How to Confront Sin Biblically
Defining Biblical confrontation, when to do it, its purposes, and the proper spirit of Christian confrontation.
Confronting sin is a difficult business.
Whether you’re addressing a harmful fault with a believing family member, facing an issue with a recalcitrant church friend, or otherwise bringing up a problem with a Christian brother, it’s hard to confront sin. But that fact remains, Jesus expected his followers to address sin in an orderly fashion (Matthew 18:15-20).
In this post, I aim to define Biblical confrontation, when to do it, uncover its purposes, and finally review the spirit of a proper Christian confrontation.
What Is Confronting Sin: Church Discipline
“Sin is transgression of the law” as the King James Version of the Bible declares (1 John 3:4). Sometimes the transgression (read: breaking) the law is so severe it requires a confrontation. Much like the police apprehend a suspected murderer with speed and severity, some sins should be quickly and carefully addressed. The New Testament outlines how it’s done.
(Note: All people are sinners (1 John 1:8) – this includes Christians. However, confronting sin happens when the sin has crosses certain boundaries. More on that below. For brevity’s sake in this post, I’ll use the term “sinner” for erring church member.)
In general, confronting sin falls under the category of church discipline. The Bible assumes the sinner will be in a community when a confrontation happens. Those willfully living outside of Christian community do not show evidence of actual conversion (Hebrews 10:25) and hence this post does not concern them.
Jesus commanded followers in his church to rebuke sinners. He said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Simple enough. If your Christian brother does you wrong, then tell him. Rebuke him. Sounds harsh, but sometimes the direct approach is the best approach. If your brother changes his mind and repents, be just as quick to forgive him.
Most sins should probably be kept at that level with loving rebukes and ready forgiveness. But unfortunately that’s not always the case.
The Biblical Process for Confronting Sin: Matthew 18:15-20
When the sin is greater and there’s less humility on the part of the sinner, the Bible institutes a more comprehensive confrontation plan. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus described a five-step process of confronting an erring church member.
- Confront the sinner alone.
- If the sinner does not repent, bring along 1-2 other people to confront.
- If the sinner does not repent, tell it to the church.
- If the sinner does not repent, the person is to be disfellowshipped or excommunicated.
- God blesses the process by sealing it in heaven.
The final part of the the earthly process leads to a break in fellowship between the sinner and the church. This only happens when a the sinner is confronted alone, with 1-2 others, in front of the church and only when the sinner refuses to turn from their sin (2 Thessalonians 3:14).
What Sins Do We Confront?
In civil law, not all crimes are treated the same. The punishment for stealing a box of pens at the grocery store is petty theft – a misdemeanor. On the other hand, shooting and killing the store manager is first degree murder, a felony. Each crime is wrong, but murder is more serious than stealing pens.
Likewise, from God’s perspective some sins require confrontation. Here’s a brief list of sins that should be confronted according to the New Testament. See 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, Titus 3:10, 1 Timothy 1:3-4, 1 Timothy 5:8.
- Sexual immorality
- Not providing for family
- False teaching
These are not the only sins that should be confronted, but they bear the distinction of being called out in Scripture as those necessitating confrontation. In other words, if a church member is guilty of any of these sins, they should be confronted in a manner fitting with Matthew 18:15-20.
The Spirit of Confrontation: Non-Hypocritical, Gentle & Careful
But confrontation can be a difficult task. It’s hard to rebuke a good friend who’s going astray when the relationship is at stake. And when you find the courage to say something, you can say it completely wrong. Providentially, God gave us even more guidance on how to confront sin.
- Non-Hypocritical: In a very memorable portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned us not to be speck inspectors when logs were hanging out of our eyes. In essence, he didn’t want his people to rebuke others as hypocrites (Matthew 7:1-5)
- Gentle: Confrontation should never be harsh. The words and actions are harsh enough not to be made worse with an aggressive tone. We are to be gentle whenever we confront sin. (Galatians 6:1, 1 Timothy 5:1)
- Careful: Paul warned any would-be confronter to be careful during a confrontation. There is an inherent danger in this activity, especially for ourselves. That’s why he said “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)
Wayne Grudem’s Three Purposes for Confronting Sin + One More
Though this process may seem harsh in our often overly permissive society, this process is God’s prescribed way of handling unrepentant church members. Given our cultural context, it almost begs the question why God would put such procedures in place. There are good reasons why.
In his excellent book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem provides three purposes behind confronting sin.
- Restoration & Reconciliation of the Believer Who Is Going Astray
Grudem reminds us that sin separates us from God and each other (Isaiah 59:2). Biblical confrontation is the means by which sin is properly handled and reconciliation can take place (Matthew 18:15).
- Keep Sin From Spreading to Others
The Apostle Paul tells us “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (1 Corinthians 5:6). In other words, the sin that a church tolerates, is the sin that will fester in a congregation.
- To Protect the Purity of the Church & the Honor of Christ
Christ’s honor is of the utmost importance. But when hypocrisy is exposed and found to be covered up, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24). Biblical confrontation happens to protect the honor of the one we claim to follow.
- To Save A Soul From Spiritual Death
Though Grudem doesn’t mention this one, I think it should be included. The Epistle of James clearly presents how confronting and turning a sinning brother will result in “sav(ing) his soul from death” (James 5:19-20). In context, James is not talking about physical death, but spiritual death. Confrontation and subsequent repentance from sinful behavior can save a person from hell, because it can bring a person to genuine conversion.
In Conclusion: When Confronting Sin Whether or Not It “Works”
Pastor Steven Cole tells a story about confrontation that didn’t work out as planned. He wrote…
“Back during the Communist regime in Russia a joke was going around about Boris the Russian who arrived at the Pearly gates and was welcomed by St. Peter. Showing him around, Peter said, ‘You can go anywhere you want except on the pink clouds.’ ‘Why can’t I go there?’ Boris asked. ‘Because,’ Peter replied, ‘the pink clouds are reserved for those who did something great.’ ‘But I have done something great,’ Boris protested. ‘I made a speech at the Kremlin confronting the government and all the corrupt leaders.’ ‘Really,’ said Peter. ‘When did this happen?’ Boris looked at his watch. ‘About two minutes ago.’”
Though Boris the Russian may not have had the kind of reaction he was expecting, Boris did what he felt was right. Likewise, we also have a responsibility before the Lord to confront sin when the opportunity arises. As in the case with Boris, it may not go as planned, but it will be the right thing to do if you follow Scriptural direction.
- Jonathan Leeman’s 10 Things You Should Know About Church Discipline
- Steven J. Cole’s Dealing with Sinning Christians: An Overview of Church Discipline
- Jay Adams’ Book: Handbook on Church Discipline
- Wayne Grudem’s Book: Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.