One of the most loving things anyone can do for you is tell you when you’re wrong.
Call it correction, reproof, or rebuke — Paul uses all three terms in just four verses in 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2 — but don’t miss what makes it distinctively Christian, and a gift to our souls: It is a great act of love. The kind of rebuke that the Scriptures commend is the kind intended to stop us from continuing on a destructive path.
Watershed of Wisdom
Reproof is a fork in the road for a sinful soul. Will we cringe at correction like a curse, or embrace rebuke as a blessing? One of the great themes in Proverbs is that those who embrace rebuke are wise and walk the path of life, while those who despise reproof find themselves to be fools careening toward death.
The Proverbial warnings against dismissing brotherly correction are staggering. The one who rejects reproof leads others astray (Proverbs 10:17), is stupid (Proverbs 12:1) and a fool (Proverbs 15:5), and despises himself (Proverbs 15:32). “Whoever hates reproof will die” (Proverbs 15:10), and “poverty and disgrace come to him” (Proverbs 13:18).
But just as astounding are the promises of blessing to those who embrace rebuke. “Whoever heeds reproof is honored” (Proverbs 13:18) and prudent (Proverbs 15:5). “He who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32), loves knowledge (Proverbs 12:1), will dwell among the wise (Proverbs 15:31), and is on the path of life (Proverbs 10:17) — because “the rod and reproof give wisdom” (Proverbs 29:15) and “the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (Proverbs 6:23).
To the one who embraces rebuke, God says, “I will pour out my spirit to you” (Proverbs 1:23), but to the one who despises it, “I will laugh at your calamity” (Proverbs 1:25–26). It will be said of those who reject correction, “They shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices” (Proverbs 1:30–31), and it’s only a matter of time until they themselves will say, “I am at the brink of utter ruin” (Proverbs 5:12–14).
And when ruin comes for the fool who resists reproof, it will be sudden and devastating: “He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing” (Proverbs 29:1).
Open the Gift
The wise recognize rebuke as a gift of gold (Proverbs 25:12). It is kindness, and a token of love. “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5).
Often it is easier for others in our lives not to say anything, but just let us go merrily on our way down the path of folly and death. But reproof is an act of love, a willingness to own that awkward moment, and perhaps having your counsel thrown back in your face, for the risk of doing someone good. When a spouse or friend or family member or associate rises to the level of such love, we should be profoundly thankful.
Hear God’s Voice in Your Brother’s
All of us who have in Christ “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3), and are in our right mind, will want to “listen to advice and accept instruction, that [we] may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20). We’ll not just suffer someone speaking into our lives, but invite them to do so — and when they do, embrace it as a blessing. Even when it’s a rebuke poorly delivered, and the timing and tone are off, and the motivation seems suspect, we’ll want to ransack it for every grain of truth, and then repent, and thank God for the grace of having people in our lives who love us enough to say something.
Not wanting to “despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof” (Proverbs 3:11), we’ll ask, How is it that God’s reproof most often comes to us? Answer: in reproof from a brother or sister in Christ. We’ll beware resisting the reproof of a fellow in Jesus, especially when it’s echoed in multiple voices, knowing that likely we would be resisting the very reproof of God.
When a brother or sister in Christ goes to the inconvenience to have the unpleasant conversation bringing correction into our lives, we should be floored with thanksgiving. “The Lord reproves him whom he loves” (Proverbs 3:12). Count it as love from your brother, and as God’s channel of his love for you.
Easier Said Than Done
But all of that, of course, is much easier said than done. Deep down in the caverns of our remaining sin, where we can be most callous to true grace in its varied forms, we don’t want to hear any correction. Something wicked in us recoils.
When we hear that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable,” it’s natural to be more excited about it being “for teaching” and “for training in righteousness” than “for reproof” and “for correction” (2 Timothy 3:16). That’s too personal. That touches a nerve.
And forces from without don’t make it any easier. It shouldn’t surprise us that the societal air we breathe is hostile to correction and reproof, even in their most gentle and loving varieties. If humanity isn’t depraved in nature and sinful in practice, then rebuke is no longer a life-saver, but an annoyance. But if we do acknowledge that we are flawed, selfish, and arrogant and regularly sin with our words and actions, then we will learn to see a brother’s rebuke for the tremendous grace that it is.
Unlock the Power
But however much receiving reproof goes against our native instincts or catches us off our gospel guard in the moment, we have this great hope to grow into: The love of Christ for us is the skeleton key able to unlock for us the power of rebuke. With him in view, the one “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20), no longer must reproof be an assault on our very foundations and deep sense of worth, but it becomes a fresh opportunity for growth and greater joy.
“With such a Savior to steady our feet, we can embrace rebuke for the blessing that it is.”
It is another grace of the gospel that by the Spirit we can grow skin thick enough to hear any reproof as a pathway to yet even more grace. It is the gospel that gives us the wherewithal for truly leaning into rebuke and receiving its bounty.
Only in Jesus can we find our identity not in being without fault, but in being shown love by God when we’re still sinners and chock-full of faults (Romans 5:8). With such a Savior to steady our feet, we can embrace rebuke for the blessing that it is.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.