2 Corinthians 2:5-11

2 Corinthians 2:5-11

Comfort the Repentant Sinner

Who’s your cheerleader: Paul or Satan? I suppose you’d profess the former. But did you know that if you don’t forgive your repentant brother, you’re on Satan’s team? That’s a bit terrifying, isn’t it? It ought to be rather sobering and convicting for the Christian. It’s not only Satanic to withhold forgiveness from a repentant sinner, but it’s also a cause for much grief. Paul continues his theme of grief/pain in this next section of chapter two. There’s grief all around: grief for Paul, grief for the Corinthians, and grief for the repentant sinner. The only person who isn’t aggrieved in this passage would be Satan, who’d be everlastingly elated at the Corinthians’ denial of forgiveness from the brother who sinned against Paul and them.

Who is this brother? Not sure. I (contrary to the modern commentator) tend to think that Paul is referring to the incestuous man who had his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5. (That is a serious problem in 1 Corinthians, and it’s the only estranged man in Corinth in need of reconciliation of whom we’d be canonically aware. It would also be a wonderful testimony of the reconciling power of the gospel. But I won’t be dogmatic at this point.) He may have been involved in some sexual deviations (2 Cor. 12:21-3:1) or continued temple worship (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). We’re not really sure, but he did sin against Paul. For that reason, Paul says that he has forgiven the man (2:10). Whoever he was, he did a number on the people in Corinth. Whatever he had done, it was difficult for the Corinthians to let the matter go. They had punished him for his sin, and the man was in danger of excessive sorrow. It was hard for the Corinthians to release the man of his sin-debt, and that’s why Paul had to put them to the test: “To forgive or not to forgive?” was the question.

You might be wondering why I’ve called this man a “repentant sinner,” especially since the word “repentant” is nowhere in this passage. For one, I don’t think Paul would command forgiveness when there’s not been confession of sin and repentance. That’s the biblical pattern. Granting forgiveness is a debt-cancellation, and this cancellation requires acknowledgement of the debt and a desire to be released from that debt. But what I’m hinging my point on is found at the end of verse 7: “or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” I’m focusing on the words “excessive sorrow.” Paul doesn’t want this man to be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Paul is perfectly content with people experiencing sorrow, as long as the sorrow is accompanied by repentance. Indeed, that’s the only kind of sorrow over our sin we should have (2 Cor. 7:8-10). But excessive sorrow…well, that’s too much. It doesn’t fit the sin. That’s why Paul is calling for forgiveness. He’s saying, “Look, Corinthians, the man was repentant. You could see the evidence through his sorrow over his sin and how he grieved you and me. Now stop holding a grudge. Quit it with all this withholding of forgiveness and love. Reaffirm your love for him. Forgive him. I’ve forgiven him.” Something like that.

Notice a few other things. A lot is going on in verse 7. The word “excessive” is the same word used in verse 4 translated “abundant,” in reference to Paul’s excessive, overflowing love that he has for the Corinthians. It’s that overflow of emotion that Paul fears this man will experience, but for him it will be sorrow, unless the Corinthians forgive and comfort him. In fact, this emotional excess works well with the word “overwhelmed.” The word in Greek usually has a negative connotation. In Hebrews 11:29, for instance, it’s used to speak of the Egyptians being drowned. Peter uses it to speak of the devouring Devil (1 Pet. 5:8), and John uses it to speak of the earth swallowing up the dangerous river poured out by the dragon (Rev. 12:16). It can also be used positively, as in the mortal being swallowed up in life (2 Cor. 5:4), and death being swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). The word directs us to the powerful and complete consumption of an object. Paul fears that this repentant man will be overtaken, swallowed, consumed, devoured, never to be restored again, if the Corinthians fail to do their God-given duty and privilege: reaffirm their love for him, comfort him by forgiving him.

Notice also that the comfort given the man will be in the form of forgiveness. I take the phrase “forgive and comfort him” as “forgive and thus comfort him.” That’s the only way he will be comforted: if he finds forgiveness from his Corinthian brothers. Otherwise, it’s excessive sorrow. No comfort. Just unending and overflowing grief.

It is with this urgent need to comfort the man that we are reminded of the cycle of comfort back in chapter one. Recall that in chapter one, the pattern was laid out thus: we are afflicted/aggrieved, then God comforts us, then we comfort others who are similarly afflicted/aggrieved. And so it is in chapter two but in the context of sin, not undeserved suffering. The Corinthians have sinned. God forgives and so comforts them, then they are to forgive and so comfort others who are similarly sorrowful over their sin. The words of Paul in Ephesians 4:24 come to mind (especially since the words “kind,” “forgiving,” and “forgave” share the same word in vv. 7, 10 (forgive, charizomai): “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” As the Corinthians have been comforted and forgiven, so they must comfort and forgive.

And now we’re back to the beginning: whose team are you on? Paul’s (God’s team, really!) or Satan’s? Forgiveness is absolutely necessary in order to ward off Satan and not give him a foothold in your relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. We mustn’t be ignorant of the craftiness of the snake of old, that ancient serpent the Devil. Paul reminds us that it’s Satan’s pleasure to outwit us. The word “outwit” (pleonekteō), I think, is better translated “taken advantage of,” “cheated,” or “robbed” (cf. 2 Cor. 12:17-18). Satan seeks to defraud us. He seeks to rob us and cheat us. Paul warns about the devilish design of Satan to involve himself in the relationships of God’s children. Back to Ephesians 4, Paul says that by allowing the sun to go down on your anger, you’re allowing the Devil to have an opportunity to sow seeds of discord and division (vv. 26-27). That’s the problem here with the Corinthians. By giving in to the temptation to hold back forgiveness, they are falling into the trap laid for them by the Devil. He’s the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. He deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden. And now he wants to deprive the Corinthians of the all-important unity and comfort found in the freedom of forgiveness and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Corinthians, and we (if you’ve not made the necessary application by now), then combat the enemy by forgiving our repentant brothers and sisters.

I’m sure you can think of a situation when you were truly sorry for some sin, and this sin grieved you greatly (one, because it was against the holy Triune God, and two, because it hurt your Christian sibling). And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the offended party denied you forgiveness for a time, even when you were repentant. Sure, you didn’t deserve forgiveness (no one does), but the withholding of such grace grieved you, didn’t it? Our gracious and forgiving God has given us these verses in part to remind us to be free in our forgiveness with our Christian brothers and sisters. No, they don’t deserve it. But neither do you.