Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
" CHURCH DISCIPLINE IS GODíS GIFT OF LOVE."
85. Q. How is the kingdom of heaven closed and
opened by church discipline?
A. According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.
 Matt. 18:15-20; I Cor. 5:3-5; 11-13; II Thess. 3:14, 15.  Luke 15:20-24; II Cor. 2:6-11.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The keys of the kingdom of heaven, we learned last week, play an essential role in one receiving salvation. The kingdom of heaven: thatís where Christ rules, where people enjoy the benefits of Christís kingship Ė such treasures as the forgiveness of sins and peace with God. Whoever has the keys determines access to this kingdom, to these treasures; you canít enjoy the riches of Christís kingdom if you refuse to acknowledge the keys. So: those keys are vitally important!
The first key, we heard last week, was the preaching of the holy gospel. One needs faith in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, and the Spirit works faith through the preaching. To ignore the preaching, to be critical of the preaching, to avoid the preaching means that the doors of the kingdom cannot be thrown open to you. Similarly, if there are no preachers left the kingdom canít be opened either. Hence our responsibility to pray for preachers, our responsibility to support preachers, our responsibility to come to church humbly wanting to hear what the Spirit says through the preaching.
Yet we understand that hearing the word is not sufficient to enter the kingdom of heaven; we need also to respond to the preaching with faith. In the words of A 84: we need "by true faith [to] accept the promise of the gospel." That is, we need to believe what we hear. And believing it means that we put it into action, that we live according to the will of God.
But what, now, if a congregation member refuses to believe what he hears proclaimed in the preaching? What if a member refuses to live according to the standards of Godís word? Is the kingdom of heaven still open for him then? Let it be clear, beloved: No, then the kingdom of heaven is not open for this congregation member anymore. It may be that he still comes to church, it may be that he still goes to club, may still lead his family in prayer, but if he does not believe what the Lord says the Lord will not give him the privileges of the kingdom - forgiveness of sins and peace with God. Similarly, if a member does not live according to Godís will, lives in defiance of a particular command of God, he thereby shows that he does not belong to Jesus Christ; after all, Christís sheep hear His voice, and they listen to Him (Jn 10:2-4, 14-16,24-27). If he shows himself not to be a sheep of the Lord, he cannot expect to receive the privileges Christ has prepared for His own. So he may think he will go to heaven, but on the day of his death will wake up on hell.
Well now, brothers and sisters, that sort of terrible surprise God wishes on none of His covenant children. That is why the Lord has given His church a second key to the kingdom beside the preaching of the gospel. For the salvation of those who refuse to work seriously with the first key, the Lord has given a second: church discipline. Through discipline the Lord Himself would grab His straying child by the scruff of his neck and confront him with the reality of his sins and its consequences. God does not wish His children to be lost, to wake up in hell, and to catch their attention He is pleased to use discipline.
So, congregation, let it be fixed in our mind that discipline is an expression of Godís love for His own! We donít like the concept of discipline, and especially our tolerant society frowns on the notion of discipline - our society would let everybody do what he wants; who are you to tell another that he is wrong?! But the Lord says that discipline is an expression of love, is an effort on Godís part to prevent that we think weíre going to heaven but in fact will wake up in hell.
Today I preach to you the word of God about His gift of discipline. I use this theme:
CHURCH DISCIPLINE IS GODíS GIFT OF LOVE.
1. The place of church discipline.
The term Ďdisciplineí, brothers and sisters, 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. Indeed, church discipline enters the picture only because this other form of discipline has failed. I refer here to self-discipline, or (as itís also called) self-control. Itís when you do not sufficiently discipline yourself that the communion of saints is called in to help you.
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 (Gen 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" (Gal 5:23). Exactly because self-control, dominion over self, is one of the fruits the Spirit works in the redeemed, is it the responsibility of the redeemed to make a point of exercising self-discipline. Hence the instruction of the apostle Peter:
"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: hereís the duty for Godís own: develop (among other gifts) that gift of self-control. To do so will make you fruitful in Godís 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 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 oneís own spirit: the Lord holds that before us as most desirable. And we can understand it: a person who canít 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. 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 Godís 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 commandedÖ. Then what? Of course, he must repent, turn to God again in humility and seek his forgiveness. And those whom the saints hurt through their 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.
But see, brothers and sisters, 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 itís sin but are so in love with their sin that they donít 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 Godís 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 hell that certainly awaits him if he does not repent.
I intend to come back to this church discipline in more detail in our second point. Before I do that, I need to draw out that the Bible speaks of a third form of discipline beside self-discipline and church discipline. That third form is Godís 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 (letís say $100,000), and brought a bit less than that (letís say $95,000) to the apostles and told them that the 95 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 Ė how good for their own reputation! They didnít exercise sufficient self-discipline, for the Lord had commanded them not to lie. Yet in the face of their failure in self-discipline the Lordís 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. Thatís an example of Godís discipline.
We find another example in Paulís 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 Lordís Supper. Paul reprimanded the congregation for their conduct, and told them to examine themselves before they ate the bread and drank from the Lordís cup. Then he adds this:
"For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lordís body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep" (vss 29f).
Thatís another example of Godís 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: thatís 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." Thatís the reason: that we may not be condemned. Hereís Godís love! When self-discipline failed and when church discipline failed too, God Himself exercised discipline! For He doesnít want His people lost!
Now, these two examples Iíve mentioned speak of very radical measures on Godís part. Does God always step in with such radical discipline? No, beloved, He does not. Think of David. He writes in Ps 32 that the Lord pressed His heavy hand upon him so that the fun was out of his life, his conscience bothered him, he couldnít sleep well, his whole life dried up, psychological problems developed, etc. Why did that happen? David himself says it was because heíd sinned. His sin of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Urijah? Maybe, weíre 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. Did others notice? Maybe, maybe not. Did they know right away why God pressed His hand upon David? Not likely. But Godís point was that David should repent of his sin! And see: in due time David did repent Ė and so the kingdom of heaven with its privileges was open again for David.
The Lord our God has not changed over the years, beloved. Today too He reaches into the lives of His people with His discipline Ė 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 itís for us to submit ourselves to His firm hand, and break with our sins in repentance.
Note: this is not to say that every affliction God permits in our lives is His hand of discipline! There are more reasons mentioned in Scripture why the Lord reaches into the lives of His children. The topic today is discipline, and so thatís all I need mention now.
What, then, is the place of church discipline? From whatís been said, brothers and sisters, itís clear that church discipline has a place between self-discipline and Godís discipline. The Lord would have us exercise such discipline over ourselves that weíre always asking for Godís will and making a point of doing it Ė 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. That brings us to our second point:
2. The manner of church discipline.
When we speak about church discipline, brothers and sisters, we can differentiate between two forms of church discipline. We can speak of informal discipline and of formal. Both are covered in the passage we read from Matthew 18, and both are mentioned in our Lordís Day.
Under Ďinformalí church discipline, weíre talking about the role the communion of saints plays before the sinnerís 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 brotherís 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 brotherís transgression, or to convince yourself that you are not in a position to approach him on his sin (and itís easy to convince yourself with all sorts of reasons why you should say nothing). But the Lord will have nothing of that mentality. Leviticus 19:
"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 in hell; so, out of love you try to rescue him.
That love, then, 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: hereís no place for putting yourself above the erring brother, as if youíre better. Hereís 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 isnít 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, those for whom the kingdom of heaven is open, listen to the voice of the Shepherd (Jn 10). So you need to show the brother how 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. Thatís what you want: to encourage submission to the Lord, and thatís 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 donít know what to say, and weíre afraid heíll bite our head off. The Lord, my brothers and sisters, knows those fears. John writes that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 Jn 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" (Mt 18:20). Thereís you, visiting the brother in whom youíve seen sin Ė two of you. The Lord says: Iím 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, beloved, to love the erring brother so much; He will certainly give the strength to speak to him!
Here another matter arises. I draw your attention to Jesusí words in Mt 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: youíve seen no sin with your brother, but you feel in your bones that heís got something against you. Now why would he have something against you? More than likely, thatís 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 Mt 18? Not at all. Jesusí instruction is that you Ėon the strength of your awareness that your brother has something against you- you leave your gift before the altar (in New Testament terms weíd say: you break off your prayer) and you go to your brother and talk out whatever there may be between you. Point: donít 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 Mt 18. You address your brother from out of the word of God. He listens to you, and thatís to say that he listens to the voice of the Shepherd in Scripture; he acknowledges wrong. Thatís to be the end of the matter; "you have gained your brother." So you talk about it with no one anymore. You protect his good name, 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 increase the pressure on him. How? Says the Lord: you bring 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 Ė and so prove that he is a sheep of the flock after all and therefore an heir to the privileges of Godís kingdom.
If that effort of love still meets with no success, you bring the matter to the attention of the church Ė and thatís 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 Ė unless, by Godís 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; the kingdom is closed to him.
How do you treat such a hardened brother, such an excommunicated person? Our human emotions want to keep things normal, want to treat the person as we used to, as we would anybody else. In a society that wants us to respect another in his beliefs, itís so very difficult to disassociate yourself from such a brother. But that, congregation, is the will of the Lord. Ė and we dare not be wiser than God. I refer here to Paulís 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." Thatís 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." Thatís even stronger. And itís 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 donít want that person in hell! 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 Ė 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 Ėchurch 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. Godís discipline can be in this life, geared to moving the sinner to repentance still; Godís discipline can also be in the life to come Ė His eternal justice on refusal to repent.
Is church discipline cruel? Far from it, beloved. In this broken life, self-discipline is not always as effective as it ought to be. Between self-discipline and Godís 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 Ė fully aware that we are no better than the brother we admonish. Amen.