By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.
“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way win save a soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sin.” (Jas. 5:19-20, NASV).
A straying Christian is not a pretty picture. He is as a dog returning to his own vomit; and a sow that was washed returning to her wallowing in the mire (2 Pet. 2:22). He is as an animal that strays off and needs rounding up.
Straying Christians place tremendous responsibilities upon themselves and their spiritual brethren.
Responsibilities of the Straying
A straying brother must repent. Sorrow is not repentance, though one must be sorry to produce repentance (2 Cor. 7:19). Quitting a sin is not enough, though Strays one must quit it as fruit of repentance (cf. Acts 26:20).
He must confess his sins (1 Jn. 1:9). Confessing is not revealing one’s sins. “Confess” is from homologeo meaning “to speak the same thing’ . . . ‘to assent, accord, agree with’ . . . ‘to confess by way of admitting oneself guilty of what one is accused of, the result of inward conviction'” (W.E. Vine). It is assumed that the sin is known by the one to whom it is confessed. God always knows all our sins. He accuses us of sin, we agree and repent. Sometimes others know, so we need to confess to them (Jas. 5:16).
“Confess your trespasses to one another” does not mean reveal your trespasses to one another. Those who encourage confessing even secret sins to one another, are without scriptural foundation. It may even do much damage. If brethren know about the sin, then that is another matter. The sinner then stands accused by them as well as the Lord and should confess the sins to both.
Failure to confess one’s sins leaves a problem. How can the offended person(s) know of his repentance and forgive him? One is to forgive his brother, if he repents. So, one needs to tell the offended one(s), “I repent” (Lk. 17:4). Quitting the practice of sin does not say that one has repented. There are other reasons for quitting a sin.
Often men forsake assembling for months or years, a sin that is known by the whole church, then ease back in taking up where they left off without a word being said. This is not right. Neither is the passing of time and/or mere reformation a substitute for confessing sins. I have never found the Scripture that places a “statute of limitations” on sin.
One who sins must ask the Lord for forgiveness (Acts 8:22). One may, along with his own praying for forgiveness, have brethren pray on his behalf (Acts 8:24; Jas. 5:16; 1 John 5:14-17).
Responsibilities of the Spiritual
As we have seen, the unfaithful must repent (cf. Rev. 2:5,6,16,21,22). The faithful must, commensurate with their abilities and opportunities, try to bring these brethren to repentance. When we succeed, we save a soul from death and “cover a multitude of sins” – the right way. The sins are not swept under the rug, but pardoned. The Psalmist shows how sins are to be covered. Psalms 32:1,2 refers to the forgiveness of sins in three ways: forgiven transgression, covered sin, and unimputed iniquity. The man without imputed iniquity is the same as the one whose sin is covered and whose transgression is forgiven. His sins are not ignored, but forgiven. In a similar passage, covered sins and forgiven iniquity are paralleled (Psa. 85:2). There is no man to whom the Lord will not impute iniquity or whose sins are covered without repentance. So, our first order of business is to try to bring the erring to repentance.
We are to deal with each one according to his circumstance. Jude says, “And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (vv. 22,23).
Barnes makes some interesting observations about these verses:
The direction then amounts to this, that while we are to seek to save all, we are to adapt ourselves wisely to the character and circumstances of those whom we seek to save.
Making a difference. Making a distinction between them, not in regard to your desires for their salvation, or Your efforts to save them, but to the manner in which it is done . . . . The young, the tender, the delicate, the refined, need a different kind of treatment from the rough, the uncultivated, the hardened. .
And others. Another class; those who were of such a character, or in such circumstances, that a more bold, earnest, and determined effort would be better adapted to them.
Save with fear. That is, by appeals adapted to produce fear. The idea seems to be that the arguments on which they relied were to be drawn from the dangers of persons referred to, or from the dread of future wrath. It is undoubtedly true, that while there is a class of persons who can be won to embrace religion by a mild and gentle persuasion, there is another class who can be aroused only by the terrors of the law. . . .
Pulling them out of the fire. As you would snatch persons out of the fire; or as you would seize on a person that was walking into a volcano. Then, a man would not use mild and gentle language of persuasion, but by word and gesture show that he was deeply in earnest (Barnes on the New Testament, James-Jude, p. 403).
There is a time for gentleness (Gal. 6:1) and a time for sharpness (2 Cor. 13:10). All straying brethren are not alike. Failure to recognize this often causes us to handle cases unwisely. It also causes some to have sharp words for those who feel it necessary to use a less gentle approach at times. Isn’t it amazing how sharp some of these “above-all-else-and-always-be-gentle” fellows can be against one who dares rebuke anyone sharply? It is equally amazing how they can look right into the hearts and see the joy they can hardly contain as they do what must be done.
Paul mentions three classes in 1 Thessalonians 5:14: The unruly, the fainthearted, and the weak. He prescribes a different treatment for each. The unruly are “certain church members who manifest an insubordinate spirit, whether by excitability or officiousness or idleness” (Vine). The fainthearted are the discouraged. The weak are likely those who are still weak in the faith or weak in knowledge; who still need time and opportunity to become strong. Each may be doing the same sin.
Let us say each regularly misses worship service, when they should be there. The unruly obviously misses, not because he has reason to be discouraged or needs more teaching about his obligation, but that he prefers to be other places and do other things.
The fainthearted has many things to discourage her from attending. She has to walk out of the house over the protest of a objecting husband. She has to struggle for every opportunity to assemble. She is ridiculed by her family for her “fanaticism.” The weak misses, but obviously needs more time to let the teaching concerning his responsibilities as a Christian sink in.
All three are sinning – without excuse. They are neglecting the same duty. However, their circumstances are different, so different treatment is called for. The unruly need more than gentle persuasion, they need a sharply worded warning. The fainthearted need milder words of encouragement. The weak need to be upheld or supported with patient teaching until they can become strong.
Patience is to be shown toward all classes. Patience is not the same as gentleness. It is longsuffering and persistent perseverance. We are not to give up easily in whatever approach is called for Galatians 6:1 does not deal with every brother in error. It deals with one “overtaken in any trespass.” The margin in the New King James Version says, “caught.” Thayer says it means “to take one before he can flee, i.e., surprise.” This is not the premeditated or persistent sinner but one caught or surprised by a temptation and overcome before he can flee. He needs the gentle help from the spiritual to overcome the effects of his sin. The spiritual could easily be surprised and overcome in similar fashion.
Not all transgressors have been caught or surprised by sudden temptation. They study and plan their trespass and persist in it. They have carefully (or carelessly) charted their course. Some try to persuade others to follow their lead. These are not the same as those in Galatians 6:1 and do not require the same treatment. These calf for sharp words of warning and exposure (see Tit. 1:13). They should be given time to heed the words of warning (cf. Rev. 2:1). If words fail then sharp action must follow. Paul told the Thessalonians to warn the unruly (disorderly) in his first letter (5:14) to them. In his second letter (3:6,14) after the warning had gone unheeded, he tells them to withdraw from and not to keep company with them. A heretic or factious man is to be warned twice then rejected (Tit. 3:10).
Circumstances dictate whether a brother’s sin is dealt with privately or openly. Again it amazes me how openly some criticize those who occasionally publicly rebuke brethren for their good and to warn others. Some openly chastise them for not first “telling him his fault between you and him alone” – many times with no way of knowing if they have done this or not. Besides, if public rebuke is a fault, why the open criticism of the public rebuker without telling him his fault between the two alone? It is kind of hard to be consistent, isn’t it?
The sin of Matthew 18:15-18 begins as a private matter – one brother sins against another. The objective is to regain the sinning brother while keeping the knowledge and damage of the sin as limited as possible. Other brethren do not know about it and, hopefully, they will never need to know. All too often, the offended one tells nearly every one how he has been sinned against before telling the brother who did the sinning. This helps neither the sinning brother nor those who have been told. If, after reasonable effort to privately regain the brother, he does not repent, one or two other brethren need to be brought in to help. If this fails, then the matter is told to the church. It is now a public matter. If the church fails to bring him to repentance, then “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” that is, cease fellowshipping him. This is not the passage for dealing with brethren whose sin is already well known to brethren in general. The church does not need to be told, it already knows. Yet, a great many brethren think we should start back peddling until we reduce it to a private matter and then formally follow the steps of Matthew 18.
Peter openly violated the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:11-21). He was influencing others to do the same, Barnabas among them. Paul did not follow the three step formula of Matthew 18. This thing was not merely a matter of Peter sinning against Paul. It was a public matter influencing good brethren to do wrong. Paul says, “I withstood him to his face. Did he do this between him and Peter alone. Let Paul tell us: “I said to Peter before them all.” Paul’s approach must have gotten the job done. Peter later referred to him as “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pet. 3:15).
Sometimes it is wiser to take a mistaken public teacher aside privately and teach him further as Aquilla and Priscilla did to Apollos. But to say that one must always tell a brother his fault privately before openly rebuking him or exposing his public error simply is not taught in the Scriptures. There are things done and said so openly and so damaging that they need to be dealt with as openly as they are said and done – as soon as possible to minimize the damage done to the cause of Christ.
Ottis Castleberry, in his biography of John T. Lewis, relates a story by Leonard Johnson that illustrates how strong brethren in the past have handled such damaging public errors of brethren:
Brother Lewis went back to David Lipscomb College to give the commencement address. His subject was “Compromise,” and in his lesson, he went back, as I recall, and took biblical examples of men and women who compromised. He addressed the students and said, “Young men and women, I want to give you some modern examples of compromise. (Well, there had been a Christian Church preacher, who was well known in his day and he had been holding a meeting in one of the Christian Churches in Nashville; and several of the brethren including Brother Pittman, A ‘ B ‘ Lipscomb, F.B. Srygley, and a host of others – I don’t know how many more had gone out to hear this man, and each one of them had been invited to lead prayer and had done so.) All of these men were present for the commencement address. Brother Lewis began to tell the young people about the Christians Church preacher having been in town not long ago. He said, “S.P. Pittman, A.B. Lipscomb, F.B. Srygley,” and he named several others, “were present and they participated in this worship and led the prayer – now that’s a modem example of compromise” (He Looked For A City).
We need more like that today. It would not be popular, but it might save more souls from the influence of compromising brethren.
Once a brother has repented we must forgive him – no strings attached (Lk. 17:3; 2 Cor. 2:7). It is not only in his interest that we do this – it is in ours. Jesus said, “For if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15).
Indeed, the picture of one who falls into sin is not pretty; but how beautiful it is when one repents, confesses and asks forgiveness. A soul has been saved from death. Ugly sins are covered. A stray has been rounded up.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 16, pp. 496-498
August 18, 1988