I recently had a painful experience with rebuke; it began with my privately confronting a fellow Christian in my church about behaviors that were hurting those around him; it concluded with my being rebuked by that same person as well as two others.
The charges against my rebuke were that the other person did not feel encouraged by it, I had said too much, and that I should have just let it go.
This leaves me wondering. What place is there for rebuke in the modern church? Beyond that, when bad behavior in our day is so often dismissed as differences in personality, culture, and lifestyle choices, do Christians today even know how to rebuke?
And which Christians have permission to? From observation, the consensus seems an unspoken assumption that pastors and other such are the only ones qualified. Even then, those few are expected to do so vaguely, in generalities, and rarely.
Yet rebuke is found throughout the Bible, and it is at least as often directed at the religious leaders as the general populace.
In fact, the strongest rebukes in the Scriptures are directed at “blind guides,” and are often delivered by the lowly and unassuming God tends to choose as messengers.
Encouragement is good and needful. Yet due to the prevalence of rebuke in the Bible, if we fail to apprehend the Biblical attitude toward rebuke, we will never have a mature understanding of God or His Word, or our situation with him, nor will we be able to explain the gospel to others.
In short, we must understand the place for rebuke and the subsequent calls for repentance in the life of the Christian today in order to truly live for Christ either as individuals or as bodies of believers gathering together in his name.
First, we must define our terms. What is rebuke?
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the English verb is as follows:
Similarly, the definition of the noun form of the word is: “an expression of strong disapproval.”
According to Strong’s Concordance, the word translated from Hebrew in the Old Testament as ‘rebuke’ in English means “contended with,” “reproach,” and “correction.”
From the Greek in the New Testament, the word can also mean “reprove” and “charged.”
Paul writes to Timothy at one point that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
In the NIV, the phrase is “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training.”
So then we know that, generally speaking, one of the primary, practical purposes of the Bible is to be used as the basis for appropriately rebuking sin.
We also know from the definition of rebuke that criticism, confrontation, disapproval, contradiction, and correction are not signs that rebuke has become unbiblical. On the contrary, these things are inherent to the definition of rebuke. Indeed, we cannot miss the self-evident truth of this in the Scriptures when we read examples of rebuke in the Bible.
Yet do we often, or ever, see the Scriptures applied in this manner in the American church? Are we ourselves ready and willing to use the Bible in this way?
Whatever the answer to those questions is, we should see it, and we need to be ready and willing.
John The Baptist Rebuked
Is the ministry of John the Baptist exemplary? It was marked by fiery rebuke.
“He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Furthermore, what eventually led to John’s arrest and beheading was his stern, blunt, and public rebuke of Herod. John publicly called the man to repent of the sin of taking his brother’s wife.
What would we make of it if this same John strolled into one of our modern church services today and began carrying on like this? Do not doubt he would be arrested and slapped with a restraining order if he did not pack himself off to the desert quickly here too.
Yet we have God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit is supposed to dwell in all those who belong to Christ, is it not? Why then would we toss John out if he called for rebuke like this in our day?
The answer is that the precedent John set scares us. Knowing violence like what John suffered at the command of Herod may come to us also if we call others to repent prevents us from doing likewise.
Our Convenient Rules of Engagement
To provide a buffer between us and Biblical examples like that of John, we often spiritualize our cowardice with complicated rules of engagement.
What are some examples? What stipulations and prerequisites prevent us from rebuking someone and calling them to repentance?
For one I recently encountered, as mentioned, I was told the person I rebuked did not feel encouraged, but responded with irritation. Though nothing specific could be pointed out in what I had said which was untrue or contrary to what the Bible teaches, I was told I should have phrased things in such a way that would have left the other person feeling better.
The problem with this should be obvious. If we say we must be assured the person or people we address will respond positively, or feel good about our rebuking their sin, John did not follow this standard.
Indeed, if we insist rebuke cannot be delivered until the other person will like it, we are adopting a standard which is not merely absent in the Scriptures; our standard at that point stands in sharp contrast to the Scriptures.
Obviously, John’s arrest and beheading prove the response to godly, Biblical rebuke is not always positive.
For that matter, the arrest, flogging, and crucifixion of Jesus prove this all the more.
So also does the martyrdom of all 12 of the core group of Jesus’ disciples except two – and we would do well to remember that one of those two was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver.
Our rules of engagement for rebuke should not be stricter or other than theirs. Yet I have observed first-hand that they usually are.
Righteousness and Suffering
Repentance is central to the gospel message. The core idea is not that we can have our best life now if we come to Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus promised suffering and persecution in this life if we follow him.
Jesus said, “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
In another place, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”
The alternative view held by many American Christians today is that God primarily wants us to be happy; for proof, Bible verses are cited which speak of “the joy of the Lord.” Yet proportional attention is seldom to never paid to suffering for righteousness or doing anything which might precipitate suffering.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He also said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
But avoidance of repentance not only in our own lives, but in calling the lost or our fellow Christians to repent does not speak to a hunger and thirst for righteousness, nor will it ever result in persecution.
Contextualizing The Good News
What is the gospel without calls to repentance? It is gutted, empty, senseless, and irrelevant. And what is the “good news” when there is no bad news? It is incoherent.
The bad news, according to the Bible, is that we are sinners, but God is Holy. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” does not just mean ‘I’m only human.’ There is more to the story than just that we are not perfect.
God is righteous and will judge and punish sin. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
Yet someone will say they are a Christian and Christ died for them. The blood of Christ was already shed for them, so why do they need to repent?
The Apostle Paul addresses this when he writes to the church in Rome. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
We contradict this by our attitude and actions if our fallback is that we are Christians, and saved, and therefore do not need to still repent when we sin.
Bad News in the Bible
It goes without saying that calls for repentance are to be found throughout the Scriptures. Yet I must mention this because our manner of conducting the Christian life and the business of the church so often downplays or entirely ignores this truth!
In the Old Testament, God repeatedly and routinely sent prophets to Israel to rebuke the Israelites and call them to repentance.
In the New Testament, God first sent John to announce the Messiah, then He sent His only begotten Son. And both John and Jesus constantly preached repentance to multitudes, people groups, and individuals.
How then can it be inappropriate for us to rebuke and call others to repentance? We must rebuke in order to call for repentance, both the lost whom God would call to Himself in Christ, and also our brothers and sisters, and ourselves.
And, again, this does not become irrelevant in the life of the church or the individual Christian. As Martin Luther once said, “The Christian life is one of repentance.”
We must then beware of what is purported to be the Christian life when it lacks either rebuke or repentance.
Rebuke, Repentance, and The Gospel
In Acts, after the Holy Spirit fills the disciples waiting in Jerusalem on Pentecost, Peter picks up Christ’s mantle and continues.
A crowd of thousands Peter is preaching to asks “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter has just preached a clear, direct, and comprehensive sermon of rebuke and explanation of the gospel message, including repeated and explicit accusations that it was they who unjustly crucified Jesus Christ, the perfect, innocent, sinless Messiah.
Without skipping a beat, Peter answers their question. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
If there was any doubt in our minds before, we see here that the gospel was not only for that time, but is for ours also. We have not outgrown or outpaced the need for it.
Neither then have we outgrown the need for rebuke and calls for repentance. On the contrary, it is imperative that we rebuke our own reluctance to rebuke, and repent of our unwillingness to repent or to call others to repentance.
Closely related, yet separate and distinct, is the question of what validates a rebuke. That will be the topic of the sequel to this piece.
Yet here in this piece and for now, we can say with certainty that no amount of irritation or anger from others proves that a rebuke is invalid. Whatever may justify a rebuke, we know that objection does not condemn one.