Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Forgiveness – the rules

For my last in the series on forgiveness, the rules.  Some people don’t want stories, they just want rules.  What is the step-by step, facts that we have to obey?  This is for you.

Most of us actually need rules when we first start out – rules protect us.  We teach a child not to touch a stove, but a teenager we teach to use the stove.  In spiritual matters, it’s much the same.  So for those of you who are still able to admit that you have a lot of learning to do, here are the rules of forgiveness.  Learn these so well that you’re able to obey them automatically. These 'rules' are really nothing more than the golden rule applied to sin, repentance and mercy.  When you sin, what do you want from your brothers and sisters, condemnation or help?  Unless you are righteous yourself and don't need forgiveness ... read on... 

The rules of forgiveness are about knowing the: “who, when, where, what and how” of forgiveness.  For example, Peter asked, “How many times” must we forgive a repentant brother?  Below are the answers to these with scriptures, but there’s also a flow-chart to make it simple.  If you learn this flowchart (also downloadable here) and obey it … you’ll be in the right. 


This is about inter-family forgiveness.  If a person is not a committed disciple, just let it go and focus on making that person a disciple.  We are NOT called to judge outsiders!  If a non-Christian is stealing or worshiping idols or is sexually promiscuous or gay – that’s none of our business.  Our job with them is to tell them about God and make them a disciple, period.  (1 Corinthians 5.9-13)

Also, we all know people who consider themselves Christian, but whose lifestyle reveals clearly that there are things they won’t do in service to God.  They have not sold all they have to buy the pearl of great price (Matthew 13.45-46).  Be very careful with these people, for many of them confuse accountability with condemnation.  These people will be very angry with you if you rebuke them.  

Also, they will never forgive certain sins, or they’ll say they forgive with their mouth, but their hearts are not in it.  It’s best to help them work to become committed disciples, if they will … and if not, then leave them alone.  They are tares among the wheat (Matthew 13.24-30). 

Now that we've narrowed this down to only those of your brothers and sisters who are committed disciples, let’s see the what, where, when and how.  The relevant scriptures (printed below) are:

  • Luke 17.3-4
  • Matthew 18.15-20
  • Acts 18.24-26

Luke 17.3-4 (what to do – rebuke/repent/forgive)

Jesus commands us: if a brother sins, we must rebuke him.  This isn't the same as judging or condemning, it’s actually helping the 'sinner.'  If he is truly a disciple of Jesus, then he wants to be rebuked, because it helps him avoid further mistakes and future judgment. And then if he repents ... forgive your brother and continue fellowship:
“Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And…
…if he sins against you 7 times a day, and returns to you 7 times, saying, ‘I repent;’ forgive him.” 

Matthew 18.15-20 (how, when, where to rebuke & forgive)

This seems to be an expanded version of the same teaching as in Luke, but in this case Jesus adds what one should do if the brother refuses to repent after the first, private rebuke.  Then one takes along another brother, and then finally it’s taken to the church.  

[1]If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private...if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
[2] But if he does not listen to you … take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.
If he refuses to listen to them … tell it to the church; and
 If he refuses to listen even to the church … let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  
Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.” 

This is spelled out in the flowchart, but remember that it always begins with a private rebuke, because the goal is to "win" your brother!  You must not let a brother or sister continue in sin, rather rebuke him or her in private.  Don’t discuss it with others at church, or spread rumors or gossip, this is a private matter … unless the person refuses to repent.  If the disciple refuses to repent, then you go back with a friend or two, and then if the sinning disciple still won’t repent, then take it to your group (church) and do an “intervention” in view of the whole church.  If that still doesn't work, then cease fellowship with that person. 

Remember that it’s not OK to let a sin “slide,” but neither is it OK to be unforgiving if the person repents.  Both are hard!  Sometimes we only want to rebuke someone we don’t like, and find it hard to rebuke someone who we care about.  And then again, we can say we forgive, but if we deny fellowship – it is not forgiving!  And if we are not forgiving, we cannot expect God to forgive us (Matthew 18.21- 35). 

Acts 18.24-26

This passage is included because it serves as an example of how to handle the matter correctly, and how it can be responded to with a good heart. 
Now a Jew named Apollos … came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures.  This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they:
  • took him aside and
  • explained to him the way of God more accurately  

Random Observations

Note that these ‘rules’ are all to be applied equally within your group.  There is no exception for pastors or committees or others.  It works the same within households, among friends, relatives and coworkers.  If the one sinning is your preacher, your wife, your child or your slave ... it's all equal.  When it comes to sin, repentance and grace – we are all alike in God’s family. 

This is about SIN.  There is no controversy or question here … in 1 Corinthians 5, for instance, the issue is adultery.  No one challenges whether or not it’s sin.  In other words: if the matter that bothers you is considered controversial – you must be very careful in the application of these ‘rules’!  If you believe drinking is a sin, for instance, you also must know others do not.  In matters of judgment (modest dress, language choices, role of women in church, etc.) be very humble!

So what about in controversial matters?

If you see your brother doing something you think is wrong … first, humble yourself before God and ask Him for guidance.  Then take aside the brother in private … and start by asking a question about the activity.  Tell him you’re confused, maybe, or maybe you misunderstood … and then just ask.  Then you can have an open discussion.  There may be something you missed, or he may be unaware that what he did bothers you. 

Bottom line 

ALWAYS take aside the person privately and gently ask them about it.  This encourages fellowship and accountability.  It’s also hard, so it’ll reduce the number of things that really upset you.  And, it inhibits gossip and ill will. 

He who conceals a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.
Proverbs 17:9

If you truly love God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself … these are the rules you’d follow.  Every time  


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