A Church Willing to Say Hard Things

Sunday, September 10, 2023

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First Lesson: Ezekiel 33:7-11 (NIV)
Second Lesson: Galatians 2:11-16 (NIV)

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20 (NIV)


  • Hymn CW 839 “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”
  • Hymn CW 654:1,2,5,7 “Jesus Sinners Does Receive”
  • Hymn CW 559 “If Your Beloved Son, O God”
  • Hymn CW 932:1 “Sent Forth by God’s Blessing”

Pentecost 15                    9/10/2023
Matthew 18:15-20             Pastor Wolfe

The Church God Wants: A Church of Tough & Tender Love for Sinners

Some of you know that in the first church I pastored I was a kind of home missionary focusing on youth and family ministry. I got to spend my full time encouraging families in our church and reaching out to families in our community about how to raise healthy kids spiritually, emotionally, and physically. The greatest challenge parents faced then is the same today. Proper and loving discipline. No one likes discipline. Not the child receiving it or the parent giving it. But it’s an important part of leading children to see what’s right and what’s wrong. Ask employers today and they’ll tell you that too many young people just weren’t disciplined the way they should have, and we all suffer for it.

Discipline isn’t just for children though. It’s a part of the Church God Wants. In Matthew 18 we find that God wants us to discipline one another, and it takes the same kind of tough love that children sometimes require. But tough love also needs to be tender. We don’t discipline because we’re angry and we’re not effective when we’re yelling. But we need discipline. As Christians we seek lost sinners and show them tough and tender love. But our love always upholds God’s law and always offers God’s forgiveness.

Matthew 18 has become synonymous with the topic of church discipline. But notice here as Jesus sets up the formula for helping sinners that he doesn’t start with the church; he starts with individual believers. Jesus says if a believer sees someone else in sin, they have a responsibility to go and talk to him. Point out their sin. Remind them of sin’s consequences and point them to God’s forgiveness.

Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” That’s our goal! Not to embarrass the person or to prove how much better we are, but to lead that person back. To help them recognize their sin and come back to the cross of forgiveness. And what joy there is over one sinner who repents. But of course that is not always the case. Some don’t repent.

Then the Lord says there is another step. “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” Jesus says that if the sinner won’t repent, then take one or two people along with you and do the same thing you did before. Point out the sin and its consequences. Point to the cross and God’s forgiveness. Taking witnesses shows it’s serious, and it helps avoid turning this into gossip and hearsay. And the two possible outcomes are the same: If the sinner repents, rejoice! If not, Jesus tells us there is one final step.

If they’ve refused to listen to you, if they’ve refused to listen to multiple brothers and sisters in Christ, then it’s time to bring it to the church. Church leaders will pray for the unrepentant sinner and come to them again. The message doesn’t change. The church leaders point out the sin and its consequences. They point to the cross and

God’s forgiveness. And if the sinner repents, then the angels rejoice in heaven and we rejoice with them in God’s mercy. But if they refuses to listen even to the church, Jesus tells us to “treat them as you would a pagan or tax collector,” namely, like someone outside of the church. Like an unbeliever.

That doesn’t mean “shunning” in the old Amish sense. Or bitterness or hatred. After all, how did Jesus treat the pagans and tax collectors? He ate with them! Prayed for them. Reached out to them. Even as we have to refrain from the fully joy of unity with them we continue to love them and want them to return to the truth. A person who is excluded one Sunday but repents the next would be welcomed back with open arms and joyful tears.

It’s important as we speak with tough and tender love to remember that we’re not speaking for ourselves but for God. We all sin, and enjoy forgiveness for those sins as we trust and look to Jesus for that forgiveness. But a person who wants to continue to live in sin is choosing their sin over God. Hebrews 10 says as clearly as could be, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God… It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” I remember an older pastor once saying that the harshest judgment of God is to finally let the sinner have it his way. May God use us to call back his wandering sheep and spare them from that fate. This is the church of true and tender and tough love that God wants, not for the sake of cruelty but for the deliverance of souls from sin.

Now I know, most of the time when we see someone in sin, we don’t feel like we should get involved. Sometimes (many times?) we would rather talk about a person instead of talking to a person. That’s the easy way out. Or sometimes we see the need to talk to a person about their sin, but we try to pass it off to the pastor or the elders. Brothers and sisters, this is too important! No one wants to knock on their neighbor’s house at 5am on a Saturday morning. But if that house was on fire we wouldn’t think twice. The person trapped in sin is in danger of losing far more than a physical home. They are on a path that leads to losing a heavenly home. And we are the ones God sends to save them from that. Just as it would be cold and unloving for us to watch the house burn down silently, so also it would be the opposite of love for us to be silent about sin. Parents know that love isn’t always fuzzy feelings and holding hands. Sometimes love means saying the hard thing. The necessary thing. That’s true love.

But as we confront our neighbors’ sins in humility and love, our honest words and bold confrontation always have a destination in mind. The cross of Christ, we find our own forgiveness and where they can too.

After setting the pattern of discipline, Jesus continues in our text by talking about something that should sound familiar to us. Remember the keys of forgiveness and binding t we heard Jesus give to Peter and the Apostles in our reading a couple weeks ago? Here Jesus repeats them as he reminds the church of the great power we have to lead sinners to repentance. In verse 18 Jesus says: “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. And whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Again, Jesus is talking about sin. If someone wants to continue in their sin and bind themselves to it, then the church will sadly say announce that they are indeed bound to that sin still, along with all its consequences for life and eternity. It’s our duty to tell them the gates of heaven are closed to the sinner who does not repent. But if they repent, if they recognize their wrong, and look for a better path, then it’s our joy to announce that they are indeed forgiven. Their sin is bound to them no more. They are free of guilt and burden, and the gates of heaven are wide open in Christ.

This is the Church God wants. A Church that honestly calls out each other’s sins so that we can joyfully call out to each other God’s forgiveness. We call this God’s Law and God’s Gospel. The law that knocks down a sinner’s pride and self-reliance. That leads us to humility and a recognition of just how far short of God’s perfection we fall. But that law leads us to appreciate and rejoice in the gospel, that good news that our Father in heaven is not only perfect but also perfectly merciful. That his Son Jesus took our punishment so we don’t have to face it. That Jesus died, once for all, the perfect for the imperfect, the righteous for the wicked. That good news that we are children of God by faith. A church that doesn’t preach the law doesn’t appreciate the Gospel. And a church that doesn’t know the gospel has no foundation of certain hope. Praise God that we are a church of tough and tender love, upholding the law and preaching the Gospel.

And where’s your place in this? Well, who better to take the message of God’s forgiveness to a sinful person than a sinner like you who knows God’s love and forgiveness by experience? Every one of us has fallen into sin. And every time God has come to us and brought us back into his fold. You don’t have to be a pastorally trained theologian to take this law and gospel out to sinners. You’re an expert in it because you live it every day. Think about the people in your life. Who right now doesn’t know the forgiveness that you know? The hope that means everything to you for eternity? Or even more, who do you know that once knew this grace of God, but now is in danger of losing it all because they choose sin instead of grace? Go to that person this week. Point out their sin, but emphasize God’s grace. There is no sin too great, no person too unworthy, for him. He did the work to pay for sins, and we are the ones who get to bring that news to sinners. This is the Church God wants. Pray that he would use us to rescue souls from the grip of sin.

Discipline is never easy, but we all recognize how important it is. To our children, our families, and for ourselves. Brothers and sisters in the Church of God, take up your place and speak, with words of tough and tender love. Of law and gospel. Of repentance and peace. And may we all be blessed as we more and more reflect the Church God wants. Amen.

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