Repentance Leading Back to God
“The kindly quality of God is trying to lead you to repentance.”—Rom. 2:4.
1, 2. We should appreciate what as to sin and God’s viewpoint?
EACH of us can be encouraged by the psalmist David’s words:
“Jehovah is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness.
He has not done to us even according to our sins;
Nor according to our errors has he brought upon us what we deserve.
As a father shows mercy to his sons,
Jehovah has shown mercy to those fearing him.
For he himself well knows the formation of us,
2 Even though God recognizes that we are all sinners, he wants to help us and is willing to forgive. (Ps. 32:1, 2) Our concept of God, though, would not be accurate if we did not accept his whole view of sin. Whereas Psalm 103 assures us that Jehovah “is forgiving all [our] error,” it also indicates our obligations, saying: “The loving-kindness of Jehovah is from time indefinite even to time indefinite toward those fearing him, . . . toward those remembering his orders so as to carry them out.”—Ps. 103:3, 17, 18.
3. Why is repentance vital?
3 If a person commits grave sin, does not repent and seek God’s fatherly mercy, but continues to pursue sin, what then? Exodus 34:6, 7 gives us a description of Jehovah. After stressing his mercy, his slowness to anger and willingness to pardon error, it adds: “But by no means will he give exemption from punishment.” (Compare Numbers 25:1-5; Ezekiel 33:12, 13.) Hence, we must not presume upon his mercy or take it for granted. What, then, should a true worshiper do if he falls into sin?
TAKING STEPS BACK TO GOD
4. How can we obtain forgiveness? (2 Chron. 7:13, 14)
4 A Christian who has sinned against God’s law needs forgiveness. Who can extend that? In actuality, only God. The apostle John wrote: “If we confess our sins [to God], he is faithful and righteous so as to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”—1 John 1:9; 2:1.
5, 6. What does James 5:14-16 advise, and why is it reasonable for a wrongdoer to follow this counsel?
5 In the case of grave sin, God wisely advises that a Christian ‘confessing his sins’ ought to take an additional step. In a context that evidently refers to spiritual sickness involving “sins,” the disciple James wrote: “Is there anyone sick among you? Let him call the older men [or, elders] of the congregation to him, and let them pray over him, . . . And the prayer of faith will make the indisposed one well, and Jehovah will raise him up. Also, if he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him.”—Jas. 5:14-16.
6 This step is reasonable, for a Christian who has given in to grave sin displays a measure of spiritual weakness and a need for help. He could benefit from the prayers of faith of the “older men of the congregation.” They are in position, also, to offer him Biblical counsel and help so that he can regain spiritual strength. Further, some transgressions amount to sins against the Christian congregation, for they bring reproach and sorrow upon God’s people. This makes it even more appropriate that such a sinner seek the elders’ help.—2 Cor. 2:10.
7 It displays wisdom and humility on the part of the Christian guilty of grievous sin to approach the elders on his own. “He that is covering over [“who hides,” Lamsa] his transgressions will not succeed, but he that is confessing and leaving them will be shown mercy.” (Prov. 28:13) Sometimes, because of embarrassment, a feeling of guilt or a lack of heartfelt sorrow a sinner does not approach the elders, as James advises. Any Christian aware of the sin should encourage the wrongdoer to turn away from his error and seek the spiritual help that he needs. If the wrongdoer still will not go to the elders, the other Christian should alert them so that they can provide the needed help. All Christians should want to ‘turn a sinner back from the error of his way’ and thus “save his soul from death.”—Jas. 5:19, 20.
REPROVING WITH THE WORD OF GOD
8. How do elders proceed in handling a committee meeting?
8 When a judicial committee meets concerning wrongdoing, they prayerfully seek Jehovah’s guidance. In a manner appropriate for loving shepherds, the elders patiently discuss with the individual what appears to be the problem or wrongdoing. (Eph. 5:1, 2; 1 Pet. 5:2, 3) Even where there are witnesses who establish that wrongdoing has occurred, the judicial committee encourages the person to discuss frankly not only the wrong but what led up to it and how he feels about it. (Deut. 19:15; John 8:17) Why is this necessary?
9, 10. At a committee hearing concerning wrongdoing, what are the elders striving to do? (Ps. 51:13)
9 Though the elders hearing the case establish guilt or convince someone of wrongdoing, their primary interest is in helping their Christian brother who has gone astray. They want to move him to repent so that “refreshing may come from the person of Jehovah.” (Acts 3:19) If the individual does not admit the wrong, recognize its grievous nature or see the need to repent, they may have to present ‘convincing evidence concerning his sin and concerning righteousness.’ (Compare John 16:8.) But in giving such godly reproof they should not be vindictive or harsh. The Bible urges: “Reprove, reprimand, exhort, with all long-suffering and art of teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:1, 2) By firmly, kindly and patiently giving reproof, they may be able to reach the sinner’s heart, helping him to hate the wrong and to turn back to God.—Jer. 3:12, 13.
10 We can learn from Ezra’s example. He clearly showed the Jews their error. This was not primarily to shame them, but to get them to stop, to touch their heart, to move them to hate the wrong and to repent. They needed to make confession to Jehovah and to act in accord therewith by doing what they could to undo their wrong. (Ezra 10:7-14) Similarly, the committee handling a case of gross sin wants to help the wrongdoer to see the gravity of the wrong and to sense in his heart the need to repent.—Isa. 1:18.
“REPROVE BEFORE ALL ONLOOKERS”
11. Who are in need of Scriptural reproof?
11 In connection with judicial meetings with wrongdoers, the elders apply the apostle Paul’s words to Timothy: “Reprove before all onlookers [literally, “in sight of all”] persons who practice sin, that the rest also may have fear.” (1 Tim. 5:20) These wrongdoers are persons who ‘have persisted in sin’ (Revised Standard Version) or “who continue in sin” (New American Standard Bible) up until the time that the reproof is actually given.
12. How does a judicial committee apply the counsel at 1 Timothy 5:20?
12 In the first century, Timothy, as an authorized delegate of the apostle Paul, could carry out that written instruction personally ‘in the sight of all’ those concerned, with the wrongdoer present. Today such reproof is usually provided by a designated committee of elders instead of by an individual. It may not necessarily involve the entire congregation. Toward the conclusion of the judicial committee meeting, after guilt has been established, the elders offer Scriptural reproof concerning the wrongdoing. They have present the witnesses who testified concerning the sin, and such informed persons are invited to hear the Biblical reproof. It is thus offered “before all onlookers” or ‘in the sight of all.’ These, who are “the rest” mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:20, may thus be helped to have a healthy fear concerning sin, to see the need to avoid sin and the circumstances that can lead to it.
IS HE REPENTANT?
13. What challenge faces the elders in dealing with grave sin?
13 One of the greatest challenges for elders handling cases of wrongdoing is deciding whether the sinner shows true repentance. They must not judge merely on surface appearances. Hence, not being able to read hearts, they need to exercise great discernment, balance and wisdom in evaluating the wrong, its relation to God’s law and what the sinner says and does.
14, 15. Why should the elders be careful in deciding whether someone is repentant?
14 The elders ought not to be hasty in concluding that repentance exists. Why? Well, if they mistakenly judge that a sinner is repentant, that may have a damaging effect on all the flock. But please note a contrasting Biblical example involving a wrongdoer in the Corinthian congregation. After having been expelled for a time, he was reinstated because of being truly repentant. How would the brothers then deal with him? The Corinthians, trusting the judgment that he was repentant, were encouraged kindly to “forgive and comfort him,” ‘confirming their love for him.’ (2 Cor. 2:6-8) It is the same today when a committee concludes that a wrongdoer is repentant. But if they had misjudged the matter and turned back to the congregation a wrongdoer who was not truly repentant, they would be endangering the moral and spiritual purity of all in the flock.—1 Cor. 5:6.
15 What can the committee look for in determining whether the wrongdoer is truly repentant? A person who is repentant does not try to minimize or justify his bad course. He recognizes in his mind the wrongness of what he did and feels in his heart deep regret over having sinned against God. (Jer. 3:25; Acts 3:19) Thus the elders handling a case must make sure that such regret or sadness exists.
16, 17. (a) What is the difference between the “sadness of the world” and ‘godly sadness’? (Heb. 12:16, 17) (b) How will tears or evidences of emotion bear on the elders’ judgment?
16 The elders may have to differentiate between the “sadness of the world” and “sadness in a godly way [that] makes for repentance to salvation.” (2 Cor. 7:10) A person guilty of wrongdoing might feel a sadness of personal failure, shame at being exposed or feel gloomy over the possibility of facing discipline. But such “sadness of the world” does not mean that he is sad over having sinned against God or having brought reproach on God and His people, which are indications of ‘godly sadness.’ Though Esau shed tears over the loss of his birthright, Jehovah knew that Esau was not truly repentant at heart. So, if a person guilty of grave sin gives way to tears, the elders must try to determine whether this is out of ‘godly sadness.’ It may be. In Ezra’s day the people “wept profusely” after hearing his earnest prayer regarding their sin, and Peter cried bitterly over having denied Jesus.—Gen. 25:29-34; 27:34; Ezra 10:1; Luke 22:59-62.
17 These Scriptural examples emphasize why the elders cannot judge merely on a display of emotion. Persons differ in their emotional makeup and control. So whether there are tears or not, the important thing is that the wrongdoer is touched at heart, having a spirit of agony or sense of deep regret over having offended Jehovah and damaged his relationship with God. (Ps. 51:1-4) Accordingly, the elders will likely inquire as to whether the wrongdoer has prayerfully confessed to Jehovah, seeking God’s forgiveness, as David did.—Ps. 32:3-5; 41:4; Jer. 31:19.
18. How does confession come into the picture?
18 If the wrongdoer voluntarily confessed to the “older men of the congregation,” that may be a helpful indication as to his heart condition. (Jas. 5:14, 16) What, though, if he did not voluntarily confess and the matter had to be established by his being confronted with evidence or the testimony of witnesses? He might still (there at the meeting) be reached, acknowledging his sin. (Note the example of David’s repentance over his sin with Bath-sheba, at 2 Samuel 12:1-13.) But, especially when extensive reproof had to be given before the wrongdoer began to make any initial expressions of repentance, should the committee exercise caution. They would have to be convinced of the wrongdoer’s changed heart condition and that he has a zeal to right the wrong and is absolutely determined to avoid it in the future.—2 Cor. 7:10, 11; Rev. 3:19.
19. How should a repentant wrongdoer feel concerning the congregation?
19 A wrongdoer should have sorrow for the dishonor brought on God’s congregation. When David sinned by taking a census and realized what he had done, he acknowledged his foolish action. Then when he saw the drastic results upon the entire nation, he was moved to say: “Here it is I that have sinned and it is I that have done wrong; but these sheep—what have they done?” (2 Sam. 24:10, 17) So, then, does the wrongdoer show genuine remorse over the reproach, problems and sorrow that he may have brought on the congregation?
“WORKS THAT BEFIT REPENTANCE”
20-22. (a) What “works,” or “fruit,” will the elders examine? (b) Illustrate how a repentant one might produce such “fruit.”
20 The apostle Paul exhorted persons to “repent and turn to God by doing works that befit repentance.” (Acts 26:20) When the Jews in the days of Nehemiah repented over having foreign wives, they took definite action that reflected repentance. (Neh. 9:1, 2; compare Jonah 3:5-10.) Consequently, in dealing with a case of gross sin, the elders will be interested in whether the wrongdoer has ‘produced fruit that befits repentance.’—Matt. 3:8.
21 If he sinned against an individual, has he confessed his sin to that person and asked for forgiveness? For example, in a case of adultery, has he made confession to his innocent mate and asked forgiveness? Or if the wrongdoer is guilty of fraud, has he taken any steps to compensate for the loss? In some circumstances he might be unable to undo all the damage he has caused, but does he give evidence that reasonable steps will be taken to make up for any loss? (Luke 19:8) The point is, to what extent has the guilty person produced the ‘fruit befitting repentance’?
22 Maybe the sin sprang from ignoring Scriptural counsel. For instance, he might have regularly shared in recreation with worldly workmates, and this unwholesome association led to immorality. So has the erring person ceased that association? (Prov. 13:20; 1 Pet. 4:3, 4) Also, has he put forth effort to meet regularly with God’s people, and has he displayed a heartfelt desire to praise God as a pure worshiper? No one of these ‘fruits’ is the sole criterion for determining that the sinner is repentant. The elders would be concerned that he have wholesome association, attend Christian meetings and be zealous in the field service, for they accept God’s view that there should be “works that befit repentance.”
23. The committee needs to consider what in the case of repeated sin?
23 The judicial committee should be very concerned about keeping the congregation clean and should exercise particular care if the wrongdoer has secretly carried on gross sin over a long period. The same would be true if they were dealing with a person who had established a pattern of sinning and then seemingly had repented. A number of times he may have done wrong but because he appeared repentant he was reproved each time and was allowed to remain in the congregation. Now he has sinned again. In such cases the elders, having in mind also the welfare of the whole flock, must consider whether his life gives true evidence that he is producing “fruit that befits repentance.” Has he not by his way of life shown that it is very questionable that he belongs in God’s congregation?—Ps. 119:104; Rom. 12:9.
24 Sometimes a sinner is hardened or belligerent, manifesting no true repentance despite the sincere and patient efforts of the elders. (Eccl. 8:11) They are not obliged to meet repeatedly with such a wrongdoer as if pleading with him or trying to beg him to repent. But in some cases they may feel the need to meet again with the sinner, if the evidence concerning his feelings, motives and repentance is not so clear. After he has had time to pray and to reflect on the previous Scriptural discussion, the question of his repentance may be clarified.
25. Why do the elders have a heavy responsibility as to wrongdoing?
25 The elders’ responsibility in determining true repentance is a weighty one. They ought to show mercy and help erring ones who are truly repentant. Yet they also need to guard against misplaced sympathy that could lead to dangerous “leaven” remaining in the congregation.—Gal. 5:9.
AIDING THE CONGREGATION
26. How might some cases be handled if few know of the wrongdoing?
26 In some cases grievous sin has not, and likely will not, become commonly known. Perhaps only a few individuals, such as the immediate family or the few witnesses, are aware of the sin. (These, although “onlookers,” should be made to realize that it would be unloving to gossip about it.) Hence, once the judicial committee is sure that the wrongdoer is repentant, there is no need for the matter to be made more public, for the “onlookers” have all heard Scriptural reproof on the matter, and the sinner is repentant.
27, 28. When may it be advisable for the congregation to be informed that someone has been reproved?
27 In other cases a sin may be known to many in the congregation and/or the community. Or the sin may be such that it will no doubt become generally known in time. Such a case needs to be handled differently. The entire congregation needs to be put at rest as to whether the matter has been properly handled. Also, they can benefit from Scriptural counsel that may aid them in having a healthy fear of sin.
28 Or there may be an instance where the elders feel that a degree of caution must be exercised. For example, though genuinely repentant now, the wrongdoer may have in the past shown some weaknesses as to his determination to avoid the way leading to sin. So out of concern that the congregation not be endangered by someone in their midst becoming a corrupting influence, the committee of elders might resolve that an informative Scriptural talk needs to be given.
29, 30. (a) How will the elders inform the congregation? (b) What may be the benefit of handling some cases in this way?
29 In either of these situations, the congregation elders can arrange to deal with the matter at the weekly service meeting, not at other meetings. At the service meeting it could be announced that the former wrongdoer has been reproved by a judicial committee and has demonstrated repentance. Also, the judicial committee may feel it necessary to impose certain restrictions. These might include not sharing in meeting parts, not representing the congregation in prayer or, perhaps, not reading scriptures or commenting at meetings. If the committee has instituted some restrictions, they may advise the elders whether they feel that this should be announced to the congregation. Such restrictions can gradually be lifted in the future.
30 The same evening, but somewhat later in the service meeting program, an assigned elder could deliver a firm Scriptural talk. He should not mention the wrongdoer by name nor reveal any specific details of the confidential information that came to light in the judicial committee meeting. But he could discuss what God’s Word says about the type of error or sin involved in this instance, its danger and how to avoid it. All the congregation can benefit from such Scriptural admonition.—2 Tim. 4:1, 2.
31. How should we feel concerning God’s view of repentance?
31 All of us should deeply appreciate Jehovah’s willingness to accept genuine repentance. We certainly should not “accept the undeserved kindness of God and miss its purpose.” (2 Cor. 6:1) Should someone do that, giving in to sin and not being repentant, God directs the congregation to take stronger steps. These will be dealt with in our next issue.
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WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT REPENTANCE?
If we commit grave sin, we need to confess to God and also should apply the advice in his Word to seek the help of the “older men.”
At a judicial committee meeting, elders seek to establish guilt and strive to help the wrongdoer to repent.
At this meeting, ‘reproving before all onlookers’ involves those present as witnesses or who know of the sin.
A person who is truly repentant has been touched at heart over having sinned against and reproached God and His people.
The elders will look for evidence of “works that befit repentance.”
While interested in helping the wrongdoer, the committee also is concerned with protecting the congregation from corruption.