New Believer's Series #14
Forgiveness and Restoration
By Watchman Nee
Scripture Reading: Matt. 18:21-35, 15-20; Luke 17:3-5
What should we do if a brother offends us? We all have to deal with this question. What should we do when it is not we who have offended others but others who have offended us? When we examine the above three portions of the Lord's Word, we find that we should not only forgive a brother who has offended us but we should also restore him. Let us first consider the matter of forgiveness.
1. FORGIVING ONE'S BROTHER
A. Being Required to Forgive
Matthew 18:21-22 says, "Then Peter came and said to Him, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times? Jesus said to him, I do not say to you, Up to seven times, but, Up to seventy times seven."
Luke 17:3-4 says, "Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day and turns again to you seven times, saying, I repent, you shall forgive him."
The verses in Matthew say that we should forgive a brother seventy times seven times, not just seven times. The verses in Luke say that we have to forgive a brother who sins against us seven times a day, repents, and turns to us seven times. Whether or not his repentance is genuine, we must forgive him as long as he repents. Whether or not he is genuine is not our responsibility. We have to forgive him.
Seven times is not too much, but seven times within one day is not that infrequent. Suppose the same person does the same thing to you seven times a day, and suppose he says that he has sinned against you seven times a day. Would you still believe that his confession is genuine? I am afraid that you would think that he was only confessing with his lips. This is why Luke 17:5 says, "The apostles said to the Lord, Increase our faith." They felt that this was a problem to them. It was unthinkable to them that a brother could offend someone seven times in a day and then turn around to repent seven times. They could not believe it, and they said, "Lord, increase our faith." But God's children should forgive even if they are called upon to do so seven times a day. When a brother sins against you, you should not hold it against him.
B. God's Measure
The Lord continues with a parable in Matthew 18:23-27: "For this reason the kingdom of the heavens has become like a king who desired to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he began to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, the master commanded him to be sold, as well as his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. Then the slave fell down and worshipped him, saying, Be patient with me and I will repay you all. And the master of that slave was moved with compassion and released him and forgave him the loan."
The slave owed ten thousand talents, which was a very large amount of money. He had no ability to repay because "he did not have the means to repay." We can never repay all that we owe God. It is far more than what men owe us. Once a child of God arrives at a proper evaluation of his debt to God, he will generously forgive what his brother owes him. When we forget the immensity of the grace we have received from God, we become merciless toward others. We need to see how much we owe God before we can see how little others owe us.
The slave did not have the means to repay, and the master ordered him "to be sold, as well as his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made." Actually, even if he sold all that he had, he still could not have repaid everything. "Then the slave fell down and worshipped him, saying, Be patient with me and I will repay you all."
It is difficult for man to understand clearly what grace is and what the gospel is. Man often thinks that he may not be able to repay today, but that he will be able to repay someday. He may not make it today, but he will make it someday. In these verses, however, we see a slave who, even if he were to sell all that he had, would not have had enough to repay. He said, "Be patient with me and I will repay you all." His intention was good. He was not trying to avoid his debt. He was only asking the Lord for more time. He intended to repay all. Such a thought can only come from those who have no knowledge of grace.
"And the master of that slave was moved with compassion and released him and forgave him the loan." This is the gospel. The gospel is not God working for you according to your idea. You may say, "Lord, be patient with me, and I will repay You all," but the Lord does not respond by saying, "Pay what you have and repay the rest later." The Lord forgave all of your debt. Man's prayers and requests do not even come close to the grace of the Lord. Our Lord works for us and answers our prayer according to what He has. The master of the slave released him and forgave the debt. This is God's grace; this is His measure. Anyone who asks for grace will receive grace from God, even though his knowledge of grace is very limited. We should be clear about this principle: The Lord loves to bestow grace on men. As long as we have a little desire for grace, the Lord will pour it out on us. He is afraid that we will not ask. As soon as a man hopes a little and opens his mouth to say, "Lord, be gracious to me," the Lord pours out His grace to him. Moreover, this grace from the Lord is given to His own satisfaction. We may think that one dollar is enough, but He will give ten million dollars, not just one dollar. He acts for His own satisfaction. His acts are compatible with Himself. We would settle for one dollar, but God cannot give anyone such a small sum. Either He does not give at all, or He gives according to His own measure.
We need to realize that salvation is accomplished in man according to God's measure. Salvation is not carried out according to man's thought. It is accomplished in man according to God's thought and plan.
The criminal on the cross pleaded with the Lord, saying, "Remember me when You come into Your kingdom." The Lord heard his prayer, yet He did not answer him according to his prayer. Instead He said, "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). Salvation is God saving man according to His own will, not according to the sinner's will. Salvation is not according to the thoughts of a sinner's limited mentality about God's work for him. Rather, salvation is God's work upon sinners according to His own thought. The Lord did not wait until He came into His kingdom to remember the criminal. He promised the criminal that he would be with Him in Paradise that very day.
The tax collector prayed in the temple and beat his breast, saying, "God, be propitiated to me, the sinner!" At the most, he was asking God to be propitiated to him. But God did not answer him according to his prayer. The Lord Jesus said, "This man went down to his house justified rather than that one" (Luke 18:9-14). In other words, that sinner went back justified. This was much more than what was in the mind of the sinner. The sinner had no thought of justification; he asked only for pity. But God said that he was justified. This means that God did not consider him a sinner but a justified person. Not only were his sins forgiven; he was justified by God. This shows us that God does not accomplish His salvation according to man's thought but according to His own thought.
The same thing is seen in the return of the prodigal son (15:11-32). When he was a long way off from home and before he met his father, he was prepared to go back home to serve as a servant. But when he reached his home, his father did not ask him to be a servant. Instead, he asked his slaves to bring out the best robe and to put it on him. He put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet and slaughtered the fattened calf. They ate and were merry because the son who was dead had come to life again; he was lost but had been found. From these verses we see again that God does not accomplish His salvation according to a sinner's thought but according to His own thought.
Mark 2 speaks of four men who took a paralytic to the Lord Jesus. When they were unable to bring him to the Lord because of the crowd, they removed the roof where the Lord was and lowered the bed on which the paralytic was lying, hoping that the Lord Jesus would heal the paralytic and make him rise and walk. But the Lord Jesus said, "Child, your sins are forgiven" (v. 5). The Lord Jesus not only healed him but also forgave him of his sins. This also tells us that God works to His own satisfaction. All we have to do is go to God and ask. It does not matter whether we have asked enough. God always works to His own satisfaction, not to the sinner's satisfaction. Therefore, we should not consider salvation from our point of view but from God's point of view.
C. God's Expectation
God expects to see one thing from us: Whoever wants to receive grace must first learn to dispense grace. Whoever receives grace must first learn to share grace. If a man receives grace, God expects him to share this grace with others.
Matthew 18:28-29 says, "But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and he took hold of him and began to choke him, saying, Repay me what you owe. Then his fellow slave fell down and begged him, saying, Be patient with me and I will repay you." Here the Lord shows us that we owe Him ten thousand talents, while others only owe us only a hundred denarii. When we say to the Lord, "Be patient with me and I will repay you all," He not only releases us but also forgives our debt. Our fellow slave, our brother, owes us a hundred denarii at the most. When he says, "Be patient with me and I will repay you," he has our same hope and request. How can we not be patient with him? But the slave "would not; instead, he went away and threw him into prison until he would repay what was owed" (v. 30).
The Lord spoke such a parable to expose the unreasonableness of those who do not forgive others. If you do not forgive your brother, you are the very slave spoken of in these verses. When we read this parable, we are indignant at this slave. The master had forgiven his debt of ten thousand talents, but he would not forgive his fellow slave's debt of a hundred denarii. He put his fellow slave into prison and kept him there until the latter would pay what he owed. He acted according to his standard of "righteousness"! A believer should treat himself according to righteousness but should treat others according to grace. Your brother may owe you something, and the Lord knows clearly that your brother owes you something. But He also clearly shows us that if a believer does not forgive his brother, he is not dealing with others according to grace. Such a one is short of grace in God's eyes.
Verses 31-33 say, "His fellow slaves, seeing what had taken place, were greatly grieved and came and explained fully to their master all that had taken place. Then his master called him to him and said to him, Evil slave, all that debt I forgave you, because you begged me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave even as I had mercy on you?" The Lord expects us to do to others as He has done to us. He has not made demands on us according to righteousness. In the same way He expects us to not make demands on others according to righteousness. The Lord has forgiven our debts according to mercy, and He expects us to forgive others' debts according to mercy as well. With what measure the Lord measures to us, He expects us to measure the same measure to others. The Lord dispenses grace to us according to a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. He expects us to do the same thing to others according to a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. The Lord expects us to do to our brother as He has done to us.
The ugliest thing in the eyes of God is for a forgiven person to refuse to forgive others. Nothing is uglier than refusing to forgive when one has been forgiven or refusing to be merciful when one has obtained mercy. A person should not receive grace for himself on the one hand and refuse to share grace with others on the other hand. A person must realize before the Lord that he should treat others the same way that the Lord has treated him. It is very ugly for a man to receive grace while refusing to share grace. Being forgiven yet refusing to forgive others is a most uncomely sight. God condemns a debt-ridden person's attempt to demand payment from another debt-ridden person. He has no pleasure in those who remember others' shortcomings when they themselves have come short.
The master asked the slave, "Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave even as I had mercy on you?" God wants us to have mercy on others as He has had mercy on us. We need to learn to have mercy on others and to forgive them. A man who has experienced grace and who is forgiven by God should learn to forgive others' debts. He should learn to forgive others, to have mercy on them, and to be gracious to them. We need to lift up our eyes and say to the Lord, "Lord, You have forgiven my debt of ten thousand talents. I am willing to forgive those who have offended me today. I am also willing to forgive those who will offend me in the future. You have forgiven me of my great sins. I also will learn to be like You in a small way by forgiving others."
D. God's Discipline
Verse 34 continues, "His master became angry and delivered him to the torturers until he would repay all that was owed." This is a man who has come under God's discipline. God delivers him to the torturers until he should repay all that he owes.
Verse 35 says, "So also shall My heavenly Father do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from your hearts." This is a serious matter. We hope that no one would fall into God's hand. We must forgive our brother from the heart, as God has forgiven us from His heart. We hope all the brothers and sisters will learn to forgive all offenses. Do not try to remember the sins of your brother. We should not ask our brother to repay us. God's children should be like God in this matter. Since God treats us generously, He expects us to treat our brothers generously as well.
II. RESTORING THE BROTHER
It is not sufficient for us to just forgive our brother. This only takes care of the negative side. We still need to restore him. This is the charge in Matthew 18:15-20.
A. Telling the Person
Matthew 18:15 says, "If your brother sins against you, go, reprove him between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother." Offenses occur all the time among God's children. If a brother offends you, what should you do? The Lord says, "Go, reprove him between you and him alone." If a brother offends you, the first thing you should do is not to tell others. Do not tell the brothers and sisters or the elders of the church about it or make it the subject of your conversation. This is not the Lord's charge. If a brother offends you, the first thing you should do is go to him and tell him.
A problem often arises when a brother offends another brother and then the offended brother goes around publicizing it. He continually talks about it until the whole church knows about it. However, the brother who supposedly offended him remains unaware of the offense. Such tale-telling is typical of the conduct of a weak person; only a weak one would be so timid as to not talk directly with the offending brother. He would only dare to speak about the matter behind his back; he would dare not speak about it face-to-face. It is an unclean thing for anyone to speak of matters behind others' backs and to spread gossip. We do have to deal with our brother's fault, but the Lord does not want us to tell others first. The first one who needs to be told is the person who is directly involved, not others. If we learn this basic lesson well, the church will be spared many problems.
How do we tell others? Should we write a letter to them? The Lord did not tell us to do this. The Lord did not say that we should deal with it in writing, but rather by going to our brother and speaking to him face-to-face. However, just as it is wrong to speak about a matter behind someone's back, it is equally wrong to speak about it in front of many people. The matter should be communicated "between you and him alone." Many children of God fail in this matter. They publicize things before many people. But the Lord charges us to speak only when the involved parties are together. In other words, individual sins should be dealt with by the individuals alone; no third party should be involved at all.
We need to learn this lesson before God. We should never say anything behind the back of the brother who has offended us, and we should not speak to him in front of many people. We must point out his fault only when we are alone together. We do not have to talk about other things or bring up other problems; we simply need to point out the fault. This requires grace from God. It is one lesson God's children must learn.
Some brothers and sisters may think that this is too troublesome. While this is, in fact, quite troublesome, you cannot be afraid of trouble if you want to walk according to God's Word. If you feel that your brother's offense against you is too small to be bothered with, you may feel no need to speak to him. If this is the case, there is also no need to tell others about it. If you feel that a matter is insignificant, simple, trivial, and unworthy of bringing to his attention, you should not tell others about it either. You should not think that he does not need to be informed but that others do need to be informed. If you want to speak of it, speak to him alone. If there is no need to speak of it, simply keep silent. It is wrong for others to know about something when the offending brother is ignorant of it.
B. The Reason for Telling
The second half of verse 15 says, "If he hears you, you have gained your brother." This is the reason for telling. The reason for telling your brother is not to receive any compensation. There is only one reason for telling: "If he hears you, you have gained your brother."
Therefore, the issue is not how much loss you have sustained. If your brother has offended you, and the matter is not cleared up, he will not be able to get through to God; there will be obstacles in his fellowship and prayer. This is why you have to admonish him. It is not a matter of venting your hurt feelings, but a matter of your responsibility. It is a very small matter if it is simply a matter of hurt feelings. If it is just a matter of hurt feelings, if the issue does not pose a problem to you, and if you think you can get over it, you do not need to speak to your brother or anyone else. No one knows better than you do how serious the matter is to you. The responsibility of making the decision to go or not to go rests with you. Such responsibility rests with the party who is clearest about the matter. There are many things that can be let go of, but there are also many things that must be dealt with. If some offenses will indeed stumble your brother, you must point out his fault to him while he and you are alone together. Anything that should be dealt with must be dealt with carefully. You may let the matter go easily, but the other party may not be able to get through like you. He has committed an offense before God, and God has not yet forgiven him. If a brother has committed a mistake that will jeopardize his relationship with God, this is not a small matter, and you should go and clearly tell him about it. You must find an opportunity while he and you are alone together and say, "Brother, it was not right for you to offend me in such a way. Your offense will ruin your future before God. You will create obstacles and bring loss to yourself before God." If he listens to you, "You have gained your brother." In this way you restore your brother.
Today many of God's children do not obey the teaching of this portion of the Word. Some people always speak of others' wrongdoings, continually publicizing them. Some do not tell others, yet they never forgive and always harbor grudges in their hearts. Some forgive but do not try to restore. But this is not what the Lord wants us to do. It is wrong to speak of others' faults; it is wrong to keep silent yet be unforgiving in the heart; and it is equally wrong to forgive but not to exhort.
The Lord did not say that it is good enough for us to forgive the brother who has offended us. The Lord also showed us that the offended one has the responsibility to restore the offending one. Since it is not a small thing to offend someone, we have the responsibility to tell the one who has offended us for his sake. We must think of some way to restore our brother and gain him back. When we speak to him, we must be proper in our attitude and pure in our intention. Our purpose is to restore our brother. If our intention is to gain him, we will know how to point out his fault. If our intention is not to restore him, it will only worsen the relationship. The purpose of exhortation is not to ask for recompense or to justify our own feelings; it is for the purpose of restoring our brother.
C. The Proper Attitude in Telling Others
If our intention is pure, we will know how to do this step by step. First, we must have the right spirit. Next, the words we speak, the way we speak them, including our attitude, countenance, voice, and tone, must all be right. Our purpose is to gain him, not just to inform him of his fault.
If we are simply trying to rebuke him, our rebuking may be right, and the strong words we use may be justified, but our attitude, tone, and countenance may never achieve the goal of gaining him.
It is easy for us to say good things about a brother; it is easy to praise a person. It is also very easy to lose our temper with a person. We only need to let go of our emotions and we will lose our temper. But pointing out a person's fault and, at the same time, restoring and gaining him is something that can be done only by those who are full of grace. One must forget about himself completely before he can be humble, meek, free from pride, and willing to help those who are at fault. In the first place one must be right himself.
You should realize that the Lord allows a brother to offend you because He has shown favor to you and has chosen you. He has put a great responsibility upon you. You are His chosen vessel, and God is using you to restore your brother.
If a brother offends you in a small matter and you forgive him, the matter is settled; there is no need to do anything further. But if a brother offends you to such an extent that it becomes an issue, you cannot close your eyes and say that there is no problem. The problem is there, and you cannot ignore it. If the problem is not solved, it becomes a burden to the church. The church is often weakened because of these burdens. The life of the Body is drained through these burdens, and the work of the ministers is wasted through these burdens. Before God we need to learn to deal with every problem when it arises. If a person offends us, we should not close our eyes and try to ignore it. We must deal with it properly. However, our spirit, attitude, word, countenance, and tone must all be proper. This is the only way to gain our brother.
D. Telling Others
Verse 16 says, "But if he does not hear you, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." If you go to him by yourself and speak to him with a proper motive, a good attitude, and gentle words, and he still does not hear you, then go and tell others about it. However, you must tell someone else only after he has rejected your words. You must not tell others loosely.
If a problem arises between two of God's children and if both of them go to the Lord and deal with it, everything will be solved easily. But suppose one is not careful with his words and the problem spreads to the ear of a third person. The problem will be compounded, and it will be hard to solve. If there is no contamination of a wound, the healing process is relatively simple. If dirt gets into a wound, not only does the level of pain increase, but the dirt makes it harder for the wound to heal. Unnecessarily spreading a problem to a third person is like adding dirt to a wound. Any problems between the brothers and sisters should be dealt with directly by the involved persons. The only time we should tell another person or persons is when one party will not receive the admonition. The purpose of telling others is not to multiply the gossip but to invite others to exhort, help, and fellowship together.
The "one or two more" here should be experienced persons in the Lord; they should be those who are weighty in their spiritual measure. You should present the case before them and ask for their opinions. They should check whether the fault lies with the offending one. The mature ones should pray and consider the matter before the Lord and then arbitrate according to their spiritual discernment. If they feel that the fault lies with the offending brother, they should go to that brother and say, "You are wrong in this matter. By doing this you have cut yourself off from the Lord. You must repent and confess."
"That by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." The "one or two more" must not have a loose tongue. Do not invite talkative persons to such a meeting. Talkative ones can never convince people; instead, invite those who are trustworthy, honest, spiritual, and experienced before the Lord. In this way every word will be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.
E. Finally Telling the Church
Verse 17 says, "If he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church." If we cannot deal with the problem by ourselves, we should bring one or two with us to deal with it. If the other person still refuses to hear them, we have to tell it to the church. Telling the church does not mean that we publicize the matter when the whole church is gathered together. It means telling the responsible elders in the church. If the conscience of the church also feels that this brother is wrong, he must be wrong. If the offending brother is one who walks before God, he should lay aside his own view and accept the witness of two or three. If he does not accept the witness of two or three, he should at least accept the verdict of the church. The unanimous view and judgment of the church reflect the heart of the Lord. The brother should realize that it is wrong to ignore the church. He should be meek and not trust in his own feelings or his own judgment. Rather, he should accept the feeling of the church.
What if he still refuses to hear? Verse 17 continues, "If he refuses to hear the church also, let him be to you just like the Gentile and the tax collector." This is a serious word. In other words, if he refuses to hear the church, all the brothers and sisters in the church should no longer communicate with him. Since he does not want to face his problem, the church should consider him as a Gentile and a tax collector and should have no fellowship with him. Though he is not excommunicated, all the brothers should consider him as a Gentile and tax collector, and no one should pay any attention to him. If he speaks, no one should listen. If he comes to break bread, everyone should ignore him. If he prays, no one should say "amen." If he wants to come, he can come. If he wants to go, he can go. But everyone should consider him as an outsider. If God's children will hold such an attitude in one accord, it will be easy to restore a brother. The purpose for dealing with him in this way is still to restore him.
Verse 18, which says, "Truly I say to you, Whatever you bind on the earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the earth shall have been loosed in heaven," is related to the previous verses. The Lord in heaven acknowledges what the church does on earth. If the church considers a person who refuses to hear the church as being wrong, the church will look upon him as a Gentile and a tax collector, and our Lord in heaven will acknowledge the same thing.
Verses 19 and 20 are also based on the preceding portion. "Again, truly I say to you that if two of you are in harmony on earth concerning any matter for which they ask, it will be done for them from My Father who is in the heavens. For where there are two or three gathered into My name, there am I in their midst." Why does the previous verse say "that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established"? Here we see that the principle of two or three is the principle of the church. If two or three act upon a matter in one accord, and if these two or three deliberate something before God in one accord, God will acknowledge the decision. Matthew 18:18-20 is spoken in the context of our dealing with the brothers. When a matter is brought up to two or three people and then to the whole church, the Father in heaven will acknowledge such a decision.
Here we want to mention something in passing. How does the church make important decisions? Acts 15 shows us that when brothers come together, everyone can speak and debate. Even those who are for the law can stand up and speak their mind, even though their opinion is altogether wrong. In other words, all the brothers have equal opportunity to speak. But not all the brothers can arbitrate matters. All the brothers can express how they feel before the Lord. After the elders have listened to all of them, they should speak their feelings before God and make a final judgment on the matter. The responsible brothers may have the same feeling before the Lord. This feeling is the feeling of the church; it is also the conscience of the church. After they have spoken, everyone should submit and go along with them in one accord. This is the way of the church. The church does not muzzle people's mouths or forbid anyone to speak. But no one should speak carelessly. When the time comes for a decision, the elders should speak under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and all the brothers and sisters should listen to the elders. If the Holy Spirit's authority is present in the church, such matters can be resolved easily. If the Holy Spirit has no authority in the church and there are many opinions of the flesh, the church will not be able to arbitrate anything at all. We must learn to submit to the authority of the Holy Spirit and to listen to the church.
May God be gracious to us. May we be like our Master who is so full of grace. If a brother offends us, we should forgive him from the heart. Moreover, we should bear the responsibility of restoring him according to the Lord's Word. May the Lord lead us to live such a life in the church.