(Fourth of eight) We have indicated in previous articles that it is possible for believers in Christ to experience already now the beauty and joy of Christian fellowship.
There is, of course, one thing that spoils this picture, and that one thing is sin. If there are members of the assembly who are only pretending to be Christians for some external benefit for themselves, they are not really part of the body of Christ at all, and so they cannot be like-minded; in fact, there is nothing that they can do that pleases God. The Lord knows the difference between sheep and goats. Yet it is also true that the Holy Spirit can use the Law and Gospel as taught among the Christians to change these hypocrites from selfish, loveless sinners into new people of God who trust in Christ for salvation and begin to experience the working of the Holy Spirit in their own lives.
Then, of course, there is sinfulness in the Christians themselves. Paul confessed about himself that he did not do the good he wanted to do because of the sinful flesh, the old Adam, that remained in him (Romans 7). The same is true of every one of us. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Sin brings ugliness and pain into what should be a loving, harmonious association. But sin in itself cannot destroy the fellowship, for Christ has given His Church the ministry of the keys, the power to absolve sinners. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God does indeed forgive us our sins through those persons whom the Holy Spirit has called through the Church to absolve sinners, and in fact Christ has given to every believer the authority to forgive sins in His name. God forgives us for Christ’s sake, and we forgive one another. The Holy Spirit in us leads us to heed these words of the apostle: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even
as God in Christ forgave you”
This forgiveness of sins is total, including the most heinous sins of murder and adultery and blasphemy, for Christ’s apostle John says to us: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7). Yes, from all sin! Sin cannot destroy the beauty and joy of Christian fellowship as long as sin is confessed and absolved. We continue to have fellowship with our Lord, and we continue to have fellowship with one another. At the Lord’s Table we come together before God as confessing sinners, and together we receive Christ’s body and blood for the remission of sins. “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
But what if sin is covered up and not confessed? If it remains hidden to the congregation, we must let God Himself deal with it as He will. But when sin is harbored in the heart of someone who professes Christ, and this sin becomes known to one or more of the others, then Christian love springs into action in the form of personal and private admonition, as Jesus has taught us in Matthew 18:15-18. The goal of such admonition is gaining the brother. Just as a loving parent will not tolerate the ungodly behavior of his child, so the Lord does not want His people to tolerate open or unconfessed sin on the part of anyone who professes to be one of God’s people. According to our Lord’s instructions the whole congregation has the responsibility to get involved in attempting to lead the sinner to repentance. How sad it is when Christians lack the love that should move them to help to rescue a brother or sister who needs our help.
The apostle Paul compared such festering sin in the Christian fellowship to leaven or yeast that finally permeates the whole loaf. To the Christians in Corinth who were slow to take needed action he said: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us”
(1 Corinthians 5:6-7). The impenitent sinner in Corinth was continuing in the sin of adultery, and therefore Paul wrote to the congregation: “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.…Put away from yourselves the evil person” (1 Corinthians 5:5,13).
It seems the action demanded by Paul in Corinth achieved its purpose when the man repented of his sin and the congregation received him back, as we read in 2 Corinthians 2:3-11. What a beautiful and joyful thing it is when Christian fellowship is restored!
Even the angels celebrate along with all of God’s people. How important and necessary it is that the whole number of Christians in the group listen to Paul’s instructions on how to deal with a former member who has been excommunicated but who has been regained: “You ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
(to be continued)