Sometimes we seem as bad at handling others' failures as we are at overcoming our own. No doubt these two things are related. Yet, given the nature of the gospel, would we not expect that the church should be vastly different from the world on this point?
Scripture gives several principles which should govern our response to the sins of others.
1. Grief. A life has been marred. Christ's name has been shamed. Perhaps others' lives have been invaded by the consequences of sin. Things can never be quite the same again. Hearts will have been hardened, making repentance the more difficult. Knowing this, we will weep with those who weep.
2. Realism. Conversion does not deliver the saints from the presence of sin. We may have died to sin, but sin has not yet died out in us. The regenerate man is only in the process of being healed. Sin dwells in him still, and is deceitful still.
This does not excuse the believer's sin, but it underlines that it is possible for Christians still to sin. Scripture encourages us that there will be no fatalities, but warns us that we can still be critically wounded.
The strong-stomached authors of the Westminster Confession caught this balance when they wrote that "sanctification is throughout in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war . . . In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome . . ." (XIV,ii,iii)
Such knowledge does not protect us from grief over others' sins, but it does help us to see that a single wound is not the end of the war, and thus preserves us from despair of ourselves or others.
3. Self-examination. We too are frail, we too may fall. Our sins may not have produced the same public consequences as those of our brethren, but may be no less horrible. We may have been spared the combination of sinful desire, the pressure of temptation, and the opportunity to act that has brought another to fall. Only those who know that they too are "subject to weakness" will be "able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray" (Heb.5:2).
4. Mutual confession. We are to confess our sins to each other, and to pray for one another (Jas.5:16). Why? Because mutual confession breaks the grip of Satan over the guilty heart.
Satan's paralyzing stranglehold depends on our acceptance of his winsome lies:
1) No other Christian could have sinned as you did.
2) No other Christian will accept you and love you now, so you must disguise your sin by any means you can.
But in mutual confession we discover and overcome his lies, and break the blackmailing grip that Satan has gained over us. It brings us back into the fellowship from which we have withdrawn out of guilt and a fear of discovery.
5. Forgiveness and reconciliation. Those whom Christ welcomes we must welcome. He grants grace and forgiveness in order that there may be amendment of life. We dare not reverse that gospel pattern by demanding rigorous rehabilitation before we extend forgiveness and reconciliation.
6. New discipline. Brothers and sisters who sin are to be restored gently (Gal.6:1). There is a twofold emphasis here, on discipline and grace. Those who have failed need to drink long and deeply from the fountain of grace, learning again and again that we are not justified by our sanctification but by God's grace. They will need to be protected from Satan's efforts to overwhelm and cripple them with guilt, or to drive them to a sense of despair.
Moreover, they have sinned, as we ourselves have, and together we must help them to remodel and rebuild their Christian lives and testimony. The foundations must be strengthened, the ruins must be reconstructed.
It appears from our Lord's teaching that all this may normally be accomplished informally by fellow Christians, long before it becomes necessary for formal discipline to be inaugurated. Such discipline is for the intractable only (Matt. 18:15-17).
We must never lose sight of the fact that the New Testament church contained one who, after his regeneration, denied Christ with blasphemies. Christ prays for those whom Satan seeks to sift like wheat. He loves them still.
Who knows to what usefulness a brother or sister may be restored by those who have learned how to handle the sins of others as well as their own?
This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine.