The text for this lesson is Matthew 18:15–20.
- Jesus teaches us how the church should deal with sin and sinners.
- Law: I sinfully seek revenge rather than repentance.
- Gospel: God promises forgiveness through His Word and empowers me to show love for and forgive those in my church family.
Before leaving Galilee, Jesus teaches regarding the manner in which Christians live among one another. He understands that, as sinners, people will offend one another. So He presents the recipe for gently restoring the sinning and unrepentant brother. More than simply verses 15–20, chapter 18 includes a number of mini lessons, each of which supports and elucidates the others.
Jesus’ disciples approach Him and ask who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus points to children, with their pure faith and humility. Our Lord then warns against leading others into sinful behavior. He follows this with a parable emphasizing God’s desire that none of His children should perish. In this context, Jesus presents today’s passage. When a brother or sister sins, we address that sin privately, gently, and humbly. We involve others and impose discipline only as needed. Adding the final layer, Jesus teaches the parable of the unforgiving servant. In doing so, our Lord stresses the importance of recognizing one’s own sin and the need to forgive others, always mindful of the great debt our Lord forgave us in Christ.
We consider today’s passage in light of the remainder of chapter 18. With the humility of a child and mindful of what God has done for us, we avoid leading others into sin and instead address the unrepentant brother or sister with a gentle spirit, always aiming to lead him or her to restoration.
Restoration is God’s goal, and so it must be ours as well. Anything else will lead us into trouble. One example of such trouble is to address the unrepentant sinner with a vengeful spirit, seeking humiliation and retribution first and foremost. This can take the form of harsh condemnation, rebuke of the brother in the presence of others, self-righteous rejection, or isolation, among others. Such behavior serves only to harden the sinner’s heart against Christians and, more important, the Lord.
A second pitfall is failing to address the sin. God’s desire is to forgive and restore. This can only take place with repentance. Christians are often tempted to ignore sin in order to avoid difficult conversations, appearing self-righteous, or losing members of the congregation. To overlook sin is not love. Christian love requires having the courage to gently present the brother with God’s Word, through which the Holy Spirit works repentance. As always, we take a lesson from Jesus, who had the courage to speak the truth to those who sought His destruction, always gently saying enough but never more than was needed.
Finally, when the Holy Spirit has moved the sinner to repentance, to forgiveness and restoration, the congregation at large accepts what the Lord has done. If we trust in the forgiveness we receive in Confession and Absolution, then we trust in the same for the sinner who repents. As the other ninety-nine sheep that, by God’s grace alone, are among the fold, we rejoice with the Shepherd when the one returns. We avoid the temptation to place an obstacle to restoration that the Lord has not imposed: placing the sinner on a probationary status, vigilantly watching the brother to see if he falls into sin again, treating him as a second-class Christian, or the like. We regard the restored sinner as does the Lord, with joy and the praise of angels.