sermon delivered on July 29, 2007
by Pastor Mark Alderton
Sovereign Grace Fellowship
We continue our series on topics that affect our fellowship – our life together – and which are vital to biblical and effective fellowship that builds up the church and the individuals in it. The topic of this message is correction.
Correction is another word for adjustment or changing course. It doesn’t have to be about sin. It can be about improving something like how a team is organized or how a person plays guitar. But the focus of this message is going to be about bringing correction to the sin in our lives, about moving from sin to obedience to God.
There are many, many things that could be said about correction – about methods of correction, about the different levels of correction like counsel, reproof and rebuke, and so forth. Our focus this morning is going to be on one thing: how to give and receive correction for sin in a hopeful and grace-motivated way. We’re going to learn how to speak into one another’s lives about our sin.
Now, most of us are probably not thinking at this point, “How excellent! We’re going to talk about how to confront sin in my life. I’ve been feeling the need to have more correction. Why don’t we have a whole series on this?!”
More likely the idea of correcting one another provokes a feeling somewhere between tolerance and dread, unless you’re hoping that someone else who is hearing this will be more open to your correction after this message.
We generally don’t like correction. We like to get it over with as soon as possible and would be glad to avoid it altogether. It can seem so unfriendly and oftentimes it is brought with sinful attitudes and we respond to it in similar fashion.
Well, by God’s grace we’ll have a more favorable and faith-filled understanding of correction after this morning. Correction does not need to be a bad experience. In fact it should not be. There is a way to give and receive correction in a hopeful and grace motivated way. The Scriptures show us how.
We will look into several texts this morning to answer the question, How do we give and receive correction in a hopeful and grace-motivating way? We’ll start with affirming that 1) correction is good for us. Then we will be specific about 2) how to respond to correction and then end with 3) how to give correction.
CORRECTION IS GOOD FOR US
Hebrews 3:12-13 (we referred to this text last week related to confession, but it relates to correction as well.)
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Please notice three things from the passage.
1. It is addressed to brothers, or in other words, to the church, to believers. Therefore, it addresses a danger that believers must be aware of, or take care to avoid. What is that danger?
2. The danger is the deceitfulness of sin. Sin deceives the one doing it. A person can be blind to their own sin even though they can see sin in others. That’s why it is possible for us to see the speck in our brother’s eye, but not notice the log in our own eye (Matt. 7:3).
Or a person can be aware of their sin but not really think it is so bad or is having any significant effect on their relationship with God or others, when in fact it is. Both blindness to sin and indifference to sin show the deceptiveness of sin. It is possible to become hardened in sin and resistant to change, and that is a real danger for the believer.
How do we address the danger?
3. The text says that brothers are to exhort one another so we don’t become hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. The word exhort is often translated encourage because it has the idea building up someone else with words. In the context of sin (as in this passage) what builds up another is to help them recognize and move away from their sin. So we translate it exhort, which means we urge them toward holiness. That’s essentially what correction is. And the text says that brothers – believers – are to do this for one another.
So here is what this says about correction. Correction through other believers is good for us because it is how God delivers us from our blindness to our sin and from our indifference to our sin. When other believers speak into our lives about our sin, it puts us on a path of deliverance from that sin’s presence and from its damaging effects in our lives.
If we are blind to our sin, we need someone who isn’t blind to it to show us what they see or we’ll never know there is a problem. And if we are indifferent to our sin, we need someone who is not indifferent to it to help motivate us to change.
So correction is caring for one another. It means we love someone else too much to let them be deceived by sin and hardened in it.
Correction is like giving someone the medicine they need to get well. Sometimes the medicine doesn’t taste very good, but if it cures the disease we can bear the process.
Now, there is a sinful and unhelpful way to bring correction to others. We can make the medicine much more bitter than necessary by bringing correction with a self-righteous and critical spirit. And we can give the wrong medicine altogether by sinfully judging someone else for actions and attitudes they don’t actually have.
But we don’t throw out the practice simply because it’s been misused.
Correction is good for us; it’s how we care for one another, and we’re all called to care for one another.
But how do we do it in a hopeful and grace-motivating way? Let’s look first at our own hearts.
HOW DO WE RESPOND TO CORRECTION?
First, let’s look at how God calls us to respond to it. It is possible to respond well when someone draws attention to our sin. There is grace for that. King David gives us the biblical perspective and the biblical response in Psalm 141:5. He said…
Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it.
The fruitful and God-intended response to correction is to receive it, as in not refuse it. David knew that the correction which comes from a brother, even if it is a rebuke – a strong warning, is a kindness from God that is not to be refused. God has good purposes for the correction that comes through others.
Now, that is not to suggest that anyone’s correction is infallible and completely accurate. We aren’t infallible so our correction needs to be weighed just like any other words. But the biblical perspective of correction is to see it as a kindness from God who is using it to make us more like Christ.
Here’s how it might look to receive correction with those eyes. Suppose someone came to you with a self-righteous and critical spirit and said, “I think the way you spend your money is wasteful and needs to change.” What do you do with that?
What is a godly response?
It would look something like this. We could say, “Thank you for that observation. I certainly need to grow in a number of areas. What specifically about the way I spend my money is of concern to you? If it is unwise or sinful, I’d like to know about that.” And then you would go on to draw out that person and evaluate the validity of their concern.
They may be making a sinful judgment of you, but your immediate concern isn’t their sinful judgment, but your own sanctification. This person is God’s means of grace to you and you want to seize this opportunity to discover where you can grow and what needs to change.
That’s the response God makes possible by his grace, and the response that leads us to becoming more and more free from sin and sin’s effect. We are to receive correction as a kindness from God.
But that’s often not what happens in reality is it? There are alternatives to that response, shall we say. I want to describe two common responses to correction that fall short of God’s intention for us.
We’ll call the first response resist. We resist correction.
Perhaps you can relate to this scenario, which has played out in my life many times.
Bill points out a sinful attitude he sees in Joe. (Any resemblance of this scenario to any real Bills or Joes here is completely unintentional!) Bill says to Joe, “You seemed impatient when you were talking to that person.” And Joe’s heart immediately begins looking for ways to challenge that observation. He says, “No, I was just in a hurry, trying to make the most of my time. I needed to get going. I had to be more brief and directive or I would have been late.”
Bill says, “I don’t think brief and directive quite hits the mark. It sounded more harsh and demanding.” Now Joe’s heart begins to cool toward Bill, who didn’t immediately recognize Joe’s innocence, and he begins to judge Bill in his heart.
He’s thinking, “Bill’s wrong here. He’s judging me. He’s got issues. He’s the one in need of correction here.” And Joe takes offense at Bill.
What’s going on there? Joe is resisting correction because he’s proud. He will not believe that he has done anything wrong here. He is deceived and blind to his own sin. And he obviously isn’t looking at Bill’s correction as a kindness from God.
There’s another major category of response to correction, which looks somewhat the opposite. That is to despair. It looks like this…
Jane brings a correction to Julie (again, these characters are entirely fictional). She says to her, “I think you may have slandered your small group leader at the meeting.” Julie is obviously very discouraged by this comment. Her countenance falls. She looks like she might cry. She feels condemned and wonders if anyone else noticed. Her unspoken thought is, “I’m a failure. I never say things right. Everyone can see it. I want to hide.”
Julie despairs when she’s corrected. She doesn’t see correction as the kindness of God or a path to being free from sin. She sees it only as a reminder of how far short she continually falls. She can’t bear to be corrected.
Resist or despair – two common responses to correction. Can you relate to Joe or Julie? I can relate to both.
But how do we move from resisting or despairing to receiving correction as a kindness from God? Is there real hope for change? Yes there is, and that hope comes from the gospel.
Here’s the root problem in both of those wrong responses to correction: We resist correction or we despair when corrected whenever we hope in our own righteousness instead of in Christ’s righteousness for approval before God.
Here’s how it works.
The person who resists correction believes he’s good, and so he rejects observations of sin. The person who despairs when corrected knows they aren’t good, and can’t bear to be reminded of it. Both of them put their hope in being good, in meeting God’s moral standards. One thinks he’s met the standards and won’t hear any evidence to the contrary, and the other despairs of meeting the standard and gives up hope.
Both people want their own righteousness to stand on, something they can point to and say, “See, I’m doing well, therefore I have hope.” So correction is a threat because it exposes their unrighteousness.
But here’s the good news that frees us from those responses. God doesn’t accept us because of our own righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness.
Romans 3:10 says that None is righteous, no not one. Isaiah said all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isa. 64:6). Jesus said no one is good except God alone (Mark 10:18). We aren’t righteous by God’s standard. There is no hope in ourselves and in how well we are performing and there doesn’t need to be any. God has planned our salvation by a different way.
Christ … suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18).
The gospel is for the unrighteous like me and you. God’s promises of forgiveness and blessing and favor are for those recognize that they are failures and that their only hope is in Christ and in this righteousness credited to us through faith.
Exposing sin in our lives can only be a threat if our hope is in ourselves and our own goodness rather than in Christ. That’s the only reason we would fear having our sin exposed.
The Puritan Thomas Wilcox put it this way in his tract Honey Out of the Rock, “He that fears to see sin’s utmost vileness, the utmost hell of his own heart, he suspects the merits of Christ.” In other words, if we fear to have our sin made known, then we don’t really understand how completely Christ’s righteousness has fulfilled God’s requirements for us.
But the good news is that Jesus has fulfilled all righteousness for us, and God considers that righteousness ours by faith.
So we don’t have to defend our own goodness and deny our sin because we already know we have no reputation to defend before God. And we don’t have to despair over our sin because God already knows all of our sin and has forgiven it by placing it on Jesus, who suffered once for sins the righteous for the unrighteous.
Correction is about sanctification not justification. It’s about growing in godliness and becoming free from the presence and effects of sin in our lives, not about acceptance before God.
The gospel transforms our perspective of correction. It makes it possible for us to say, “it is a kindness.” God is pursuing me with his love, removing sin from my life, making me more like Christ every day.
So if someone brings a correction to us, we can humbly and without fear look for the truth that is in it without fear of condemnation. We don’t need to resist or despair. We can thank God for revealing sin that we were blind to and take steps to change without fear of losing God’s favor.
Our hope is secure in Christ. Nothing can change that.
Now, before we move on to how we give correction, I want to mention some questions to evaluate our own grasp of the gospel in how we respond to correction.
– Do you pursue correction or merely tolerate correction? You see, if correction is a kindness from God to remove sin from our lives, then this is something to pursue not just to endure. If you are quite satisfied to attend small group regularly without seeking other people’s insight into your sin then there is room to grow.
– Are you easy to correct? Do people hesitate to bring you a correction because they don’t believe it will be well-received? To find out the answer, ask your small group, or ask your spouse or your parent these questions:
– How do I typically respond to correction? Do I resist, or despair, or in any other way demonstrate a reluctance to address sin?
– Is there any area of my life where I do not seem open to input? This question assumes the reality of Hebrews 3:13, that we can be deceived and hardened in our sin and reluctant to change. But by asking this question, you will be opening the door for change in an area of spiritual blindness. The ensuing discussion will be a kindness to you from God.
– And let me offer a few areas for special consideration. Are you open to other people’s observations and questions about your parenting? Or about your marriage? Or about the way you spend your money? Or about your involvement in the local church?
So with that, we move to how we give correction.
HOW DO WE GIVE CORRECTION?
With our remaining time I just want to mention five guidelines for giving helpful and grace-motivated correction.
1. Begin by examining your own heart.
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
The purpose of our correction must always be for that person to be built up and receive God’s grace. It is never to vent our frustration at having been offended. It isn’t to get rid of an annoying problem in our life. It is for that person to experience more of God’s grace and be built up.
Before you go to someone with correction, consider why are you choosing this moment to bring your correction to this person? Is it because you are personally offended by their sin? If it is, then you are more motivated by pride than by love for that person. You’re more concerned about them sinning against you than against God.
So if you see that in your heart, confess that pride to God, and ask for care for that person and a genuine desire for them to experience grace. Come with words that are intended to build up.
And come with the humility of Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
That means we do not come with harsh condemnation or self-righteous criticism, but we come with the desire to help them out of their sin in a spirit of gentleness as a brother who is also prone to temptation.
2. Put to death the fear of man and say something.
John 12:42-43 says this of some leaders who became believers in Jesus:
…many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God. (NASB)
The rulers didn’t confess their faith in Jesus because they didn’t want to give up the approval of the Pharisees. They were more concerned about the Pharisee’s relationship with them than about the Pharisee’s relationship with God. In other words, loving people’s approval silences us from saying what the Lord wants said.
If we see sinful attitudes and actions in a person and are afraid to draw that to their attention, then it’s most likely because we want their approval more than we want their sanctification. We would rather that they continue in sin than have them think badly of us.
But God calls us to love one another, and biblical correction is love because it is way for that person to become free from blindness and indifference to sin.
3. Bring questions and observations, not judgments or conclusions.
Psalm 139:2-4 says this about God,
… you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
God knows our thoughts, he knows our ways, and he knows what we are going to say before we say it. And he’s the only one who does! The rest of us have to rely on what we see and hear, and oftentimes we don’t see and hear correctly or completely. We can think a person is in sin and yet if we probed more and asked more questions we might find that we didn’t see it correctly.
Unless we ask questions, we don’t know the thoughts and intentions of the heart, we may not have the whole story, and that’s very important in understanding and identifying sin.
So we ask questions and make observations.
If you think someone might be in need of correction, you might want to begin your conversation by asking, “Can I make an observation and express a concern about what might be a heart attitude?”
Or you could simply ask a direct question, “Were you angry when you said that? It sounded like you were.”
Whatever your words are, they should communicate humility that you aren’t God and that your perspective isn’t infallible. But you do see something that may be sin and you want to bring this to their attention.
4. Remind them of the gospel at some point.
Even when Paul had much correction to bring to the Corinthians, he reminded them of the hope of the gospel and the work of God in them.
He said in 1 Corinthians 1:4, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.”
In other words leave them with hope. Whenever we draw attention to a person’s sin, we need to leave them with the hope for sin. Sin is ugly, yes. But there is a Savior for sin. There is forgiveness.
Even in this moment of correction, our hope isn’t in putting this sin to death. Our hope is in the God who justifies the ungodly by faith alone in Christ alone. This isn’t about your acceptance before God. This is about becoming disentangled from sin and having a life that glorifies God and brings your ultimate joy.
5. Be patient if change happens slowly.
1 Thessalonians 5:14 says this,
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
We sometimes want the sin behavior to be completely gone after one conversation. But we know that our own change is often slow. This may take multiple conversations. It may take bringing others into it. It may take time. Persevere with that person as God has persevered with you.
Correction is good – it is God’s gracious defense against sin’s deceitfulness and the deadly effect of undetected and unaddressed sin in our lives. God calls us to help one another not to be deceived by bringing grace-motivated observations and questions related to each other’s sin. And we can receive it and benefit from it by remembering the gospel – that our hope is in Christ’s righteousness, not our own.
If you are a part of this church, then God has given you brothers and sisters to help you in this. Your small groups are especially the place where caring relationships are being built so that we can speak into each other’s lives. Take advantage of that means of grace for your progress in the faith. There is hope in correction. We can change. We don’t have to be deceived by sin and hardened in sin. God has given us each other to help make that happen.