Last week, we saw that even when one is wronged and seriously so, he can choose to overlook the sin. But there are times when overlooking a sin is not an option. In these situations, Scripture requires a confrontation, an apology, and forgiveness to restore the relationship. This is conditional forgiveness—we cannot forgive the sinner unless he repents for his sin.
Hear Jesus on the matter: “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 17:3–4). All the components are there—the sin that harms the relationship (sins against you), the confrontation (rebuke), the condition of repentance (if he repents), and forgiveness (forgive him). Additionally, Jesus stresses that the innocent party should be ready and willing to forgive repeatedly (cf. Matthew 18:21–22, 35).
So, whereas sometimes “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8) and it can be “glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11), there are other times to say, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love,” a love manifest as the “faithful…wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:5–6). But just when are these times?
Adapting the thoughts of others,1 I’ve found it helpful to ask four questions to determine whether or not to confront a sinner who is sinning against me or someone else. If the answer is “yes” to any of the questions below, a confrontation must take place. And, God willing, this confrontation will lead to an apology and forgiveness that restores the relationship as before. And maybe the relationship will even be stronger for having weathered some sin and forgiveness.
Does the sin harm the bond between us?
Sometimes the victim cannot overlook the sin and must confront the sinner. In this instance, the sin is of such a nature that it has severed the relationship between the innocent and sinning parties. As seen above in Luke 17:3–4, the sin is “against you” and Jesus commands the offended party to “rebuke.”
If the offender has clearly sinned and refuses to repent, the innocent party should confront again with two or three witnesses. If repentance is still not forthcoming, the sin should be brought before the church (Matthew 18:15–18). Every step along the way (and even in excommunication; cf. 1 Timothy 1:20), the goal is for the offender to repent.
Does the sin harm the brother himself?
Sometimes a sin becomes a habit and traps the sinner in the sin. “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). The sinner is wandering and needs a brother to bring him back, snatching him from death and fire (James 5:19–20; Jude 23). He could otherwise harden himself against God if not exhorted by his brothers (Hebrews 3:13).
Does the sin harm another brother in Christ?
Sometimes a sin is against someone other than yourself. Righteousness in this situation demands another Christian to come to the rescue by confronting the brother who is harming another. The innocent might be poor, fatherless, widowed, or oppressed in some other way (James 1:27; cf. Exodus 23:6; Proverbs 31:8–9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:3). Whatever the sin may be, there are times when a Christian must confront one brother in Christ for sinning against another.
Does the sin harm the body of Christ?
Sometimes the sin is so sinful that it can ruin the testimony of a church. Overlooking incest, for example, is not loving but arrogant and not even practiced by pagans (1 Corinthians 5:1–2). Other sinners that we must confront include those “guilty of sexual immorality or greed…an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler” (1 Corinthians 5:11). Additionally, tolerating this level of sin encourages further sin in the church (1 Corinthians 5:6–8). Allowing one bitter root of a person to spring up and bear poisonous fruit could defile the body as a whole (Hebrews 12:15; cf. Deuteronomy 29:18–19). If such a one is unrepentant, he must be put out of the church (1 Corinthians 5:13). Even then, however, this action is meant to provoke the sinner to repentance, and, if he repents, he should be forgiven and restored (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5–8).
Seen in the questions above, some sins compel a confrontation, and the confronted must repent. The one confronting can then forgive, and both go on as before. May God use us as a means of grace to one another to conquer our sins and persevere.
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- See especially John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 128–34.