Offenses, Part III: The Duty of the Offender

So far in our series on relationships, offenses, and how to respond to them, we’ve talked about overlooking offenses and what to do when we can’t overlook an offense. This time, I want to side-step and look at the responsibilities of the offender instead of the responsibilities of the offended. Whereas, in my last post we looked at Matthew 18:15 and the Christ-given duty of the offender to talk to, to have a conversation with, the offender about the offense, in this post I’d like to look at the responsibility of the offender to the offended

In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says this, “23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus proposes a situation in which a person is about to engage in a solemn act of worship (offering a gift) and remembers that he or she may have done something that offended another person. It’s important to read the passage carefully. And there are a few things I’d like to draw out in particular.

Get ahead of it.

Your going does not depend on an actual sin being committed, it depends on the state of the brother (or sister). Notice It does not say “leave your gift there before the alter and go” if you actually committed a sin. It does not say “leave your gift there before the alter and go” if you actually committed a sin worthy of them being offended by. It says “leave your gift there before the alter and go” if your brother has something against you

Let me clarify. The duty to go to the offended does not hinge on whether or not an actual sin was committed. The duty to go to the offended also does not hinge on whether or not you are offended.1 The duty to go to the offended hinges on the state of the offended—the very fact that they are offended. Further, it does not really matter if you did anything actually sinful. If you did anything, and you are aware that what you did offended someone, it is your duty to go to them and work through it. The idea is to get ahead of conflict, anger, resentment, or any kind of relational distance that may arise because of your action and the offended state of the other person. The goal is for brothers (and sisters) to “dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:1) and not in animosity against one another. It’s important to be proactive in resolving relational problems rather than reactive

Go quickly.

When should we go to the offended person? We go as soon as we become aware that the other person may be offended. It’s obvious that we can’t go to people that we don’t even know we’ve offended, hence the need for Matthew 18:15. However, if we realize someone may be upset with us, we are commanded to go to them not wait for them to come to us. As Pastor Jason has pointed out to me before, Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15 ought to have these two parties meeting in the middle—both coming to the other to resolve the wrinkle in their relationship. 

So, maybe we realize a certain person won’t look at us during worship. Maybe we realize we haven’t talked to someone in a while, and they haven’t talked to us either. Maybe someone else tells us we should go talk to someone. Or maybe the Spirit reminds us of something we did that had potential to offend someone else. Whatever the case, once we realize another person may be offended, we should go—immediately! The worshiper in Matthew 5:23-24 is commanded to “go” and “be reconciled” even before they offer their gift at the alter. Go as soon as possible—time is capital for the building up of anger and resentment. 

The goal of going: “be reconciled.”2

Why do we go? Jesus states the goal of our going plainly: “be reconciled.” The need to “be reconciled” implies the need to bring together two parties that have otherwise been separated. This is a gospel principle: the Scriptures speak of the need for us to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-21). We have sinned against him in thought, word, and deed. He is holy. We are not. We need to ‘be reconciled to him’—a work that Christ does for us by being our perfect righteousness and dying for our sins. Christ has reconciled us—brought us back to, restored our relationship with—God. Christ satisfied the righteous wrath of God against us so that we could enjoy fellowship with God. When we speak of Christ’s reconciling us to God, we are not primarily talking about our being clothed with the righteousness of Christ (justification), but we are primarily talking about Christ appeasing the righteous wrath of God on our behalf. Christ satisfied the wrath of God against us. He did away with it for us. God had reason to be angry with us (our sin). Christ did away with that anger in his life and death on the cross. He reconciled us to God. He brought us back in.  

So when we think about being reconciled with others, we need to think of how Christ has reconciled us to God—that’s the reason we seek reconciliation and why we have the ability to be reconciled. But also, he has given us the pattern for reconciliation unto others: appeasing, doing away with, or working through any problem or offended-ness someone may harbor against us. We are not primarily going to them for our own good but so that our relationship might be restored. Now, it may be in the course of that conversation we discover actual sin that we committed against them. In that case, the process is the same as always: as the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and we become truly sorrowful over it (Godly sorrow), we confess our sin (both to God and to the person we sinned against) and ask forgiveness for that sin (from both God and from the other person). 

We fit in both categories.

Some of you, perhaps, would have preferred for me to write this installment in the third person, using pronouns such as “them, they, he, and she”—primarily talking about other people. However, the reality is that all of us fit into both categories—sometimes we are the offended (see this post) and other times we are the offender as I’ve described above. It is just as much our responsibility to go to someone if we may have sinned against them as it is for us to go to someone if they may have sinned against us. And it’s at this point we realize that we not only need boldness and courage, gentleness and grace to go to others when they sin against us. But we need humility, that we might go to someone when we may have sinned against them. So, that’s why we need both Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15 in the first person (I, me, we)—because it is likely that we are the offender just as often as the offended

1 See John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (2015), page 31.

2 Ibid, 29-39.

Offenses, Part II: Responding to Offenses that Can’t be ‘Overlooked’ or ‘Covered’

In my first installment last week on relational reconciliation, we talked about what an offense was (when someone sins against us) and the Bible’s instruction to cultivate a spirit of love and forgiveness for our neighbors that overlooks offenses, or sins, committed against us. To be clear, when we make the decision to “overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11) or let our love for neighbor “cover a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8), we are committing to not interact with or treat that person with respect to the sin they committed against us. If we determine in our hearts to overlook a sin committed against us out of love for that person, we are committing to forget, in a sense, the sin they committed. We are committing to move on in our relationship with that person, to continue to love them well, as if they had not committed that sin.

But the question we left off with in our last installment was, what if we can’t simply overlook the offense? What if we can’t get something a person said or did to us off our minds? What if we’re tempted to become angry about it? What if resentment begins to build? Well, the Bible provides helpful instruction for what to do in that situation as well.
If we have been sinned against and can’t seem to shake it or overlook the offense, Matthew 18:15 explains in exact detail what Our Lord expects of us: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” In light of Jesus’s words, what’s the first step, what’s the duty, of the Christian who has been offended? To go to the offender (the person who committed the offense) and talk with them about your being offended. Here are five helpful things to remember when we think about having a conversation with someone about a possible sin they committed against us:

1. Don’t go to your friend first.
Notice carefully what Jesus does not say: “…go and tell your friend” what the other person did to you that offended you. Jesus does not say to go straight and tell other people how you have been offended, but go and tell the offender directly what they may have done. This kind of talking to people other than the offender about the offense will only lead to deeper, greater problems that harm and tear relationships apart. It is a Christ-given duty that we go to the offender first, not other people.

So, instead of talking to or with others about the offense, go and tell that person that what they said or did hurt you or bothered you—go and make him or her aware of their offense. Why? Because they may not know they did anything wrong! The point is, to give the offender a chance to speak for him or her self. The goal is to resolve, to work through, to talk through the issue one on one.

2. Be gracious, not grouchy. Be casual, not confrontational.
One might ask, “Okay, what does that kind of conversation look like?” And the answer is that it doesn’t have to be confrontational. In fact, it’s best if you go to the brother or sister with humility, meekness, and gentleness—most conversations have a better outcome if your posture and tone are more gracious than grouchy.

Instead, work towards making the conversations as casual as possible. Speak plainly. Be direct and clear without being abstract and abrasive. But speak casually. Something like this: “Do you remember when you said (fill in the blank) to me last week? That really caught me off guard and hurt me.” Asking questions like, “What were you really trying to say? Did you mean what you said? Did I misunderstand you when you said ‘(fill in the blank)?’” These kinds of questions help clarify if what the person said (or did) was meant. Or, maybe you misunderstood them altogether (this is a great way to approach these kinds of conversations from a 1 Cor. 13:7 point of view, “love hopes all things”).

3. The goal is always forgiveness and reconciliation, not justice and retribution.
The offender deserves the opportunity to speak for him or her self, clarify what was said, and confess and ask forgiveness for the sin if need be. Indeed, confession and forgiveness (if an actual sin has been committed) is the ultimate goal of these conversations. And if both parties act according to the grace and mercy given them in Christ through the gospel, it can be achieved. So, we realize ultimately that no matter if you overlook the offense or confront the brother or sister about the offense by way of casual, gracious conversation, both responses to the offense end up at the same destination: forgiveness that leads to relational reconciliation.

Additionally, the goal of these kinds of conversations is not to make an accusation, mount up evidence, declare the person guilty, and make demands that must be fulfilled in order for forgiveness to occur. That kind of posture and attitude is anti-gracious and anti-gospel—those sorts of actions are not how God deals with us in Christ, and as a result, not how we should deal with other people. We want our horizontal relationships (relationships we have with other people) to mirror our vertical relationship (the relationship we have with God, and that God has with us).

4. Conversation as preventative maintenance
Don’t be overcome by anger. Don’t let resentment take root. Jesus commands preventative maintenance for your heart—preventative maintenance that will protect you from the bitterness that anger and resentment produce. Go and have a conversation. Go talk. Go tell them how you feel, and how you have been offended. Work through relational sin by way of conversation.

5. Remember the gospel, and the power thereof
We are all sinners. And we are all sinners in need of grace and mercy which we have received in Christ Jesus. If we have a good and deep understanding of our own sin and therefore a good and deep understanding of our own need for grace and mercy in Christ, we are equipped and enabled by the Spirit to naturally extend that same grace and mercy to others who have sinned against us. That’s what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 4:24 when he says, “…forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” That’s what it looks like to not only believe the gospel, but to live the gospel.

Up next: Offenses, Part III: The duty of the offender.