James M. Boice’s comments on Matthew 18:13 remind sinners that “everything God has done is for your salvation, and no one in all the universe will be happier at your repentance than God” (The Gospel of Matthew: An Expositional Commentary, vol. 2, p. 388). If the Father rejoices to see errant sinners return, we must also desire transgressors to be restored, no matter their offenses. This principle undergirds today’s passage, the classic text on church discipline.
Discipline necessarily means confrontation and is established in Christ’s call for us to care for the spiritual growth of one another (Matt. 18:10–14). We are required to intervene when Christian friends and family go astray, otherwise sin might destroy that person. In a real sense, we are our brother’s keeper.
Verse 15 addresses offenses between two believers privately, not those against the church corporately. John Calvin wisely teaches that in certain cases we can skip this first step and right away call witnesses (vv. 16–17) and, if necessary, local authorities, if the sin is an illegal activity. Physical abuse, for example, might be a case in which this is done. Normally, however, we face those who offend us in private. Of course, we overlook peccadilloes in love, without mandating repentance for every sin (1 Peter 4:8). Nevertheless, more consequential sins demand us to go alone to the offender first, without gossiping and spreading the news to unconcerned parties (Matt. 18:15). We hope for repentance, but regardless of the initial outcome, Calvin teaches, no one may disgrace “his brother, by rashly, and without necessity, divulging secret offenses.”
If no repentance is forthcoming, the offended party must go back to the accused with one or two others (v. 16). This conforms to God’s principles for justice (Deut. 19:15); witnesses protect the offender and the offended from false accusations. Finally, if the sinner remains impenitent, he is excommunicated from the assembly (Matt. 18:17). Even then, Augustine writes, let us not neglect the offender’s salvation: “For the very heathen, that is, the Gentiles and Pagans, we do not reckon among the number of brethren; but yet are we ever seeking their salvation” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 6, p. 359).
In excommunication, Dr. John MacArthur writes, “the idea is not merely to punish the offender, or to shun him completely, but to remove him as a detrimental influence from the fellowship of the church, and then to regard him as an evangelistic prospect rather than as a brother” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,158). Think of someone who has, on account of unrepentant sin, been cast out of your church. Take time today to pray for his salvation.
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