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” (Prov 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!” (Prov. 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.

The author of Hebrews warns us, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb 3:12). Notice that this word is addressed to brothers. It’s those of us who call ourselves Christians who need to closely examine our hearts. But this kind of examination is not merely a call to private, personal introspection. It’s a group project: “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” (Heb 3:13).

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).

We all want to know what kind of sin warrants this kind of repeated confrontation. It’s important for us to see that the fundamental issue isn’t the nature of the sin but the nature of the response when the sin is pointed out. Years ago I counseled a young Christian who had chosen to live with his girlfriend. We looked at a number of Bible passages about sexual purity, and he was immediately overwhelmed by the wrong he had done. No further correction was needed and he was married a few days later. A few months later I counseled a married woman who chose to leave her husband for another man. When presented with corrective verses from the Bible, her response was quite different, “Aaron,” she said, “I can’t go back to my husband.” But the truth is, she wouldn’t go back. Her heart was hardened. In both of these examples, a pattern of sin called the salvation of the sinner in question and the response to correction brought the heart to light.