I recently preached on Jesus’ clear and authoritative answer to the irenic scribe who asked Him which one commandment was foremost. Jesus boiled all God’s requirements down to supreme, sacrificial love for God, as well as neighbor (Mk 12:28-34). Thus, all our sins can basically be boiled down to a failure in love for God or for neighbor. As we learn to think through the desires, words, and deeds of our hearts we should run everything through the ‘love filter.’ Does this manifest love for God or neighbor?
Wouldn’t it be great if we had an equally simple and straightforward biblical paradigm for restoring either our vertical fellowship with the Lord or for mending breached horizontal relationships with fellow man? I’d suggest you could hang the restoration process on three terms, that of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Follow that simple biblical paradigm that the Lord has provided in His inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient Word. I have provided below two very similar lists from very helpful biblical counseling resources to unpack this biblical paradigm of relationship reconciliation. We cannot ignore it in sinful cover-up when we sin, but we need to own it! He’s called us to:
1. Confess our sin as sin (Prov 28:13; 1 Jn 1:9) & ask forgiveness with the resolve to repent (Matt 6:12).
2. Ask God for His transforming grace to change, with the same resolve to repent (Ps 25:4; Jn 15:5).
3. Repent according to God’s process for change by:
a. Working to renew the mind with Scripture (Rom 12:1-2; Eph 4:23). This involves knowing Scripture about whatever sin issue is at hand well enough to specifically change wrong or incomplete thinking into thinking that in agreement with God’s principles and promises. We must purposefully guard and renew our minds.
b. Working to put off sinful actions and to put on righteous ones (Eph 4:20-24). This involves putting enough thought into one’s life to: (1) specifically plan how and when a particular sin will be avoided, and (2) determine specific ways to apply its righteous alternatives. True repentance does not take place without these things.
4. Seek forgiveness from the offended party. Forgiveness is what ‘lubricates’ all relationships, both vertically and horizontally. It keeps fellowship up-to-date with the Lord (1 Jn 1:8-10) and also restores the offended brother (Matt 5:23-26).
Dealing with sin immediately, completely, and biblically is crucial toward keeping a pure conscience. Think of simple principles concerning confession, forgiveness, restitution, procrastination, and education, as we reiterate from a similar angle, yet with additional features…
1. Confess and forsake known sin. Examine your guilt in light of Scripture. Deal with the sin God’s Word reveals. Proverbs 28:13 warns against the coverup of sin, which is man’s typical practice, as it desires secrecy and coverup. 1 John 1:9 speaks of confession of sin to God as an ongoing characteristic in the Christian life. This pattern is taught by Jesus when washing Peter’s feet (Jn 13) as well as in His instructions on how to pray (Matt 6). So, we certainly should confess to those we have wronged. God blesses openness and honesty with our sin and admonishes us that this is the obedient practice of one another’s in the Body, as seen in James (Jas 5:16). But above all, we should confess to the One whom sin offends most. That’s why David “acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide…” (Ps 32:5).
2. Ask forgiveness and be reconciled to anyone you have wronged. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus places a high premium on reconciliation (probably higher than man does) and teaches that our vertical relationship with Him is affected by our horizontal relationship with our neighbor. And further, if we refuse to forgive others, it is indicative of the very real possibility of having never experienced forgiveness from the Lord (Matt 6:14-15).
3. Make restitution. God spoke to Moses of restitution in man’s confession/repentance (Numb 5:6-7). And though it is part of the Mosaic Covenant, we find it repeated in the New Testament as an abiding principle that is binding on believers (cf. Philemon 19; Lk 19:8).
4. Don’t procrastinate in clearing your wounded conscience. Paul said he did his best to always maintain a blameless conscience before God and man (Acts 24:26). This action is crucial, as some people put off dealing with their guilt, thinking their conscience will clear itself in time. It won’t! Procrastination allows the thoughts and feelings surrounding guilt to fester. That, in turn, generates depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems. Emotions, thoughts, and feelings stemming from the initial guilt may persist long after the offense is forgotten, often spilling over to other areas of our lives. That’s why people often feel guilty and are not sure why. But if you keep pushing down the guilt that your conscience is pointing towards you may break this gift of conscience and silence it altogether. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind in Titus 1:15. Guilt and shame are real, and the only provision is the good news of the Gospel and Christ’s atoning death. Man either works in penance, trying buy off the offended party, or repents, trusting God to pardon, through the death of His only Beloved Son.
5. Educate your conscience. According to 1 Corinthians 8:7, a weak, easily grieved conscience results from a lack of spiritual knowledge. If it is too easily wounded, don’t violate it; to do so is to train yourself to override conviction, and that will lead to overriding true conviction about real sin. Moreover, violating the conscience is a sin in itself (v12, cf Rom 14:23). Instead, immerse your conscience in God’s Word so it can begin to function with reliable data.
An important aspect of educating the conscience is teaching it to focus on the right object—divinely revealed truth. If the conscience looks only to personal feelings, it can accuse us wrongfully. We’re certainly not to order our lives according to our feelings, for a conscience fixed on feelings becomes unreliable. The conscience must be persuaded by the unbending principles of the Word of God, not our feelings.
Further, conscience errs when the mind focuses wholly on our faltering in sin and ignores the triumphs of God’s grace in us. True Christians experience both realities. Conscience must be allowed to weigh the fruit of the Spirit in our lives as well as the remnants of our sinful flesh. It must see our faith as well as our failings. Otherwise, the conscience will become overly accusing, prone to unwholesome doubts about our standing before God.
We must subject our conscience to the truth of God and the teaching of Scripture, not fickle feelings that lie to us. As we do that, the conscience will be more clearly focused and better able to give us reliable feedback. A trustworthy conscience becomes a powerful aid to spiritual growth and stability.
Furthermore, Psalm 66:18 declares, “if I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
In other words, if I hold onto sin, I’ll be vexed by a condemning, guilty conscience, stopping up my fellowship with the Lord.
Yet, “blessed be God because He has not rejected my prayer or removed His steadfast love from me” (Ps 66:20).
In other words, He welcomes the penitent one into a reconciled and restored fellowship.
What use was coverup, for as he cries out for salvation and help, he admits his sin. “You know my folly, the wrongs I have done are not hidden from You” (Ps 69:5).
As we remain committed to doing relationships God’s way and applying the biblical paradigm of confession, repentance, and forgiveness, we should be assured of pardon. Psalm 130:4 assures, “If you, Lord should mark iniquities, oh Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.”
He promises pardon! Notice Psalm 103:12. God doesn’t have a bad memory; however, He chooses, by the act of His sovereign will, to not hold man’s sin against him, when proper provision has been made.
And as man patterns his forgiveness towards others after what he’s received from God, we promise pardon. French theologian John Calvin insightfully recalls, “Had Joseph kept his thoughts fixed on the treachery of his brethren, he never could have resumed fraternal affection for them. But turning toward the Lord, he forgot the injury, and was so inclined to mildness and mercy, that he even voluntarily comforts his brethren.”
And Scripture connects the two; that to withhold forgiveness to fellow sinners who have legitimately confessed and repented is to be disobedient, possibly even showed he himself (herself) has never been born-again and forgiven by the Father (Matt 6:12, 14; Mk 11:25).
However, we cannot force the process when it comes to the horizontal plane of human forgiveness, we cannot force the process. If a brother/sister disobediently withholds forgiveness, we’re helplessly dependent on the Holy Spirit to do what we cannot. Paul says, “If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone.” (Rom 12:18). Unfortunately, it’s not always possible, but discharge your duty before the Lord. We do all we can do to see people reconciled to God and neighbor.
First, we guard our own hearts attitudinally by forgiving ‘anything’ or ‘anyone’ (Mk 11:25). That is, harbor no heart of ill-will towards the offender. Yet, we can only transactionally forgive those who repent (Lk 17:3). That is God’s condition that we cannot and must not deny. It is not unconditional, as so many people espouse. But when we own our sin through biblical confession of sin (saying the same thing about it God says; not minimizing nor blame-shifting), repent (resolving through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit not to repeat said transgression), there is forgiveness. A glorious reality with God, as well as in our relationships with fellow man.
And finally, be on the guard for future sin. Again, the psalmist is instructive by praying, “Keep back your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!” (Ps 19:13). We need to pray for growing sensitivity towards our own sinfulness and be on guard daily to pursue reconciliation with our Father by faith, along with our neighbor, whom we’ve been commanded to love as we already love ourselves. May God be glorified, and His people be built up as we pursue biblical relationships, including mending them when breached! Soli Deo Gloria!