"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." I Timothy 3:15
Three Steps in the Settlement of Private Difficulties
J. W. Chambliss
From The Baptist Preacher, 1846. Part 1 of 3
Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; if he
repent, forgive him. Luke 17: 3.
"To err is human," and to resent an injury is also human. Yes, it is the first dictate
of fallen, corrupt, human nature, to revenge a wrong. Its language is, "an eye for
an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." "I will do so to the man as be hath done to me."
Christianity is the very opposite of this. Its golden maxim is, "love that suffereth
long and is kind." (1 Cor. 13:4) It teaches, "be not overcome with evil, but overcome
evil with good." (Rom. 12:21) "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him;
if he repent, forgive him." Men hear these capitals of love,—they admire the divine
characters,—they laud the god-like sentiments: but alas! "They do them not." Unspeakably
happy shall it be for the church of the living God, if, when "thy brother shall trespass
against thee, thou shalt rebuke him; if he repent, thou shalt forgive him."
In the elucidation of the text before us, we propose an examination of three questions:
First. What is the first duty of the aggrieved? Secondly. What is the duty of the
aggressor? Thirdly. What is the second and last duty of the aggrieved? These three
questions involve the whole divine law in the settlement of private difficulties:
rebuke, repentance and remission. Let us consider:
I. The first duty of the aggrieved.—"If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke
And here permit us to call your special attention to the character of the offence
to which allusion is had in the text. In strict propriety, men commit three kinds
of offences: those which are public; those which are both public and private; and
those which are strictly private. To the first class belong drunkenness, profanity,
Sabbath-breaking, idolatry and such like; because, they are not so much against any
other individual particularly, as against the whole community equally.
Of the second description, we mean such as at the same time violate public good,
and infringe private rights, as slander, murder, and all injury publicly inflicted
upon the feelings, person or reputation of another. Deception, fraud, private abuse,
and every species of crime perpetrated on the part of one individual toward another
in their private intercourse, which is unknown to any besides themselves individually,
and which could affect none others, if settled between themselves,—these properly
belong to the third class. Nevertheless, since it behooves society to take cognizance
of every offence that comes under its observation, the ordinary distinction, which
is sufficient for all ordinary purposes, is simply between public and private offences.
The rule in our text has allusion only to the latter description of trespasses. Public
offences, in so far as they are public, come not under our private jurisdiction.
That authority alone, of whose laws they are a violation, has the right to dispose
of them. It is only in the case of private wrongs, that as individuals, we have the
right to administer rebuke. It is only of such, that as individuals, we can demand
repentance. It is only to such, that as individuals, we can extend forgiveness. "If
thy brother trespass against thee, (in thy private and individual capacity) even
seventy times seven in a day, and turn saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him."
(Matt. 18:21, 22; Luke 17:4) No private person has the power, in his individual capacity,
to forgive drunkenness, Sabbath breaking, profanity, etc.; and therefore, he can
neither demand, nor accept of repentance as its satisfaction. The law of Jesus Christ
is, "if thy brother trespass against thee rebuke him."
Let it also be remarked, the text supposes that one brother may offend against another.
In the present state of human imperfection,—where our education, habits and interests
are so widely dissimilar, and often so pointedly conflicting, it seems morally "impossible,
but that offences should come:" (Luke 17:1) and that which often renders them the
more painful, is the reflection, that he who is pledged to us by a thousand tender
considerations, with his own hand inflicted the wound.
The betrayal of fraternal confidence,—the disappointment of fondly cherished expectations,—the
blasting of highest hopes,—the withering of sweetest love; and all these evils produced
by a brother's hand. Ah! It is this that renders the blow insupportable: "It was
not mine enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he
that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him. But it
was thou, mine equal, my guide and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together,
and walked unto the house of God in company." (Ps. 55:12-14)
Here is the most painful fact in the history of the case. "It was my brother that
defamed me that defrauded me in business transactions,—that deceived my expectations,—that
insulted my feelings, by flat contradictions, by unjust insinuations, or by unholy
suggestions,--yes, it was my brother, from whom I had the right to look for better
things, who "hath lifted up his heel against me." The affliction is deep. The grief
is incalculable. What shall I do? To this question, the words of our Lord are given
as the answer: "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; if he repent, forgive
The law of the text is opposed to retaliation. Retaliation is the devil's theology.
It has nothing good,—nothing holy in it. The merest dog would bite, if one were to
strike him. To man, and to man alone,—holy and refined—of all the beings of this
world, it belongs to observe the principles of the sacred volume: "Say not, I will
do so to him as he hath done to me; I will reward the man according to his works."
"Recompense to no man evil for evil."
"Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves; but rather give place unto wrath: for it
is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." (Prov. 24:29; Rom.
The text is equally opposed to retelling the wrong through the community. Alas! alas!
for this world, that men are so much more apt to whisper the faults of their neighbors
to anybody else, than they are to tell them to the offender himself. An irascible
temper, with a secret, unbridled tongue, makes a dangerous friend and a deadly enemy.
A tattler is a mortal gangrene upon the vitals of society, for whom no odium is a
Had men the moral courage of an infant,—had they the independence and boldness of
innocence itself, they would sooner suffer decapitation than breathe to the prejudice
of a brother. "Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people."
"Debate thy cause with thy neighbor himself, and discover not the secret to another,
lest he that hear thee put thee to shame, and thine infamy turn not away." "If thy
brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him
alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." (Lev. 19:16; Prov. 25:9,
10; Matt. 18:15)
Nor yet may we treasure up the injury in our own hearts. To conceal the offence in
our own bosom, until it festers in the blood and poisons all the fountains of life,
is not less at variance with scriptural authority, than is back-biting and retaliation.
O! what a bane to human happiness, is an evil cherished in the soul. It bewilders
the imagination—it embitters the affections—it corrupts the heart—it perverts the
tongue—it palsies the hand—it stifles animation in the birth—it spreads blighting
and mildew over the fairest prospects of the community. It is a universal injury.
It an injury to the aggrieved—it is an injury to the aggressor—it is an injury to
the whole society. "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: thou shalt in any
wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him." "Therefore, take heed to
thyself, if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him: if he repent, forgive
him." (Lev. 17:17; Luke 17:3)
But what are we to understand by rebuke, in this place? Does it mean to "chastise"
the offender? No. Does it mean a harsh and bitter censure? No. Does it mean a severe
and unkind accusation,—" rendering railing for railing, and reviling for reviling"?
No. It means a mild, a gentle, an earnest, and an affectionate expostulation: adapted
to show the offender his fault, in its reality, its enormity, and its sinfulness.
The manner of reproving is clearly defined in the scriptures, as is the duty of it;
and men are equally bound to observe the one, as to perform the other. "We may not
do evil that good may come." If we are commanded to "rebuke with all authority,"
(Tit. 2:5) we are also to "reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long suffering and doctrine,"
(2 Tim. 4:2) and a violation of the latter rule is not less sinful, than is a neglect
of the former. "The work of heaven may not be done by a tongue set on fire of hell.
Has Christ need of mad men? Or shall we talk deceitfully and passionately for him?
As a potion given, too hot scalds the patient and does more harm than good; so, many
a reproof, good for the matter of it, has been spoiled by its irregular management."
The divine law is, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye that are spiritual,
restore such an one in the spirit of meekness: considering thyself, lest thou also
be tempted." "A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger."
(Gal. 6:1; Prov. 15:1)
What object do we seek in reproving a brother? The answer to this question will suggest
the rule by which it should be done. Do we aim to convince him of his fault? Do we
desire to lead him to repentance? Do we seek to recover him from his error, and to
restore him to that place in our confidence and affection, from which, by transgression,
he fell? In vain may we attempt the accomplishment of these objects by railing and
acrimony. "Bitterness and wrath" are not the instruments with which to perform the
works of religion. As latent heat occasions more pain than light, so a violent and
sour temper aggravates the wound, rather than mollifies it.
A look of tenderness and pity, from him who said, "learn of me, for I am meek and
lowly is heart," broke the spirit of an erring Peter, and " he went out and wept
bitterly," (Luke 22:61-62) whereas, the haughtiness of Jeptha involved the tribes
in civil war, in which not less than "two and forty thousand" Ephraimites perished.
(Judg. 12:1-6) St. Paul states a good rule in all cases of offence, viz: to "instruct"
the offender "with meekness"—that is, without anger; and he positively commands that
"the servant of the Lord must not strive,"—must not bring a bad spirit to the reclaiming
a sinner from the error of his way. (2 Tim. 2:24) "The wrath of man worketh not the
righteousness of God." (James 1:20) If we would do God's work, we must do it in God's
way; and that way is, to "reprove with long suffering," and to "restore with meekness."
The apostle refers this question back to ourselves, that from thence also, we may
be admonished of our duty to an erring brother, "considering thyself, lest thou also
be tempted." He has fallen to-day; thou mayest fall to-morrow. What, if thou thyself
wert the offender? Wouldst thou, that he should suffer sin upon thee to thy injury?
Wouldst thou, that he should indulge the recollection of it—brooding over it, till
he could see nothing good in thee, think nothing good of thee, nor speak anything
good concerning thee? Wouldst thou that he should emblazon it abroad, upon the wings
of the wind, that all the world might read thy weakness, and hate thee therefore?
Wouldst thou that he should approach thee with an air of superiority and vaunting,
as though he rejoiced in thy downfall? Or yet with railing and bitterness, with harshness
and severity? In the, honesty and candor of your own judgment, were not all this
decidedly wrong? Then, be reminded of what is due to him who hath trespassed against
thee. "Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye
even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Math. 7:21)
There is yet an additional consideration that may aid us to understand our duty towards
an offender. It rarely fails, in private difficulties, especially if they have been
of any considerable standing, that both parties are more or less involved in the
blame. Perhaps, our deportment was at first more careless than strict propriety would
justify. Perhaps, we ourselves threw some temptation, a "stone of stumbling and a
rock of offence," in the way of the transgressor. Perhaps, we were oversensitive,
and received an offence where it was not intended. Perhaps, we indulged a needless
suspicion, and expressed an unjustifiable doubt of his character and motives. Perhaps,
we exhibited undue and untimely censoriousness and resentment, by one or all of which,
he was provoked to wrath.
Thus, in a thousand ways, we may have been, unintentionally, accessory to the identical
offence of which we now complain. And should not this remind us not to be too rigid
and uncompromising? Should it not teach us the utmost forbearance and tenderness?
Does it not lay a proper foundation, upon which- to approach him—not with harshness
and severity,—but with our own concessions and acknowledgments? Does it not prepare
us to be satisfied with the first and slightest marks of genuine repentance? As,
on the one hand, there can be no more effectual and felicitous method of exciting
feelings of ingenuous sorrow in the heart of the offender, than by approaching him
with tenderness and pity,—conceding and regretting, that we ourselves may have been
the unfortunate occasion of his sin; so, on the contrary, nothing seems mere unreasonably
severe, unjust and oppressive, than harshness and bitterness towards him, whom our
own-misdemeanor may really have led into transgression. Reason, religion and common
justice enter their claims, and urge us to rebuke with mildness, gentleness and long
Say not, my brethren, that the offence is one of peculiar aggravation, and that it
will be forever impossible to receive adequate reparation. This may be true: but
surely it can be no reason why the offender should be denied the best satisfaction
in his power. Especially, it can be no reason why we should neglect the positive
duty of the text. The magnitude of his crime is no excuse for our sin: – His trespass
against us is no apology for our trespass against God. Least of all, may we cherish
malice and ill-will in our hearts merely because the full amount of our dues cannot
be paid us? We are responsible to God for the performance of his commandments and
for their performance in the prescribed manner. Our Lord seemed to anticipate, that
partly from this cause, and partly from other considerations, men would be prone
to defer the great duty of the text, and therefore, rising in all the majesty of
his divine nature, and investing himself with all the authority of the Godhead, he
enforced it with peculiar emphasis and caution, "take heed to yourselves, if thy
brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; if he repent, forgive him."
Nor is the question now, as to whose duty it is to make the first approach,—whether
his who committed, or his who received the injury. Whatever reason there may be in
the ordinary language of men, that "it is the duty of the offender to make the first
approach and confess his fault," sure we are, that nothing of this can be found in
the sacred scriptures. Throughout, they proceed upon the supposition, that he who
hath trespassed against his brother, would not hesitate to sin against his God: and
hence their general tenor agrees with the text, and says to the aggrieved, "if thy
brother trespass against thee, rebuke him,"—" go and tell him his fault between him
and thee alone."
Grant that "the offender may already know that he has done wrong." Did he learn this
from us, in a direct and friendly effort to bring him to repentance? If he did not,
our duty is still unperformed. The object of reproof is not alone to convince the
transgressor of sin. It includes in it every reasonable and religious endeavor to
lead him to a full and hearty confession of his fault, and an honest and final restoration
to that place in our love and confidence, from which he has fallen by reason of transgression.
Nor do men act upon the principle involved in this objection, in any of the transactions
Our debtor owes us a large amount, and he already knows it. Nevertheless, if he does
not promptly and punctually meet his engagements, we avail ourselves of every lawful
measure to bring him to do so. All men know that they are sinners against God, but
no Christian considers this a reason why he should not use every possible exertion
to lead them with tears and contrition to humble themselves before him, and yield
him a faithful service. Thus, notwithstanding thy offending brother may already have
a knowledge of his trespass against thee, thou art bound by the law of the text to
use every exertion to bring him to repentance. "If he trespass against thee, rebuke
Is the disposition of the offender refractory? So much the better reason why we should
go to him at once, and why we should observe the greater caution and prudence in
our approach. The most adverse spirit may be softened and won by mildness and affection.
The meekness and gentleness of Christ,—the long suffering and patience of the gospel,—these
are powerful instruments, with which to subdue and tame the ferocious tempers of
madmen. He that goes forth from his closet weeping, bearing precious seed, shall
doubtless return again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him. "If he hear thee,
thou hast gained thy brother." Is not this at once a sufficient motive, and a sufficient
encouragement, to the most patient and vigorous effort?
If, after all, he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, prudent
and pious brethren, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be
established. If still he refuse to harken to their piety and counsel, tell it to
the church. If he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen
man and a publican. (Math. 18:15-17) Here is the last act, after which alone thou
art exonerated. Not until every other expedient has failed, may we bring it to the
church. "Every effort that ingenuity can invent, affection prompt, or patience conduct,
must be made before it is brought to be investigated by the brethren at large." Nor,
until their combined piety, wisdom and counsel have failed to induce his repentance,
may we set him at naught, and regard him "as an heathen man and a publican."
My brethren, with what arguments shall we impress this duty upon your minds? You
have heard the fame of "faith," by which the ancients subdued kingdoms--wrought righteousness—obtained
promises—stopped the mouths of lions—quenched the violence of fire—escaped the edge
of the sword—out of weakness were made strong—waxed valiant in fight—turned to flight
the armies of the aliens. You have tasted the sweetness of "hope "—immortal hope—hope
that comes to all, irradiates the darkness of the tempestuous firmament, and whispers
peace to the troubled soul, amid the storms and commotions of life's dangerous voyage.
But greater far, and sweeter, is "charity,"—that charity that suffereth long, and
yet is kind—charity that beareth all things—charity that believeth all things—charity
that hopeth all things—charity that endureth all things--charity that covereth a
multitude of sins. "Now abideth faith, hope, charity: and the greatest of these is
charity." (1 Cor. 13:13)
And yet we will show you what is better than charity itself, if it only lies concealed
in the heart. "Open rebuke is better than secret love." (Prov. 27:5) Here is the
climax formed and completed. Faith, hope, charity, open rebuke—these four, and the
last is first. Magnify faith as we may,—above it exalt hope,—above hope extol charity,—and
yet, "open rebuke is better than secret love." Would you be a faithful Christian?
Would you perform the best office to an erring brother? Would you do the best act
in the recognition of the Christian religion? Would you promote the glory of God,
and the interest of his cause? "Then take heed to yourselves: if thy brother trespass
against thee, rebuke him; if he repent forgive him."