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Guarding the Holiness of Christ’s Church

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Guarding the Holiness of Christ’s Church

Matt. 18:15–20.

The passage that we are looking at this morning has to do with Christian discipline. It is, of course, not the only passage in Scripture that deals with this subject. The passages that catch your attention on a daily basis are those that speak about self-discipline. Every time we read the Word of God for ourselves or hear it read and preached church, we are reminded of the need to apply it to ourselves first. David wrote, Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee (Ps. 119:11). The Bible also teaches us to pray that God will make his Word effective in overcoming sin in our daily lives.

When individual members of the church practice regular self-discipline, the instances in which formal discipline is necessary will be significantly reduced. Unfortunately, no amount of self-discipline will remove the need to use Matthew 18 altogether. For one thing, there are occasions when we cause offense to others without realizing that we have done so. Matthew 18 gives us a process by which to address such grievances. But, sadly, there will also be times when members of the church, having refused to practice self-discipline, will also reject the discipline of others. Since the Lord Jesus requires his church to be holy, it is occasionally necessary to remove those who are stubbornly unholy either in doctrine or in life. Again, Matthew 18 tells us how to do this.

The basic principles of formal discipline, as outlined in our text, are no doubt familiar to us all. We know about private admonition, the use of witnesses, and taking the matter to the church as a last resort. But what I hope to show you is that each of the steps outlined here involves a lot more than what you might think. And that, beloved, is the beauty of this passage. In a mere five verses, the Lord Jesus Christ said more than fifteen hundred pages of federal legislation, and it’s more useful because it’s so simple and easy to follow.

Private Admonition

In the verses immediately preceding our text, Jesus spoke about offenses and their inevitability in this world. Remember that the church is made up of sinners. We may be saved by grace, but we are sinners nonetheless. Because sin is unavoidable, Jesus instructed us in our text to deal with it head-on. The procedure that he outlined assures fair treatment both to the person who feels aggrieved (his case is heard by impartial parties) and to the offender (who is given adequate opportunity to explain his behavior and, if necessary, repent of it). The purpose of going to one’s brother is not to vent anger or seek revenge, but to deal with the matter openly and honestly in an effort to find a Biblical resolution.

The first stage of formal discipline is outlined in verse 15. Jesus said, Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. The principle here is private admonition.

Now, what exactly does this mean? If we pay attention to what Jesus actually said, it will become perfectly clear.

First, look at the word trespass. When I was a child, every Sunday afternoon my family would visit my grandparents on a farm in Pennsylvania. Directly across the street from their house was a wooded area, and along the road in front of the woods was a sign that said “No Trespassing.” We trespassed anyway. We weren’t trying to hurt anybody or get into mischief. We just wanted to play cowboys and Indians in the woods. Trespassing just didn’t seem to be that big of a deal.

However, the word translated trespass (ἁμαρτήσῃ) in our text makes it a huge deal. It is the same word is translated elsewhere as sin. So, we’re not talking about minor issues like who parks where in the church parking lot or what color the preacher’s shirt should be. We are talking about matters of sin that are clearly defined by the Word of God and are an insult to God himself.

If your grievance against your brother is not a matter of sin, then drop it. You have no right to hold your own preferences and opinions over your brother in the Lord. And if you are not willing to follow steps of discipline all the way through verse 17, then don’t even start. If your grievance is important enough to confront your brother in the first place, then it should be important enough to take before the church, if necessary. The point here is that you have no right to hold your brother in suspension regarding a matter that may affect his everlasting soul.

Second, the only people at this stage of discipline who should know about the offense are you and the brother who offended you. There is no provision here for talking to a third party. This principle is stated in Proverbs 25:9–10, which says, Debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself; and discover not a secret to another: lest he that heareth it put thee to shame, and thine infamy turn not away.

Involving others at this point is simply gossip. Even if you believe that your brother has sinned against you and you have plenty of evidence to support your belief, the ninth commandment still requires you to defend and promote his good name. When you do not do this, you give him a just complaint against you. And that does nothing except make the situation harder to deal with.

Now, let’s suppose that you are a third-party who happens to hear about an alleged offense between two other persons. What is your responsibility? To put it simply, you are not to know about it. As soon as you realize that are hearing something that is not your business, you should ask the person telling you to say no more. By letting him continue, you are conspiring with him to sin against others in the church. And if by God’s providence you learn about private matter, then keep it to yourself. Do not tell your husband. Do not tell your wife. Do not tell your children. Do not tell your best friend. Do not tell anyone.

Private matters must be kept private. The only exception to this that the Word of God seems to allow is asking someone for advice. Proverbs 15:22 says, Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counsellors they are established. But even when seeking advice, it is wise not to mention any more details than are absolutely necessary to obtain the advice.

Third, going to an offending brother and telling him his fault is not an option. The verbs go (ὕπαγε) and tell (ἔλεγξον) are commands. The latter verb means to convince. Thus, you have a duty before God to do everything within your power to help your brother understand what he has done and why it is so grievous. If you really love your brother, you will do precisely that.

The temptation that we all struggle with is to think that we are mature enough in the faith to overlook an offense or wise enough to handle it in some other way. But what makes us think that we know better than God what is good for us and good for our brother? When we do not follow the procedures that the Lord so carefully and lovingly gave to us, it can only result in the festering of our own bitterness and the continued sin of one who calls himself by the precious name of our dear Savior. Such things only bring the gospel into further disrepute.

My fourth observation, though based more on other passages than are present text, is nonetheless extremely important. It is this: whenever you go to an offending brother in obedience to Matthew 18, do so in the spirit of humility. Galatians 6:1 says, Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. It’s possible that your brother does not even realize that he has offended you in some way. Even David asked God to cleanse him of his secret faults, i.e., sins that he was not yet aware of because of his imperfect sanctification (Ps. 19:12). If David had secret faults, then surely we do. Humility would dictate that we acknowledge that our brother may have them, too. And even if your brother is aware of his offense, your attitude of humility toward him will help him repent and seek the forgiveness of our merciful God.

Remember that the goal of discipline is to win an erring brother back to the Lord. It is not to win an argument.

Before we get on to the next stage of formal discipline, note the end of this verse. If our brother hears our complaint, i.e., if he repents and turns to the Lord, then there is no need to go any further with discipline. Both parties should put the matter behind them and rejoice together in God’s mercy. From that point on, it should be as if nothing had ever happened.


There will, of course, be occasions when you go to your brother to inform him of his fault and he will not hear you. When this happens and only when this happens, do we proceed to the next step.

The second step of discipline is given in verse 16. Jesus said, But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. This expands on the principle laid down in the previous verse, viz., that private matters must be kept private. But, since the offending brother has rejected the first attempt at reconciliation, it is necessary to bring in at most one or two others as witnesses. Let me emphasize again that no one other than you, the offending brother and your witnesses should know anything about your complaint.

In this verse, the taking of witnesses presupposes that the offending brother has rejected your counsel. But this does not necessarily mean that the witnesses will be your witnesses, i.e., that they will agree with you. Their purpose is to hear both sides of the matter, not just one. After meeting with you and your brother, they may conclude that you are right and your brother is wrong. But it is just as possible that they will come to the opposite opinion, in which case they must be free to tell you that you are wrong, and you should be willing to listen to them. If they tell you that you are wrong, then you should drop the matter right there. It should go no further.

The practice of calling witnesses was laid out in Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 19:15. Moses wrote, One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established. Witnesses provide protection for both sides of the dispute and, therefore, the Lord instructed the New Testament church to retain the practice for its own benefit.

Tell the Church

This takes us to the third stage of formal discipline, which is outlined in verse 17. Jesus said, And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. This verse assumes that you have taken witnesses and that your brother has refused to hear them. If this is the case, then you have no choice but to take the matter to the church, which must make a determination of fault.

Here the word church does not mean the entire congregation, but rather those who have authority in the church to decide such matters, viz., the elders. In other words, the whole is represented by a part.

Now you might wonder what justification there is for making this claim, especially since Jesus use the word church in our text. But this is a simple question to answer. Verse 18 explains what it means for the church to declare someone to be an heathen man and a publican, and what we find here is that the church operates through those who have the authority to bind and loose. This authority was given to Peter in Matthew 16, where Peter acted as a representative of the twelve. Here Jesus gave authority to the twelve, as can be seen in what he said to them after the resurrection. John 20:22–23 says that Jesus breathed on the twelve and said unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. The twelve, of course, represented the church as a whole. They had the power to forgive sins only by the preaching of the gospel and the administration of discipline, and they have the power to retain sins only by the preaching of the gospel and the administration of discipline. Nonetheless, to the degree that their preaching and discipline are carried out in accordance with the Word of God, it will stand before the judgment of God.

The twelve apostles served a temporary role in the early church. Even in the New Testament, they gradually turned over the authority of the day-to-day ministry to the leaders of the local congregations. Today, the elders represent the church in matters of government and discipline.

In any case, you can see here that we are dealing with very serious matters — matters of everlasting life and everlasting ruin. A sentence of excommunication, according to what our Lord declares in verse 17, means that an unrepentant offender is to be regarded as a heathen and a publican, and no longer as a brother in the Lord, as was the case in verse 15. This does not mean, however, that we should have no contact with him at all, but rather that he is excluded from Christian fellowship, and particularly from the Lord’s Supper, until and unless he repents and seeks God’s mercy. Any contacts that we have with such a person should be for evangelism and calling him to repentance. We should never make that person feel comfortable in his sin. Nor does excommunication mean that the person who has been excommunicated can never be restored. Christ not only gave the church power to bind, but also the power to loose. And we must pray that the church, by its faithful preaching of the gospel and diligence and exercising discipline, would loose the sins of many heathens and publicans.

Excommunication is both drastic and harsh. It has to be, just as the pruning of a tree is harsh for the tree. But it is absolutely necessary if the brother will ever be productive in the kingdom of Christ. The harshness of discipline shows him how much God hates his sin. But it is not only harsh for the offender, it is also harsh for the church. Whenever discipline is administered, the Lord is in a sense disciplining the church. Every instance of discipline reminds each and every one of us that we must abide under the authority of God’s Word. It should encourage us to examine our lives to see where we have failed, so that we might improve our lives to the glory of God. This is never easy for any of us, but it is absolutely essential if we would be faithful to our great Savior.

Because excommunication is harsh and drastic, it should be our last resort and is only used when it is clear that the offender, by refusing to repent and submit his doctrine or life to the Word of God, places himself outside the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

However, the fact that excommunication is harsh does not mean that it is not also an act of love. In fact, when the church excommunicates an offender, its purpose is never to inflict pain. The harshness that the offender feels is a consequence of his own sin. Rather, it is the church’s purpose in any discipline to love the offender. The church loves the offender so much that it is willing to tell him the truth and, if necessary, separate from him with the prayer and hope that God will be merciful and bring that person to a place of greater devotion and service. Regarding incestuous man, the apostle Paul told the church in Corinth to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (I Cor. 5:5).

Christ’s Promise

The next two verses of our text give us tremendous confidence in the disciplinary process. Going to one’s brother with a complaint is never easy. The brother who must hear the complaint, especially if he has done something wrong, is even less comfortable. Witnesses are not in it for fun: no one wants to be in a position where he may have to testify against someone he has come to love in the Lord. And elders have more than their share of sleepless nights when they are called upon to hear complaints between church members. They weep when they have to declare any of flock, on the basis of the gospel, to be outside the kingdom of Christ. But Christ assured the church that it will never do these things in its own power or in vain. Instead, he gave the church three promises to rest in: the promise of answered prayer, the promise of his own authority, and the promise of his presence.

Jesus promised, first of all, to hear the prayers of two or three who gather in his name and seek his will in regard to discipline. Certainly, this promise applies to the church in verse 17, but I believe it would be a mistake to limit it to that. In the Old Testament, when a person was found guilty of a capital offense, the witnesses were the first ones to throw stones. But here we see the greater privilege of the gospel era — now the witnesses are the first ones who call upon God in prayer for the offender.

Next, Jesus promised the church that it act in his name, i.e., by his authority. This is something that we must never forget. Whether it’s one person approaching someone who offended him, the witnesses testifying to what they have seen and heard, or the church carrying out a sentence of excommunication, all these things are done by Christ’s authority. He is the one who told the church how to do it. That’s is what our text is about.

And finally, Jesus promised to be with his church. An ancient Jewish saying said that God would be with two or three who gathered together to study the law. Here Jesus promised to be in the midst of his church, particularly when it engages in the difficult task of discipline. He promised to be omnipresent, to be Immanuel — “God with us,” the God who walks among his people. He claims to be the God of those who gather together, and as God he promised to bless the church as it faithfully carries out his will.

You should, therefore, not be afraid to follow the steps of Matthew 18 when necessary. These are the steps Christ himself gave to you for your good. He promised to bless you as you follow them. Your obedience demonstrates your love for him, as well as your love for the offending brother whom you are trying to turn back to the way of truth.

As we have examined the steps of discipline today, I trust that you all, from the youngest to the oldest, have been blessed with a greater understanding of your responsibility not only to the Lord, but to your brother in Christ.

When someone offends us, it is natural to us as sinners want to deal with the offense in our own way — avoid it, seek revenge, spread tales and rumors, etc. And so it is good to be reminded once in a while of the proper principles to follow. We want them to be in our minds and hearts, so that, when the need arises, our inclination is to submit ourselves entirely to the revealed will of God.

But studying this passage yields another benefit to us. It impresses upon us in a very powerful way the importance of self-discipline. It shows how much the Lord hates sin and how much he loves those who turn to him in repentance in faith. The very fact that God has given us the means to deal with offenses between brothers should motivate us to avoid harming ourselves or any of our brothers in Christ by willfully sinning.

There is not one of us here today who, upon arriving at this building on Sunday morning and seeing a small fire burning in one of its corners, would not put it out. Small fires quickly become big fires that cannot be controlled. If we see a small fire of sin burning within our hearts or cherished in the heart of a brother, would you not want to put it out before it ends in misery and ruin?

Let us all take heed to Paul’s admonition: Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall (I Cor. 10:12), with the assurance that the blood of Jesus Christ covers all our sins. Amen.

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