“Extravagant Forgiveness”

2 Corinthians 2:5-11

February 23, 2003

Text Comment

v.5 The great question that agitates the interpretation of this short paragraph is the identity of the individual being mentioned. Until recently it was virtually the universal judgment of the church that Paul is here referring back to the man who was guilty of incest – living with his step-mother – and whom Paul summarily excommunicated as we read in 1 Corinthians 5. Nowadays that identification has come under fire and many commentators deny it. It is a story too long and too complicated to tell here. Suffice it to say, that the denial of the link between this passage and 1 Cor. 5 primarily depends on a different account of the history of the Corinthian correspondence and on the assumption that Paul paid another visit to Corinth between First and Second Corinthians and wrote another letter. I have never found those proposals convincing and, if as was traditionally thought and as seems to me most likely and much more simple to assume, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians after 1 Corinthians and neither visited Corinth nor wrote to the church between those two letters, then it seems very likely that Paul is talking about the situation he addressed in 1 Corinthians 5 and that this individual is the man who was summarily disciplined on that occasion.

v.6 As we might have expected, given the fractures in the Corinthian church and a tendency among some to justify sexual misbehavior, the approval of Paul’s excommunication was not unanimous when it was announced. But the church had done what Paul required and cast the man out.

v.8 The punishment imposed had done its holy work and the man had come to repentance. Now Paul says, the church must reverse herself and receive the man back with love.

v.9 The apostle can’t take the initiative in forgiving the offender, as he did in his discipline. But their obedience in punishing him was proof to him that they would also obey in receiving him back now that he had repented.

v.10 The offense was not against the apostle, of course, but against the Lord and the church. But his own willingness to forgive any wrong will be a spur to them to forgive in the same willing and thorough way.

v.11 The Devil is just as happy to destroy a church by its unrelenting rigor to keep the church free of impurity as he is to destroy a church by its willingness to tolerate evil. A soul is lost just as surely if left to despair due to a church’s harshness as it is if left to sin through a church’s indifference.

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We have before us a very important picture of true Christianity, a window upon the world created by the gospel of Jesus Christ. A Christian man, a member of the church in Corinth, had committed a grievous sin, had committed it and continued in it. He was in an incestuous relationship, a relationship that even pagans in sexually permissive Corinth would generally have found objectionable. When Paul heard of it and of the church’s indulgence of this man’s sin, he had peremptorily cast the man out of the church and ordered the church to confirm his sentence and banish the man from their assembly. This they had done. Christianity, after all, stands upon the foundation of her confession of a holy God who demands obedience from his creatures upon pain of death and who promises to bring all men eventually into his righteous judgment. The salvation of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness that comes through faith in him was never intended to relax the demands of God’s holy law or lead people into an indulgent life. Quite the contrary. God grants his saving grace to his people not only to deliver them from punishment for their sins but to transform their lives, to make them pure and good and right. We are saved, the Bible says, that we might be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, that we might come to live as he did.

It is this fact that lies beneath the practice of church discipline in the Bible. People who persist in scandalous behavior obviously are deeply and seriously mistaken about God’s salvation. They seem to think that they can have forgiveness while at the same time indulging their sinful passions. Throwing such people out of the church serves to teach them, as perhaps nothing else would, that one cannot have God’s salvation and his sins at the same time. That idea is so beguiling, so attractive, so tempting that even Christian people can be undone by it. But the Bible says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” But, it is just as true that such church members bring the entire church and its message into disrepute. The honor of the Lord and the credibility of his gospel are both diminished when those who bear his name live as if their God were no more holy or pure, no more to be feared as the judge of all men, than the pagan idols.

Paul would not tolerate such a situation and the man was cast out of the church, as he should have been. He was either not a Christian at all, or he was a man in serious need of immediate correction, a correction unlikely to occur without severe steps being taken. And, in his case, the discipline accomplished its purposes. The man realized his error. He felt the force of his banishment and realized that it was essential for him to return to the church, to be back in the Lord’s good graces. He now realized that he could not be saved if God stood against him. He had come to understand that his antinomianism, the idea he had been indulging that he could have forgiveness and still practice his favorite sins, however beguiling it had been, was dangerous, unbiblical and untrue.

But it was no small sin that he had committed and confess his sins as he had, and repent of them as he had done, and seek re-admission to the church as he had sought it, there were still folk in the church who were inclined to think that the church, its people, and its testimony would be better off without a man like that, who had done what he had done, and who had brought such ignominy down upon the congregation. They felt, perhaps understandably, that such a man either should never be readmitted to the membership of the church or, at least, should not be readmitted until he had proved his repentance for a longer time.

We have no difficulty imagining that people thought that way in Corinth because it was not very much longer before a church father wrote this way. In Tertullian’s work On Modesty [xiii-xvi], the great North African church father wrote extensively on this matter. Tertullian was well aware that in his day the ordinary way of reading 2 Cor. 5:5-11 was as a reference to the man who had been excommunicated in 1 Cor. 5. But he will have nothing of it. And why? Because he cannot imagine that Paul would have written in such an effusively indulgent way about a man who had been guilty of such a heinous crime and, further, he can’t believe that Paul would have urged forgiveness and restoration without at least severe words of warning lest the offense be repeated. If Paul had really offered forgiveness to the incestuous man, he would at least have required him to repent in public in dust and ashes, “a compound of disgrace and horror, before the widows, before the elders, suing for the tears of all, licking the footprints of all, clasping the knees of all.”

The sin in question, Tertullian thought, was too monstrous for forgiveness, especially given the fact that we learn from 2 Cor. 7:12 that he entered this relationship with his step-mother when his father was still alive! It is very interesting, by the way, that though many modern commentators argue that the identification of the sinner in 2 Cor. 2:5 with the one in 1 Cor. 5:1 is clearly untenable, Tertullian reminds us that that is what the early church, Greek speaking as it was, took to be the natural force of Paul’s words. But Tertullian is sure that Paul could only be talking about some moderate sin that had been committed, nothing so grave as incest.

Tertullian’s argument proceeds on the assumption that the sin of incest was unforgivable, literally unforgivable. It involves, he says, the loss of baptism. But what of Paul’s own statement in 1 Cor. 5, when the sentence was first imposed against the sinner, that the excommunication had for its very purpose, “that the man’s spirit might be saved in the day of Jesus Christ”? Tertullian’s exegesis of that text was so desperate that it is generally mercifully ignored even by those who want to come to his same conclusion. It is worth our remembering that at the time Tertullian wrote his work on this question, he had already become a devoted follower of the Montanist sect, a group of Christian rigorists who in general denied any possibility of the repentance and restoration of fornicators. As one great commentator on 2 Corinthians writes [Allo in Hughes, 62]: “Tertullian completely falsifies the spirit of St. Paul by giving him the severity and rigorism of a Montanist sectary.” Tertullian’s entire notion of the difference between sins committed before and after baptism is utterly unbiblical and, when we have rejected that distinction, we have little argument left against the natural reading of the text.

But Tertullian’s unwillingness to think that Paul could have been so willing to restore a man who had sinned so terribly is a reminder to us of how hard it is to accept and to keep in the heart the Bible’s teaching both of sin and of forgiveness. We all so easily tend to bring our own susceptibilities and prejudices to the biblical text and read it in terms imposed upon it rather than rising from it. I find it very interesting that in Roman Catholic Bibles of several generations ago, there was a note against this text explaining that “the Apostle here granted an indulgence or pardon in the person and by the authority of Christ to the incestuous Corinthian whom he had put under penance, which pardon consisted in a releasing of part of the temporal punishment due to sin.” In this interpretation Paul has become a Roman Catholic priest. No one ever got that idea out of our text until there were those who wanted to find it there. We all must be careful not to read into the Bible what is not there but what we think should be there or what we want to be there. Our task is to listen to what is there and believe and obey it absolutely.

And the fact is, what we find here is the Apostle Paul throwing the full weight of his apostolic authority into this act of “loosing” as he had before thrown the full weight of that same authority into the act of “binding.” He was as insistent now on the man’s restoration and his full reconciliation to the church as he had been on the man’s banishment in the first place. He was as emphatic that the church must restore and receive repentant sinners as he had been emphatic that the church could not and would not tolerate open sinners among its number.

What we are being taught is that the church, with its proper desire for a pure and unsullied membership and a consistent witness to the world, must avoid a discipline so inflexible and so harsh that it unwittingly sets a false limit to the grace of God. [Hughes, 67]

And, of course, there is nothing we find here that isn’t found in many other places in the Bible. We are often treated to an account of the horrific sins of believing men and of their subsequent restoration. David was an adulterer and a murderer as a believing man. Peter swore and denied the Lord openly as a believing man. The Galatians toyed seriously and openly with betraying the gospel as believing men and women. It was to Christians, after all, that John wrote, “if anyone sins, we have an advocate with God the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous one.”

The fact is, brothers and sisters, it is in 2 Cor. 2 not in 1 Cor. 5 that we find the real genius, glory, and power of the Christian faith. There is nothing unique to Christians in the demand that offenders be punished. You can get that in the newspaper every day. And even if the standard of judgment is not the true, biblical standard; even if there is terrible hypocrisy in the execution of that judgment, even if there is no thought of eternal judgment, even if there is no thought of God himself standing behind the moral standard and imparting authority to it, people are well acquainted with the principle of crime and punishment.

But to forgive, to forgive outrageous sin, to forgive sins committed against yourself, sins that diminished you and yours, that is a far rarer thing and a far more uniquely Christian thing. The gospel is not the news that crime will be met with punishment. The gospel is the good news that criminals, real criminals, vicious criminals can find true and eternal forgiveness. And not forgiveness only. Not only such a forgiveness that is spoken in some formal fashion. No, Paul clearly views real, Christian forgiveness as leading to action. He wants not simply for them to forgive the man, to judge him once again worthy of membership in the church, welcome to its society and to its sacred rites. He wants them to love the man, to encourage him and console him. He wants them to put their arms around that man and make him feel as much a part of their fellowship, family, and circle of love, as if he had never left.

Writing almost two hundred years after Tertullian, the far wiser Chrysostom, saw clearly the really radical thing that Paul was saying here:

“Even though Paul made him a common enemy, an adversary to all, expelled him from the fold and cut him off from the body, note how much concern he showed in order to bind him back indissolubly and rejoin him to the church. For he did not say, ‘simply love him’ but ‘reaffirm your love for him.’ In other words, reveal your friendship as certain, unshakeable, fervent, ardent and fiery; present your love with the same strength as the previous hatred.” [ACCS, 206]

What we have, here, of course, is just a specific instance of that general ethic taught by our Savior in his Sermon on the Mount. Christians are to love their enemies, they are to turn the other cheek when they are attacked, they are to go the extra mile with those who abuse them, and they are to bless those who hurt them and complicate and darken their lives.

And, why are Christians to do such a difficult and such an unnatural thing? Why are we to do what our entire nature rebels against doing? Because that is how God treated us. That is how he loved us. That is how he overlooked our crimes against him and loved us and received us in defiance of them. We offended him times without number, and not in small ways. Even as Christians we have done so little of what he has commanded us, we have so often done what he has forbidden us, we have so little loved and appreciated his extraordinary gifts to us, so little cared about what those gifts cost him in the suffering and the blood of his only Son, and yet, as often as we come back to him and seek forgiveness, he receives us. And even while we are ignoring him and offending him he is caring and providing for us.

If God’s grace has for its purpose to make us like Jesus Christ than, sooner or later, it must make of us people who would rather forgive, rather forget the crimes and the faults of others – even those committed against us – than to look for or demand their punishment. For that is what characterized our Savior, his willingness to forgive, to forgive anything. “Father forgive them,” he said while he hung on the cross, his life’s blood ebbing from him, his persecutors mocking him, his friends having forsaken him, “forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

I do not say that it is any easy thing to do, far from it. When C.S. Lewis was a boy of nine years of age, in the same year in which his beloved mother died, he was sent off to boarding school in England. And the school to which he was sent was run by a martinet, a sadistic man who would later be diagnosed as a psychotic. He enjoyed caning the boys. His brother Warren who was at the same school once wrote, “I have seen him lift a boy of twelve or so from the floor by the back of his collar, and holding him at arm’s length, as one might a dog…apply his cane to his calves.” It was a perfectly miserable place and terrible time in the life of a little boy who had already suffered an appalling loss. Shortly before his death, in 1963, more than a half-century later, Lewis wrote that he had finally forgiven the man who had so scarred his life when he was a boy. [Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert, 37; Nicolai, The Question of God, 29]

One cannot help wonder about this Corinthian man’s father, who, as we said, was apparently still alive when the incestuous relationship was forged between step-mother and step-son and when Paul wrote these words about the man’s restoration. When he heard the words of the Apostle Paul in our text, what did he think? Did he feel that his son was getting off far too lightly? I can believe that he did. Did he feel that his own pain and shame was being overlooked or forgotten? I can believe that he did. But, and here is the point: if that man, if that incestuous man, if that criminal, if that betrayer of everything that is sacred and holy, if that troubler of the lives of others, if that rebel, if that self-indulgent pleasure seeker, if that breaker of the laws of God and man, if that destroyer of the reputation of God and his people cannot be restored, forgiven, and reconciled both to God and the church, then there is no hope for you or me either, no hope for that man’s father, no hope for the step-mother, no hope for the Christians in Corinth who first cast the man out and then were commanded to receive him back again.

That is the bottom line. We are that man! Everyone of us, no matter his crime. We are that man! It is not only the spirit of John Bradford, the English martyr, who said, when watching a vicious criminal being led off to the gallows to be executed for his crime, “There, but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” It is not only that spirit that we should have. But, also, the spirit that says, “I am that man. In a thousand ways I am that man. I have murdered in my heart a host of men and women. I have stolen their names and reputations in the things that I have thought and said about them. And what I have done against men and women, I have done still more and still worse against God. And, if I never actually committed murder or theft, well, I know my heart well enough to know that that has more to do with the circumstances of my life than it has to do with any virtue in me. With a different upbringing, with a different set of temptations, what would I have done and what would I not have done?”

Christian ethics, from start to finish in the Bible, is simply the practice of our faith. It is putting into action what we believe about God, about ourselves, and about salvation. Our lives, the Bible teaches us over and over again, are to declare the praises of God. They are to reflect the nature and character of God as we have come to know him, we who have trusted him for our salvation. Our good deeds are to be such as will cause the nations “to glorify God on the day of his appearing.” We are, by our behavior, to make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. And what behavior does that? Well, it is that behavior that combines within itself a love of purity and holiness, a serious commitment to a life lived in obedience to God with, at the same time, an extravagant devotion to forgiveness, to the love of the unworthy, as we who are unworthy have been loved.

People will learn that the good news is not some polite and trite commonplace, when they see its power in us. When they see our willingness to forgive, receive, and accept people who have done evil things and even have done them against us. Who is the great man or woman? Always and only the one who is most like Jesus Christ. And who is that person? The one who loves much and forgives much.

“A Turkish officer raided and looted an Armenian home. He killed the aged parents and gave the daughters to the soldiers, keeping the eldest daughter for himself. Some time later she escaped and trained as a nurse. As time passed, she found herself nursing in a ward of Turkish officers. One night, by the light of a lantern, she saw the face of this officer. He was so gravely ill that without exceptional nursing he would die. The days passed, and he recovered. One day, the doctor stood by the bed with her and said to him, ‘But for her devotion to you, you would be dead.’ He looked at her and said, ‘We have met before, haven’t we?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we have met before.’ ‘Why didn’t you kill me?’ he asked. She replied, ‘I am a follower of him who said “Love your enemies.”’” [Wainwright, Doxology, 434]

In introducing that anecdote, the Methodist scholar, Geoffrey Wainwright, quotes the historian Herbert Butterfield, who said that it is impossible to measure the vast difference that ordinary Christian piety has made to the last two thousand years of history.

It was not the casting out of that sinner, necessary as that was and salutary as its effect was, that published to the world a new hope and a new understanding of life and salvation, it was his being restored and received again as a brother as if he had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if he had been as righteous as Christ was righteous for him.

There are many places in this world where Christians must forgive sins committed against them fully as terrible and has horrific in their consequences as the sin against that Armenian woman and her family. How viciously those poor Christian people have been treated over the last two hundred years. But we too have such sins to forgive: in our families, in the church, and in the world. At work there is a boss, or a co-worker who has treated us unfairly, or belittled us, or even fired us. We will know that the Lord is among us in power and effect when we know, know in our hearts and embrace with our hearts this fact: that we are never so truly the followers of Jesus Christ, never so really Christians, never so faithfully the servants of the Lord and his gospel, never so much living the lives we were meant to live than when we forgive our enemies from our hearts and restore and receive them into our hearts, and when we do that for no other reason but that the Lord Christ has done the same for us, and has done it over and over again.

Baxter: “Live now as you would wish you had done at death and judgment.” In H, 71


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