Restoring the Penitent
Repentance is essential for reconciliation. If there is no penitence, there can be no fellowship. But grieving over sin is so healthy (2 Corinthians 7:9-11). But when there has been a change of heart and a willingness to confess it, the sinner should be carefully restored to fellowship (Galatians 6:1). So, Paul urged Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a brother, as a fellow 'sinner saved by grace', because of Philemon's partnership with Paul in the gospel (Philemon 1:6).
But restitution is essential too (Exodus 22:12). Paul did not want to hide the reality that Onesimus may have stolen from his master. That still needed to be repaid and, as Onesimus had no assets, Paul was willing to compensate Philemon out of the gifts received from other churches. By writing it in his own handwriting, Paul placed himself under a legal obligation to fulfil his promise, even though Philemon already owed so much to Paul's apostolic ministry.
Here we see echoes of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in which the Samaritan arranged for the wounded Jew to be cared for and that he would pay to compensate for anything that was needed (Luke 10:30-35). True love will cover over a multitude of debts (James 5:20). This is not ministry by management but by personal self-sacrificial giving. This is Christ-like love in action (Ephesians 5:2).
We live in a world of easy promises which are not kept, and cheap restoration (without repentance or restitution). We need Paul's instruction to Philemon: it should help to reset our understanding of how to deal with the legacy of sinful behaviour in the home, church or workplace. However forgiving we may be, repentance and restitution is the right pattern - to reform the sinner and to restore trust. The pragmatic compromises which litter families, churches and businesses only store up trouble for the future. Paul’s practical biblical transparency is the way forward.
© Dr Paul Adams