The Purpose of Discipline

The purpose of church discipline is the spiritual restoration of fallen members and the consequent strengthening of the church and glorifying of the Lord. When a sinning believer is rebuked and he turns from his sin and is forgiven, he is won back to fellowship with the body and with its head, Jesus Christ. The goal of church discipline, then, is not to throw people out of the church or to feed the self-righteous pride of those who administer the discipline. It is not to embarrass people or to exercise authority and power in some unbiblical manner. The purpose is to restore a sinning believer to holiness and bring him back into a pure relationship within the assembly. In Matthew 18:15, Jesus says, ìAnd if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.î The Greek word translated ìwonî was originally used of accumulating wealth in the sense of monetary commodities. Here it refers to the gaining back of something of value that is lost, namely, an erring brother. When a brother or sister strays, a valuable treasure is lost, and the church should not be content until he or she is restored. The body of Christ is in the business of recovery (Gal. 6:1), and such is the purpose of church discipline.

The Process of Discipline

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus sets forth the four step process of church discipline: (1) tell him his sin alone; (2) take some witnesses; (3) tell the church; and (4) treat him as an outsider.

Step One (Matt. 18:15). The process of church discipline begins on an individual level. Jesus said, ìAnd if your brother sins, go and reprove him in privateî (v. 15a). Here, an individual believer is to go to a sinning brother privately and confront him in a spirit of humility and gentleness. This confrontation involves clearly exposing his sin so that he is aware of it and calling him to repentance. If the sinning brother repents in response to the private confrontation, that brother is forgiven and restored (v. 15b).

Step Two (Matt. 18:16). If the sinning brother refuses to listen to the one who has rebuked him privately, the next step in the discipline process is to take one or two more believers along to confront him again (v. 16a). The purpose of taking other believers is so that ìby the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmedî (v. 16b). In other words, the witnesses are present not only to confirm that the sin was committed but, in addition, to confirm that the sinning brother was properly rebuked and that he has or has not repented. The purpose of church discipline is the spiritual restoration of fallen members and the consequent strengthening of the church and glorifying of the Lord.The presence of additional witnesses is as much a protection for the one being approached as it is for the one approaching. After all, a biased person could erroneously say, ìWell, I tried to confront him, but heís impenitent.î It would be presumptuous to think that one person could make that ultimate determination, especially if he was the one who had been sinned against. The witnesses need to confirm whether there is a heart of repentance or one of indifference or rejection. Such a report provides the basis for further action because the situation has been verified beyond the report of one individual. At this point, it should be hoped that the one or two who are brought along to confront the sinner will not have to become public witnesses against him before the rest of the church. Ideally, their added rebuke will be sufficient to induce a change of heart in the offending brother that the initial rebuke did not cause. If this change of heart does occur, that brother is forgiven and restored, and the matter is dropped.

Step Three (Matt. 18:17a). If the sinning brother refuses to listen and respond to the confrontation of the witnesses after a period of time, those witnesses are then to tell it to the church (v. 17a). This is most appropriately done by bringing the matter to the attention of the elders, who in turn oversee its communication to the assembly as a whole. How long should the witnesses continue to call the person to repentance before telling the church? The Pastor and elders at New Life Christian Church avoid carrying out the third or fourth stage of church discipline until they are absolutely certain that the erring believer has truly sinned, or is continuing to sin, and that he has refused to repent when appropriately confronted. The elders will routinely send a letter by registered mail warning the individual that the third (or fourth) step of discipline will be taken if they have not received word of repentance by a specific date. When this date has passed, the personís sin and refusal to repent are made known publicly, either before the entire assembly during a Communion service or through a fellowship group in which the person is known. It is the custom at New Life Community Church, upon enacting this third step, to clearly indicate to the congregation that they are to pursue the person aggressively and plead with him to repent before the fourth step becomes protect the purity of the fellowship (1 Cor. 5:6), to warn the assembly of the seriousness of sin (1 Tim. 5:20), and to give a testimony of righteousness to a watching world. But as far as the welfare of the brother himself is concerned, the purpose of the ostracism is not to punish but to awaken, and it must therefore be done in humble love and never in a spirit of self-righteous superiority (2 Thess. 3:15). When a church has done everything it can to bring a sinning member back to purity of life but is unsuccessful, that individual is to be left to his sin and his shame. If he is truly a Christian, God will not cast him away, but He may allow him to sink still deeper before he becomes desperate enough to turn from his sin. The command not to have fellowship or even social contact with the unrepentant brother does not exclude all contact. When there is an opportunity to admonish him and try to call him back, the opportunity should be taken. In fact, such opportunities should be sought. But the contact should be for the purpose of admonishment and restoration and no other. That crucial and potent procedure often draws the sinner to repentance and obedience. If repentance does take place, the sinning believer is forgiven and restored.

Step Four (Matt. 18:17b). The fourth and final step in the process of church discipline is ostracism. If a sinning believer refuses to listen even to the church, he is to be ostracized from the fellowship. Jesus said, ìLet him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gathererî (v. 17b). The term ìGentileî was primarily used of non-Jews who held to their traditional paganism and had no part in the covenant, worship, or social life of the Jews. On the other hand, a ìtax-gathererî was an outcast from the Jews by choice, having become a traitor to his own people. Jesusí use of these terms doesnít mean that the church is to treat these people badly. It simply means that when a professing believer refuses to repent, the church is to treat him as if he were outside of the fellowship. They are not to let him associate and participate in the blessings and benefits of the Christian assembly. When a man in the Corinthian church refused to forsake an incestuous relationship with his stepmother, the apostle Paul commanded that the man be removed from their midst (1 Cor. 5:13). The believers there were not even to share a meal with him (1 Cor. 5:11), for dining with someone was symbolic of a hospitable and cordial fellowship. The one who is persistently unrepentant is to be totally ostracized from the fellowship of the church and treated like an outcast, not a brother. As far as the welfare of the church is concerned, the purpose of putting the brother out is to bring the brother or sister back in.

The Sovereignty of God in Salvation

NO DOCTRINE IS MORE DESPISED by the natural mind than the truth that God is absolutely sovereign. Human pride loathes the suggestion that God orders everything, controls everything, and rules over everything. The carnal mind, burning with enmity against God, abhors the biblical teaching that nothing comes to pass except according to His eternal decrees.

Most of all, flesh hates the notion that salvation is entirely Godís work. If God chose who would be saved, and if His choice was settled before the foundation of the world, then believers deserve no credit for any aspect of their salvation. But that is, after all, precisely what Scripture teaches. Even faith is Godís gracious gift to His elect. Jesus said, No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Fatherî (John 6:65). ìNor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Himî (Matt. 11:27).

Therefore no one who is saved has anything to boast about (Eph. 2:8-9). Salvation is from the Lordî (Jonah 2:9). The doctrine of divine election is explicitly taught throughout Scripture. For example, in the New Testament epistles alone, we learn that all believers are chosen of God (Titus 1:1). We were predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His willî (Eph. 1:11, emphasis added). ìHe chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.

He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His willî (Eph. 1:4-5). We ìare called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son Öand whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorifiedî (Rom. 8:28-30).

When Peter wrote that we are ìchosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Fatherî (1 Peter 1:1-2), he was not using the word ìforeknowledgeî to mean that God was aware beforehand who would believe and therefore chose them because of their foreseen faith. Rather, Peter meant that God determined before time to know and love and save them; and He chose them without regard to anything good or bad they might do. Scripture teaches that Godís sovereign choice is made ìaccording to the kind intention of His willî and ìaccording to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His willîóthat is, not for any reason external to Himself. Certainly He did not choose certain sinners to be saved because of something praiseworthy in them, or because He foresaw that they would choose Him. He chose them solely because it pleased Him to do so. God declares ìthe end from the beginning Ösaying, ëMy purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasureíî (Isa. 46:10). He is not subject to othersí decisions. 

His purposes for choosing some and rejecting others are hidden in the secret counsels of His own will. Moreover, everything that exists in the universe exists because God allowed it, decreed it, and called it into existence. ìOur God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleasesî (Ps. 115:3). ìWhatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deepsî (Ps. 135:6). He ìworks all things after the counsel of His willî (Eph. 1:11). ìFrom Him and through Him and to Him are all thingsî (Rom. 11:36). ìFor us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Himî (1 Cor. 8:6). 

What about sin? God is not the author of sin, but He certainly allowed it; it is integral to His eternal decree. God has a purpose for allowing it. He cannot be blamed for evil or tainted by its existence (1 Sam. 2:2: ìThere is no one holy like the Lord.î). But He certainly wasnít caught off-guard or standing helpless to stop it when sin entered the universe. We do not know His purpose for allowing sin. Clearly, in the general sense, He allowed sin in order to display His gloryóattributes that would not be revealed apart from evilómercy, grace, compassion, forgiveness, and salvation. And God sometimes uses evil to accomplish good (Gen. 45:7ñ8; 50:20; Rom. 8:28). How can these things be? 

Scripture does not answer all the questions, but it does teach that God is utterly sovereign, perfectly holy, and absolutely just. Admittedly, these truths are hard for the human mind to embrace, but Scripture is unequivocal. God controls all things, right down to choosing who will be saved. Paul states the doctrine in inescapable terms in the ninth chapter of Romans, by showing that God chose Jacob and rejected his twin brother Esau ìthough the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that Godís purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who callsî (v. 11). A few verses later, Paul adds this: ìHe says to Moses, ëI will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.í So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercyî (vv. 15-16). 

Paul anticipated the argument against divine sovereignty: ìYou will say to me then, ëWhy does He still find fault? For who resists His will?íî (v. 19). In other words, doesnít Godís sovereignty cancel out human responsibility? But rather than offering a philosophical answer or a deep metaphysical argument, Paul simply reprimanded the skeptic: ìOn the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ëWhy did you make me like this,í will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?î (vv. 20-21). What kind of pride is that? In Psalm 50:21 God says, ìYou thought that I was just like you.î But God is not like man, nor can He be held to human standards. ìëMy thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,í declares the Lord. ëFor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughtsíî (Isa. 55:8-9). 

Scripture affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must accept both sides of the truth, though we may not understand how they correspond to one another. People are responsible for what they do with the gospel or with whatever light they have (Rom. 2:19-20), so that punishment is just if they reject the light. And those who reject do so voluntarily. Jesus lamented, ìYou are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life (John 5:40). He told unbelievers, ìUnless you believe that I am , you shall die in your sinsî (John 8:24). In John 6, our Lord combined both divine sovereignty and human responsibility when He said, ìAll that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast outî (v. 37); ìFor this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life (v. 40); No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him (v. 44); Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life (v. 47); and, ìNo one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father (v. 65). How both of these two realities can be true simultaneously cannot be understood by the human mind only by God. 

Above all, one must not conclude that God is unjust because He chooses to bestow grace on some but not to everyone. God is never to be measured by what seems fair to human judgment. Is man so foolish as to assume that he, a sinful creature, has a higher standard of what is right than an unfallen, infinitely, eternally holy God?