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Sheep are interesting creatures. They are weak, defenseless, and not very smart. They wander away quite easily if not attended to, and their shepherds need to be ready to respond. It’s no accident that God’s people are called sheep. And, as the hymn writer said, we are “prone to wander.” The Scriptures provide clear direction as to how wandering sheep are to be sought out.
Matthew 18 is the classic text where we see the Good Shepherd’s heart for His stray sheep. In verses 12—14, Jesus tells us that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one lost sheep, and then rejoices when it is found. Then Jesus tells us what this “seeking” process looks like in verses 15—17. It includes (1) personal confrontation, (2) taking one or two others, and (3) telling the church. This article presumes that these biblical steps have been pursued but that the lost sheep has refused to be “found.” What do you do when someone refuses to repent? How should you relate to them? How do you relate to their families? Here are some important principles to keep in mind.
First, check your attitude. In addressing those who would seek to restore sinners, Paul writes that “you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” He adds, “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). It is essential that our approach be one of humility and not pride. Remember that we all have logs in our own eyes.
Second, pursue—don’t shun—them. Your view of the purpose of discipline will undoubtedly influence your attitude toward how you deal with the impenitent. Remember that discipline is designed to restore—not to punish—the stray sheep. The words of Matthew 18 define the goal in terms of “finding” and “winning” the wandering sheep. This is also the goal of the ultimate ecclesiastical censure: excommunication. The “shock value” of being categorized as “a Gentile and a tax collector” by those who are designated as Christ’s undershepherds should have an impact on the unrepentant.
But what if it doesn’t? How do you relate to them in the meantime?
I grew up in Amish country, where this community of faith is known as much for shunning sinners as it is for its horse-and-buggy means of transportation. Those who violate the Amish Ordnung are subject to the strictest form of dissociation, where members may not eat, sit, or engage in commerce with one who is under discipline. Is this the approach we should take?
If we are to treat unrepentant sinners as Gentiles and tax collectors, we must ask, “How did Jesus treat them?” He did not reject them, ignore them, or refuse to interact with them. His enemies were actually quite upset with Him because He ate with them, talked with them, and sought to win them. Likewise, we should be winsome in seeking to reach the unrepentant. Relationships between stray sheep and God’s people are lifelines of grace that God uses to restore the impenitent as we remind, implore, appeal, and warn as the Lord gives us opportunity. It was Nathan’s relationship with David that enabled him to deliver the parable that God used to bring the king to repentance.
Family members of sheep under discipline are often individuals who desperately need the support of their fellow believers. For example, in one situation of which I am aware, a husband deserted his wife and family and was under the discipline of the church. His wife was determined to wait for him to repent and was praying that the Lord would touch his heart. Unfortunately, there were voices from many others who were telling her to “dump the bum” and “get on with your life.” She needed the support of others who encouraged her perseverance. The Lord answered her prayers as her husband repented, they were reconciled, and he was restored to the church.
Third, pray for them. This is the most important thing that you can do for the impenitent. After all, it is the Lord’s work to soften the hearts of hard-hearted sinners. There are different kinds of prayers to pray in this situation. Obviously, you want to pray that the Lord will change their hearts to bring them to repentance. There have been occasions where I have also prayed that the Lord would do whatever was necessary circumstantially to bring the impenitent face-to-face with their sin. On one occasion, I told an individual that I was praying “that the Lord would make him miserable until he repented.” He brushed off my comments until he suddenly lost his job and his health began to deteriorate. When I saw him later, he asked if I was still praying for him that way. I said that I was. He asked me to stop it, but I said that I couldn’t stop until he repented. The good news is that he did repent. Plead with the Lord for the lost sheep, and don’t give up.
Finally, expect the sheep to be “found.” In Matthew 18, the shepherd finds the sheep and the shepherd rejoices. In Luke 15, the prodigal returns and the father celebrates. Though there may be temporal consequences of an individual’s sin (as with King David), we are instructed to rejoice in the sinner’s repentance and to be quick to forgive. The parable of the unforgiving servant that closes Matthew 18 reminds us that we must be ready to forgive much and to forgive often, even as our Chief Shepherd has forgiven us. Ultimately, He is the one who is pursuing stray sheep and, as we have the privilege of being used by Him in the process, we must follow His lead.