Washed Clean: Dealing With Sin in the Church



Sin is not politically correct in a world that perversely tries to distance itself from the one true God.   Some Christians avoid the word, preferring euphemistic alternatives. The word ‘sin’ and ‘sinner’ will be used unashamedly here.  In obvious attempts to befriend the world, in breach of God’s commands, it is not uncommon for churches to downplay the importance of sin:

James 4:4   You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Some years ago a pastor and leader of a nationwide church movement, within New Zealand, was caught in adultery with a member of his church.  He was relieved of all ministry responsibilities and left the church.  He did not return to his wife, choosing instead to divorce her and marry the other woman.  Shifting to a smaller centre he joined a local church where he remained quietly for some years.  Then the leader of a large church movement chose to ‘restore him’ to ministry within his church.  Was this an appropriate way to deal with this situation?  Should the small church have accepted this man into their fold and was the church leader justified in returning him to ministry?

This document has been written to guide those facing the presence of sin in a church.  It is not intended to address the issue of sin in the life of an individual specifically, although it is inevitable that some attention has to be paid to this aspect.

Sin is the defining characteristic distinguishing Man’s nature from God’s holy character and purposes.  Recognising sin and acknowledging its general, all pervasive presence is essential.  Because sin is part of the human condition, Man is separated from a holy God who cannot sin.  God’s purpose in the form of the Son of God incarnate, crucified, resurrected and glorified was and always is, to reconcile sinful Man to God.  Jesus Christ willingly gave his life on the cross for only one purpose, to pay the full penalty for humanity’s sin, then he rose from the dead to prove God’s complete mastery over both sin and death - once and for all time.

Sin is an ever present threat to an individual’s relationship with God and can, when found in one man, have adverse affects on those with whom he associates. It is therefore vital for those within a church fellowship to acknowledge sin’s importance, recognise it when it occurs and deal with it in the way mandated by Scripture. Central and vital to Christianity is the universal truth that Christ Jesus bridged the ever present gap between God and sinful Man.

1 John 1:9-10   If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Sin’s origins

Although God created all that there is, he is not the maker of sin.  Sin entered the human condition through the actions of Man and not by the design or purposes of God.  Although God must have been aware that sin might or would blossom it was not his intent or his actions that caused it to do so.  God drew a line for Man, clearly explaining that he must not cross it.  Man chose to ignore the warning and therein lies sin’s defining characteristics; disobedience and lawlessness.  Man chose, of his own volition, to break God’s one original law, committing the first or ‘original sin’ (Genesis 3:1-19).  From that point on it would be necessary for God to lay down many more laws to set the boundaries for those, ‘made in his image’.  Without them we would have had no basis, cast adrift from God’s presence as we were, for differentiating between right and wrong; good and evil.

If it comes to the attention of a church that one of its people has sinned and is continuing unrepentantly in that sin, it is that church’s responsibility to face the situation, as the scriptures we are about to examine prove.

Sin defined, sin personal

Sin may be committed by a group of people but God always holds individuals accountable for their complicity; for each of us is accountable to him (Ezekiel 33:18-19).  We cannot hold another accountable for our actions.  Sin, committed by a group or by any one person is always judged by God on the basis of individual responsibility for disobedience, although there may also be consequences for the group.  The word sin embodies a number of nuances:

  • To wander from, or miss the way
  • To fall short of a standard (God’s law)
  • To err in duty, or fail to do what is right before God.
  • Uncleanness; a deliberate act of disobedience.

We sin when we deliberately or unconsciously break God’s moral law, or his commands. The doctrine of sin takes us further than sinful actions.  Original sin has left all men in a ‘fallen state’.  We are by our very natures steeped in sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:23; Galatians 3:22; 1 John 1:8-10; Ephesians 2:1-2). Try going through the Ten Commandments, bearing in mind what Jesus said about murder and adultery and it is soon apparent that it is impossible to live up to God’s standards.  But God’s moral law or his commands are not intended to bring us under condemnation, but to free us from it.  Their real purpose is three fold:

  • It provides a standard by which societies may order their affairs.  It is no coincidence that those nations which have adopted God’s moral standards have achieved levels of social justice, freedom, order, inventiveness and prosperity unequalled by other nations.
  • It brings sin’s presence to the attention of those seeking God (Romans 5:8; 8:1-2) by acting as our teacher, directing us to him (Galatians 3:24; Romans 7:7; Psalm 19: 7-8).
  • It sets the standard of appropriate conduct for churches and the elders who oversee them (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:3).

Sin is both general or pervasive and particular to individuals.  Humanity, as a whole remains, in its fallen state.  Consequently:

  • Each individual is sinful by nature.  They fall short of God’s perfect character and must rely by faith on God’s grace [free gift] and mercy, through Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection, to be freed from sins general presence in all of us.  We are reconciled to God (Ephesians 2:8) and freed from eternal separation from God in both life and death.
  • While escaping the clutches of sin’s general nature is thus possible and complete in Christ Jesus alone, particular sin still remains to entrap those who, in weakness, break God’s moral law and commands.  When Christians do so they sin; falling short of God’s standards, but remain, nevertheless under God’s covenant of grace.  They remain ‘justified’ before God and his forgiveness is always available to the repentant

Sin is against God

No matter what form sin takes it is, in the first instance, and before all else, against God himself. Even after having her husband killed and fornicating with Bathsheba, David recognised that the sin was ultimately committed against God.  It is the same in all cases:

Psalm 51:3 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in you sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.

Repentance must therefore be directed at and forgiveness sought from God.  Sin that requires going to another, asking for their forgiveness, is in affect a quest for reconciliation.  That person should forgive but only as a reconciling action and not to absolve them from sin.  It is God’s right alone to judge and, by his grace, forgive sin.

Particular sin and the Christian

Despite the fact that a truly born again Christian does not face God’s eternal condemnation it does not mean that a Christian is free to break God’s moral law or commands with impunity.  A professing Christian who adopts or continues in behaviours that are sinful in God’s sight, failing to acknowledge and repent from that sin, indicates they are may not be genuinely ‘born again’.

Because Christians are saved by grace through faith alone, not works done to earn God’s grace, some people can fall into the error of antinomianism [against the law].  This was the serious error Paul found in the Corinthian Church.  Some had mistakenly decided that because God’s grace covered sin they were freed from moral obligations.  Paul makes it very clear that this cannot be (Romans 6:1-4; 1 Corinthians 5:1-2; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:16; 1 Peter 1:15-16).  No one can hijack God’s grace by deliberately breaking his law.  Genuine born again Christians simply have no desire to deliberately do so.  If weakness leads them into sin they know it and this conviction leads them to repentance.

1 John 3:9-10   No-one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.  This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.

All Christians should know that God’s forgiveness and grace always covers sins committed unwittingly, unintentionally, in the heat of a moment, or unconsciously.  We can rest easy knowing that we are no longer under his condemnation:

Romans 8:1-2 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.

We also know that where we are aware of a sin we have committed that God is faithful to forgive:

1 John 1:9   If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Failing to respond to particular sin

Where a professing Christian fails to respond to or acknowledge sin in their lives, the following may apply:

  • They don’t know:  Perhaps they are new to the faith or have yet to be born again; they have merely entered a church but have not been born into faith.
  • They don’t care: The person is unrepentant and unresponsive to those exhorting them to repent.
  • They don’t understand:  They realise what they are doing is regarded as wrong but they fail to see that it is wrong to God, or they have rationalised away the sin, believing it to be acceptable.  Romans 14:22 - 23 may be applicable here.

Correctly responding to sin – the individual

When a Christian sins and knows that they have done so [they know it themselves, or it is brought to their attention], the spirit of truth dwelling within draws them to:

  • Acknowledge they have sinned (2 Samuel 12:13).
  • Repentance – sought from God, not from a man (1 John 1:9-10).
  • Putting to rights any wrong they have done, if it is within their power (Luke 19:8-9), including reconciliation with anyone wronged or hurt through the sinful act.
  • Turning away completely from any wrong-doing.
  • Continuing on the right path without returning to the same sinful behaviour.

Correctly responding to sin – the church

Although the biblical definition of ‘church’, refers to all those called to Christ across the world this discussion is confined to that body of believers we call the local church.. There may be occasions when large sections of the church, crossing denominational and local church lines, may be offending God.  In that case individuals or groups will rise up to act prophetically by warning the church of its error.  This Truth Watch web site is an example.

Clearly sin falls into different categories, although all sin is equally serious to God because he is without sin (Hebrews 4:15; James 2:11; Deuteronomy 32:4).  Nevertheless, for ordinary mortals there are many things we do that do not require a response from the church.  The individual Christian, aware that they have done something wrong, repent, put right the wrong (if possible) and do their best to avoid repeating their error.  In many ways we may carelessly or unconsciously fall short of God’s righteous standards.  Fortunately, we can rely on the forgiveness of a gracious God who does not hold these things against us.

Sins that do not fall into the ‘self management’ category include:

  • Clear breaches of God’s moral law, where the person concerned has failed to repent and continues in the sin, despite the fact that they should know that what they are doing is offensive to God.  Attempts to hide the behaviour or encourage others to conceal it are some indicators of unrepentance.
  • Breaches of God’s commands that amount to wilful disobedience, before God.  Examples might include: lending money to a fellow Christian at usuries interest; refusing to care for a family member; insisting on voicing a false doctrine or false prophecy and a careless or harmful disregard for ‘brotherly love’ and the fruits of the Spirit.  A true love for God requires a love for his commands (1 John 3:24; 5:3)
  • Modelling or encouraging behaviour, in relation to the two previous points, that set a poor example to others in the church, may undermine the faith of others (1 John 4:20-21) and represent a poor Christian witness to the unsaved.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ must never be brought into disrepute.
  • Promoting behaviours, in debatable areas, damaging to other Christians, less mature in the faith (Romans 14).  For example; many Christians are content to do things, for which God has given no clear instruction, that other Christians feel ill-at ease doing (e.g. drinking alcohol).  The Christian with liberty in a specific area should not by his example, or through incitement, try to convince another to follow their example when, to the other Christian, it amounts to disobedience before God.

Some people will argue that because all of us regularly fail to live up to God’s righteous standards, we have no right to admonish someone who is committing a sin.  This argument carries no weight, because there are various clear Scriptural instructions to challenge sin in the church.

The Biblical mandate to challenge sin

Because repentance from sin, the protection of God’s people and the maintenance of a good witness amongst the unsaved, is central to the church’s role, there are a variety of scriptural passages relating to sin.  The following list may not be exhaustive but it does provide a sufficient basis for understanding why and how a church should respond to sin in its midst.

Matthew 18:15-17 (see also Galatians 6:1): The process: If one Christian sins against another, or by extension the church in general, by doing something offensive to God, Matthew 18:15-17 provides a stepped process for handling the issue. The person must be confronted privately and admonished.  If they fail to listen another approach is to be made, this time with witnesses (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 19:15; John 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1).  If they still fail to listen the matter is to be referred to the church (1 Timothy 5:20).  If they will still not listen appropriate action must follow.  The clear intention behind this process is to restore someone who has gone astray, maintain order in a church, prevent any tendency towards a blaming, tyrannous culture and provide a basis for appropriate censure, should it be required.

An approach made to a person caught in sin should involve, identifying the sin; explaining how it conflicts with God’s will and character; identifying the harm or hurt inflicted on others; explaining the danger it represents within the church and associating the sin with any harm that has or could befall the church’s witness in the community.

Matthew 18:18 ‘Binding and loosing’ and ‘judge not’: God’s warrant or permission for the Church to conduct the Matthew 18 process for dealing with sin is granted.  God gives his mandate to a church, providing it holds properly to the things of God and is being wisely administered.  He will allow what we allow and honour any action taken before him with regard to sin (binding and loosing).

Some erroneously take the Matthew 7 instruction: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” to mean we cannot pass judgement on another’s actions.  If that were the case sin could run rife in any church.  Matthew 7:1-7 is widely understood to mean that a church’s actions, taken against sin in its midst, must not be based on hypocrisy, or the human tendency to take delight in finding fault in others.  What God has already judged we can judge, providing it is based on a proper investigation, witnesses and direct, corroborative evidence.  All of the biblical material referred to here would make no sense if it was assumed sin could not be judged.

1 Corinthians 5:1-12: Judgement inside the church: This chapter establishes in no uncertain terms that a church must act in judgement against flagrant sin.  In the case dealt with here the sin was sexual immorality, but as Paul explains in verse 11, greed, idolatry, slander, drunkenness and fraud are also to be treated with the same decisiveness.  All sin offends God.  The scandalous nature of the particular sin may have been an aggravating factor, but the sin itself was the issue.  Paul’s instruction, given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, amounts to a command of God and prescribes exclusion from the church, at least until the  person has finally come to repentance and can be readmitted to fellowship.  The same exclusion form fellowship method of censure is also advised in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14 and Romans 16:17.

1 Corinthians 5:11-13  But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you." (see also: Titus 3:10; 1 Timothy 1:20) [Emphasis added]

For those with an eye for key words, ‘associate’ (Greek: Sunanamignumi) means close, continual, habitual contact or mixing together and can be read in conjunction with 2 Thessalonians 3:14, where the same word is used.

2 Corinthians 2:5-11: Restoring the repentant: It is believed these scriptures refer to the incident from 1 Corinthians 5.  Paul advises the church to restore the man to full fellowship.  The punishment had clearly achieved its objective – repentance.  Sin must have consequences but the aim is never to take it past the point of no return by so embittering a person that they scorn repentance and forsake the church for the world (v.11).   The man must have accepted his sin, repented and ended the relationship with his father’s wife (probably his step mother).  No doubt other arrangements were also made to heal hurt and sensitively bring the person back into fellowship.

2 Corinthians 2:6: Church involvement: This verse proves that the whole church was involved in censuring and then restoring the brother.  Serious sin cannot be dealt with in secret, although knowledge of the full details may, perhaps, be held back for legal or other reasons related to the damage that full revelation may have on innocent parties.  Nevertheless, the principle that the church is involved in setting the punishment for sin and deciding how a matter is to be finally resolved, should be made collectively.

2 Corinthians 2:6  The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.

In a large, contemporary church, direct involvement by the whole church may be impractical but the principle should be observed using suitable arrangements. Where the Matthew 18 process has failed some form of public disclosure would be required and a suitable body, charged by the whole church to oversee the matter, should be appointed.

My own experience, leading a Christian missions organisation, confirmed that sin, swept under the carpet, or dealt with in an ad hoc fashion can be very corrosive within a Christian community.  Rumours abound, victims feel aggrieved, factions can develop, hearsay becomes truth and resentment can seethe below the surface.

Matthew 18:21-22: Seventy times seven: This famous passage does not provide anyone with a licence to sin.  Such an idea would be preposterous.  Neither does it mean that after repentance sin does not carry consequences as shall be seen later.  In its context Jesus was correcting Peter’s assumption that there was a short, finite limit on forgiveness.  Peter thought forgiving someone up to seven times was good enough.  Jesus explained that in God’s economy there is no upper limit on forgiveness.  We should keep no account of wrongs.  Following repentance we should do as God does, separating the offence from the person and bear no grudges.

Psalm 103:11-12  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Every Christian should also keep this warning in mind:

Matthew 6:14-15   For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

1 Timothy 5:20: Elders in sin: Elders who sin are to be admonished publicly.  Making an example of an elder in this way, follows the same process prescribed in Matthew 18, including the requirement to take the issue to the offending elder in the presence of witnesses.  Elders are not to receive special treatment, in fact their position of trust and authority within a church dictates that the matter be treated more firmly.  They are to be beyond reproach (1 Timothy3:2) within the church and be respected outside the church (1 Timothy 3:7).

James 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

1 Timothy 5:20 and the preceding comments on 2 Corinthians 2:6 points to the fact that the church is not to be organised along bureaucratic lines with strict spans of control, reporting lines and authority structures.  Each Christian reports directly to their maker.  Jesus Christ, operating through the agency of the Holy Spirit, is their teacher and arbiter.  The Church is a ‘kingdom of priests’ (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6; Matthew 23:8-10). Elders are appointed to manage the affairs and teach within a church but they do so as a service, not as a privileged class.

1 Corinthians 6:18-20: Serious sins: While all wrongdoing is sin before God it is clear that some sins are more harmful than others.  Under Old Testament applications of God’s moral law more than 20 sins carried the death penalty, although God only insisted that murder must never be dealt with in another way (see Numbers 35:31). Clearly, these sins were gauged to be more serious by God. Sexual sins in particular are singled out because, before God, they are committed against the person’s body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  It is therefore alarming that homosexuality and adultery are accepted by large sections of today’s church.

All sin is serious, especially if it continues despite admonishments, with no acknowledgement and no repentance.  But, some sins, given the scale of penalties prescribed in the Old Testament, call for a more serious and exacting church response than others.

A point can be reached when the sins of a professing Christian leaves them beyond God’s mercy.  They deliberately step outside his grace and are lost forever.  Some maintain this point can only be reached by people who have claimed to be Christians but never were.  Others say they were Christians and have fallen from grace.  In any event a church must do its best to ensure no one reaches a point of no return.  Leniency, rather than ‘tough love’ and a failure to properly disciple individuals, could leave them lost forever.

Hebrews 6:4-6   It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

Isaiah 58:1-2: Shout it aloud: In God’s camp sin is to be confronted in firm terms.  There is to be no equivocation.  The problem needs to be identified as sin and no one in the church should be under any allusion that it is anything but sin.  Luke warmness, hypocrisy, or a cringing unwillingness to face down sinful behaviour must be avoided.  The rest of Chapter 58 confirms that God’s people must avoid shallow adherence to his commands.  Instead, they must embrace them and seek to do what is right before God, if they want to experience his blessing.  If sin and complacency are left to fester within the body of Christ, true worship in service before the Lord is unlikely and hollow formality will be the result.

Matthew 18:6: Millstones and sin: Jesus issues a warning that causing another to sin, creating impediments for people who would otherwise grow in the faith, or doing anything that might cause someone to walk away from Christ, is equivalent to a capital offence.  Again, it is a reminder that sin is to be taken seriously, especially if it interferes with another’s Christian walk.

Matthew 13:25-30, 36-41: The wheat and the tares: Many assume that the parable of the wheat and the tares provides some justification for tolerating sin in the church.  It is clear from the text that Jesus is explaining that the righteous and the unsaved must dwell together in this world until the end comes and God’s final judgement is complete. The parable falls well short of saying that sin should be tolerated within the church, but neither does it say that the unsaved should not be welcomed into a church anytime they choose to come.

Luke 13: 24-27 and Matthew 7:21-23 indicate that there will be people who associate with the church, or are active within in it, who nevertheless are counted among the tares.  The tragedy is that they were living under the false assumption that they were saved. The connection to sin, right doctrine, faithful teaching and good church discipline should be apparent.  Churches, tolerant of sin, will not only compromise their potential, they will also provide those, who have never been properly saved and discipled, with a false hope.

2 Corinthians 6:14-16: Light and darkness: This passage takes the previous wheat and tares discussion to another level and echoes Haggai 2:11-14.  Paul, speaking of unbelievers and linking their unbelief to idolatry, prescriptively declares that Christians are to abstain from following the ways of the world when they contradict God’s moral law, his commands and his example.  Marriage to an unbeliever might also be included.  The worst thing churches can do is allow the practices of the unsaved to be mirrored in churches.

Sadly, the Church has ignored this command.  Adultery and divorce are now common and homosexuals are ordained as priests in protestant denominations.  Surveys done by Barna in the USA have found little difference between the world views of professing Christians and the unsaved.  Many churches now prefer to follow the world’s feminist ideals and permit women to teach and take positions of authority over men in the Church.  [See the women in Eldership article found elsewhere on this website]

If the Church continues to mirror the world rather than present a countercultural alternative the ability to recognise and counter sin will be compromised.  But, if 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 is taken seriously its vital instruction will serve to preserve a distinctive Christian witness in the world.  We are not to isolate ourselves from it, but we are to remain separate from the world’s attitudes, beliefs and practice:

1 Corinthians 5:9-10  I have written to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. [See also Colossians 2:8]

Colossians 1:28 and 3:16: Admonishing: Dealing with sin in the church will involve some form of admonishment (warning, exhorting) as authorised in Colossians.  To warn a person of their sin is to love them (1 Corinthians 13:6-7).  It also absolves the reproover of any guilt by association, leaving them blameless before God (Ezekiel 33:8).  There is therefore a duty placed on Christians, when they see sin, to take action, out of love, for the good protection of the church and the spiritual health of the wrongdoer.  It also tests their mettle and character.  As Proverbs 15:31-32, 13:18 and Psalm 141:5 say, a wise person accepts correction and advice.  Also:

Leviticus 19:17  Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke [reproof or argument] your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.

Proverbs 9:8  Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.

When someone will not accept an admonishment the circumstances should be carefully assessed as a person who sees no need to be corrected could, under the right conditions, lead others astray (Proverbs 10:17).

Matthew 12:31: The ‘ unforgivable sin: Matthew 12:31-32 speaks of what has been dubbed the ‘unforgivable sin’. Despite all that is said about forgiveness in the Bible what is clear is that there is a point for anyone who ‘speaks against the Holy Spirit’.

Matthew 12:31-32   And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.  Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

The form this blasphemy takes is hotly debated.  Because Jesus was addressing religious leaders it is not unreasonable to suggest those holding themselves out as God’s teachers, who knowingly and as a matter of course misrepresent or deny the Truth of God’s council, delivered to us by the Holy Spirit, provide the context for Jesus’ revelation.  Mark 7:8-11 points in this direction.  The earlier discussion around Hebrews 6:4-6 (See also Hebrews 10:26-31) may also have some bearing on the unforgivable sin, although in this examination it has been linked to on-going serious sin where there is no repentance.

Repentance and forgiveness: Luke 17:3-4 reminds us that dealing with sin involves contractual elements.  These verses may also follow contextually from the ‘millstone’ analogy discussed already – behaviours that lead others into sin.

Luke 17:3-4   So watch yourselves. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him." [Emphasis added]

If a Christian acknowledges they have sinned, God is faithful to forgive their sin.  In God’s eyes we are ‘legally’ justified.  Like God we should be equally forgiving.

Any particular sin committed against another remains a sin committed against God before it is  against any person who may be involved.  As said earlier, the person wronged, or the person who sees the sin, has a duty to bring it to the person’s attention, asking them to acknowledge their sin and repent. The wrongdoer must repent before God and in so doing gain God’s forgiveness, before seeking reconciliation with the person against whom the sin was committed.

If there is no acknowledgement of sin or repentance can there be forgiveness?  There are various ways to look at this, all of them unattractive:

  • If the person is truly a Christian then God’s grace over him remains but he has a mark against his name both in this life and before God in the life to come.  He will not be ‘storing up treasure in Heaven’ (Mathew 6:20) and his entry to heaven will be ‘only as one escaping through the flames’(1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
  • The sin may continue; it may escalate in severity and frequency to the point where both the Matthew 18 process and 1 Corinthians 5 action become necessary.  Remember, protecting the Church’s witness and those in fellowship are vitally important.  An unrepentant Christian can have toxic effects on others.
  • The unrepentant Christian may slip into the irrecoverable downwards spiral of Hebrews 6:1-4.  Again, remember, that there is a widespread belief that such a person was never a truly born again Christian in the first place.  As we have already seen, the true Christian no longer wants to sin.  If such a person has sinned he will inevitably see the error of his ways and go to God for forgiveness. The scenario being explored here will be, in a church full of wheat rather than tares, the exception, not the rule.
  • The Church cannot employ the person’s gifts in ministry without risking its integrity, especially if the situation had previously sparked the Matthew 18 process.  The unrepentant person will be marginalized at some level in keeping with the wrong he has done.

If there is no repentance, does there need to be forgiveness?  The short answer, this side of Heaven, must be yes, it is good to forgive, if only to bring ‘closure’ to a situation and remove anger and bitterness.  However, Luke 17:3-4 conjoins repentance and forgiveness with an ‘if’.  Forgiveness is not mandatory for unrepentant sin.  God will certainly hold it against the unrepentant person, so the Christian is not obliged to forgive unreservedly either.  He may instead conclude that he will continue fellowship with the person but restrict his association in-keeping with the nature of the sin.

If there is no acknowledgement of sin, or repentance, then God certainly does not forget the sin, even though the person remains under God’s grace.  There will be a ‘reckoning’, either in this life, or on judgement day (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).  

Repentance and consequences: Even where there is an acknowledgement of sin and repentance, it does not mean that there will not be consequences.  The  Israelites, when they refused to enter the promised land were forgiven by God, but all the men concerned were condemned to die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:20-23).  Similarly, with David and Bathsheba: although he confessed his sin and was forgiven, God pronounced trouble was to dog him for the rest of his life and the son, conceived of the union with Bathsheba, was to die.

2 Samuel 12: 13-14   Then David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." Nathan replied, "The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.  But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die… [Also v. 10]  Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house…"

Consequences may legitimately accompany forgiveness.  When those in a church are reconciled to a repentant sinner they have the right to attach consequences [not penalties].  Those consequences will depend on the circumstances.  For example:  The person may no longer be able to continue in a ministry, if doing so would expose them to the same temptations that caused them to sin.  Any consequences should be for the benefit of the person and the good of the whole church.

In cases where a person has committed a criminal offence they should be encouraged to go to the police and accept the due penalty for their offence. Confession should not be used to duck appropriate consequences. 


  • Sin must be taken seriously by any Church that fears a holy God. Confronting sin and admonishing the sinner is a biblical command.  Elders [including pastors] are not above censure and their responsible positions demands they exercise high standards.
  • The Matthew 18 process should be followed where a particular sin needs to be confronted.  The whole church, or some suitable representative body in large churches, is to determine what should be done with someone engaged in unrepentant sin.
  • If a person fails to repent, continues in their sin or fails to put right the harm they may have done there must be consequences.  Failing to deal with sin forthrightly is likely to have long term toxic consequences.  Excluding a person from fellowship in appropriate cases should be considered.
  • Christians have the right to judge what God has already judged. His moral law and his commands provide a comprehensive framework for determining right from wrong and good from evil (Hebrews 5:14).
  • The aim of any response to sin is repentance, restoration, healing, shielding the church and protecting the church’s witness among the unsaved.
  • While all sin is an affront to God, he regards some sins, especially those committed against the ‘temple’ of our bodies, as especially serious.  The church should respond accordingly.
  • All particular sin is against God in the first instance.  Only God can forgive sin.  When we forgive another we follow God’s example and act in reconciliation.
  • Sin will be a rare event in a good church because a born again believer no longer wants to sin.  Using the wheat and tares analogy, a church that allows ‘tares’ in its midst should acknowledge their presence and do their best to disciple those people into a born again conversion.

Avoiding inquisitions

Churches would be wise to set some ground rules to avoid trivial, vexatious, or litigious activity by over zealous or malicious people.  Here are some suggestions:

  • While individuals may approach others on a private basis, no accusation of sin should be entertained if there are no witnesses or other forms of corroborative evidence.  A formal meeting to reach a finding, based on the available evidence, will be necessary in most cases of sin in the church.
  • Any private confession of sin to another, if it is accompanied by repentance, should be taken no further, unless the effect of the sin is widespread, or its example may adversely influence others [The millstone principle].
  • Do not entertain an allegation of sin if it does not involve a breach of God’s moral law, or a failure to follow God’s clear commands. Other biblically mandated actions that do not fall into either of these categories are advisory or ‘good to dos’ and should not be treated as sin.
  • Any matter should never be taken to the whole church unless the Matthew 18 process has been properly followed.
  • The Matthew 18 process should not be followed beyond the first stage, without the sanction of the elders.  If an elder is involved, the matter should be referred to an independent group.

Concluding remarks

Sin is ubiquitous in the world but it should be all but unknown in churches.  Good churches will make the absence of sin one of their chief goals.  The relationship between Man and God is defined by the presence of sin in both its general form and particular presence.

Unfortunately, the incidence of sin in churches is worryingly common today. Some serious sins have become common in the church.  Adultery, homosexuality and avarice (profiting on the blood of the lamb) are obvious examples.  Truth Watch stands against sin in the church and openly admonishes those who fall short of God’s righteous standards.

Hebrews 12:14   Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no-one will see the Lord.