As we come to the end of our studies on the attitudes of the heart, what we quickly realize is that each and everyone of these attitudes is, in some measure, simply a reflection of the character of Jesus Christ. Each of these is a byproduct of the Spirit of Christ working in us, making us more and more like Him (Rom 8:9; Col 1:27; Gal 4:19). This study’s attitude of forgiveness is no different. It is a remarkable attribute of Jesus Christ who came into this world to forgive sinners (Acts 5:31; 1 Tim 1:15; Eph 1:7). Since all Christians have been the beneficiaries of Christ’s forgiveness, He now commands that we also offer forgiveness to one another (Matt 6:14-15; Eph 4:32; Matt 18:21-35).
Ephesians 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
In the eighteenth chapter of Matthew we find the very first mention of the church. Here Christ is giving instruction to his disciples as to how to handle the issue of forgiveness in the church. As we progress through our look at this attitude of forgiveness, we will consider the Procedure, Perpetuity and Propagation of Forgiveness as found in Matthew 18:15-35.
1. The Procedure for Forgiveness – Matthew 18:15-20
The very fact that Jesus saw fit to give these instructions regarding forgiveness is proof that he expected there to be offenses in the church. As a congregation of imperfect people who still struggle with sin we will, at times, offend one another. We will sometimes unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) hurt each other’s feelings. These offenses are unfortunate but not unexpected. Since we know that these offenses will come, we should prepare for them by learning the Biblical procedure for forgiveness.
First of all, Jesus tells us that if a brother sins against us we are to approach him in confidence.
a. Approach Your Brother in Confidence
Matthew 18:15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
When we are sinned against in the church and find that this offense has damaged our relationship with a brother or sister, our first priority should be the restoration of that relationship. Or as Christ said, we should seek to “gain our brother.” Being motivated with a sincere desire to gain our brother we should then approach our brother privately or “in confidence.” Think. Why do you think it is important to approach your brother privately and to tell him his fault only between “thee and him alone?”
Oftentimes when we are offended, our first reaction is one of pride. We immediately seek to justify ourselves or to condemn those who have offended us. How do we do this? We begin to look for others who will offer a sympathetic ear to us. Getting others to take up our offense is a surefire way to convince ourselves that we are justified in our bitterness or in withholding our forgiveness.
If, as Christians in the church, we are operating from a starting point of a love for the brethren, then our initial reaction to offenses will not be one of vindictiveness but of love. We will not gossip. We will not tear down the reputation of the sinning brother. We will not share the offense with anyone until we have first sought to be reconciled to our brother.
Consider the following benefits of approaching your brother privately:
- If it turns out that the offense is simply a misunderstanding then you have protected yourself from spreading misleading gossip.
- If the sinning brother readily admits his fault and you and he are promptly reconciled, then you have ensured that others will not have a lasting, inaccurate, or negative impression of him. Otherwise, those you have shared the offense with may continue to harbour bitterness toward your brother long after the two of you have reconciled.
- By refusing to share the offense with others you have protected yourself from reacting emotionally and slandering your brother through gossip. It is possible for your reaction to the offense to be a greater sin than the offense itself (James 1:19-20).
Even when we are offended, our reaction to our fellow Christians must be driven by love. In love we will seek his wellbeing and his restoration. We will seek to protect his reputation and to be reconciled to him quickly. Any other motivation in approaching our brother is invalid and unbiblical.
Should We Always Approach Our Brother?
Is there ever a time when it is O.K. to just allow an offense to pass without confronting it? Not only is it O.K. but in some instances it is preferred. Consider the following principles:
I. The Principle of Graceful Suffering
Matthew 5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Paul taught the principle of graceful suffering when he dealt with the issue of offenses in the Corinthian church. In chapter 6 of First Corinthians he tells the church how they should have responded when they were sinned against: 1 Cor 6:6-7. Q. How were the Corinthians handling their disagreements with one another?
Paul told the Corinthians that they would have been better off if they just learned to “take wrong” and allow themselves to be “defrauded.” Lawsuits were widespread in Corinth. Neighbours would take each other to court over even small violations. The church had been so influenced by its culture that it too treated one another with contempt. There was a constant drive for “justice”, that is, getting what each felt they were owed by others. Paul told the Corinthians that the behaviour of the world had no place in the church (cf. 1 Cor 13:5).
If each and everyone of us got what we deserved we would be in Hell. Far be it from the forgiven Christian to seek to exact justice on every brother or sister who offends them (Matt 18:32-33). Paul’s priority was graceful suffering. It would have been far better if each member, when offended, simply suffered without harbouring bitterness (Eph 4:31; Heb 12:14-15; James 3:14), and did not retaliate.
There is another principle that we must consider when deciding whether or not we should approach a brother who has sinned against us and that is The Principle of God’s Sovereignty.
II. The Principle of God’s Sovereignty
Before we become too upset about offenses, we should remember that God is the sovereign of the universe. God knows everything that we encounter in this life because He is sovereign over circumstance. It may be that he has brought suffering into our lives for our own good.
James 1:2-5 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
We should not become upset every time we face trials in our lives. These difficulties actually have a maturing affect in us. Through hardship we learn patience and this continuing patience produces spiritual maturity. Whether our trials are financial, circumstancial, or relational, they all contribute to our spiritual growth as we learn to respond to them in a way that pleases God.
Consider Joseph as an example:
Genesis 50:19-20 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Joseph responded “am I in the place of God?” He recognized God as the Sovereign One who orchestrated every hardship for a purpose. He knew that God could overrule the evil intentions of his brothers and turn their blasting into blessing. Joseph’s understanding of God’s sovereignty enabled him to suffer graciously. Now consider the example of David: 2 Samuel 16:5-12. Q. In this passage we find David and his “mighty men” being confronted by a man from the house of Saul, named Shimei. As Shimei saw David he began to curse him calling him a “bloody man” and “son of Belial” while throwing stones at him. According to verse 9, how did Abishai respond?
David was a king, surrounded by his men of war. He could have easily avenged himself upon Shimei. But David, understanding that God is sovereign, chose rather to let Shimei curse him. David knew that it could have been God who allowed this to happen and that God could avenge him this wrong if He saw fit.
Both David and Joseph offer us tremendous examples of suffering graciously in light of God’s sovereignty. They absorbed the offenses of others and did not react, knowing that God was in control. Proverbs 19:11 summarizes the principle of graceful suffering well: The discretion of a man deferreth his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.
Now consider a third principle – The Principle of God’s Justice.
III. The Principle of God’s Justice
1 Peter 2:21-23 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
Q. What example should we follow when we suffer?
When Christ was beaten and vilified he did not respond in kind. He did not stoop to the level of his abusers and threaten or revile back. This is a remarkable example especially considering the fact that Christ was absolutely sinless and any suffering that he experienced was unjust and undeserved. Christ did not respond to his accusers. Instead, he “commited himself to him that judgeth righteously.” Jesus is teaching us here that there is only one who always judges with righteous judgement and that is God himself (John 8:50). It is far better to commit our cause to God, the righteous judge, than to constantly question whether or not our handling of a situation is right. We know that however God works out the situation, it will be in perfect harmony with his justice.
Psalms 35:1 Of David. Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!
Psalms 9:4 For you have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne, giving righteous judgment.
Psalms 75:7 but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.
The Christian should rely on God as the righteous judge. If we are sinned against and are unsure whether or not we should respond, or how we should handle the situation, it may be better to simply commit our cause to God in prayer and trust him to vindicate us if need be.
A willingness to suffer graciously, a recognition of God’s sovereignty and a submission to God’s justice will go a long way in preventing conflicts in the church. If each of us were to practice these three principles, offenses would rarely escalate to the level of confrontation.