Talkative Fools

I don’t know why it has taken me so long, but I am finally reading the complete and unabridged version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrims’s Progress (I have read various abridged versions before). It is one of many classics available free for the Kindle, or elsewhere online, though I am reading a print version.

Yesterday I came across a passage that was particularly striking to me, given a conversation I had Thursday evening with a group of college students that are reading through The Reason for God with me. We were talking about nominal Christians; those who are Christians in name only, but whose actions and words harm the witness of true Christians. In Keller’s book, he mentions the need for believers to stand up and speak out against those who would speak on behalf of Christ when they are not living in accordance with what the Bible requires of Christians.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian commends his friend Faithful, who has just spoken clearly and forcefully to a man named Talkative, who has a reputation for duplicity. To strangers, he is charming, and in public, he seems a model believer. In private, however, he is deceitful in his business and family relationships. He is a hypocrite through and through, like many in our churches today.

Today, as in Bunyan’s 17th century, these type of “Christians” turn many people away from the Gospel. Those who genuinely seek truth are confused by mixed messages coming from within the Church. The apostle Paul writes that, while we are not to judge those outside the church, we are to judge and hold accountable those who bear the title “Christian”. In fact, we are to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). Church discipline is difficult, but it is an act of love, done with the intention of bringing the offender to repentance (1 Corinthians 5:5).

With that in mind, listen to Christian’s commendation:

You did well to talk so plainly to him as you did, there is but little of this faithful dealing with men nowadays, and that makes religion to stink so in the nostrils of many as it doth; for they are these talkative fools whose religion is only in word, and are debauched and vain in their conversation, that (being so much admitted into the fellowship of the godly) do puzzle the world, blemish Christianity, and grieve the sincere. I wish that all men would deal with such as you have done, then should they either be made more conformable to religion, or the company of saints would be too hot for them.

Amen! These are words to live by today.

For more on church discipline, I highly recommend Jonathan Leeman’s book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (my review).

Anatomy of a Rebuke, Part 4

Start with Part I

Today I want to turn our attention away from the “externals” (what is a rebuke, who can give one, how harsh can they be, etc.) and look at something a little less tangible. What should be the motive for making a stern rebuke? It’s an important question, because, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, it doesn’t matter how “correct” someone might be if he speaks with a wrong motive. As I see it, there are three primary motives for delivering a pastoral rebuke in a biblical manner.

Expose a False Message

For the safety of the sheep, a shepherd must be able and willing to refute false teaching (Titus 1:9). As the man responsible for presenting his congregation as a pure bride for Christ, a pastor must feel a “divine jealousy” for his people (1 Corinthians 11:1-4). If he fears that they are being led astray by false doctrine, he has an obligation to expose the false message, and the wolves who’ve brought it into the flock.

Lovingly Correct

Not all love is pleasant. Sometimes the most loving thing someone can do is to correct another person’s error, such as Paul did when he confronted Peter about his hypocrisy. However, this correction should be done with gentleness and love. The Bible is quite clear on this matter. When Paul defended his ministry to the Corinthians, he did it with gentleness (2 Corinthians 10:1). He taught that pastors should correct their opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:25). Peter likewise taught that we respond to opponents with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Incidentally, we can see by now that the triune God is fully active in a truly biblical rebuke. God the Father is the supreme judge, and humans judge only based on His delegated authority. Scripture, which is Christ’s Word, is the means by which we correct others (1 Timothy 3:16). And correction is to be done with gentleness — a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Draw to Repentance

If someone has mistakenly placed his eternal security in a false gospel, a firm rebuke or a prophetic proclamation of God’s judgment may be God’s means of granting a lost sinner repentance and genuine salvation. We see this in Scripture in 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:20, and 2 Timothy 2:25-26.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Does every rebuke need to have all three of these motives? Perhaps to some degree, but I believe the counsel of Scripture is that no one response is suitable for every situation. We must exercise discernment, trusting that the Holy Spirit will show us what to say. In the words of Jesus, we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Paul said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6). Despite the Bible’s exhortation of gentleness, we read as well that sometimes our speech should be a little salty.

Most of the time, a pastor (or any other Christian) is in the position of encouraging and/or correcting those who look to him for guidance, whether they are a part of his congregation, a Christian from another fold, or an unbeliever. These situations call for patience, grace, and gentleness. As we saw earlier this week, though, the harshest words in Scripture are reserved for those who have set themselves up as teachers of God’s Word, yet who teach a false gospel.

While a rebuke of a false teacher should still ultimately have that teacher’s repentance in mind, there is a greater sense of urgency. A teacher’s sin affects not only himself, but many others as well. Accordingly, he will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1). When a false teacher is leading others astray, the time for gentleness has passed. People must be warned about error in the strongest terms, as John MacArthur explains here:

Back to John and Joel

As this whole discussion was started because of a rebuke and condemnation of Joel Osteen by John MacArthur, it is probably fitting that we see whether this particular rebuke fits the description I’ve been setting out as a biblically warranted response to Osteen’s preaching. I’ll do that in the next and last post in this series.

First, though, I’d like to say a few personal thoughts about Dr. MacArthur. As many who know me well could attest, I’m by no means a John MacArthur apologist. I disagree with him on some doctrinal issues, and I think that on occasion he comes across as intentionally and unnecessarily hostile toward brothers in Christ, often berating them on what I would consider secondary issues (for instance, on eschatology).

That said, I also have great respect for the man, and am very thankful for his ministry and faithful preaching. On most occasions, I believe he models gracious and gentle instruction and correction better than most anyone else. On top of this, God has blessed him with a platform for reaching many, which very few pastors attain. Most notably, MacArthur has appeared numerous times on Larry King’s television program, speaking truth to many who might otherwise never hear it. Let me point you to just a few clips that I believe demonstrate firm, but gentle, defense of the Christian faith that is motivated by the desire to see many repent and believe.

In this clip, MacArthur explains to a young man (and a national TV audience) what the Bible teaches about sin and its consequences. Chances are that young man will never agree with him, but there is no denying the gentleness with which he was corrected. God may perhaps grant him a repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.

On another occasion, MacArthur participated in a debate called “Who Is Jesus”, which primarily included people who really don’t have an answer to that question. MacArthur held firm to what I would affirm is the Bible’s position, yet his speech was always gracious, seasoned with salt. You can see the first of three videos from this debate here, and will find links to the remaining videos there.

And, to whet your appetite for what I’ll say about Joel Osteen next time, take a look at what he did given the same platform as John MacArthur, appearing on Larry King Live (Part 1 and Part 2).

Last but not least, here’s an excellent sermon/conference talk by Mark Driscoll (who is, ironically, an example of someone John MacArthur has rebuked on multiple occasions, sometimes overstepping the bounds of necessity, in my opinion) on the use of harsh and cutting language. It’s long, but well worth it when you have the time:

Anatomy of a Rebuke, Part 3

Start with Part 1

So far this week, we’ve seen that rebuking is a normal and necessary part of the Christian life, and that sometimes rebukes — especially those of false teachers — must resort to harsh and cutting language. The next question to answer, then, is whether Christians have the authority to go so far in a rebuke as to tell another professing believer — even a supposedly Christian pastor — that his message is Satanic and he is going to Hell. This is where it starts getting dicey!

The Message or the Messenger?

Jesus called people “evil” or some variation of “Satanic” or “of the devil” on multiple occasions. Was he referring to something specific they’d said, or was he actually passing judgment on their souls? Let’s take a look.

Matthew 7:11 — In the sermon on the mount, Jesus told his listeners they were “evil”. Here he was referring to the fallen nature that afflicts all people everywhere. We are all born “evil” and in need of God’s miraculous intervention for our salvation, but this is by no means a final judgment of Jesus’ hearers. Many of those “evil” people would go on to become believers.

Matthew 12:33-37 — This time, Jesus is responding to accusations by the Pharisees, and calls them “evil”. Here, he goes farther than a general acknowledgment of human sinfulness, telling them that they are rotten to the core, judging by the things they say. He is still not making a “final” judgment concerning their eternal destination, though he does make a connection to the “day of judgment”, letting them know that their current course has them on the fast track to Hell.

John 8:44 — Speaking again to Pharisees, he turns up the heat, telling them flat out that they are not children of God but of the devil. Shortly thereafter, they tried to stone him, and when that didn’t work, they began plotting his murder.

John 6:70 — Jesus tells his disciples that one of them “is a devil”. He was speaking here of Judas, whose coming betrayal was both Satanic (Luke 22:3) and a fulfillment of Scriptural prophecy (John 17:12).

Mark 8:33 — As we saw yesterday, Jesus rebuked Peter and the disciples by saying “Get behind me, Satan!” Here he is not saying that the disciples are themselves Satanic, but that the message about Jesus they were all thinking and that Peter had spoken was a Satanic lie.

So from this short survey we see that Jesus used similar language for several different purposes: to bring conviction of sin to a congregation, to rebuke a false message from a Godly teacher, to rebuke falsehood from false teachers, and to identify someone who was literally an agent of Satan. At the very least, it appears that saying that people and teachings are of the devil is not forbidden.

Interestingly, Jesus was himself accused of being possessed by Satan (see Mark 3:22). Accusations of heresy being flung about by professing believers of different theological persuasions is nothing new, but obviously, not all accusations are created equal!

Apostolic Authority

Just because Jesus said things doesn’t mean everyone can. He is God, after all. But we also see those He appointed as apostles speaking with similar authority.

1 John 3:18 — The apostle John writes, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil”. He is not just condemning individual sins here. He is saying that those whose lives are marked by continual, unrepentant sin are servants of Satan. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily stay that way, but they are certainly lost right now.

Jude 4 — Jesus’ brother speaks about false teachers within the church who are “ungodly people” preaching a perversion of God’s grace.

James 4:16 — Another of Jesus’ brothers — who, by the way, at one point believed Jesus to be crazy (Mark 3:21) and did not believe in him (John 7:5) — told people who thought too much of themselves that they were arrogant and evil.

Acts 5:3 — Peter told Ananias (a professing believer and by all appearances a generous tither) that it was Satan, and not the Holy Spirit, that had filled his heart… at which point Ananias died, followed soon thereafter by his wife who was guilty of the same Satanic deception.

Acts 13:10 — Paul called a false teacher “son of the devil”.

1 Corinthians 5:5 — Paul commanded the church in Corinth to “deliver… to Satan” a man in the church who was living openly in sexual sin. By this, he meant to remove this person from the church, and make sure he knew that his actions were evidence that he belonged to Satan and not to God, in the hopes that he might eventually come to repentance and salvation.

1 Timothy 1:20 — Similarly, here Paul tells of two false teachers within the church whom he had personally “handed over to Satan”.

The Church’s Authority

Of course, the apostles in the first century had specially designated authority that we do not have today. Jesus gave them the power to perform miraculous signs and wonders so that people would know they spoke for God. Did they alone have the authority to pronounce a sentence of judgment or level a charge of heresy, or are all Christians empowered to do so?

1 Corinthians 5:5 — Right off the bat, from the example shown above, we see that Paul is commanding the church to deliver a man to Satan, not anyone with special apostolic authority.

1 John 3:10 — John was writing to churches, not to other apostles, when he said that it was “evident… who are the children of the devil”. Those who abide in Christ and have his Word abiding in them will be granted the discernment through the Holy Spirit to know whether someone is a child of the devil based on the evidence of his actions.

Titus 1:9 — When instructing his coworker how to appoint pastors, Paul told Titus that men who would lead must be able not only to teach sound doctrine but to recognize and rebuke those who contradict it. He reinforced this later in his letter when he said to “rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” (see Titus 2:15)

These letters to the ancient church are the same ones we use today to understand the role and authority of the local church, the qualified pastor/elder, and the individual Christian.

Biggest Qualifier

Still, it is a fearful thing to pronounce judgment on a man, or to accuse him of heresy. It is clear that the authority to rebuke and judge is given to Christians, but we must always keep in mind the one single criterion that allows us to make these judgments.

God has NOT given us our own authority to judge. He has given us HIS authority, and we may only pronounce or proclaim judgments which God has already made. We may not speak where He has not spoken. If we are going to tell someone that he is “of the devil” or that that his message is Satanic, we had better be prepared to prove it based on the authority of Scripture. Good doctrine, as often as bad, is condemned as heresy. The only way to be sure that we speak with God’s authority is to have, as Martin Luther had, a conscience “captive to the Word of God.” We can do no other.

For further reading on this difficult subject, check out The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love by Jonathan Leeman.

Proceed to Part 4

Anatomy of a Rebuke, Part 2

Start with Part 1

Picking up where we left off yesterday, where do we begin to draw the line between the type of rebuking the Bible tells us we ought to do and the kind of judging which Jesus told us not to do? Let’s start by looking at some examples of rebukes given in the Bible.

Old Testament Rebukes

Out of fear, Abraham had sinfully allowed his wife Sarah to be taken into the harem of Abimelech, the king of Gerar. God intervened, however, and prevented the king from touching Sarah. Abimelech then rightly rebuked Abraham for this sin, which had potentially placed an entire nation in jeopardy. God ultimately worked through this encounter to bless both Abraham and the king. (see Genesis 20)

King David, who had been blessed by God with power, wealth, and abundance of every kind, committed adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers who’d been deployed in battle, and then plotted to have him killed so he could marry her to cover up his sin once she became pregnant. God spoke to the prophet Nathan, who delivered a very crafty rebuke to the king. David acknowledged and repented of his sin, but still had to pay the earthly consequences. (see 2 Samuel 12)

New Testament Rebukes

When Jesus taught his disciples that He must suffer and die, Peter expressed what was on the minds of all the disciples by telling Jesus that couldn’t possibly be true. Jesus looked at all the disciples (knowing it was not just Peter who was thinking that) and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” He followed this rebuke with a lesson (always Jesus’ pattern) about what it meant to be his follower. (see Matthew 16:21-28 and Mark 8:31-38)

Speaking of Peter… in the early life of the Church, Peter was one of the first men to teach that salvation was available to Gentiles as well as to Jews (see Acts 10:9-48). Later, however, he was guilty of hypocrisy when he allowed certain men from the circumcision party (Jewish believers who thought Gentiles must be circumcised and “live like Jews” in order to be saved) to persuade him to withdraw from fellowship with Gentile believers. Paul “opposed him to his face” because his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (see Galatians 2:11-14). Like Christ, Paul goes on to turn this into a teaching moment for the Galatians, who’d been taken in by similar false teaching.

Harshest Words Reserved for Teachers

So far, all of these examples have been rebukes of godly men who were guilty of sin and needed to be corrected. Of all the instances of rebuke we see in Scripture, though, the harshest and most cutting were reserved for false teachers, who abused or misrepresented God’s Word and led others astray.

Jesus was certainly not afraid to use forceful, blunt language. He saved his most abrasive language for false teachers. He called them “vipers” on several occasions (saying they were “evil” in Matthew 12:34 and bound for hell in Matthew 23:33), “whitewashed tombs” that looked nice on the outside but were rotten on the inside (Matthew 23:27), sons of Satan (John 8:44), and so forth.

Paul was similarly willing to call out false teachers. In Acts 13:10 he addressed a false prophet “you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy”. In 2 Corinthians 11, he tells the church in Corinth that the men who have been preaching to them are deceitful men disguising themselves as servants of righteousness because they are the servants of Satan. Most of the letter to the Galatians is used to point out the flaws of false teachers they’ve listened to. He tells the congregation that they are fools for listening to the false message, and tells the false teachers to castrate themselves.

This brings us back to the specific instance of rebuke which sparked this discussion. Some have felt that John MacArthur’s tone and language was too harsh when he spoke about Joel Osteen. But as we have seen here, harsh words have their place. This still leaves us with a few questions, though. Did MacArthur overstep his authority when he essentially called Osteen “Satanic”? Did he say anything untrue? Or with a wrong motive? Is Osteen really a false teacher?

Hopefully we’ll find answers to these questions as well later this week.

Proceed to Part 3

Anatomy of a Rebuke, Part 1

Last week I posted video of a stern, pointed rebuke of Joel Osteen by John MacArthur. Based on comments on this blog and others which have posted the same video, it seems that there are many people who question whether it is okay for one pastor to rebuke and/or pronounce judgment upon another. The reasoning seems to be that since Jesus said we should not judge others (Matthew 7:1), that what MacArthur did is inappropriate, or if nothing else, at least the manner in which he issued the rebuke was harsher than necessary (see Matthew 7:2).

John MacArthur certainly doesn’t need me to come to his defense, so I’m not going to. What I would like to do, though, is take this opportunity to look at Scripture to see what the Bible says about rebuking and judging others. Is there difference between a “rebuke” and “judgment”? If so, which was MacArthur doing? Is there Scriptural support for what he said and how he said it? These are just some of the questions I’ll address this week. Today, we’ll just look at some general definitions and observations.

Christians Are to Rebuke

Whatever one might feel about MacArthur’s tirade against Osteen, hopefully we can all agree that, whatever a “rebuke” is, the Bible says that Christians are to do it, at least in some instances.

The Psalmist writes that the rebuke of a righteous man is a kindness, “it is oil for my head” (Psalm 141:5). Many proverbs teach that a rebuke is something by which wise men profit, and is a way for a friend to demonstrate love (Proverbs 17:10, Proverbs 27:5-6, Proverbs 28:23, Ecclesiastes 7:5). Jesus both rebuked his disciples (Mark 16:14) and told them to rebuke those who sin (Luke 17:3). Paul instructed young pastors Timothy and Titus to be ready to rebuke others “in the presence of all”, “sharply”, “with patience”, “with teaching”, and “with all authority” (1 Timothy 5:20, 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 1:13, Titus 2:15). The ability to deliver a rebuke to those who contradict sound doctrine is a criterion for selection as an elder (Titus 1:9).

Of course, there are also instances in Scripture when Jesus was upset that his disciples had rebuked others (Mark 10:13-15), so a rebuke is obviously not always an appropriate response. Still, we have to acknowledge that there are appropriate times for and forms of rebuke.

So what is a rebuke?

Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines rebuke in terms of Scripture as “chastisement, punishment; affliction for the purpose of restraint and correction”. A rebuke, if it is to be biblical, must be done out of love for the one being rebuked and/or those affected by his sin, with the purpose of restraint and correction of sin.

Judgment vs. Judgments

What about judgment? It’s true that Jesus said that we shouldn’t judge, and that God alone is the righteous judge. But does this mean that there is no judging role allotted to Christians at all? In other words, is there a difference between FINAL judgment, which belongs to God alone, and individual judgments concerning someone’s eternal destination which Christians ARE able to pronounce?

We’ll flesh this question out more later this week, but for now I think the short answer has to be “yes”. Take, for instance, an Islamic imam. Are Christians qualified to pronounce judgment on him? Can we say that his message is false, and that he and his followers are going to Hell if they do not repent and believe in Christ, or can God alone make that judgment?

Every time a Christian says that those who do not repent of their sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will spend eternity in Hell, we make this type of judgment. Professing Christians who are not universalists make this sort of judgment all the time, and I believe that the Bible is clear that this is one of the primary obligations for pastors.

What remains to be seen, then, is where we draw the line between prophetically pronouncing judgment upon lost sinners on the authority of Scripture, and the type of judging which is reserved for God alone. We’ll pick it up there next time.

Proceed to Part 2

James 4:17 is Kicking My Butt Again

How often do we hear Christians say something along the lines of, “I know I should (fill in the blank), but…”?

At church I hear this all the time. Here are some common things people say they know they should do, but for some reason feel unable or unwilling to do it:

  • read the Bible
  • pray
  • tithe
  • volunteer for service projects
  • teach Sunday school
  • attend a life group
  • learn theology
  • read good books

How about things we should do at home? This is where the conviction really starts getting unbearable for me:

  • spend more time with my kids
  • pray with my family
  • lead a family Bible study
  • take out the trash
  • do the dishes
  • finish a project
  • turn off the TV
  • protect my children’s time
  • date my spouse

“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” ~ James 4:17

Why do we insist on making excuses for not doing the things we know we ought to do? When we fail to read our Bibles or prioritize our families, we are not merely failing to be as good as we could be. We are rejecting the life Christ died to give us, choosing instead to crawl back to our old master and submit once again to his yoke of slavery.

Thank God, Jesus died for sins of omission as well.

The Difficult Doctrine of Discipline

Augustine on confronting the sins of others:

We should never undertake the task of chiding another’s sin unless, cross-examining our own conscience, we can assure ourselves, before God, that we are acting from love. If reproaches or threats or injuries, voiced by the one you are calling to account, have wounded your spirit, then, for that person to be healed by you, you must not speak till you are healed yourself, lest you act from worldly motives, to hurt, and make your tongue a sinful weapon of evil, returning wrong for wrong, curse for curse. Whatever you speak out of a wounded spirit is the wrath of an avenger, not the love of an instructor… And if, as often happens, you begin some course of action from love, and are proceeding with it in love, but a different feeling insinuates itself because you are resisted, deflecting you from reproach of a man’s sin and making you attack the man itself — it were best, while watering the dust with your tears, to remember that we have no right to crow over another’s sin, since we sin in the very reproach of sin if anger at sin is better at making us sinners than mercy is at making us kind.

~From Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, cited in Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline