Forgiveness or discipline?

By R.T. Kendall

I am repeatedly asked, in the light of my book, ‘Total Forgiveness’, how this teaching on forgiveness squares with confronting sin in the Church? If one is to forgive another “totally”, how can we exercise discipline in the Church? 
A number of Scriptures come to mind, among them: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matt 18: 15-17

Mercy or judgement?
These are the words of Jesus who also taught that we should be merciful (Matt 5:7), that we should love our enemies (Matt 5:44) and forgive those who have sinned against us – in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:12).  Not only that, Jesus warned, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”.  (Matt 7:1) Showing a person their fault calls for making a judgment.  So are there exceptions to total forgiveness? No.
This is because Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness means to bless them and pray for them when we are being hurt personally; when injustice has been perpetrated against us. We are never given the right to punish the person who has hurt us. “It is mine to avenge, I will repay” Rom 12:1. And yet showing a person their fault, when you are sinned against, smacks of pointing the finger…or not necessarily?

Correction without wrath
There comes a time and place for pointing out another’s sin, when it is done with meekness (Gal 6:1), so that the person senses that you are not on a vendetta or trying to get even. It is not that you are trying to punish this person, not at all; you are wanting clarification and understanding. When this is done without the slightest twinge of anger, Jesus approves. When the person you approach is defensive and incorrigible, you proceed to bring others in, to let others (who have no personal involvement in the matter) decide. Plan A is to win the person over.  Public discipline (excommunication) is the last resort.

Preserving integrity
“It is  reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans. A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in the spirit.  And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present.
When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit,and the power of our Lord is present, hand this man over to satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” 1 Cor. 5:1-5
Scandalous sin disrupts the unity of the Spirit of the Church, not to mention bringing disgrace upon the honour of God’s name. To excommunicate this person is not personal vengeance; it is upholding the integrity of the Gospel.  You forgive the person before the Lord and pray for them. Paul did not point the finger by saying “this man is not Christian”, he simply ordered his excommunication that his spirit be saved. Total forgiveness was still intact. There is nothing personal about Paul’s instruction.

Total forgiveness
“Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” 1 Tim 5:20.  When the Gospel is abused by ingratitude and an absence of holiness, we are commanded to deal with this in a manner that signals that a Holy God cannot tolerate this. When one preaches a Gospel of forgiveness, you can be sure some will abuse the teaching or use it against you. “You teach total forgiveness, how can you do this to me?” comes the reply. However, total forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation, it is refusing to get even. And yet if sin brings the name of Jesus Christ into disrepute, we are commanded to step in, as Paul did.

R.T. Kendall was the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London for 25 years. He is the author of numerous books, including Total Forgiveness.Second Chance and Totally Forgiving Others.