Embracing the Penitent
“While [his son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (v. 20b).- Luke 15:11–31
Dr. John MacArthur has some important comments on Matthew 18:15–20 and Scripture’s teaching on sin, church discipline, and excommunication. At the end of the day, says MacArthur, there is only one sin for which the church may legitimately excommunicate a professing believer, and that is “hard-hearted impenitence” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,158).
The truth of MacArthur’s comment is seen when we consider two of the worst sins imaginable and how they were dealt with in David’s life. This man after God’s own heart committed adultery when he slept with Bathsheba, and he was guilty of the murder of her husband, Uriah. Yet when discipline was brought to bear upon him through the prophet Nathan, David repented and was restored. When confronted with his evil, David did not hide his sin but confessed it and sought the Lord’s mercy. Nathan, as a leader in God’s old covenant church, received the king back into fellowship, confirming that the Lord had done so as well (2 Sam. 11:1–12:25).
There is almost no end to the number of sins that a professing Christian can commit. Yet there is only one sin that can result ultimately in excommunication, the declaration that the person is an unbeliever, and that is impenitence. Every sin—adultery, abuse, slander, insubordination, even murder—is forgivable and will be forgiven when the offender turns from evil and seeks God’s face in sincere, humble repentance (except blasphemy committed against the Holy Spirit; Mark 3:22–30).
Consequently, the church must receive back into fellowship all who truly repent of their sin, whether they do so before or after excommunication. Elders cannot refuse the penitent, for as today’s passage demonstrates, the Father Himself rushes to embrace penitent people who rest in Christ (Luke 15:20). As the church receives sinners back into fellowship, it opens the door to heaven, confirming to the repentant person that the Lord freely forgives all who trust in Christ and turn from their sin. This is how church discipline shows the way to heaven (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 85).
Although not everyone who has been subjected to church discipline repents, there are many times when a disciplined sinner is humbled by the church’s treatment and, forsaking sin, returns to the fold. When this happens, church leaders and laypeople must be prepared to receive that person as a co-heir in Christ and not gossip or otherwise mistreat the offender. The church must be the place where repentant people feel the most welcome (2 Cor. 2:5–11).
Passages for Further Study
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