Running The Race Together Part 3
Topic: Love For One Another Passage: Matthew 18:15–18:15
RUNNING THE RACE TOGETHER PART 3–
CONFRONTING A BROTHER OR SISTER WHO HAS SINNED
An Exposition of Matthew 18:15
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: July 7, 2019
Series: Running The Race Together
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We are in the middle of a short five-sermon series entitled “Running The Race Together.” As Christians it is our responsibility to exhort one another in order to promote one another’s spiritual health and protect each other from spiritual danger. In and of ourselves, we are all weak. We are all vulnerable to the deceitfulness of sin, the schemes of the devil, and the influences of the world. These dangers are real, and we need help! Our God calls us to “run with endurance the [spiritual] race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:2), and a critical part of your ‘job description’ as a Christian is to help your fellow runners persevere in their running.
In this sermon, we will be looking more in-depth at our responsibility to confront a brother or sister who has sinned. At first hearing, this may not sound like a wonderfully gracious topic to address, and yet it really is. One of my goals in this sermon is to help you receive this instruction as God intends it, and not in the way that our 21st century world may have conditioned you to hear it. The world says: let individuals make their own moral choices, and you must not pass judgment against them. The world says: there is no objective standard by which to measure right and wrong, and whatever you think is ‘right’ is just your own preference and whatever others think is ‘right’ is just their preference, so leave each other alone. The world says: people must be true to themselves and their own feelings, and you have no authority to call those feelings into question. Such are the erroneous sentiments which come from the world. We, however, are called to follow Christ – and following Christ involves unlearning the ways of the world, and being transformed by the renewal of our minds. The J. B. Phillips New Testament paraphrase renders Romans 12:2 in a particularly apt way: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within” (Romans 12:2 PHILLIPS).
To put this in terms of today’s passage, “[don’t] let the world around you” dictate how you should think and feel about the instruction to confront a brother or sister who has sinned. Instead, “let God-remould your minds from within” so that you understand this instruction as a wonderfully gracious part of running the race together.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
The Scripture passage for this sermon is Matthew 18:15. Our Lord Jesus Christ says,
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15)
FOUR ASPECTS OF VERSE 15 THAT WE MUST UNDERSTAND
There are four aspects of verse 15 that we must understand. First, there is the relational context in which the confrontation takes place. Second, there is the sin which requires confrontation to take place. Third, there is the responsibility to confront the one who has sinned. And fourth, there is the goal of the confrontation. My sermon will guide us through these four aspects of confrontation.
1) THE RELATIONAL CONTEXT IN WHICH THE CONFRONTATION TAKES PLACE
First, let’s consider the relational context in which the confrontation takes place. According to verse 15, confrontation is a family matter – specifically, the church family. We see this right away in verse 15: “If your brother sins against you…. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (italics added). This sibling relationship indicates family. As we read on in verses 16-17, we learn that the family in view is the church family (that is, a local congregation like South Paris Baptist Church):
“But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:16-17)
If the sinning brother refuses to receive correction from you and then he refuses to receive correction from a small group of two or three, then the matter is taken to the church. If the sinning brother refuses to receive correction from the church, then he is to be regarded as an outsider (“as a Gentile and a tax collector”). In other words, the sinning brother is regarded as a member of the church family before and during the confrontation process, but if he repeatedly and stubbornly turns a deaf ear to correction, then finally the church must regard him as an outsider to the church family.
The lesson to be learned here is that the confrontation process begins among insiders, among brothers and sisters, among members (or at least presumed members) of the church family. As siblings to each other in the family of God, we have a special responsibility to look out for one another and to address sin within the spiritual household. In a related passage, the apostle Paul teaches us that it is not the church’s responsibility to judge outsiders, but it is our responsibility to judge insiders (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) – that is, to hold them accountable to biblical standards of discipleship, and to enact discipline against them when they overtly and obstinately reject those standards.
It is really important to understand this relational, familial context for confrontation. The confrontation of Matthew 18:15 is not an act of judgment against outsiders whom we don’t know and who operate according to a different set of standards. These outsiders – these unbelievers – do indeed need to be confronted: they need to be confronted with the truth of the gospel, they need to be persuaded to turn from their sins and trust in Jesus. We need to love outsiders by going to them and proclaiming to them the good news of salvation. But Matthew 18:15 isn’t about the evangelization of unbelievers. Instead, this verse instructs us to hold our Christian brothers and sisters accountable to the path of discipleship, and to do everything we can to encourage them to be a loyal disciple who remains faithful to the Lord.
O Christians, behold your brothers and sisters! You are members of the same spiritual family! You have the same heavenly Father who cares for His people! You have the same Lord Jesus Christ who loved the church and gave Himself for her – and He came to rescue us from our sins! You have the same Holy Spirit who empowers the brethren to live a holy life! You have the same gospel of God’s grace, which is the sole cause of the salvation of sinners! You have the same treasure called the Bible, which reveals God to us and shows us the good path that He has set before us! It is one of your God-given responsibilities and privileges to help each other to stay true to the Lord. It is a family duty to – as some church covenants put it – ‘watch over one another in brotherly love’. It is a solemn obligation for faithful brothers and sisters to rescue their foolish siblings who have ignored the ‘No Trespassing’ sign and now find themselves in dangerous territory.
A Culture of Compassionate Confrontation
What we need is a culture of compassionate confrontation. When we hear this instruction – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” – there is a temptation to think of it as proud, moral policing or stuffy, religious meddling, but it is not like that at all. The larger context of Matthew 18 helps us to see a number of important spiritual qualities that are characteristic of Jesus’ family. These spiritual qualities need to be deeply rooted in the culture of the South Paris Baptist Church family. And if these qualities are not ours, or if we are not growing in them, then we will not be effective in the confrontational work of Matthew 18:15.
The first church family characteristic mentioned in Matthew 18 is humility: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4).
The second characteristic is hospitality: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:5)
The third characteristic is righteousness: in verses 6-7, you refuse to lead others into sin; and in verses 8-9, you make war against your own sin.
The fourth characteristic is compassion – specifically, compassionate concern for those who have gone astray:
“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:11-14)
It is no coincidence that this parable about the stray sheep comes right before our passage about going to the sinning brother in an effort to win him back. Confrontation is nothing less than a compassionate rescue operation! Jesus came to rescue us from our sins – and as He is faithful to lead us out of our sinning and into holy conduct, so He involves us in leading others out of their sinning and into increasingly holy conduct. Matthew 18:15 is the work of the Triune God, and we get to participate in it!
The fifth family characteristic is forgiveness: “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”” (Matthew 18:21-22) The good confronter of sin is not one who has a keen sense of retribution for wrongs committed, but rather one who has a keen sense of lavish and undeserved mercy in the light of the cross (see Matthew 18:23-35).
Taken as a whole, Matthew 18 is such a great chapter that helps us to understand the spirit in which confrontation should take place. We are to be a humble church family who gladly receive each other for Jesus’ sake. We are to be a righteous church family who want to live righteously and who want each other to live righteously. We are to be a compassionate church family who seek out the strays and a merciful people who are ready to pour the balm of forgiveness on one another.
Compassionate confrontation is a church family matter.
THE SIN WHICH REQUIRES CONFRONTATION TO TAKE PLACE
Second, let’s consider the sin which requires confrontation to take place. Verse 15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (italics added). This corresponds to the sheep who “has gone astray” in verse 12.
We need to be clear about what this instruction says and doesn’t say. Verse 15 doesn’t say, If your brother annoys you or gets on your nerves or rubs you the wrong way, go and tell him your grievance. Verse 15 doesn’t say, If your sister differs with you on a secondary issue, go and make a real stink about it! In Romans 14 Paul shows us that genuine believers can disagree on some important but clearly secondary issues, and we need to learn to be okay with that. It’s not that these secondary issues don’t matter, and it’s not that you can just do whatever you want. But at the end of the day, for any number of reasons, genuine believers might come to a different conclusion on certain matters. In Romans 14 the issues were eating meat versus only eating vegetables, or honoring certain days as extra special versus treating every day alike. In our own day, important but secondary issues would include things like how we choose to educate our children or determining what the proper role of government is in caring for the poor. If we wanted to, we could take time and make a lengthy list of important but secondary issues over which genuine believers can and do disagree. You have your convictions to which your conscience is bound, and I have my convictions to which my conscience is bound, but in such cases we are not talking about things which Scripture clearly defines as sin. We can talk to one another about these things, we can even gently persuade a brother or sister to grow in a particular area or to think more clearly about an issue or to more faithfully apply Scripture to a specific area of life. This is all good and well. We just need to be clear that Matthew 18:15 doesn’t say, If your brother or sister holds a viewpoint that is at odds with your cherished personal tradition, go and tell him or her how much better it would be if they came around to your viewpoint. It doesn’t say that, right?
So in order to obey Matthew 18:15, we need to make sure that we are really dealing with an actual sin, with an objective fault, as defined by God in Holy Scripture. This may sound remarkably simple, but the reality is that Jesus’ instruction requires us to exercise discernment. Has my brother actually sinned? Has my sister actually veered from the path? Is my brother or sister truly at fault? Has there been a violation of the objective standard of righteousness that God has set forth in His Word? In order to answer these questions accurately, we need to know what the Bible teaches and we need to be able to understand our brother’s or sister’s conduct in light of what the Bible teaches.
We need more than a hunch or a suspicion. A hunch or a suspicion may justify an inquiry, as part of a basic concern to seek one another’s good. If we sense that someone is drifting, then we will want to intensify our efforts to know them, encourage them, and help them. But in order to “go and tell [your brother] his fault,” there has to be an actual fault that Scripture defines as a fault. Which means that we need to know the Bible!
This is serious, folks! If a brother or sister has not sinned, then I have no right to treat them as if they did. However, if a brother or sister has sinned and are still entrapped by that sin, then I shouldn’t act as if nothing is wrong. We need to know the commands of Scripture – the commands that address appropriate attitudes as well as the commands that address appropriate conduct – because this is the basis of identifying that a sin has actually taken place. How unhealthy the church where members have a critical eye toward non-sins and turn a blind eye toward actual sins! How terribly sick when congregants are passionate about their own standards of appropriate behavior, but are blasé about God’s standard of righteousness! That is backwards, isn’t it? Let us “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33)!
While we truly need to learn and understand all that the Bible teaches, certain passages are especially helpful in identifying sin. For example, Jesus said: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Matthew 15:19-20) And the apostle Paul wrote: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 6:19-21) As helpful as such passages are, over the long haul we really need to know everything Scripture teaches. For instance: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them…. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Colossians 3:19, 21) An overbearing husband or father is sinning. Or consider this: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Christians who consistently neglect to participate in the fellowship of believers are sinning.
What about the “against you” phrase?
Now verse 15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (italics added). What does “against you” mean? This would obviously include sins that affect you in a very direct way: he stole your stuff, she misrepresented you and injured your reputation, he treated you unkindly, she broke her promise to you, and so on.
However, the basic principle of confronting a brother or sister also applies to situations when their sin isn’t directed specifically at you. In fact, if you have an NASB or NIV (2011) translation, Matthew 18:15 doesn’t even include the words “against you.” The NASB says: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private” (Matthew 18:15 NASB). The NIV (2011) says: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault” (Matthew 18:15 NIV, 2011). The reason why some translations say “against you” and others don’t is because some of the earliest written copies of Matthew’s Gospel do not contain the phrase “against you.” But some later written copies do contain the “against you” phrase. So, which is it? Well, we can’t know for sure. The Bible is divinely inspired and without error in the original writings, but what we have today are copies of the original manuscripts, and sometimes there are some minor variations between different copies. We can be confident that the Bible has been reliably transmitted down through the centuries, so that what we have in our hands is the reliable, faithful, life-giving Word of God. At the same time, we must allow for some minor scribal errors in the transmission process. So, either the phrase “against you” was in the original, and somewhere along the way some scribes omitted it by mistake; or the phrase “against you” wasn’t in the original, and somewhere along the way some scribes added it by mistake.
When you have a minor variation like this, you don’t want to make too much of it one way or the other – and you want to look at other passages for insight. Even if the phrase “against you” was in the original, we know that other Scriptural passages tell us to admonish, rescue, and restore our unruly or fallen brothers and sisters, whether or not they have sinned against us personally. “[Admonish] the idle” (1 Thessalonians 5:14); “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him” (Galatians 6:1); “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). Such passages encourage us to seek to win our brother or sisters back to the path of discipleship, regardless of who they may have sinned against.
In this vein, it is easy to imagine situations where a brother’s sin is not directed at anyone within the church family. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5 a member of the fellowship had sexual relations with his father’s wife. Or suppose a brother is known to frequently attend parties with non-Christians and get drunk. Or suppose a professing Christian cheats on his taxes, and we learn about it. If there is no one in the church family who is directly affected by such actions, we cannot reason that therefore no one has the responsibility to confront him.
That said – and this is really important to grasp – the truth of the matter is that a brother’s or sister’s is always at least indirectly against you, because we are members of the same family. We rightly understand that all sin is primarily against God. However, we also understand that our sin affects others. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul says that our sin is like “a little leaven [that] leavens the whole lump” (v. 6). We never sin in isolation: we sin as members-of-a-family, we sin as members-of-a-body, and one member’s sin affects and weakens the whole. Israel lost its first battle against the city of Ai, and about thirty-six men died, because of one man’s sin – his name was Achan. Achan’s sin meant that the people of Israel had sinned (Joshua 7:1-26).
You ought to be encouraging and helping and strengthening this church family in the pursuit of holiness, and if you choose to indulge yourself in the path of sin, then you are not encouraging and not helping and not strengthening this church family to seek after God’s kingdom. Which means that you’re sinning against the body, and every member thereof, even if your sin took place in private.
So, taking all this together, I conclude that even if the original wording of verse 15 says “If your brother sins against you,” the point of the “against you” wouldn’t be to limit confrontation to situations where you are directly affected by their sin, but rather to highlight the responsibility that you do have if a brother or sister sins against you. If a brother or sister sins against you, it is your responsibility to confront them about it. Don’t wait for someone else to do it; you do it!
At the same time, Scripture teaches us that we have a responsibility to seek the rescue and recovery of our brothers and sisters who have sinned, whether or not they sinned directly against us. Like the shepherd in verses 12-13, we ought to search for any sheep who has gone astray. If any member of the body deviates from the path of righteousness, this matters – and should matter! – to every other member of the body.
Of course, someone is probably wondering, What kinds of sins are confrontable offenses? All sins? Only serious sins? But isn’t all sin serious? Yes, all sin is serious. The only rule I will mention right now is this one: the sin must be a clearly identifiable sin (as defined by Scripture), and the sin must be visible to you. In other words, Matthew 18:15 is not an encouragement to be or to hire a private investigator in order to scrutinize a brother’s or sister’s life for the slightest trace of an infraction, nor is it an encouragement to assume the worst and read ill motives into otherwise neutral behavior. But as we are doing life together, as we are involved in each other’s lives, sometimes we will observe silly sheep wandering away and walking contrary to the ways of the Lord. At such times, if they have not yet repented of their sin, then we have an opportunity to participate in the Lord’s rescue work!
THE RESPONSIBILITY TO CONFRONT THE ONE WHO HAS SINNED
This brings us to the third aspect of verse 15, which is the responsibility to confront the one who has sinned: “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”
We need to be clear about this responsibility. Notice what Jesus doesn’t say: He doesn’t say that if your brother sins, you should go and tell others about his fault; or if your sister sins, you should keep your distance and give her the silent treatment; or if a brother sins, you should go and tell someone else to confront him. In other words, don’t pass the buck, except in situations where the person who needs to be confronted poses a violent threat to the would-be confronter. Jesus also didn’t say if a fellow disciple sins, you should pray about it for several weeks but say nothing to him or her about it. To be sure, prayer should undergird and accompany all that we do. But we need to see the assignment of responsibility that Jesus actually gives to us when a brother or sister sins directly or indirectly against us: “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” We need to learn to speak to the brother or sister who has sinned, instead of speaking about the brother or sister who has sinned. If you would follow this rule, you would be a force for righteousness in the body of Christ!
You go to your brother or sister, not in an attitude of fault-finder or gotcha or look-down-your-nose-criticizer, but in an attitude of mercy to heal and restore the disciple who has sinned. Go! Put your feet into action, and take steps in the right direction. Call your brother or sister, and set up an appointment. As a word of practical wisdom, please have the good sense to recognize that short messaging over the internet is almost never a helpful way of pointing out someone’s sin. Meet in person if at all possible, or at least allow for an unrushed phone conversation. If you must resort to the written word, opt for a handwritten letter or a thoughtful email. “[Go] and tell him his fault” (italics added). With a loving heart and level head that are operating in submission to Scripture, call your attention to his or her sin. Though you are giving your brother or sister bad news, you are not there to condemn your brother or sister. You are like a surgeon: just as a medical doctor points out the cancer in order to treat the cancer, so you are pointing out the sin in order to treat the sin, so that through repentance, confession, and forgiveness, the brother or sister might be healed and transformed by the power of the gospel.
The Grace of “Between You and Him Alone”
You are to do this “between you and him alone.” There is so much wisdom and grace here. Notice the grace of the “between you and him alone” rule: though we are great sinners, God’s plan isn’t to spread the knowledge of our sin far and wide. God’s plan isn’t for parents to spread the knowledge of their children’s sins. God’s plan isn’t for a husband and wife to spread the knowledge of each other’s sins. God’s plan isn’t for brothers and sisters, whether in the home or in the church family, to spread the knowledge of one another’s sins. Gossip is gossip even if everything that you say is accurate! Even if everything we ever said about others was true, God’s plan is not for reliable gossip that exposes your sin to the view of others, but for redemptive grace that covers your sin. Of course, as we see in the next two verses (v. 16-17), sinning brothers and sisters forfeit the covering of redemptive grace if they refuse to heed correction. But it is characteristic of grace to give brothers and sisters an opportunity to ‘come clean’ about their sin before it becomes widely known. Scripture says: “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” (Proverbs 17:9) Of course, we are operating with general rules here. If someone’s sin is such that it rises to the level of criminal activity or presents an ongoing danger to others, then of course such realities must be taken into account.
The Wisdom of “Between You and Him Alone”
Notice also the wisdom of the “between you and him alone” rule. This wisdom can be seen in at least a couple ways. For one thing: I would rather have you confront me over a sin that you perceive, though afterward you come to the conclusion that I actually didn’t sin; than for you to not confront me over an actual sin that I really did commit. So I want you to notice that the “between you and him alone” rule establishes a safe context to have an honest conversation about a perceived sin. In the course of conversation, I may shed additional light on the situation, and that additional information might cause you to rethink whether I am guilty of the sin. Of course, it is entirely possible that I am guilty of the sin that you are speaking to me about! Here again, the one-on-one context allows me a private setting in which to be confronted, consider your words, and discover my sin. Note well: you will probably not help me see my sin if you drag out my sin in front of ten or twenty or fifty people – or in front of hundreds if you take the social media approach. The context of public disgrace, with the almost certain knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness, makes it more likely that you won’t win me back to the path of discipleship. If you really want to help a brother see his sin more clearly, “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (italics added). If this rule was consistently followed by us, then there would be hundreds of sins that were being confronted, confessed, and cleansed, and no one would not about it. And that would be glorious!
THE GOAL OF THE CONFRONTATION
Finally, and briefly, the confrontation has a clear goal, and the goal is not condemnation but restoration: “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” The goal is to gain your brother or sister, to win them back to the ways of the Lord, to bring them back into the fellowship and safety of the flock under the Shepherd’s care. Such confrontation is not always successful, however, and if the sinning brother or sister refuses to receive correction, then additional steps are required (see v. 16-17). We will consider these additional steps next week.
But how glorious it is when the confrontation is successful, like the time when the prophet confronted the king:
“And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”” (2 Samuel 12:1-7)
And so it is that the prophet participated in the Lord’s work of reproving David for his great sins of adultery and murder, and restoring him to fellowship with the Lord.
Although you are not an official prophet like Nathan, and although it is unlikely that you will have such a dramatic encounter with the leader of a nation, nevertheless you have a prophetic responsibility to confront your brothers and sisters when they sin. Nathan won David back to the truth, and who knows who you might win back, if only you would put the Lord’s instruction into practice.
Let us pray.
 For a helpful discussion about the “against you” phrase in some versions of Matthew 18:15, see C. Michael Patton, “Textual Problem Study: Matthew 18:15.” Published by Credo House, August 11, 2011. Available online: https://credohouse.org/blog/textual-problem-study-matthew-1815.