When someone repents of a public sin or of a sin which had to be reported to the consistory, the latter shall not accept his confession of sin unless he has shown real amendment.
The consistory shall determine whether the benefit of the congregation requires that this confession of sin shall be made publicly and, in case it is made before the consistory or before two or three office-bearers, whether the congregation shall be informed afterwards.
Art. 69 does not deal with the repentance of those who have been excommunicated, for this point comes up in connection with Art. 70. Here in Art. 69 we speak of repentance and reconciliation before the admonitions have reached the last stage and have been concluded. Once a member has been excommunicated the reconciliation can become effective only by way of the official readmission into the communion of the church.
There will be great joy before the Lord and His holy angels as well as within His church on this earth when a sinner repents. It means that the goal of the admonitions has been achieved and that a sinner has been brought back from the road towards everlasting ruin. Repentance means therefore the end of the discipline. Also in this respect church discipline is different from secular disciplinary action. The latter seeks or is obligated to seek restoration of the right that was violated, restoration of the equilibrium. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” When a murder has been committed, the equilibrium can be restored only when the life of the murderer is taken. The punishment is to be of equal weight as the crime which was committed. A confession of guilt will bring the conviction and subsequent punishment.
Not so in the church. There confession of guilt and sin means the end of the discipline, although it will be clear that it is not the confession alone which brings about this end. One can say brazenfaced: “Yes, I confess that I did it,” but not show the slightest sign of remorse, let alone of repentance. The confession we ought to hear is: “Against Thee, Thee alone I have sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight.”
Even when this confession is heard, it should not be honoured right away with a lifting of the suspension. It is a well-known fact that those addicted to alcohol readily shed tears and deplore sliding back to the sin of drunkenness. A consistory should not say too soon: “We are thankful that you repent, and from this moment on the way to the Lord's table is open to you again.” In olden days this article contained the provision that there should be certain signs of repentance, and here the word “certain” does not mean “some undetermined” signs, but “sure, definite proofs of repentance.” We speak of “real amendment.” The same expression is used in Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
One who repents of a sin after repeated brotherly admonitions must prove that his repentance is genuine. The reason for this is not that the consistory doubts his sincerity, but that he has to prove his sincerity by remaining steadfast in his repentance during a trial period. He is to be tested as to the genuineness of his repentance, and someone whose sorrow for his sin is genuine will understand this and agree with it, longing for the moment when he will be allowed to receive the confirmation of the forgiveness at the Lord’s table. If someone objects to such a trial period and says: “But I repented and now should be allowed to go to the Lord’s table again” it should be seriously questioned whether his repentance is indeed as sincere as the Lord wants to see it.
The consistory will determine how long this period of testing should be. The conditions vary not only from congregation to congregation but also from case to case. The character of the sin will be one factor, the time it took the brother to come to his confession and repentance another. Further, the situation in the congregation has to be taken into account, for it is a sin which has affected the congregation as such of which we are speaking here. Article 69 does not deal with repentance and reconciliation between members who were at odds with each other and now are reconciled. It speaks of repentance of a public sin or a sin that had to be reported to the consistory when personal brotherly admonitions were rejected.
When admonitions have been fruitful, and when the period of testing has come to an end, should the congregation be informed of this repentance? They were asked to remember the member in their prayers, were they not? Perhaps even the name and address of the sinner were made known to the congregation. Should a consistory now admit a brother to the Lord’s table without informing the congregation of the blessed fruits of the admonitions?
Again we have to state that no definite and hard rule can be given, or should be. From the various decisions of broader assemblies in the past it is clear that public announcements should be avoided as much as possible. Especially in large congregations public announcements may make little sense or even make matters worse.
This writer recalls the announcement: “Brother and sister A. have confessed their sin against the seventh commandment,” and that after this announcement members asked their neighbour in the pew: “Who are they?” The meaning of this announcement was that they were already expecting a child while they were not yet married. Most of the members did not even know the couple, and apart from the question whether such an announcement was proper, also with a view to the provisions of Art. 69 (even the names were made public!), no purpose was served by it other than arousing the curiosity of various members. There were even congregations where the couple were seated in front of the pulpit and had to confess publicly “their sin against the seventh commandment.” Those consistories most likely never read what they had agreed to in the Church Order.
We do not speak here of sins that have not yet reached the consistory as a result of rejected brotherly admonitions. We speak of public sins or sins that had to be reported to the consistory in accordance with Art. 69, and consistories should remember this.
Of these sins we ask whether repentance of them is to be announced to the congregation, and in answer to that question we say: “It should be avoided as much as possible.” The well-being of the congregation is to be taken into account, but so has the honour and well-being of the sinner! Both have to be served and promoted by it; if not, an announcement should be omitted.
In general, our congregations are not so large that the members no longer know each other, and generally most members know what is going on. This has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. It will also influence the decision of the consistory whether to announce or not to announce a brother's repentance.
First of all, sin has been confessed and the proof of repentance given before two or three office-bearers. Since the matter was at the stage that the admonitions were given by the consistory, the brothers will report this confession and repentance. The erring member does not have to repeat his confession before the full consistory, as in the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter shall be established. A brother may also appear before the consistory of his own accord and make his confession there. Although it will have to be recorded precisely in the minutes, the press release should routinely not contain one word about it. In each and every case the consistory should consider whether anything should be mentioned about it in the report to the congregation.
It appears proper that no information whatever be given to the congregation in case no announcement of any kind was ever made to the congregation; for instance, when admonitions have been fruitful. If matters were dealt with correctly and in accordance with the will of the Lord, the congregation was not aware of the fact that a brother was suspended from the table of the Lord, unless one noticed that he was not taking part in the celebration. Since the congregation was not informed of the suspension, they should not be told of its lifting either. An announcement of the latter kind would at the same time reveal the disciplinary action in addition to the sin, and this would be improper.
Where an announcement without the name was made it may be wise not to make the repentance known. Or if it is done, again without mentioning any name. The congregation may then be told that both the admonitions by the consistory and the prayers by the congregation bore the desired fruit. They may learn that a member who had been barred from the Lord’s Supper has sincerely repented and that the consistory has now lifted the suspension. It is equally possible that the consistory decides not to make any announcement at all, for the sake of the brother and the congregation. Both the edification of the congregation and the honour of the brother determine the decision here. An announcement is never intended to push a brother down or to give him a jolt afterwards, but only to increase the joy of the congregation and to promote the restoration of the brother to his full rights within the communion of saints.
Once an announcement including the name had been made or in case of a public sin, it appears almost mandatory that the congregation be informed of the brother's repentance. Name and address were known and with a public sin the whole congregation knew about it officially and not by rumour. They should also be told publicly that now there is as much reason for joy as before there was reason for sadness and to humble themselves before the Lord.
Concerning the confession of sin itself, the consistory has to ponder whether this is to be made publicly, that is when the congregation is assembled for worship, or before the whole consistory, or before a committee made up of consistory members. In most instances no public confession will be demanded. A “holier than thou” attitude should be prevented and, knowing the sinfulness of our own heart, we see how easily this attitude might result from a public confession. If, on the other hand, the consistory is convinced that the edification of the congregation as well as the honour and status and rehabilitation of the brother are promoted by it, a public confession is in place. The brother is to be reconciled to the congregation that was affected and offended by his sin. If it appears that no better way exists to achieve the reconciliation and to remove the offense, confession should be made publicly.
No specific formula or wording has ever been adopted for general use. Every consistory will have to choose the right terms and wording so that the Name of the Lord receives all praise, while the congregation is built up in faith, and the brother is restored to his rightful place in the midst of God’s people. To this end as little as possible is to be mentioned about the sin and as much as possible about the grace of God resulting in true repentance.