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“The Goal of Discipline is Restoration”

Matthew 18:12-22
Bob DeGray
May 4, 2003

Key Sentence

We must approach the process of church discipline with a deep desire to restore and a true willingness to forgive.


I. The Desire for Restoration (Matthew 18:12-14)
II. The Process of Seeking Restoration (Matthew 18:15-20)
III. The Heart of Restoration (Matthew 18:21-22)


        The words ‘church discipline’ do not appear together in Scripture. But from the time of the Reformation godly people have recognized that the concept is Biblical and have identified a willingness to discipline as one of the distinguishing marks of the true church. Those same authors repeatedly pointed out what is central to our discussion today, that the goal of discipline is restoration. I ran across a book online that gives the early history of missions in Hawaii. Those missionaries have a bad reputation, but they also did much good in their efforts to win the native populations to Christ. There were many genuine churches established among the Hawaiians and many mature believers in those churches. But it was often a struggle.

        There was a church at a village called Kohala which was pastored, in 1864, by a missionary named Thomas Bond. Quoting the book: “In that year, in Mr. Bond’s absence, a rumor was started that he would not return. Certain Hawaiians took advantage of the discouragement among the believers to introduce an alcohol made from the ki plant, which tempted many to repeated drunkenness. A new judge had been appointed in that place who was in sympathy with the offenders, and at first seemed to throw every obstacle in the way of executing the laws. But before long finding that he might derive financial advantage from a more stringent course, he convicted about seventy individuals of drunkenness, much to the relief of the community. At the same time an investigation was begun into how many of the church members had brought dishonor on their Master's cause. After the most thorough examination only eleven were found to be caught in this sin.

        The church met to determine appropriate discipline and the offenders were suspended. It speaks well for the individuals, and for the prayers of the church, that, instead of taking offense, and turning their backs upon the people of God, as it was feared a part of them might do, they all, with one exception, gave good evidence of repentance and they were restored to their former standing in the church. There had been a long season of coldness and decline, but now there was an increasing regard for religion and morality. The Sunday school grew to two hundred pupils, and became more interesting. The church, also, after much discussion, resolved to plant a new work, with a Hawaiian pastor deriving his support from his people, and one of the deacons was invited to become the pastor of the new organization.”

        So here is a case where the process of church discipline was followed and where God was glorified by the result. This church was willing to discipline, the offenders were responsive to discipline, and when their brothers and sisters received them back into fellowship, the church was revitalized. Like them, we must approach the process of church discipline with a deep desire to restore and a true willingness to forgive.

I. The Desire for Restoration (Matthew 18:12-14)

        Our text is Matthew 18 verses 12 to 22. The core verses on church discipline are 15 to 17, but for years I’ve felt that the larger context is significant. Here we see a strong desire for restoration, a settled process in seeking restoration, and a heart attitude that allows restoration. We see the goal of church discipline, which is to draw an erring brother or sister back to a right relationship with God, with his or her loved ones, and with the body of Christ. Let’s begin with Matthew 18:12-14. "What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

        Matthew 18 begins when the disciples ask Jesus ‘who will be greatest in the Kingdom?” and Jesus says it is the one who becomes like a little child. But then he warns that those who put stumbling blocks in the path of those children will be subject to great judgment. Why? Verses 12 to 14 give the answer: because every one is of great value to the Father. If we do something to causes them to stumble, we’re in trouble. And if they wander, we need to imitate the Father in diligently seeking them. Jesus says that even a shepherd who has a hundred sheep keeps careful track, and if one of them wanders off, he goes and seeks it. It’s not that he cares more for the one than the 99 it’s that each is important, each the object of the shepherd’s deep desire and concern. This deep concern results in practical behavior. The shepherd looks for the lost sheep. And if he is able to restore that sheep, he rejoices.

        In Luke this same parable is part of a whole chapter of similar stories. As a woman rejoices to find her lost coin, so the Father rejoices when lost people are found. As the shepherd rejoices to find the lost sheep, so the Father rejoices when his lost sheep are found. As the prodigal Father rejoices when the rebellious son returns, so our Father waits for us and rejoices when we rebels turn to him to be saved. In the same way, just as God the Father views us as infinitely valuable and earnestly desires to restore us to himself, so we should view those who fall into sin as valuable, and should earnestly desire that they be restored not just to us but to God.

        The church is the flock. If someone in our church wanders off into sin and disinterest, he or she should be sought. God in fact, in our day, often uses the people of a church as his instrument to seek and restore those who wander. Some of you probably heard that Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s mother was found dead in her condominium in December. She’d been dead for three months, and nobody, not even her celebrity daughter had tried to figure out what was up with her. That must not happen in the church. We must seek those who wander. If you’ve wandered and not been sought, which we have sometimes allowed to happen, I apologize, and the leaders of this church apologize. We don’t want it to happen again. We want to be a family that builds relationships with those who might otherwise wander off into sin.

        But if they do, and some will, the desire of our hearts must not change. We must approach them with a deep desire to restore. Church discipline is never about punishment, it is always about encouragement, encouragement to turn, to trust Jesus, to forsake sin and to take hold of that life which is life indeed - life lived in the presence of God and in the fellowship of Jesus Christ. Like the Apostle John we ought to have no greater joy than to know that our brothers and sisters are walking with the Lord, and therefore no greater desire than to restore our brothers and sisters when they stray from that path.

II. The Process of Seeking Restoration (Matthew 18:15-20)

        In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus shows us the process for seeking the wandering. "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18"I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

        We’ve seen that a desire to restore a brother or sister who wanders off into sin is the central motivation for church discipline. These verses provide a road map, a step-by-step approach to that restoration. The key first step is one on one private discussion with the person we fear is caught in sinful behavior or attitudes or doctrine. Verse 15: “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” We don’t call this church discipline, but it’ really the foundational and most important step of church discipline: exhortation and restoration which happens one on one between brothers and sisters in Christ. Notice that its not just leaders: it is critically important that all of us seek those who wander to tell them the truth in love.

        Let me give a couple of practical observations. First, you see in the New International Version the words sins ‘against you.’ There is real debate as to whether these were originally in Matthew’s text. The textual evidence is good but not perfect that they were. The question is, ‘must this always be a sin against me, or if I simply see a brother caught in sin, can I go to him?’ In Galatians 6:1, another key verse on discipline, we read “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” So at times just seeing a brother caught in sin should motivate us to go. Certainly if you are the person who feels sinned against you should probably be the one to go. But if you have a clear sense that someone is caught in sin, even if you are not the one sinned against, you should go.

        Second observation: Galatians 6:1 which we just read reminds us that we need to examine and guard ourselves as we enter this process. The Peacemaker materials we studied years ago taught that we should ‘get the log out of our own eye’ before confronting others. Those new to Trinity should know that one of the great studies we’ve done, both in adult Sunday School and with our children is based on material from Ken Sande’s Peacemaker Ministries. Sande teaches that ‘instead of attacking others or dwelling on their wrongs, we will take responsibility for our own contribution to conflict - confessing our sins, asking God to help us change any attitudes and habits that lead to conflict, and seeking to repair any harm we have caused.’ The process of discipline starts with self examination. ‘Is my sin contributing to this conflict? Is my self-centeredness causing me to perceive sin that really isn’t there?’

        Third observation: this process is restorative, but the fellowship of the church should also be preventative. Right now we’re talking about what to do if you see a brother in sin, but the normal thing in the church should be to build each other up so that our brother does not fall into sin. Hebrews teaches us to ‘consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,’ to meet together and to encourage one another. Fellowship and family life in the church, being involved in Bible studies and ministries and prayer relationships, these things support what church discipline seeks to restore, that is a right relationship with God and with others.

        So the first step in church discipline is private. We may not call it church discipline, but it is the foundation, and is both the most common and the most successful way to restore. When the sheep strays, the shepherd does not immediately call out the National Guard for search and rescue - he goes himself to find his lost sheep. Jesus says if you do this and are successful, you have won or gained your brother, which means you have revived fellowship with him, and probably been a catalyst for his restored relationship with God and with others. The goal is restoration.

        But what if the person fails to respond? Jesus continues to describe a process intended to bring about restoration. Verse 16 “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'” Bringing additional people into a situation is a serious step, but it’s worth it. These people do several things. First, they provide a sanity check to help you be sure that it is this person and not you who needs the restoration, that you have examined yourself and understand your responsibility in the situation. Second, additional people provide a witness, so that what is said between you and the person needing restoration can be verified. Third, people tend to react better and maintain control if an additional person is in the room. Finally, these friends can provide the person with another perspective on their sin and a reinforcement of any need for repentance and restoration. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy here, not to imply that this is a formal trial taking place, but to emphasize that the testimony of two or three in this kind of sitation can be convincing and effective.

        So the second step is to take one or two others. Your choice of who those will be will depend on the circumstances. Maybe someone respected by your wandering brother, someone who knows about the situation already, or one of the elders and church leaders whose maturity you value. If the situation or the sin is severe we recommend you do come to the elders and ask us to get involved. You should also know that at times this stage can be prolonged, with repeated visits, counsel, and confrontation. The goal is restoration. If there’s any way it can happen in private settings, it should. That’s how we show that we care for each other.

        But Jesus recognizes that sometimes things do have to be made public, for the sake of restoration. Verse 17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” There are really two steps here. One is telling it to the church. Up to this time involvement in the situation has been limited - preferably private, though sometimes the situation doesn’t allow that. But now we are to tell it to the church and Jesus clearly anticipates that such a body will have come into being by the time this process he lays out is needed. In fact that did happen, and we have examples in Scripture, especially one at the church in Corinth showing the process at work.

        This is the stage we’re at in the situation that will be discussed after church today. Many people would call what we’re doing today ‘church discipline’. In reality it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Like an iceberg, ninety percent of church discipline is below the water line, not seen publicly. Ideally it starts with prevention: sin is avoided when those at risk of wandering into sin respond to God’s word preached and to the fellowship and example of God’s people. But the next steps are also below the water line: restoration happens between two individuals, or with just a few individuals involved, with no formal public process at all. Only if that fails do we get to the visible part of the iceberg, the first step in the visible part. I heard a report that some who heard about today’s meeting asked ‘I wonder if it’s me.’ Let me assure you that this meeting would never happen without a huge amount of preparation and communication going on below the water line. If it was you, you’d know.

        So what is the purpose of this first public stage? The same as all the others - the purpose of discipline is restoration. Specifically in this case we tell it to the church, and the church as a body, a family, calls on God in prayer and calls on this person verbally or in writing to turn from their sin. The verse says “tell it to the church and if he will not listen to the church”, you go to the next stage. Obviously listening to the church means the church needs to say something, corporately, but also through individual attempts to plead with the person that he or she be restored.

        Only after he or she refuses to listen to the church is the last stage implemented: ‘treat him - or her - as you would a pagan or a tax collector.’ There has been a lot of debate as to exactly what this implies, but Paul makes it pretty clear in 1st Corinthians 5.

        Listen to these verses: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? . . . 4When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” To treat someone like a tax collector or pagan is to place them outside the fellowship of the church. God will allow Satan to afflict them, with the ultimate goal not of punishment but restoration, that the sinful inclination of this person may be destroyed and his or her spiritual life saved. Sometimes God allows severe consequences to achieve this goal.

        Jesus emphasizes that this decision is not to be made lightly: God honors the decision of the church in this matter: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The implication is that when you declare this person outside the church, God will do what the church cannot in this person’s life. When a church has followed carefully and lovingly through the whole program of restoration described here, and has arrived at the this step, that’s all the church can do. But God can do more. What the church has done by faithfully obeying its Lord, God will continue in his own sovereign way in bringing about events and circumstances that will bear upon that person's conscience to make him see how wrong he is. And only when you restore the person to the fellowship of the church, will God fully restore his own fellowship with the person. God has granted the church an awesome amount of responsibility in this process.

        The goal is illustrated again in 2nd Corinthians 2, which is probably the follow-up to the 1st Corinthians situation. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8. Paul says “If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent--not to put it too severely. 6The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. 7Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” It appears that the man repented and appealed to the church. They asked Paul for instructions and he said “receive his repentance, affirm your love, forgive, comfort.” This full restoration is the goal of discipline. We are to offer this person forgiveness, comfort and love, just as God by grace offers us.
III. The Heart of Restoration (Matthew 18:21-22)

        The goal of discipline is restoration. The process Jesus laid out, and which we try to follow carefully, is intended to lead to restoration. But you and I, when we are involved in this process must be ready to offer forgiveness. Our hearts must be ready to restore. Matthew 18:21 to 22 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

        This question leads Jesus to tell the parable of the unmerciful servant, but it is also a fitting conclusion to the teaching about restoration. Complete restoration requires two willing parties, and the forgiveness we are to offer may be more difficult than the repentance we desire to see. Forgiveness, especially repeated forgiveness is hard. That’s why Peter feels like he’s being generous to offer to forgive seven times. The rabbis of Jesus’ day set three as the maximum number. And though some people repent of serious sin and fully turn from it, not all do. People fall back into sin. And some ask for forgiveness without really being sincere. So it’s tempting to not forgive the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th time. But Jesus says to keep forgiving indefinitely.

        In adult Sunday School class we’re studying Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace? He spends four or five chapters on forgiveness, and says over and over that forgiveness is hard, and gives examples from Scripture and contemporary life. But he keeps coming back to the fact that God has graciously forgiven us, that we must imitate his grace. So we need to examine ourselves when we’re involved in any part of this process, to figure out how we can forgive someone who returns in repentance. More than that, although it is not addressed here, we need to learn how to forgive even when we can’t restore, even when someone doesn’t repent. We need to remember that while we were still sinners Christ died for us, and that on the cross he said ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’

        The most outstanding thing for me this week has not been the process of church discipline, though I believe the process laid out here is both wise and practical. But the thing that has hit me is the context of that process, how like the shepherd we need to have a tremendous desire to restore the one who has wandered, and how like Peter we need to be ready to forgive. That’s why my key sentence says we must approach church discipline with a deep desire to restore and a true willingness to forgive.

        I began this message with an example of restoration in the Hawaiian missions church. I want to end with an example a little closer to home. I read a forum supported by Peninsula Bible Church in California where believers answer questions online. Someone asked essentially ‘should my church be doing church discipline?’ The answer referred the questioner to Pastor Ray Stedman's sermon on Matthew 18, which was given at a moment in the life of Peninsula Bible Church similar to ours today - they were about to have a meeting for church discipline. In their case they were discussing an elder who had fallen into several kinds of moral failure.

        After referring to that sermon the person answering the question said this: “I am one of several people I know who have been the subject of church discipline. It was for me a life_saving procedure. Now, many years later, I am grateful for the faithfulness of my church elders and friends who were obedient to Matthew 18 and thus allowed God to deal with me until I came to my senses seven years later. I can assure you that God's discipline can be very severe when necessary.”

        He goes on to say “How church discipline is conducted is very important. I think this is clear from Ray Stedman's discussion of the subject. I remember hearing Ray preach the above_mentioned sermon__with tears and a heavy heart. I was sitting next to the disciplined elder's wife that day and she said the fact that I had come back to the Lord was a great encouragement to her. Sure enough, a few months later this man too came back to the Lord and took corrective steps on all fronts. Today he and his wife are back in the service of the Lord and are a blessing to many.”

        We must approach the process of church discipline with a deep desire to restore and a true willingness to forgive.