The Reconciliation of Repentant Sinners

Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Part of the elders' care of the people of God involves supervising the reconciliation of repentant sinners with God and His church. In distinction from Article 73 of The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, which speaks of the reconciliation of private sins, Article 75 speaks of "The reconciliation of all such sins as are of their nature of a public character, or have become public because the admonition of the church was despised." The article reads as follows,

The reconciliation of all such sins as are of their nature of a public character, or have become public because the admonition of the church was despised, shall take place (upon sufficient evidence of repentance) in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of each church. Whether in particular cases this shall take place in public shall, when there is a difference of opinion about it in the consistory, be considered with the advice of two neighboring churches or of the classis.

Public sins according to Article 75 are of two kinds. There are those sins which are "of their nature of a public character." It's very likely that these are sins reported in the news media. However that may be, a sin which is in its very nature public is a sin that is known to the congregation. It would be impossible for an unmarried woman who gives birth to a child to hide her transgression of the seventh commandment from her fellow saints. The second kind of public sin is a sin that was private but became public "because the admonition of the church was despised." In such an instance the matter was brought to the consistory in the way of Matthew 18. The consistory made every effort to bring the sinner to repentance, but the sinner refused. Because of this impenitence the consistory was compelled to announce the matter to the congregation (Article 77). It is then, only after the sin has been announced, that the sinner repents and needs to be reconciled with God and the church. 

The ground of reconciliation is "sufficient evidence of repentance." Usually "sufficient evidence of repentance" is a confession of the sin by the sinner together with a promise on his part to leave that sin. But it happens in not a few cases that the sinner confesses the sin and is reconciled with the church, and then falls into the sin all over again. It is with this possibility in mind that the fathers speak of "sufficient evidence of repentance" in this article. The consistory must be certain that the sinner is sincerely repentant. To attain this certainty the consistory may very well place the person on probation for a designated period of time. Each case will have to be considered on its own merits, but there are some sins which because of their very nature would require placing the sinner on probation. Drug abuse and continual drunkenness are two such sins which come to mind. A man may be exceedingly sorry for his sin of drunkenness, but soon thereafter fall into that sin again. If the sinner is placed on probation for a time, he is allowed back into the church, but is for a time barred from the use of the sacraments until the consistory is certain that he has forsaken his sinful ways. The consistory must exercise great caution lest the discipline of the church be despised and the church herself become the object of ridicule. 

Admittedly the line here can often be very fine indeed. The whole matter calls for a good deal of sanctified wisdom, and, as was said earlier, each case has to be dealt with on its own merits. But, let it be emphasized, when there is sufficient evidence of repentance, the consistory must forgive the sinner and so must the congregation. The penitent sinner must be unconditionally received into the full communion and fellowship of the people of God. Jesus taught us to pray, "forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). Scripture teaches that when we confess our sins God "is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.... we make him a liar and the truth is not in us" (I John 1:8-10). But let it also be emphasized, there must be sufficient evidence of repentance, for God forgives only those sinners who by His grace confess and leave their sins. The church must do likewise "until seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:22). 

Further, Article 75 speaks of the method according to which this reconciliation must take place when it says, "in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of the church." The chief concern here is the congregation, the church, the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. The holy name of Christ and the reputation of His beloved, blood-bought church are always affected by the public sins of her members. However the reconciliation of repentant sinners takes place, it must be in a manner that is conducive to building up of the church. This is the determinative factor involved in the reconciliation. The elders, then, must take into account the nature of the sin, the penitent sinner, and the circumstances prevailing in the congregation, and then determine how best the spiritual well-being of the church will be served. 

Usually what happens is that the sinner goes to the consistory and confesses his sin and expresses his desire to be reconciled with God and His church. Upon determining that the sinner is sincerely repentant, the consistory prepares an announcement in which the congregation is informed of the sinner's repentance and exhorted to receive him into her fellowship in the way of forgiveness. This announcement ought not to be printed in the weekly bulletin, but read from the pulpit by the minister. The purpose of all this is, and this is what the consistory must strive for also when it oversees the reconciliation of penitent sinners, the removing of the breach struck in the congregation by the sin committed, the restoration of fellowship between the congregation and the penitent sinner, and keeping the church pure in the world. In this way the name of God is glorified.

The article also provides for the possibility of the reconciliation taking place "in public." Reconciliation in public does not then take place in the presence of the consistory with an announcement made from the pulpit as we described above. Rather, the reconciliation takes place under the supervision of the consistory, but in the presence of the entire congregation at a divine worship service. In such cases the consistory would formulate two or three questions concerning the sin, the sinner's desire to confess that sin to God and the congregation, and the sinner's resolve to leave the sin. During a worship service the sinner would be asked to stand and give answer to these questions.

While allowing for reconciliation to take place in public, the Reformed churches, also our own Protestant Reformed Churches, have approached it with a great deal of caution. The synod of Emden (1571) in the Netherlands ruled that a unanimous vote was required by the consistory before this procedure could be followed. The synod of 1586 decided that in churches served by only one minister, no public reconciliation should take place, except with the advice of two neighboring churches. (It should be borne in mind that the larger urban churches in the Netherlands often had several ministers serving them, while the smaller congregations had but one minister.) Prior to this the synod of Middleburg (1581) had ruled that consistories had to seek the advice of the classis before a sinner could be publicly reconciled. The Church Order governing our churches requires a unanimous decision on the part of the consistory if the reconciliation is to take place in public. This is implied by the words, "when there is a difference of opinion about it." 

If the consistory cannot agree by unanimous decision, the procedure to be followed is one of two. The consistory must either seek the advice of two neighboring consistories, or the consistory must seek the advice of the classis. The former procedure would likely be chosen if the next meeting of the classis were a long way off. In that case the neighboring consistories would meet with the consistory to hear the details of the case. After this the two consistories whose advice was being sought would meet separately to formulate their advice. In the event that the two consistories came with contradictory advice the matter would have to be resolved by the classis. 

The reconciliation of sinners who have been excommunicated is the subject of Article 78 of the Church Order and will, D. V., be discussed in our next article.