The church is a community of men and women who have been saved by the sovereign grace of God. Each of us is progressing in our spiritual growth and slowly becoming more and more like Jesus Christ through the working of his Holy Spirit. This is what we call sanctification. Although salvation happens in an instant, sanctification is a process which continues throughout our entire lives.
The fact that sanctification is a process is an important thing to remember. It means that we are all “works in progress”. We still possess a fallen human nature that makes us suceptible to sin. All of us at times sin and very often these sins are against other people – including our fellow believers. For this reason, the attitude of forgiveness is essential to healthy relationships within the church.
There will come times in your life when you will be offended by others – including fellow church members. This is simply the reality of trying to live our faith in a fallen world. So, how do we respond when others offend us? For the remainder of this study we will examine the Biblical mandate and method of forgiveness.
A Parable of Forgiveness
Matthew 18:23-35 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
As the king in this parable takes account of all that he is owed, a servant is brought to him who owes him ten thousand talents. This is a huge amount that this servant was entirely incapable of paying (v25). The king ordered this man, his wife and his children to be sold into slavery in order to pay the debt. The servant fell down and begged the king to spare him and his family.
The application is unmistakable, we all owe a debt incurred by our sin against God. We are incapable of making payment for this sin, but God, through his compassionate forgiveness, has freed us from this debt (Rom 6:18-22). Just as God has forgiven us a debt that we could not pay (Eph 2:1; Rom 5:6-8; Col 2:13), the king in this parable has forgiven his servant.
Christ’s parable then takes a surprising turn. This man, who was forgiven an insurmountable debt by his compassionate lord, turned around and withheld forgiveness from his fellow servant. Worse than that, his fellow servant owed him far less than what he had owed. This man had his fellow servant cast into prison until he could pay the paltry sum. When others witnessed the servants heartlessness, especially in light of the compassion he was shown, they went and told his lord.
Just like the servant in this parable, we are all indebted to God because of our sin (Matt 6:12); we are all unable to pay the debt that our sin has incurred (Col 2:13; Eph 2:1; Rom 5:6); and, we are all undeserving of the forgiveness that our Lord has given us (Rom 5:8). Futhermore, just as this servant was expected to forgive his fellow servants in light of his lord’s forgiveness, we too are expected to forgive fellow Christians in light of the forgiveness that our Lord has given us.
The unforgiving servant in this parable is a striking illustration of the unforgiving Christian. Using this servant as an example, consider what happens when the Christian forgets that he is indebted, unable, and undeserving: v28. He withholds forgiveness for far less than what God has forgiven him
v30. He shows far less compassion than God has shown him
v31. He forfeits peace and unity among his fellows
v34. He faces the discipline of his Lord
God expects us to show the same compassionate forgiveness to our fellow Christians that he has shown to us. Our indebtedness to God for his unconditional forgiveness should lead us to freely forgive our brethren. God is so concerned that we forgive others as he has forgiven us that he refuses worship from and rejects the prayer of the one who does not forgive others (Matt 6:14-15; Matt 5:23-24).
The Procedure for Forgiveness
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 the need for forgiveness, we will consider the Procedure, Perpetuity and Propagation of Forgiveness as found in Matthew 18:15-35.
Matthew 18:15-35 “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. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
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 eachother’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.
Over the next couple of studies we will learn the proper way to respond to offenses in the church. We will learn that we must Approach Our Brother in Confidence, Approach Our Brother with Counsel, Approach Our Brother as a Congregation and finally, if all else fails, Remove Our Brother from Our Company. Each of these steps builds upon the other and the hope is that an offense never escalates past the first one.
First of all, Jesus tells us that if we a brother sins against us we are to approach him in confidence.
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 (“in confidence”).
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 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 attitude toward 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 well-being 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 unscriptural and invalid.
Should We Always Approach Our Brother?
Is there ever a time when it is OK to just allow an offense to pass without ever confronting our brother? Not only is it OK but in some instances it is preferred. Consider the following three Biblical principles and how they can help us to simply allow offenses to go without the need for confrontation.
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.
Here Jesus is teaching us the principle of graceful suffering. That is, when others offend us, we are not to stoop to their level and treat them as they have treated us. But we are to respond with grace, exhibiting the same meekness and humility that Christ did when he was abused and reviled (1 Peter 2:23).
Paul taught the principle of graceful suffering when he had to deal 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.
Lawsuits were widespread in Corinth. Neighbours would take eachother to court over even the smallest of violations. The church had been so influenced by its ungodly culture that it too treated one another with contempt. There was a constant drive for justice. They demanded what they felt they were owed by others – even under threat of a lawsuit! Paul told the Corinthians that the behaviour of the world had no place in the church and that they would have been better off if they just learned to “suffer wrong” and allow themselves to be “defrauded”. (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.