How to Deal with Sin in the Church

Whenever two or more sinners are gathered together, conflict is in the midst of them. Jesus called people from all manner of life into the Kingdom of God. He was criticized for welcoming tax collectors, prostitutes, the demon possessed, lepers, gentiles, gluttons and drunkards into the kingdom of God! With such a motley band of brothers and sisters, it does not take much imagination to envision that the full range of bad behaviors and habits would manifest within the community of the early church in short order. One of the critical challenges for Jesus’ “little flock” was to sort out how to maintain a holy, growing, united community made up of broken hurting sinners. Jesus provided direction to his church.

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Related Sermons:

Matthew 18:15-20 If your brother or sister sins against you 9/4/2011 (sermón en español)

Matthew 18:21-35 Debts Forgiven 9/14/2014 (sermón en español)

A hospital for sinners, not a refuge for saints

Are the relationship dynamics in the church any different in our day than they were in Jesus’ day? The church is not a refuge for saints but a hospital for sinners. As sinners, we inevitably will hurt one another. When (not if) that happens, what are we to do? How are we to respond? Often I see that when a person is hurt by a brother or sister in Christ, they quietly withdraw from the relationship. Jesus would not have us separate because of sin, rather to pursue restoration and be sanctified.

In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches us that conflict and the occasion of transgression is an opportunity to grow in relationships and in holiness of life. We are accountable to one another. The occasion of sin within the body of Christ becomes a moment where we manifest to one another the grace that God has abundantly given us.

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” –Matthew 18:15

Jesus gives us several values in Matthew 18:15-35:

Value 1: Respect the dignity of the sinner

Do not tell church first; that would be gossip and slander. Rather, Jesus would have us first deal with sin as a private matter. This allows the unity of the body to be protected. A private conversation allows the sinner to recover quickly without having a “big deal” made of their transgression. The vast majority of sins within the body can be dealt with privately in a one-on-one communication.

Notice Jesus says, “go to your brother”… Email and text messages are not the appropriate medium to have these types of discussions. They are best held face to face, person to person—just between the two of you.

Value 2: The aim is always to regain your brother or sister

Often people avoid tough conversations because they are afraid of what will happen to the relationship. Sometimes we may have to be willing to lose a relationship to a loved one, in order to regain our brother or sister in a healthier relationship. While it is to a person’s credit to overlook and offence (Proverbs 19:11), at other times to not confront is to not care. Sin is destructive of people, relationships and the church. Our goal in any confrontation is to “win our brother or sister.” Notice he does not say, “you have won the argument!” The highest value is winning the person.

Value 3: begin with gentleness and gradually work toward a more severe mercy

Doctor’s don’t choose the most invasive surgery first when treating a patient. And we should be gentle in our approach to dealing with sin in another’s life. Jesus teaches the steps; first confronting one-on-one. Then, if that doesn’t work, take along one or two witnesses. If that doesn’t work, involve the authorities of the church.

Some people attempt the one-on-one and find the confrontation ineffective. That doesn’t mean it is time to give up. Jesus gives us a range of assisted approaches to help restore the sinner and the broken relationship. When individual attempts at reconciliation fail, enlist the help of others in the church or your pastor. Some sins are as deep as a person’s childhood, some are due to severely hardened hearts, and a more severe mercy is needed to see heart change.

Value 4: Don’t write off a brother or sister in Christ as a “lost cause”

Again, the goal is always to win our brother or sister back to a reconciled relationship. Our heart toward the sinner should be like that of the good shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one.

Even in the extreme, when we read about an excommunication of a brother in 1 Corinthians 5, the goal is salvation. While Paul encourages the congregation that the man should be “put out of their fellowship” for his immorality, the church discipline was done to hand the man over to Satan to experience the consequences of sin, “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:5)

No one is a lost cause. We never know how God will work in a person’s life and heart. Do not be surprised if God calls us to forgive another as a testimony to the power of the gospel.

Value 5: The sweetest moments of Christian fellowship come after sin and reconciliation

Jesus promises that he is present in the midst of “two or more” who gather in accountability. While these conversations are difficult, they are also holy, sacred ground. Jesus desires to see the people who he has called together become healed and restored by his grace. We have been entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation as the church.

Value 6: We are to demonstrate God’s grace with one another

As the disciples contemplate Jesus teaching about speaking the truth in love to the sinner, they wonder how many times must they be willing to go through this process of restoration? Is there a statute of limitations or a seven strikes and you’re out rule? That would seem reasonable! But Jesus does not accept such a small display of grace. Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22)

Jesus goes on to tell the story of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven a debt he could never repay. Incongruantly, the servant was then unmerciful to a fellow servant who owed him a not insignificant amount of money, though nothing in comparison to the debt he had been forgiven. God expects us to be ambassadors of his grace to one another, in light of his abundant forgiveness to us.

The Dangerous Prayer

As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That is a dangerous prayer! That line in the Lord’s Prayer is a contingency prayer. We are asking God to treat us the same way we are treating others. If we are in a posture of grace, we are asking for grace. However, if we have a judgmental heart toward another, we are petitioning God to judge us! Yikes! The continuous pattern of weekly (even daily) reciting of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us to breath grace in and out of our lives on everyone. We are to be the most forgiving people in the world, because we are the most forgiven people in the world.

How sweet it is!

Is there someone in your life with whom you have a problematic relationship? How would Jesus encourage you to respond to the challenge? Sadly, in this sinful and fallen world not every relationship is salvaged and restored after sin. But one of the sweetest promises in the Bible is the promise of Jesus’ presence when two or more come together in unity and restoration. “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20) In the most difficult relational moments of life, Jesus will do his greatest redemptive work. Invite him into the mess! Ask his help with the challenge you are facing right now!

Prayer: Search me, Lord. See if there is any ounce of malice or deception in my heart toward another person. Show me where I am holding another person’s sin against them. Reveal to me where I have a need to repent and ask for forgiveness. Give me the grace to leave my hurt and need for retribution at the foot of the cross. Help me to have the difficult conversation-help me to forgive. Guide me in the path of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Use me to be an instrument of redemption and salvation in others lives. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen!

Futility of Selfish Ambition

The Futility of Selfish Ambition

A Reflection on Ecclesiastes 4:1-6:12

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes turns to a reflection on the futility of human beings pursuit of selfish ambition. This pursuit has led to bitter tyranny and oppression. (4:1-6) Man’s envy is self consuming: “The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (4:5) Selfish ambition leads to a lonely alienation and foolish self-centered existence:

Chasing after the Wind

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. -Eccl. 4:7,8

Selfish ambition is the sin of presumption upon the grace of God. The words of our mouth are arrogant in what we purpose and vow to do. Our dreams and plans for ourselves are often not God’s ways and plans. Selfish ambition is futility–the equivalent of chasing after the wind. Not smart.

Ultimately, the selfish pursuit of more and more wealth will prove to be unsatisfying and stressful. The more you have, the more worries, because there is more to lose. And at the end of the day–it will all be lost.

“As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.” (5:15)

So hold earthly wealth loosely; enjoy it while you have it–and count your blessings as a gift from God! (5:18-20) The vain pursuit of earthly and temporal gain alone ultimately leads to despairing because the future is so unpredictable:

For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? -Eccl. 6:12

Like Jesus, the Preacher calls us to turn away from ourselves and surrender to the way and will of God. The re-orientation of our lives away from self and toward the Lord, not only brings significance back to the prosperity and adversity of life, but secures an eternal reward for all who trust in Him.

Stapled Fruit

A man and his wife had an apple tree in their front yard that always produced rotten apples. Every year the apples would develop, every year the fruit would be inedible to its core. One year, he came up with a brilliant idea. He went to the grocery and bought a crate of beautiful good apples. While his wife was not looking, he removed all of the rotten apples and stapled the good apples to the tree.

Image courtesy of pamsclipart.com

The next morning he encouraged his wife to behold the tree. She was delighted; her tree was filled with beautiful good apples.

In the Gospel reading this week (Matthew 15:10-28), Jesus teaches his disciples that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles but what comes out of the mouth. When they asked for an explanation, he revealed that he was talking about the human heart. The Pharisees dealt with externalities: clean hands, dietary laws. Jesus is concerned about what is going on in a person’s heart. The Pharisees are “fruit staplers” concerned only about religious externalities. They strive to make the outside look right which requires a lot of work because it involves maintaining a elaborate façade. The tree in the above story will continue to produce rotten fruit because its problem is systemic—in its root system. Cure the root system and you cure the tree. Deal with the heart issues and a person’s life will truly be clean!

The fundamental difference between the religion and Christianity is this key, key point. Jesus is the only one who can change the systemic problems of the human heart. We must have a vital relational connection to him or else we are just stapling fruit. Likewise, Christian leaders are not primarily religious leaders. The goal in Christian ministry should never be about stapling good fruit on rotten apple trees. Jesus referred to the Pharisees as the blind leading the blind. We are called to see beyond the fruit to the heart. Consequently, Christian ministers are called to be instruments of heart change not fruit change. When the Holy Spirit changes the heart, the fruit will naturally be transformed.

So how is heart change accomplished? First and foremost, it is by being in a loving, submissive relationship with Jesus. Secondarily, heart change will only be possible when we have the eyes to see beyond both the rotten fruit and the stapled fruit.

With those whom we rub shoulders with in community, the rotten apples will present themselves. The staples can’t hold for long. We may in those moments be tempted to pull the rotten apples off the tree and staple on the good fruit. No. Jesus would call us to address the systemic issue. He challenges us to go deeper to the root system. When we see the rotten fruit in our own lives or in the lives of those within our care, we are called to question the heart. Ask, “what is going on deep in the heart that would produce such fruit?”

Heart change requires brokenness, grief, repentance, renunciation of idolatry and forgiveness. It requires reliance on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It requires submissive engagement with the Scriptures and prayerful conversation with Jesus Christ. Look at the fruits, but minister to the roots!

Rebuild the Walls, Restore the Soul

Rebuild

Rebuild the walls and you provide space to restore the soul. Healthy boundaries protect sacred spaces and times so your relationship with God can flourish.

Artist: Juan de la Corte

In the first eight chapters of the book of Nehemiah we read of a massive rebuilding effort to restore the walls of the City of Jerusalem back to integrity. Following the sacking of Jerusalem by Babylon (modern day Iraq), the city was utterly devastated and left in ruins. Of greater concern to The Lord than buildings was the state of the people of Israel’s hearts toward Him! They turned their backs on The Lord! Sound familiar?

Nehemiah 9:29 “You warned them in order to turn them back to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances, of which you said, ‘The person who obeys them will live by them.’ Stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. 30 For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples. 31 But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. 32

“Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes—the hardship that has come on us, on our kings and leaders, on our priests and prophets, on our ancestors and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today. 33 In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly. 34 Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our ancestors did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the statutes you warned them to keep. 35 Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways. (For the whole story see…Neh. 9:22-10:39)

But, following the exile, a period of great repentance, restoration and rebuilding was led by Ezra and Nehemiah. The determination, vision and wisdom of these men took on an impossible challenge. Rebuild the capital city of Jerusalem and restore the people of God. The rebuilt walls of Jerusalem served to provide a protected and sacred space within which the remnant of Judah could be rebuilt as the covenant people of God. The real issue was that the covenant relationship with the LORD was grave disrepair.

Renew

In Chapter 8, we read how the scribe Ezra assembled the people within the rebuilt walls to hear afresh the reading of the Word of God. The people responded with faith and a teachable spirit. (8:1-8) The people restored the festival of the booths, something which had not been celebrated in Israel since the time of Joshua (8:17).

The restoration project in Nehemiah’s day is likened to a new exodus from bondage and a new conquest of the Promised Land. The remnant had wandered through the “wilderness” of the Babylonian exile because of their sin; and yet, God had proved faithful to show mercy to them–just as he had done in the days of Moses (9:1-38). Following a faithful confession of sin, the people made a vow of commitment to covenant faithfulness and offering of service to the LORD (10:1-39). They vowed:

We will not neglect the House of our God! –Nehemiah 10:39

The testimony of the people was to keep covenant and maintain the Temple through faithful worship, offerings and tithes. In our day the “House of our God” is the Church. Let me ask you an evaluative question: in your own life, have you honored or neglected the house of the Lord? The people of God are the New Temple of the Lord.

Just as the people of Nehemiah’s day had to rebuild the boundaries and protect that which is worthy and sacred. We must remain diligent to relationship to God. We must erect walls and boundaries to anything that would draw us away from a loving relationship with the Lord and sabotage our worship of the  Savior of our souls. Protect the sacred space! Give to the building up of the church! Vow with the people of old:

We will not neglect the House of our God!

Is covenant restoration needed? Are there areas in your life that need to be torn down and rebuilt to the glory of God? Have you allowed malignant influences access into the sacred spaces of your home and church life causing you to break covenant. Rebuild the healthy boundaries and renew your covenant to the God who has remained steadfast for you.

Prayer: Jesus your desire for me is a restored and rebuilt life of covenant faithfulness in you. Make my life a restoration project that brings you glory, honor and praise.

The Heart of a Reformer

King Ahaz was a corrupt and faithless king. He set up altars to false gods in every corner of Jerusalem, and he made unholy alliances with foreign kings. The most dramatic act of his rebellion against the Lord was when he “shut up the doors of the house of the Lord” (2 Chr. 28:24).

2 Chronicles 7:14

His son Hezekiah took the throne, and he was the complete opposite of his father. The very first act of his reign was “he opened the doors of the house of the Lord and repaired them.” (2 Chr. 29:3). The main point of the book of 2 Chronicles is to demonstrate that repentance leads to restoration. Earlier in the book, the Chronicler recorded this word from the Lord for King Solomon and his descendants:

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” 2 Chr. 7:14

Hezekiah stands as a model reformer of society for all time. By turning away from the “filth” and “unfaithfulness” of his predecessors and by seeking the face of the Lord, he demonstrates the character and actions that God is seeking in his people. The people followed his lead and were reorganized in the service of worship of the Lord. Hezekiah had the heart of a reformer:

“Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, in order that his fierce anger may turn away from us.” 2 Chr. 29:10

Have we not inherited a culture that has “shut up the doors” to the worship of the Lord, Jesus? Have we not experienced and even been participants in the “unfaithfulness” and the “filth” of a culture that has set up idols “in every corner”. In our day, just as in Hezekiah’s day, we desperately need leaders with the heart of covenant faithfulness. We need leaders who will make true worship of the one true Lord, Jesus Christ the priority of our common life. We need followers who will be ready themselves to be ministers of the Lord.

Do you have the heart and character of a reformer?


Lord, make me an instrument of reform and renewal in our day. Show me the place where my family, my work place, my church, my school, my government need godly change. Guide me to the places that can be reorganized and centered on you. Give me the courage to act in Jesus name, Amen.