Judgment and Restoration

This essay on judging is in response to a question brought up on a Facebook thread. The original post said, "Let us not judge others because they sin differently than we do." Someone responded with the question, "How does God's Word compare with this statement? Matthew 18:15-20"


The Scriptural content that the original poster was likely referring to is Matthew 7.1,2:


"1 Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.


Here is the text in Matthew 18.15-20:


15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.


19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.


I have used the KJV for both quotes for I know of no one who objects to that translation. But a survey of the other major translations will show that none of them differ in meaning.


The short answer is that the two Scriptures are addressing two different things.


The passage in Matthew 7 is referring to that judgment passed by the self-righteous in which the judging person counts himself better and, therefore, more worthy of God's blessing than the one he has judged. Christ's point in Matthew 7 is that if you pass judgment on others as to whether they are fit to receive God's blessings, whatever measuring stick you use on them will be used on you. If you judge other's fitness to receive God's blessings on the principles of law, you will also be judged by law. But if you judge on the principles of grace, you will likewise be judged on those principles.


Self-righteousness is so much a part of us that we struggle not to judge one's relationship to God based on what we see them do. I recently watched an episode of Cold Case Files that documented the investigation and eventual arrest and conviction of the Green River Killer. The man confessed to 48 murders that he could describe and could lead the police to the locations where the bodies were buried. But he said that he had committed upwards of 70 murders. As could be expected, the loved ones of those murdered were full of wrath toward this man. When they were given an opportunity to speak in court and address the man face-to-face, many of them said something to the effect, "I will never forgive you; you will certainly rot in hell."


No one would deny that we have the right to judge that this man's actions were horrible beyond comprehension. Nor can we fail to understand the rage that prompted the victims' loved ones from such responses. The great pain they experienced moved them to believe that this man deserved everlasting torment for what he did.


And they were right. He did and does deserve hell for what he did. What I fear that they do not recognize is that they deserve the same hell for the things they have done. They judged this man worthy of hell in such a way that it actually brings them under the same judgement as he. They judged him by the law, and the same law that would condemn him to an eternal hell would also condemn everyone who wished such hell on him.


They also judged by a faulty standard. They accounted his sin worse than their own, and thus, more worthy of eternal condemnation on the basis of how his sin affected them. The Lord said, "Judge with a righteous judgment." Sin is not sin because it makes us feel bad or because it harms us. Sin is sin because it is against God, and seeing that there is no small God to sin against, there is no such thing as a small sin. Every sin is worthy of infinite suffering for every sin is against an infinite God.


If we ever judge the eternal destiny by the things a person does, then what we have done will be used to determine our eternal destiny. No one who understands the grace of God would want to be judged according to what they have done.


But the passage of Matthew 18 does not have condemnation in mind. Rather, it is a program of restoration, even of salvation. The context bears this out. Verses 12-14 speak of finding a lost sheep and bringing it home. What is described in the following verses falls under the category of "church discipline," though I do not particularly care for that term for that evokes the image of stern judges. But several words in our Lord's lesson cue us as to its meaning:

1) Brother: Obviously the sort of "judgment" implied is not as to whether this particular sin has put him outside the scope of God's blessing. Otherwise, Christ would not refer to him as a brother. Through the process the Lord laid out, it may be revealed that he is not a brother, but the sin itself is no proof of that, no matter how awful the sin may appear to us.

2) Against you.  The Greek, here, is actually, "unto you." (Some Greek manuscripts do not even have these words.) But the point is not that the brother has done something TO you, like steal from you. Rather, it is that his sin is known to you and not to others. That is why the first step is to approach him privately, for the purpose of the whole process is not to expose his sin more widely, but to attempt to work repentance in him without everyone else knowing about it.


(It may seem that Peter's question and the Lord's answer in verses 21-35 would indicate that the issue is regarding sins committed against us. But the Lord's parable need not move us in that direction, for all it is saying is that if we, who are servants of the King and have been forgiven much, judge others with any less than the infinite grace and mercy shown to us, it is evidence that we have not truly experienced that infinite love and mercy. The legalistic preacher who holds his listeners in bondage by condemning rhetoric has not experienced the mercy and grace of God and will find himself under the wrath of the King.)


Here, it is likely important to note that this does not apply to the "minor" offenses we are all guilty of. Otherwise, we would be endlessly involved in this restoration process. Rather, it concerns those sins so egregious that a person cannot consciously continue in them while maintaining a sweet communion with God or to those sins so great that, were they widely known and unchecked, it would bring scandal on the church among those who are outside and wound those inside. Think David and Bathsheba.


3) Reprove: The word means to expose. But we are not called on to expose it to others but to the one who has done it. In the early days of the church the gospel went to many who were not well-trained in what is right and wrong. Roman society was so wicked that things we would shudder to think of were considered acceptable. Therefore, it may be necessary to show an errant brother that what he is doing is wrong according to God. Exposing a brother's sin to him can also refer to those things which people feel confident to do for they think it is unknown, so we go to let them know that their sin is uncovered. Here again, we can think of David and how Nathan went to him privately to expose his sin to him so that he would no longer try to hide the sin as though it did not happen.


4) Hear. The word signifies more than simply hearing the words and understanding their meaning. It is often used as a substitute for "obey." We speak similarly when we say to our errant children, "You didn't listen to me!"


The remainder of the process brings ever increasing conviction to bear, but never more than is necessary to bring repentance and restoration. The next step is to go to the brother with two or three witnesses. These witnesses are not there to witness the man sinning. They are there to join with the first man in testifying that the deed in question is, indeed, sin and unacceptable for the professed brother to continue in. They are there to confirm the "exposing" first done by the single man. In other words, if they will not take one man's solitary word for it, show them that others are of the same opinion regarding it.


If the testimony of two or three is insufficient to convince the man of his sin, the matter is to be brought before the church. There is some debate over whether this means the entire membership or just the elders. But it seems to me that it refers to the entire membership when they are gathered. It is not a tattle-tale session. The intention is not to shame him into obedience, but to show him that it is the judgement of all that his conduct is sinful and needs to be stopped. One cannot continue in such sin while claiming to me among the people of God. Sin is forgiven upon confession of it. The word translated "confession" means "to say the same thing." It does not mean merely to acknowledge that we have done some particular act. It is to acknowledge we did it and it is sin.


The final step is excommunication. When we hear the word "excommunication" we are likely to envision some self-righteous act of religious people deeming someone unworthy to be among them. In truth, it is not for the initial sin that such a person is excommunicated; it is because the loving reproofs of the brethren given within the context of gospel of grace are rejected. If a person cannot be restored by the declaration of gospel of grace that exposes sin and at the same time provides the remedy for it, then someone is acting as an unbeliever, and no unbeliever has a place in the church of God. By their refusal to confess their sin as described above, they are declaring that they are not really of the same mind as the others, and therefore, not really a part with them. The word "fellowship" means "to have in common." The church is a fellowship for they have in common a single faith, Lord, baptism, God and Father, hope, and calling.  The one who will not repent "change his mind" and agree with God and the church about his sin and demonstrating that he is not one with them – he is not part of their fellowship. Excommunication is simply acknowledging that truth and insisting that the offender act according to it. They are not "cast out" because they sinned; they are cast out because they refuse to hear the word of the Lord and agree with it!


This excommunication is not a hateful casting away. Most translations say to consider him a heathen or tax collector. The word for heathen actually means "one from the nations." We get our word "ethnic" from it. So, it would essentially mean a Gentile. A tax collector was one who was by birth a Jew but by practice a Roman. Such a person was considered by the Jews to bem in essence a Gentile. And that rather well describes a person who claims to be a follower of Christ even as he pursues a wicked, godless lifestyle. So, to consider them as a "gentile" or tax-collector has the same effect of saying that they are outside the community of God's people. Once again, this is not for the purpose of implying that we are too good to have such a sinner among us, nor is it done in the hope they stay estranged. Rather, it is saying, "You want to act like someone who does not know God or His Son and has not been a partaker of His grace, then be consistent in that, and live separate from the community of the redeemed." That is to say, the church forces such a person to take their place as a spiritual Gentile and, as such, experience again what it is to be a Gentile as Paul describes them in Ephesians 2:11 ff., "Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world." To be cut off from the fellowship of the church leaves a person in the wilderness, so to speak, exposing him to all the harm that can come to a sheep without the protection of shepherd and flock. In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls it handing them over to Satan. Such a person is cut off from the Word that brings them comfort through the testimony of the forgiveness of sin. And without this testimony, they experience again what it is to be separate from Christ, without God, and without hope in this world. If such a one is truly a brother, this experience will be in feeling only, not in truth. He will FEEL estranged from God and His grace, but he will not BE estranged.


What effect do you think this will have on the child of God? It will make them long for home. It will break his heart. The stubbornness of the flesh can never fully overcome the longing of the spirit of a justified man to have that witness of the Holy Spirit testifying to him that he is a child of God. Such a one will repent; he will return; he will listen.


But such action will have little if any effect on the one who is truly dead in trespasses and sins. His earlier profession was only that – a profession. He may even become embittered against Christ and His church, seeing their action as an act of condemning self-righteousness.


The next words (v.18) are often confusing and have often been twisted to mean that certain people within the church have the power to bind or release people, that is, to forgive them or hold them accountable to sin. But such authority was never granted to any man other than the Son of Man, Christ Jesus (Luke 5.24). Matthew 16:18, 19 has words similar to Matthew 18:18. The key to understanding both passages is "the keys of the Kingdom." The "keys of the Kingdom" is the gospel. Whenever Peter (or anyone else) preaches the gospel, men's sins are forgiven or retained according to the principles of the gospel. Whenever a preacher declares the gospel of Christ and a person believes, the preacher has "loosed" him, that is, he has forgiven him. But, when a preacher declares the gospel and a man rejects it, the preacher has bound him, that is, refused forgiveness. And both the binding and the loosing are as real in heaven as on earth. It should be noted that the manner in which it is written in the Greek language indicates that it is not events on earth that bring about events in heaven. Rather, it is the opposite: when, by the gospel preaching, preachers bind or loose men, that binding or loosing is already true in heaven. Whenever the church operates according to the gospel of Christ, the things she accomplishes are already accomplished in heaven.


So, we are not to judge others as less worthy than us of God's blessings because we perceive them to be acting more sinfully than us. But when we see a brother acting contrary to the gospel, we are to expose his sinful conduct to him in the hope that it will work repentance. If a personal approach does not work, we are to take one or two others with us so that they can testify with us that what the brother is doing is indeed, sinful and that it needs to be stopped. If that does not work, the matter is to be brought before the church so that the whole church may testify as to the sinfulness of the brother's conduct. If that does not cause him to repent, then the brother is to be treated as though he is outside the covenant of the gospel, without Christ, God, or hope. By doing this in a spirit of humility, understanding that we are as sinful as anyone else and liable to the same falls, we will have either loosed or bound a person. And that loosing or binding will be nothing more or less than a reflection of what has already been done in heaven.


But, if such an excommunicated brother is brought to repentance, we are to receive him back as though the sin in question had never been done. There is no probation. There is just, "Welcome home."