When was the last time someone sat you down to tell you that you were wrong?
These have been some of the most memorable and important conversations in my life, the conversations when someone I loved — father, mother, mentor, pastor, roommate, friend, wife — had the compassion and courage to tell me when I was out of line. However I felt in those difficult (and often painful) moments, I now treasure those memories — the kind confrontations, the caring corrections, the loving rebukes.
We all need a steady diet of friendly course correction, because our hearts — even our new hearts in Christ — are still susceptible to sin (Hebrews 3:13; Jeremiah 17:9). Do you value the hard conversations that keep you from making more mistakes, and guard you against slowly wandering away from Jesus?
One reason rebuke is often underappreciated — in our own lives, and in many of our local churches — is because we have such small definitions for rebuke. If we are truly going to speak the hard truth in love — or appreciate when others say the hard thing to us — we need a bigger, fuller picture of what this kind of love looks like in relationships.
Reprove, Rebuke, Exhort
As the apostle Paul closes his second letter to his son in the faith, Timothy, he says, “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Paul is building steel reinforcements into this young pastor’s ministry. He warns Timothy that people will turn away from faithful preaching, preferring instead to listen to messages that conform to their desires and make them feel good about themselves. They will gladly trade away truths for myths, as long as the myths make much of ‘me’ — and downplay their sin and need for help and change.
Paul may be talking specifically about public preaching, but what he says about Timothy’s ministry has everything to do with our rebuking. Do you love the people in your life enough to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort,” even when they don’t want to hear it?
Reprove with Honesty
Why reprove, rebuke, and exhort? It may sound redundant and excessive at first, as if Paul was saying, “Rebuke, rebuke, by all means, rebuke!” The three words are related, but distinct, each highlighting a critical aspect of healthy, biblical correction.
The word Paul uses here for “reprove” appears several other times in his letters, and can mean simply to rebuke (Titus 1:13) or correct (Matthew 18:15). But in most or all of the uses, it means to reprove by exposing sin or fault. For instance, Paul writes, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). Or, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20).
Similarly, the apostle John writes, “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20). And then again, about the Holy Spirit, “When he comes, he will convict [or expose] the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Timothy, be ready to call out sin, not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s needed, and even when it’s socially uncomfortable or costly to do so.
To care for each other well, we need to ask God for the courage and faith to tell the truth about sin, and expose it as such, even when doing so might offend someone we love.
Speak Up with Boldness
“Reprove, rebuke . . . ” This is the only place Paul uses this word, but it appears almost thirty times in the New Testament, all but two in the Gospels — and in every instance but one, Jesus is the one doing the rebuking.
- “He rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” (Matthew 8:26)
- “Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.” (Matthew 17:18)
- “He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her.” (Luke 4:39)
When Jesus rebuked someone or something, he demanded, in effect, on God’s authority, that it cease and desist. Winds quieted. Demons exorcised. Fevers dismissed.
And sin forsaken. Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Timothy, after you have exposed sin for what it is — deceitful, empty, fatal, evil — summon your brother to stop, on the basis of God’s word and authority. Open the Bible, point to or quote a particular text, and call for repentance. And if he repents, extend forgiveness from that same Book and with that same authority.
If we are going to rebuke well, we must ask God to show us in his word what sin is, and what it is not. And having seen sin in one another, we must consistently and boldly — and graciously — speak up and charge one another to change, to turn, to cease from sin.
Build Up in Love
Reprove, rebuke, and finally, “exhort.” When you rebuke one another, expose sin, call for repentance, and exhort one another.
Paul uses this word far more than the other two. Over and over, he is appealing to believers to walk in a way worthy of the gospel.
- “I appeal to you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1)
- “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions.” (Romans 16:17)
- “I urge you, be imitators of me.” (1 Corinthians 4:16)
- “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1; see also 1 Thessalonians 2:12).
What makes the charge to exhort any different from the charge to rebuke? One prominent thread in Paul’s 48 uses suggests that wrapped up in all his exhortations is a strong desire to encourage, comfort, and build up other believers.
He uses the same word when he writes, “Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Or, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers” (1 Timothy 5:1). He also says, “You should turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:7–8).
Timothy, when you expose sin and call for repentance, aim to build up your brother in his faith, hope, and love. Resist the natural, sinful impulse to heap guilt and tear down, and instead correct in order to encourage. All Christian correction aims at restoration. We are people who relentlessly have something good to say.
If we are going to rebuke well, we must ask God to help us reprove and rebuke with compassion and hope — to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:25).
Recipe for Loving Rebuke
Satan would love for us to simplify rebuke to something small: “tell someone else they are wrong.” That kind of proud and shallow vision creates division, not delight in God. But God himself gives us a fuller vision for loving rebuke, with greater color and texture and warmth.
Despite what our society suggests at every turn, to point out sin in one another, and call for change, is not necessarily hate speech, but it may be a courageous act of genuine love. When you see a brother or sister in Christ acting out of line with the gospel — either because of blind ignorance or stubborn rebellion — ask God for the grace and humility and love to gently expose the sin, appeal for repentance, and build up your beloved.