I listened to a sermon by Doug Wilson a week or so ago in which he said,
Often we rebuke not the ones who need it, but the ones who will take it.
I’d like to work that soil a bit and talk about why we do that.
Rebuke is a strong word, and not every situation requires it. With that said, situations that call for rebuke usually are not the ideal teachable moments where the other person is listening and wants to do better. When rebuke is necessary it probably means that the other person isn’t thinking or listening or responding to gentler measures. Who wants to step into that? Who wants to plow a field full of boulders?
So instead, we search for softer fields. We aim our rebukes at those who don’t need to be rebuked, but at least we will feel like we accomplished something. Rebuke isn’t always necessary when the other person is already listening, already sensitive. But that’s the person who will feel our blow and, not only will they learn how wrong they are, they will also learn how much more we love righteousness than they do. What a large pile of dirt we can show after digging where the soil was already turned over.
Why not just remain quiet? Say you’re not strong enough to rebuke the hard case, why lay into the weaker one? Not everyone does, some are always quiet and occasionally that’s wise and not a compromise. But why do some go for the scold? Because at least that keeps the attention on someone else. Recrimination and credentialism are defensive techniques to avoid confessing sin ourselves. Rebuking those who don’t need it is an offensive move, but still deflection. We think it keeps people from seeing our own field full of boulders.
We construct elaborate but rickety structures to shield ourselves from confession. One of the most popular insulation techniques is recrimination, accusing the other person of what the other person accused us of. It’s ugly business and, even though countercharging doesn’t make sin disappear, it at least leads to weeks or months in the appeals system before a verdict is made. Who knows, maybe the initial allegation will even get dropped because, really, who has the time and resources to endure the litigation?
Another useful technique to dodge confession we might call credentialism, asking the other person what gives them the right to confront us or call us to repent. In this game, the parent card trumps the kid card, the shepherd card trumps the sheep card and, sadly, there is no joker for those who claim the upper hand. Arguing that authority is infallible by definition is a logical fallacy. But even when it doesn’t work, at least we can waste time forming a committee to investigate who’s responsible and we might forget about the original sin after a while.
Here’s the thing: the other person might be guilty of what they’re accusing us of. Perhaps that’s why they can see our sin so accurately; they know exactly what they’re looking at. Also, the other person may not actually have authority over us, but they see what the underneath of our authority looks like in a way we hadn’t considered from the top. Either way, the question is: are we sinning?
Blowing smoke in the face of others doesn’t put out the fire. There are all sorts of ways we can distance ourselves from and argue ourselves out of confession. As we do so, we also distance ourselves from forgiveness and fellowship with Christ and with each other.
Do you remember the story of Elijah, the widow, and the container of oil that never ran out? In the midst of a severe drought, with the prophet and her own son to care for, we can all imagine how cautious the widow must have felt making cakes day after day. But, according to the word of the Lord, the household ate for many days, the jar of flour was never spent and the jug of oil never emptied. How did that happen? It was a supernatural work of God.
The Christian life is also supernatural. It should not be explainable except for God’s work in us. According to Philippians 2, we’re to give ourselves for others, to treat them as more important than ourselves, and to see Christ as our model for humility such as this. That sort of a serving life is supernatural.
I’d like to knead that dough a little more. I think it’s a common experience for us to be very cautious with the portions of grace we give to others. We know that we’re supposed to give it, so we’re careful to position ourselves on the giving side of the line. But we also try to stay as close to the line as possible for fear that our bottle might run dry. Sure. We all understand that. That’s natural.
The problem is that we’re supposed to be supernatural, and being on the opposite side of the stingy line is not necessarily supernatural generosity.
As we angle to guard our flour and hoard our oil, we reflect a God who is not grace-full. We have received from His fulness, a fulness that is never spent and grace that is never emptied. Serving is better than no serving but, according to the word of the Lord, by the Holy Spirit, He fills us for much more than panicky, self-protective, bottom of the barrel serving.
Paul commanded the Philippian Christians:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3–4)
These simple imperatives often feel impossible and, based on our struggle to remember them, let alone obey them, our practice seems to support how impossible they are. And, actually, they are impossible apart from Christ.
I want to point out that these commands are not simply what God requires us to do, they represent who He is. In other words, humble, glad, others-oriented service communicates God’s own character. How do we know that? We look at Jesus in whom the fulness of deity dwells (Colossians 2:9). We would be less proud, bitter, self-centered, and expectant of others serving us if we dwelt on the incarnation not just in December.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5–8)
Jesus did that for sinners. He did it because true joy and true glory gush out for others like a fountain can’t help but get the ground around it wet.
Our lack of grace to others cannot be fixed with tighter rules or frequent reminders or whipping ourselves into a guilt-frenzy because we blew it again. If we want to show more grace, then we must worship God more, in particular, we must worship the Word made flesh.
There are at least two corrupt ways to witness about Christ to others that we must confess. The first sinful approach is thinking that witnessing depends on us. The second sinful attitude is thinking that witnessing doesn’t depend on us. Stated as such, we’re always in sin; so is there a way out after we confess?
It is sinfully proud to think that our timing, our tone, our terms make the difference in evangelism. Spiritual darkness and deadness are spiritual conditions that only God’s Spirit’s can overcome. God causes men to be born again, and we can no more make someone a child of God than a doctor can make a baby have life. God is not impressed when we act like we can do His job.
Likewise, it is sinfully proud to think that we have no responsibility whatsoever in evangelism. This pride masquerades as humility, but this modesty poorly masks disobedience to God who commands His people to make disciples, to proclaim the gospel, to defend the eternal hope within them. God is not impressed when we use theology to justify our rebellion.
Pride may open our mouths or keep them shut, but it must be confessed as sin either way. So how can we witness and not sin? How can we be bold without getting big heads? By believing Him.
Belief is the problem in both. In the first case, belief is misdirected, put in a place He didn’t say to put it. In the second case, belief is partial, not held in all the ways He did say to hold it. As we call men to believe, we need to be examples of believers even in what we believe about our place and God’s place in calling them to believe.
There is no more pivotal day in history than the Sunday morning when Jesus rose from the dead. “Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes.” “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (v. 17). “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (v. 20); He is risen indeed.
The resurrection was necessary, obviously, because He was dead; “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior.” “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and “he was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Sunday followed Friday, and that Friday is the second most important day in history, the day when Jesus laid down His life, gave up His spirit, and endured the fulness of the Father’s wrath on our sin. The righteous took on unrighteousness; the just took the judgment; He was made sin who knew no sin. He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities.
50 days after the crucifixion, Peter preached about Jesus in Jerusalem (Acts 2:). Many who heard his message were “cut to the heart” (v.37), and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (v.38).
The resurrection celebration is for “every one,” but only each one, who acknowledges that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Christians are those who hear the gospel, confess their sin, turn away from their sin, and trust in Christ. That’s the only way to be saved, the only path to share in the sin-forgiving death and life-giving resurrection of Christ.
Even as Christians, we continue to confess our sins because we don’t forget that the empty tomb we celebrate on Sunday is glorious because our sin caused His death on Friday.
We take it very seriously when someone says something wrong about Jesus, rightly so. Beliefs can only be true or false, and false things about Jesus, false teaching about the Logos, makes the difference between life and death, between heaven and hell. An elder must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able…to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). We work toward the day when the saints in the church are no longer “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). It is dangerous and sinful to say and think the wrong things about Jesus.
Do we take it equally seriously when someone does, when we do, something false about Jesus? That’s a clumsy way of stating it, but perhaps the bloody knees that came from stumbling grammar will get our attention. Do we do wrong things about Jesus? Yes, every time we fail to act as He taught, commanded, or modeled. We can live truly or falsely just as we say truly or falsely.
Why do we take our sentences so much more seriously than our behavior? Perhaps because we know that what we think governs what we do. That’s true.
But think about that truth backwards: what we do comes from what we think. If we are not serious about accurately yielding to Him can we really say that we are truly serious about accurately reasoning about Him? The eternal Logos is a majestic Person who we want to know faithfully and live intimately. I realize we don’t usually live about it that way, but it’s something to think about.
Let’s be courageous to speak accurately about Christ when Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on our door. Let’s also be committed to act like Christ with our family once the door is shut.
Father, forgive us for not killing our fleshly desires and then living in the Spirit in our flesh. Forgive us for love, joy, peace, and patience that live on paper rather than in person. Forgive us for thinking that our living isn’t as important as our thinking, and for being proud about our thinking that obviously isn’t as good as we thought. Forgive us for not confessing all our sins, especially the ones everyone else see.
Unbelief as sin justifies God’s judgment because it is an affront to Him. Unbelief goes about as if He weren’t trustworthy, as if His demonstrations were insufficient, and as if His commands were optional. Not only does unbelief deserve God’s wrath, unbelief also damages our witness and worship.
Unbelief torpedos our courage to witness. If I don’t believe that eating fruits and vegetables will help me be healthy, then I won’t eat them and I’m likely to be silent about their benefits in conversation. Worse, if I don’t believe that in Christ is life and that abiding in Him produces fruit, I will not be fruitful or faithful to call others to Christ. Unbelief blows a hole in the boldness tank and we will not acknowledge Him before men (Matthew 10:32-33) if our faith is empty.
Unbelief also bankrupts our convictions for worship. I will not praise what I do not prize, and I will not prize something I’m suspicious about. I will have no confidence to sing if I’m uncertain of His ability to come through or unsure that He is who He says He is. Doubt siphons off our confidence for worship until our faith is belly up.
“Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). We sin when we do not believe, we cannot please Him without faith, and our unbelief cuts off our courage and convictions. Disbelief isn’t something to play with, it’s something to confess as sin.
We usually think about (our) wrath-deserving sin as transgression, as leaping over the fence He forbids us from jumping. Our spiritual death certainly activates transgressions (see Ephesians 2:1), but our spiritual death also animates unbelief. Unbelief is no less a wrath-deserving sin.
Unbelief deserves wrath because, whether we would say it like this or not, unbelief questions God’s honesty, His trustworthiness. God never lies (Titus 1:2) and He never fails to fulfill His promises (Romans 11:29). I don’t appreciate when my kids don’t believe me, but how much more wrong is it to doubt God?
Unbelief also warrants judgment in light of the many evidences God has given. He graciously substantiates His claims, even to us doubting Thomases. “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27). He provides many proofs of His believability and men will be judged according to the revelation they’ve disbelieved.
The sin of unbelief also earns wrath as direct disobedience to the commands to believe. Faith is important because it is necessary for salvation. But faith is also imperative, so it is necessary for obedience. Disbelief is disobedience.
We who call ourselves believers, who profess faith, cannot let our belief slump or slip or wane. God still is trustworthy, He still manifests sign upon sign, and He still commands us to believe.
A key word for Christians is the word offense. It scales from annoyance, to resentment, to anger brought about by perceived insult or disregard. Proverbs 18:19 states, “A brother offended is more unyielding (harder to be won – KJV) than a strong city.” That doesn’t mean that it is entirely impossible, but it means that we could have avoided a lot of work for ourselves by avoiding offense in the first place. Unlike construction, if we measure twice in our relationships we might not make a cut at all.
One of the worst offenses is claiming that one did not cause an offense when one in fact did. Not owning one’s offense is offensive. That sort of denial adds lying to the original offense and ups the offense by treating the other person as if they’re crazy for acting offended. It adds insult to injury.
The most offensive offense is claiming to God that one has no offenses to confess. Not only does that add lying to the list of sins requiring confession, it also adds blasphemy to the list because it’s equal to calling God a liar. “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar” (1 John 1:10). That sort of offensive insult injures the insult-maker most.
The good news is that there is forgiveness for all our offenses if we confess them. God even promises to work in our hearts and cleanse the offense making factory, but we must come to Christ.