Say Hard Things
When was the last time someone told you you were wrong?
If you can’t remember, you may have reason to be concerned. Sometimes the most loving thing someone can do for us is point out an error or inconsistency in the way we think or live. The reality that we have remaining sin still inside of us means that we will be wrong. And it means we will inevitably be blind to some of the ways we are wrong. Therefore, God often gives us the perspective we desperately need on ourselves through someone else’s eyes, heart, and words. They see something that needs to change or be corrected, and they lovingly tell us the truth. They rebuke us. Love will rebuke us.
Paul had to rebuke Peter once. “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Galatians 2:11). Why? Because Peter (a Jew) caved to pressure from his peers, and refused to eat with Gentile believers. Peter had pioneered the reconciliation of the Jews and Gentiles through Jesus (Acts 15:11). He had seen and experienced the barrier-breaking love of God for us through Jesus and his cross (Acts 10:28). It had changed everything, even down to his eating habits (Galatians 2:12).
But Jews started persecuting Christian Jews because of Peter’s eating habits, and so some tried to convince him to stop. Thus, at the very point the Gentile Christians needed him most, Peter withdrew in fear. Christ had purchased these people, the Father had declared them his own, and the Holy Spirit was living inside of them. And Peter abandoned them.
Love Enough to Say the Hard Thing
Paul writes, “When I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:14). In short, “Stop it!” Peter, the testimony of your behavior is telling a different gospel, a gospel that will not save anyone. And the false, peer-pressure, racist gospel your conduct tells is winning followers (Galatians 2:13). Remember the true gospel — by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from ethnic barriers — and repent. Bring your public actions back into conformity with the message for which Jesus died.
Based on the rest of the story, Paul’s rebuke may have rescued Peter’s ministry and the fledgling church (humanly speaking). Peter repented and openly ate with Gentiles again. Because Paul was willing to say the hard thing, to love Peter the inconvenient and less socially acceptable way, a false gospel’s seed was dispelled, and the true gospel was preserved, demonstrated, and spread.
So what can we learn from Paul’s example? How do we rebuke one another in love? Here are four lessons.
1. Rebuke to preserve the gospel and its witness.
What do we learn from Peter’s flawed example? Our convictions will ultimately project themselves on the screen of our lives, especially in how we respond to the perception and criticism of others. The gospel we love in our hearts and say with our mouths will travel, over the course of our lives, through the fire of others’ approval or disapproval. And when we begin to lose something because of what we believe, we begin to see what we really believe.
“In our readiness to rebuke, we have to learn to distinguish between differences of opinion and sins against God.”
Peter’s public relations effort weakened the gospel’s influence in Galatia, at least temporarily. Over time, our behavior — our priorities, our decisions, and our speech — preach the gospel almost as loudly and clearly as our “gospel presentations,” more loudly and clearly in some ways. Our compromises with the truth — subtle or otherwise — endanger our witness and hinder the gospel’s spread through us. At its worst, sin — living “not in step with the truth of the gospel” — could convince someone around you to believe a false gospel or to reject the true gospel for wrong reasons.
Consider how Peter’s faithfulness would have affected the other Jewish Christians and Barnabas. He could have inspired a courageous wave of faith and fidelity. In contrast with the increasing persecution back in Jerusalem, it was an opportunity to let the true message of the gospel shine with clarity. It’s a motivation for us not to sin, but maybe more, it’s a strong motivation to seek to live in line with the gospel because that kind of fruit multiplies itself among others. It’s a motivation to rebuke with love, and to receive rebuke with faith.
2. Rebuke on the gospel’s terms, not your own.
Paul rebuked Peter because he “saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). He did not rebuke Peter simply because he didn’t like what he was doing or because he would have done it differently. Peter’s behavior was telling the wrong story about the good news of Jesus Christ. In our readiness to rebuke, we have to learn to distinguish between differences of opinion and sins against God.
We develop that sensitivity by immersing ourselves in the gospel, by soaking ourselves in God’s word, the Book “about the grace that” is ours (1 Peter 1:10). As we examine one another, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things (1 Corinthians 13:7), we’re looking for evidences of God’s grace at work in each other (or not). We’re not just looking for the grace that forgives, but the grace that empowers and changes us. Does our life tell the whole story of God’s grace toward us — from desperation and condemnation to forgiveness and reconciliation on through to transformation and renewal (2 Corinthians 5:17)?
If not, we need to rebuke one another, but we rebuke one another motivated by grace, filled with grace, and aiming toward grace. We don’t condemn one another. We wield rebuke to correct, encourage, and build up one another.
3. Rebuke with humility, gentleness, and conviction.
Does the fruit of the Spirit hang from the tree of your rebukes? Or do we think of those conversations as separate trees in the garden of our life? In the same letter that Paul lays out the fruit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22–23) — he says,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. . . . If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6, 9)
In other words, “Let him go to hell!” Could you say that with patience, kindness, and gentleness? True love, biblical love, does sometimes. Galatians 1:6–9 has notes of surprise, doubt, concern, and anger, but it doesn’t lack patience, kindness, and gentleness. The balance is essential, even if often elusive, and it’s what love is. Patience and gentleness, without boldness and conviction, lack love. Boldness and conviction, without patience and gentleness, lack love. Only the Spirit of God — these are fruit of the Spirit, not of human effort or discipline — can grant us that strange formula for Christlike correction.
4. Rebuke to please God, not man.
Paul writes earlier in Galatians, while condemning false teaching that had crept into the Galatian churches, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
“When we begin to lose something because of what we believe, we begin to see what we really believe.”
Christians who rebuke with love have their eyes set on God, not on man. They’re not looking horizontally for approval, vindication, or increased self-esteem. Their King sits on a throne above, and their treasure is there with him in heaven. They’re free from gossip, posturing, and backbiting. When they open their mouths to rebuke or correct another believer, they know God is watching and searching for love. They want all of their words, however hard, to be a sweet aroma to their heavenly Father.
The “man” I am most likely to try and please through unrighteous rebuke is me. There are lots of ways we try and please people — ways we live out our fear of man — but I doubt rebuke is a popular one. People, especially in today’s society, just aren’t all that impressed with or drawn to people “proud” enough to rebuke someone, to actually suggest someone else might be wrong. But a certain sensation might arise in our own hearts when we tell someone else they’re wrong, a temptation to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:3).
Rebukes that search for that kind of self-gratifying, short-lived sensation will have their reward (Matthew 6:16). But when you rebuke, seek to set aside selfish ambition and personal gain, and selflessly give yourself in love to the other person and their growth in Christ. “And your Father who sees in secret” — every small step of courage, every kind word of honesty, every persistent ounce of patience — “will reward you” (Matthew 6:18).