People ask me, "Why has your church grown through all these years?" I'm going to answer the question in a way I think will shock you.
We are told constantly in seminars or books that we need renewal in our churches, we need to understand the culture, we need to change the style to be relevant, and we need to replace preaching of Scripture with more interesting methods of communication. Self-styled experts tell us the future of the church depends on cultural relevance. It depends on packaging. It depends on targeting felt needs. It depends on employing proper communication devices.
A new book calls for the church to change or to face obsolescence. It says, "Today's church is incapable of responding to the present moral crisis. It must reinvent itself or face virtual oblivion by the mid twenty-first century."
Do you mean to tell me the church of Jesus Christ bought with his blood, ordained in the annals of pre-history in the counsels of God, built by Christ against whom the gates of hell cannot prevail will go out of existence in the mid twenty-first century? I don't think so. Where did that information come from? I think a survey.
If you ask me what the greatest single need is in the church, or what the single greatest factor is contributing to consistent development of the church, I would answer in one way. The greatest impetus to church growth and power is church discipline.
Church discipline has its fruits.
That surprises you, doesn't it? Our indifference to church discipline may be the most visible and disastrous failure of the church in our time. If the church won't discipline unrepentant sin, it has manifested its disinterest in holiness. Holiness is where power comes from.
It is important to have more consistent faithful, clear, theological exposition of Scripture, not less. The Word must dominate the church, and the church must consistently hear the voice of God and not the voice of the preacher. The Word of God needs to be placed in the priority position, but if there is no interest in church discipline, then preaching gets isolated from life.
If there is any key to an effective church, it is holiness. If God blesses anything, it is purity. With all the stuff thrown at you that you need to do in your church, I'd like to throw in my little shot. Start here: A pure church is an awesome weapon in God's hand.
Churches have become content to be fellowships of independent members with minimal accountability to God and even less to each other. We have an entire generation of pastors and church members who have never experienced church discipline.
Church discipline is vitally important.
Yet the first thing Jesus said to his church in Matthew 18 was, "When you see someone in sin, go to him." The first act of the Lord in the church is recorded in the book of Acts when he executed Ananias and Sapphira—so people would know it is serious to sin against God.
Indifference to church discipline is a symptom of the rapid moral decline and theological indifference of the church, to say nothing of its lack of reverence for the Lord of the church and its shallow commitment to obey Scripture. It is not as if the Bible is not clear on this issue. It couldn't be clearer.
I remember years ago when I first came to Grace Church and said, "We're going to do church discipline in our church." Everybody said, "You'll empty the place." We didn't empty it; we filled it. Authentic church discipline is not an elective. It is a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity. We care about holiness. Our God cares about holiness. The absence of church discipline is the most glaring evidence of the worldliness of the church and the most obvious reason for its impotence. If it goes out of existence, it won't be because it didn't stay up with methods. The church fails because it lacks the power that comes with purity.
Confession of sin is outdated in this age of moral relativism, isn't it? Confrontation is outdated as well. Who are you to tell me what to do? I'll do what I want is the mindset. We want to hear about a church with less authority. We want to have more autonomy, less confrontation, more compassion. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, writes:
Individuals now claim an enormous zone of personal privacy and moral autonomy. The congregation redefined as a mere voluntary association has no right to intrude into this space. Many congregations have forfeited any responsibility to confront even the most public sins of their members. Consumed with pragmatic methods of church growth and congregational engineering, most churches leave moral matters to the domain of the individual conscience.
Now, all of that to take you to the text, 2 Corinthians 12. The story of the church at Corinth is a story of sin, isn't it? It's relentless.
The Corinthians dragged all the sins of their former pagan life into the church, which Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians.
Paul's greatest fear was that his people would lapse into error and iniquity. He was so concerned about the church at Corinth that he wept. He was so concerned that in chapter 2 he said, "I'm not even going to come and see you. I just can't stand it. I don't need more sorrow." He was so concerned that he said in chapter 7 he was depressed. When he went to Troas he had an opportunity to preach, but he couldn't. He turned his back, walked away from an open door, an opportunity to preach the gospel to waiting hearts.
In this letter his intention is to redirect them away from false teachers to himself, away from sin to righteousness. Notice at the end of verse 19 he says, "If you are wondering why I wrote you, I wrote you because I'm concerned about your upbuilding. I'm concerned about your sanctification. I'm concerned about your spiritual growth." That was always his goal. In 13:10: "For this reason I'm writing these things while absent in order that when present I may not use severity." I don't want to come there and have to be severe with you because the Lord has given me the authority through the truth for building you up. To sum it up we could say it this way: As a faithful pastor he was consumed with the spiritual well being of his church.
There are many of us who get sucked into being concerned about a whole lot of stuff that really doesn't matter. He knew that the power to transform the city of Corinth, the power to see the lost saved, resided in the church—but not in its methodology, rather in its virtue, its purity.
Faithful pastors care about repentance and discipline.
Let's look at the text. The faithful pastor is concerned for the repentance of his people. Verse 20, "I'm afraid." We could stop right there and wander off on the idea of how many things frighten us in the ministry. But Paul said I'm afraid of one thing. "I'm afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish." That's what scares me most—that I'm going to come and find you not what I wish. And then, folks, you're going to find me not what you wish.
Sin among believers is the primary occupation of the mind of Paul. Can you say that is true of you? Is the greatest fear you have in your church the fear of heartbreaking sin in your church? He fears sin in the church more than he fears anything else. Why? Because he sought their edification—that they be conformed to the image of Christ. He sought the power that comes through purity.
Chapter 13:1, "This is the third time I'm coming." The consequence: If I find you not to be what I wish, then you're going to find me not to be what you wish. In other words, as he said in 1 Corinthians 4:21, I'm going to have to take out the big stick. Remember what he said to them? "Whether I come in a spirit of love or with a rod." I don't want to come with a rod. It's too painful. I don't want to have to confront a whole lot of sin, but I'm afraid ….
Then he lists what he's afraid could be there, but he won't make a final verdict until he arrives. That's why he says in verse 1, "Everything's going to have to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses." Interestingly enough—see the list in verse 20—everything in that list is addressed in 1 Corinthians. The list shows the very sin typical of pagan behavior in Corinth.
In verse 21, he says, "I'm afraid again." This is quite personal. "I'm afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you." Nothing would be more humiliating to the apostle Paul as a servant of Christ than to be associated with an unholy congregation. It would bring upon him shame. People would say, "Some servant of God you are. Look at your congregation." Not only did the church have the potential to shame him; it had the potential to sadden him. Verse 21: "I'm afraid that I may mourn." What breaks your heart in the church? What causes you to mourn? Pentheo means to grieve, a deep, inside grief. He assumed he was going to find a large group who were impenitent, and they would be engaged in two kinds of sin that break the pastor's heart—one that destroyed the unity of the church (v. 20), and another that destroyed the purity of the church (v. 21). The sins of verse 20 destroy unity—strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slander. The purity of the church is destroyed by impurity, immorality and sensuality. Impurity is akatharsia. It's a general word for lustful, sexual, wicked behavior. Immorality is porneia, which means fornication, prostitution. They were the sins Paul confronted in the first letter. In 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 he pleads with them not to join Christ to a prostitute. He says, my fear is I'm going to find sin that destroys unity and sin that destroys purity. I'm going to be humiliated to even be associated with you. And then I'm going to be saddened. I'm going to mourn because you've sinned in the past and have not repented.
I don't think he's any different than the Lord, do you? Listen to what Jesus said to his church. Revelation 2:5 to Ephesus: "Remember, therefore, from where you are fallen and repent." Verse 16: "Repent or I will come to you quickly and make war with the sword of my mouth" Revelation 3:3: "Remember, therefore, church at Sardis, what you've received and heard and keep it and repent." It's the same thing the Lord of the church is saying to his church.
The faithful pastor is concerned about the repentance of his people. You know they're not going to be perfect. You're not. They're not. The concern is about their repentance. What should break your heart and shame you is an unrepentant congregation, but there's no sense sitting in the corner moaning about it. There's action to be taken.
The second thing a pastor is concerned about is the discipline of the people. When the faithful pastor finds his fears are realized, Paul says, "If I come and I find you not to be what I wish, then you are going to find me to be not what you wish." You could have me come in love, but if you choose I'll come with my sword. I'll come with my rod.
Don't wallow in disappointment. Take action. The key is at the end of verse 2. "I will not spare anyone." I'm going to act with sinful believers. When I get there, it is going to happen, folks. If you want to avoid my confrontation, then repent before I get there.
In 1 Corinthians 5 he said to them, you have a guy in your congregation who's having sex with his father's wife, and you have become arrogant? Aren't we gracious? Aren't we magnanimous? What you should have been doing is mourning and removing that guy from your midst. He says in verse 5, "I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh." What you won't do, I will do. "Don't you realize a little leaven leavens the whole lump?" You'd better get the leaven out of there for Christ is our Passover and he doesn't eat leavened bread.
I would say we live in a generation that is pursuing shamelessness as fast as they possibly can. The notion of shame has been discarded by our entire generation. Shame is an unnecessary and repressive hindrance to personal fulfillment. You shouldn't feel shame. The only shame you should feel is for having unprotected sex. Shame on you, you didn't use a condom. Even secular observers have noted the shamelessness of modern culture. James Twitchel in his book The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture, 1997 book, he looks at the American church and says, "The church has aided and abetted this moral transformation and abandonment of shame." Amazing. The church has aided and abetted it. He says:
Looking at the Christian church today you can only see a dim pimiento of what was once painted in the boldest of colors. Christianity has simply lost it. It no longer articulates the ideal. Sex on the loose. Shame days are over. The devil has absconded with sin.
"Go and sin no more" has been replaced with "judge not lest you be judged." It is true that God has always called his people to holiness. Always. "Be ye holy for I am holy." Secondly, it's safe to say that God disciplines those who are not holy. Does not Hebrews 12 tell us that? Every son he scourges in order that in the grievous experience of chastening we might find the yielding of the peaceable fruit of righteousness.
We would like to believe everybody is going to serve God with their whole heart and live pure lives out of sheer love for the Lord, but it just doesn't work that way.
Scripture says three things should be disciplined.
There are three things Scripture lays out that are to be disciplined:
Sins that destroy the unity of the church, and
Sins that destroy the purity of the church.
Let me give you something to remember. If you don't remember anything else, remember this. When discipline is absent from the church, so is Christ. You put that out of your church, and you've put him out of your church. Read Revelation 1. See him moving among the candlesticks? Read Revelation 2 and 3. It's Christ in his church disciplining. You cut him off from doing that, you cut him off from his church. An undisciplined church is as unruly as an undisciplined child and a shame and a sorrow to its Lord.
Church discipline has a prescribed procedure.
How does discipline work? Look for a moment at Matthew 18. Does this mean that you are going to run around like the apostle Paul with apostolic authority carrying a big stick and trying to find out every secret of everybody's life? No.
It starts in the congregation. This is the way we've seen it work in our church. We've taught our people to do this. "If your brother sins, go and reprove him," Matthew 18:15. If you see someone and you know they're sinning, go and reprove him. That's simple enough. Everybody does that. It has a self-purifying effect on the church. If I know the whole church is ready to do that, then I'm going to be careful about how I live, right? Furthermore, if I want to be used by God to go help somebody else, to pick him up when he falls, in the words of Galatians 6, then I want to make sure my life is right. That's a self-purifying effect.
Somebody might say, If you start doing that, you're going to have a can of worms. The opposite happens. You start doing that and give people accountability and strength and a gracious confrontation—that actually strengthens them. People say, "You'll empty your church." That's how we filled our church and kept it filled all through the years, because true Christians pursue holiness. They have holy longings and aspirations, and I think they live in Romans 7 and would like as much help to get through as they can.
Reprove in private. Teach your people if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private. If he listens to you, you've won your brother. Is that true? There are people in my church that I've had occasion through the years to confront, and they've repented. Whenever my eyes meet theirs, there's a bond there. There's a depth of love there. You don't even have to say anything. There's a brotherhood there because we met at the moment of their vulnerability when they were losing the battle with temptation, and I was able to help them get back up and repent.
If they don't respond, verse 16 says, "Take two or more with you so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact," every allegation, "may be confirmed." If they don't respond, then you take a few folks with you. These are folks who, two things, know about the sin and they know about an attitude of nonrepentance. They can confirm the sin. Not that anyone sins in public, but they have knowledge of the sin and they can also report as to the person's response to the confrontation. If he listens to those, obviously you've gained your brother.
"If he refuses to listen to them," verse 17, "tell the church." That's exactly what we do. We do it every time we break bread at the Lord's Table. Every time we have communion we call the church to holiness. I will get up in the pulpit and read a name and say, "This person sinned against the purity of the church in this way, sinned against the unity of the church in this way. We want you to pursue them." Tell the church to go get them and call them back. Go after them. We do that on a Sunday morning with a full congregation in all the services that we have. People get the idea we're serious—when the Word of God speaks we respond. It's amazing how Christians flock to accountability because they need the strength.
If he doesn't listen to the whole church, treat him like a pagan and a tax collector. Tax collectors, of course, were the pariahs of Jewish society. They were Jews who had bought Roman tax franchises and extorted from their people for Rome, which was betrayal of the rankest order as well as criminal behavior. What does that mean, "Treat them as an outsider"? How do you treat an outsider? Like an unbeliever. Treat them as if they're unconverted. How would you treat an unbelieving reprobate? Hopefully you'd go after them and give them the gospel.
That's what we do. After the church has gone after them, we wait a few weeks. Then we say we're putting them out of the church until they repent. Sometimes it's a wonderful thing to be able to announce at the Lord's Table that so-and-so has repented and we're embracing them and restoring them back into the church. I want you to welcome them and express your love to them.
You say, "That's a hard thing to do." Well, here is a little encouragement. Verse 18: "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Binding and loosing is an old rabbinical way of saying you're bound in your sin or loosed from your sin. If you were to repent, you're loosed; if you won't repent, you're bound. When you go to someone and confront their sin and they won't repent, they're bound in sin. When they do repent, their sin is loosed. When you do that on earth, you're only doing what heaven has already done.
Then a little note. Verse 20: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst." That is not a verse to be yanked out of this passage and made to speak of a prayer meeting. Two or three witnesses are the issue here. In other words, when you go through the appropriate processes, you can be certain that when you're involved in church discipline "There I am in their midst." Who's talking? Jesus. Never is Jesus more in his church than when it's disciplined. Never is he more in his church than when his church is consumed with purity.
Those who do not practice church discipline have a low view of God's holiness, a low view of Scripture, and particularly a low view of God's law. It is in the work of discipline in the church that the law of God is held high in the lives of believers. Believers do not have the freedom to live any way they want in the kingdom. They will not, if we're doing the right thing, be allowed to infect the church with their sin.
Church discipline is God's requirement to aid Christians in living holy lives. Public sins are dealt with publicly; private sins are dealt with privately unless there's no repentance. I really believe the threat of public censure is a restraint. It's a restraint for me. God's personal chastening is a restraint for me, too.
Pastors, you have to oversee this duty in your church if you want a holy church, which because of its holiness gains the full blessing of God.
For Your Reflection
How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
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Exegesis and exposition:
Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
John MacArthur is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as an author, conference speaker, chancellor of The Master's University and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry.