1. “‘If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector’” (Matt. 18:15-17, NIV).
These are the words of Jesus who also taught that we should be merciful (see Matt. 5:7), that we should love our enemies (see Matt. 5:44) and forgive those who have sinned against us—in the Lord’s prayer (see Matt. 6:12). Not only that, Jesus warned, “‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’” (Matt. 7:1). Showing a person their fault calls for making a judgment. So are there exceptions to total forgiveness? No.
This is because Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness means to bless them and pray for them when we are being hurt personally, when injustice has been perpetrated against us. We are never given the right to punish the person who has hurt us. “ … ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay … ’” (Rom. 12:19). And yet showing a person their fault, when you are sinned against, smacks of pointing the finger. Not necessarily.
There comes a time and place for pointing out another’s sin, when it is done with meekness (see Gal. 6:1), so that the person senses that you are not on a vendetta or trying to get even. It is not that you are trying to punish this person—not at all; you are wanting clarification and understanding.
When this is done without the slightest twinge of anger, Jesus approves. When the person you approach is defensive and incorrigible, you proceed to bring others in—to let others (who have no personal involvement in the matter) decide.
Plan A is to win the person over. Public disciplining (excommunication) is the last resort.
2. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?
Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present.
“When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:1-5).
Scandalous sin disrupts the unity of the Spirit in the church, not to mention bringing disgrace upon the honor of God’s name. To excommunicate such a person is not personal vengeance; it is upholding the integrity of the gospel. You forgive the person before the Lord and pray for them.
Paul did not point the finger by saying “this man is not a Christian,” he simply ordered his excommunication that his spirit be saved. Total forgiveness was still intact. There was nothing personal in Paul’s stepping in.
3. “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (1 Tim. 5:20). When the gospel is abused by ingratitude and an absence of holiness, we are commanded to deal with this in a manner that sends a signal to all that this cannot be tolerated by a holy God.
When one preaches a gospel of total forgiveness, you can be sure some will abuse the teaching—or use it against you! “You teach total forgiveness; how can you do this to me?” comes the reply. However, total forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation; it is refusing to get even. And yet if sin brings the name of Jesus Christ into disrepute, we are commanded to step in—as Paul did.