The Lord God has no pleasure in the death of a sinner, but desires instead his repentance. To bring about that repentance, the Lord has given man the gift of discipline. The purpose of discipline is to encourage change, repentance – that the child of God may have life. For that reason discipline is to be seen as a gift of God's grace.
The term 'discipline' sends our thoughts straightaway to church discipline. Yet in the Bible there is a form of discipline that must function before church discipline enters the picture; church discipline has a place only because this other form of discipline has failed. I refer here to self-discipline, or (as it's also called) self-control.
When the Lord God first created the human race, He decreed that man should have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth (Genesis 1:26). That includes, of course, that man should have control over himself. As Adam was not to let the fruit of the vine have dominion over him but instead he was to have dominion over the fruit of the vine, so also Adam was not to let his personal urges have dominion over him but was instead to have dominion over his urges. God equipped Adam in Paradise with the ability to have dominion over his urges; Adam was able to exercise perfect self-control, self-discipline.
With his fall into sin, Adam lost that ability to have dominion over himself, lost the ability to exercise perfect self-discipline. So Noah gave in to his urge for drink, and as a result lost control too over whether he was wearing clothes. Moses gave in to his frustration with the people and in anger hit the rock. Peter gave in to his sense of fear, and in self-defense gave in to the urge to lie to the servant girl.
The Lord, though, has given His Holy Spirit to renew His people. One of the fruits of the Spirit is, indeed, “self-control” (Galatians 5:23). So God's people are again able to have dominion over themselves again. No, this dominion is not yet perfect or full-grown, but it is present nevertheless. That is why Peter could call upon his readers to take seriously their responsibility to make a point of exercising self-discipline. He writes:
But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Peter 1:5-8
Notice: here's the duty for God's own: develop (among other gifts) that gift of self-control. To do so will make you fruitful in God's kingdom. On the other hand, whoever fails to develop this gift will end up in trouble. Vs 9: “he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.” That is why the Holy Spirit in the book of Proverbs talks up the notion of self-discipline as a wonderful thing. Consider the following two texts:
Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.Proverbs 25:28
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. Proverbs 16:32
To rule one's own spirit: the Lord holds that before us as most desirable. And we can understand it: a person who can't control himself, who gives in to his whims and urges, has no backbone, is not a man, is swept along by the currents of the day, vulnerable to attack. Such a man so readily gives in to sin. But the person who exercises self-control can say No to the urges arising within him, can say No to the temptations arising around him. So such a person can stay away from sin, and so can show by his deeds that he loves the Lord and accepts that God's commands are good commands.
But the fact of the matter is that in this life even the holiest will fail, will fail also in exercising adequate self-discipline. Even the holiest fall into sin, do what God has forbidden, neglect what God has commanded…
Then what? Of course, he must repent, turn to God again in humility and seek His forgiveness. And those whom one hurts through his lack of self-discipline? He must seek them out and pursue full healing of the relations he broke through his sin, his lack of self-discipline. That is the will of the Lord in the face of failure in self-discipline.
By the grace of the Lord, this repentance happens time and again amongst the people of God. We see it repeatedly in our marriages, in our homes, in the communion of saints and in the interaction with the world. For this we may thank God sincerely; it is His work in our hearts and lives.
At the same time, the tragic fact is not only that children of God do not exercise adequate self-discipline (and so give themselves to evil); the tragic fact is also that children of God sometimes do not repent of their sins. That could be because they do not see their action as sin, or it could be that they know it's sin but are so in love with their sin that they don't want to repent of it, break with it. Here now is the love and the mercy of the Lord: He does not want His own to be lost, and so He reaches into their lives by means of other believers. This is what we call “Church Discipline.” Notice the place church discipline has: church discipline kicks into action only when self-discipline has failed! In other words: the onus is first on the individual believer himself to live according to all God's commands, to show through his deeds that he loves the Lord and believes His word. But when the individual believer fails in his responsibility, the communion of saints has a task. And the task is to save the sinning brother from the judgment of God that must await all who do not repent.
Scripture speaks of a form of discipline known as 'self-discipline'. In the strength of the Lord God's people are able to exercise self-discipline, be it that so much imperfection remains. It is when we fail to exercise sufficient self-discipline (first when we sin and then when we fail to repent) that church discipline receives a role.
As it is, the Bible refers to a third form of discipline that has a place after church discipline, a form that comes into play if self-discipline and church discipline do not have their desired result. For clarity's sake I refer to this last form as God's discipline. Before I write about church discipline, I'd like to devote a contribution to God's discipline.
I think here, for example, of Ananias and Sapphira. The Holy Spirit had been poured out richly so that the early church was characterized by abundant love, so much so that believers sold their extra possessions and brought the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the poor. Ananias and Sapphira sold their extra property also for a particular sum (let's say $100,000), and brought a bit less than that (let's say $95,000) to the apostles and told them that the 95,000 was the price they got for the land. They were certainly allowed to keep 5000 for themselves (for there was no compulsion to give it all away), but they agreed together to lie about the matter and so look as if they were giving 100% of the proceeds to the poor – how good for their own reputation! They didn't exercise sufficient self-discipline, for the Lord had commanded them not to lie. Yet in the face of their failure in self-discipline the Lord's backup system (church discipline) could not kick into action because nobody knew of their sin. So the Lord Himself stepped in, and killed them both on the spot. That's an example of God's discipline.
We find another example in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. We read in chap 11 that the rich in the congregation would eat their fill in one side of the room while the poor sat drooling in the other side. When the rich had their baskets empty (and some were drunk) and the poor still had their stomachs growling, they pushed the tables together and celebrated the Lord's Supper. Paul reprimanded the congregation for their conduct, and told them to examine themselves before they ate the bread and drank from the Lord's cup. Then he adds this:
For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.vss. 29f
That's another example of God's discipline. He reached into the congregation and made various members sick or even dead. And why? Vs 31: “For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.” You see: that's what the Corinthians had not done. They did not exercise adequate self-discipline, and in the face of that failure the communion of saints did not step in with church discipline either. So God Himself stepped in with His discipline. And why did He do it? Says the apostle in vs. 32: “But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.” That's the reason: that we may not be condemned. Here's God's love! When self-discipline failed and when church discipline failed too, God Himself exercised discipline! For He doesn't want His people lost!
Now, these two examples speak of very radical measures on God's part. Does God always step in with such radical discipline? No, He does not. Think of David. He writes in Psalm 32 that the Lord pressed His heavy hand upon him so that the fun was out of his life, his conscience bothered him, he couldn't sleep well, his whole life dried up, psychological problems developed, etc. Why did that happen? David himself says it was because he'd sinned. His sin of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Urijah? Maybe, we're not told. But the fact of the matter is that he did not exercise sufficient self-control, and those around him did not move him to repentance either, and so God pressed His hand upon him. Sleeplessness, anxiety, listlessness, depression: such were the trials that afflicted David.
Did others notice the weight of God's hand upon him? Maybe, maybe not. Did they know right away why God pressed His hand upon David? Not likely. But God's point was that David should repent of his sin and so God reached into David's life with His divine pressure. And see: in due time David did repent – and so David could delight again in the forgiveness of sins and peace with God.
The Lord our God has not changed over the years. Solomon told his son not to despise the discipline of the Lord (Proverbs 3:11f), and the apostle to the Hebrews quotes that text to encourage his suffering readers not to lose heart in the face of God's discipline. “Whom the LORD loves He chastens,” says the apostle, and so we are to respect God's discipline, appreciate it and learn what we can learn. It's instruction valid for the whole New Testament church. Today too our Father in Jesus Christ reaches into the lives of His people with His discipline – when our self-discipline fails and our church discipline does not act as sufficient backstop.
But always His discipline is given in love, and so it's for us to submit ourselves to His firm hand, and break with our sins in repentance. 1 Then the words of David as put to rhyme in Psalm 119:27 receive a place on our lips also:
How good it is that I have suffered pain,
For thus in all Thy statutes Thou didst school me.
I spoke about self-discipline and God's discipline. I said that the one has a place before church discipline, the other after. The Lord would have us exercise such discipline over ourselves that we're always asking for God's will and making a point of doing it – in denial of our own sinful will. When we fail and persist in our sins, the Lord comes with His discipline. Between the two, God has placed church discipline, the discipline exercised by the communion of saints.
When we speak about church discipline, we can differentiate between two aspects. We can speak of informal discipline (or unofficial, if you will) and of formal (or official).
Under 'informal' church discipline, we're talking about the role the communion of saints plays before the sinner's transgression is brought to the attention of the consistory. You notice a congregation member is not in church and find out his reason is not legitimate. You learn a brother has developed a romance with a girl from outside the church. You discover that a mother wastes her day with computer games. You find out that a brother loves pornography. You observe that a young sister is dressing herself immodestly. In all these cases self-discipline has failed. Now the Lord calls you to be your brother's keeper. What do you do? Quietly, secretly, between you and the sinner alone, you speak with your brother about what you know. This is Galatians 6:
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Galatians 6:1
Or as Jesus says to His disciples:
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. Matthew 18:15
This addressing each other is driven by love and is characterized by love. The easy way out is to pretend that you are not aware of your brother's transgression, or to convince yourself that you are not in a position to approach him on his sin (and it's easy to convince yourself with all sorts of reasons why you should say nothing!). But the Lord will have nothing of that mentality.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.Leviticus 19:17f
Notice: God says here that refusing to speak to your erring brother is actually hatred for this brother. God wants His people to love the other, and one shows that love by speaking the truth to each other about the sins they see in each other. We understand that. No one wants to see his brother burdened under the heavy hand of God's judgment; so, out of love you try to rescue him.
That love also determines the manner in which you approach the erring brother. I mentioned already that text from Galatians 6: “if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (vs. 1). A spirit of gentleness: here's no place for putting yourself above the erring brother, as if you're better. Here's no place either for admonishing somebody in order to prove that you are right. Nor is there place for trying to get your pound of flesh out of him. The point isn't either that you disagree with what he did, or that he did something unwisely or insensitively. The fine point of the conversation is not even to be how the other party hurt you. The point of the conversation is instead to show the brother how his conduct affects his relation with God. For those who belong to the Lord listen to the voice of the Shepherd (John 10). So you need to show the brother that his deed was sin against the Lord, and you need to show how his refusal to repent is also refusal to heed the voice of the Shepherd. That's what you want: to encourage submission to the Lord, and that's to say that you seek repentance, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing before God. And you seek that in a spirit of gentleness, of meekness, of full awareness that but for the grace of God you would have committed exactly the same sin.
We say: visiting another to speak about these things is so difficult, we don't know what to say, and we're afraid he'll bite our head off. The Lord, dear reader, knows those fears. John writes that “perfect love casts out fear” (1John 4:18); love for the brother raises one above the fears that sit in our belly. More to the point: when Jesus told us to go and tell the brother his fault, He concluded the passage with this promise: “where two or three of you are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of you” (Matthew 18:20). There's you, visiting the brother in whom you've seen sin – two of you. The Lord says: I'm there with you, Immanuel. And if He is with us, will He not give the courage, the words, and the strength? He gave the command to seek out the erring brother; He will certainly give the strength to speak to him!
Onus on Self
Here another matter arises. I draw your attention to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.Matthew 5:23f
Notice: you've seen no sin with your brother, but you feel in your bones that he's got something against you. Now why would he have something against you? More than likely, that's because he feels that you have done something wrong, have somehow hurt him. So what do you do: wait for him to come to you with an admonition according to Matthew 18? Not at all. Jesus' instruction is that you – on the strength of your awareness that your brother has something against you – you leave your gift before the altar (in New Testament terms we'd say: you break off your prayer) and you go to your brother and talk out whatever there may be between you. Point: don't wait for the other to come to you, but you be the least, you be the first to go to him. That is the point: the onus is always on yourself.
I come back to that passage from Matthew 18. In a spirit of humility and gentleness you speak with your brother from out of the Word of God. He listens to you, and that's to say that he listens to the voice of the Shepherd in Scripture; he acknowledges wrong. That's to be the end of the matter; “you have gained your brother” (vs. 15). So you talk about it with no one anymore. You protect his good name (Lord's Day 43), and so keep his sin a secret.
But it may also be that he refuses to concede wrong. What can you do? Out of love for him you speak to him again. You increase the pressure on him. How? By taking along witnesses who do two things. These witnesses witness how you explain to the brother that his deed was sin before the Lord, as well as his response. Further, these witnesses also add their own pressure to yours, in an effort to bring the erring brother to submit to the voice of the Shepherd – and so prove that he is a sheep of the flock after all and therefore an heir to the privileges of God's kingdom. Again, if, under the blessing of the Lord, your erring brother acknowledges his error, that's the end of the matter; you say no more about it.
If, however, that effort of love still meets with no success, you bring the matter to the attention of the church – and that's formal church discipline. You do it in an orderly manner, and therefore relate the problem to the elders for their attention. They in due time will advise the congregation – unless, by God's grace, there has come repentance. Then the church together, under the leadership of the congregation, excommunicates the hardened sinner, tells the sinner that he has no part in the people of God, no part in the privileges of the kingdom of heaven either – including forgiveness of sins and peace with God. To him the kingdom is closed – on earth and in heaven.
Whose responsibility, then, is church discipline? It is first of all the responsibility of each and every member of the congregation! I say this emphatically. Church discipline may take quite some time and energy from the elders. I say nothing against that; it may be so correct and necessary. But care for the erring brother does not begin with the elders, nor does it end there! Church discipline is first the responsibility of the brotherhood. God has made the congregation one body in Jesus Christ, and bound us together with the love of Christ. So we all have the obligation to be our brother's keeper. That means in turn: it is for each of us to look after each other, to remain aware that none of us will always exercise self-discipline perfectly. And when the Lord lets us notice failure in a brother or sister, He calls us to the role of brother's keeper, and so He instructs in love and gentleness to approach the brother with the concern of love.
How do you treat a brother who refused to repent and had to be excommunicated? Our human emotions want to keep things normal, want to treat the person as we used to. In a society that wants us to respect another in his beliefs, it's so very difficult to disassociate yourself from such a brother. But disassociation is the will of the Lord – and we dare not be wiser than God. I refer here to Paul's instruction to the Thessalonians. 2 Thessalonians 3:6:
But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.
“Withdraw.” That's a strong word. And vs. 14:
And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.
“Do not keep company.” That's even stronger. And it's very painful, very hard. But look at the reason Paul mentions: “that he may be ashamed.” Point is: we want the person to repent, we don't want that person burdened under the heavy judgment of God – neither in this life nor in the life to come! So keeping distance, disassociation, is driven by love!
Does this mean we ignore the ex-brother altogether? No, not that either. Vs. 15: “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” So: you take whatever opportunities there still are to seek to correct him in a spirit of gentleness and love – as you would a brother.
For the rest, you leave him to the Lord. He has failed in exercising adequate self-discipline, the backup system God ordained – church discipline, in both its informal and formal stages – did not achieve its desired effect, and so now you leave him to the Lord to administer His discipline at His time and in His manner. God's discipline can be in this life, geared to moving the sinner to repentance still; God's discipline can also be in the life to come – His eternal justice on refusal to repent.
Is church discipline cruel? Far from it! In this broken life, self-discipline is not always as effective as it ought to be. Between self-discipline and God's discipline the Lord in mercy has placed the church, the communion of saints. For this gift we thank Him. In love for the erring brother, we do our part to hold on to him by speaking with him about the sins and failings we see in him. We do it in gentleness, we do it in love, we do it in obedience to the Lord our God – fully aware that we are no better than the brother we admonish.