In the last post, we started looking at Matthew 18:15-20. In these verses Jesus is giving His followers an outline for how to deal with other Christians who have sinned against us. The process He gives us is one of mercy, grace, and respect for our brothers and sisters, but also takes sin seriously. When a brother or sister sins against us we should talk to them in private first. If they listen to us then, we should forgive them and let it go. But, if they refuse to listen, refuse to admit they have sinned we should get one or two other people who can listen to both sides and help our brother or sister understand where they have sinned. If they still don’t listen, we should take it to the church.
But, sometimes people will not listen and will not own their sin no matter how much we try to graciously show them. Sometimes they will just not agree they have sinned and sometimes they just won’t care. So, what do we do then?
A Gentile and a Tax Collector
Well, Jesus’ final step may seem a bit harsh. He says, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Remember that Matthew is writing to a primarily Jewish audience, and remember how the Jews viewed tax collectors.
Basically, Jesus tells His followers to see this person as an unbeliever. And that may seem harsh. Aren’t we supposed to forgive people endlessly? Yes, we’ll see that next. But again, forgiving sin doesn’t mean we just let people continue to sin or ignore their sin. Grace confronts us with our sin to help us repent and turn away from it and into forgiveness and mercy. Like the Apostle Paul says in Romans 2, God’s grace and kindness toward us is meant to lead us to repentance. God want us to acknowledge our sins against Him and other people. His grace toward us is meant to lead us to repentance. Likewise, in this process, another person’s kindness toward us is meant to lead us to repent of our sin against them.
Owning Our Sins: Understanding the Gospel
If we are confronted with our sin over and over, but don’t see it as sin or just don’t care if it is sin, we show that we don’t really understand the gospel and we don’t really know Jesus. In order to understand this, we’re going to jump out of Matthew for a minute and hop over to 1 John.
In 1 John 1, it says, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”
Take a bit to walk through what John is saying here. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from our sins, he says that twice. But, in order for that blood to cleanse us, what does John says has to happen first? We have to acknowledge our sins. John says, if we say we don’t sin, we deceive ourselves. If we pretend, we don’t sin at all, that we’re perfect, then why would we need His grace in the first place?
In order for Jesus to cleanse us of our sins, for us to experience His forgiveness, first we have to acknowledge that we are sinners. We have to admit that we sin against God and against other people. We often buy into the lie that if we confess our sin to God, He will crush us. We are afraid to expose our sins, because we think in that exposure God will destroy us. But we see twice here in 1 John 1 that God’s goal in our confession is not to destroy but to forgive and cleanse. But He can’t forgive us if we don’t want to admit we need to be cleaned. Being a Christian, walking in the light is not about being a good, moral person. It’s not about being perfect. In fact, John shows us here that being in the light means letting God expose our sins, so He can forgive us and enable us to obey His commands (I would encourage you to read through the rest of 1 John 1 to see how this plays out).
So, when we go back to what Jesus teaches in Matthew 18, we can understand a bit more why Jesus says what He says. When we don’t admit to our sin, we show we don’t understand the gospel. We show that we don’t understand or really know Jesus. Either because we don’t trust His grace in exposing our sin, or because we proudly think we are better than Jesus knows we are. In either case, we show we don’t know who Jesus is. Jesus doesn’t show us our sin because He wants to destroy us with it, He does it because He wants to help us kill it, He wants to forgive us for it.
With Mercy and Grace
When we take this final step, like in the other steps we can still show mercy and grace. In a way this step can be merciful, because it can lead this person to see where they have misunderstood the gospel. It can help them truly come to Jesus.
We see how this practically plays out in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is addressing a number of issues in the Corinthian church. One issue was one of the members of the church had committed adultery with his step mother. Paul tells the church to remove this man from their gathering. That may seem backwards from the gospel of mercy and grace. But I think here we have a similar situation to what Jesus is describing in Mathew 18. I think if you read through the first couple of chapters, you’ll see why Paul responds in this way. Read through the first couple of chapters of 1 Corinthians and try to see how the church in Corinth was responding to this man’s sin. Were they taking his sin seriously? And then look at Paul’s response and his reason for that response. Where do you see mercy in how Paul deals with this man’s sin? How does this relate to what Jesus says in Matthew 18?
When we get to this last step in the process Jesus gives us, we can still show compassion and mercy because we might just be helping this person come to truly understand Jesus by taking their sin as seriously as God does. And when we do that, when we see our sin for what it is, when we confess it we will find God’s mercy and forgiveness.