Thoughts on Rebuking - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonArticles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology
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Sin has ruined the human race in many ways. One of those ways is the utter hatred of men to be rebuked for their sin. Men should be conformed to the image of God, which is perfectly free from sin, and completely pure. But men loved darkness instead of the light of the Lord. They do not want to be rebuked for their sin, and would rather love darkness, wallowing in it, than to turn and repent. Ecclesiastes 7:5 says, “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than for a man to hear the song of fools.” The song of fools is much more appealing to a sin-infested mind than the rebuke of the wise. The reason for this is quite simple – sin embeds itself as the standard in opposition to everything that is righteous. The rebuke is that which corrects sin (or rather the sinner) back to righteousness. So is it is very plain to see why sinful men hate to be rebuked: sinful men love sin and do not want to become righteous. The rebuke, then, is scathing and loathsome to their sinful nature. In this way, the deterioration of the human psyche is always opposed to righteousness, and will always love sin rather than righteousness because men’s deeds are evil. Certainly, the human race is in a horrible dilemma. God desires the world to be holy, and for His ways to be regarded as holy, and men love wickedness instead, pulling their sin as with a cart and rope. Darkness is their banner, and the sickness and disease of imputed sin runs rampant through the calloused thoughts and actions of all men in the world.
The Christian is in a dilemma as well. Though the Christian has been delivered from the dominion of darkness and delivered into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son Jesus Christ by God’s grace, he is still left with the remnants of remaining sin that desire to revive the old man. The old man is that old nature which loved sin and hated righteous. The old man is that nature that walked along the paths of iniquity listening to the fool’s song and enjoying the tune. God, though, had different plans, and through the work of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent application of that work by the Holy Spirit to the soul, certain men are revived and vivified, and the old man dies with no hope of being resurrected. The problem is that even though the old man dies, the remaining sin which was like the heartbeat of the old man, still tries to revive the old man. Sin still attempts to give the old man a reviving breath of wickedness, and the Christian must deal with the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit until he passes into the next life where there is no sin. This struggle is vehement, and is often a deadly daily battle. He fights day in and day out against sin and against the remnants of remaining sin by the continuing vivification of his soul by the power of the Spirit towards righteousness. So the Christian’s daily walk is vigorous, and though he has been renewed, it is no walk in the park. Habitual sin of every kind stalks him and waits in hiding to attempt an overthrow of his mind and heart. He wars against the world, the flesh and the devil constantly. His sinful nature does not know that Christ and the Spirit protect his heart and mind, and so sin does not stop from trying to overcome his new nature given to him by Jesus Christ. In some of the attempts to revive the old man the Christian falls and sins against God. Sometimes it may be for just a moment, but it may also be for long periods of time. The Christian’s dilemma is hard road of trial and struggle against sin. Romans 7:15, “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.”
Where the wicked man hates rebuke, so at the same time the Christian should love the rebuke, but has a hard time incorporating it into his heart and mind because sin is still present. Rebuking is loathsome to the wicked mind and heart. It is loathsome to the sinful flesh. Christians still struggle with the sinful flesh, and so rebukes that are pointed toward them are also sometimes rejected and despised. However, Christians must face the fact that one of the means that God’s gives them to overcome sin is the rebuke and reproof. Though it may be hard to digest, and bitter when taken, the Christian should receive it with joy if they truly love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. The rebuke is something that draws them out of sin and closer to Christ. It is something that draws out sin, and changes the attitude, mind and heart toward that which is holy. Why then would they still continue to hate the rebuke? The answer to this is also relatively easy – when Christians are rebuked for sin, they often love their sin more than they love Christ and so hate to change or be comforted to His image.
What does it mean to rebuke? The Old Testament word for rebuke is וְאֶת־הַמִּגְעֶ֔רֶת (Deu. 28:20). which means to “judge, rebuke, or correct.” It also has connotations in various forms such as “demonstrating to be right” or to “to correct and be chastened through reason.” The Greek use is somewhat similar. The word ἐπιτίμησον (2Ti. 4:2). means “to convict, generally with a suggestion of shame of the person convicted.” It also has the subtext of “exposing something” or “to find fault with something”. Overall it means that by some outward speech or correcting verbiage to reprehend someone severely and admonish them by calling them to account for their sin. It is not hard to imagine, then, that those who rebuke another are often seen in a negative light by the world. Live and let live is the banner of the human race, and it is often the banner of the Christian church. When people sin, they want to sin, and they do not want to be rebuked for it because they would rather sin at that moment than follow the Holy Scriptures. But this is where the rebuke is necessary – men must be confronted with their sin if they are ever to be delivered from it.
Though the world might hate rebuke, and though Christians may not be comfortable with being rebuked, Christ believes the rebuke is an essential part of the Christian’s walk. The Psalmist says in 141:5, “Let the righteous strike me; It shall be a kindness. And let him rebuke me; It shall be as excellent oil; Let my head not refuse it.” Now this is an interesting thought overall. Here the psalmist is trying to convince himself that a rebuke is good. It is something he needs. Those who are righteous should bring reproof and correction to those who need a rebuke. They do not do this to boast or become arrogant, but to genuinely see a change in the temper of the Christian from loving darkness to loving the light of truth and righteousness. In this way righteous men “strike” (halam) those who need rebuking, and this striking means to “come down like a hammer” upon the psalmist (who in this case is David). If the righteousness hammer of purity and holiness smites the psalmist, it shall be “as excellent oil”, and oil in the Old Testament is used for anointing. This has some very clear implications in terms of the high desire that the Christian should have to be rebuked – he should desire to be anointed with excellence, and should not refuse it. He should desire a rebuke if he has fallen into sin, or wants to sin. It should be as excellent oil! (And oil in the Old Testament is often a symbol of the Holy Spirit.) Hardened or embittered sinners hate to be rebuked and do not want to change. Contrite and softened hearts are those that welcome such rebuke and so desire to be further conformed by Christ and His Word. It may not be pleasant. This truth is exactly what the psalmist shows in his appeal to convince himself of its goodness, but it is always necessary.
Christians often do not love to be rebuked because they love their sin more than they love their Lord. In dealing with God’s covenant people, the prophet Amos says in 5:10, “They hate the one who rebukes in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks uprightly.” At the gate the elders sat and judged. It seems that when spiritual declension sets in, God’s covenant people have a difficult time loving the “rebuke” to change and come back to the righteous ways of God. They “hate” and “abhor” the rebuke and the ones who speak righteously to them. They hate the message and the messenger. It is no different today. Tell a Christian he ought not to watch football on Sunday since it is the Lord’s Day and he will look at the rebuke as something very strange. Tell Christians that they should be teachers by now even though they have been in the church for 20 years and they will tell you that’s the pastor’s job, not theirs. Tell a Christian that they should be leading their family in Christian worship each day, and praying with their family each day and they will say they simply do not have time, or think it is unimportant since their family goes to church each week and that is enough. Tell a Christian that he should not watch 99% of the “family shows” on TV and he will scowl with bitterness. Tell a Christian that the music he listens to directly influences his thoughts, and he will say he simply likes the tunes themselves and does not listen to the words. There are many things to tell Christians. But the rebuke in general, on any given issue, is often hated and despised because it pricks at the soil of the corrupted flesh, and disturbs it. It breaks up the fallow ground and attempts to plant good seeds in good soil that grow into righteousness.
Preachers in this way are very unpopular. Now please do not misunderstand – when the “preacher” is mentioned, the intention is to point to a real preacher, not a Church Speaker. A Church Speaker is one who takes a text, tells the congregation what the text says superficially, fills the sermon or teaching with a few stories, and then ends with a prayer. That is not a preacher who is sent by God to feed His people. That is a Church Speaker. Such a person should be rebuked for saying he is a preacher but not acting like one! There is a great difference between a real preacher, who runs after the heart of God and so makes God’s heart known to the people to fill up the church with godly Christians, and the Church Speaker who wants to fill up the sanctuary with joyful tithers. One is truly concerned with the souls of his people, and the other is concerned about his wallet. Unfortunately, there are more of the latter than there are of the former. Preachers are commanded by Christ in the Scriptures to preach by rebuke. Preaching always contains in it a rebuke. It is impossible to deny this. When the preacher preaches about Jesus Christ and the loveliness of His person, there is room for the rebuke, as well as the other components of preaching. Since every sermon, no matter the topic, is concerning with glorifying God through dispensing His word for the purpose of sanctification, every sermon is a rebuke in essence. Certainly there should be great wisdom in the act of such preaching and rebuking, but nevertheless, a true preacher acts as a physician of the soul to surgically remove sin from his congregation. At what time does his congregation not have the remnants of remaining sin? The answer to this is “at no time!” Thus, the preacher is always forced to engage in preventative discipline so that corrective discipline (excommunication) never takes place. His job, so to speak, is primarily contained in the admonition of 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word!” And so how is this accomplished? How, exactly, is preaching to be done? Is preaching always rebuking? Paul continues to say, “Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” As is plain from the text, the preacher is God’s licensed “rebuker.” Every sermon contains something that moves the sinner further from hell and closer to heaven. If a sermon does not accomplish that end, if it is not conforming the congregation to Christ by focusing in on the dilemma of sin and the redemption that they have to be conformed by Jesus Christ, then the preacher is nothing more than a Church Speaker.
God has not left the congregation of the faithful without instruction on this point. Preachers should preach in a way as to rebuke, convict, exhort and train people in the holiness and righteousness of God and His commandments. This is the primary means of grace that God gives His people to be more like Christ. To those sinning, preachers, as 1 Timothy 5:20 states, should “rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” Paul tells Titus, as an apprenticed preacher, “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith (Titus 1:13).” He further tells Titus, “Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you. (Titus 2:15)” Certainly, when one is the “official rebuker” they are labeled as such and are often not very popular. But think of it – the preacher should be the most popular of all in the church as one who continually presses the congregation to conform to holiness! How valuable are true preachers! But real preachers are despised because of this very fact.
Jesus Christ knows how to deal with His church. Revelation 3:19 says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.” One can tell rather quickly whether a preacher loves his congregation. Listen to his sermons and see if they are ladened with rebukes towards righteousness. Church Speakers think such preaching is caustic. They think that the Holy Spirit will mysteriously apply the entire message to the sinner in His own time. But God knows better. Proverbs 6:23, “For the commandment is a lamp, and the law a light; Reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” God’s way of life in Christ revolves around the true and genuine rebuke – one that trains, correct and reproves the sinner toward holiness.
Now it is important that the reader not become too ridiculous after reading this short exhortation. Christians should not walk away to be transformed into the “Holy Spirit Police” who make a list of everything they think the congregation needs to be reproved on. However, there is a very important balance on understanding how to rebuke and when to rebuke. Hebrews 3:13 says, “but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Exhortation is something that the Christian church needs day in and day out. Rebuke is an order of another kind that should be reserved and utilized with prudence and discretion. Most of the time that the Bible speaks about rebuking, God does it, or it is placed into the hands of the elders or preachers of the church. Relatively few Scriptures set it out as a plain maxim across the board. Proverbs certainly takes to task the “fool” and the rebuke of the fool. Proverbs 9:8, “Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.” Proverbs 1:22, “How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity? For scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge.” But this is in accordance with fools, not Christians. Much of the time, rebuking is something God does to His people through the Word of God (or through prophets, apostles, teachers and preachers). With Christians, much prudence is required if they are to rebuke another. Such Scriptures are directed to your neighbor (Leviticus 19:17, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.”), a friend, (Job 6:26, “Do you intend to rebuke my words, And the speeches of a desperate one, which are as wind?” Proverbs 15:32, “He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, but he who heeds rebuke gets understanding.” Proverbs 17:10, “Rebuke is more effective for a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool.”), a learner (Proverbs 19:25, “Strike a scoffer, and the simple will become wary; Rebuke one who has understanding, and he will discern knowledge.”), children (Proverbs 29:15, “The rod and rebuke give wisdom, But a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.), a backslidden Christian or apostate (Jeremiah 2:19, “Your own wickedness will correct you, And your backslidings will rebuke you.), and a Christian brother (Luke 17:3, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. (cf. 1 Timothy 5:20; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:13; 2:15)).
The Word itself is a great rebuke to world and to the church. Utilizing the rebuke in a godly manner for the instruction of the sinner in righteousness is duty incumbent on the preacher, and the Christian towards sin and wickedness. Many times the rebuke is given up for blind love, in which people believe that such blind love covers a multitude of sins. However, one must always remember that the sick soul is in need of a prescription, and that prescription is a hearty dose of the Word of God. The Word itself explained and applied is the only remedy for sin – that is the rebuke. As Proverbs 27:5 keenly reminds the church, “Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed.” Love conceals sin, and an open rebuke exposes it, cleans it, and heals it through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Christians should not despise a true and biblical rebuke. Instead, they ought to hold it fast as one who is wise and gains understanding so that ignorance flees and Christ is further seen in the lives of the congregation. Preachers ought to take this to heart, and never fail to act in accordance with the commandments to rebuke the congregation in the sermon and teachings whether subtly or openly. Christians, in the same manner, should remember to rebuke their brothers and sisters in the Lord to preserve them from sin, and should rebuke wicked men around them in hopes of their transformation toward righteousness. The position one holds on the issue of the “rebuke” is very simple, and very plain. Ecclesiastes 7:5, “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than for a man to hear the song of fools.” What would you rather hear? Are you singing the songs of fools with a fool? Or are you among the remnant of the wise?