Restore the Sinner in a Spirit of Gentleness
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The text for today is our Epistle, Galatians 6, particularly verse 1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“If something like this can happen in the Church, why should I be a part of it?” That’s a question asked by at least one of my children in the last couple of years, and by untold multitudes over the last two millennia. “If Christians can treat other Christians this way, why do I want to be a Christian?” A serious question… a serious problem… for if the actions of us, who call ourselves Christians, lead others to fall away from the faith, are we not guilty of causing these little ones to sin? Would we not be better off cast into the sea with a millstone necklace?
So why do we do it? More importantly, what do we do about it if and when it happens, when we sin against a fellow Christian or when a fellow Christian sins against us? St. Paul says: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
Remember this: That other Christian who sins against you may have hurt you, perhaps even badly, but he or she is not your enemy. He or she is your brother or sister in Christ. A fellow sinner. One for whom Christ also gave up Himself into suffering and death as the atoning sacrifice. No, he or she is not the enemy—the real enemy here is Satan. We fight not against flesh and blood here on earth, but spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).
Since this is spiritual warfare, we mere mortals operate in the dark. Blinded by sin, we must learn to see with our ears, for here we depend completely on the unseen presence of Christ and His Word. So let’s review what God’s Word says about this enemy and his tactics before we continue with our text.
First, it is important to remember that Satan has already been defeated. Since Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father, Satan and his minions have lost their foothold in the heavenly realm. Now he can no longer prosecute the faithful in heaven as he once did with Job (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6) and Joshua the high priest (Zechariah 3:1). He can no longer accuse us day and night before God the Judge (Revelation 12:10). His place has been taken by Christ, our advocate, our royal High Priest, the counsel for our defense who intercedes for us and pleads our cause before the Father.
Satan has lost the spiritual high ground in heaven where he can do the greatest damage to us, but he has not given up the fight. Unable to attack Christ or defeat Michael and his angelic army in the heavenly realm, he engages in a last stand in the only place he still holds some power—earth. Here he adopts a new strategy to outwit the work of the risen Lord as our advocate before God the Judge.
Satan’s plan is clever and yet simple. He concentrates on attacking the two chief strongholds that are occupied by Christ here on earth. The first stronghold is the Church, where Christ the Lamb of God is present with His people. Wherever the Church assembles on earth in the presence of Christ and His heavenly Father, its prayers and praises undo the work of Satan in the world. The Church is therefore the main enemy of the evil one. But he cannot destroy it, for it has been given a safe place by God, a place where it remains out of Satan’s reach.
The second stronghold of Christ is the conscience of each Christian, the clear conscience of those who repent of their sins and receive the Father’s Word of forgiveness. Each person with a good conscience is a stronghold of Christ in enemy territory, a place where Christ is present and active. Satan’s strategy is simple. He tempts the holy people of God to sin. Then, when they have sinned, he uses God’s Law to accuse. Since, he can no longer accuse them before God, he works on their consciences by repeatedly reminding them of what they have done.
Once his accusation has produced a guilty conscience, he chooses two different lines of attack, depending on the character of the person. If a person is unprincipled and self-confident, he will use the Gospel to excuse the sin so that his victim will not repent. In this way he desensitizes and deadens the conscience. Faith gives way to pride and self-justification. If a person is spiritually sensitive and low in self-esteem, he usurps the role of God the Judge. Although he has no authority to pass judgment, Satan uses God’s law to demoralize the guilt-stricken person and holds him or her captive by the fear of death and damnation. In both cases, the evil one tries to dislodge believers from Christ and His Word.
This probably doesn’t surprise you. All Christians with some degree of spiritual maturity are quite aware of Satan’s basic strategy to get us to sin and to use our guilt to undermine our faith in Christ. But what might surprise you is that God does not just allow Satan to attack us this way—He actually uses it to fulfill His plans for us. The devil unwittingly ends up doing God’s work. His strategy usually backfires on him by driving people to Christ rather than away from Him.
Since Satan’s target is the conscience of the faithful, he also works in the dark. Only God knows the human heart, the Lord alone discerns the secret workings of the conscience. But Satan is an expert at analyzing human behavior. Guilty people tend to give themselves away by the way they act and react under provocation. Because Satan is totally evil he is a master at discerning evil, whether it is disguised, secret, or hidden away under a pious gloss. Satan uses our evildoings to discern our state of conscience and to mount his attacks on us.
As Satan’s frontal attack by way of accusation and condemnation so easily backfires if it is unrelenting and unrelieved, he uses it to distract us from a more subtle attack from behind us. In the front door attack he tries to break into the conscience by attacking our faith in Christ; in the back door ambush he attempts to gain a secret foothold by attacking our love for our fellow Christians.
This is how it works! Satan gets another Christian to sin against us. It especially pleases Satan if a person with spiritual significance or authority, such as a parent, pastor, spouse, or leader in the Church sins against us. Their spiritual status, their office, magnifies their offense and intensifies the damage it does. After the offense has occurred, Satan gets us to replay it repeatedly in our minds. The more we brood on the offense, the angrier we get. Then, before we know it, anger leads to bitterness and resentment, hatred and lust for revenge. Anger is seductive because it makes us feel justified in hating those who have hurt us. We are right in taking revenge on them because they are our enemies. The revenge is subtle and hidden. We don’t usually attack them physically or verbally, but emotionally and spiritually. We reject them in our hearts, disassociate ourselves from them, and treat them as if they were dead for us.
Sadly, by cutting ourselves off from our brothers and sisters in Christ, we cut ourselves off from Christ as well. The upshot of that is withdrawal from the family of God and increasing isolation in the darkness of hatred. That is a kind of spiritual suicide, for hatred opens up a secret place for Satan in our lives.
The attack from behind is far more common than we realize. It wreaks havoc in the lives of Christians and many Christian communities. Yet, God does not stop Satan from using it in the lives of His people. Like the frontal attack, it is a risky tactic because it can so easily backfire on the evil one. In fact, God uses it to destroy our self-righteousness and to build up the Church as a community of grace, a society of forgiven and forgiving sinners.
So let’s move this from theory to personal application. Do you know anyone here at St. John’s who sins? Whose life is broken by sin? I can think of someone. All I have to do is to look in the mirror. And so do you. There are as many sinners in this congregation as there are people. That shouldn’t surprise us. Sinners and sin are to be dealt with in the Church.
But watch out! When you’ve been sinned against or observed someone in sin, the temptation is to become arrogant. “I’d never do anything like that! How horrible! That person should know better!” Watch out. Someone sins against you and you may become manipulative. Seek revenge. Gain some leverage. Puff yourself up. Get ready to kick the sinner out of the family. But is that really how we, freely forgiven for Christ’s sake, should treat people? No. Sinners need mending. They need help. Just like you and me always need help.
And so, you and I have a divine mandate. The apostle says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him.” The Greek word translated “transgression” means “fallen by the side,” like a car gone off the road and stuck in a ditch. It implies an obvious sin that has tripped up and caught a fellow Christian. St. Paul is not simply talking about an annoyance or minor difference of opinion or perceived slight. Those things we are to bear with patiently. Here, we are talking about real sin. We are to help our fellow Christian caught in sin and help him get back on the right path. The whole purpose is to restore the sinner in repentance and faith, not to cut him or her off from fellowship. And we are to do it “in a spirit of gentleness.” Like the trusted family doctor that gently sets your child’s broken arm.
Has someone in the congregation sinned against you? Hurt you? Unintentionally? Intentionally? Lied about you? Put the worst construction on your words or actions? Rubbed you the wrong way? Ignored you? Been rude to you? Have you seen anybody in the congregation sin like that? Or how about in your family? A friend perhaps? What do you do with these people? What is your call from God? Ignore them? Read them the riot act? Give them what we think they deserve? Make their life hell? Or perhaps we could be more subtle? Buck every move they make? Keep them guessing? Have them jump through a few hoops? Is this the way we deal with our fellow Christians who fall into sin?
No! “Restore the [sinner] in a spirit of gentleness,” the apostle encourages. And Paul knows that of which he speaks. He knows about sinners and restoration firsthand. “Chief of sinners” he calls himself in his first letter to Timothy. Hunted down Christians. Arrested them. Jailed them. Murdered them. And took great pride in doing it, because Christians worshiped a Jesus that he couldn’t stand.
But then Jesus—the friend of sinners—showed great love. He converted and restored Paul… in a spirit of gentleness. Oh sure, he was blind for a short time, but Paul was given a faith in Jesus, who died on the cross and rose from the dead for sinners. Paul was used of the Lord to spread the Gospel into the world, first in person with his missionary journeys, then with pen and ink. Why even today the Holy Spirit still speaks to us through the Word that He gave to Paul.
And Paul had a friend named Peter. You remember him, don’t you? Followed Jesus for three years, and then one Friday decided to live as if he never knew Him. He denied Him under oath. Just hours after he had boasted that even if everyone else fell away, he would stick with Jesus, even to death. What a sinner!
On the cross, Jesus could have said: “Bring me the denier! I’m getting down from here! Let’s put Peter up here! He’s the one who really deserves this. That’s it! Drive in those nails, boys! The big ones. How does it feel Peter?”
Instead, Jesus prays: “Father, forgive…” And then after the resurrection Jesus restores Peter the sinner… in a spirit of gentleness. “Peace be with you,” He says. He shows Peter and the other apostles His hands and side that were pierced for our transgressions. And then later Jesus says, “Peter, you’re forgiven. Feed My sheep.” That’s restoration.
The gentle restoration of sinners is your divine call in the Church and in your families. This is one of the ways you live a life of love for others. The Church does not live for herself. She lives to love sinners. To restore sinners. To forgive sinners. In a spirit of gentleness.
We love fellow sinners that way because Christ first loved us that way. He died and rose for us all. He died and rose for each and every sin. Why, He even forgives us for our failures to gently restore our brother or sister caught in any transgression. We love fellow sinners that way because that’s how we are treated by the Lord. Not only that, but isn’t that how we would like to be treated?
To restore a sinner is to say: “Dear brother… Dear sister… You’re caught in sin. You’re letting sin be the lord of your life. You’re a slave to your sinning. You need to be freed from that sin!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no better than you. In fact, I’m probably worse. Yeah, I know I am worse. Like Paul, I must confess, “I am the chief of sinners.” I sin everyday, in thoughts, and words, and even deeds. I have sinned countless times. If you could see my secret sins, you would turn away in disgust. If I saw the full depth of the rottenness of my heart and realized the sin of which I am capable, I would be appalled.
Let me give you my own top ten list of sins of which I am aware: I’ve worshiped other gods, including myself. I’ve sullied God’s name. I’ve despised His Word. I’ve dishonored authorities. I’ve murdered in my heart. I’ve lusted. I’ve taken what is not mine. I’ve not always put the best construction on the words and actions of others. I’ve coveted those things which God in His wisdom has determined are not to be mine at this time. Let’s face it: I’m a mess!
And it’s the same way with you. We are all—as we just confessed together—poor, miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. But that’s exactly who Christ Jesus came into the world to save—sinners. We all have a wonderful Savior. He didn’t turn away in disgust, even though only He knows the full depth of our depravity. He entered that filth. He took that awful load upon Himself and carried it to the cross. Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. That includes you and me. We’re forgiven! We’re free!
So let’s boast in Christ’s cross. We are a new creation in Him. Let that be the start of a new relationship between you, me, and the rest of us. Let’s let Christ’s forgiveness be our forgiveness. Let’s forgive as we have been forgiven.
Give it a try! You’re free! What have you got to lose? Slavery to the power of sin… that’s what you’ve got to lose! A load of sin and grief and despair that wears you down and eats away at you… that’s what you’ve got to lose! The clouded mind that Satan keeps stirred up like a muddy pool… that’s what you’ve got to lose!
What a deal! Forgiveness is what living in Christ and with each other is all about. That’s why it is my privilege to speak this Good News that restores us sinners in a spirit of gentleness: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.