Restoring a Sinful Brother

Rev. Houck is pastor of Peace Protestant Reformed Church in Lansing, Illinois.

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. 

Galatians 6:1

In this verse the apostle Paul admonishes us to restore a sinful brother. The occasion for this admonition is found in the words, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault….”

Even though the apostle says “if a man,” he does not refer to man in general. The principle which he sets down is not a principle which applies to all people. This principle is only for believers. That is clear from the word “Brethren.” The man who is overtaken in a fault is a spiritual brother.

The word “fault” means “to fall beside or near something.” It is a lapse or deviation in which a person falls off the path of God’s truth and righteousness. It is a trespass or sin. The word “overtaken” means literally “to take before.” The idea is to take a person before he can get away and thus catch him. This fault or sin catches a believer suddenly and holds on to him so that he cannot get away.

This phrase, “overtaken in a fault,” implies several things. First of all, it implies that this restoring process is to be used only when a believer sins. Sometimes we criticize another believer, not because he has sinned, but just because we do not like what he is doing. Or worse than that, we talk about a fellow-believer behind his back. We do that just because we disagree with him. Sometimes we are very judgmental. If a person does not conform to our way of thinking, he is not a good Christian.

That is wrong. Never may we accuse a brother unless he has actually sinned. We have to allow for true Christian liberty. We are free within the limits of God’s Word. The moral principles of the Bible teach us what is sin. Therefore, if we are to use the principle of this verse, we ought to make sure that the Bible clearly defines the brother’s action as sin.

Secondly, this phrase implies that believers do sin. Believers are not perfect. We may not think that everyone else is evil, while we are always righteous. Sin catches us and overtakes us every day. It is a constant reality in every believer’s life. We cannot deny it.

In the third place, this principle is to be used only when a brother does not repent of his sin. Normally when we commit a sin, we repent. In that case, the brother does not have to be restored. He has dealt with his sin properly and taken care of it. But one can be overtaken in the sense that he remains in his sin. The sin has caught him in such a way that it holds onto him and will not let him go. The believer continues committing sin or does not see that what he has done is sin, and therefore does not repent. That is the brother who needs to be restored.

Finally, this phrase implies that we know about the sin of our brother. Sometimes a brother commits a public sin which many people know about. In that case we not only ought to go to him in obedience to this passage, but we ought to report it to the consistory. Other times a brother commits a sin which is private. However, a fellow-believer may have seen him commit it. He knows about it, not because of hearsay, but because he has witnessed it himself. If he would not say anything about it, it would probably never be discovered. That is the sin with which this verse is concerned.

That brings us to the question, “What are we to do when we witness a brother commit such a sin?” Are we to ignore it? That is what many of us do. We act as if we have seen nothing. We do that for many reasons. We may not want to get the brother in trouble. Perhaps we don’t want to face the brother. It is always hard to tell someone he is sinning. Maybe we do not want to testify against a brother. Perhaps we don’t want to get involved in a big mess. Sometimes reporting a brother’s sin can involve a person in some very unpleasant proceedings.

But that is wrong. We may not ignore a brother’s sin. If we ignore a brother’s sin, we become guilty of his sin. We become an accessory to his crime. To ignore a brother’s sin is sin itself—sin which brings the chastening hand of God upon us.

On the other hand, the apostle does not say that when a brother sins we are to cast him out of the church immediately. That is the other extreme. Perhaps the sin is so hideous that we want to expel him from our communion. We are not concerned about his well-being. We think only of ourselves. The sinning brother is forced out of the church without so much as a single admonition. That too is sin.

There is another improper reaction to the sin of a brother. We talk about it to others. This happens often. This is the easy way out. We don’t have to confront the brother. We don’t have to get involved with the consistory. Yet, we can feast on this juicy tidbit with all of our neighbors. We convict and hang the brother with our gossip without seeking true justice or showing mercy.

That is also sin. In many cases this gossip is a greater sin than the sin of the brother. Don’t be a gossip. If you witness your brother sin, keep that between you and him. Reveal it to others (your pastor or the consistory) only when he will not repent.

What are we to do when a brother sins? Notice the verse, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one….” We are called to restore him. The word “restore” means “to make sound or complete.” This word is used with reference to those who mend their torn fishing nets. They make their nets sound or complete by fixing them. This word is used in connection with putting a dislocated arm back in its socket. The arm is restored to its proper place.

When a brother is overtaken in a fault, we are to mend the tear in his spiritual life. We are to restore him to his proper place spiritually. We are to make him sound spiritually. When a brother sins and does not repent of that sin, it is as if a member of the body of Christ is out-of-joint. The brother has to be fixed. He has to bebrought to godly sorrow, the confession of his sin, and the forsaking of his sin. Rather than looking the other way, we have to play the part of a spiritual physician. Rather than cutting off this offending member of the body, we are to seek spiritual healing for him.

Our love for our spiritual brother ought to move us to help him get out of spiritual trouble. Christ is so merciful to sinners that He calls sinners to repentance. He says in Luke 15:4, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” If a shepherd loses one of his sheep, he will seek it until he finds it and restores it to its place. How much more should our love for our brother cause us to seek him when he has gone astray spiritually? If we ignore this biblical principle to restore our sinful brother, we manifest the fact that we have no love for him nor for the God who sent Christ for him.

Who specifically is to restore the sinful brother? Notice the verse, “… ye which are spiritual, restore such an one….” Who are those who are spiritual? Some say that this refers to a very select group of Christians who are much more mature spiritually than other Christians. This group might include the minister, the elders, the deacons, and a few older members of the congregation. If that were true, this verse would not apply to most of us. But that is not true. The designation “those who are spiritual” includes all Christians. For all Christians are spiritual in the sense that they have the Holy Spirit. However, this designation also means that at the time we seek to restore our sinful brother we must be walking in the Spirit. We may not be indulging in the lust of the flesh. How can we restore a brother who is sinning if we ourselves are sinning? Therefore, the one who restores his brother must be a Christian who is, at that moment, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit.

Before we restore a sinful brother we ought to examine ourselves and make sure that there is no sin in our own lives. Jesus says in Matthew 7:4-5, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

What do we do when we restore a sinful brother? First, we have to go to him and talk to him about his sin. Even though it is difficult, even though we do not want to face our brother with his sin, this face-to-face meeting is absolutely necessary. In this we have the example of Nathan, the prophet, who faced David and said to him, “Thou art the man” (II Sam. 12:1).

The procedure is given to us in Matthew 18:15-17 where we read, “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. 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. 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.”

First, we are to go to our brother alone and talk to him. If he repents, that ends the matter. If he does not repent, we go with one or two others. These witnesses are to stand with us in support of the truth which we bring. If that does not lead him to repentance, we are to inform the consistory of the church so that it can deal with the sinful brother.

What are we to say to the brother when we go to him? That comes down to one thing—Holy Scripture. When we go to our brother, we may not bring our own word. We must bring only the Word of God. It is God’s Word which God uses to convict a person of his sin. Ultimately, only the Holy Spirit can restore a sinning brother. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God.

In particular we ought to say three things. First, we are to point out his sin. We ought to admonish him that the thing which he has done is sin. Sometimes a brother does not realize that what he has done is sin. It is a relatively simple matter to show him that it is. Secondly, we are to call the brother to sorrow because of his sin. He has not confessed his sin to God. He has not forsaken it. We ought to use the Bible to bring him to that godly sorrow, confession to God, and the forsaking of his sin. Thirdly, we are to tell our brother that if he repents, he will find forgiveness. God will forgive him. We will forgive him. Repentance is the only way to forgiveness. If he does not repent, God has not forgiven him, and his place is with the heathen man and the publican.

Finally, let us notice the manner in which we are to restore the brother. We read, “… restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” We are to restore our brother in the spirit of meekness. We are not to deal with him with a tone of arrogance, superiority, or anger. Sometimes we are arrogant. We have an attitude that we are much better than the brother who has sinned. We look down upon him and treat him as if he is nothing. We may even be harsh, unkind, and uncaring. We march right into our brother’s house and start blasting away. Our voice is loud. Our face is flush. Our eyes are filled with anger. That is not the way to restore a sinful brother. Usually that will have the opposite effect. It will drive him away from the Word of God and his needed repentance. If we seek to restore our brother in that way, we will be guilty of great sin.

Rather, we are to go to him with a meek spirit. We are to be humble. We are not to think of ourselves as better than he is. We are to go to him in love and mercy, with kindness and gentleness. We are to have patience with him. That is the example which our Lord has left us. He was a meek and gentle man. He says in Matthew 11:29, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart….” This meek and gentle spirit is what brings results, for then the brother will see our concern for him and the church of Christ. He will see that we love him as a brother and seek his good. His heart will be open to the Word of God which we bring.

Secondly, let us notice the reason that we are to restore the brother in this particular manner. We read, “… considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” At the same time that we seek to restore the brother in a spirit of meekness we are to consider ourselves. We are to observe ourselves, think about ourselves. And what are we to consider? The fact that we also are sinners who can be tempted and fall into sin just as easily as our brother. The very sin which our brother has committed, we might commit ourselves. We are not immune to any sin. We can lie as did Abraham. We can get drunk as Noah did. We can commit adultery and murder as David. We can deny our Lord as Peter. Listen to the words of the apostle found in I Corinthians 10:12, “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”

That is why we are to restore our brother only with a spirit of meekness. But for the grace of God, we would be in his place. That will also make us have a spirit of sympathy and understanding. We know how easy it is for us to sin. Thus, we go to our sinning brother, not to kick him in the dust, but to lift him up and help him back to the place where he belongs—a place of fellowship and friendship with God, a place of peace and joy, a place of usefulness in the body of Christ.