20 February 2012

Reprove, Rebuke, Exhort

by Phil Johnson

aul's instructions to Timothy (in 2 Timothy 4) include these imperatives: "reprove, rebuke . . . exhort" (2 Timothy 4:2). That's three successive words in the Greek text, each with a slightly different nuance.

The first, translated "reprove," carries the connotation of telling people that they are wrong, or that they have done something wrong. It has the idea of "reproach," "a rebuke," or the refutation of falsehood. As such it's a negative idea—and it's an idea that is definitely "out of season" in these postmodern times. But it's one of the key aspects of every elder's duty. If you try never to tell people they are wrong, you are not fulfilling the responsibility Paul names here.

Then there's the verb "rebuke." This is a stronger word yet. It denotes an expression of strong disapproval—a denunciation, or even a formal censure. Paul regards it as Timothy's bounden duty not only to expose and refute error, sin, and false teaching, but also to denounce each appearance of those things clearly, identifying it as the evil that it truly is.

I am frankly amazed and appalled at how many pastors today deliberately shirk this duty. "It's not for me to criticize what other people are teaching. I just want to be always positive, and we'll let truth and error sort themselves out." But if you try to do that, you are not fulfilling the responsibility Paul positively assigns to every faithful minister, both here, and in Titus 1:9, where he emphatically makes this same duty the responsibility of every elder in the church: "He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it."

Titus 1:13 says some people need to be rebuked "sharply, [so] that they may be sound in the faith." In fact, when Paul gives this same charge to Titus, he words it as strongly as possible: "Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you."

That jars every postmodern sensibility, doesn't it? But it is a crucial aspect of the pastoral calling. No one is a faithful shepherd who refuses to deal decisively with dangers that threaten the flock.

Lest anyone think this is a prescription for angry-sounding hyper-fundamentalists, notice that there's an important qualification attached to this command: "exhort, with complete patience and teaching." The verb (exhort) is parakaleo; the same word translated "preaching" in the King James Version of 1 Timothy 4:13. It's a sweet word, closely related to parakletos, the name Jesus used to speak of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. It's used 29 times in the New Testament, and the first time it appears is in reference to Jesus, in Luke 2:25, where Christ is referred to as "the consolation [parakaleo], of Israel."

The expression conveys the ideas of encouragement, comfort, refreshment, solace—all in the form of a gentle entreaty, a verbal summons, a tender exhortation. That's the heart of biblical preaching.

And the purpose and the aim of all this—the rebukes as well as the encouragements—is for the good of the hearers—never their hurt. Preaching is a guide and a corrective and a feast and a salve—to edify or sometimes to heal the flock.

Preaching is not a cudgel with which to beat the sheep. So it must always be done "with complete patience and teaching." That echoes what Paul said two chapters earlier, 2 Timothy 2:25: "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth."

Paul is calling for every possible demonstration of patience, kindness, magnanimity, and longsuffering. People will not be won to the truth by relentless scolding. If your rebukes and corrections are flavored with exasperation rather than true concern for the flock; if you deal out reproach after reproach and upbraiding after upbraiding without a true spirit of gentleness, you're not being a true shepherd.

However: in these postmodern times, it is commonly thought that "gentleness" excludes every kind of rebuke or correction—especially the sharp rebuke. But it's clear that Paul saw no necessary contradiction between gentleness and firm rebuke. That has to be our perspective as well, or we will never be up to the simple yet far-reaching task Paul lays on our shoulders here.

Phil's signature


Eddie Eddings said...

Phil, thanks for this "in season" post! I have been praying about confronting a fellow believer who uses vulgar language and posts such things on Facebook.
This came at the right time.

Sean Rice said...

Good post, but the Schueller and Olsteen graphics keep the point from hitting home. I had to ignore an impulse that kept telling me "I'm not like Olsteen, this post must not have been written for someone like me!" The pictures make it seem like you're talking to someone who is Schueller-like in their denial of the hard truths of Scripture, rather than the average Sunday school teacher who needs to be given a reminder to preach those hard truths without reservation.

Bishop55 said...
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Tim Bertolet said...


Serious question. How do you decide which wrong doctrines to rebuke and when?

Obviously if its coming up in my congregation, then yes, it needs to be addressed.

But something that I've always wrestled with is to what extent do I, as a pastor deal with stuff 'out there.'

Two-thirds of my small congregation is old enough to be my parents or grandparents, with more of them in the latter category. Most of them are not spending lots of time surfing the internet. They have no idea say for example about internet controversies that come up in 'young, restless and reformed' circles such as the "Elephant room" debacle.

At times introducing them to problems that will have little impact on them just to refute them seems counter productive. Do they need an inoculation shot against a virus they won't come into contact with? [now if I was teaching on the Trinity, I might provide examples of modalism and its dangers]

The issue for me is when and how can we be discerning on what to address and when to address it. Obviously some of this depends on the congregation. But do you have any questions you filter something through before you decide if/how to address it?


stratagem said...

Not only do pastors mostly shirk this duty, most of them I've known will state (in their more honest moments) that if someone in the pews is reproving, exhorting, or rebuking, they'd prefer that person leave. Even if they can't argue with what the person is rebuking about.

donsands said...

Excellent teaching of truth. And it needs to be heard in our culture big time.
My local radio "Chistian" station has actually labeled itself "The Positive Radio Station". Sad.

I used to share the truth with them, but the manager, who actaully likes me, said that every time I'd sens an e-mail the others would cringe.
It's sad that this positive spirit in the Body of Christ is causing "cringing" when one shares the truth of the "bad news" for sinners from a holy righteous God.

Thanks for the excellent post.
You words were perfect. You're a fine teacher Phil, and how I appreciate your posts; as I do all of the Team Pyro Three Amigos.

stratagem said...

donsands - I can so relate to that. We used ot have local stations but now everything has been taken over by the "positive and encouraging" network. Because if something's popular and marketable, then it must be true.

I used to joke something like "I wonder how they make "you might be going to Hell" positive and encouraging? Now I just don't listen to "christian" radio.

dac said...

Tim B. has identified exactly the crux of the matter. Because just as surely as some will not take a stand on any issue, some will take a stand on every issue.

donsands said...

"Now I just don't listen to "christian" radio."-strat

I listen less. The music is all positive, for the most part as well. And it's pop-culture "new wave" sounding, for the most aprt as well. And music-style is what it is:-- but the heart behind much of the music today is the Osteen heart and the Schuller heart of Possibilty and positive thinking. It really is shallow and worthless in some ways.

I keep on listening, and I keep sharing the whole truth when I can. I am the one being "rebuked" at times though. For having such a "negative" and judgmental attitude.

There are human souls suffering in torment, and it should be all human souls really. "But God ..." Eph. 2:8

ps And there IS the positive side which I love as well. In fact I seem to be mostly postive, or used to be at least, until I have been having problems with a few issues in my life.

Darlene said...

Mr Johnson,

What an excellent reminder for all who have the task of preaching. I appreciate the balance in your presentation.

I've become convinced that preaching must be of a hortatory nature. The hearers should be impelled to some kind of action after hearing a sermon. One must be left with some sense of urgency to meditate on what has been preached, in order to amend one's life. There have been times when after hearing such a sermon, I have been brought to repentance. Other times I have been compelled to investigate a particular doctrine, or to examine my heart to see if I am captured by a deadly passion, or to inquire into the needs of others. These kind of sermons have been instrumental in my spiritual growth.

Conversely, I have suffered under the preaching of sermons so distressing that my heart ached afterward to the point of overwhelming dejection for a time. I ached for those who had no idea that what was preached had no relation to genuine Christianity whatsoever. I ached for those who would be deceived into a nonchalant attitude toward sin.

Yet even more I must guard my heart that I not be deluded by those things which cling so closely and vie for my attention away from Christ my Savior.

Anonymous said...


stratagem said...

donsands - I hear you bro. I run into people who honestly think that, besides the salvation message, being positive about everything is the essence of the Christian message. And K-love only reinforces that. After all, "God has a wonderful plan for your life..." ...that's in the Bible isn't it? (snicker) So, everything ought to be positive and encouraging, and I ought to be happy and get what I want that will make me happy. Sometimes that means I have to hurt other people to get what makes me happy but surely that's what God wants, isn't it, my happiness?

I find the music to be mostly benign, but some of it contains stuff that is as extrabiblical as the most fired-up charismatic tent meeting, frankly. And I have a hard time believing that that stuff is benign.

Stephen said...

For those interested in a quick google, Christian artist/worship leader Matt Papa (whom Challies has recommended) is in the middle of a currently 4 part blog series that calls out the vapidness and theologically depraved nature of most Christian radio.

On the main point, I think the problem Christian leaders have, at least those with my personality, is both anxiety and fear of stepping away from the gospel in anything and stepping into moralism or legalism. There's a place for confrontation, but it's not an easy place.

stratagem said...

I thought the point of this post was more about telling people what the true Gospel message actually is and then letting those who hear it decide how to handle the moral implications, instead of telling them that the Gospel is something that Osteen, Schuller et. al. have made it out to be, or telling them what rules to obey?
There's no real danger in that, is there?

CCinTn said...

For me the post was speaking of Paul’s instructions to Timothy in how to handle false teaching and false teachers.

I saw a dividing line where on one side you are dealing gently with the flock instructing them of the dangers posed by the false teaching. This being the reproving or refutation of error Phil mentioned which is also coupled with exhorting with patience and sound teaching. The shepherd doesn’t need to be beating on the sheep.

Then there is the manner of dealing with the actual false teacher which may require a sterner or sharp rebuke. The rebuke would be tailored to the level of the false teaching. I remember how Aquila and Pricilla took Apollos aside and taught him the whole gospel. His understanding was not as complete as it should have been and his teaching was therefore short of the mark and maybe significantly in some areas. However, you may have folks that are like the Judaizers or the early Gnostics who were treated much more harshly by Paul, John etc in scripture. I also remember Jesus commending the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2 for ‘hating’ the Nicolaitons even as He hates the Nicolaitons. I’m sure that their hating went beyond the ‘agree to disagree’ or ignoring their teachings.

I think a perfect example of reproving and rebuking is in the sermon where John MacArthur speaks about John Olsteen. He has sharp words for Olsteen while gently exhorting his flock of the errors of Olsteen’s teachings. One can only assume that there are some in his congregation that either have read Olsteen’s books or heard him on television and may not understand the heresy he teaches. You can find the video of this sermon online and it’s a wonderful example of how an under-shepherd is to protect his flock and expose a false teacher.

I pray that more pastors/elders will have such courage as the days we are in are becoming increasing dark.

Darlene said...

"I also remember Jesus commending the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2 for 'hating' the Nicolaitons even as He hates the Nicolaitons."

CC, the actual text in Revelation says "you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." It's an important distinction, I think.

CCinTn said...
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CCinTn said...

You're correct on that! Big distinction.
That was off the top of my head and I should have checked the text prior to posting.
That aside though, their hating of 'the works', I think would have been of the Nicolaitons' teachings wouldn't you agree?
That said, I think the 'hating' commended by Christ went beyond a feeling. I think that they actively opposed this false heresy.

Darlene said...


Yes. I do think the hating of the works of the Nicolaitans is specifically referring to their teachings. Needless to say, such hating was more than a mere feeling. I think when we act out of dispassion in opposing false teaching, it is then that we can be especially effective.

Charlene said...

"Not only do pastors mostly shirk this duty, most of them I've known will state (in their more honest moments) that if someone in the pews is reproving, exhorting, or rebuking, they'd prefer that person leave. Even if they can't argue with what the person is rebuking about."

@ Stratagem, This is SO true. No matter how gently you say it, you are often anathema if you even suggest that something is not biblical or might be off in some regard. Everything has to be happy happy and positive and affirming or you are somehow not being gentle. The "gentle" part of that scripture is often wielded but never the "rebuke sharply" part. Excellent post, Phil.

Patrick said...

Thanks Phil for cutting it straight!

Cathy M. said...

If a pastor crosses a clear line into "another gospel" or some serious sin, I think any number of godly men in the congregation might confront him. However, it's not easy to know when someone should confront a pastor who is, say... consistently reciting downloaded sermons or wasting pulpit time blathering about current events. At what point is pastoral sloth a sin?

SamWise said...

Most of what passes for "preaching" is really "sheep beating!" For example, when a sheep hears, "Have you signed up for the latest...that our church is doing..." implies that not doing it make them "sub-Christian." Works-righteousness sermonettes really are a form of sheep abuse!

Then, there is the omnipresence of false teaching in media (old and new). When the "Man of God" teaches sound doctrine and warns about the false-doctrine most likely to be encountered, you help the sheep to be innoculated from becoming prey to wolf ("sheep lure") such as Wealth/Health, New-Age, Emergent, etc. Otherwise, your sheep will proudly bring it back to your local church anyway ("Look what gnosis I have")!

Solameanie said...

Having spent a long time in both secular and Christian radio before taking my present communications position full time, I have been amazed at the sharp decline of most Christian stations in terms of content over the past 18 years or so. And the one of the largest owners of Christian stations these days insists on "positive" for anything to air. As an apologist friend said years ago, "I'm absolutely positive about being negative." Especially when the negative is due and necessary.

donsands said...
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donsands said...

"Christian stations these days insists on "positive" for anything to air."-Sola

One other point I need to make about Christian radio is that "they" also have to make money. And so they do have to have an agenda to reach an audience, and also to reach businesses to place advertisements on their station.

So, it's probably a much broader subject than we can address here. Yet, i appreciate Phil allowing us to kick this around a bit. It's been good for me.

Another side thing is that since i listen to WRBS 95.1 Christian radio "less", I have become more involved with my local Classic Rock station, and have been able to share my faith, to a degree.

O Young said...

Excellent post, I really appreciate the fact that you brought up that we do not rebuke to exasperate someone. I for one hate conflict but it is inevitable when we have an enemy that goes around like a roaring lion. If only he were always so obvious in his attacks on the Body of Christ. To put in my 2 cents, we need to recognize who the enemy is and know that in times past he has always tried to twist the truth, he is very subtle and it is serious business dealing with him and his half truths-whole lies. We rebuke because we understand the danger of allowing these teaching to continue. That being said, our goal is always to bring a brother or sister back into the fold. So we rebuke in love in such a way as to give them a door to return.

Jason Brown said...

We want to be peaceable with everyone, as far as it depends on us, but we can't sacrifice truth on the alter of peace. That is what so many people try to do though. Matthew Henry says "If truth be once deserted, unity and peace will not last long.” It's like ER2. Sometimes you just have to stand up and point out that the emperor has no clothes. Just know that when you reprove anyone in this day and age, particularly one who serves their own appetites (Rom 16), be prepared to be reviled, no matter how gentle and respectful you are. Then you get to practice all of that stuff about suffering in a Christ honoring way that we see in 1 Peter. Great blog, by the way.

Morris Brooks said...

@Cathy M...When they have the pattern you just described.

A mark of maturity is the ability to speak the truth in love. That must start with the pastors first, as a model to the flock. Which is part of preaching with patience and instruction. The question for many pastors is, "Do you love your people enough to tell them the truth?"

As pastors we cannot live the spiritual lives of our flock for them, but we can sure model it.

Ebeth said...

Thanks, Phil. We've just finished studying 1 Timothy in Every Woman's Grace and it's more clear how difficult a pastor's work is, especially in when it comes to reproving, rebuking, exhorting, yet how necessary.