“A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
God’s Plan of Restoration
All is well on the earth for a short time. A mere three chapters into human history and humanity is lost. There are two possible responses from God toward Adam and Eve at this point: permit them to suffer immediately the full consequence of sin or ameliorate the consequence of sin and unveil a plan of restoration. God chose the latter. The rest of Scripture is called salvation history.
If we read through the third chapter of Genesis too quickly, we’ll miss the first act of restoration. In Genesis 3:21 “the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” This is the restoration of human dignity. By dressing our first parents, God covered the shame that had been unveiled by sin. God also corrected their futile attempt to cover their own shame (3:7). These coverings of shame we call “clothes” required the life of at least one and perhaps two animals, thereby beginning the theme of redemption through death. The theme, as we know well, culminates in the Lamb who was slain and is worthy to open the scroll of redemption (Revelation 5).
These coverings of shame, henceforth called “clothing”, required the life of one or perhaps two animals, and begins the theme of redemption through death. The theme culminates in the Lamb who was slain opening the scroll of redemption (Revelation 5). From Genesis 3 until Revelation 22, the plan of restoration for humanity and all the earth is unveiled. Everything looks forward to the “new heavens and new earth,” that is, the restoration of the original heavens and earth.
God unveils his true character when he afforded the human race an opportunity for restoration. No other statement about God so succinctly describes his character and goodwill toward humanity than Exodus 34:6-7,
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.
The Psalmist adds, “He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (103:9-10). God shows mercy to thousands and only allows the iniquity of the fathers to fall upon a few generations.
Discipleship is Restoration
Discipleship begins with restoration. It is a fact stated plainly in Scripture that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) and “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). And for this reason, “God sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The one who denies their personal need for the divine act of restoration is like those whom John describes in 1 John 1:10, “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
Restoration is synonymous with the act of salvation as indicated in James 5:20, “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Historically, the Church has located restoration in a conversation about church discipline, a placement not entirely without warrant. However, we ought first to think about restoration within the conversation of discipleship; after all, discipline is a sub-category of discipleship, not vice-versa.
We ought first to think about restoration within the conversation of discipleship.
Jesus calls us to be followers of him, that is, to be disciples. The requirements for discipleship are straightforward in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” That this is a call to restoration is indicated in the next verse, Luke 9:24, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” It is the central truth of the Gospel that all who have sinned are liable to eternal death (Romans 6:23) and that restoration comes only through Jesus Christ.
Restoration is not merely part of discipleship; it is discipleship. A disciple is one who has been restored as described in Romans 5:10, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” Yet in another sense we are also being restored as in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind….” Restoration is both the originating act of salvation as well as the continued transformation that takes place in the believer.
Discipleship and Discipline
Discipline is only part of discipleship and is by no means the whole experience of discipleship. A disciple receives discipline from three sources: God, self, and others. According to Proverbs 3:11-12, one of the few proverbs quoted in the New Testament (Hebrews 12:6), God disciplines all of his children: “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Divine discipline takes place in two primary ways: Word and Spirit. First, Scripture is a means for divine discipline. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Second, the Holy Spirit convicts a person of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).
Self-discipline is part of Jesus’ call to discipleship. Luke 9:23 says that a follower of Christ must deny himself daily and take up his cross. Paul picks up on this imagery in Galatians 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Of course, we need the aid of the Holy Spirit to do this, but our responsibility in the process is clear enough.
Finally, Christian disciples receive discipline from other believers. In regard to sin, Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him” (Luke 17:3). The purpose of this essay is to describe how Christians should exercise discipline toward one another.
None of this means that discipline is easy or always a welcomed experience. By definition and by experience, discipline is difficult and sometimes humiliating. Yet God did not leave us without this most precious promise in James 4:6-10,
But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Restoration is a vital part of discipleship. The whole purpose of divine revelation through Christ and the written word is the restoration of sinners to their created design: holy fellowship with God. Believers are not exempt from the need of restoration. The Apostle John notes the likelihood that someone within the body of believers will backslide into sin and will be in need prayer and restoration (1 John 5:16). But let’s be clear: it doesn’t have to be you who backslides into sin. Nonetheless, if it’s you, there is comfort in the words of the Apostle: “If any believer sins, we have an Advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ the righteous One” (my translation of 1 John 2:1).
Restoration is a word used to refer to that part of Christian discipleship that helps a believer get back on track with Christ. It is sometimes called “discipline.” This word “discipline” is scary to people because, as Michael Horton said, “church discipline is viewed widely as a threat to personal autonomy.” Personal autonomy, however, is not of utmost importance in Christian thought and can even be counter to Christian teaching. We are called to the members of the same Body and as such, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). Every follower of Christ is expected to be connected with other followers of Christ.
Why can’t I restore myself if I am caught up in sin? People often quote 1 Corinthians 10:13 in an effort to isolate themselves from restoration:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
The problem is that people read this verse autonomously, as though enduring and escaping from temptation is just up to each individual to figure out. What we miss is that God has given us a means of escape through His Church. We are very often someone else’s means of escaping temptation.
Thankfully, God is a restorer. This is what He does because He is our Father. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12). Every believer needs the correcting grace of God. We may be entirely sanctified to the Lord—body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23)—but we are ever growing in grace and often that grace is given to correct a way of thinking, a pattern of behavior, or an ingrained attitude that is less than God expects of us.
It is especially sad when a person is more fearful of restoration than they are the consequences of their sin. And of equal sadness is that we, the church, have often given people reason to be fearful of restoration.
It is especially sad when a person is more fearful of restoration than they are the consequences of their sin. And of equal sadness is that we, the church, have often given people reason to be fearful of restoration. Here are some reasons people fear restoration more than they fear the consequence of sin (although none of these are good reasons):
The normal reaction of a person caught in sin is embarrassment. Embarrassment may or may not be combined with shame. Hopefully it is. It is especially crucial at this stage that the sinning brother feel safe to open up about his failure. A restorer can lessen the embarrassment by being transparent about their own failures and clear about God’s willingness to restore. King David is a good example of someone who needed restored multiple times. Secondly, a restorer can lessen the embarrassment by assuring the sinning brother that everything is confidential between you and him for the moment and will remains until you can agree on the next steps. Embarrassment is a sign we give when we believe we have done wrong. In this case, embarrassment is a good thing but must be treated carefully lest it exhausts the will to be restored.
2. FEAR OF LOSS
Another common reaction is the fear of loss—reputation (hence embarrassment); relationships, social standing, political connections, and personal freedom. Sadly, when a sin is also a criminal act, people turn to lawyers before turning to spiritual advisors. In one case, I prayed frequently with an individual but was told over and over that he was not permitted by his attorney to talk about his actions. His legal challenges kept him from being remorseful even in confidence with his pastor. There are special instructions for criminal cases (see below). A restorer can help a person overcome this fear by assuring them that there is much to be gained by being transparent and restored. Those gains include healed relationships, restored reputation with those who know about the sin, opportunities to help others, and, most importantly, spiritual freedom.
3. FEAR OF EXCLUSION
An erring person may also fear being excluded from a position or social standing he holds in the church or the community. Usually these are decisions not within our ability to decide so we must be careful promising what will or will not occur. There are ways to arrest this fear. First, acknowledge that restoration will keep a person included within the Body of Christ and that one does not need to fear being cast away by God. Second, reaffirm your friendship, care, and commitment to the person.
Restoration in the Church
The One Another commands of the New Testament describe what the life of the Church is to be. These commands—over eighty of them—fit into twenty basic commands. These twenty basic commands can be divided into two categories: 1) commands regarding Christian fellowship and 2) commands regarding keeping and restoring from sin. In this latter category are the following verses:
- Keep one another from stumbling:
Romans 14:13, Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
2. Instruct one another:
Romans 15:14, I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.
Colossians 3:16, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Hebrews 3:13, But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Hebrews 10:25, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
3. Be honest with one another:
Colossians 3:9, Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices
Ephesians 4:15, Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
4. Confess your sins to one another:
James 5:16, Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
5. Forgive one another:
Ephesians 4:32, Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Colossians 3:12-13, Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
6. Submit to one another:
Ephesians 5:21, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Philippians 2:3, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
7. Restore one another:
Galatians 6:1, 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.
8. Bear one another’s burdens:
Galatians 6:2, Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Restoration and the Four Marks of the Church
In the fourth-century creed composed at Nicene and Constantinople, the Church is marked in four ways: “we believe … in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” These four marks – unity, purity, universality, and apostolicity – are a summary of what the New Testament describes the Church to be. Restoration from sin is most obviously a matter of Church purity, but it is also a matter of all four marks.
- Restoration and Unity: Restoration seeks to reunite a sinning brother or sister with Body of Christ.
- Restoration and Purity: Restoration seeks to keep a sinning brother or sister from becoming hardened to grace and becoming lost.
- Restoration and Universality: Restoration seeks to redeem any and all sinning brothers and sisters to Christ.
- Restoration and Apostolicity: The restorers bear the weight of authority given by Christ to the apostles, and the apostolic doctrine is the standard to which a sinning brother or sister is restored.
The Church and its shepherds have the responsibility and spiritual authority to assist in the perseverance of believers. When a believer has fallen into sin, restoration is the act of the Church to enable the fallen brother or sister to persevere in faith.
The Book of Hebrews is a warning call. There are measures given plainly in order to prevent a believer from failing to persevere in faith.
Hebrews 2:1-3, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
Hebrews 3:12-14, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
Hebrews 4:1-2, “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”
Hebrews 4:11, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”
Hebrews 6:4-6, “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
Hebrews 9:27-28, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
Hebrews 10:23-25, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Hebrews 10:26-27, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
Hebrews 10:35, “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.”
Hebrews 12:1, “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.”
Hebrews 12:12-17, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God’ that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”
Hebrews 12:25, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.”
The Attitude of Restoration
In Letter 22, Augustine writes about the attitude a restorer should have:
What was deplorable then must be eliminated, not harshly, but in a spirit of gentleness and kindness [Gal 6:1; 1 Cor. 4:21], as scriptures says. For your letter, a proof of most genuine love, gives me confidence that I may speak with you as with myself. These practices, then, are eliminated, in my opinion, not with harshness, not with toughness, not in an imperious manner, but by teaching rather than commanding, by warning rather than by threatening. For one has to deal with a large number in that way, but severity should be applied to the sins of the few. And if we use a threat, let it be done with sorrow, by threatening from the scripture’s punishment in the future, not so that we ourselves are feared in our power, but so that God is feared in our words. In that way the spiritual people or those close to spiritual people will first be moved, and by their authority the remaining multitude will be subdued by even the gentlest, but most insistent admonitions.
Christians are commanded in Scripture to assist a fallen member in redemption and restoration (Galatians 6:1) in order that they may not lose their inheritance in the Kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21). The fallen believer is commanded to confess sin and seek restoration (James 5:16). Therefore, in obedience to God and His commandment, each local church should have a plan for formal restoration.
Formal restoration is the carefully planned process employed by a local church’s leadership in an effort to restore a fellow member and keep them from continuing habits of sin. The kind of sin which calls for a deliberative process is that sin which is habitual in nature and to which a person is very likely to fall into again without the assistance of the Church.
The purpose of restoration is to offer a fallen member a means through which they may be restored into proper fellowship with God and His Church and kept from falling into the same snare again. A sinning brother or sister who seeks restoration can, with confidence, be assured that the advocacy of Christ is effectual so that he or she may continue walking in the light (1 John 2:1-2).
The purpose of restoration is to offer a fallen member a means through which they may be restored into proper fellowship with God and His Church and kept from falling into the same snare again.
The Church is required to offer restoration (Gal. 6:1) while the process is voluntary for the fallen member. Nonetheless, in order for the fallen member to maintain fellowship in the church, he or she must submit to and complete the plan of restoration until the Church has declared the member released (Matthew 18:18).
The occasion may arise in which a fellow believer sins by embracing heretical doctrines. Heretical teaching must be silenced immediately, and the erring teacher removed (1 Tim 1:3-4; Titus 1:9-14). The specific heresy should be declared anathema in writing (Gal 1:8-9) for the sake of clarity. The one who continues to teach heresy is no longer considered a Christian brother (2 John 9-11). Yet an erring believer must be granted the opportunity to declare a change of mind on doctrinal matters which is demonstrated through a willingness to receive theological instruction on the matter. Again, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one such example.
The person who is erring theologically and thereby causing division should receive two warnings and if they refuse correction, they are to be removed (Titus 3:10-11). Each warning should be formal and carefully transcribed rather than casual because the person needs to understand the severity of his wrong belief and behavior.
Ordained and licensed preachers are accountable to their respective denominational leaders. If a pastor becomes entrapped in sin (Gal. 6:1), at least two (1 Tim. 5:19) leaders from the board of directors should inform the proper denominational leader who will implement a plan of restoration.
Scripture provides the necessary principles and steps for the complete restoration of a believer.
Brothers, if a fellow believer is entrapped in any kind of transgression, you who are spiritually mature should restore him with a spirit of gentleness. Take measures to guard yourself lest you also become entrapped in the same temptation. (Galatians 6:1, my translation)
If a fellow believer sins against you, go to him alone and explain to him how he has sinned.
If he confesses his sin and repents, you have saved your Christian brotherhood.
But if denies his sin [when he truly has sinned], take one or two other believers along with you so that the alleged sin can be investigated and verified by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
If he still refuses to confess his sin, let the matter be known to the spiritual leaders of the church.
If he refuses to confess his sin to the spiritual leaders of the church, he should be considered as a lost sinner. I assure you that the spiritual leaders of the church act on behalf of heavenly authority. (Matthew 18:15-18, my translation)
My fellow believers, if another believer in your church strays from the truth and someone restores him back to the truth, let the one who has restored him know that has saved the soul of the fallen brother from spiritual death and from many other sins that would follow. (James 5:19-20, my translation)
These passages include most of the instruction necessary for a restoration plan.
Galatians 6:1 describes six points:
- The sinning party is a fellow believer, likely one with whom we worship in a local church (“if a fellow believer is entrapped in any kind of transgression”);
- The local church is required to offer restoration (“restore him” is a command to believers in a local church);
- Restoration must be offered by a plurality of (designated) persons (“you [plural]…restore him”); restoration is never one-on-one.
- The restorers must be spiritually mature (“you who are spiritual [spiritually mature]”); Paul uses “spiritual” elsewhere to refer to “spiritually mature” believers (1 Cor 3:1) and, I believe, he is using it in the same sense here.
- The restoration must be done in a spirit of gentleness which requires more than punitive measures (“with a spirit of gentleness”);
- The restorers must make appropriate safeguards for themselves (“Keep watch on yourselves, lest you too be tempted”).
James 5:19-20 shows that when the Church exercises proper discipline and restoration it saves a sinning member from further sin and ultimately from being spiritually lost forever.
Matthew 18:15-18 describes what happens if a person rejects restoration:
- The matter is made known to the spiritual overseers of the church (“tell it to the church”); this includes spiritual authorities in this person’s life who may not be members of the particular local church in which the sinning brother is active. In other words, if the sinning brother ministers in a separate ministry unrelated to your local church, two persons in agreement should notify the other leadership of the other ministry. Such an action protects the integrity of the Church of Christ which is both local and universal.
- If he refuses the correction of the leadership, the sinning member is considered a sinner and appropriate measures follow.
1 Corinthians 5:1-13 also contributes to the church’s action toward one who rejects restoration. The following points can be concluded from this passage in addition to Matthew 18:15-18:
- The sin is committed by one within the church, that is, one who claims to be a follower of Christ (5:1, 11);
- Sin among believers should be an occasion for mourning (5:2);
- When one has rejected restoration, that person should be visibly removed from the church—there are several levels of removal: from withdrawal of membership to an attendance ban (traditionally known as “excommunication”) (5:2, 5);
- The purity of the Church is of paramount importance (5:7);
- Sincerity and truth are necessary for restoration (5:8);
Final judgment remains in the hand of God alone who always acts in justice. The Church is an instrument of God for meting out justice in this life, but the Church is not infallible. Even in cases where the Church “delivers one to Satan” (1 Corinthians 5:5), it is only in order to help the sinning member recognize the seriousness of his sin and repent.
The following process of restoration is suggested:
- An allegation should be expressed to the accused by a person who has been entrusted by the church leadership as a spiritual leader in matters such as restoration. This is in order to be certain that the biblical steps of restoration are observed.
- The fallen member should sign a covenant of restoration (see attached document).
- The Senior Pastor shall appoint a small restoration committee of two or three spiritually mature people who covenant to restore the fallen member. If possible, no one on the restoration committee should be a relative of the fallen member. The committee members also sign a written covenant (see attached document).
- All committee proceedings must be conducted with discretion and respect to all parties. Notes should be taken and held in confidence. The committee will dictate what may or may not be communicated, who will communicate with the public if necessary, and when and how it will be communicated.
- The member may be removed from any position or office indefinitely;
- The committee should provide a written plan for restoration;
- The committee should provide a written plan for disassociation if the fallen member rejects or fails to complete the plan for restoration.
The Role of the Church in Salvation
The Church is not an afterthought in God’s plan of salvation. One of the ways to identify whether or not someone is remaining true to the Gospel is their connection to the Church. By “Church”, I mean the Church that is the Body of Christ. Historically, Christian theologians have distinguished between the “visible” and “invisible” Church, and for good reason. All true believers are part of the Church. Yet there are those who visibly participate with the Church who are not true believers. This is why the distinction between “visible” and “invisible” Church is helpful. The visible Church are those who are visibly participating in the life of the Church. The invisible Church are those true believers who are sincere in their faith. A hypocrite may be part of the visible Church, but he’s not part of the invisible Church because he lacks true faith.
The Church is not an afterthought in God’s plan of salvation. One of the ways to identify whether or not someone is remaining true to the Gospel is their connection to the Church.
The distinction between “visible” and “invisible” Church is important for understanding one of the most crucial ecclesiological passages in the New Testament. In 1 John 2:19, the Apostle John writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Let me paraphrase what John is saying:
They left the visible Church but they had already left spiritually, because if they had continued to be truly connected to the spiritual Body of Christ—the invisible Church—they would have remained a part of the visible Church. But they chose to leave the visible Church, and by doing so they made it clear that they had stopped being part of the true Church of Christ.
If there’s any doubt that we, the Church, have a salutary role in the life of a sinner, James puts that doubt to rest: “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (5:20).
Restoration is not optional because the salvific role of the Church is essential. Church matters because it is God’s way of keeping and restoring from sin.