2 Corinthians 2:5-11

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.[1]

In our last section, the apostle Paul was forced to defend his personal integrity. He grounded his defense in conscience, grace, truth, mutuality, mercy, and love (1:12-2:4). In our text this morning, he now turns to the person who had so viciously attacked him during his last brief visit to Corinth. Unexpectedly, Paul pleads for the congregation to forgive the offender since he had already suffered under the discipline of the church and has presumably expressed repentance and remorse.

Paul had learned from Timothy’s visit that there were troubles in the Corinthian church. So, the apostle paid an unscheduled visit to the city hoping to fix things and quickly be on his way. But to his great surprise, he was openly opposed by a church leader who publicly impugned Paul’s character while the rest of the congregation quietly observed (12:11). It is quite possible Paul’s attacker was under the influence of the Jerusalem Judaizes who had recently come to Corinth. This letter suggests that the man had attacked Paul’s integrity, claiming the apostle was dishonest, double minded, and lacked courage. It was also possible the attacker claimed Paul’s collection for the poor of Jerusalem was actually a slush fund for the apostle’s personal needs.

Paul was so stunned by the lack of support from the rest of the church and by this direct and vicious attack that he chose to leave Corinth for a time. It was at this point he wrote his severe, painful letter described in the opening verses of chapter 2. Since Paul is an apostle, his words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit are the very words of God. And God’s word never returns void. It always accomplishes what the Holy Spirit intends. The severe letter did its work as we will later see in Chapter 7, where Paul writes in verses 8 through 13:

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 11 For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. 12 So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. 13 Therefore we are comforted. [2]

The majority of the congregation repented for their treatment of Paul. And though the text does not say what the congregation did with the offender, the clear implication is that they cast the offender out of the fellowship of the church (see: 1 Cor. 5:1-13). The offender repented and sought forgiveness. But the Corinthians had not forgiven him and had no desire to do so. Because the congregation had been so hesitant to defend the apostle Paul, they are attempting to demonstrate their loyalty to him by refusing to extend forgiveness to the now-repentant rebel leader. Their refusal to forgive signaled an approaching shipwreck for the congregation. Failure to forgive put the church out of alignment with their gracious Savior and his infinite grace towards repentant sinners (since repentance was a gift from the Holy Spirit).

As Bishop Paul Barnett explains:

Paul carries forward in this section the theme of “grief/grieve” that dominated vv. 1–4. Although the “grief/grieve” vocabulary is not as prominent here as in vv. 1–4 (apart from v. 5 it appears only in v. 7), nonetheless it forms the background for the present passage.

This passage is concerned with the triangular relationships between (1) Paul, (2) a man (“someone”) who had offended, and (3) the Corinthians. Paul begins by asserting that—with due qualifications—if “someone” has caused grief it is not ultimately to him, but to “you all” (v. 5). Then he declares what is to be done (vv. 6–8): (1) the punishment by the Corinthians has been sufficient, so that (2) they must now, instead, forgive and comfort him lest he be consumed with grief; wherefore (3) Paul encourages them to reaffirm their love to him. The “Severe Letter,” like the present letter, was to the effect that the Corinthians “prove” their obedience to Paul, which in the present case means their restoration of the offender (v. 9). Although Paul does not want them to make more of this issue than is warranted, nonetheless they should know that Paul has forgiven and does forgive this man (v. 10). Paul’s great concern is the reconciliation of the majority and the minority in Corinth to one another, and especially to him. A wedge driven between the Corinthians and Paul would allow Satan to have the upper hand (v. 11).[3]


The attack on Paul inflicted a painful wound upon the entire Corinthian congregation. “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you.” Paul does not name his attacker. He is sensitive to the fact that naming the man would only contribute do the man’s shame, not to his restoration. The apostle even minimizes his own pain by saying, “he caused it not to me.” Paul was not being disingenuous. He recognized that his personal hurt was nothing compared to that of the entire church in crisis.

In 1st Corinthians, Paul wrote, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). Later in this letter he will emphasize the same interconnectedness of the gospel community. “Who is week, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (11:29). Paul teaches there is a profound spiritual connection between all true believers.

Church is not a club offering trial memberships. The phrase “the Body of Christ” is not a churchy slogan. The church is a community of brothers and sisters with deeply interconnected relationships. Saint Author of Hebrews Celebrates that fact in Hebrews 12:22-24:

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. [4]

The church is not a social club, but an eternal community with cosmic relationships. Paul would have no tolerance for “the free-riding ecclesiastical hitch-hikers of today, much less the McChurch consumers who attend one church for the preaching, send their children to a second church for the youth group, and participate in another church’s small groups — people who live without commitment, without accountability, without discipline, without the Lord’s Table.”[5]

Paul taught that the church was central to Christian existence. He had no notion of people who claim to trust into Christ yet live apart from the visible church. Instead, Christians are to live in such profound relationship that the pain of one person was absolutely felt by the entire gospel community. The contemporary church desperately needs to regain a serious understanding of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. We should be committed to praying for the church, participating in regular worship together, ministering to one another, and supporting missions with our resources. In particular, we should be serious about submitting to the Christ-ordained leadership. These are not options, but commands from God.


For the sake of the offender, Paul minimized his own pain in favor of the communal pain of the entire congregation. He now asks the church to forgive the person and restore him to fellowship. “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.

Paul’s gifting as a pastor is on display in these two sentences. The offender has been disciplined “enough.” Paul fears the repentant offender may be “swallowed up by excessive sorrow.” It’s an allusion to Korah’s judgment in Numbers 16:

31 And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. 32 And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34 And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!”[6]

Paul sensed that the offender was drowning in despondent sorrow and in danger of being swallowed up by the earth. By the work of the Holy Spirit, the repentant sinner recognized the misery of being cut off from the divine service, from the life-giving properties of Word and Sacrament. How different was this man from so many in the church today who brush off church discipline and simply travel a few miles down the road to another congregation where they continue their lives without accountability and fear of God In pursuit of their own unbiblical version of the so-called “Christian life.” Like Korah, they believe they are the captains of their own souls and fear nothing, so they live in the unfelt danger of ultimately being swallowed up.

Paul believed forgiveness was crucial for both the repentant sinner and the congregation. “So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (v. 8). Paul was not merely begging the Corinthians, he saw this as a matter of obedience: “For This is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything” (v. 9). God demands doing the difficult work of church discipline and being prepared to extend forgiveness to the repentant sinner.


Paul holds himself out as an example of forgiveness: “10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.” He even minimizes his own forgiveness with a dismissive phrase, “if I have forgiven anything,” as if the offense against him was no big deal. If Paul, who was the deeply-offended victim, could forgive this man, then the rest of the Corinthian congregation can certainly do so. If the Corinthian congregation refused to forgive the penitent offender, the entire gospel community would be poisoned. The church would likely wither away. They were already suffering for their lack of mercy.

Paul was not naturally a forgiving person any more than you and I are. He received his power to forgive “in the presence of Christ” (lit. “in the face of Christ”). Jesus taught that refusal to forgive is evidence of not having experienced his forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask him to make this a reality in our lives: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Jesus then explains why we should pray this prayer: “for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15). The Lord is saying that forgiven people forgive people. Jesus even devoted a parable to this principle, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. In Matthew 18:35, he concluded that parable with this statement, “So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

Paul focuses the Corinthians’ hearts on Christ as the one who not only demands that we forgive but also empowers us to do so. We have been liberated from the tyranny of our unforgiving sin nature and, by the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit, now have the power to forgive even the vilest offender. Any honest attempt to bow to Christ and seek a forgiving heart he will meet with the high voltage of unremitting grace.[7]

Finally, Paul points out the hard reality that an unforgiving heart becomes the devil’s playground. We must forgive, “11so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”  An unforgiving gospel community could be shipwrecked by refusing to obey God. If they let the penitent sinner continue to wallow in despondence, then they have seared their own consciences and cooked their own souls. And Satan could have served up the entire gospel community on a platter for his minions to devour.

True Christian forgiveness is a matter of obedience “in everything” (v. 9). “The forgiveness and comfort of the man …will serve also to reconcile the minority with the majority and thus the whole congregation with Paul (cf. “you all”—vv. 3, 5). It will well serve Satan’s purposes for the Corinthians to be separated from the authority and influence of the apostle Paul. Paul, however, may also be applying pastorally to the Corinthians the related theological truth that believers have been ‘rescued from the dominion of darkness’ (i.e., of Satan) and ‘brought into the kingdom of the Son [God] loves, in whom [there is] redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (Col 1:13–14). The Son, beloved of God, exercises his kingship among those who have been forgiven by God and who in turn forgive others. Failure to forgive members of that community is in line with Satan’s ‘schemes’ since it reintroduces the ‘dominion of darkness.’”[8]

We CAN forgive. What God commands, God empowers. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, “Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). To the Colossians he wrote:

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.[9]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 2:5–11.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 7:8–13.

[3] Barnett, 123.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 12:22–24.

[5] Hughes, R. Kent. 2 Corinthians. Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Nu 16:31–34.

[7] Hughes, op. cit.

[8] Barnett, 132.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Col 3:12–14.