5 Ways to Rebuke In Your Preaching

One duty of the pastor in his preaching is to sometimes rebuke, or call the congregation to repentance and obedience. Most often this is not the focus of the entire sermon, but rather a portion of the message that helps lead the congregation from what the Word says to how we should respond as believers. The rebuke is not yours, but God’s, and typically directed to expose disobedience and call all to repentance. The word rebuke literally means “an expression of sharp disapproval”.

There are a number of Scriptures that point to a believer’s responsibility to rebuke when necessary, including, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 4:2, 5:20, James 5:20, and 1 Corinthians 5:12. Sadly we see some church leaders today so focused on “positive messaging” that any rebuke of sin or disobedience is absent from their pulpits. The result is churches of somewhat shallow faith. Lack of disciplines inevitably leads to dysfunction in the body.

I can still remember growing up hearing my pastor slam his Bible on the pulpit as he spoke passionately about the consequences of sin and disobedience. One time he hit the pulpit so hard the wooden bottom fell out. Another time he yelled so loud his voice cracked and he had to nearly whisper the last few minutes of the message. Looking back, I’m not sure how effective his methodology was. I remember the yelling more than anything he was yelling about—there’s a fine line between passion and anger. To this day it makes me think about how best to expose and express disobedience from the pulpit.

A rebuke should be offered with an idea of what you want to accomplish. If the goal is for listeners to hear your words, and under conviction of the Holy Spirit, turn from their actions and seek God in an area, then certainly we must understand that how we offer this teaching may be as important as the teaching itself. When you speak a rebuke from the pulpit, keep the following in mind to make it as effective as possible.

With mercy. A rebuke spoken in anger is seldom effective. That doesn’t mean a rebuke should not be serious, but it rarely should not be wrath-filled. Speak as one who has himself received God’s mercy for his own sins, and encourages—even pleads—with his congregation to follow God’s leading in a matter. The Matthew 18:15-17 model is applicable here, I believe, in that we should always first approach our brothers and sisters in love and seeking their reconciliation to the body if they have sinned. The process is clear and biblical. Olive branches are often more effective than swords.

Through the Word. Perhaps the best rebukes are those God gives Himself through His Word. Want to say something difficult to the congregation? Quote Scripture. Let the Word offer rebuke, for it cannot be argued with. Though it is sometimes open to interpretation, the fact is that most rebukes in the Bible are quite clear. God will plainly say, “I hate” or “I detest” or “Thou shalt not”. Seldom does God say, “On occasion you might…” because that is simple not His nature. 2 Timothy 3:16 clearly indicates the Word is given in part for this purpose.

Drawing the line. When speaking to many people, among the most effective ways to offer rebuke is to communicate clearly and distinctly what you are calling others to join you in doing. The gospel message is infused in the rebuke. Certainly we call those far from God to repent and surrender to Christ. We too must call the believer to repent and surrender to Christ in those areas where growth is needed. The New Testament church was filled with many issues we contend with today: false doctrine, slander and gossip, rationalization of sin as acceptable.

When the Bible says, “Don’t do this” or “Do this”, our role as leaders is to call to church to obedience. This is often where judgmentalism comes into the conversation, as the most common interpretation of a rebuke by the recipient is “You are telling me what to do.” 1 Corinthians 5:12 confirms that the church must confront and expose sin in its own camp.

Avoiding a “don’t” lifestyle teaching. Here too we want to be cautious that we do not rebuke for those things which the Bible does not define as sin, but sometimes culturally we do. The tension here is to call the church to obedience, but not to go beyond what Scripture teaches. There’s a clear difference in the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Ten Commandments are filled with “don’ts”, while the New Testament calls us to freedom in Christ. Jesus does not love us because of what we do or don’t do for Him. Rather, in Christ we are free, finally, to be obedient to Him, and our motivation to obedience comes from our desire to know Him and be more like Him as His followers. So a rebuke can be taught not only as what not to do, but rather what to do as our image is conformed to that of Christ.

As a parent. Perhaps the best advice when offering a rebuke is to adopt the attitude of a parent, looking at the situation as a “teachable moment”. Think about your own children and how you taught them, and then just remove the daddy-voice. The process is simple: (1) God says this action is wrong, (2) this is why it is wrong, (3) these are some of the consequences we bear when we do this wrong, and (4) we, you and I, need to stop doing this if we’re doing it, repent, and do this no more.  In other words, call it sin, say why it is sin, remind of the consequence of sin, and call to repentance from sin.

Finally, remember to not compromise. I purposely use the word sin here versus “mistake”, “poor judgment”, “lack of commitment”, “moral failure” or any number of other softer phrases we often apply to disobeying God. While the greatest challenge we may have in rebuke is approaching with the right attitude, the greatest compromise we sometimes impose is softening the core issue of disobeying God.

We’ve all sat in a church pew as pastor shares something that makes us feel uncomfortable—because we know he nailed us on that, and the Holy Spirit is convicting through his preaching. This discomfort is not something a pastor needs to avoid or shy away from. It’s not he who causes the discomfort, but God Word and Spirit in the life of the believer. When we create those moments of discomfort, we must remind our congregations that Christ desires our repentance, and as we surrender to Him, He will use both the rebuke and our obedience to grow us more into His likeness. Rebuking is not a negative. Loving and thoughtful discipline helps to develop and mature the body.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.