With all the self-flagellation and bitterness and vilification already in the air today, it seems scarcely necessary to summon Christians to revive the ministry of rebuking. Yet the Apostle Paul, in Colossians chapter three, suggests that this is just what we need. Rebuke has come into ill repute because of its misuse. The remedy, however, is not to avoid it but to practice it rightly.

Paul tells us we are to seek and to set our minds on “things that are above, not … things that are on earth” (vv. 1, 2). It doesn’t take us long in our Christian lives to realize that the attitudes and practices condemned in verses 5–11 (especially 11!) and those commended in verses 12–15 do not come automatically with conversion. That’s why Paul exhorts us to seek them. But how do we do it?

We can hardly expect success in exhibiting the Christian virtues if we do not follow the means that have been prescribed. Paul tells us first to be thankful. Then in verse 16 he exhorts us to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. We are to go beyond merely knowing His word to letting it make its home in us, not as some occasional visitor but “richly.” We are reminded further that this intimacy with God’s word is to be in “wisdom.” Paul makes it clear that for this to take place we need one another. We cannot develop the character that God wants by ourselves. We need to teach one another, informing our minds. We need to sing with one another, involving our emotions. And, just as importantly, we need to admonish one another, appealing to our wills.

We have a way of justifying our behavior, of always making excuses for ourselves and blaming other people. So we can think to ourselves that we have indeed (by the grace of God, we say) achieved one or more of the virtues that Paul speaks of. This is where admonition comes in. When rightly done it builds us up by letting us know specific ways in which we still fall short of God’s guidelines. Blind spots are revealed. God is able to show us rough edges that he would like to smooth down.

To be effective, admonition must be done in love, and the one who rebukes must himself be gracious in receiving rebuke. Of course, admonition must be given directly to the person who needs it. (Most of us are experts at pointing out someone else’s faults to others, but that’s not what Paul is talking about.) While exhortations can be given from the pulpit, admonitions require a less formal situation in which opportunity is provided to focus on specific improvements needed in individual lives.

Some people seem to think that the kind of specific application that rebuke brings is a matter to be handled only by the Christian in his personal relationship with God. But we cannot restrict admonition this way and still be true to the exhortation in Colossians 3:16. We need one another.

Because those who have been the quickest to admonish have often been the ones who are least willing to receive admonition gracefully, and because those who have practiced it have not always shown genuine concern for building up the people of God, there has been an understandable tendency to shy away from the practice. Mutual admonition when not based on teaching “in all wisdom” readily lends itself to abuses; a “more wretched than thou” type of cult can emerge.

Nevertheless, these explanations for the absence of admonition, and the presence on the national scene of sweeping accusations about things over which individuals often have little control, do not justify the minimizing of the biblical teaching. Admonition, in the context of thanksgiving, teaching, and singing, is a principal means God uses to enable us to seek the things that are above and to bring them down to earth by exhibiting them in our lives. In this way we can be living witnesses to the power of God to save and to transform.

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