In the logic of Scripture, reproof is a gift. In the logic of certain secular mindsets, reproof is an act of oppression. For one kind of secularist, even the word “sin” is intrinsically oppressive. It implies, the secularist suspects, that you think you know the standards and I don’t. You, therefore, hope to use them to lord it over me. You want to control my behavior. This view makes sense from the perspective of a flat, two-dimensional world, where contests for power flavor all human interaction.
By contrast, Scripture assumes that God exists and has spoken to rebellious wanderers prone to take the wrong path, to their harm. He’s ordained that his speech be written down and studied, so its wisdom can be widely disseminated, both by ordinarily people and by his agents. In that context, reproof is a gift:
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. . . . Reprove a man of understanding, and he will gain knowledge. (Prov. 9:8–9; 19:25b)
Love Accepts and Transforms
Faithful preachers understand that, apart from the Spirit, secular people have little interest in Scripture’s correction. But church visitors and even faithful members can experience reproof in ways that owe something to secular thought. As we know, there is an increasing interest in “safe places” free from challenging ideas, which can be construed as micro-aggressions. Believers who have adopted this perspective may expect the church to be a “safe place” where people enjoy unconditional acceptance, where they can be themselves without fear of judgment. Bob Yarbrough rightly notes that in “self-esteem cultures, pastoral rebuke may be a paradoxical and unwelcome notion.” But since God is holy and people are not, someone must address the disparity.
The teaching of Scripture goes like this: God accepts people as they are because of their union with Christ, but he does not leave them where they are—and neither should pastors or friends. If a new convert is a drug addict, we love him (or her) unconditionally, as the Lord does. Still, it’s not loving to ignore the addiction or to abandon him or her to self-destructive habits. Genuine love both accepts and also transforms. Jesus accepted sinners, then transformed them. Transforming love wants people to become the best versions of themselves. Transforming love is necessary because people offend God, hurt others, and wound themselves. Everyone is better off if godlessness and injustice cease.
Transforming love wants people to become the best versions of themselves.
But transforming love and accepting love need each other. Without accepting love, transforming love criticizes and pesters and is never satisfied. And without transforming love, accepting love decays into indulgence, even neglect.
Suppose a man is about to put a plate in an oven that will damage the plate, the oven, or both. It’s vital for his wife to “reprove and correct” him promptly. But if he is a sloppy eater, prone to get mustard on his chin and spinach in his teeth, his wife is in a more delicate position. If she swiftly and sharply points out every misplaced drop of sauce, accepting love disappears. But if she never comments, he will soil his clothes and, at least slightly, harm his social reputation. It’s not always easy to decide when to correct and when to be silent. This is a matter of wisdom and prayer, yet the Proverbs above offer clues. Before we speak, we may ask: Is it likely that a wise man will love me after hearing my correction? Will he “gain knowledge” from me? Will a wise woman “be still wiser” after I speak, or will she plausibly be hurt or annoyed?
Scripture Is Always Profitable
Whatever Scripture says, God says, and for that reason it is profitable—useful or beneficial—for its God-ordained purposes. It reveals the way of salvation and it teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16–17). For Paul, “teaching” commonly refers to doctrine (1 Tim. 2:12; 4:11; 1 Cor. 4:17; Gal. 1:12; 2 Thess. 2:15). The teachings or “traditions” (ESV) are the apostolic message, preserved in speech and writing (Gal. 1:6–12). The terms “reproof” and “correction” are similar, but not identical. To reprove is to show a fault, to refute, rebuke, or reveal error. Reproof is also an act of love (Lev. 19:17), since it points out errors in doctrine and practice.
In 1 Samuel 25, Abigail, a woman whom Scripture calls wise, corrects David as he descends a mountain, breathing death threats against her fool-of-a-husband Nabal after he’s insulted David. She certainly reproves David and does so with such insight and gentleness that he blesses God for her. She takes the blame for Nabal’s insults, then reminds David that the Lord has fought his battles for him and preserved him (with allusions to the events with Goliath). She notes God’s promise that he will rule Israel one day and says David won’t want to take the throne with bloody hands (1 Sam. 25:28–31).
David listens, repents, and praises the Lord for her correction:
Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you who have kept me this day from bloodguilt. (1 Sam. 25:32–33)
As she reasons from the law, the nature, the acts, and the promises of God, Abigail assuages David’s reckless rage, and David praises God for it.
It is never wrong to offer reproof and correction, but if we hope for the ideal response, we want to remember the times and the manner of those who excelled at effective rebuke. After all, we live in a self-esteem culture in which pastoral rebuke is considered “paradoxical and unwelcome.”
What, then? Let the preacher, the teacher, and the friend surround transforming love with accepting love, as Jesus did. And let us show the discretion of Abigail, gently appealing to God’s laws and promises, to move rebels back to the Lord’s way.