In regard to the question concerning the key power of Christian discipline, it is very important that we understand certain definite principles.
In the first place, also in regard to Christian discipline we must understand that its key power lies only in the Word of God. The word of man, or the opinions of men, can have no power to open or shut the kingdom of heaven. Whether, therefore, Christian discipline consists in private admonition, in which a brother admonishes another, or in the action of the whole church thru the consistory, always it must be the Word of God that is the content of the admonition. Only Christ holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And Christ speaks His own Word only thru the Holy Scriptures. This, of course, does not mean that in admonishing the brother or in finally excluding him from the communion and fellowship of the saints we may only read the Bible to him. But it does mean that all our admonition and exhortation must be based on the Holy Scriptures. This implies, of course, that we must be certain that the brother has sinned, either privately or publicly, and that now we can point out his sin to him and rebuke him definitely with the Word of God on our lips. Only then can Christian discipline be to the glory of God in Christ, to the well-being of the church, and to the salvation of the brother. Only then can such discipline be a key power, to open and shut the kingdom of heaven.
A second important principle, which is often ignored, is that Christian discipline must be motivated by the love of God in Christ and the love of the brother. One who either as minister or elder labored for some time in the church of Christ on earth will know by experience how this principle of love is often violated and ignored, and how in this respect the key power of Christian discipline is often misunderstood and wrongly applied. Christians often act as if they think that the key power of the church is the same as the sword power in the world. Instead of admonishing the brother from the motive of the love of God in Christ, they seek their own rights rather than the salvation of the brother. To use an illustration, say that someone has borrowed a thousand dollars from a brother and refuses to pay it back. In such a case frequently the brother from whom the thousand dollars was borrowed seeks his right, that is, the return of the thousand dollars, rather than the salvation of the brother. It is not the sin of the brother that grieves him, but rather the fact that the money is not returned to him. He is like the man pictured in the parable of the unmerciful servant, of whom we read: “But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.” Now, mark you, we by no means claim that in the above illustration the brother that borrowed a thousand dollars should not return the money. But we do maintain that in such a case, and in similar cases, the chief question does not concern the money, but the sin of the brother. If the brother is admonished in love concerning his sin of not returning the money and paying the debt he owes, and he repents of his sin, the money will be returned as a matter of fact. Nevertheless, it is not chiefly a money question and a question of right, but it is a spiritual, ethical matter, the matter concerning the sin of the brother. Christian discipline must be motivated by the love of God in Christ and the love to the brother. That this principle of love is often ignored in Christian discipline is also evident from other facts. Often when one brother attempts to admonish another brother, the former at the same time often publishes the sin of the brother on the streets of Ashkelon, while it is his Christian obligation to keep it as secret and private as possible. Another fact that lies in the same line, and that is evidence of the same lack of love and of the violation of that important principle in Christian discipline, is that an admonishing brother frequently hurries technically thru the rule prescribed in Matthew 18, in order then as soon as possible to bring the matter before the consistory. He visited the offending brother once, and again visited him with two or three witnesses, in order then to lay the matter before the church and make it public. Technically such a brother certainly followed the rule of Matthew 18. But if he would have been motivated by the love of God and the love of the brother, he rather would have admonished him repeatedly and in private, before giving the matter any wider publication.
There is a principal and fundamental difference between the sword power of the world and the key power of the church. In the first place, as we have already pointed out, there is the difference of motive. The sword power is motivated and must be motivated by justice: the evil-doer must be punished, and he that doeth well must be protected. But the motive of Christian discipline is love, the love of God in Christ Jesus. And this love of God in Christ appears as a love to sinners. This too is emphasized in the parable of the unmerciful servant. In that parable we read: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.” God reconciled us to Himself when we were still enemies, and He manifested His love toward us in sending His only begotten Son into the world, in order that He might pay the debt which we could never pay. If that love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, we certainly will love Him and will love the brother for His name’s sake, and motivated by that Jove will be ready to forgive the brother. In that love of God we are willing to deny ourselves, earnestly seek the glory of God, the well-being of His church, and the salvation of one another. And this leads us to a second point of difference between the sword power of the world and the discipline of the church. The purpose of the sword power is the maintenance of justice and righteousness. It is the calling of the sword power to maintain the law in its own sphere of the public relationships of the citizens. But the purpose of the power of Christian discipline is the salvation of the sinner, the purity of the church, and the glory of God. There is, thirdly, also a difference as to the objects of the exercise of the sword power and the objects of the exercise of Christian discipline. The former, that is, the power of the sword, is concerned only with some public offenders. But the objects of Christian discipline are all impenitent sinners, no matter what the nature of their sin may be. And therefore, finally, there is also a difference between the end or outcome of the exercise of the sword power and of the exercise of Christian discipline, The outcome of the former is punishment, whether by fine or prison or capital punishment. But even as the motive and purpose of Christian discipline is not revenge and is not the maintenance of justice and righteousness, so also its end is not punishment, but is either forgiveness or excommunication from the church.
That it is the principle of love which must be the motivation of all Christian discipline is also plainly evident from the classic passage in. Notice, in the first place, that according to this passage it is the obligation of love that the offended party visit the offending brother. This does not mean, of course, that the same obligation does not rest upon the latter: it is certainly his calling to go and confess his sin before the offended brother. But the Lord addresses the brother against whom the sin has been committed, in the first place, to make sure that the brethren meet. And it seems far more certain that this will be realized when the offended brother takes the initiative than when this is left up to the brother that sinned. Secondly, also in this respect the offended party must be a follower of God. We did not love God, but He loved us. He blotted out our sins and reconciled us unto Himself and sought us as sinners, when we were still enemies. And therefore, it is certainly the obligation of love that the offended party seek the erring brother. Hence, the Lord says: “Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” This implies too, of course, that when anyone sins against us, it is not left up to our choice whether or not we shall go and rebuke the brother; but the sin of the brother imposes upon us a sacred obligation to go.
Moreover, if the brother trespass against us, we must not approach him in the spirit of pride, in order to defend our right or avenge the wrong which the brother has committed against us; but rather we must meet him in the spirit of humility and of sorrow because the brother walks in the way of sin. For the same reason we must not visit him in order to make light of his sin or to smoothen things over: for also this would not manifest the spirit of love. On the contrary, the Lord very definitely admonishes the offended party that he must go to the brother in order to tell him his fault. He must rebuke him with the Word of God and attempt to bring him to repentance. In the third place, the truth that Christian discipline must be motivated by the spirit of brotherly love in the love of God is also evident from the fact that the Lord admonishes the offended party to keep the sin of the brother as private and secret as possible. He must tell the brother his fault between himself and him alone. The matter, therefore, must be covered up and must be kept within proper limits. In the fourth place, if upon the admonition the brother repents, this ends the matter: for it is the sacred obligation of love to forgive one another.
About this obligation of forgiveness a few words may still be added. In the first place, it is evident that forgiveness on the part of the offended party can be granted and can be received by the erring brother only in the way of repentance. Where there is no conviction of sin and therefore no sincere repentance and desire for forgiveness, it is absolutely impossible to grant and to receive forgiveness. In the second place, the right to forgive exists strictly speaking only among brethren in the Lord Jesus Christ, and is based upon the blood of the cross. No one has the right to forgive those whom God does not forgive. And God forgives only on the basis of the righteousness which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Hence, the right to grant forgiveness of sins, which is at the same time a privilege, can be maintained only in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. And thirdly, it must also be emphasized that there can never be an end to the obligation to forgive. This is evident from the context of Matthew 18. After the Lord had laid down the rule that in the case of an offended brother the latter must go and rebuke the offending party, we read that Peter approached the Lord with the question, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” And the Lord answered him: “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” Also in this respect we must be followers of God as dear children. The mercy of the Lord is without end. No matter how often we sin against Him, He is ready to forgive in the way of sincere repentance. And even that repentance He Himself works in our hearts through His Spirit and grace by the preaching of the Word. And therefore, if the brother sin against us seventy times seven times and repents and asks for forgiveness as often as he sins against us, it is our sacred obligation to forgive. Always we must be able to say, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
The question may be asked here: what kind of sin is the object of Christian discipline, and what sin is ultimately sufficient cause for excommunication from the church on earth? The answer to this question may be very brief. It is this: all known sin of impenitence. We dare not make a distinction between gross sins and sins of minor importance. No sinner as such can possibly be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. A murderer that repents may belong to the church of Christ, even though the power of the sword inflicts capital punishment upon him. On the other hand, one offending word spoken against the brother of which the offended refuses to repent may be the cause of his excommunication from the church on earth and from the kingdom of God in heaven. Any sin, therefore, whether it be in doctrine or in walk, of which the sinner does not repent is the object of Christian discipline, and may ultimately be the cause of his being expelled from the kingdom of God.
But what if, after repeated admonition, the brother refuses to acknowledge his sin and remains impenitent? In that case it becomes finally a matter for the whole church. Thus the Lord teaches us in: “But if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it to the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” All this has reference, of course, to private sin, that is, to sin that is not known to the whole church. When a sin is public in its very nature, and is known to the whole church, it stands to reason that the church through its officebearers is obliged to take action. The consistory in that case has the obligation to visit and admonish the offending brother in order to bring him to repentance. Even in such a case the rest of the members of the congregation may not assume the attitude that they have no further obligation with respect to the offending brother, seeing that the case is in the hands of the consistory. On the contrary, the obligation of love never ceases, and they too must exhort and rebuke the brother, in order that he may repent of his sin. Nevertheless, when a sin is public and known to the church, the consistory may not leave the matter to the members of the congregation, but must itself take action. However, in regard to a private sin, that is known to only one brother, the rule of Matthew 18 must be followed to the end. The offended party, if upon repeated admonition the offender does not repent, must take along one or two witnesses, in order that in their mouth every word may be estabishled. And if the offender does not, heed the admonitions of the offended party in the presence of these witnesses, the matter must be reported to the church. And if ultimately the sinner shows no repentance, he must be unto the church as a heathen man and a publican. And what this implies is plain from verse 18 of the same chapter: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In other words, the impenitent sinner is excluded from the kingdom of God, both on earth and in heaven.
As to the way in which this final remedy is ultimately applied, also this is characterized by the spirit of love, that ever hopes that the sinner may repent. First of all, the consistory labors with the erring brother, in the meantime, however, barring him from the table of the Lord. If he is repeatedly admonished and reveals no spirit of repentance, he is publicly censured, that is, his censure is announced to the church, without, however, mentioning his name. If after this censure the brother should, come to repentance, his censure is removed and his repentance is likewise announced without mentioning the name of the erring brother. However, if he becomes hardened in his sin and shows continued impenitence, a second step of censure is applied, this time with the advice of the classis. And also this step of censure is announced to the congregation, and this time with the name of the offender. It is understood, of course, that the announcement concerning these different steps of censure is not made in order to satisfy the curiosity of the church, but rather in order that the whole congregation may have the opportunity to visit and admonish the offending party. It is after all the whole church that exercises discipline. Upon the whole church rests the obligation of brotherly love, of exhortation and admonition, and of prayer that the offending brother may come to repentance, And if, after all these private and public admonitions, the sinner still does not show any signs of repentance, he is finally excommunicated from the church of Christ in the world, and thereby from the kingdom of God in heaven. For whatsoever, according to the Word of God, is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever is loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
The proper exercise of Christian discipline according to the Word of God is of great benefit to the church of Christ in the world. It is of benefit to the erring brother, who through the admonitions of the Word of God is brought to repentance and re-established in the fellowship of the saints. This applies, of course, only to the brother, not to him that bears the name of Christian but continues to walk in the way of sin and impenitence. He will harden himself against and through all Christian admonitions and exhortations, and will ultimately leave the church of Jesus Christ or be excommunicated from the fellowship of the people of God in the world. But the erring brother will repent and be saved, and that too, not by human efforts, but because it pleases Christ to use the exhortations of the brethren and of the whole church to bring His wandering sheep back to the fold. Moreover, Christian discipline is of great benefit not only to the erring brother, but also to the mutual relationship of believers and to the church as a whole. When Christian discipline is exercised properly and faithfully, the bond of Christian fellowship will be strengthened and believers will be built up in the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. And the church as a whole is benefited because by the exercise of Christian discipline it constantly casts off the impure elements of the flesh, grows in the knowledge and grace of Christ Jesus our Lord, and is firmly established in the truth.