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The Power and the Promise of Church Discipline

1 Corinthians  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  35:18
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This morning’s Scripture lesson comes from 1 Cor 5:1-13:
1 Corinthians 5:1–13 ESV
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
This morning’s Scripture lesson deals with one of the most misunderstood and neglected doctrines in Scripture, church discipline. The very idea of discipline sounds unloving in modern ears. The truth, as revealed to us in Scripture is the exact opposite! The author of Hebrews makes this point when he writes:
Hebrews 12:5–8 ESV
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
Discipline takes many forms, and so it is in the church, our text is focusing on the last stage of church discipline, the act of casting someone out of the church (1 Cor 5:2, 13). According to the command of Jesus, church discipline begins with a private admonition, between one professing Christian and another (Mt 18:16; Gal 6:1). Even prior to this, the regular and faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of God is used by the Holy Spirit to convict a believer’s heart of sin and turn them to repentance. I make this point at the very beginning of my message because I want to impress upon all of you not only to submit yourselves to church discipline, but to “restore [others] in a spirit of gentleness…and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:1).
I also want to emphasize the power of church discipline, the power of church discipline lies not with ourselves but in the power of the blood of Jesus. In verse 7 of our text, Paul says, “you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The command, “Cleanse out the old leaven”, is based upon what Christ has already accomplished for us.
With this assurance, and with the confidence it gives us, let us now look at what God promises to accomplish by church discipline. The first is this:

Church Discipline Guards the Honor of God’s Name

As we have been seeing, the Corinthian church was a proud church, but in 1 Cor 5:2, Paul says they should be mourning.
Why should they be mourning? 1 Cor 5:1, provides us with the answer. There was a sin being tolerated within the Corinthian congregation that even their pagan neighbors would have found scandalous, a member was having sexual relations with his stepmother. The Greek word translated “pagans” in our ESV pew bibles, in the word ethnos, which is usually translated “Gentiles”. Although, the Corinthians church was made up on primarily ethnic Gentiles, all the Corinthian believers, both Jews and Gentiles, were now spiritually sons and daughters of Abraham (Rom 2:28-29). Spiritually, they were no longer Gentiles, but members of “the household of faith,…the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:10, 16). Back in chapter three, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they were “God’s temple”.
1 Corinthians 3:16–17 ESV
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
Do you realize that wherever the church gathers for public worship, that place becomes “holy ground” as long as the church is still gathered there in worship? As soon as you depart from here this morning, this building will no longer be “holy ground”, but for now, it is!
This is why the presence of this man among the worshiping community should have been a reason for mourning among the Corinthian Christians. They were dragging God’s Holy Name through the mud! Some of their unbelieving neighbors surely knew that they were tolerating this sin. What were they to think about the Christian God!
So we see, the first reason the church exercises church discipline is to guard the honor of God’s Name.
The second reason is closely related to the first.

Church Discipline Protects the Purity of the Church

In 1 Cor 5:6-8, Paul explains that sin is like yeast. In the same way that just a little yeast can work its way through a whole lump of dough, so sin can start with just one person and work its way through a whole congregation!
In these verses, Paul uses the analogy of the Passover Feast. Paul explains that Jesus is our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) and as a result we have been made holy. He concludes by saying:
1 Corinthians 5:8 ESV
Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Abiding or remaining is sin is no longer a viable option for a Christian. In this life, we will never be sinless, but sin should not characterize and dominate our lives. Tolerating unrepentant sin within the midst of a congregation will eventually drag the whole congregation down into a sinful lifestyle:
In his book The Mortification of Sin, John Owen gives us this warning:
[Sin] always seeks to express itself in the extreme…It is like the grave that is never satisfied…Sin’s expression is modest in the beginning but, once it has gained a foothold, it continues to take further ground and presses on to greater heights…This growth has no boundaries but utter denial of God and opposition to Him.
Consequently, in addition to guarding the honor of God’s Name, we must exercise church discipline in order to protect the purity of the church. We are now ready for the third reason:

Church Discipline Restores Disobedient Christians

This is taught to us in 1 Cor 5:5, where we read:
1 Corinthians 5:5 ESV
you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
What does it mean, “deliver [a] man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” and what does it mean that “his spirit [might] be saved in the day of the Lord”?
To deliver a person to Satan means to cast them out of the realm of Christ into the realm of Satan. Remember, we learned that the church is “holy ground”. Under the Old Covenant, the realm of God was limited to the Promised Land and at that primarily Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. This is why the Syrian general Naaman, who converted to the God of Israel, wanted to bring back to Syria two mules’ loads of dirt. He want a piece of “holy ground” upon which to worship God (2 Kings 5). Now of course, “holy ground” is anywhere the church of Jesus Christ gathers for worship, but outside of the church, is unholy ground—the realm of Satan. You don’t want to be under the dominion of Satan, he is a very cruel ruler; Jesus said that the devil “was a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).
When Paul is speaking of the “flesh” in this verse, he is speaking of our sinful nature. When a church, excommunicates (casts out) a member, they are letting that person suffer the full consequences of their sin while under the cruel reign of Satan. For a true, born-again believer, sin is not a natural state of affairs, it may seem pleasant at first, but in the end, our hearts will grow sick of it. In Numbers 11, we have a powerful picture of how God disciplines this people by turning them over to the lust of their own sin until they grow sick of it. The people were complaining about God’s manna and longed to go back to Egypt and eat the tasty foods there. God commanded Moses to say:
Numbers 11:18–20 ESV
And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?” ’ ”
When cast out into the realm of Satan, a true believer will always come back. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and He will lose none of those whom the Father has given Him (John 6:39)!
You have probably noticed that I have said “true believers”, I was careful in doing this because both Jesus and the Apostles clearly teach us that there will always be false believers in the church. The only way to know their identity according to the Apostle John, is by their “going out”. He writes:
1 John 2:19 ESV
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
Some people claim that church discipline does not work because people will just leave or will join another church. If a person does this, it proves they were never really a true believer. As the passage I read from 1 John makes clear, a Christian can sin, can even have a life long struggle against a particular sin, but they will not abide in that sin. In other words, they cannot surrender themselves to that sin.
Earlier, I mentioned John Owen; his book is based on Romans 8:13. Let me read that verse:
Romans 8:13 ESV
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
This verse consists of two conditional statements. The first says that if we live according to the flesh (that is our sinful nature) we will die. The second says that if we live according to the Spirit we will live. We are tempted to soften the first statement, saying, “We really won’t die if we live in sin.” However, if we do this we must also water down the second conditional statement. Do we really want to say that we will not live (that his have eternal life) if we live according to the Spirit? Of course not! That totally undermines the Good News of the Gospel! Throughout these first five chapters of 1 Corinthians Paul has been insisting that the message of Christ and Him crucified is a message of power. This is why we need not fear exercising church disciple, behind it is the power of God!
As I close this message today, I am keenly aware that the Holy Spirit might be using these words to convict one of you of sin. I am also aware that Satan can also use my words to accuse and discourage others with their sin. I want to read a passage from John’s gospel that will encourage us:
John 6:35–40 ESV
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
When we find ourselves in sin, the answer is always to come to Christ in faith. Those who trust themselves to Christ will never be lost. For a time we may wander away. We may even be excommunicated, but in the end, Jesus’ powerful right arm will draw us back! This is the power and the promise of church discipline.
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