The last time we were thinking about how some people in Corinth were accusing Paul the Apostle of being untrustworthy and unreliable. They were saying this about him because he changed his travel plans, not just once, but twice. And so, it seemed to them that Paul was one of these people who say yes and no at the same time. Instead of sticking to his word, he’ll say one thing to one person and he’ll say the opposite to another person. Instead of being a man of his word, he’ll change what he says depending on who he’s talking to. So, they were saying he can’t be trusted and that he deceived them and misled them.
And so, Paul began his defence in the passage we read last time. And do you remember? It was a strange defence, because instead of giving reasons for changing his travel plans, he wrote to them about the message he proclaimed about Jesus Christ; and about how all of God’s promises to us are yes in the Lord Jesus. All of God’s promises — his promises to save us from our sins and his promises to care for us — are true for us because of Christ. So, instead of defending his own reputation, he wrote to them about God’s faithfulness to his promises and about the fulfilment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ. And I suggested the last time that the reason Paul adopted this approach was because he was more concerned with the gospel than with his own reputation. Paul’s attitude was: whatever you may think about me, my preaching is true. And that’s what matters most of all: that you believe God’s promises of salvation, which are true because of Christ the Saviour. Preachers may let you down. Elders may let you down. Other believers may let you down. But the most important thing is that you believe all of God’s promises, because all of God’s promises are true because of Christ.
Having said that, Paul goes on in the verses we read a few moments ago to explain why he changed his travel plans. Now, I said the last time that his plans changed at least two times. So, at the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said that after he had gone through Macedonia, he would come and visit them. Perhaps — he said — he would stay with them a while, or even spend the winter with them, before going on somewhere else. He said that he didn’t want to see them immediately and make only a passing or brief visit. He wanted to spend some time with them, if the Lord permits. So, that was the original plan. But travel plans change, don’t they? Lots of people have had to change their plans recently because of the coronavirus. It’s not safe to travel. Or the conference we were going to attend was cancelled. Or the airline has gone bust. We all know that things can happen which make us want or need to change our plans. And Paul’s plans changed. So, in verses 15 to 17 of chapter 1 he referred to his revised plan. According to those verses, he planned to visit the Corinthians on his way to Macedonia and then to come back to them from Macedonia before going on to Judea. So, in 1 Corinthians he said he would visit them once and spend some time with them. But then his plans changed and he planned instead to make two visits to them: one on the way to Macedonia and one on the way back from Macedonia. Those were the revised plans. However, it seems that his revised plans were also changed. And so, Paul was now writing to explain why his plans had to change a second time. Instead of visiting them twice, he was now only going to visit them once. So, why was this? Why did he change his plans again? Well, that’s what today’s passage is about.
But before we get into the details of the passage, it might be helpful to say at the outset that the reason his plans changed was to do with church discipline. Church discipline is an essential feature of the church. At the time of the reformation, the Catholic churches said that the reformed churches were not true churches, because they’d separated themselves from the one, true church. And so, the reformers responded to this criticism by saying that the reformed churches were in fact true churches, because the reformed churches displayed all the marks of a true church.
What are the marks of a true church? The reformers explained that the marks of a true church are the pure preaching of God’s word; the right administration of the sacraments; and church discipline. Those are the essentials marks or features of a church. The importance of preaching is obvious, as is the administration of the sacraments, because God works through the preaching of his word and through the sacraments to build up believers in the faith. But the importance of church discipline may be not seem so obvious to us. But it’s vitally important. For instance, who should the elders admit to membership of the church? Should they admit just anyone or only those who make a credible or believable profession of faith? Well, they should only admit those who make a credible profession of faith. And that’s church discipline. And then, what should the elders do when a member of the church goes astray and brings dishonour to Christ and his church? That too is church discipline, because the elders need to take action so that wayward members do not continue in their sin.
So, in every congregation, there needs to be the pure preaching of God’s word; and there needs to be the right administration of the sacraments; and there needs to be discipline. In fact, if you’re familiar with 1 Corinthians, you’ll know that one of the issues which Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians was the fact that the congregation had not disciplined one of their members who was sleeping with his step-mother. ‘It is actually reported’, Paul wrote, ‘that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not even occur among pagans.’ So, one of their members was doing something scandalous, something which even the pagans — who don’t believe — regarded as shameful. That’s was bad enough. But what made it worse was the fact that the rest of the church tolerated it and didn’t do anything about it. And so, Paul already addressed the need for church discipline when he wrote 1 Corinthians.
Church discipline is vital and necessary. It’s vital and necessary for the church, because it preserves the purity and the peace of the church. But it’s vital and necessary for the wayward member, because the purpose of discipline is to convict the person of his or her sin so that they will turn from it.
I think I explained before that after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he did indeed visit the church of Corinth. And during that visit, it seems the apostle Paul became aware of an issue in the church which required discipline; and he presumably urged the church to take action against the member who was at fault. It was a difficult and painful visit for all concerned. Then, after he left Corinth, Paul sent them a follow-up letter, which is now lost, but which Paul refers to in verses 3 and 4 of chapter 2. And in that lost letter, he wrote to them once again about the importance of church discipline.
So, having said all that by way of introduction, let’s turn now to today’s passage.
‘I call God as my witness’, Paul wrote in verse 23. He’s calling on the Lord God — the supreme judge of all, who knows our hearts and our innermost thoughts — to bear witness that he’s telling the truth when he says that the reason he changed his plans the second time was in order to spare the Corinthians. So, the reason he did not return to Corinth for a second visit was in order to spare them.
The same word ‘spare’ is used by Paul in Romans 8:32 where he said that God the Father did not spare his Son, but gave him up for us. In other words, God the Father did not spare his Son from suffering the pain of the cross and judgment for our sins. Instead of sparing him, God the Father let his Son suffer the full force of his wrath against our sin. So, sparing someone means keeping someone from pain and suffering. So, says Paul, the reason I did not make that second trip to Corinth was in order to spare you. If he made that planned second visit, he would have had to confront them once again about what had gone wrong in the church. And since he wanted to spare them from that, he decided not to visit them again until they had taken the required action.
Does that mean Paul was a bully? From time to time we hear of church’s leaders who go too far and bully their colleagues and the members of their congregation. Or we hear of politicians — don’t we? — who are accused of bullying their staff. Well — Paul says in verse 24 — he’s not lording it over their faith. The Lord Jesus used a similar expression in Luke 22:25 where he referred to the kings of the Gentiles who lord it over their people. In other words, the kings treated their people harshly and instead of caring for their people, they took advantage of them. But — said the Lord Jesus — God’s people are not to be like that, but are to serve one another humbly. Well, Paul denies that he was trying to lord it over the Corinthians. They’re not to regard him as a tyrant to be feared or as someone who wants to put them in their place. On the contrary, he wants to work with them for their joy and he wants to work with them so that they will stand firm in the faith. That’s the goal of his ministry. That’s what he was always aiming for. He was not looking for power for himself, but joy for the Corinthians.
And so, in his relationship with them, he wasn’t a bully who was trying to dominate them, but he was like a parent. Think of parents. They have to exercise authority over their children — don’t they? — and they have to say no to the children whenever their children want to do something foolish. Parents have to discipline their children from time to time. But they do it, not because they hate their children, but because they love their children and want what is best for them. So, Paul was like a parent, not a lord. If he exercised authority over the Corinthians, it was for their benefit.
But, on this particular occasion, he decided — according to verse 1 of chapter 2 — not to make another painful visit to them. So, the first visit he made had clearly been painful for all concerned. The aim of his ministry was to give them joy, but the last visit he made to them had been painful. It caused everyone grief and sorrow, because he had had to confront them over this issue requiring church discipline. And he was worried that, if he visited them again, before they sorted the issue out, he would only cause them grief and sorrow and pain all over again. And, in that case, who would there be to make him glad? Do you see that in verse 2? He means: How could he be happy in their midst if he had to grieve them all over again by confronting them over this issue requiring church discipline.
Again think of parents with their children. Children don’t like to be disciplined. That’s obvious. But parents don’t like having to discipline their children. We want our homes to be happy places, where there is laughter and joy and peace and contentment. And normally there is. But from time to time, if the children go astray, the parents have to discipline their children. And then, instead of laughter and joy, there are tears and there’s sorrow. Everyone — not just the children, but the parents too — everyone is glum. No one likes discipline. No one likes confrontation. But sometimes it’s necessary. And Paul realised it was necessary in Corinth. But he was reluctant to visit Corinth a second time, because he knew the last visit was painful; and he wanted them to sort things out before he came to them again.
So, his previous visit had been painful. And in verses 3 and 4, he mentions the follow-up letter he sent them. And he explains that he wrote as he did so that when he eventually visited them, he would not be distressed by those who ought to make him rejoice. Do you see? He’s saying that he delayed making a second trip to give them time to sort things out in the church and to deal with this issue requiring discipline. If they sort it out, his next visit will be a joyful one. But if they don’t sort it out, his next visit will be distressing and painful again. And Paul goes on in verse 4 to say that he wrote that follow-up letter out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears. One of the commentators translates the words ‘great distress’ as ‘gut-wrenching’. Paul is describing the inner turmoil he experienced as he wrote that follow-up letter. He agonised over it and it caused him inner anguish and he wrote it through a flood of tears. Isn’t that interesting? Paul was convinced that church discipline was vital and necessary. And yet, it brought him no pleasure, but only pain and anguish when he wrote to the Corinthians about it. Furthermore, he goes on to explain in the same verse that he did not write to grieve them. So, he wasn’t trying to hurt them or to upset them. He didn’t want to cause them sorrow. After all, he already said to them in verse 2 that he wanted to work with them for their joy. No, the reason he wrote to them as he did was not to grieve them, but to let them know the depth of his love for them. Because he loved them, and didn’t want to grieve them, he decided to postpone that planned second visit until the matter had been sorted out. So, writing the letter gave him no pleasure, but only sorrow. He knew it caused them sorrow. But it was vital and necessary for them to deal with this matter.
What was the issue which required church discipline? What had this person done wrong? Well, we don’t know. Paul doesn’t say what it was and there’s no way of telling. Some say that he’s referring to the same issue which we read about in 1 Corinthians. That is, he’s still talking about the man who was sleeping with his step-mother. Other commentators suggest that he’s talking about someone who stole money from the church; or it was a false apostle who was stirring up trouble against the Apostle Paul. No doubt there are other suggestions. But there’s no way to tell. Paul doesn’t state what this person did wrong. And that’s perhaps a good thing, because the specifics of this particular case don’t matter so much as the principle that church discipline is vital and necessary. We all sin, of course. And when we sin, we must confess our sins to the Lord and ask his forgiveness. When we sin against one another, we must also confess our sins to the person we have offended and seek their forgiveness. But when someone does something scandalous which dishonours the Lord and his church and when that person refuses to repent, then church discipline becomes necessary. Exercising church discipline is difficult and painful and it causes sorrow and heartache. But it’s necessary. And while we may not know the specifics of this case, we learn from what Paul says that when church discipline is required, the church must exercise it despite the sorrow it may cause.
However — and this is the other side of church discipline — when church discipline has been effective and the person has acknowledged their guilt and turned from their sin, it’s necessary for the church to forgive. And that’s what verses 5 to 11 are about.
Paul says in verse 5:
If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent.
So, whatever this person has done, it has grieved both Paul himself and the whole congregation. It’s worth noting, therefore, that he’s not referring to personal sin, which is a matter between the sinner and the Lord. And he’s not referring to an offence which one person has committed against another member and which can be dealt with privately. No, he’s referring to a matter which affected the whole congregation; and which therefore had to be dealt with through church discipline.
However, it’s now time to forgive the offender. That’s Paul’s point in verse 6 where he says that the punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Since Paul mentions a majority, that implies that there was also a minority. So, while a majority of the members had agreed with Paul about exercising church discipline, there may have been a minority of members who disagreed with Paul. And that’s perhaps why Paul’s previous visit had been so painful and that’s perhaps why his previous letter had been so hard to write. They had been difficult because some in the congregation had disagreed with Paul about the need for discipline. Nevertheless, the majority had agreed with Paul and had exercised some form of discipline. And now Paul is letting them know that the punishment they inflicted on the person is sufficient. It’s sufficient because it’s accomplished its goal which was to bring about repentance. And so, it’s now time to stop disciplining the man.
Furthermore, it’s time now to forgive and comfort him. Do you see that in verse 7? Another preacher makes the point that congregations err in one of two ways. We err because we’re reluctant to exercise discipline and we tolerate or ignore sin. But then we err because we’re unwilling or we’re slow to forgive the one who has caused offence. And so, Paul says to the Corinthians that the time has come for them to forgive. The person has acknowledged his guilt. He’s turned from it. Therefore forgive him.
And comfort him. Now, we’ve already come across that word ‘comfort’ in chapter 1 where Paul referred to God as the ‘God of all comfort’. I explained that the word Paul uses refers to someone who comes to your side to help you. In legal contexts, it refers to you lawyer who stand with you to help and defend you. But it can refer to anyone who comes to your side to help and encourage you in any circumstance. Well, here in chapter 2, Paul tells the congregation to stop disciplining this man and to come to his side to encourage him. When once they perhaps shunned him, they’re now to welcome him. When once they perhaps treated him as an outsider, they’re not to welcome him warmly into their gatherings. If you don’t — Paul warns — he will be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. The word translated ‘overwhelmed’ means swallowed up or drowned. So, we’re to imagine someone swallowed up or drowned by sorrow and grief. When church discipline is imposed on a person, the aim is not to destroy that person or to overwhelm the person with grief and sorrow. The aim of church discipline is to bring about repentance. And once the person has repented, he’s to be brought back into the fellowship of God’s people.
And Paul tells the church to reaffirm their love for this particular person. We’re never to stop loving one another. After all, the Lord commands us to love even our enemies. And so, we’re to love believers who have gone astray and who are under church discipline. But once they have repented from their sin, it’s important that the church makes clear their love for them. So, we’re not to treat them differently from anyone else in the church. We’re not to be reserved towards them because of what they did when they sinned. No, we’re to forgive them and we’re to love them as before.
And then, in verse 9, Paul goes back to the letter he sent them previously; and he explains that one reason for writing it was to test their obedience. And good: they passed the test. They dealt with the issue. But now, it’s important for them to be obedient in showing forgiveness. After all, Paul himself was willing to forgive this person. In fact, Paul’s almost dismissive about the whole matter, isn’t he? He says ‘if there was anything to forgive’. Well, clearly there was something to forgive, because this person had caused so much grief and sorrow and trouble and pain to Paul and the church. But now that the matter has been dealt with, and now that the person has repented, now that Paul has forgiven the person, it’s as if Paul’s forgotten all about it. It doesn’t matter to him anymore.
And then, in verse 11, Paul tells them that it’s important that they now forgive the man, so that Satan might not outwit them, for ‘we are not unaware of his schemes’. Well, we know what Paul means, don’t we? We know that Satan likes to take advantage of every situation to cause trouble and division in the church. The Lord’s will for us is to deal with sin and to forgive one another after we have dealt with it. But the Devil will try to get us to do the opposite. So, instead of getting us to deal with sin, he will get us to ignore it or to disregard it. And instead of getting us to forgive one another, he will get us to hold on to grudges and resentments. He encourages us to remember every offence committed against us. And he encourages us not only to remember every offence, but to magnify every offence committed against us. He wants us to remember every offence instead of forgiving every offence. Well, don’t let him outwit us, Paul says. Now that this matter has been dealt with and the person has repented, forgive him and let’s move on.
And so, there it it. The reason Paul did not make that second planned trip to Corinth was because the previous one was so painful. It was painful, because Paul had to confront them over this issue which required church discipline. Instead of visiting them a second time, he wrote to them. It was a difficult letter to write, because once again he had to confront them about this issue. But he hoped that they would deal with the matter, so that when he did eventually visit them, his visit would be a happy visit and not a difficult one.
And, then, since writing that letter, it seems the congregation had done what Paul required and had disciplined the man. And so, Paul now wrote to them to encourage them to forgive the man and to restore him to fellowship.
As we close, it’s important for me to say that we’re to forgive one another in the church, because in Christ God has forgiven us. Every day we sin against God in thought and word and deed. Every day we fall short of doing his will and every day we go astray from walking in his ways. Every day, we sin against the Lord our God. But in his word he promises that if we confess our sins he will be faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
So, that’s his promise to us. We’re to confess our sins. And when we do, he will forgive us. He doesn’t demand anything more from us, but that we confess our sins to him. He doesn’t withhold his forgiveness until we do something else. He doesn’t say: ‘Yes, I’ll forgive you, but you have to wait a little longer first.’ He doesn’t say: ‘Before I forgive you, you have to do this or that first.’ No, as soon as we confess our sins, he forgives us.
And God is able to forgive us, because of Christ our Saviour who paid for our sins in full when he gave up his life on the cross. Because of him everyone who believes is reconciled to God forever. And so, when we confess our sins to him, we confess them as children to their Father who loves us and cares for us and who is willing to pardon us. And he calls on you to forgive your fellow believers just as he has forgiven you. So, since we have been forgiven by God, he calls on us to be a forgiving people. Since he has pardoned you, he calls on you to pardon your fellow believers. This is his will for you and this is his message to you today: forgive one another, because in Christ God has forgiven you.