Exhortation and Prayer
The congregation which instrumentally enacts the excommunication of the impenitent brother, is no better or more worthy than he who is excommunicated. Each member of the church, as they witness the excommunication, must feel in their hearts that apart from the grace of God this is also their just portion. None of us deserves a place in God’s Kingdom. It is only the grace of God that continually leads us to repentance that gives us that place and preserves us in it. Only in the spirit and attitude of deepest humility then may the church proceed in this disagreeable but necessary work.
In connection with the actual excommunication therefore, each member of the congregation must be exhorted with respect to his attitude toward the one who is being excommunicated as well as with respect to himself. Concerning the former he may not look down upon the brother with contempt, think himself to be holier than he or treat him as scum but he is enjoined “to keep no company with him, that he may be ashamed; yet count him not as an enemy, but at all times admonish him as you would a brother.” The “beloved Christians” addressed in the Form for Excommunication are Christians, not in name only, but in life and practice and as such they continue to have concern in their hearts for the eternal well-being of the brother who has been ensnared and fallen into heinous sin. They continue to pray for him, to admonish him, to direct him in the ways of the Lord in the hope that he may yet be saved. With him they cannot and may not walk for to do that would be to partake of his sin, but they certainly must manifest in every possible way their concern for his soul. This spiritual attitude is often lacking among Christians to the serious detriment of the church.
But the members of the church must also take heed to themselves. They are further exhorted with these words: “In the meantime let every one take warning by this and such like examples; to fear the Lord, and diligently take heed unto himself, if he thinketh he standeth, lest he fall; but having true fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, together with all faithful Christians, remain steadfast therein to the end, and so obtain eternal salvation.” The seriousness of this admonition cannot be over-emphasized. It is essentially the same as the direct calling of the Word of God that we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling, ” and that we make our “calling and electionsure.” To accentuate this emphasis the attention of the brethren and sisters in the Lord is focused directly upon the example of the excommunicated member in order that we may all see what can very really happen to anyone and all of us. We are to observe how this “brother began to fall, and by degrees is come to ruin.” The fall is gradual. Step by step the sinner departs from the way of truth. At first the departure may not appear to be so serious and may not even be detected as sin. But it is only the beginning and soon it is followed by another step and then another, each one more intensely wicked, until finally he is completely overcome by the power of evil. How careful we must be to avoid that first deviation from the law of God! But since we are departing every day, how necessary it is that we have the grace of repentance by which we are humbly brought to our knees in confession of all our sins, and so constantly seek Divine guidance in our way. We need to seek and desire His preservation so that we may be faithful day by day.
Noting this example we are to learn “how subtle Satan is, to bring man to destruction, and to withdraw him from all salutary means of salvation.” The sinister purpose of the wicked one is not always easily discernable because he so often appears as an angel of light. Under a guise of religious piosity and with a pretense of confessing the truth he leads men astray. “Guard then,” warns our Form, “against the least beginnings of evil, ‘and laying aside’, according to the exhortation of the apostle, ‘every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us, let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; be sober, watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. Today, if you will hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts, but work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’; and everyone repent of his sins, lest our God humble us again and that we be obliged to bewail some one of you; but that you may with one accord, living in all godliness, be our crown and joy in the Lord.”
These matters are always extremely serious. We are living in a religiously superficial era in which these spiritual matters are so easily slighted. The speed of living and the incessant clamor for pleasure and the material things of life tend more and more to obliterate these most serious considerations from our minds. Even apart from an actual case of excommunication, the beloved brethren and sisters in the Lord may well be reminded to give heed unto these things. Failure to do so is already giving ground to the devil. If we follow on the road of materialism, humanism, worldliness, etc. Satan will, by subtle devices, continue to lead us into catastrophic destruction. In the heeding of the warnings of God’s Word there is great reward.
Finally, the Excommunication Form concludes with a prayer of the church accompanied with confession of sin. Concerning this prayer we may note, in the first place, that it, together with the preceding exhortations, proceeds on the proper assumption that the excommunicated one is not finally and hopelessly lost. In the second place, the prayer itself may be divided into three main sections. The first of these is the address to God as “the righteous God and merciful Father.” The second deals with the humble confession of sin by the church and then we have the body of petitions followed by a recital of the prayer which our Lord taught us to pray.
How appropriate it is that we address God here as the “righteous God and merciful Father.” It is very conceivable that we could address Him with many of His other attributes as well. However, in this particular circumstance in which a member has been excommunicated from His church the righteousness and the mercy of God must stand out in the consciousness of the church. She prays in the awareness that all of the works of God are right, and that is especially applicable with a view to His work which even now He is performing through the church. It is a matter of righteousness that the impenitent be cut off from the body of Christ. The unrighteous cannot inherit the Kingdom. At the same time, however, we must never lose sight of God’s mercy by which He saves us sinners. His mercy is never in conflict with His righteousness, for these are one. But mercy is the manifestation of that virtue in God according to which He delivers His people from the misery and bondage of sin in the right and just way, which means that He does this on the basis of the atonement of Christ, His Son. The church concedes the possibility and even expresses the hope that this mercy may yet be manifest to the member who is being excommunicated.
Note the cry of the church confessing her sin and acknowledging herself to be worthy of the same condemnation. “We bewail our sins before Thy high majesty, and acknowledge that we have deserved the grief and sorrow caused unto us by the cutting off of this our late fellow member; yea, we all deserve, shouldst Thou enter into judgment with us, by reason of our transgressions, to be cut off and banished from Thy presence.”
A confession such as this is born out of the sincere desire for reconciliation with God and so the prayer proceeds with a four-fold request or petition. First, the church asks for forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake and that God will daily work in our hearts a greater measure of sorrow for them. This, together with the statement, “that we may, fearing Thy judgments which Thou executest against the stiff-necked, endeavor to please Thee,” prescribes the true and only way of reconciliation with God. Forgiveness of sin can never be obtained by a lip-confession and a further continuance in the way of sin. To have forgiveness implies that there is a sincere remorse, a true sorrow for sin, together with a real desire and determination to walk in the ways of the Lord, to submit to His commandments and to obey His Word in all things, even and especially when that obedience involves us in the loss of worldly goods, name, honor, etc. Whole hearted obedience is the unmistakable earmark of forgiveness, for the grace of forgiveness is manifest in the grace of obedience unto God. Where the latter is lacking, the former cannot exist!
The second petition of the church is for grace that she may be kept from the pollution of the world and also from the sins of those who are cut off from the communion of the Church. This follows of necessity from her expressed desire to please God, which, of course, is impossible if she becomes partaker of these sins. The church must have grace to confess the truth, but also to live that confession, for without this the judgments of God will surely descend upon her. In this consciousness the saints, fearing these judgments, prays for the grace of sanctification.
The third request is made in behalf of both the church and the excommunicated member. The righteous God and merciful Father is asked “that he who is excommunicated may become ashamed of his sins; and since Thou desirest not the death of a sinner, but that he may repent and live, and the bosom of Thy Church is always open for those who turn away from their wickedness; we therefore humbly beseech thee, to kindle in our hearts a pious zeal, that we may labor, with good Christian admonitions and examples, to bring again this excommunicated person on the right way, together with all those, who, through unbelief or dissoluteness of life, go astray.”
The need of this for the church is indeed very great. It is so easy and even a natural tendency to forget one who has been severed from the church of Jesus Christ. We will then have nothing more to do with them. This is not the right and Christian way. In our prayers we must remember them, and with our admonitions we must labor to bring them out of the captivity of sin. Not least of all must our entire life be an example of godliness in which the way of happiness and life is so clearly demonstrated that it may serve to bring shame upon the disobedient and turn the refractory unto the Lord God. Not only is this our duty, but to fulfill this obligation must be the desire of our hearts or else it is mockery to ask the Lord to kindle that zeal in our hearts. And this involves labor, hard labor, labor of love that denies self and seeks the true well being of the neighbor.
The final petition of this prayer is that God may “give Thy blessing to our admonitions, that we may have reason thereby to rejoice again in him, for whom we must now mourn, and that Thy holy name may be praised, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In this petition the consciousness is evident that works His redemptive work in us and through us there can be and is no salvation. Without His blessing upon us all of our endeavors are only vanity of vanities. How utterly dependent we are. How gloriously sovereign is He. And thus, when through the prayers and labors of the church, God brings one sinner to repentance, the angels in heaven rejoice with the church, and all glory and honor is ascribed to God alone, Who works all things according to the pleasure of His will.