Contrary to my notions about sin always needing to be rebuked, here Jesus calls on his followers to search their own hearts and minds—to assess their lives and identify sin. They might have done something that led to a brother or sister holding something “against them” (Matthew 5:23). They may very well have sinned against someone else but no rebuke was issued. Just as in Matthew 18 Jesus calls for us to rebuke sin with the aim of repentance, in Matthew 5 he commands us to confess our sins to one another—to seek reconciliation (Matthew 5:24).
There are many reasons Christians don’t rebuke one another. But perhaps the one that runs deepest is that we just want people to like us. We fear coming across as self righteous, imagining that by calling out sin we will be alienated from other Christians. This is not an unreasonable fear. For even among Christians it is not difficult to be labelled judgmental and scorned for interfering in other people’s personal affairs. However, when sin is apparent, that is precisely what Jesus calls us to do: if someone sins against you, go and tell them. Naturally this must be tempered, as Christians navigate between rebuking sin and becoming judgmental or hypocritical. That being said, Jesus’ directive for us to rebuke sin stands.
For many years I treated Matthew 18:15-20 as if it was the only thing Jesus said about dealing with sin—both our own and others’. My operating assumption was that the sin-rebuke dynamic ran in one direction: if someone is sinned against then they must rebuke the offender. This led me to making remarks such as: ‘If Tim has an issue then he should bring it to me,’ and, ‘If Jeffrey thinks I’ve sinned then he must say so.’
Admittedly, it is wonderfully convenient to live like this, for at least two reasons. We’ve already touched on the first: most Christians are afraid to rebuke sin. Thus as long as I’m waiting on other Christians to identify and call out my sin, rebukes and any related repentance will be rare. Secondly, it doesn’t require me to evaluate my own actions or words, for this is the responsibility of others rather than my own. Furthermore, I can easily dismiss my conscience and make light of sin, since most Christians battle to rebuke one another.
“Confess Your Sins to One Another”
But this operating assumption was recently dashed as I read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, especially Jesus’ teaching on reconciliation. Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 5:23-24).