September 25, 2016
SIN, REPENTANCE, RESTORATION, AND SHOWING THE LOVE OF GOD
(12 of 31 in a series through Matthew 13-28)
Sometimes a promise that sounds too good to be true really isn’t true. Perhaps we’ve experienced this as we’ve walked through this (or any other) presidential campaign season. Or maybe we’ve seen it when some department store advertises a deal that begins to look quite different once you go to take advantage of it. I mean, the phrase “read the fine print” comes from these very kinds of scenarios.
The sad thing about this reality in our world where promises that sound too good to be true most often really are untrue is that it can affect you in regards to how you understand biblical promises. Perhaps you’ve even found yourself resistant to the gospel because the promise that we can be forgiven of our sins and given eternal life simply through faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ just feels to you too good to be true. Your human nature, which is bound in legalism, may press hard against the gospel, declaring that if you’re given something, you must necessarily be able to point to something you’ve done to earn it.
Maybe you even had this suspicion of a promise too good to be true when we last found ourselves in Matthew’s gospel a couple of weeks back. Our text was Matthew 18:1-14, and it ended with one of the most beautiful pictures of God’s love for his people. The Lord pictures us as a group of sheep where one of us begins to wander astray, and so our Father leaves the entire group of other sheep to run after us, get us, and bring us back to himself. And as I noted two weeks ago, this isn’t simply a picture of the Father saying, “When you’re ready to come back, I’ll be ready to receive you with open arms,” as glorious of a promise as that would be. It’s, rather, the Father saying, “I’m not going to wait until you’re ready to come back to the fold. I’m coming to get you when you wander astray.” It’s a beautiful picture of the Father’s love for his children, who does not will that any of his “little ones should perish” (Matt 18:14).
However, maybe at this news that sounds so gloriously good, your suspicious heart perked up and thought, “How does God actually come after us?” We might say that it’s through conviction of heart. After all, if you belong to the Lord, you know what it’s like to feel conviction of sin. Then again, we may well also know what it’s like to get our hearts in such a place that conviction seems almost impossible. Perhaps you know what it’s like personally to have hardened your heart to the point that nothing seems to affect you. Or perhaps you’ve witnessed others who, if left to themselves, simply seem hopeless to repent.
So, perhaps you’ve skeptically asked, “How will the Lord run after me if I indeed go astray?” And I think the answer to that question is found in the rest of chapter 18. That is to say, it’s not by mistake that verse 15 follows verse 14 in Matthew 18. It’s because, I believe, the Lord is showing us the means that he will use to run after, bring to repentance, and restore his people. And what he makes clear is that he will use his church.
Interestingly, our text this morning is the first time that we’ll encounter the word “church” since Peter’s confession and the first time we’ll see this language of binding and loosing since that same moment in Matthew 16:13-20. And that is by design, for these two texts are connected. When Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ in Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus immediately began talking about building his church, making clear that his mission isn’t simply to get people to confess the truth that Peter confessed, but to bring those people into a church, a body of believers, where they can be taught to obey everything that Christ commands in a setting where they are given accountability, teaching, oversight, and guidance. Then, by giving the church the keys and the authority to bind and to loose, Jesus is saying that the church has the authority to publicly affirm who does and who does not belong to and represent Christ. We do this through the practices and church discipline.
Now, as we come to 18:15-35 all of these issues resurface. Jesus is dealing in the context of a local church, who understands their Christ-given authority to bind and loose (or publicly affirm who does and does not belong to and represent Christ), and his answer, then, to the question of how he will pursue and bring back individual believers who go astray is that he will do so through his local church. That’s what Matthew 18:15-35 is about. In these verses we see that Jesus calls his church to love one another enough to do what is necessary to see individuals repent of their sins, be restored, and know the mercy and forgiveness that Christ shows us and commands us to extend to others. Let me see if I can show you that in the text. First, in verses 15-20 we see the first command that Christ has given the church, namely:
Pursue the repentance of your brother with as little humiliation to him as possible
Now, of course, every time I say “brother” I mean “brother or sister,” but just for efficiency’s sake I’m just going to say “brother” as shorthand for “brother or sister.” One of the things that Jesus recognizes in these verses is that an individual going astray starts with one sin concerning which an individual shows no repentance. Therefore, he pictures an individual in a church always walking with others with whom they’ve linked arms in a pursuit of God-honoring living. And it is in those occasions that any one of us may sin and need someone outside of us who can see our situation and heart more clearly than we do and help us turn from our sins. After all, our hearts can be deceiving.
Therefore, the Lord gives us clear instructions in those circumstances, saying in verse 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.”
So, we see that Jesus pictures his people being kept from going astray through small interactions between individuals one-on-one in the church, where your brother loves you enough to come to you privately, note your sin against him, and you repent. That kind of thing may well happen consistently in any healthy church. Obviously, this doesn’t happen because we’re setting ourselves to look for areas of needed correction in others. In fact, not only do we not set ourselves in that direction, but we do the opposite. We look for opportunities where we can pounce with encouragement toward one another, noting the clear and evident grace of God in each other’s lives. That should be the tenor of the church.
Yet, because we are fallen, there will be times when any one of us needs help and correction. I’ve had people love me enough to do that in my life, and walked in the place of lovingly and gently aiding my brother or sister in this way as well. And when these things happen, we are loving each other enough to fight for each other’s souls. That’s why Jesus says, “You have gained your brother.” It may well be your word of gentle and loving correction that saves another from hell. And to refuse to gently and lovingly correct someone who is clearly in a place of sin is by no means a loving act.
But notice that Jesus makes clear as well that you are to tell him his fault “between you and him alone” (v. 15). You don’t instantly include other people. You don’t go tell others. In essence, what Jesus is showing us here is that he wants the repentance of his people with the least amount of humiliation possible. Isn’t that extremely kind, gentle, and loving of our Lord?
However, if our brother doesn’t repent, then Jesus shows us that repentance is so necessary and precious that he calls us to up the humiliation a small degree if there isn’t repentance. He says in verse 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.”
Bringing in another witness or two does indeed up the level of humiliation, even though it is still limited. But he point is both to show the importance of repentance, and to help make sure this isn’t a situation of he-said, she-said. That is, Jesus isn’t envisioning a situation where someone is simply making a charge against another that may be true or untrue. Rather, this is a case of clear, recognized sin by both parties. And bringing in another witness or two allows others to clearly bear witness of what is going on here with the brother who is sinning and unwilling to repent, thus endangering his soul. And if that brings about repentance, we rejoice, and it goes no further.
However, if that doesn’t bring about repentance, then things are ratcheted up. Jesus says in verse 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 tax collector.”
That is, repentance is so important that if it is not achieved by the coming of one or two witnesses, then the whole church should be told of this issue in a public way. The idea is that the church then has an opportunity as a whole community to pursue the individual and hopefully turn them toward repentance. But if that doesn’t work, the individual is to be removed from the body.
That is what I think Paul means by telling us to treat the individual as a Gentile or tax collector. In a context where Gentiles and tax collectors would be shunned, the idea is that the individual is removed from the fellowship of the church, or “excommunicated” as the church has historically referred to this act. This is the act of “binding” that Jesus gave his church authority to do back in Matthew 16:13-20. It’s the church’s act of saying, “We publicly recognize that this one does not give evidence of belonging to Christ and should not be seen as a representative of Christ.”
And just as we saw in 16:13-20, Jesus reminds us again in verse 18 that when the church acts in this way, they act with the authority of Christ himself, not meaning of course that the church will always act infallibly, but as a general statement, the church has the authority of Christ and represents him when we bring one into the community of the saints (loosing) and when we remove one from the community of the saints (binding).
In fact, Jesus wants us to know that when the church gathers to publicly act in this way, Jesus hears them and gives them his authority and even his presence to act. After all, this is a daunting and burdensome task that can be challenging to carry out, so Jesus assures us that he is with us in it, as we see from verses 19-20.
We see, then, that the church is the Lord prescribed instrument for pursuing his children who have gone astray. We are to run after each other when our brother or sister is pursuing sin and not turning in repentance. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Lord thinks we will never sin. In fact, the text assumes otherwise. It does mean, however, that the Lord expects his people to repent when coming face-to-face with their sin, and that without exception.
Believers are marked by repentance. And there are times when we need others to aid us in coming to repentance. That’s why the Lord has given these careful instructions to his people concerning how we pursue one another, and one of the clearest elements in this instruction is that the Lord graciously and lovingly wants our repentance with the least amount of humiliation possible for us.
But perhaps this instruction itself still leaves a question in your mind, namely, “Is there a cap to dealing with my brother?” That is, do we at some point say, “Enough is enough as a brother or sister continues to struggle with sin and repent?” Thankfully Jesus answers this question in verses 21-22, telling us:
Do not put a limit on the mercy and forgiveness you show your repentant brother
We read in verses 21-22, “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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy seven times.’”
Now, as I mentioned, in light of verses 15-20, I think this is a natural question. We’ve just been given instruction for how to deal with a brother or sister who has sinned against us, and, we might be thinking, “But surely there’s a cap on how many times we might walk through this pattern of a brother sinning against us, repenting, and being forgiven. At what point has forgiveness reached its limit?”
The fact that Peter suggests seven times, is actually quite gracious. The traditional rabbinical teaching at this time suggested that you’d forgive someone three times, but on the fourth time, forgiveness should be withheld. I assume the idea is that at some point a brother has to learn his lesson, and if he continues to sin, the only way to help him is to leave him under condemnation.
So for Peter to suggest forgiving your brother who sins against you up to seven times is actually quite gracious. No doubt, in his own mind, Peter was coming across extra gracious. He perhaps anticipated Jesus saying, “Peter, you are obviously so full of mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and that is great. But you need not allow yourself to be abused so repeatedly. Seven times is way too many to meet your brother’s repentance with forgiveness.” But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus says “seventy-seven times.”
Now, there are two ways we could get this wrong. First, we could take this point literally and think that Jesus is saying that on the seventy-eighth time you are wronged, you are free to withhold forgiveness. Obviously the Lord’s point is not that there is a limit (even if a really high limit) but that our mercy and forgiveness should be without limit. We should stand ready to forgive our repentant brother again and again and again.
However, there’s another way that we could get this wrong. We could read verses 21-22 as if somehow they undo everything that was just stated in verses 15-20. That is, we could assume that Jesus is just saying, “Forgive your brother whenever he sins against you by simply writing off his sins and ignoring any need for repentance.” Yet, to think this is what the Lord is saying ignores what an emphasis he put on repentance in verses 15-20. According to those verses, repentance is such a prized goal that if it is not ultimately achieved, the unrepentant one is to be treated as a tax collector or Gentile. That is, the unrepentant one should be removed from the church, as the church declares that it is unwilling to publicly affirm that this one belongs to and represents the Lord. Therefore, it is simply unloving and uncaring for the soul of your brother to pretend as if his clear sin—which threatens to pull him into hell—simply does not exist.
Rather, we are to pursue him gently, lovingly, and humbly, and when he repents, he is to be met with mercy, forgiveness, and grace, without limit. And if you need a guide for how to think through this, then one last point from this text, I believe, will be helpful:
Measure your dealings with your brother in light of how God has dealt with you
Even after Jesus’ teaching in verses 21-22, there could still be a little pushback in your heart that says, “But what if the sin is quite grievous so that he sins greatly against me? Even then, am I expected to forgive?” So, Jesus helps us with a parable in verses 23-35.
In the parable, there is a king who decides that he will settle accounts with his servants. So, he brings one of them in who owes him 10,000 talents. D. A. Carson has suggested that this could be well over a billion dollars in today’s currency.1 In other words, it was such a debt that the servant would never have the capability of paying it off. Realizing this, the king orders his servant and his family to be sold into slavery, getting out of him what he could.
However, the servant falls on his face, begging the master to have mercy, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v. 26), which of course he could never do. But it’s at this point that the king has pity on him, releases him of his debt, and forgives him. It is a glorious picture.
Yet it then takes a nasty turn. That same servant then runs into a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii, which would be the equivalent of a year’s wage. In other words, it’s no small amount. But it is much less than the servant himself had already been forgiven. Nevertheless, the servant deals harshly with his fellow servant, ignoring even his pleading for mercy and ordering him to be thrown into prison until every penny was paid.
Now, when the fellow servants saw how this man who’d been forgiven so much dealt so harshly with his brother who was indebted to him, they told the master (the king) who summoned the man and said, “‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” And Jesus adds, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (vv. 32-35).
I think the point is obvious. We are those who have been forgiven a debt so large we could never imagine repaying it. We have been forgiven of countless sins of the most grievous nature against our God. And he has shown us mercy and forgiven us. Therefore, how dare we think we can withhold forgiveness, mercy, and grace from one who has sinned much less against us than we have against God! In fact, if we want to withhold forgiveness, we are showing ourselves not to belong to God in the first place and will face the Lord’s judgment on that final day. Either we know the Lord’s grace and dispense it to others, or we fail to dispense his grace to others and will not be recipients of it ourselves on the day of judgment.
Simply put, we need to measure our dealings with our brothers in light of how the Lord has dealt with us. We have received greater and deeper grace than we have ever deserved. We’ve been forgiven of the same sins numerous times. We have thumbed our noses at God and chosen the very things he despises only to find his grace lavished upon us as we turn to him in repentance. In fact, he sent his Son to live, die, and be raised for us when we’d made ourselves his enemies because of our rebellion against him. That is what we must remember so that we show grace, mercy, and forgiveness to our brothers and sisters.
Therefore, let us be a community that loves one another enough to pursue those who are endangering their souls with sin and delights at the chance to lavish mercy, forgiveness, and grace upon all that who repent, without exception, even as we have known the Lord’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness ourselves. Amen.
1 D.A. Carson, Matthew 13-28, EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 406.