Rev. Kleyn is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Edgerton, Minnesota.
Matthew 18 has sometimes been referred to as “The Forgotten Chapter” of Scripture. This is because we so often forget the admonition in verses 15 and 16 of that chapter. There 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 has 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.”
In these verses our Lord Jesus Christ prescribes for us the way in which we are to deal with a fellow saint who has sinned against us. But often we forget, or even purposely neglect, this admonition. In its place we use our own method of dealing with the one who sins against us. The God-prescribed way we ignore.
The importance of this oft-neglected admonition is indicated by various references to it in Scripture and in our confessions. Christ gives a similar command inMatthew 5:23, 24, where He states: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”
Our confessions also remind us of this duty. The Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day 31, states that the sinner is “often brotherly admonished” before his sin is reported to the church. And in Article 72 of the Church Order we read: “In case anyone errs in doctrine or offends in conduct, as long as the sin is of a private character, not giving public offense, the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18 shall be followed.”
Christ instructs us in Matthew 18 as to how we should deal with the brother who trespasses against us. The neglected admonition does not speak of public gross sins, for such sins have to be dealt with immediately by the church. The admonition concerns private sins committed against us.
This does not mean that for every sin a fellow believer commits, we must run to him and admonish him. If this were the case, not only would we be always busy admonishing others, but there would also be a constant stream of knocks on our own door because of our sins. We all have faults and weaknesses. We all sin. Believers should be able to overlook each other’s faults and trust that by God’s grace the brother or sister in Christ struggles and fights against these sins and repents of them.
What the text in Matthew 18 applies to are cases in which a brother “trespasses against thee.” The implication is that the brother continues in that sin. The determining questions are these: “Have you been sinned against by the brother? Is this sin of such a nature that it stands between you and your brother. Is the sin such that on account of it peace and unity and proper Christian fellowship between you and your brother, and within the church of Christ, have been disrupted? And does the brother continue in his sin? Does he fail to repent? Does he fail to seek the restoration of friendship and fellowship?”
This often happens. We are still sinners and often sin against each other. And each of us is at times sinned against by a brother.
The method Christ prescribes for dealing with such sins is clear. And remember, what Christ commands is not an option, but a duty. We must obey Him. We may not add to or take away from His Word. And that Word is this: “Keep the sin private! Do so by speaking to the sinner, and to him alone!” That’s it.
Christ tells me that when a brother sins against me, I must speak only to him about that sin. I may not speak to someone else about his sin — I must speak personally to him. I may not speak to the minister or an elder about his sin. I may not speak to my wife and children about his sin. I may not call up my friends and speak to them about his sin. I must talk to the one who has sinned against me, and to him alone.
This command of Christ precludes all gossip, slander, and backbiting. If we are commanded to speak to the sinning brother and to him alone, all other listening ears are out of bounds. We may not tell a single other person of his sin. We usually want to. In fact, we often cannot wait to tell others. But this Christ forbids.
Christ’s command also precludes all desire to get even with the sinning brother. Often we seek to do just that. Instead of speaking to the sinner, we mull over the offense within ourselves and become angrier and angrier with the sinning brother. In this way we are really preparing ourselves to commit sin against him. We will end up repaying sin with sin, and not forgiving.
Matthew 18 also precludes first telling the church. It might seem commendable for us to tell the church. Surely the elders and/or the minister need to know about this sinning brother! Surely they are best qualified to speak to him about his sin! And so we immediately run to an officebearer in the church and inform him of all the details of the offense. What often compels us to do this is the hope that we then can wash our hands of the weighty responsibility of speaking to the brother ourselves. But this is sin. To speak to the church before we have privately talked to the sinner is clearly forbidden. Christ does not say, “First tell it unto the church.” We must speak first to him who has sinned, and to him alone.
Heeding Christ’s command also requires of us that we not wait too long to speak to the brother. The offense must be removed as soon as possible. If it is not, it will certainly fester, as does an infected wound. The matter will escalate until so many people and issues are involved that the damage caused becomes well nigh impossible to repair.
Consider a moment the terrible consequences that follow from disobedience to this command of Christ. Those consequences are, of course, devastating — not only for the individual members of the church, but also for the church as a whole. Perhaps you have yourself seen and experienced them. Perhaps you can even add to the ones we mention here.
If we disobey this command by refusing to speak to the sinning brother, this disturbs the peace and unity of the church of Christ. Even if you speak to no one else about the sin, yet the sin still remains between you and the brother. As a result you will find it almost impossible to see him, or to speak to him. You will even find it extremely difficult to worship together with him on the Lord’s Day. This affects the church of Christ. Within the church there is now strife and conflict between its members.
Worse still is if we disobey this command by doing the opposite of what we should. Instead of our love covering, as it should, a multitude of sins, we are instrumental in making public what should be kept private. Through this we cause untold hurt and misery. The name and reputation of the sinner are damaged. Unnecessary shame is brought upon him and upon the church, both because of his sin, and now also because of our sin of gossip and slander. And that gossip may very well cause the sinning brother to become bitter and angry. As a result, it now becomes much more difficult for you personally, and then for the church, to deal with the sinner. Instead of restoring the fallen brother, we drag his name, as well as the name of Christ and His church, in the dust.
By speaking privately and in love to the brother, we cover a multitude of sins. For love not only forgives the sins of our fellow saints, it also keeps those sins private. We consider sin so grievous that we strive to keep it as secret as possible. We do so out of love and concern for the name of the brother and for the name of Christ.
Crucial in the matter of speaking to a brother regarding his sin is our motive and purpose. The motive and purpose of privately admonishing the sinning brother is the same as the motive and purpose of all discipline — the salvation of the sinner. As Matthew 18:15 puts it, we seek to gain the brother. This is Christ’s concern, too, in giving us this command — the salvation of His people.
To seek his salvation is true brotherly love. Therefore we operate from the principle of brotherly love. For that’s what true love is — a concern for one’s eternal spiritual welfare. If we love someone, we seek his salvation.
Our desire in speaking to a sinning brother is to lead him to repentance. As long as he lives in that sin he is under sin’s control. The only way out is repentance and forgiveness. And while it is definitely true that the one who has sinned should really come to us and voluntarily confess his sin, yet we must not sit back and wait for this. Nor may we think that we may just let the matter slide in the hope that over time everything will come right again. It won’t. We are to seek him out in order to lead him to repentance.
We therefore approach the brother with the desire that God may be pleased to use us to deliver him from the power of sin. We direct the sinner to Christ, in whom is mercy and forgiveness. We desire to see him restored again, not only to fellowship with us, but also, and especially, to fellowship with God. Then we have gained the brother. Then there is reason for great joy (not only in heaven, but also among us) over one sinner that repents. And then God is glorified through this evidence of His sovereign grace in the life of a sinner.
It is absolutely necessary that this be our motive. Not revenge, but repentance. Not a desire to get even, but a desire to be again united in the bond of love with this fellow saint. Not a desire to see him forever under the power of a sin, but again restored to fellowship with God and His people.
This motive of love and concern for the brother’s salvation comes to expression in the attitude we have when we speak to him. It determines not only what we say, but also how we say it.
The proper attitude is humility. We manifest this when we say, “I too am a sinner. But for the grace of God, I would also commit this same sin.”
Humility therefore precludes all anger and bitterness. It also eliminates any desire for revenge. But what it especially forbids is a “holier than thou” attitude.
It is so easy for us to see the mote (or sliver) that is in our brother’s eye and to miss completely the beam that is in our own eye. But the saint who has the grace of humility realizes that he is no less depraved by nature than any other. And he tells the brother that this is so. He tells the one who has sinned against him that he knows himself to be just as liable to fall into serious sin. He views himself (as he ought) as the chief of sinners. Certainly his prayer for the sinning brother is, “God, be merciful to this saint.” But that is also his prayer for himself, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In that humble and meek spirit he speaks to his brother.
Humility also means that we are ready to admit our own sins. When we speak to the brother concerning his sin against us, we might very well discover that we were the cause of that sin. Perhaps we instigated his offense. Then we too are guilty of sin. This does not excuse the brother’s sin, but it does require of us a readiness to confess our sin to the brother and to ask him to forgive.
It is not easy to speak to a sinning brother. Often we are afraid of his reaction. Perhaps he will be sarcastic. Or perhaps he will become angry, or even violent. And what makes it especially difficult is the consciousness of our own sins.
But our speaking to the brother is nevertheless a sacred duty. For it is one of the means God uses to turn His people back to Him and to preserve them in righteousness. Therefore, “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. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1, 2).