Handling Sinners the Gospel Way - Part I
When Christians stray or lapse the response of fellow-believers may vary from merciless gossip to public humiliation. The press and the world will come down on them like a ton of bricks. False or unsanctified religion guns such down or goes in with all guns blazing. The thoughtful, gracious, wise approach of Spirit-filled believers sets them apart as they deal with an erring brother.
Galatians from the start blasts any deviation from a One-Christ-Only Gospel, through faith alone in Jesus, whether by addition or subtraction. False teachers had peddled a perverted judaized Christ-plus-circumcision message. After proving his case, with a 10-point refutation of salvation-by-works, Paul cements his argument in practice by asserting the radical change Christ produces, by grace, through faith, in the Spirit-indwelt heart. Christians ought to differ dramatically in how they handle sinners.
He does not excuse, ignore, shrug, sigh, vilify, crush or lambast as the libertine or legalist might do. Instead he takes the contrary approach. He is activated by the evident plight and potential for disgrace. Like a good physician, if it is within his remit and ability, he longs to heal the sick and restore to proper function, good health and useful life.
"Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him."
The plural 'You' implies that sin among the members is a burden that the entire body feels and shares. 'Caught in any transgression' is a very broad expression applying to offenses against God or man by which a saint is inadvertently overtaken. He did not set out to sin but was lured, enticed and trapped by flesh off-guard. It concerns what he wrongly believes and also how he badly behaves. 'Spiritual' refers to all true Gospel believers who at very least support this collective, corporate, approach. Particularly it refers to the leaders of the church who have oversight over the flock. Especially it denotes those mature, wise, experienced, tested, godly, spirit-filled believers, whose consistent, rounded, lives abound with the fruit of Christ-like grace (5:22-23) - those caught in crime are, as a rule-of-thumb, most likely to heed, respect and respond to them. Even then, however, they must insure that their purposeful action is pursued in the appropriate manner!
Gentleness is a quality that can be rather hard to define. Another translation is meekness, but this manner is not weakness. Mildness is better but is accompanied by strength. If we are going to help brothers who are tangled in sin's web we will be firm and intentional, sensitive and kind, mindful of their pain, sympathetic to their plight, devoid or any harshness or any intent to hurt or harangue.
"You who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness."
Back to my bone doctor - I'm sure this illustration may help. From my time in treating fractures I gleaned a few basic do's and don'ts of any orthopedic physician worth his salt. If a patient comes in with a fractured hip or leg, no intelligent doctor says 'Stop wingeing! Just stand up! Get a hold of yourself! Act like a man!' He begins by observing the general demeanor of the patient. If they are in pain then some urgent pain relief is required. Not oral analgesics washed down with a cup of water. In cases of a fracture of any major bone the kind, wise nurse or doctor will call for immediate I.V. pain relief. Any words spoken are considerate and kind. They take into account that the patient is distressed. Once anguish has passed the diagnosis must be made. The history is taken together with mechanism of injury. Then careful, gentle, probing and palpation of the redness, swelling, deformity and loss of function in noted. Nerves, skin and blood supply are checked to insure no unwanted sequelae develop or become permanent. The Radiograms are ordered before the treatment plan is made. At this point the patient is transferred to a more appropriate bed or table. The attendant does not say 'Come on shift yourself!'. Instead he explains the manoeuvre to be made and gives advice how the patient can assist. The physician oh-so-carefully supports the limb to hold the bones in place, to ensure minimal pain, before sedation is given and the fracture realigned then splinted with plaster or some other form of fixator. At various junctures check X-rays are taken to make sure the fracture has not moved and bony callus is being formed. Healing is not instant - arm bones take up to 6 weeks and legs nearly twice that time. Physical Therapy is required to improve muscle bulk and regain balance fully. Extra care is required when the plaster-cast is removed - more vigilance in future will avoid the same outcome.
Photo by Harlie Raethel / Unsplash
The point is this - the soul in sin is more tender than broken bones - delicate, considerate, treatment by believers is vital. The more thought helpers put into the nature and mechanism of the injury, and best means to repair (in each individual case), the better will be the result - the goal of course is complete healing of the saint and restoration to full function in the body according to the measure of grace and faith. Perhaps one reason why recovery is some cases of sub-optimal or delayed is that the wrong diagnosis is made, the circumstances of falling are not considered, or that God's promises are not used to give quick pain and distress relief in a spirit of gentleness.
There are various trials and temptations that every gentle 'fixer' faces. Demanding focus on others can deflect attention away from self. We become so preoccupied with others problems that we drop our guard and get caught out or cease our struggle with flesh. Prolonged demands on time may lead to weariness or impatience. Frustration with lapsed saints can cause us to give-off. Working with a sinner can make us feel like saints - pride creeps in, we think we don't need fixed, we look down at our nose, the sense of pity goes. It's easy to feel self-righteous as we seek to treat the sick. We feel in perfect health. We think we are immune. As we listen to lurid or sorry details we can entertain such sins. This act of gentle help is now for us one of potential spiritual hindrance.
"Keep watch on yourself lest you too be tempted."
Watch out for your own soul. Keep an eye on self, if you would be of any help. Satan is so clever! Pay heed to the apostle's sane advice! Before we explain this further we need to move to the central motive, task and kernel of Paul's apostolic counsel!
No farmer with a heart could watch a beast of burden faint. The instinct of the owner would not be to whip the creature until the animal dropped, but rather take the cargo off and carry it himself. How much more for believers whose burden Christ relieved when He bore the guilt of sin and endured our Hell on the Cross.
"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."
It's hard to be definitive as to which 'law' Paul intends. In some senses it doesn't matter a whole lot which alternative we choose. If the whole Mosaic legislation is intended, which the Judaizers' claim to adore, then Jesus explains it's true depth and demonstrates at the Cross what divine love really means. The greatest commands, Christ taught, are total love to God and loving others as yourself, as Paul notes in 5:14:
"For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'."
Perhaps, on the other hand, he means the new commandment he gave to his disciples beneath the shadow of the Cross. If we take it in this sense 'law' approximates in meaning to 'rule'. Listen to His unforgettable instruction on the night before His passion, recorded in John 13:34-35:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
There are couple of reasons why we should include this second option in what Paul means by 'law of Christ'. Jesus makes this the hallmark of genuine religion - love is the telltale sign that distinguishes the Christian from synergism, Pharisaic and other forms of works religion. The new commandment is framed by the context of the washing of disciples' feet. His substitutionary, atoning dereliction, as Mediator, at Calvary is in view. He dialogues with Peter about washing of our sin - Peter had a bath but the problem was his feet (John 13:10).
So how is love demonstrated? It is shown by concerned action to bear brothers sinful burdens that load them down with guilt and slow them in their walk. Bear, like its old testament counterpart verb, has the same triple sense of lift, carry and remove. Saints of course cannot take away guilt's weight. Wise counselors, however, can bring Gospel promises to bear, with God's help, in such a way that the sinner is brought to confront, admit, confess his guilt and in this contrite state, run penitently to Christ - here he will obtain total pardon, abundant mercy and restoring grace to set his feet back firmly on God's path. All is ultimately only possible because the risen, exalted, crucified, Lord Jesus Christ has lifted, carried and removed the sin of His own people as the bearer of their sin.
Where do naturally insensitive, selfish, cold saints obtain such ardent love or obtain this warm-hearted, compassionate heart to help, that strives prayerfully to restore friends? This self-crucifying love, this pity of the saints, is the work of the Spirit through the Gospel in the life, 5:22 for:
"The fruit of the Spirit is love ...kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness".
How can it be other than the Holy Spirit's divine work. Psalm 68:19-20 describes Jehovah our Triune God as the daily deliverer of His own:
"Blessed be the Lord who daily bears us up, God is our salvation ...& to God the Lord belong deliverances from death."
Revelation 2:24-25 reveals the unburdening instinct of the ascended glorified Christ who makes small demands on his saints. If they resist error, provided they hold fast:
"I do not lay on you any other burden."
Acts 15:28 shows the Apostles had learned this lesson well by the time of the Council of Jerusalem - they requested that the Gentiles temporarily observed the most minimal ceremonial regulations for the good peace of the Church, for:
"It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements."
How could the Christian take any other approach when he has been to the meek, mild, Christ, for His Gentle Renewal and Gospel Reformation, in Matthew 11:28-30:
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
To him we must appeal as we study His life for the heart of grace that flows out in love for saints. How different the Gospel attitude is from the unloving, demanding, whip-cracking mentality of the falsely religious legalist, that Jesus depicted in Luke 11:46:
"Woe to you lawyers also for you load people with burdens hard to bear and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers."
Like a good bone-doctor, if the fracture is to be mended, we must get involved with the patient, and do all we can, including practical help, relational support but chiefly spiritual counsel by careful personal application and use of the appointed means of grace. Ivory tower proof-texting falls short of what is meant. We must tell them 'how to', teach them 'how to', show them 'how to' and help them 'how to', constantly pointing their souls to the 'why to' of Christ's Cross. If we obey this duty, we will not lack His grace!
To be continued...