We live in an age hostile to correction. “No” has become a four-letter word in the modern vernacular. Our non-Christian friends don’t want to be told their unbelief warrants God’s judgment. That’s to be expected. But often our Christian friends don’t want to be corrected, either. And that’s sad, because a rebuke can be good for the soul. “The wise of heart,” says Solomon, “will receive correction” (Proverbs 10:8).
So how do you know when to correct a brother or sister in Christ? “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs. 15:23). How do we know when to give that word? Thankfully, Scripture provides a trustworthy answer. It tells us when to correct and when to overlook.
When to Correct
Correct when the Salvation of a brother or sister is in question.
When you see a brother or sister persisting in a pattern of unbelief, a pattern that calls into question the genuineness of his profession of faith, you should speak up. It is your word of exhortation that the Holy Spirit may use to soften your sister’s heart, lead her into an attitude of repentance, and spare her from God’s wrath.
Jesus taught us to correct one another because he understood the danger of unrepentant sin. In Matthew 18:15-18 he carefully lays out a process of correcting a brother whose sinned against another brother. Jesus doesn’t reveal the nature of the sin. However, he makes it quite clear that if the sinner doesn’t repent of that sin, he shouldn’t be treated as a brother or sister in Christ. But how will this sinner come to realize his fault? He needs a word of correction. Jesus tells us to confront the sinner individually (v. 15). If the sinner’s heart remains hard, a few others should offer the corrective word (v. 16). And if that doesn’t work, Jesus indicates that the entire church must get involved (v. 18).
Many other places in the New Testament speak to the value of correction. James commands us to warn brothers wandering away from the faith (James 5:19-20). Paul tells us to caution those who ignore his teaching (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). It’s a loving thing to point out the sin in the life of a brother or sister.
However, before you correct your brother or sister, work through the following questions:
1. Have you observed the sin?
2. Can you point out, from Scripture, how your brother or sister is sinning?
3. Has a pattern of sin developed?
4. Is the honor of Christ or the clarity of the gospel at stake?
When to overlook
However, a word of caution is in order. There are times where no response is the best response. We must keep in mind that the Christian response to sin is, at times, silence. This refusal to correct can be an act of grace that points people to the gospel. When we overlook another’s sin we are lovingly modelling for them the mercy and patience that we ourselves have received from God.
Consider overlooking the sin of another Christian if you can answer yes to any of the following questions:
1. Is the scope of offense the small, limited to you?
2. Have you failed to repent of sin in your own life?
3. Is your motive the humiliation of your brother or sister?
4. Could your silence speak louder than a word of correction?
“Sweet words,” wrote the seventeenth-century poet, Anne Bradstreet, “are like honey, a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach.”
Christians know this. Our words of correction can be very sweet—the very thing God uses to renew the faith of weary saints. But our words can be unhelpful and hurtful, too. We need wisdom to know when to correct and when to overlook.