The Administrative Forgiveness of Sins.

Beloved brother, I desire to offer a few remarks with reference to "the forgiveness of sins by the Church," on which an article appeared in the May number of the Christian Friend. It appears to me that Scripture regards the assembly as administering forgiveness in this world towards those that are without, and that this forgiveness was administered on the reception of persons into the professing Church. This character of forgiveness was connected with baptism. Paul was told to arise and be baptized, and wash away his sins. Peter, to whom the keys of the kingdom of heaven were entrusted, and the authority of binding and loosing on earth was given, admitted Jews (outside) to the kingdom, in Acts 2, and Gentiles (outside), in Acts 10. The authority given to the disciples in John 20:23, appears likewise to be connected with their mission and ministry in the world. "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you." (See v. 21.)

The binding and loosing in Matt. 18:18, stands more in connection with Church discipline, but a distinction clearly must be made between the assembly or the disciples administering forgiveness towards those without, on their reception into the house, and the discipline of the house of God, under the authority of Christ, for the maintenance of holiness amongst those that are within.

Christians in the house have received administrative forgiveness, and stand in a place of responsibility, where all the privileges of the dispensation are to be found and enjoyed. Now what do we learn from the epistles to the Corinthians as to discipline, or the responsibility of the assembly in relation to sins committed by those within? In 1 Cor. 5 the apostle states, "Do not ye judge them that are within, but them that are without God judgeth." Unjudged evil in the assembly constituted the leaven with which the Corinthians were keeping the feast, and the course of the assembly in relation to the leaven and the evil-doer is clearly laid down: "Purge out the old leaven;" "put away from among yourselves that wicked person." As to the saints, they were identified with the sin, and should have mourned and humbled themselves about it, which they did subsequently. (See 2 Cor. 7:7-11.) But God's house was no place for fornicators, idolaters, railers, drunkards, extortioners, covetous persons, and such like; and if any man "called a brother" so acted as to deserve such a character, the company of the saints was no place for him. "With such an one no not to eat," marks the social separation, as putting out from amongst those "within" marks the ecclesiastical separation to be made between the saints and the evil-doer. Now it is perfectly clear that if the assembly had bound sin, or put away and judged an evil-doer, on his repentance the assembly should have rejoiced to restore, to comfort, and to forgive.* Hence in 2 Cor. 2 the apostle instructs the Corinthians to act in grace, to comfort and forgive, on the ground of the sufficiency of the punishment which had been inflicted, and lest the person should be swallowed up with over much sorrow. But we must not forget that the saints had previously identified themselves with the sin committed, and made it their own; had felt it as their shame and sorrow; had cleansed God's house, had purged out leaven; had vindicated the Lord's name, and approved themselves clear in the matter. (See 2 Cor. 7:11.) All these exercises of soul had been gone through and were over in relation to the sin which had brought leaven into the assembly and dishonoured the Lord, before grace and forgiveness were shown and the public restoration of the offender took place; so that it would be a serious thing to build on 2 Cor. 2, severed from 1 Cor. 5, a doctrine that the assembly has merely to administer forgiveness, on repentance, in cases in which leaven has been brought into the assembly, or to allege that there is any warrant in 2 Cor. 2 for the assertion as to a saint inside, that "if my sin has been open wickedness, and has brought leaven into the assembly, I must get the forgiveness of the assembly as well as God's forgiveness." A person put out must clearly be restored or forgiven by the assembly; but when an obligation is laid upon saints in the house of God, I think scripture should be given which clearly proves the obligation. Doubtless when a saint has fallen, one mark of true restoration would be confession to another; but to bring the assembly into the case, or to oblige confession to the assembly, appears to me to put the assembly out of its place, and to be contrary to Scripture. "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed," is evidently private, and not administrative forgiveness by the assembly.

*The word used for forgive in 2 Cor. 2 is that used in Luke 7:42, He "frankly forgave" them both; not that used in v. 48, "Thy sins are 'forgiven,'" or for remission in John 20:23.

The case supposed, of a saint having sinned and repented, and administrative forgiveness on the part of the assembly being necessary because leaven has been brought in, is a difficulty in itself; for how can there be leaven without unjudged evil? and if in the past there was unjudged evil unknown to the assembly, it did not touch nor defile the conscience of the assembly. The saints can only act on what is known, however humbled they may be that evil has been allowed to go on undiscovered in their midst. If, on the other hand, the discovery is made through the repentance and confession of the individual, it would surely be a case for private restoration; and why proclaim past evil, which God has covered, when the assembly takes up, in humiliation, only present evil which it is forced to judge to cleanse God's house and clear itself? The sin committed is not the point in 2 Cor. 2, but the public restoration of a person whose sin had been publicly dealt with and cleared already from the consciences of the saints. Again, if a Christian be overtaken in a fault, the spiritual are to restore such a one. If the behaviour of a Christian is of such a character as to necessitate notice for the sake of others, there is nothing about the assembly administering forgiveness; but Timothy is instructed to rebuke them that sin before all, that others also may fear. In Matt. 16, in the case of trespass referred to, the matter is to be told to the assembly after other efforts in private have failed; but to bring a saint or sin before the assembly is invariably the last resource, as to a final court of appeal where all the authority of Christ is vested on the earth.

It is easy to understand when leaven is not working, and a case does not come under 1 Cor. 5:11, 13, that a Christian might be severely rebuked before all with the fellowship of the assembly, as a warning to others; but the whole force of the warning would surely be destroyed by the substitution of mere forgiveness for rebuke, besides the objection to the saints being put in an elevated instead of a low place, in reference to sins dishonouring to Christ's name committed in their midst.

I need hardly add that Scripture abounds with exhortations to saints as such to deal with each other in faithfulness and love. We are to wash one another's feet; to love one another with a pure heart fervently; to be kindly affectioned one to another in brotherly love, in honour preferring one another; to exhort one another daily; to comfort one another; to be kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another; to warn the unruly, to comfort the feeble-minded, to support the weak, and to be patient toward all; to bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ; to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves; to avoid those that cause divisions, to have no company with one who walks disorderly; yet to count him not as an enemy, but to admonish him as a brother. But all this comes under the head of individual activity in the power of the grace of Christ; and if there were only an increase of these holy and healthy activities of love in private life, there would be far less public sorrow, or need for bringing cases before the twos and threes who occupy divine ground, and are seeking to maintain, in feebleness and lowliness, the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace.

Your affectionate brother, J. S. Oliphant.