Forgiveness: Forgiveness of a Restored Saint

As the title suggests, to be a restored saint means that one has tasted the full forgiveness of their heavenly Father. But what about fellow believers and local assemblies? Is it possible for those who have endured the shame of open sin and the crushing humility of its awful effects to be received again on the grounds of repentance with full, frank forgiveness? Although we may give lip service to this, one realises that because we carry the flesh, we find the reality of this difficult, especially where there has been personal hurt and even damage. In the previous article we noted that in likeness to our God and Father, we ought to possess the disposition of forgiveness, looking for the opportunity to lovingly demonstrate and liberally dispense this blessing to others. “They don’t deserve it,” we may mutter. Maybe if I examined my own dark heart, I would admit that I deserve a lot less than I have received too. Thomas Fuller said, “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.”

Where would we be without the communication of Paul to the Corinthian church? We are indebted to him for an immeasurable volume of truth in these two letters. This was a church with its fair share of problems, and among the many evils highlighted in the first epistle, we discover a man who, having committed gross, immoral sin, had come under public discipline, being put away from the assembly. What disgrace to his testimony and dishonour to the peerless name of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Could such a person be fully forgiven and received back into the local church? Closing the first epistle, we have hardly begun reading the second before we are given the answer. Possibly 12 months had passed, and with space given for repentance, Paul, having sent Titus on a mission to Corinth, waited apprehensively in Macedonia for news (2Co 2:13; 7:5-6; 12:18). Chapter 7 tells in detail of the genuine contrition Titus found. Their affections and appreciation for Paul were still evident. Their attitude to the abhorrent sin was obvious by the godly manner of their sorrow. Their attentiveness to the issues and admission of guilt brought about the fear of God, along with vehement desire and zeal to make amends. In all things, they had approved themselves to be clear in this matter (7:11). Paul opens his arms to them. He affirms that out of burden and distress he had previously written to them with many tears (2:4). This was not emotional blackmail to force change but that they might recognise the genuine love he had for them, love that has no bias toward family and friends, love which enacts discipline with a view to restoration, love that cannot let the erring saint disappear into the distance, swallowed up by grief. “To whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also,”[1] Paul writes on the tear-stained page (2:10).

It is not only actions that can bring disrepute to the testimony of God but also attitudes. Where there has been true repentance, there ought to be true forgiveness. Let us demonstrate to the world that we serve a God who is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exo 34:6-7).

Fitness of a Restored Saint

Does forgiveness mean fitness? That God rates sin is obvious from the fact that there are varying degrees of judgment (even at the Great White Throne – Rev 20:12). Not every sin requires being put away from the local church. Paul speaks of restoring a believer who has been overtaken in a fault (Gal 6:1), denoting one who falls unexpectedly. Maybe, in this context, we could think of Peter denying the Lord. Could such a one serve in the same sphere and capacity as before?

In Acts 3:14 we see Peter stand with boldness to utter, “Ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you.” Interestingly, the Greek word used for “deny” is the same used of Peter when he himself denied the Lord. What had made the difference?  Repentance, forgiveness and restoration. The Lord had previously told him that when he was converted he was to “strengthen” (Greek sterizo) his brethren (Luk 22:32). By the time you come to Peter’s second epistle, he had fulfilled his ministry well. He informs us that he had “established” (sterizo) these saints (1:12).

On the other hand, there are profoundly serious sins, which at times leave irreversible consequences. With such, it’s certainly possible to be recovered and restored, but wisdom must be used in relation to public service for God. Would it be wise for a convicted pedophile, although restored, to be given public responsibility among children in a Sunday School? Certainly not. In fact, one would suggest that true repentance is displayed in the acceptance that the testimony of Christ is always greater than the service of an individual.

What about an elder or teacher, whose wilful sin causes extensive damage to the testimony of Christ? Some may cite Moses or David in their defence of such ones continuing to serve in leadership, but let us be solemnly reminded that God works progressively with His revelation, and requirements for leadership in the church are distinct from previous dispensations. Whichever way theologians may interpret the statement “husband of one wife” (1Ti 3:2,12; Titus 1:6), the reality is that if King David were in fellowship in an assembly, at the very least, he would not be permitted to be an elder or teacher. He had multiple wives! We are taught in no uncertain terms in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that elders and teachers are to be found blameless in their standing before the saints. They are to be beyond reproach, men who are sober, just, holy, temperate, and who have “obtained for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith” (NASB). Paul also instructed Timothy that to lead the saints, he must be an example of the believers in word, conversation, charity, spirit, faith and purity.

These issues are sensitive, and each situation must be assessed on its own merit, respecting the fact that the judgment of an assembly is autonomous. Patience, wisdom and humility are needed, relying alone upon the Scriptures as our guide. In the presence of Christ, let us be willing to forgive, lest Satan should get an advantage over us, for we are not ignorant of his devices (2Co 2:10-11). Above all things, have fervent love among yourselves: for love shall cover the multitude of sins (1Pe 4:8).

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.