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03-1-20

The resurgence of a gospel-centered paradigm of life and ministry in our time has the makings of historic revival. Clearly, God is doing great things, and we are glad (Psalm 126).

But one aspect of gospel-centrality remains under-emphasized among us: interpersonal reconciliation. The Bible says, “God . . . gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). It doesn’t say, “God gives us the option of reconciliation now and then, when it suits us.” No, God has given us the ministry of reconciliation as a matter of sacred stewardship. There is nothing more gospel-centered.

Do we pursue reconciliation with that urgency? Jesus said, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Maybe we need to reach out to an offended brother or sister before next Sunday. Our approach might be rejected. We are grateful for this realism: “If possible, so far as it depends on you . . .” (Romans 12:18). But have we tried? If not, what are we waiting for? It isn’t the gospel that needs to change.

One reason we might hold back is how hard reconciliation can be. It is hard to dig up the injuries of the past. It is hard to talk it through with the offender. It is hard to become vulnerable again. Reconciliation is beautiful, powerful and prophetic, but not easy. And it doesn’t matter how much time has elapsed since the friendship broke down. The passage of time does not make anything better. Francis Schaeffer, in his wonderful essay, “The Mark of the Christian,” understands the dark power of long-standing brokenness:

I have observed one thing among true Christians in their differences in many countries: What divides and severs true Christian groups and Christians – what leaves a bitterness that can last for 20, 30 or 40 years (or for 50 or 60 years in a son’s memory) – is not the issue of doctrine or belief which caused the differences in the first place. Invariably it is lack of love and the bitter things that are said by true Christians in the midst of differences. These stick in the mind like glue. And after time passes and the differences between the Christians or the groups appear less than they did, there are still those bitter, bitter things we said in the midst of what we thought was a good and sufficient objective discussion. It is these things, the unloving attitudes and words, that cause the stench that the world can smell in the church of Jesus Christ among those who are really true Christians. . . . The world looks, shrugs its shoulders and turns away. It has not seen even the beginning of a living church in the midst of a dying culture.

When we come to the point of saying, “I cannot let this alienation and aloofness go on,” here are two steps we can take.

One, forgive preemptively. Way down deep, in our own hearts, we must forgive the offender. We must do this first, privately. The Bible says, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). That forgiveness is absolute and unconditional. And what could be more gospel-centered? Then, if we do have a conversation with the offender, we can walk into it without a vindictive desire for that person to get their comeuppance. By God’s grace, we can walk in the holiness of Leviticus 19:17, which says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor.” Preemptive forgiveness sets our own hearts free to follow Jesus in his non-shaming mercy for the undeserving.

But the broken relationship still needs attention. A forgiving heart is a beautiful thing in the sight of God, but it is invisible to the watching world. So a second step is called for.

Two, forgive conditionally. When it comes to the actual relationship, Jesus told us what to do: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). This is what “you shall reason frankly with your neighbor” can look like. And the rebuke the Lord intends is not screaming and hateful. His kind of rebuke is honest reasoning, with gentle candor. John Stott, in his book Confess Your Sins: The Way of Reconciliation, writes about Luke 17:3:

We are to rebuke a brother if he sins against us; we are to forgive him if he repents — and only if he repents.  We must beware of cheapening forgiveness. . . . If a brother who has sinned against us refuses to repent, we should not forgive him.  Does this startle you?  It is what Jesus taught. . . . ‘Forgiveness’ includes restoration to fellowship.  If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love but its shallowness.

If we are unwilling to seek reconciliation with an ex-friend through preemptive forgiveness in our hearts and conditional forgiveness in the relationship, then let’s stop talking about gospel-centeredness. We don’t really mean it. But if we are willing to take up “the ministry of reconciliation” as our lifestyle together, pressing through the awkwardness with gentle courage, trusting the Lord, then our movement might indeed grow into historic revival.


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Ray Ortlund


Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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