Recently, I was watching a show in which a young apprentice to a very powerful man had made several very serious mistakes that had affected his boss’ business. When the young man appeared before his boss he said, “Am I not allowed to make a mistake?” To which his boss replied, “You’re allowed one mistake and you’ve already made it.” This, I fear, is the mentality of many in the church today. There a functional self-righteousness that has snuck its way into the church–a self-righteousness that manifests itself in how we treat those in our fellowships who fall into sin. This self-righteousness is not on account of churches faithfully practicing church discipline in accord with our Lord’s teaching (Matt. 18:15-20); neither is it necessarily on account of some particular teaching in our pulpits. Rather, it is a functional self-righteousness that resonates with our sinful natures. It is seen in Simon Peter’s question to Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times” (Matt. 18:21)? Peter wanted to put a limit on how often he should have to forgive and receive a brother who had sinned against him. I would suggest that many of us are even less gracious than Simon Peter on his least gracious day. If we were honest with ourselves we would probably have asked Jesus, “Lord, should I forgive my brother this one time?” The way in which this unfolds can be imperceptibly subtle, and the reasons quite complex.
When someone in our churches commits a societally unacceptable sin–and the church(es) that know about it treat the individual who has committed this sin as one who has a leprous disease that will affect the reputation of their fellowship–they may unconsciously end up displaying a sinful self-righteousness. Surely, we would all agree that there is sin that causes scandal and that harms the name and cause of Christ in the world. We would also acknowledge that some sin is of such a kind as merits greater caution with regard to how we protect the members of our churches. We would also agree that Jesus has appointed church discipline for the purity of His church. However, when the Apostle Paul dealt with the only case of church discipline recorded in the New Testament, he dealt with a socially unacceptable sin committed by a member of the church in Corinth. When the man who committed this sin repented, the apostle Paul gave a most serious warning to the congregation when he said, “You ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him…Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.” Satan loves to implant an unforgiving and self-righteous attitude among believers with regard to a repentant sinner who longs to be in fellowship with God’s people again. This is also intimated in the warning Paul gives the Galatians about restoring a brother or sister in a spirit of gentleness least we also be tempted (Gal. 6:1).
The reasons why Christians act this way are often multi-layered and complex. In the first place, among those who rightly reject a “Best Life Now” mentality there are many who embrace a “Best Face Now” mentality with regard to fellowship in the church. There is something deeply engrained in us that tells us that we need to appear as if we –and those we publicly associate with–have it all together. It is a functional and societal Wesleyan perfectionism. This attitude tends to manifest itself when someone in the body falls into a particular sin. The way in which it happens can often be extremely subtle, nevertheless, it can be spiritually deadly to a fellowship. Jonathan Edwards saw the danger of this incipient self-righteousness among those whom he pastored in North Hampton. He wrote:
I think, according to what observations I have made—as I have had [more] opportunity of very extensive observation than any other person in the town—that is has been a pretty prevailing error in the town, that persons are not sufficiently sensible of the danger of self-righteousness after conversion. They seem to be sensible that persons are in danger of it before they are converted, but they think that when a man is converted, he is brought off wholly from his own righteousness, just as if there was no danger of any workings of self-righteousness afterwards.1
Such self-righteousness may come under the auspice of being concerned about “protecting the body,” when, in fact, it is merely a maneuver to protect your own reputation or the reputation of a particular church. It is often more of a “saving face” tactic than a zeal for God’s glory and Gospel tactic.
I heard of a situation in which someone who had been accused of falling into a grievous sin was told by someone at the church they were attending, “What are you doing here? Don’t you know that you’re not welcomed here?” Apart from the fact that the person who said that had no authority to do so, the church that this individual attended then proceeded to tell this individual that they were not welcomed to come to any small groups, Sunday school or evening worship. This was an example of abuse of the authority that Christ invested in the office of elder. This person had not been convicted of a crime in the civil or ecclesiastical court, but this church had already applied censures. Jesus did not give the church the authority to exercise the keys of the Kingdom in this way. If someone is accused of having done something worthy of ecclesiastical discipline, it would be incumbent on the elders to sit down with the individual and–as the representatives of the church–to try to determine whether this individual had done such a thing. If he or she had, the next step for the elders would be to determine whether the individual was repentant or not. If they committed a crime deserving of civil action, they would need to be reported–whether they were repentant or not. If they were unrepentant, Paul’s words would apply:
I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
If they are repentant–while certain precautions might necessarily be put in place for the protection of the congregation–the words of Paul ring true:
You ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him…lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices (2 Cor. 2:7-11).
If our modus opernadi is saving face we will never get to where the Lord wants us to be. If we forget how sinful we are and start to categorize sin on a scale of our own making–on which we think that we are doing pretty well–we will never be at a place in which we are ready to obey our Lord with regard to our need to forgive a repentant brother or sister as often as they sin and repent. Surely wisdom is needed in what precautions should be taken, but we must ever beware of proceduralizing away our duty to obey God in forgiving and receiving a repentant brother or sister. How often should we forgive our brother? Jesus doesn’t set a numeric limitation on that. His blood is of an infinite value that covers all the sin of all His people.
Secondly, many forget how sinful they are and how they too are very prone to fall into sin. This is reason why the Apostle tells the Corinthians, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” He then qualified this statement by reminding them that “no temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man” (1 Cor. 10:12-13). James says something very similar when he writes: “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2). When we forget these things we start to put ourselves on a spiritual plane above those whom we consider to be worse than us. What is the line of acceptability? It’s the line that is just below where we think that we are. If we perceive someone falling under that line we self-righteously put ourselves among the “acceptable” and exclude whoever falls under that line as being “unacceptable.” If this were not the case, we would act in accord with what Jude commands when he wrote: “On some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). Instead, our natural tendency is to “hate the garment and the person defiled by the flesh.” This is sure sign that we have fallen into a self-righteous mode of operation.
Finally, when we forget that we have an “irreconcilable war within” (WCF 13.2), we will start to treat others as if they should have a functional Wesleyan perfectionism. We might be accepting of them when we know about their pre-conversion sin, but not when we hear of post-conversion sin. We forget that the Proverbs say that “the righteous falls seven times and rises again” (Prov. 24:16). As one Puritan has noted, “To fall seven times is to have been restored six.”
The cure for all of this is the cross. When we remember how sinful we are, and how much our Lord has forgiven us of we will love much (Luke 7:47). When we remember that the same blood that had to be shed for me and my sin had to be shed for my brothers and sisters, we will seek to bring them Gospel truth when they fall. When we remember how frail we all are and how prone to fall we may be, we will bear long with others. When we recognize how much we have done wrong (no matter where we place the degree of sin on a scale that we establish in our minds), we will be quick to see the log in our own eye and not simply fixate on what should appear in comparison to be a speck in our brother’s eye. When we have gone to the Lord for grace to remove the log from our own eye, we will lovingly long to help our brother or sister remove the speck from their eye. When we realize the magnitude of what Christ has done for us and that His sacrifice is so great that the Apostle Paul could say, “where sin abounded, grace has abounded all the more,” we will be ready to help those who fall see their need for that sacrifice afresh. In all this, may God give us grace to believe and live in accord with the Gospel that we profess. After all, 70 x 7 is our Lord’s measure.
1. Jonathan Edwards Bringing the Ark to Zion a Second Time (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003) pp. 255-256 vol. 22