Here we glean a principle that needs to take root in the soil of every Christian’s heart: where there is repentance, there is forgiveness. When a sinner repents, the church forgives. And though the original events of this text lead us to apply this principle first of all to cases of corporate church discipline, we all need to hear this point in light of our own duty to forgive those who sin against us personally. When a sinner repents, Christians forgive.
But the Corinthians weren’t not abiding by this principle. Remember, they had come to grips with how serious it was for them to take sides with the offender against the Apostle Paul. Through Paul’s severe letter (cf. 2 Cor 2:4), they had experienced that godly sorrow that leads to repentance. 2 Corinthians 7:11 speaks about the fruit of Corinthians’ godly sorrow and genuine repentance as it related to the offender: “For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!” Though they had been hesitant to discipline the man who had challenged Paul’s authority, they were now indignant with him. Paul speaks of their zeal, and their avenging of wrongdoing in this matter of disciplining this person.
And by the grace of God, corporate discipline had had its intended effect; it brought this sinning brother to repentance. But the Corinthians weren’t satisfied. They refused to forgive him and welcome him back into the church. And the fact that Paul says the punishment was sufficient (2 Cor 2:6), and “on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him” (2 Cor 2:7) implies that they were looking to impose even severer punishment. They believed that he needed to suffer further before being restored to the church. He needed to be made to wallow in the grief of his sin. In a real sense, the Corinthians were demanding that this man do penance. His repentance was not enough; they were requiring that he now further “atone” for his sins by suffering further shame, grief, and sorrow. Once he had felt bad enough about his sin, well then they would welcome him back.
It is Finished
But such self-atoning penance is no more acceptable to the true church than it is to God Himself. Think for a moment about the times when you find yourself on your face before God, confessing a familiar sin to Him and asking for forgiveness again. He has every right to be indignant with you. He has every right to rake you over the coals for sinning against Him again—especially after He has forgiven you countless times for that same sin. But when you come to your Father in repentance, seeking forgiveness for your sins and restored fellowship with Him, He doesn’t require you to perform a laundry list of duties before He welcomes you back. He doesn’t say, “Nope, you need to sit in the dog house a little while and feel worse about what you’ve done.”
And why not? Because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient atonement for all your sins. When the Son of God received in Himself the full exercise of His Father’s wrath against the sins of His people, He did not fail to pay for a single one of your sins. He didn’t dodge the slightest stroke of His Father’s rod. He drank every last drop of that miserable cup, and cried, “It is finished!” There is nothing more that you could do to pay for your sins. And to suppose that you can pay for them—whether it be by reciting Hail Marys, or by wallowing in your grief trying to feel sorry enough so God will take you back—is nothing short of blasphemy. You could fill the oceans with sorrow, and there would never be enough sorrow to atone for even a single sin.
And if that is the case with God’s forgiveness of you, dear Christian, how could it be any different with your forgiveness of your brothers and sisters? Or how could a church demand from its members more than God Himself demands of them? When a sinner repents, church discipline has achieved the purpose for which it was instituted. For the church to withhold forgiveness at that point is to abandon the remedial and restorative blessings of discipline, and to move into cruel domineering, as Calvin said. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes writes,
“Discipline which is so inflexible as to leave no place for repentance and reconciliation has ceased to be truly Christian; for it is no less a scandal to cut off the penitent sinner from all hope of re-entry into the comfort and security of the fellowship of the redeemed community than it is to permit flagrant wickedness to continue unpunished in the Body of Christ” (66–67).
Swallowed Up in Despair
The fruit of that kind of domineering over-lordship is utter despair. Paul says, “Forgive him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” “Overwhelmed” is the Greek term for “swallowed,” “drowned,” or “devoured.” Paul is concerned that this repentant man be forgiven and comforted, lest he be swallowed up and drowned by excessive sorrow. Now, it might sound a bit melodramatic, but think for a moment about the sheer power of the despair for ever being forgiven. If you have sinned grievously, and, because of your stubborn refusal of the correction of your brothers and sisters, have been put out of the fellowship of the church, but now by the grace of God you have owned your folly as sin and have sought to abandon your error and be restored to God’s people, and you go to them expressing repentance, but they tell you that you’re not forgiven and still not welcome——how helpless and alone would you feel?
You would feel as if there is absolutely nothing that could ever be done to help your estate. It’s one thing to feel like a stranger and alien among the world; they are of their father and you are of yours. But to be made to feel like you’re a stranger and alien even among the people of God is an unbearable thought. It would be to make a spiritual orphan out of you. How long would it be before your flesh convinced you that there’s no point to repentance—no point to pursuing holiness at all? If repentance from sin gets you isolated and cut off from the people of God, it will only be a matter of time before you plunge headlong into sin without any hope of ever being restored to fellowship. Friends, the power to fight sin comes from the freedom of Christ’s forgiveness. For the church to withhold forgiveness from repentant sinners is to imprison those whom Christ had made free—to cripple them, to weigh them down with despair.
That kind of sorrow devours a person; it swallows him up. Just as properly-administered discipline brings godly sorrow, so poorly-administered discipline brings worldly sorrow. “Godly sorrow,” Paul says, “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Cor 7:10). God doesn’t mean for believers to be totally consumed by grief over their sin; He wants them to experience the godly sorrow that leads to a repentance without regret. Excessive sorrow can be so unbearable that it even leads to death (e.g., Matt 27:3–5).
And so Paul says to “forgive and comfort him.” As surely as correction and discipline are to follow sin, forgiveness is to follow repentance. Just as it is grossly unfaithful for a church to fail to deal with sin in its midst by failing to administer discipline, it is just as grossly unfaithful for a church to fail to forgive a sinner who repents. Charles Hodge captured it nicely when he wrote, “Undue severity is as much to be avoided as undue leniency.”
Forgiven People Forgive
Undue severity just as unfaithful as undue leniency because it is so outrageously out of tune with the Gospel. I’ve always been struck by the utter wisdom of the Holy Spirit to place the parable of the unmerciful slave immediately after Christ’s teaching on church discipline.
Back in Matthew 18, immediately after Christ finishes speaking about binding and loosing, Peter pipes up. And he asks, not, “Lord, how many times should I be forgiven if I’m a bonehead and sin against my brother over and over again?” but, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” And Jesus said, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven. As often as there is repentance, so often is there to be forgiveness.”
And then he tells the story of a man who owed his master an incalculable debt; ten thousand talents was equivalent to 150,000 years’ wages. He couldn’t pay the debt, so he and his family were to be sold into slavery. The man threw himself to the ground and begged his master to give him time to pay. And the master had such compassion on him that he didn’t just give him time to pay, but forgave the entire debt! But then the slave came across one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii—equivalent to about 100 days’ wages—and he grabbed his friend by the throat and demanded to be paid! And just as he had done with his master, his friend fell to the ground and begged him to give him time to pay. And this man, who had just been forgiven, threw his fellow slave in prison until he was paid back a debt that was 0.000183% of the debt that he was just forgiven!
What would you say about such a man? Absurd! Wicked! No appreciation whatsoever of what it meant to be forgiven! Well, the other slaves went and told the master what this man had done. And he summoned his slave to him and said, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” (Matt 18:32–33). And then Jesus comments, “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matt 18:34–35).
Friends, we who have been declared righteous in Christ have been forgiven an incalculable debt. Not 150,000 years, but eternity. And not in a debtor’s prison, but in hell itself. That is the just payment that our sins deserved. And because of the unspeakable grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t pay a thing! We have been forgiven! And yet what happens? We are so prideful, that when our brother or sister sins against us, we are intransigent: “It isn’t right! She sinned against me! And I demand justice!”
And people try to reason with you. “But she’s come and confessed. She’s admitted her sin and has asked for your forgiveness.”
“I don’t care! She’s not getting off that easy!”
Now, you don’t always give voice to that kind of severity, but whenever you refuse to forgive someone who has come to you in repentance and has asked for your forgiveness, that is what’s going on in your heart.
Do you understand the Gospel? Do you understand the unspeakable magnitude of your sin against a holy God? Do you understand that the perfect sacrifice of Christ has paid your debt, so that you are forgiven? Then how in the world can you, who have sinned against God and have been spared the tortures of hell, refuse to forgive such an insignificant crime committed against yourself, and insist on your pound of flesh?
It simply cannot happen. For those who have truly experienced the forgiveness that the Gospel brings, it is a delight to extend forgiveness to others. Those who’ve been forgiven by God are eager to forgive those who sin against them, because it gives them an opportunity to be an imitator of their Father. That’s why Jesus says, “If you forgive others, God will forgive you, but if you don’t forgive others God won’t forgive you” (Matt 6:14–15). He’s not saying that salvation is conditioned upon forgiveness. He’s saying that if you can profess to be forgiven of such an incalculable debt as eternity in hell, and then refuse forgiveness to those who come to you in repentance, then you give evidence that your heart is a stranger to the grace of God in Christ, and that you aren’t even a believer yourself.
Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also as forgiven you.”
Colossians 3:12–13: “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”
Do you see the way Scripture reasons? Forgiven people forgive.
And so Paul says, “The punishment already past is sufficient. He’s repented. Forgive this man, and comfort him, otherwise he might be swallowed up by sorrow and despair.”
“But Paul, don’t you remember how he stood up and defied you in front of the whole church—”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve forgiven him—if even there was anything to forgive” (cf. 2 Cor 2:10).
“Anything to forgive? How can you say that?”
“Dear friends, because I am ever so conscious of the sin that I’ve been forgiven by Christ. And in light of the cross, sin against me looks a thing so miniscule and infinitesimal that I’m not sure it even registers as a crime.” That’s how forgiven people talk.
Do you talk like that? And more than talk like it: do you act like that? And even more than acting like it: does your heart pulse with that kind of forgiving spirit? Is it the reflex of your heart to forgive a sinning brother or sister? That is the kind of forgiving that we, as forgiven people, are called to. May we fix our eyes so firmly on our own forgiveness that we delight to extend something of that forgiveness to others.