Scripture Reference: Matthew 18:21-35, 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
The High Cost Of ReconciliationDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | February 27, 2005
Selected highlights from this sermon
Hard obedience. That’s one way to describe the reconciliation process—it can be difficult and full of anguish. But we have to do all we can to bring about reconciliation because it’s proof that the Gospel works.
Using the words of Jesus from Matthew 18, Pastor Lutzer gives us seven steps of reconciliation—and reminds us that all along the way, Jesus is with us through the process.
If God forgave you as you have forgiven your enemy, would you be content with that?
Well, let me invite you into my mail bag. Do they still have mail bags? I guess mailmen do. Here’s a letter: “I’m so confused about the mess my life is in. My husband has been involved in an adulterous relationship for two years and presently his partner is four months pregnant. She divorced her husband about a year ago, and now my husband has finally filed for divorce, though the process is not yet finished. He claims that I am mentally ill, that I have denied him children. He claims that I lied to him. He said that his relationship with his girlfriend is my fault because I was the cause of his unhappiness. He said that I had destroyed his reputation by starting a rumor that he was having an affair. His friends who are in the same church as I believe I am evil. They are thanking God for the blessing of the child that the Lord is giving to my husband and his lover. I don’t even know how to pray anymore. Am I right in saying that these people who are willing to support my husband are listening to Satan’s lies? Would God bless my adulterous husband with a baby? I don’t understand this mess!”
Have you ever noticed that there are people with messes? “Recently my mother-in-law left my husband a shocking voicemail suggesting that he divorce me. Never in a million years would I have thought of this since we are happily married, we counsel other couples. My husband was surprised and grieved. Never have I met a person who is so controlling as this woman, who desires to possess our children and control my husband, since she now fears that she can no longer control me. She’s treacherous; she does one thing and then says another. How can I have a relationship with someone like this? Can you be reconciled to someone who wants to use reconciliation as a means of control?” Anyone whose faults, if you confess your faults, are going to misinterpret that and use that against you.
Well, the topic today as you might have guessed is reconciliation. And we could also say that the topic is also one of hard obedience. Are you ready for today’s message? Praise God, praise God. Several “Amen’s,” I’ll go with them.
There are some reasons why we should reconcile. Disunity weakens the body of Jesus Christ, possibly like no other sin. You’ve seen it in church splits. Jesus said, “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” Nor can a family stand that’s divided against itself; father against mother, child against parent. I’ll tell you that division is very costly, it rips, it tears, it hurts, and it weakens.
Secondly: because of our witness to the world. When we can’t get along as Christians it makes Jesus look bad. People say, “Well, you know they are Christians, and just look at them. They’re as bad as we are!” Always remember the world is looking for excuses to not believe. And when they see us with our divisions, our pettiness, and our anger they say, “There’s another good reason why I don’t need their Jesus.”
Third: future generations. I’ve noticed something in churches where there has been a church split. There are some churches that split all the time. And if you look into their history you’ll discover that they always split along the same fault lines, same families on this side and on that side, sometimes going back to generations. Families are the same way. What a terrible thing to be in a family when there is no reconciliation.
Another reason is that reconciliation is proof that the Gospel works. We will never have a great revival in America unless we have couples that were on the verge of divorce, where there has been unfaithfulness, and everything you can imagine, and until they are willing to stand up and say, “We were on the brink of divorce, and for us it was over. But Jesus broke into our marriage and here we stand today loving each other, reconciled.” That is the power of the Gospel. Every revival that I’ve ever studied always has paramount reconciliation.
Thirty or forty years ago in Canada children were running down the isles, teenagers were running down the isles during the service to find their parents to be reconciled and to ask their forgiveness. When the Spirit works, there is a desire for reconciliation.
Well, what we are going to do today is to walk through seven steps of reconciliation. I like the number seven because I think God loves the number seven, so I want to love all the same things that God does. So today it’s seven; seven steps in this business of reconciliation. We hope that you won’t have to take them all. But when reconciliation doesn’t work, you are going to have to go through all seven. Are you with me?
The text is the eighteenth chapter of Matthew where Jesus teaches on reconciliation. And my intention today is to only expound and to clarify what Jesus has to say, and I am depending on what Jesus has to say to bring the power for this message. It is what Jesus has to say and the Apostle Paul also, the inspired Word of God.
First of all, “If your brother sins against you;” now Jesus is assuming that if you have sinned against your brother, of course you will go to him or to her. But even if your brother sins against you, you go. First obviously, you prepare your heart. Jesus may not say it expressly, but the Apostle Paul writing under the inspiration of the same Spirit, did. He says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” To “restore” is a word that was used for the setting of a broken bone. You are going to go in tenderness. You go, and we prepare our hearts.
Let me give you reasons why we prepare our hearts: first of all to understand our role in the matter. Because sometimes a person may sin against you but you may have fault too, you know. So what you do is you lay your life before the Lord and say, “What is my part in this offense?” And even if your part is 20% and theirs is 80%, usually our fault looks about like that. “Oh, I’m about 20% involved and theirs is 80%.” You go with your 20% as if it is the full 100%.
Because what you are doing is you are aiming at forgiveness, and reconciliation, and restitution. That’s what you are aiming at. So you need time to explore your own life. You go then to see your own role in the matter and your own attitude in this. Your own attitude as the Apostle Paul says, “With a great spirit of humility and brokenness.”
I don’t believe that you are qualified to be reconciled to someone unless you come to the point in your life where you realize that you are capable of doing what your offender has done. You’re capable of that, too, you know. Solzhenitsyn said that, “The line between good and evil does not run between the races or between the cultures.” Wouldn’t it be great if it did? We could just take all the evil people and put them over there, and then take all the good people and put them over here. Solzhenitsyn says, “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” Someday if God ever shows you your sin, you will be shocked at what you are capable of doing. So first of all, you prepare your heart.
Secondly, you go… you go. Jesus says, “Go. You take the initiative.” You say, “Well, I’m waiting for him to call.” He might not call. You take the initiative, you go. That’s the hard part… you go.
And, you go in private. Now you don’t say to yourself, “Well, I’m not going to go but I am going to tell other people about how bad he is.” That’s gossip. Don’t go to the telephone, don’t gossip, don’t slander, and don’t say things about people that are negative, even if they are true. I could pause here and speak a whole sermon on the power of the tongue. Oh, what a small member it is, and how it kindles such a great flame.
Twenty five years ago a young man came to me who was a student and he told me about a religious leader, and told me a story about what would portend to be dishonesty on the part of this leader. Whether the story is totally true or not, maybe it was true. I do need to say that I know this person about whom the story was told, and for years every time we met that story came to mind. Oh, the damage of what the tongue can do! It is a terrible, terrible thing.
What about gossip in the church? Jim Cymbala said that the reason that they really cut down on the gossip over there in New York at the Brooklyn Tabernacle is that when they become new members they all make a promise. You have a grievance against somebody. If you tell somebody in the church, like let’s suppose you were to go and you were to say, “You know what Pastor Lutzer did? He did this and this, or he said this and this.” As soon as you hear it, you take the person by the arm and say, “I’m going with you to talk to him about it.” You go to the person who is either a part of the problem or a part of the solution, but you do not gossip. Churches have been split, homes have been split. Jesus says, “Go.”
And by the way, don’t go to the press, okay? The other day I was talking to the president of a Christian college. I won’t go into the story except to say that disgruntled employees, not of the college, but of a nursing home, began to complain and blame the college for what was happening there. The college didn’t own that nursing home, and the media picked up the story and wrote this big thing. Because after all, if you get ten disgruntled employees and their stories agree, it must be right, right?
Now normally I really do think that the media wants to hear the other side. This time they didn’t. And so there’s a school trying to do some P.R. to try to recoup the bad name that these disgruntled employees wanted to give. That is just such evil vengeance. “You know, I’m not getting what I deserve. I’m going to go to the newspaper and I am going to embarrass him publicly.” No, my friend, that’s the way the world works. You are a Christian, are you not? Are you not a follower of Jesus? You don’t go to the media to wash the dirty linen of the church.
Sometimes we have to because others may do it, and then we have to reply. It gets messy and Jesus doesn’t look good. So you go, and you go in private. Is there ever an exception to not going alone? And the answer is, “yes.”
Let’s suppose that the person with whom you want to reconcile, the trust has been so badly frayed or maybe you even fear this person. I could imagine a child going to a parent. Of course it’s fine to take someone with you, as Jesus will indicate in a moment. But if it is possible, in most instances, go alone and resolve it.
Is it ever necessary to confess sins that we have not committed, but our forefathers have committed? Some people are really irritated when you have meetings of reconciliation, where we ask forgiveness because of slavery or because of what has happened. I though about this during this week and my conclusion is that I think it is fine for us to do that, because there is such a thing as national sins.
Let me give you an example of where I think it is helpful. Lutherans went to these Synagogues and asked forgiveness of the Jews for the things that Martin Luther had said against the Jews. You know he said horrendous things about the Jews. I could comment on that but I need to hurry on. He did say terrible things about the Jews. They asked forgiveness.
What that meant to the Jewish community is first of all that the Lutheran church realizes that in point to fact Luther did say these things. And second that they are distancing themselves from such things. So I think it buys some goodwill when we acknowledge the sins of our forefathers and admit what happened. But Jesus says here that step number two is to go.
Step three: evaluate the response. If he has listened to you, you’ve won your brother. What does that mean? Well, it means that there is reconciliation. You know the person may not even realize that he hurt you. Probably nine out of ten times if you go to a person and you say, “You know, you’ve hurt me because of A, B, C, D,” they will be surprised. Because remember we are all at the end of the day somewhat narcissistic and don’t realize how we hurt other people. We never really see them as they see themselves. But so we go, and we evaluate the response. If there is reconciliation that ends it, and nobody else even needs to know. So step number three ends at that point.
Step four: we enlist others. If there is disagreement and there is no possibility of reconciliation, now we begin to add others into the mix. Verse sixteen, “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.” Now this becomes very, very important. Why this step? Because the others going along have to do two things: first of all to clarify the issues. Maybe you have a wrong slant on things after all.
Secondly: to confirm the issues. Is this offense really what you think it is? Is this offense what the other person thinks it is? Because Jesus says now it is necessary to have two or three witnesses. Why? Because after this, if he doesn’t repent you are going to go public, and you don’t want to be wrong about this. You don’t want to be wrong about it when it is told to the whole church.
I know a man who had a Bible conference at his school and he advertised a certain speaker that was coming. And somebody called him the day before and said, “Do you realize the speaker that you are having for this Bible conference is an adulterer?” And this person began to list various evidences. This president of the Bible College was wise enough to listen but to not heed what this person was saying. Because what he was saying is, “You know, make sure that he no longer speaks. Don’t you have any courage? You have to pull the plug!”
Well, the speaker came. And, after the conference the man who made the accusations phoned and said, “I’m sorry, but I have the wrong man.” My dear friend, it would be better for you to play with forked lightening than to slander a believer and to say things about them which are either distorted or untrue, spreading something which is false. The Scripture says before you go public and tell the church, two or three witnesses have to confirm the whole thing, because you most assuredly do not want to be wrong on this issue. God takes it very, very seriously. Usually a true believer will repent at this point because he sees the error of his ways. But if he doesn’t, you go to step number five – you involve the church now.
Some of you, God bless you, you are saying, “Well, should I become a member of The Moody Church?” The answer is if this is your church home the answer is to be given in three letters rather than two, “Y E S.” You come under the protection then of the church, and others in your family come under the protection of the church.
Now I am going to speak candidly. There are many people who do not want to become members because they want to be like a bottle without a label, more easily going from place to place or loyalty to loyalty. If God has brought you here to Moody Church and you’re a part of us, the responsibility of discipline, of exhortation, and everything that is involved that is performed by our elders and our staff then becomes your sense of blanket and security. So Jesus said, “Tell it to the church, and have them go and convince him otherwise.”
One time I remember we had about fifteen members of our executive committee go to a fellow believer on the executive committee who was involved in an adulterous relationship. About fifteen went and pled with him. He didn’t repent. But later on when he was excommunicated, everybody knew that we had acted wisely, we did not act hastily. Why? Because you tell it to the church and you urge others to get involved in the process.
Now if they don’t repent at this point it is usually because their heart has been very hard. And that is usually true, especially in the matter of immorality. And the reason for that is because they feel that they’ve invested so much in this relationship. You have the whole matter of sexual bonding to someone who is not their real partner, so they are learning to live in a defiled bed. And so as a result they’ve rationalized, they’ve hardened their hearts, and they begin to burn their bridges.
I remember a Christian leader saying to me as I was pleading with him to go back to his wife, he said, “You know even David got his Bathsheba.” Oh, my. Yes, David did get his Bathsheba didn’t he, as a matter of fact? You know what else David got? God says, “You’re going to pay fourfold;” four of David’s sons ruined. What David got was a divided family and he died a very bad father. He got a divided family, he got a young man that was trying to kill him, his own son Absalom, who had to be killed or else he was killing his dad. And he ends with everything in disarray.
Yeah, he did get Bathsheba, he did. But he is still paying for it, still paying for it - eternal repercussions in the life of his family that boomerang all the way to eternity. Number five we involve the church.
Number six: the person is excluded from the fellowship. He is considered to be a Gentile or a pagan, which is a way of saying that, “He’s not considered to be a believer anymore,” because we can’t look into their hearts. Of course believers can be very hard-hearted, but all that we can do is to look at the way they’re acting. And he’s not acting like a believer because true believers in whom the Holy Spirit has done its work, true believers have hearts that are responsive to God and responsive to others.
So if they harden their hearts Paul says in I Corinthians chapter five, he said to the church, “You know there is some immorality there. A man is having his own mother,” possibly a case of incest. And he says, “You’re not doing anything about it.” He says, “I want you to know that I am delivering this person over to Satan that he might learn not to blaspheme.”
What Paul was saying was “We’re putting him outside of the umbrella of the church; he is no longer under the protection of the church. And what he can do is to go on in his sin until he is so entangles himself that in utter, total desperation he’ll turn back to God and finally come clean, no matter the cost.” Now, there is some evidence in Scripture that that discipline worked. You look at II Corinthians and you’ll notice that Paul is talking about this offender and he’s saying, “You know, bring him back into the church.” Because apparently the discipline worked! So that’s number six.
Number seven: we continue to hope and pray for reconciliation. And if it happens we tell the whole church. Now Jesus says something very interesting here. He says, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, ‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose in life shall be loosed in heaven.”
Now there is a passage that has caused a lot of controversy. Some people believe that it teaches that heaven’s will must bend to the will of man. Whoever the church pronounces as forgiven is forgiven, whoever is not pronounced forgiven is damned. The Rabbi’s used to have a saying you know, that to loose something, if something was loose in heaven it was permissible; if it was bound in heaven than it was not permissible. So using that expression, Jesus builds on it.
But I have to just ask you, do you really think the passage is teaching that fallible men can withhold God’s forgiveness or declare to other people that they are forgiven, especially as we can’t look into the human heart? You look at the history of the church and there have often been those who have been guilty, who have been declared loosed or forgiven. And then there are those who we would say were some of the best saints that walked this earth and they were condemned by the church.
You want an example? John Huss, before he was burned at the Counsel of Constance, by the way that’s an interesting story. The Emperor Sigismund guaranteed safe conduct for Huss to the Counsel of Constance, and after Huss arrived he decided that he did not have to keep his word to a heretic. So Huss was burned there. In fact, my wife and I were actually in Constance one time and we supposedly saw the stone on which Huss was burned. And before they burned him they said, “We condemn your soul to the eternal flames of hell.” Huss was a preacher of the Gospel and he was preaching against indulgences in Prague and elsewhere.
Does man really have the ability to just command God and God says, “Okay, I won’t forgive because you’re telling Me I shouldn’t.” I don’t think so. That’s why there are so many other passages that would interpret the Greek verbs this way: whatever has been bound on earth shall have been bound in heaven; whatever has been loosed on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. It is really man bending his will to the will of God. To put it clearly, we are responding to heaven. Heaven is not responding to us!
Sometimes by the way, some of us who are in the ministry who are counselors exercise this. I’ve had women come to me and confess abortions. And even though they’ve been forgiven, they still feel the guilt. And I have told them in the words of Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” As a representative of the church I can’t look into their hearts. But from what I can see, they need the encouragement of God’s cleansing, of God’s forgiveness, and of God’s acceptance.
And, is this a difficult task? Oh, you’d better believe it’s difficult! And, that’s why Jesus says, “Where two of you agree on earth,” verse nineteen, “about anything you ask it will be done. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I among them.” This is not a prayer meeting verse. Oh, we only have two or three people at prayer meeting. Well, it doesn’t matter, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I.” Well, yes, it is true that Jesus is there. But, Jesus is talking about the concept of reconciliation. He knows that reconciliation is difficult; it’s anguish, full of anguish.
Years ago when I did more counseling I remember couples having to confess the most horrid things to one another in my presence. But where there was forgiveness, and cleansing, and acceptance, the presence of God was there, and I claimed this verse. Jesus was there to bring about the miracle of reconciliation.
Now, there are times when you can’t be reconciled to somebody. If the person acknowledges no wrongdoing, acknowledges it but trivializes it, oh I could tell you stories about that. “Oh yeah, what I’m doing is wrong, but it’s just a small matter.” A serial adulterer said that to his wife one time, “You should forgive me as often as I do it because you are a Christian, and it’s not that big a deal.” Where trust is eroded there cannot be real reconciliation. Or, where somebody desires reconciliation to control you, desires reconciliation to use it against you in some way, it may not be possible, but you aim for it.
You say, “Well, what do you do when that happens?” I’m so glad you asked! Isn’t it wonderful to know we are all on the same page? And isn’t it wonderful to know that Jesus anticipated your question? Do you know what the rest of this chapter is? Peter is saying to Jesus, verse twenty one, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Up to seven times, the Rabbi said three. He multiplied it by two and added one, and expected Jesus to say, “Great, Peter.” “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seventy.” Listen carefully: you forgive those, even those to whom you cannot be reconciled.
And how well do you forgive? I want you to hear this as if God is talking to you. You forgive as thoroughly as God has forgiven you. Or, let me ask it differently. If God forgave you like you forgive your enemy, would you be content with that, believing that you had been thoroughly forgiven? Or would you say, “No, I’m hoping for a little bit more from God than what I’m giving out.” Scripture says in Matthew chapter seven, “The measure with which you measure it out, that’s the measure you’re going to receive it.”
I think of the great ministry of John Perkins. I don’t know anyone who has done more for reconciliation between African Americans and Whites as John Perkins. And last night I was rereading that awesome book he wrote entitled, Let Justice Roll Down. He talks about being in the hospital, and you know he was in prison and he was beaten, all those things, mercilessly for no reason except that he was black.
He said, “The Spirit of God worked on me as I lay in that bed. An image formed in my mind, the image of the cross, Christ on the cross. I blotted out everything else in my mind. Jesus knew what I suffered. He understood, He cared, and He’d experienced it all. This Jesus, this one who had brought good news directly from God in heaven had lived what He preached. He was arrested, falsely accused, like me he went through an unjust trial, He also faced a lynch mob,” which was John Perkins’s experience, “and got beaten.”
“But even more than that He was nailed to rough wooden planks and killed. Killed like a common criminal. He even thought that God himself had deserted him. But when He looked at that mob who had lynched him, He didn’t hate them, he loved them. He forgave them and He said, ‘Father, forgive these people, for they don’t know what they are doing.’ His enemies hated, but Jesus forgave. I couldn’t get away from that. The Spirit of God kept working on me and in me until I could say with Jesus, ‘I forgive them, too.’ I promised Him that I would return good for evil not evil for evil, and He gave me the love I knew I would need to fulfill His command of loving your enemy. Because of Christ, God himself met me and healed my heart and my mind with His love. I then knew what Paul meant when he wrote, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’”
What do you do with all the people who have hurt you? What do you do when you attempt reconciliation, and reconciliation should be attempted? What do you do when the hurts run deep and when reconciliation cannot happen? In fact, the people who hurt you may already be dead. I’ll tell you what you do. You don’t allow them to ruin the rest of your life by the bitterness that is in your soul. I’m told that when you corner a rattlesnake, sometimes the rattlesnake bites itself. Hatred, bitterness, is you biting yourself. Jesus says, “Give it all up. Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.” I leave you with a question. If God forgave you like you forgive your enemy, would you be satisfied that you’ve been well forgiven?
Let’s pray. “Father, Holy Spirit I pray, reconciliation is your work not ours. I pray for all those today Father who have a sense of injustice, maybe even of someone here in the church. It may be petty, it may be more serious, whatever it is enable your people Father to lay it all down, to forgive as they have been forgiven, just as thoroughly, just as completely.”
How many of you say today, “Pastor Lutzer, I want to do just that.” Would you raise your hands, please? All over this building, again, and what about the balcony up there? Some of you there in the balcony, you are raising your hands.
“Father, we ask that all those who have raised their hands might at this moment simply respond to you and say, ‘Jesus, by your grace I want to forgive as I have been forgiven.’ And those who have never been forgiven by you, may they see today that Jesus is the forgiver, and the reconciler. We pray in Jesus blessed name.” Before I close this prayer, you talk to God now if God’s talked to you. You tell Him what you need to tell Him. “Father do your work we pray, in Jesus blessed name, amen.”