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Repentance and Church Discipline

by Pastor Chris Kumpula

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; 

repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

No teaching in the New Testament causes discomfort like that of church discipline. This doctrine demands both seriousness about sin and deep love for others (rooted in the love we receive from Christ). Love marks the church of Jesus. It is the love of Jesus that saves and unites the congregation. But it is love on Jesus’s terms, not our own. And this love calls us to repentance. 

Repentance and Contrition

Christians fail. We fail in both marriage and singleness. We fail as both parents and children. We fail as both leaders and followers. The devil wages spiritual war against Christ and His church, and sin relentlessly seeks a way back into our lives. 

As Christians, we must regularly seek to recognize sin, or come to contrition (sorrow/regret for sin). This contrition is brought by the conviction of God’s Law in our heart, and the Holy Spirit works upon our heart to repent. To repent is to turn away and place our faith in Jesus and the Gospel, trusting our sins are indeed forgiven in Him. His forgiveness flows freely, and where there is sorrow and regret for sin, we can trust God is ready to forgive because of the testimony of His inerrant Word. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) In so doing, we may fulfill what Paul admonishes the church to live for the sake of true, unmanufactured unity through Jesus’s love: 

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)

It is through regular confession and repentance that Jesus unites the church. Christ is able to forgive our sins, cleanse us, and unite us with Christ because of His love and grace.

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:7-10)

If we fail to see our wrongdoing in our sin, if we fail to regret sin, if we fail to cease from sin, or if we fail to call sin evil (and call evil good), God’s Word acknowledges the great peril to our precious eternal human soul. Put simply, there is no forgiveness without contrition; we miss Jesus’s love. 

Repentance and Restoration

Church discipline recognizes this terrible truth, and for love’s sake, pursues bringing a fellow brother or sister in Christ to repentance. Galatians 6:1 says “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” The goal of church discipline is to lovingly seek restoration between God and our spiritual sister or brother. Again, the goal is to love someone with all their problems and imperfections (recognizing our own), seeing them as someone for whom Jesus died. We don’t let people we love walk into spiritual ruin without a fight!

This struggle begins with the gentle, awkward, and generally excruciating process of talking to individuals one-to-one. Matthew 18:15 says “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” When discipline succeeds in bringing about repentance, the joy of restoration comes. Just as Jesus forgives us and justifies us, expunging the record “just as if I had not sinned,” so too we warmly welcome one who has returned. Someone who has repented should be forgiven– after all, that’s what Jesus has done for us! If you have forgiven someone, make it unmistakable!

“Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” (2 Corinthians 2:5-11)

Overcome the awkwardness with grace. A room full of people aware of unrepentance receives someone for whom the whole church has earnestly prayed. Where there is forgiveness, there is restoration; where there is restoration, there is joy! Rejoice for any and all who confess their sin and receive the forgiveness that makes us NEW in Christ, and welcome them!

Repentance and Expulsion

Where such individual correction and admonishing fails, and others from the church and the leadership have made failed private intervention, the church may bar a person from the communion table, remove them from membership, or even expel them from the church entirely. Why? Each step is a way to escalate the situation, so as to say “Hello?! Are you paying attention to your soul right now? Wake up!” When we reject this call to repentance, we can fall to a point of virtually saying to Jesus, “No thanks. I don’t need your forgiveness or grace. I prefer the sin and what comes with it. I don’t want love on Your terms.” To such a one, Paul says this:

“For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:3–5)

This instruction to the church is one of the most grievous passages in the whole New Testament. It admits that our striving to bring someone to repentance has failed. All that we are left with is to rely on God to use the hardships that come with sin’s consequences to renew a concern for personal salvation. In the meantime, the church rebukes and expels the unrepentant for the protection of the flock (1 Corinthians 5:2, Matthew 18:17, 1 Corinthians 5:6). Like the prodigal son, we hope that one may come to the end of sin and themselves, to repent, and find forgiveness. 

As a pastor, these issues grieve me. So join me in praying for repentance in the hearts of prodigals. Pray for families who know the pain of spiritual vagabonds. Pray for faithfulness to our call as believers and as a church, to seek that all would truly “repent and believe in the gospel.”


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