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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:Loving the Church’s Impenitent
Text:LD 31 Luke 8:4-15, 1 Corinthian (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Discipline

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

Psalter 409 - A Summons to Praise
TH 701 - Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It 
TH 687 - Make Me a Captive, Lord
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Loving the Church’s Impenitent

HD 31, Luke 8:4-15, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Matthew 18:15-17

The church is the only organization in the world that is comprised of people who admit they’re sinners. They confess it every day and especially every time they partake of the Lord’s Supper. They struggle with sin even though they are saved by grace. They’re committed to Christ’s church. They remember his death and resurrection. And they struggle against sin by obeying and repenting, experiencing victory. They’re nourished spiritually by Christ’s Word and Spirit. They look forward to heaven as they live life on earth.

But how did they become part of the church? The word “church” comes from the Greek kuriakos - belonging to the Lord. Another word translated “church” is ekklesia - meaning, called out of the world. So how were they called out of the world to belong to God? How do we know they’re genuine? After all, there are many ex-Christians. And if they’re in church, how do we know they’re genuine? These questions will be addressed in 3 answers. Firstly, the gospel opens the church to believers and shuts it to unbelievers. Secondly, there will be false believers in the church. Thirdly, church discipline restores true believers and removes false believers.

How did they get called out of the world to belong to God? By the gospel. The gospel opens the church to believers and shuts it to unbelievers. That’s what our catechism teaches. The gospel is the key that opens the kingdom of God to believers. When the gospel is preached, sinners believe. Just like in the parable of the sower - the seed finds good ground, it grows and bears fruit a hundred fold. Sinners hear the gospel. They see the poverty of their spirit. They mourn. They hear about Christ and come meekly for forgiveness. They’re blessed! When they believe, they are forgiven of their sin. 

This happened in Corinth. Unlikely people believed. Crispus, the president of the synagogue kicked Paul out. He believed. Sosthenes, his replacement who opposed Paul - he also believed. Many Gentiles - pagans - believed. Why? The gospel! 

But the gospel is also the key that shuts the kingdom of God to unbelievers. Not everyone believes. Some hearts are hard, like the hard surface of the highway. The gospel doesn’t penetrate their hearts and the devil snatches it away. Paul told the Corinthians the preaching of the cross is foolishness to them that perish. Some just don’t and won’t believe. When Jesus preached, many scribes and Pharisees refused to believe. And they were the Bible experts. They were turned off by the gospel. The disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables. He spoke this way so that some will understand and others won’t. This was a quote from Isaiah who said when some hear the gospel, they won’t understand; when they see what Christ did, they won’t comprehend. Because their hearts are hard, their ears can’t hear, they’ve closed their eyes! They can’t turn to God and let him heal them. So the gospel opens up the kingdom to those who believe, and it shuts the kingdom to those who refuse to believe it.

But is everyone who professes to be a believer really a believer? No. There are false believers in the visible church. That’s the second point. It’s true that for some, when they hear the gospel, they react with joy and there seems to be some evidence of belief. You have many examples in the Bible. In the end, they were not true believers. Judas was among the 12 disciples, but he didn’t truly believe. He betrayed Jesus. Simon the Magician was even baptized, but proved to be an unbeliever. Demas was a missionary 10 years, but in the end, he abandoned Christ for the world. Cain was raised to give God offerings, but in the end, he departed from the presence of the Lord. Some do fall away from the faith.

In the parable of the sower, some seeds fell on the thorny soil and others fell on the rocky soil. The seeds flourished for some time and grew. But they didn’t grow enough to bear fruit. Those in the thorny soil were choked up by thorns - like how weeds grow faster than plants in a garden bed, taking up all the nutrients, space, and water - effectively choking up and killing the plants. There are those who hear the gospel, but the things of the world crowd it out. They may even be in church for awhile, or have grow up in church hearing the gospel - but they fall away because of 3 things - the cares of the world (how hard life is), riches (how good life is), and pleasures (how exciting life is). It is true, for those who don’t treasure the gospel, the Christian life is not attractive enough. Christ is not sweet enough. He is not worth suffering or denying self for. 

Those in rocky soil grow but lack water because they lack soil. So they wither away when the sun comes up. Some have a belief that’s not genuine. It’s emotional - they hear and receive the Word with joy. They believe for a while. But in time of testing they fall away. Now, this does not refer to genuine faith. Saving or true faith is not just an emotional or intellectual faith. Our catechism says that true faith is a sure knowledge and a firm confidence. In other words, there’s fake faith - one that is just intellectual or emotional without firm confidence. No root - as Jesus said. That’s why they fell away. How? Some do it by sinning grievously and impenitently. If there’s no true faith, there’s no change. The still love to sin. And they will.

We see that in the Corinthian church. One member was involved in sin. And that’s not surprising - Christians fall into sin. But when we sins, we will repent. But sadly, there was no repentance here. There was open sin. Verse 1 says - “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife.” Paul was a distance away but he knew because it was commonly reported. And the sin was gross fornication. A church member was having relations with his father’s wife. And he was not remorseful. We see this in the phrase – “that one should have his father's wife.”  It doesn’t say had. It’s in the present tense. And because it was commonly reported, it was ongoing for awhile. There was no repentance or fleeing from sin.

The issue is not that there was sin in the church. There will be. We’re sinners saved by grace. And as we grow, we should sin less, even though we won’t be sinless. Believers do give into sin and continue for a while - even in serious sin. David sinned with Bathsheba. He tried to arrange for Uriah to return to spend the night with his wife to hide his sin, and when he couldn’t do that, he got Uriah killed. Christians are capable of scandalous sin - even sins not named among unbelievers.

A Christian isn’t a Christian because he’s perfect, but because he’s forgiven - he is penitent. God doesn’t say, “blessed are the perfect in spirit” but “blessed are the poor in spirit.”  He doesn’t say “blessed are they that rejoice for they have no sins” but “blessed are they that mourn.”  Neither does he say, “blessed are the proud” but “blessed are the meek.” Christians sin but they’ll repent. David sinned scandalously! But he repented when confronted. God delights in repentance. And that’s the continual behavior of the true believer. But the Corinthian church member was flaunting his sin. What did this behavior prove? Paul judged that he was not a Christian - he was a fake. If repentance characterizes a Christian then impenitence and persistent sin characterize an unbeliever. 1 John 3:9 says, and clearer in the ESV, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.”

As far as Paul could tell, this impenitent man demonstrated his unbelief. His immorality wasn’t a one-off followed by sorrow. If it was, Paul’s response would’ve been different. But how did Paul respond? 1 Corinthians 5:2 says, “And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.” He told them to remove him from church - from those that belong to the Lord, kuriakos, the ones called out from the world - ekklesia. If he was of the world, and not of the church, he should be removed and given back to the world.

If the gospel opens the kingdom of God to believers, then church discipline closes it to those who are found to be false believers. It removes them. But it also restores true believers.That’s the third point. It answers the question - what if it’s obvious that they’re in the church but not true Christians? They must be removed. Now, not everyone in church feels this way. Sometimes Christians tolerate impenitence. Now I’m not talking about loving patience toward a sinner. I’m talking about tolerating impenitence. And Paul was shocked. Paul called the Corinthians proud. Instead of mourning that a believer was continuing in sin like this, they were tolerating it. So what we are told here is this - while persistent sin and impenitence were bad, Paul was shocked they took it lightly. Meaning, impenitence is bad, but toleration is worse.

A church may tolerate impenitence for many reasons - it’s unpleasant to discipline; we think by tolerating it, we’re merciful and giving him time to repent; we may even think we’ve no right to judge - we think it’s humble. But Paul called it proud. Why? Because God commanded the church to maintain purity. So to those who are impenitent, not only does verse 2 say that he should be taken away form the church, verse 5 says, he should be delivered to Satan to have his flesh destroyed. Verse 7 says to purge out the old leaven. Verse 9 says not to keep company with such fornicators. Verse 11 says don’t even fellowship with him. 

And if we think this is not Christian character, let’s remember what Jesus himself said in Matthew 18. There he laid down the principle of confronting sin in church. If a brother sins, the witness or the victim is to tell him so he’d repent. But if he doesn’t repent, others must hold him accountable and call him to repent. But if he doesn’t hear them, the officers of the church are to help him. And if he doesn’t hear them, then he’s to be removed formally from church and called an unbeliever. Verse 4 says that it is done in the authority of Christ - “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, church discipline as a key closes the kingdom of God to that person. And being treated as an unbeliever is not to shun him. In fact, he needs salvation as an unbeliever; he needs to hear the gospel, he needs Christ.

And that requires the church to do the difficult work of judging. In verse 3, Paul judged, “For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed.” Removing someone from God’s kingdom on earth requires much wisdom to determine if that person is truly saved or not, by his life and confession. Wisdom in judging must be done with sorrow - mourning - punitively or judgmentally. It’s for the purpose of restoration - loving the impenitent. Why? If God has instituted this as a prerogative of every church member that has gone astray, we who refuse to do it, fail to love that church member when we deny it to him. Now, how is it loving? We learn in verse 5 that by so doing, we “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” 

Now, that sounds terrible. It doesn’t sound loving at all. It sounds punitive rather than restorative. Let me explain. If the impenitent man will not hear the loving pleas of his church to repent and be restored to God, then he’s to be placed outside the church; where the devil’s realm is - in the world, away from the spiritual care of the church and comfort of the saints. God gives us  comfort and support in the church through fellowship, the Word, and the prayers of our brethren. But by removing an impenitent person from the church, he’s removed from social network that falsely assures him that he’s a Christian. And once outside of the church, the destruction of his sinful impulses would take place. Away from the church, impenitent person will indulge in his sin over time. If he’s an unbeliever, he will love it. But if he is a true believer of Christ, then the sinful impulses of the flesh will be destroyed. He will grow to hate sin and yearn for God.

It’s like the Prodigal Son - he went so far away from his father and was in such a bad shape that he awoke and returned. His sinful impulses were destroyed. So church discipline that begins with confrontation of persistent sins, is done the person’s restoration. If he rejects it until his salvation is in doubt, then as a last resort, he’s to be removed. If he’s an unbeliever, he is confirmed an unbeliever - needing the gospel. If he’s truly a believer, and refuses to repent in church, God will lovingly chastise him outside the church until he repents.

Another reason for church discipline is for the purity of the church. The lack of action of the church was bad. Verses 6-7 say, “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?  Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” If they hadn’t removed the impenitent member, his impenitence would act as leaven. Yeast, even in small amounts, would make a whole lump of dough rise. A church that wrongly understands tolerance as mercy will ultimately be consumed by sin.  

Paul used the illustration of the Passover - before the Passover, rabbis would go from house to house with a blowtorch to purge away the yeast in the house. Yeast was a picture of sin. The passover lamb symbolized atonement, but believers still had to resist lingering sin. The church wasn’t doing that. They wanted Christ to be their atonement, but not the fire to purge away daily sins. They wanted pardon, but not purification. When discipline is carried out, it has a purifying effect on the church.  That’s why Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:20 - “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” Those emboldened to sin would repent.

What are some lessons we can take from this very difficult portion of Scripture and Catechism? Firstly, we know that Christ saves through the gospel. He brings us into his church and forgives our sins when we mourn and repent. We keep on mourning and repenting of sin. That’s the Christian life. That’s the way to victory. As long as we believe the gospel and live out this gospel, we will grow in grace.

But in our weakness we may give into the flesh. We may even sin scandalously. And when that happens, we fall out of fellowship with God. Sin leads to misery, unanswered prayer, spiritual dryness, and a distant God. How terrible is that! So what provision does God give to lead this precious soul to a place of repentance? Church discipline. So the second thing we take from this is this. When we are overtaken by a fault, those which are spiritual must restore us in a spirit of meekness. Those who are filled with knowledge and goodness, must admonish us. We must expect this. And we must do it. If we truly love one another, we must - in a spirit of meekness. 

We should expect that we would be admonished. If we don’t listen, we should expect two or three witnesses. If we still don’t listen, we should expect them to bring us before the church. That’s loving. They desire our repentance. Are you willing to be confronted? Are you willing to love the impenitent enough?  

There was a happy ending for the Corinthian man. He was removed from the church and his fleshly impulses were destroyed. In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul told the church to restore him because he repented. Imagine if they had tolerated his scandalous sin and impenitence. Imagine if they never disciplined him, he would never have repented. He would’ve continued in sin to his detriment. But now they restored him as a brother.

Truly loving the church’s impenitent takes time, prayer, and labor - it’s a service to the one walking astray. True humility in service would never say - I could never discipline a brother; true humility says I must obey God to love my brother this way. To be sure, church discipline and admonition can be done very poorly. You can have tyrants in church. The people of the church may push back against it. It can be very polarizing. Which is why maturity, love, and knowledge are needed to use the keys of the kingdom.

Our topic today according to the catechism is not warm and fuzzy. But it is a necessary topic. Many churches do not do this work. They allow impenitence to continue. When we have this worldly wisdom, this leaven, then we cease to care about purity. We hate our brethren. But let this be a gracious reminder to us - God knows our infirmities. He knows we’re weak. And though he commands us to be perfect before him, he forgives us when we fall. He delights in our repentance. 

Sermon Outline:

  1. The Gospel Opens the Church to Believers and Shuts It to Unbelievers. 
    1. The gospel opens the kingdom
    2. The gospel shuts the kingdom
  2. There Will Be False Believers in the Church
    1. Some fall away from the faith
    2. Some sin grievously and impenitently
  3. Church Discipline Restores True Believers and Removes False Believers
    1. Proud toleration of impenitence
    2. Jesus’ divine instructions for removal and restoration
    3. Purity of the church

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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