2 Corinthians 2:5-11 – Forgiveness

The one who grieved Paul (and the Corinthian congregation as a whole) should not be burdened with excessive grief but forgiven and consoled. Paul does not seek revenge for the wrong but reconciliation.

That is a bold claim. Apparently, the severe letter Paul wrote after his second (painful) visit addressed the problem this particular individual imposed. This is our first indication of the content of Paul’s letter, which, of course, no longer exists (unless it is found in 2 Corinthians 10-13).

In that letter, Paul opposed a person who had caused him great pain. Paul describes him as “the offender”—the one who wronged Paul (2 Corinthians 7:12). Perhaps he attacked Paul’s ministry style, gifts, or authority. Or, perhaps this person was one of the impenitent ones with respect to sexual immorality. Traditionally, the person has been identified with the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5. While some still contend for that identification, most modern readers have questioned it. In reality, we don’t know the specifics, though it seems likely that the problem is related to some of the misgivings of other Corinthians and/or the “super-apostles” rather than any sexual immorality. But we can’t be sure.

Whatever the case, the severe letter had a positive outcome (as 2 Corinthians 7:5-12 confirms). Apparently, Paul learned the outcome from Titus who reported the Corinthian response. A majority of the Corinthians responded by, in some sense, punishing the offender. Perhaps that included the exclusion of this person from the community. This kind of discipline (also envisioned in 1 Corinthians 5 for the incestuous man) intends to create an awakening by distancing people from their beloved community, which, it is hoped, creates a desire to return to the community. At the very least, it seems, it protects the community from further harm.

It seems this “punishment by the majority” had its intended effect. The offender was now overwhelmed with grief, a “godly grief” (1 Corinthians 7:11). The offender had repented and sought reconciliation.

It is important to recognize this move. Paul is not suggesting reconciliation for those who willingly and deliberately continue in their sins, abuse their victims, and continue to prey on others out of their own self-interests. Paul is not describing an impenitent offender. In fact, Paul will not “spare” the impenitent (2 Corinthians 12:21-13:2).

Paul invited the Corinthians to participate in the ministry of reconciliation with regard to this offender. He called upon them to “forgive and console” the penitent offender. Just as God forgives (shows grace to us) and consoles us (as in 2 Corinthians 1:3-8), so they are to forgive and console this penitent offender. They are to treat him as Paul has treated them and, more importantly, according to the grace of the gospel founded in God’s own identity. In this way, the Corinthians would “reaffirm [their] love” for the offender; they would reaffirm the love of God in the community.

Forgiveness is the atmosphere in which the community of Christ lives. The Corinthians forgive and Paul forgives. This forgiveness is God-driven, rooted in Christ, and other-centered. As Paul writes, he forgives “for your sake in the presence of Christ.”

Paul forgives for the sake of the Corinthians; it is for their benefit. He does this, literally, “in the face of Christ;” forgiveness happens with Christ as a witness or before Christ’s presence. Given what God has done in Christ (which is the ministry of reconciliation, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19), we forgive others because of Christ and with Christ watching. Living in the presence of Jesus forms us into a forgiving people.

Paul wrote in a confrontational manner to “test” their obedience to the apostolic witness. While the “offender” protested–in some sense–Paul’s ministry, the letter asked the Corinthians to distance themselves from him. The Corinthians did obey and passed the test. But now another test lies before them.

If the Corinthians are to embody the gospel and practice the ministry of reconciliation, they must forgive and console the offender. Forgiveness is also a matter of obedience to the gospel, an expression of the ministry of reconciliation. It is conformity to the gospel of grace in Jesus the Messiah. Paul wrote the severe letter, in part, to test their obedience to the gospel. This reflects both the seriousness of the problem in Corinth (whatever the offense was) and the importance of forgiveness within the community of Jesus for past offenders.

Whether the Corinthians forgive or not is, in fact, part of the conflict between God and Satan. Conflict, particularly between Paul and his opponents, appears over and over again within 2 Corinthians, and Paul frames this as a conflict between God and Satan. The identification of Satan as the protagonist who lies behind this conflict pervades 2 Corinthians. Paul names him (2:11; 11:14; 12:7), calls him “the god of this age” (4:4), “Beliar” (6:15), and “the serpent” (11:3). Satan is the premier opponent of the gospel, deceives people, and rules this present evil age. Satan has “designs” and intends to undermine the ministry of reconciliation in whatever way possible.

When the community of Jesus fails to forgive penitent offenders, it gives space for the wiles of the Devil and, in fact, has been “outwitted by Satan.” Or, to put it another way, when the community of Jesus forgives penitent offenders, it subverts the reign of Satan and we watch Satan fall like lightning. Forgiveness is Christ’s victory over the designs of Satan.

At the same time, we must remember that reconciliation between believers is impossible when one of them persistently continues in their sinful practices. For example, predators and abusers in the community of faith should be “punished” (like this offender), and there is no reconciliation without confession, godly sorrow, and living amends (the fruit of repentance). Authentic repentance entails submission to the guidelines and healthy practices the community of faith puts in place in order to protect the flock as well as to welcome the penitent offender.

Paul’s language gives no sanction to forgiven offenders who protest communal practices that ensure the safety of the community due to their history, and neither does it demand reconciliation for those who are impenitent, arrogant, and resistant to healthy practices and guidelines that are committed to the ethics and goals of the ministry of reconciliation. Forgiven offenders seek peace rather than self-justification. They do not demand their own rights.

The forgiveness Paul describes here is a function of the ministry of reconciliation; it is about reconciliation. It forgives, consoles, and reaffirms love. It includes others in such a way that a wronged and grieved community is healed. Grief dissipates and joy is restored. In this particular text, Paul does not envision forgiveness without reconciliation.

At the same time, Paul does not seek revenge, harbor bitterness or malicious intent, or desire to harm offenders. But reconciliation between the abused and the abuser is impossible without repentance.

The ministry of reconciliation invites penitent offenders into a community of grace and forgiveness, and it does not “spare” those who arrogantly and persistently continue their offenses or insist on setting their own guidelines.

One Response to “2 Corinthians 2:5-11 – Forgiveness”

  1.   Robert A. Abney Says:




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