Pastor Joel Leyrer - Ash Wednesday - Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Text: 2 Corinthians 7:8-13a

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Dear Friends in Christ, One of the hardest things to do is telling a Christian family member or friend something you know they need to hear, but you also know they don’t necessarily want to hear.

Like… warning them they are walking down a dangerous path that never ends well. Or making an unwise life choice that will inevitably cause them or those around them harm or heartache. Or that they’re letting themselves be unduly influenced by the world or swept up in their own misguided or untethered emotions and consciously choosing to act contrary to God’s will as clearly stated in the Bible.

To put it in spiritual terms: it is hard to confront others we care about with their sin. The reason it’s so hard is because there are always risks involved.

Specifically, the risk that honest, loving intervention rooted in care and concern will be misinterpreted as meddling. Or met with defensiveness, justification, rationalization, or charges of judgmentalism. Maybe indignation that you’re trying to impose “your values” and not respecting their decisions. Maybe even having the conversation turned back around to you and the things you did in your past.

All of which then ultimately runs the risk of a strained or broken or even a completely severed relationship from that point on. And who wants that?

The biggest risk, however, is not in how it affects our relationship with those whose sin we lovingly bring to their attention (as heartbreaking as this may be); the biggest risk is the spiritual damage they are doing to their souls and their relationship with Jesus.

And this is what makes loving, evangelical, confrontation a risk worth taking. Because the alternate to the bad outcome we fear is the possibility that God will work through our loving intervention to bring about genuine repentance – which then restores and renews a Christian friend or family member in their relationship with Jesus. And that fills both them and us with elation and joy.

The Apostle Paul knew all about this, and we’re going to get into the details in just a moment. But what we especially want to do today is focus on a little phrase he uses twice in our text, because it serves as an appropriate description for the overall emphasis of the season of the Church Year we enter today. So, on this Ash Wednesday, let us contemplate how and remember that


Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 

Here is the backstory. The Apostle Paul was the founder and spiritual father of a congregation in the Greek city of Corinth. This was not an easy place to grow a church; Corinth was a wild-west sort of town. In fact, there was a sailor’s slogan that said, “not for everyman is a trip to Corinth.” Nevertheless, God blessed Paul’s preaching and the Gospel took root.

After Paul moved on to plant a church in another site, word filtered back that on a number of different levels this young-in-the-faith congregation was having trouble matching their actions with their confession. One particularly troubling issue had to do with a very open case of sexual immorality going on within the church, compounded by the fact that it was being tolerated, or at least overlooked, by the rest of the congregation.

So, Pastor Paul called them on it. He confronted them. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he told them in no uncertain terms that the man involved in this immoral relationship was clearly sinning against God’s Word. His actions brought public dishonor to Jesus Christ, who said, “If you love me, follow my commands” – which he clearly was not. This man’s sin did not call for “tolerance” or “understanding” by the congregation. It called for personal repentance on the man’s part and corporate repentance on the congregation’s part for letting it go unchallenged.

Did Paul like being so stern with this man and this congregation? No. Reading between the lines, it caused him some anxiety. He knew the risks involved. His counsel might be rejected. He might get blown off. Over the course of his ministry, that certainly happened to him.

But he knew the great spiritual risk this man was taking by consciously disobeying the Savior this man claimed he loved. So, Paul loved this man enough to call him to repentance.

Such a call is not always well received. But in this case it was. The man recognized that he was sinning. He repented of his sin. And he was restored in his relationship to and with Jesus Christ, who freely forgives all who turn to him in humble trust and faith. That made Paul happy.

Based on what had transpired, our text continues with Paul making this general, doctrinal – and we might add, extremely Lenten – statement: 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 

Note the distinction. Worldly sorrow is merely sorrow over having sinned and the realization that there are consequences. For example, if I break a law, I’m not sorry that I have sinned against God, but I am sorry that I will be fined or go to jail. That’s worldly sorrow. There is no spiritual element to it. It’s only remorse. That’s why Paul says it leads to death.

On the other hand, Godly sorrow comes from the law crushing sinners who recognize their sin, confess their sin, and by faith in God’s gospel promise lay hold of the forgiveness Christ won for us through his life, death, and resurrection. It leads to repentance, restoration and, ultimately, salvation.

It also leads to a renewed sense of purpose and desire to live our lives in a way that honors Christ. Paul noted this in the penitent and restored Corinthian congregation: 11 See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. 

Our text concludes with Paul revealing once again the purpose of his loving confrontation. He wanted to restore the congregation into a right relationship with both their Lord and him as their pastor: 12 So even though I wrote to you, it was neither on account of the one who did the wrong nor on account of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. 13 By all this we are encouraged.

A happy ending all around.

How does this text speak to us today? Let’s remember where we are…

Lent is a 40-day period of spiritual reflection and introspection. It is a time of Godly sorrow as we reflect upon the seriousness of sin and the high cost of our redemption. In looking back at this incident in the life of the Corinthian congregation, there are some deep truths to ponder and apply to our lives as we enter another Lenten season.

First is the warning that temptations to sin abound, and no one is above sin. It is highly unlikely that the man in our text and the entire Corinthian congregation woke up one morning and said, “let’s make ourselves candidates for a loving confrontation and sin grievously.” Yet they did.

Maybe not intentionally. Maybe incrementally over time. Maybe through spiritual laziness or a false sense of security in their status as Christians. But they did. Consequently, they are a reminder to us all of what Paul told them in his first letter (1 Cor 10:12): “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

We live in a world that would much rather redefine sin than confess it; a world that often handles sin by simply anointing it to be something natural or acceptable – or virtuous. Greed becomes ambition. Unkindness becomes assertiveness. Unfaithfulness becomes following one’s heart.

You get the picture. We live in a world which has turned rationalizing away sin into an art form. And sometimes we buy into this.

Let us be on guard. Because of our sinful nature there is no sin that we are not capable of committing. So, we must beware of our capacity for weakness and stay close to the Word which fortifies us and equips us against temptation.

A second lesson from our text is this. When we do fail – and we will – we can learn from Paul’s handling of the situation both what not to do as well as what to do. The way in which we deal with our sin (and note we’re talking about our sin, not someone else’s) is not to hide it or rationalize it or minimize it or act as if it doesn’t exist or even defend it. Such tactics and behavior inevitably lead to separating and distancing ourselves from God.

What we must do with our sin is confront it. We must practice Godly sorrow.

That is why every week as a part of our service we confess our sins before God. It is not because God doesn’t know what we do unless we tell him. Nor is it because God wants us to wallow in guilt and low self-esteem. No, we confess our sin so we can understand and with his help embrace his amazing grace to us in Jesus Christ.

Because following confession is the blessed pronouncement of our absolution. Listen to these words from King David in Psalm 103: “[The Lord] does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, SO FAR HAS HE REMOVED OUR TRANSGRESSIONS FROM US.”

Related to this, and perhaps one final lesson we can glean from our text, is this glorious truth: There is no sin for which Jesus did not die or that transcends God’s grace. Satan would have us think so. He would like us to reflect upon our faults and failings and lead us to the conclusion that we are unworthy of God. Jesus would have us take a different perspective. Jesus came to give us a different perspective.

The focus is never to be on the greatness of our sins which, despite our intentions otherwise, will always plague us. Rather our focus is on the greater-ness of our Savior and the depth of his love for each of us, despite our imperfections and idiosyncrasies.

In the words of the great hymn (“Jesus Sinners Does Receive”), Lent is our annual reminder that each one of us can say:

Oh how blest it is to know, were as scarlet my transgression,

It shall be as white as snow by your blood and bitter passion,

 For these words I do believe: Jesus sinners does receive.

God grant us all another blessed Lenten season – a season marked personally by Godly sorrow and an ever-deepening love for Christ. Amen.