Church Discipline 2: Luke 15:11-32: Restoring the repentant sinner
Last week we looked at the issue of church discipline. In my studies in this area I have found that there is a real zeal for sermons, studies and articles on this issue. You can find a lot of material about the proper processes to follow, but something I have not seen much on is what do you do with someone who repents, how do we restore the repentant? There are some indications of what to do in verses like Galatians 6:1-3, ‘Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.’ And you will notice that Paul has more to say about our own hearts and attitudes than he does about the erring brother. He indicates that it takes maturity to restore someone, ‘you who are spiritual.’ He indicates that we have to guard our own hearts as we draw alongside someone sinning. We must not think we are immune to their sins, to good to sin like them, and when we have the details of their sins those act as temptations in our minds too. He calls us to imitate Christ who bore our sins to bear the burdens of the sinning brother. And that we must do it with humility not thinking that we are anything special because pride/self-forgetfulness comes before a fall.
I mentioned last week that church discipline put into the hands of sinners is like putting a shotgun into an ex-murderer’s hands. And when it comes to church discipline we are going to be better at judging than restoring. We are better at seeing other people’s sins before our own, and we can too quickly forget the reality that we are undeserving as we deal with others. So today, as we continue to think through the issue of church discipline I want us to examine the parable of the prodigal son. You will see in Luke 15, there are 3 parables given by Christ. All three parables talk about something lost that is found and the joy that is had in the restoration. The occasion for Christ telling these parables is Luke 15:1-2, ‘Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Why did Jesus tell these parables? He told them because the religious and morally observant Pharisees and Scribes were unhappy with the fact that Jesus received sinners to table fellowship, an action that indicates unity and a good relationship. These religious leaders felt that Jesus should hang out and eat with good people not questionable ones. They were likely envious that these people flocked to Jesus and found Him and His message attractive when they are their teaching were rejected by many. They could not see the good of their repenting and longing to be with Christ and hear more of His teaching. The parable of the lost sheep, lost coin and the lost sons are told not to the sinners but to those religious people who were grudging of sinners being forgiven and accepted by Christ to table fellowship. These parable are given to show God’s willingness to search and receive sinners, and how He celebrates and is not grudging at their return. We want to note this message as a guide for us in church discipline as we consider the idea of restoration for the repentant.
I have borrowed liberally from Tim Keller’s excellent book, the Prodigal God, which gives an excellent exposition of this text. The title of the book might strike you as odd, the prodigal God, because we associate prodigality with the younger brother. The word prodigal means to be a spendthrift, and Keller is trying to make the point that when it comes to forgiveness God is an extravagant spender paying the highest price through the death of His Son for our forgiveness. The main insight he brings is that both sons in the parable are lost, that there are two ways to be sinful and two ways to be lost, and at the end of the parable it is the younger repentant brother who is restored to the Father, but the older brother, the character intended to portray the religious leaders, they are not in fellowship with the Father. We will examine the actions of the three main characters and then apply our observations to restoration in church discipline.