Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Counsel to a Sinning Brother

In our series on the doctrine of Biblical repentance, we've discussed a lot of what the Bible has to say concerning the nature of true repentance. Most recently, we distinguished between repentance and penance, and discussed how we might avoid penance and arrive at true repentance.

As we go further, it will be helpful to remove these principles from the realm of the abstract and theoretical and apply them to an actual counseling situation. Such a counseling situation might be a time of formal, pastoral counseling where a church member has come to his or her pastor for guidance. But it may also be a one-on-one, layperson-to-layperson discipleship situation. Ideally, exchanges like these are constantly taking place in the lives of individual Christians within the body of Christ. Though I will make primary application to the formal counseling situation, I'd hasten to say that the following could also take place between a sinning brother and a mature, Bible-saturated brother.

And so let us take for an example a church member, Jim, who has confessed to an immoral affair. How do the principles of Biblical repentance presented in previous posts apply when counseling a man such as this? How can we lead Jim to genuine repentance and away from the dangers of functional penance?

After an opening session in which I have had time to listen to Jim’s story and why he decided to come for counseling (Pr 18:13), I would be up front with him that among my goals for counseling would be that (1) he repent of his sins according to the teaching of God’s Word, (2) be prepared to be restored to fellowship with God and in his local church, and (3) ultimately would increase in Christlikeness. This would involve some instruction – both during the sessions and for homework – about the nature of Biblical repentance. I would ask him to look up particular verses about repentance (as presented in the previous posts) and draw conclusions about what Biblical repentance looks like. This way, when he sees me looking for appropriate sorrow, a desire to change, etc., he will understand that I am not the authority, but that I am seeking for both of us to submit to the authority of the Word of God.

First, it is important that Jim admit that he has sinned against God and against his wife and express a desire to confess that sin as sin. I would seek to draw out of him the effect that his sin has had on his soul by presenting to Him the loveliness of Christ. I would hope to lead him to see the repulsiveness of sin in the attractive light of God’s holiness. Thus, I would look for the godly sorrow and the mourning that characterizes Biblical repentance, and would be on guard against excuses that attempt to rationalize his sin. Does he feel genuinely sorry for what he has done? And does that sorrow compel him to confess his sin and ask for forgiveness?

Here, though, we must guard against the pride of false humility. There is a true shame that Jim should feel as a result of his sin. However, “the pain ought to be there, but it ought not to stay there” (John Piper, Future Grace, 137). The sinning woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume felt an appropriate shame for her sin, but when Jesus declares that her sins are forgiven He declares that her shame is over.

He declared that past pardon would now yield future peace. So the issue for her was faith in this future grace rooted in the authority of Jesus’ forgiving work and freeing word. Would she believe the glowering condemnation of the guests? Or would she believe the reassuring words of Jesus that her shame was over—that she is now and in the future forgiven, that she may go in peace and wholeness and freedom? Whom will she trust? With whose promise will satisfy her soul? (Piper, Future Grace, 138)
This will be the issue for Jim as well. Will he wallow in prideful self-condemnation, or will the apprehension of the glory of the grace of Christ compel Him to trust in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for sin? I must lead Jim through appropriate feelings of shame to faith in the promise that his sins have been forgiven.

Following this, I would encourage him and help him get to a point where his desire is to turn from the sin of immorality. I would want to equip him to purpose, in the Spirit and by God’s grace, to repudiate his sin. I would be looking for a genuine desire in him that wants nothing to do with further immoral relationships.

And corresponding to his turn from sin, I would hope to lead Jim to turn to God in Christ. By exalting the beauty and the sweetness of Christ, I would present to Jim the Lord’s easy yoke and light burden in comparison to the oppressive yoke and terrible burden of his sin (Mt 11:28-30). Here we would study the forgiveness of God and the restored fellowship with Him that comes by turning to Him. This is where I would want Jim to experience a change of functional lordship in his life; that is, that he would consciously seek to be a slave of his Lord Jesus and not of his old slave master: sin. I would labor to show him that the issue is ultimately one of idolatry, and that he must forsake the worship of the idols of sexual pleasure, stimulation, and acceptance, and return to worship the one true God in Christ Jesus. These exhortations must be laced with pleas to behold the objective beauty of Christ, because no change of allegiance will occur unless Jim’s heart delights in Jesus more than he delights in sin.

Finally, with such a foundation, I would lead him through the implications of his repentance. We would study the necessary obedience that accompanies true repentance, and that the Lord expects that repentant sinners bear fruits in keeping with repentance. We would work through the Ephesians 4 paradigm of putting off and putting on, considering the changes in activities, associations, and lifestyle that are necessary to putting off immorality. He would need to confess his sin to his wife, actively seek to be reconciled to her, and be willing to do whatever he could rebuild that broken relationship. He would also need to cut off all ties with his mistress – except maybe to ask her forgiveness – and burn those bridges to prevent later backsliding. It would also be appropriate to set up marriage counseling for Jim and his wife, if she was willing. Finally, I would seek to equip Jim to cultivate the humility and the joy necessary to be restored to his local church. I would look for a willingness to come under the loving rule of his elders, as well as his ability to use his gifts to minister to the body.

Throughout this process it is imperative that Jim know that he is not earning his forgiveness by his efforts. I must be explicit that the many imperatives that we discuss are grounded by the indicatives of what Christ has done objectively in the Gospel. I must labor to show him both the futility of attempting a self-atonement and the freedom of receiving a susbtitutionary atonement. I must constantly pursue Jim’s heart, and not merely his actions. Thus, I will watch out for begrudging obedience on his part, and I will present the sight of Christ’s glory as more satisfying to the soul than the passing faux-pleasures of sin. Thus, by God’s grace, his repentance will produce joyful obedience issuing from the heart, indicating that a true 'change of mind' has taken place. Richard Baxter provides a helpful summary:

If he appear to be truly sensible of the sinfulness of his conduct, and penitent on account of it, we must see that he confess his guilt, and that he promise to fly from such sins for the time to come, to watch more narrowly and to walk more warily, to avoid temptation, to distrust his own strength, and to rely on the grace which is in Christ Jesus. We must assure him of the riches of God’s love, and the sufficiency of Christ’s blood to pardon his sins, if he believe and repent. (Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor [Banner of Truth: PA, 1981], 109)
How to Evaluate Genuine Repentance

The above case study provides a good example for how I would encourage the elders of my church to evaluate the genuine repentance of a repentant member (cf.
John Street, “The Danger of Neglecting Repentance,” Journal of Modern Ministry 5 [Spring 2008]: 27-28).

In the intellectual or cognitive domain, it should be evident that Jim understands which specific Biblical principles he has transgressed, acknowledges it as sin, and can articulate changes in his life as well as a plan for dealing with future temptations. In the emotional or affective domain, the elders should look for genuine, godly remorse that has led to his seeking forgiveness from God and other offended parties, a pervading humility as a result of his sinfulness, and a desire to be restored to fellowship with other believers. Finally, in the volitional or behavioral domain, the elders should be able to observe fruits in keeping with repentance. Jim himself, as well as his Christian friends, should be able to testify of a change in his lifestyle, and his wife should be able to testify to his desire to rebuild their relationship. There should be an evident delight in fellowship with Christ as evidenced by his joyful, willing obedience in the context of the local church.

Biblical Repentance: Introduction

1. Exegesis
1.1. Nacham: Biblical Repentance Involves the Emotions
1.2. Shuv: The Heart's Obedient Turn from Sin to God
1.3. Metanoeo: A Fundamental Change of the Whole Man

2. Discussion
2.1. Summary and Discussion: Intellectual, Emotional, Volitional
2.2. Repentance for the Christian

3. Application
3.1. Repentance vs. Penance
3.2. Counsel to a Sinning Brother

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