The Grace of Good Rebuke

How to Love with Hard Words

How we give and receive rebuke reveals more about us than we might first realize. When was the last time someone rebuked you, and how did you respond? When was the last time you needed to rebuke someone? How did you respond?

When someone confronts us about a sin he sees in us, some of us get defensive and fire back. Others cower, withdraw, and crumble in self-pity. Still others, however, have learned to receive good rebuke for what it is: love. They know the secret others fail to grasp: Hard words are instrumental, indispensable, and precious along the path to godliness.

“Hard words are instrumental, indispensable, and precious along the path to godliness.”

Similarly, when someone sins against us, we often fall into one of two traps. Some of us default (often out of hurt or anger) to brutal honesty, the kind that wields truth to, consciously or unconsciously, harm others. Others of us resist confrontation at all costs, or we couch every hard word with every available pillow. In both cases, we fail to practice rebuke as an act of extraordinary love — either by speaking the truth without love or by failing to speak at all.

Second Corinthians 13 might not be the first text we think of for rebuke, but it does chart a wise course through the land mines that often make healthy, loving, and life-giving correction so difficult.

The Occasion of Rebuke

The particular sin Paul confronts in 2 Corinthians was likely more personally painful than many of us can imagine (2 Corinthians 2:1). The whole letter addresses a rebellion that arose in the church of Corinth against his authority and ministry, even after years of his investing there (2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:4; 13:2–3).

While the situation (and stakes) may have been different for Paul, he faced the same question we face again and again within the church: When we see sin in one another, will we lovingly and graciously confront one another? Or will we avoid conflict out of fear? Or, in anger and impatience, will we heap shame and guilt on a brother or sister?

Before we get into how we rebuke, it’s worth pausing over why we need rebuke. We all need to rebuke and be rebuked because we all still sin (1 John 1:8). And sin is deadly serious. If we’re unwilling to rebuke one another, we need to ask if we really believe that sin is deceptive, destructive, and, if unrepentant, damning. Rebuke is part of a wider vigilance against the only enemy that can destroy us:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12–13)

Because sin is so serious, so awful, so devastating to a soul, we are to exhort one another every day. And sometimes, for any number of reasons, we need more than exhortation. We need rebuke. And if we see sin for what it really is, we should embrace, even rejoice in, good rebuke.

Knowing that we need rebuke, we need to learn to rebuke well — lovingly and honestly, graciously and firmly. And to rebuke well, we need to be deeply and passionately rooted in the gospel, we need to recognize and confront the sinfulness of sin (first in ourselves, and only then in others), and we need to learn the goal and heart of good rebuke.

The Goal of Good Rebuke

First, the goal. The goal of good rebuke is not rebuke. Rebuke is always a means, not an end. As Paul rebukes his opponents, he clarifies the goal (and repeats himself to be clear). “Your restoration is what we pray for” (2 Corinthians 13:9). And then speaking to the whole church: “Aim for restoration” (2 Corinthians 13:11). Restoration, not mere correction, is the goal of godly rebuke.

The apostle — despite what these false teachers had done to him — didn’t want the Corinthians canceled or thrown out; he wanted them back as brothers. He wanted relationships restored, partnerships restored, the sweetness of unity and fellowship restored. How different might our churches, our disagreements, even our controversies be if more of us longed, prayed, and worked for restoration like Paul did? Restoration — the renewal and revival of once-broken (or even dead) love — is the goal of good rebuke.

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression,” Paul charges all believers, “you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). One way to cultivate the gentleness we need in godly correction is to focus on correction as a pathway to restoration. If restoration is the destination, it will shape and color what words we use and how we say them.

The Heart of Good Rebuke

While restoration is the aim, humility and love are the heart of good rebuke. We see this most clearly and powerfully in the previous verse: “We are glad when we are weak and you are strong” (2 Corinthians 13:9). Because restoration, not self-preservation or vindication, was his greatest burden, Paul was glad to be rejected and humiliated if it meant his offenders might finally repent and be forgiven and restored.

“I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,” he wrote earlier in the same letter, “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). I am content with insults and persecutions — literally, well pleased with insults and persecutions. That gladness was (and is) surprising, even offensive — and utterly Christian. Jesus had said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The heart of good rebuke knows that the power of God to convict, to redeem, to change often pours through our willingness to be weak.

“The power of God to convict, to redeem, to change often pours through our willingness to be weak.”

How did humility and love penetrate so deeply into his heart — a heart that had once violently opposed and persecuted believers? He immersed his heart in the heart of another. Again, Paul writes, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Jesus endured the hardships of the cross for joy (Hebrews 12:2). Christian humility and love produce a joy strong enough to sacrifice for others, even for those who sin against us.

The Tone of Good Rebuke

While Paul’s heart was warm and humble toward the rebellious, and while he longed deeply and persistently for their restoration, he was not afraid to be severe if necessary. “For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me” (2 Corinthians 13:10). At times, severity is necessary when we rebuke one another. This severity, Paul specifically says later in the same verse, tears down (at least for the moment) instead of building up.

This may be the most uncomfortable word for many of us: severe. Do we ever really need to be severe? Especially today, in an often excessively sensitive and empathetic society, severity seems only and ever inappropriate (or worse). To some, severity sounds like abuse. If it hurts, it should not have been said, could be a proverb of our age. And it is a plague on our age. The wise know just how desperately we need hard words (Proverbs 15:31). The foolish hoard soft words, and flee anything even resembling reproof (Proverbs 12:1; 13:18; 15:32). Mute. Block. Cancel. And the Old Testament warns us, in horror after horror, what happens when everyone does what is right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6).

Sometimes, when sin deceives us and entrenches itself in our souls, we need the grace of godly severity. Paul not only models this severity, but encourages it when appropriate: “Therefore rebuke them sharply” — same word — “that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Severity if necessary, so that our brother or sister might be sound again.

The Reluctance of Good Rebuke

Rebuke, especially severe rebuke, should always be patient and reluctant — not impatient and impulsive. The apostle was willing to be severe if necessary in the path of love, but notice that he was willing, not eager.

“I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Corinthians 13:10). I don’t want to be severe. I don’t want to tear you down. I don’t want it to get to that point. I have done all I know to do to avoid a harsher confrontation. I want to build you up and encourage you in Christ. I would rather plead and appeal than rebuke sharply.

We are not apostles, but God has given each of us some measure of influence in the body of Christ. We’re each uniquely placed in local congregations and empowered by the Spirit of God to serve in various ways. And though severity is sometimes necessary, God has given us our unique giftings and influence primarily for the sake of building one another up (1 Corinthians 14:12, 26), not tearing one another down. The church should be known as builders, not bulldozers.

Many of us, however, rarely even think about how we might intentionally build up someone else in the body. And when that’s the case, rebuke will rarely be received well, even when it is extended well. In the life of any local church, rebuke should be an occasional ripple in a mighty river of encouragement.

The Vital Ally of Good Rebuke

While this last lesson may be the most subtle lesson from the passage, it may also be the most revealing. “Your restoration,” Paul writes, “is what we pray for” (2 Corinthians 13:9). And a couple of verses earlier: “We pray to God that you may not do wrong . . . but that you may do what is right” (2 Corinthians 13:7). If we are ready to rebuke someone, but are reluctant to pray for him, are we really as ready as we think?

“Rebuke without prayer is rebuke without power.”

What we want, in any good rebuke, is for God to bring the clarity and change in this person. We can muster the courage to say something, meticulously monitor our words and tone, repeatedly express our affection and hope, discretely draw in other concerned believers — and still, if God does not act, all the love in the world will fall on deaf ears. We are mere planters, waterers, rebukers; he alone makes any heart grow (1 Corinthians 3:7).

Before we rebuke, as we rebuke, and after we rebuke, we should always pray. Rebuke without prayer is rebuke without power. But rebuke with prayer is rebuke with the backing of heaven. So, confront sin when you see it, aiming for restoration from a heart of humility and love, with a reluctant willingness to be severe if necessary. But above all else, pray and ask God to part the waters of this person’s heart and finally deliver him from the enemy of his soul.