline is successful we don’t allow Satan to make that a danger to the church. Let us be as zealous in our forgiveness and acceptance as we were in our rebukes in seeking their repentance.