What to Do When Someone Sins Against You

Matthew 18:15-20

November 26, 2006 | Brian Bill

One Sunday morning a wife tried to wake her husband up for church.  He kept his eyes closed and said, “I don’t want to go to church; they don’t like me there.”  She tried again, this time pleading with him to get out of bed, reminding him that some of the people did like him.  Pulling his covers over his head, he replied, “No matter how hard I try, they keep making fun of me.  On top of that, the sermons are focusing on conflict resolution.  I don’t really want to think about that stuff.”  Finally, she decided to practice some tough love.  She whipped the covers off, raised her voice, and said, “You don’t have a choice.  Get out of bed right now and get dressed…you’re the pastor.”

Maybe you’re still sleepy from all the tryptophan in your Thanksgiving turkey, or maybe you’re in tension with someone you’d like to call a turkey today.  Perhaps it’s hard to come to church and hear that making peace is possible because you uncorked some more conflict over the last couple days.  This is one of those topics that is difficult to preach on for at least two reasons.  First, I know that some of you are in conflict.  And second, I create enough of my own.  Last Sunday morning I asked Beth if I had done anything to hurt her because I knew I couldn’t get up and preach on peace if we were out of sorts.  She hesitated, I braced myself…and then she said we were good to go.

Did you hear about the industrious turkey farmer who experimented with breeding to perfect a better turkey?  Everyone in his family liked the turkey legs but there were never enough to go around.  After many frustrating attempts, he finally figured it out.  The farmer was relating the results of his efforts at the local gas station one day.  “Well I finally did it!  I figured out how to get a turkey that has 6 legs!”  His buddies were amazed and asked him how it tasted.  The farmer replied, “I don’t know.  I could never catch that thing!”  

I hope you’ve been catching how to biblically handle conflict during this short series.  Let me summarize where we’ve been:

  • Every Conflict is an Opportunity
  • Get the Log out of Your Eye
  • What to do When Someone’s Mad at You

Our topic today is “What to Do When Someone Sins against You” from Matthew 18:15-17.  It’s been my observation that this passage is often over-quoted and under-used.  Some people consider it like a code when they say, “I’m going to ‘Matthew 18’ that person.”  It’s my desire that when we’re done today we’ll be motivated to not just quote it but to actually utilize what it says.  Let’s read it together: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Before a plane takes off, a pilot conducts a “pre-flight” checklist.   I’d like to suggest the following “pre-fight” checklist that can help us avoid a bumpy relational ride and keep us from crashing from our conflict.

  • Am I treating the other person as one of God’s treasures?   Let’s set this text in context.  In verses 1-5, we’re told to be welcoming to children, and to even become like them.  In verses 6-9, we’re challenged to not lead anyone into sin.  In verses 10-14, Jesus reminds us that the Good Shepherd does not want any of His little lambs to be lost.  Verse 15 uses the word “brother” twice which indicates that God does not want friction in his family and that He wants conflict dealt with among spiritual siblings.  A good example of this is found in Genesis 13:8 when Abraham does some conflict resolution with his nephew Lot: “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.”
  • Check to make sure my goal is reconciliation not retaliation.  Right after this passage, we see in verses 21-35 that we must be willing to forgive “seventy times seven times” when someone sins against us.  I must make sure my attitude is right so that I don’t fight or use my might.  The goal is always reconciliation and restoration.  James 5:19-20 reminds us that we are to bring back the one who is wandering and our aim is to turn the “sinner from the error of his way…”
  • How’s my attitude?  Before I go to a brother or sister I must make sure that I am not going with any spiritual superiority but with humility.  I should come alongside, not above the other.  Galatians 6:1-3: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”  Keep the truth of Proverbs 12:18 in mind: “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
  • Have I claimed the presence and power of Christ?  Knowing that most of us would rather stay in bed than make peacemaking a priority, Jesus makes two incredible promises in this passage.  First, in Matthew 18:18 we read that if we handle conflict biblically here on earth it will be bound in heaven.  Second, Matthew 18:19-20, while often quoted as an incentive for intercession, is actually a promise that is applied when we deal Scripturally with someone’s sin: “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” 
  • Evaluate how willing I am to obey.  These words come directly from the mouth of Jesus and as such I cannot deem optional what He has declared obligatory.  This is the way to deal with someone who sins against us.  When we disobey and default into denial or denigration, we do so at our own peril.  As followers of Christ, we don’t have the option of just opting out simply because it’s difficult.  

Last week I mentioned that there are four things we must do from Matthew 5:23-24 when someone has something against us: Leave.  Go.  Be.  Come.  Of the four, the first one is probably the easiest.  When someone sins against us, the first step in Matthew 18:15 is probably the hardest.  In fact, it’s so difficult that it’s often skipped entirely.  Because of that, I’m going to spend most of my time on this one.  The other reason I want to camp on this step is because I believe most conflicts can be resolved at this level, if we will just have the courage to do some “care-fronting.”

Four Paths to Peace

1. Talk in private (verse 15). 

The first path to peace is to ascertain if our brother has actually sinned against us.  Look at the first part of verse 15: “If your brother sins against you…”  This is important to think through because sometimes we label something as sin when it is actually a preference or a pet peeve or a personality trait or just a personal irritation that bugs us.  In those instances, we’re called to “bear with one another.”  I heard this prayer recently that I think is very helpful: “I’ve asked the Lord to take from me the super sensitivity that robs the soul of joy and peace and causes fellowship to cease.”  Beth and I have found that discerning the difference between moral and non-moral issues when we’re in a disagreement saves us from a lot of conflict.  One wife says she handles non-moral issues by saying this: “That’s the man I married.  That’s the way he is.  I don’t like it, but I love him.”

Some times we are called to overlook something and not say a word…if we can.  Jesus said in Matthew 5:39-40: “…If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”  1 Peter 2:23 says that Jesus “…did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats…”  And Proverbs 19:11: “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.”  Sometimes we must put things in the “grace box” and then put it in a hard-to-reach place.

While we must bear with some things, and overlook when we can, we are not to put up with sin.  And sometimes we can’t keep our anger and animosity inside the box.  If your brother or sister has sinned against you, there are two important imperatives in this verse: Go and Show.  Look at the next phrase: “…go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  The word “go” means “to continue to go and pursue without being distracted.”  The word “show” refers to “being convincing.”  We can’t be casual or indifferent and just act like it will go away on its own.  It won’t.  Don’t wait for the other person to come to you or you’ll be waiting a long time.  As we established last week, working towards reconciliation is always my responsibility.  Whether we’ve sinned against someone or we’ve been sinned against, our duty is to go.  Instead, we often go to others and gossip when we should be talking to the person in private about what he or she has done to us.  

Over 20 years ago, Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, was prompted by the Holy Spirit to say something very impromptu to a group of new members.  He continues to say these words to this day: “And now I charge you if you ever hear another member speak an unkind word of criticism or slander against anyone…that you stop that person in mid-sentence and say, ‘Excuse me – who hurt you?  Who ignored you?  Who slighted you?  We won’t let you talk critically about people who aren’t present to defend themselves.”  He concludes with these wise words: “…I know what most easily destroys churches.  It’s not crack cocaine, government oppression, or even lack of funds.  Rather it’s gossip and slander that grieves the Holy Spirit.”  Here’s the principle: Don’t talk about people’s faults; talk to them about their faults.  John Piper adds, “It’s easy and tasty to talk about people.  It’s hard and often bitter to talk to them.”

Paul practiced this “go and show” method with Peter when he wrote in Galatians 2:11: “I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.”  We know Peter responded correctly and they were reconciled because he later wrote these words in 2 Peter 3:15: “our dear brother Paul.”  In our technological world, it’s still better and more biblical to meet face-to-face.  Avoid email, and text messages and even letters if you can help it.  While there are some instances where you may need to utilize one of these tools, I suggest that you use them only to set up a face-to-face meeting.

There are some clear benefits about going in private: “just between the two of you.”

  • I might be mistaken and it could just be a misunderstanding.
  • The other person might not even be aware that they have sinned.

Here’s a question.  When’s the last time you practiced “going and showing” without saying a word to anyone else about the issue?  This passage tells me that I must go quietlyEphesians 4:26 says that I must do it quickly: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”  And Matthew 7:5 reminds me to do it carefully: “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The biggest reason for telling in private is because this will handle most every situation: “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”  If we skip this step and start telling others, we short-circuit the person’s restoration.  We can damage someone’s reputation by spreading what has personally happened between us and if it’s resolved, there’s no need to bring others into it.  The word “won” is a financial term, meaning I have invested myself and now there is profit because the person has listened.  Remember this: the goal is always restoration.

2. Take others along (verse 16). 

If the person who has sinned against you does not listen when you go and show, then it’s time to increase the pressure by involving others: “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”  This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 19:15.  In the Old Testament a person could not be convicted on the word of just one witness.  This was for protection so that no one would pass along slanderous information that was not confirmed.  Here are some benefits to having a witness or two:

  • Establishes the facts and is a way of saying, “I’m not just making this up.”
  • Observes the erring brother’s reaction.
  • Keeps things from escalating.
  • Remembers what was said.
If your spiritual sibling repents and confesses, then you must restore and stop the process

Once again, the objective is restoration.  If your spiritual sibling repents and confesses, then you must restore and stop the process.  If he doesn’t, then move on to path #3.  You’ll notice that the passage moves from singular involvement to plural involvement the further you go.

3. Tell it to the church (verse 17a). 

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…” This is a sober, sorrowful and serious moment and therefore should not be rushed into.  This step is taken when there is continued, confirmed and unconfessed sin.  This is the second reference to “church” in Matthew (see 16:18) and refers to “a called-out assembly of people.”

We are not on a witch-hunt nor are we the “sin police.”  Membership has its privileges and its responsibilities.  This level, like the first two, is meant to be loving; though it may not seem like it.  Again, the aspiration is reconciliation.  The congregation’s role at this step is to plead and pray for a change of heart. 

4. Treat him as an unbeliever (17b). 

“…And if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector.”  A pagan was a Gentile and a tax collector was often a Jewish traitor who worked for the Roman government.  Jesus had exclusion in mind when he described these two categories.  Romans 16:17: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.”  2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 captures the heart behind church discipline: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him.  Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.  Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”  The idea is that exclusion should make the believer repentant; so we should wait with open arms, loving them as outsiders to be won over.  If you wonder about this, remember that Jesus loved pagans and tax collectors.

This step seems callous and countercultural because we tend to value the individual above the group but the Bible values the community above the personal.  Albert Mohler makes a good point when he writes: “No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members with minimal accountability to God, much less to each other.”

The exact form of this ostracism is not specified but the objective once again is restoration.  The word “discipline” comes from the same root as “disciple” or “teach.”  As parents we try to make the distinction between discipline and punishment.  Discipline has with it the goal of teaching and training whereas punishment is often just an end in itself.  Hebrews 12:11: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

The Importance of Forgiveness

The paths to peace are laid out for us very clearly in this passage: Talk.  Tell.  Take.  Treat.  But there’s one more thing we must do and it might be the hardest of all.  When someone sins against us, we are to forgive.  Let me remind you that Jesus’ words about forgiving 70 times 7 times follows immediately after this account.  Phillip Yancey writes: “In the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith.  By forgiving another, I am trusting that God is a better justice-maker than I am.  By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out…”  C.S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”

An article called, “The Thing We Don’t Do” by Andrée Seu appeared in World Magazine a couple months ago (9/30/06).  I find her candor to be contagious.  I think you’ll be able to relate to her agony.

Forgiving is the hardest thing you will ever do.  That’s why most people don’t do it.  We talk about it, cheer for it, preach on it, and are sure we’ve practiced it.  But mostly the illusion of having forgiven is that the passage of time dulls memory.  The ruse will come to light with hair-trigger vengeance when fresh offense hurls in to empty out the gunnysack of half-digested grievances. 

I asked a few people if they’d ever forgiven anyone, and what it felt like.  They gave me answers so pious I knew they’d never done it.  I am at the present moment in the maw of temptation, and I can tell you there is nothing exalted about this feeling, this one-two punch to the gut that comes when you even contemplate forgiving, which is as far as I’ve come…I alternately toyed with going to him to “tell him his fault” (Matthew 18:15), which is my biblical right, so there.  I had the decree of rebuke written up in my head, a document of fastidious and plenary detail—all for his own good.  A swarmy satisfaction accompanied the plan, so I nixed it.  For now…

O my brothers, you cannot imagine the exquisite verbal retaliations I have hatched in the idle hours, each more perfect than the last: theologically impeccable, legalistically faultless, poisoned prose polished to a lethal point.  Must I now relinquish these?  Must I kill the little darlings?  Are they not to see the light of day?  Such a waste… Forgiveness is a brutal mathematical transaction done with fully engaged faculties.  It’s my pain instead of yours.  I eat the debt.  I absorb the misery I wanted to dish out on you…

After contemplating what Christ went through for her, she concludes the article with these words: “Be so awash in the ocean of His love, my soul; that the shortcomings of all human loves will, more and more, seem but a trifling thing.”  George Herbert adds, “He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.”

it costs more to not forgive

We are called to forgive the faults of fellow believers.  And the only way we can do that is to remember how much we’ve been forgiven.  There are two Greek words for forgiveness.  One refers to debts that have been paid or canceled in full.  The other means to bestow favor freely or unconditionally.  We’re to let go and we’re to love graciously.  Forgiveness is costly, isn’t it?  Yes, it is.  But it costs more to not forgive.  Listen to these words from Mark 11:25: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

The Peacemaker ministry describes forgiveness as a decision involving four promises

  • “I will not dwell on this incident.”
  • “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.”
  • “I will not talk to others about this incident.”
  • “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.” 

In the book called, “The Young Peacemaker,” these four promises are summarized this way:

  • Good thought
  • Hurt you not
  • Gossip never
  • Friends forever

This is exactly what God has done for us, and it is what he calls us to do for others.  It’s the way of a peacemaker.  It’s time to get out of the bed of bitterness and deal with conflict the way God wants us to.

The Peacemaker’s Pledge

I wonder what would happen if an entire church would make a public commitment to Biblical Conflict Resolution.  The following pledge is adapted from Ken Sande’s book entitled, “The Peacemaker.” Please follow along with the copy that’s in your bulletin.  I encourage you to look up the verses sometime this week.

As people reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we believe that we are called to respond to conflict in a way that is remarkably different from the way the world deals with conflict (Matthew 5:9; Luke 6:27-36; Galatians 5:19-26).  We also believe that conflict provides opportunities to glorify God, serve other people, and grow to be like Christ (Romans 8:28-29; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; James 1:2-4).  Therefore, in response to God’s love and in reliance on his grace, we commit ourselves to respond to conflict according to the following principles:

Glorify God — Instead of focusing on our own desires or dwelling on what others may do, we will rejoice in the Lord and bring him praise by depending on his forgiveness, wisdom, power, and love, as we seek to faithfully obey his commands and maintain a loving, merciful, and forgiving attitude (Psalm 37:1-6; Mark 11:25; John 14:15; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Philippians 4:2-9; Colossians 3:1-4; James 3:17-18, 4:1-3; 1 Peter 2:12).

Get the Log out of Your Own Eye — Instead of blaming others for a conflict or resisting correction, we will trust in God’s mercy and take responsibility for our own contribution to conflicts—confessing our sins to those we have wronged, asking God to help us change any attitudes and habits that lead to conflict, and seeking to repair any harm we have caused (Proverbs 28:13; Matthew 7:3-5; Luke 19:8; Colossians 3:5-14; 1 John 1:8-9).

Gently Restore — Instead of pretending that conflict doesn’t exist or talking about others behind their backs, we will overlook minor offenses or we will talk personally and graciously with those whose offenses seem too serious to overlook, seeking to restore them rather than condemn them.  When a conflict with a Christian brother or sister cannot be resolved in private, we will ask others in the body of Christ to help us settle the matter in a biblical manner (Proverbs 19:11; Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 6:1-8; Galatians 6:1-2; Ephesians 4:29; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; James 5:9).

Go and be reconciled — Instead of accepting premature compromise or allowing relationships to wither, we will actively pursue genuine peace and reconciliation—forgiving others as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven us, and seeking just and mutually beneficial solutions to our differences (Matthew 5:23-24, 6:12, 7:12; Ephesians 4:1-3, 32; Philippians 2:3-4)

By God’s grace, we will apply these principles as a matter of stewardship, realizing that conflict is an assignment, not an accident.  We will remember that success in God’s eyes is not a matter of specific results, but of faithful, dependent obedience.  And we will pray that our service as peacemakers will bring praise to our Lord and lead others to know His infinite love (Matthew 25:14-21; John 13:34-35; Romans 12:18; 1 Peter 2:19, 4:19).

After the civil war ended, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who showed him the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house.  She bitterly lamented that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed during the war.  She looked to Lee to condemn the North or at least sympathize with her loss.  After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.”  

Brothers and sisters in Christ, talk in private and if that doesn’t resolve it; take others along and if that doesn’t turn the person back; then tell it to the church and if that doesn’t do it; then treat him or her as an unbeliever.  That’s what you should do for a brother or sister that has sinned against you.  And in the process, make sure you forgive so you can cut it down and forget about it.  Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?