************ Sermon on Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 85 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 22, 2011
Q & A 85
"The Keys of the Kingdom: Discipline"
ANNOUNCEMENT OF DISCIPLINE
This morning you heard a sad announcement about one of our members who is under the official discipline of the church. You might wonder why we made the announcement and how we got to this point.
Let me start by telling you there are two keys on the key-ring that Christ has given to the church. The first key, which we looked at last week, is the "preaching of the holy gospel." The second key, which we look at today, is "Christian discipline toward repentance."
The Catechism reminds us that "according to the command of Christ" we are to exercise discipline. Unfortunately, many churches have dropped discipline, only to discover that the Word soon loses its hold on people's lives and the sacraments become mere formalities. I want to tell you that Trinity will remain alive and well only as long as she faithfully uses both keys given to her by Christ.
At the same time, I have to admit there have been times throughout the history of the church when the key of discipline has been abused. I think of Pope Gregory VII, otherwise known as Hildebrand. In the year 1077 Emperor Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire, the mightiest king of his day, stood barefoot in the snow at a castle gate to beg forgiveness of Pope Hildebrand who was inside. For three days he stood at the closed castle gate before the pope let him come in to kiss his feet and say that he had done wrong. I think of Pope Innocent III, probably the mightiest of popes. Pope Innocent imposed an interdict on England in A.D. 1206. The interdict meant that in all of England no one could be married, baptized, buried, or receive the mass. Notice, this discipline fell on the innocent and guilty alike.
I The Process of Discipline
Those within the legal profession tell me that we need to publicly outline the process of discipline. I teach the process in Pastor's class. It is taught in Catechism. But it also needs to be said from the pulpit so that new members and long-time members know what to expect.
Underlying the entire process is visits and prayer. The elders pray. We ask the congregation to pray. The pastors pray. And we visit. We visit with the people under discipline. We admonish them with God's Word. We give them what the Catechism calls "repeated and loving counsel."
The process itself starts with Matthew 18 – which I read this morning. Within the communion of saints one person confronts another about a sin. If the person doing the sinning does not listen and does not repent, then the first person comes back with one or two witnesses and confronts again. If the person still does not listen then the matter is to be brought to the elders.
Let me digress for a moment. How does discipline start? Does it start with the consistory? Is it only the job of pastors and elders? Absolutely not! Matthew 18 makes clear that within the church, discipline starts among the communion of saints. Jesus says, "If your brother sins ... go and show him his fault" (Mt 18:15). In other words, discipline is every Christian's business! Every one of us has a responsibility to watch over and to correct one another in a loving manner.
So often when a Christian falls into sin, those who know him or her become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. They know about the sin but say and do nothing. Or, they know about the sin and actually make excuses for the behavior. Or, they know about the sin and simply gossip about it instead of engaging in prayer and then loving confrontation. In the Christian community, as nowhere else in this world, we must speak the truth to each other in love (Eph 4:15). According to Jesus, this means we must take the log out of our own eye before we point out the speck in our brother's eye (Mt 7:1-6).
So, then, discipline begins with the individual members. We lovingly admonish and care for one another.
Then the elders visit and investigate and pray. If the person does not repent, then they are put under "silent censure." "Silent" means this is not publicly announced. "Censure" means they are stripped of the rights of full church membership: they cannot partake of the Lord's Supper, their children cannot be baptized, they cannot vote at congregational meetings, they cannot be nominated for church office, and they cannot serve in any leadership or teaching function in the church.
The elders continue to visit and pray. If the person still does not repent then we make the first public announcement asking the congregation to pray for a brother or sister in sin.
The elders continue to visit and pray. We present the case to a group of neighboring churches for their advice on whether or not to proceed. Then the second public announcement is made – like we made this morning.
The elders continue to visit and pray. Then the third public announcement is made but this time we also announce a date of excommunication in which the person is excluded from the Kingdom of Christ.
As you know, we live in a post-Christian society. Our culture thinks doctrine and life is a private matter and therefore not the church's business – not even the business of the church we have joined. So, when the church starts discipline procedures people right away threaten legal action and lawsuits for violation of privacy. I want to tell you up front our process, our procedure. If you join Trinity, you can expect the elders to use the key of discipline if you do not abandon your errors and wickedness.
II The Ground of Discipline
A The first key of the Kingdom, that of preaching the holy Gospel, is meant for everyone – whether they are inside or outside of the church. The second key, that of official Christian discipline, is meant for church members only. According to the Catechism, it is meant for those who are called "Christians."
When is discipline to be exercised? Matthew says, "If your brother sins against you ..." (Mt 18:15). The Catechism interprets this as those who "profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives." Do you hear the two categories? Doctrine and life!
Within the Reformed churches the doctrines that are in mind are generally those included in our Creeds and Confessions as a summary of what the Bible teaches. If you profess teachings that contradict the Creeds and Confessions then you can expect to be the object of the church's visits and prayers until such a time as you repent.
The Fresno Bee had an article last weekend (HOLD IT UP). I don't know if you can read the headline: "Is May 21 going to be Judgment Day?" Harold Camping predicted that the Rapture and Judgment Day would take place yesterday. Wrong again! Because this is the third time he has made such a prediction. According to the Bible, if what a prophet says does not happen then he is a false prophet (cf Deut 18:22). By the Bible's own declaration, Harold Camping is a false prophet and his elders should put him under discipline for teaching false doctrine. In other words, this is a sin and Harold Camping needs to repent!
The second category upon which discipline is to be exercised has to do with lifestyle. If you live an unchristian life, you can expect to be the object of the church's visits and prayers until such a time as you repent. In mind here is any act which breaks the Ten Commandments or Christ's law of love. The Apostle Paul does not hesitate to name them:
(Gal 5:19-21) The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; (20) idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions (21) and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
(cf our Lord's Supper form which also names categories of sins and sinners)
Now, what is the approach of our culture and our times to doctrines and lifestyles that are unbiblical? You know today's approach: tolerance, turn a blind eye, even acceptance. But the church does not have these options. The church, "according to the command of Christ," cannot be tolerant with those whose doctrine or lifestyle differs from what the Bible declares to be acceptable. Nor can she turn a blind eye. Nor can she take the approach that it depends on the situation and the person involved. The Word of God is not elastic and evolving. It is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
B The church also is no respecter of persons by playing favorites. All church members who profess unchristian teachings or live an unchristian life must come under the discipline process of the church. This must be done irrespective of a person's position in life: whether they be kings or emperors, presidents or prime ministers, deacons or elders or pastors, rich or powerful – all church members who err in doctrine or life are subject to the key of discipline.
Church history gives us some notable examples. The Roman Emperor, Theodosius the Great, ordered seven thousands inhabitants of Thessalonica – most of them innocent – put to death as punishment for revolt. Soon after, he desired to attend a worship service in Milan. Bishop Ambrose refused him entrance into the church and admonished him at the same time. Theodosius laid aside his royal robes, confessed his sin, and begged with tears for forgiveness.
C Why is the church, "according to the command of Christ," to exercise "Christian discipline toward repentance"? The name already implies the reason: it is discipline toward repentance. We want the sinner to be ashamed. We want the sinner to repent of his wrong doctrine or wrong behavior.
John Calvin, in his "Institutes of the Christian Religion," identifies two other reasons. The first is that God must not be insulted by the name of "Christian" being given to those who lead shameful lives. Because the Church is the body of Christ, she cannot be defiled by unrepentant members without bringing some disgrace on Christ her Head.
The second is that the good may not be corrupted by the presence of the wicked. We so easily go astray that we only need a bad example to set us on the wrong path. This is why the Apostle Paul commanded the Corinthians to remove the incestuous man from their church because "a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough" (1 Cor 5:6). And so much danger did Paul foresee here, that he prohibited them from keeping company with such a person (cf 1 Cor 5:11).
So, then, there are three reasons for discipline: the repentance of the sinner, the holiness of God's name, and the purity of the church.
D The Catechism quite rightly identifies the entire process as "loving" counsel. Think of parents who fail to discipline their children. Are they doing their children any favors by letting them run around like heathens? A parent who loves a child disciplines him when he plays with matches or with electrical outlets or beats up on younger siblings. According to the book of Hebrews (Heb 12:1-13), God disciplines us, His children, because He loves us. The Christian community does the same to sinners in her midst. She shows love by disciplining them.
Of course, this means the opposite is also true. A Christian community that does not discipline those who err in doctrine or life is saying she does not love and care for her members.
III Closing and Opening the Kingdom
A What happens when the sinner does not repent of unchristian teachings or unchristian life? Well, do you remember what Paul told the Corinthian church to do? They were told to hand an unrepentant sinner over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5). That's what the church ultimately does with members who fail to repent. She hands them over to Satan so they are no longer in the arms of Jesus. By this act, the church closes the Kingdom of heaven.
B Now keys, as you know, turn two ways. They can lock a door but they can also unlock a door. How does discipline open the Kingdom of heaven? According to Matthew 18, "If he listens to you, you have won your brother over ..." (Mt 18:15). In other words, the sin no longer is between them. All because a brother has taken the time to talk and admonish and pray. The Catechism puts it this way:
Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members of Christ and of his church.
What does this tell you? Not even excommunication is always final. The closed door can be opened again. But notice what has to happen. The person under discipline not only needs to promise reform but also must demonstrate reform. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. The person must prove to the satisfaction of others that their doctrine and life has been reformed.
The church, of course, must always be willing to receive back such a person. It must "celebrate and be glad" that a son or daughter "who was dead is alive again; ... was lost and is found" (Lk 15:32). Jesus says, "There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Lk 15:10). Likewise, the people of God must rejoice when a sinner repents.
Did you happen to notice how our Scripture reading ends? It ends with a promise about prayer:
(Mt 18:19) "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."Telling us what? Telling us that the work of admonishing and binding and loosing can never be done apart from prayer. Which is why the elders spend a lot of time in prayer. Which is why we all need to pray.
We are called to care for one another, to watch over one another. But we cannot do this apart from prayer for one another.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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