Sin and Forgiveness in the Church

When the concept of Christian holiness is addressed, it’s often on the level of personal holiness. This is important. But the Bible also has much to say about holiness in the context of the community of faith.  What does holiness in, among, and for the sake of the Church look like?  Jesus gives and entrance to such thinking in the opening verses of Luke, chapter 17.  There he says, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:1-4).

Remember, holiness is not a requirement for becoming a disciples. Holiness is the expectation for those who are already disciples. If you’re following Jesus in faith, then the fruit of that gospel faith should be holiness. Here, Jesus specifically zeros in on the outward nature of our holiness. What the life of faith looks like in regard to our holiness in community. Three basic principles follow from what he says.

Don’t Cause Others To Be Tempted Sin

Jesus first says to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come” (17:1). Jesus is realistic about the world in which we live. There will always be temptations to sin. But we must be careful not to be the source of temptation for others. Jesus says, “woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (17:2). A millstone was a massive, round stone that was used to grind up grain. It was usually moved around in circles by donkeys. These things weighed hundreds of pounds. So, imagine having this thing tied around your neck and being dropped in the water. You’re not coming back up from that dive!  The phrase “little ones” has its roots in the Old Testament and here speaks to God’s people. Specifically, Jesus’ disciples who might be new to the faith.

Notice what Jesus is saying here—one of the worst things you can do it is put a stumbling block in the life of a believer which would tempt them to sin. So, Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves!” (17:1-3a)—look at your life, examine your heart, be aware of your motives, keep a close watch on your life.  Be holy, not just for yourself, but for the sake of others.

Confront Others who Sin

Jesus goes on to say, “If your brother sins, rebuke him” (17:3). There’s a fine here, isn’t there? On one level, we know some are almost gleeful to point out someone’s sins. They take an obscene joy in seeing someone else fall and are more than ready to be the one to confront them. But that’s generally not where most believers are today. We’re more likely to say something like, ‘It’s none of my business’ or ‘I can’t judge.’ But that’s a satanic way of thinking. Jesus is clear that we are our brother’s keeper. It is our place to judge our sisters. We have a great responsibility to keep a watch on ourselves and the people of God around us in the community of the church.

Jesus is telling is that in living the life of faith, we have to risk personal discomfort or awkwardness and confront one another’s sin. Why? To protect them and others from the damage that could come from their sinfulness as well to protect the testimony of the church, which is meant to reflect the glory of Christ. In all of this, we have to remember that the he goal is not condemnation, but sanctification.

Completely Forgive Others who Sin

Finally, Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (17:3). Now, some people understand this verse, along with what we see in Colossians where Paul says that “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13), to mean that we do not give forgiveness to those who do not repent. They reason that because God does not forgive us apart from repentance therefore we are not to forgive others apart from repentance. Now there are many, many Bible scholars that I respect who hold to that view.  But I have a hard time seeing that. I’m not going to all of the nitty-gritty of the explanations for and against. Others have done that. Nevertheless, here’s two basic reasons why I think forgiveness can be granted apart from repentance. First, it seems to me the natural, even commanded Christian response should be one of forgiveness even when repentance is not taken place. I think of Jesus’ command in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive others their debts. There’s no caveat. Just a command forgive. Secondly, think about Jesus’ own example as he hung on the cross. Later in Luke, we’re told that Jesus called out to God in prayer saying, “Father forgive them for they know that what they do” (23:24). Jesus is asking God to forgive those who crucified him when clearly they have not been repented! And then following that, we have the example of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As he is being stoned to death, he looks up to heaven and sees a vision of the risen Christ about to welcome him into his presence and asks him to forgive those that are killing him (Acts 7:60). So, it seems to me that Jesus here is not teaching that repentance must be a condition for our forgiveness of others.

Instead, I think the repentance and forgiveness that he’s talking about here is in the context of relationships and is, therefore, more about reconciliation. I can forgive someone whether or not they’re repentant, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to go away friends. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be a close community. However, true reconciliation can take place if I confront sin, they repent, and then I forgive them completely. That means no grudges, nothing is held back; we are one in Christ again.  This is what Jesus describes in verse 4.  Forgiveness that keeps going! Remember that the number seven represents completion. Jesus is saying that the way we forget is complete. We don’t stop and say, ‘Alright, I’ve had enough. I’m done forgiving!’ No, we extend forgiveness again and again, and in that way we reflect God in Christ in the forgiveness he extends to us. Such forgiveness should mark out those who live a life of true gospel faith.

A Changed Community

After preaching on these verses this past Sunday, I had one thought that stuck with me through the week: imagine how different every local church would be if people took these verses seriously. Letting love for God and neighbor drive our pursuit of holiness would have a profound impact in the lives of individuals believers, the community as a whole, as well as the reputation of the Christ’s church.

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