The Duty of Reproving Our Neighbor
(Why Christians are responsible to witness to the
by John Wesley
shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke
thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him." Lev. 19:17
A great part of the book
of Exodus, and almost the whole of the book of Leviticus, relate to
the ritual or ceremonial law of Moses; which was peculiarly given
to the children of Israel, but was such "a yoke," says the apostle
Peter, "as neither our fathers nor we were able to bear." We are,
therefore, delivered from it: And this is one branch of "the liberty
wherewith Christ hath made us free." Yet it is easy to observe, that
many excellent moral precepts are interspersed among these ceremonial
laws. Several of them we find in this very chapter: Such as, "Thou
shalt not gather every grape of thy vineyard: Thou shalt leave them
for the poor and stranger. I am the Lord your God." (Lev. 19:10.)
Ye shall not steal, neither lie one to another. (Lev. 19:11.) "Thou
shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him: The wages of him
that is hired shall not abide with thee till the morning." (Lev. 19:13.)
"Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the
blind; but shalt fear thy God: I am the Lord." (Lev. 19:14.) As if
he had said, I am he whose eyes are over all the earth, and whose
ears are open to their cry. "Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment:
Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor," which compassionate
men may be tempted to do; "nor honour the person of the mighty," to
which there are a thousand temptations. (Lev. 19:15.) "Thou shalt
not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people:" (Lev. 19:16:)
Although this is a sin which human laws have never yet been able to
Then follows, "Thou
shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: Thou shalt in anywise rebuke
thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him." [Lev. 19:17]
In order to understand
this important direction aright, and to apply it profitably to our
own souls, let us consider,
I. What it is that
we are to rebuke or reprove? What is the thing that is here enjoined?
II. Who are they whom we are commanded to reprove? And,
III. How are we to reprove them?
What is the duty that is here enjoined? What is Reproof?
1. Let us consider, First,
What is the duty that is here enjoined? What is it we are to rebuke
or reprove? And what is it to reprove? What is it to reprove? To
tell anyone of his faults; as clearly appears from the following
words: "Thou shalt not suffer sin upon him." Sin is therefore the
thing we are called to reprove, or rather him that commits sin.
We are to do all that in us lies to convince him of his fault, and
lead him into the right way.
2. Love indeed requires
us to warn him, not only of sin, (although of this chiefly,) but
likewise of any error which, if it were persisted in, would naturally
lead to sin. If we do not "hate him in our heart," if we love our
neighbour as ourselves, this will be our constant endeavour; to warn
him of every evil way, and of every mistake which tends to evil.
3. But if we desire not
to lose our labour, we should rarely reprove anyone for anything
that is of a disputable nature, that will bear much to be said
on both sides. A thing may possibly appear evil to me; therefore I
scruple the doing of it; and if I were to do it while that scruple
remains, I should be a sinner before God. But another is not to be
judged by my conscience: To his own master he standeth or falleth.
Therefore I would not reprove him, but for what is clearly and
undeniably evil. Such, for instance, is profane cursing and
swearing; which even those who practise it most will not often
venture to defend, if one mildly expostulates with them. Such is drunkenness,
which even a habitual drunkard will condemn when he is sober. And
such, in the account of the generality of people, is the profaning
of the Lord's day. And if any which are guilty of these sins for
a while attempt to defend them, very few will persist to do it, if
you look them steadily in the face, and appeal to their own conscience
in the sight of God.
Who are we are called to reprove?
II. 1. Let us, in the
Second place, consider, Who are those that we are called to reprove?
It is the more needful to consider this, because it is affirmed by
many serious persons, that there are some sinners whom the Scripture
itself forbids us to reprove. This sense has been put on that solemn
caution of our Lord, in his Sermon on the Mount: "Cast not your pearls
before swine, lest they trample them under foot, and turn again and
rend you." But the plain meaning of these words is, Do not offer the
pearls, the sublime doctrines or mysteries of the Gospel, to those
whom you know to be brutish men, immersed in sins, and having no fear
of God before their eyes. This would expose those precious jewels
to contempt, and yourselves to injurious treatment. But even those
whom we know to be, in our Lord's sense, dogs and swine, if we saw
them do, or heard them speak, what they themselves know to be evil,
we ought in any wise to reprove them; else we "hate our brother in
2. The persons intended
by "our neighbour" are, every child of man, everyone that breathes
the vital air, all that have souls to be saved. And if we refrain
from performing this office of love to any, because they are sinners
above other men, they may persist in their iniquity, but their blood
will God require at our hands.
3. How striking is Mr.
Baxter's reflection on this head, in his "Saints' Everlasting Rest!
"Suppose thou wert to meet one in the lower world, to whom thou hadst
denied this office of love, when ye were both together under the sun;
what answer couldst thou make to his upbraiding? `At such a time
and place, while we were under the sun, God delivered me into thy
hands. I then did not know the way of salvation, but was seeking death
in the error of my life; and therein thou sufferedst me to remain,
without once endeavouring to awake me out of sleep! Hadst thou imparted
to me thy knowledge, and warned me to flee from the wrath to come,
neither I nor thou need ever have come into this place of torment.'"
4. Every one, therefore,
that has a soul to be saved, is entitled to this good office from
thee. Yet this does not imply, that it is to be done in the same
degree to everyone. It cannot be denied, that there are some to whom
it is particularly due. Such, in the first place, are our parents,
if we have any that stand in need of it; unless we should place our
consorts and our children on an equal footing with them. Next to these
we may rank our brothers and sisters, and afterwards our relations,
as they are allied to us in a nearer or more distant manner, either
by blood or by marriage. Immediately after these are our servants,
whether bound to us for a term of years or any shorter term. Lastly,
such in their several degrees are our countrymen, our fellow-citizens,
and the members of the same society, whether civil or religious: The
latter have a particular claim to our service; seeing these societies
are formed with that very design, to watch over each other for this
very end, that we may not suffer sin upon our brother. If we neglect
to reprove any of these, when a fair opportunity offers, we are undoubtedly
to be ranked among those that "hate their brother in their heart."
And how severe is the sentence of the Apostle against those who fall
under this condemnation! "He that hateth his brother," though it does
not break out into words or actions, "is a murderer:" And ye know,"
continues the Apostle, "that no murderer hath eternal life abiding
in him." He hath not that seed planted in his soul, which groweth
up unto everlasting life: In other words, he is in such a state, that
if he dies therein, he cannot see life. It plainly follows, that to
neglect this is no small thing, but eminently endangers our final
How, in what way, are we to reprove them?
III. We have seen what
is meant by reproving our brother, and who those are that we should
reprove. But the principal thing remains to be considered. How, in
what manner, are we to reprove them?
1. It must be allowed,
that there is a considerable difficulty in performing this in a right
manner: Although, at the same time, it is far less difficult to
some than it is to others. Some there are who are particularly
qualified for it, whether by nature, or practice, or grace. They are
not encumbered either with evil shame, or that sore burden, the fear
of man: They are both ready to undertake this labour of love, and
skilful in performing it. To these, therefore, it is little or
no cross; nay, they have a kind of relish for it, and a satisfaction
therein, over and above that which arises from a consciousness of
having done their duty. But be it a cross to us, greater or less,
we know that hereunto we are called. And be the difficulty ever so
great to us, we know in whom we have trusted; and that he will surely
fulfil his word, "As thy day, so shall thy strength be."
2. In what manner, then,
shall we reprove our brother, in order that our reproof may be most
effectual? Let us first of all take care that whatever we do may
be done in "the spirit of love;" in the spirit of tender good-will
to our neighbour; as for one who is the son of our common Father,
and one for whom Christ died, that he might be a partaker of salvation.
Then, by the grace of God, love will beget love. The affection
of the speaker will spread to the heart of the hearer; and you
will find, in due time, that your labour hath not been in vain in
3. Meantime the greatest
care must be taken that you speak in the spirit of humility. Beware
that you do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.
If you think too highly of yourself, you can scarce avoid despising
your brother. And if you show, or even feel, the least contempt of
those whom you reprove, it will blast your whole work, and occasion
you to lose all you labour. In order to prevent the very appearance
of pride, it will be often needful to be explicit on the head; to
disclaim all preferring yourself before him; and at the very time
you reprove that which is evil, to own and bless God for that which
is good in him.
4. Great care must be
taken, in the Third place, to speak in the spirit of meekness,
as well as lowliness. The Apostle assures us that "the wrath of
men worketh not the righteousness of God." Anger, though
it be adorned with the name of zeal, begets anger; not
love or holiness. We should therefore avoid, with all possible
care, the very appearance of it. Let there be no trace of it,
either in the eyes, the gesture, or the tone of voice; but let
all of these concur in manifesting a loving, humble, and dispassionate
5. But all this time,
see that you do not trust in yourself. Put no confidence in your
own wisdom, or address, or abilities of any kind. For the success
of all you speak or do, trust not in yourself, but in the great Author
of every good and perfect gift. Therefore, while you are speaking,
continually lift up your heart to him that worketh all in all. And
whatsoever is spoken in the spirit of prayer, will not fall to
6. So much for the spirit
wherewith you should speak when you reprove your neighbour. I now
proceed to the outward manner. It has been frequently found that
the prefacing a reproof with a frank profession of good-will has caused
what was spoken to sink deep into the heart. This will generally
have a far better effect, than that grand fashionable engine, -- flattery,
by means of which the men of the world have often done surprising
things. But the very same things, yea, far greater, have much oftener
been effected by a plain and artless declaration of disinterested
love. When you feel God has kindled this flame in your heart,
hide it not; give it full vent! It will pierce like lightning.
The stout, the hard-hearted, will melt before you, and know that God
is with you of a truth.
7. Although it is certain
that the main point in reproving is, to do it with a right spirit,
yet it must also be allowed, there are several little circumstances
with regard to the outward manner, which are by no means without their
use, and therefore are not to be despised. One of these is, whenever
you reprove, do it with great seriousness; so that as you really are
in earnest, you may likewise appear so to be. A ludicrous reproof
makes little impression, and is soon forgot; besides, that many times
is taken ill, as if you ridiculed the person you reprove. And indeed
those who are not accustomed to make jests, do not take it well to
be jested upon. One means of giving a serious air to what you speak,
is, as often as may be, to use the very words of Scripture. Frequently
we find the word of God, even in a private conversation, has a peculiar
energy; and the sinner, when he expects it least, feels it "sharper
than a two-edged sword."
8. Yet there are some
exceptions to this general rule of reproving seriously. There are
some exempt cases, wherein, as a good judge of human nature observes,
Ridiculum acri fortius -- a little well-placed raillery
will pierce deeper than solid argument. But this has place chiefly,
when we have to do with those who are strangers to religion. And
when we condescend to give a ludicrous reproof to a person of this
character, it seems we are authorized so to do, by that advice of
Solomon, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in
his own eyes."
9. The manner of the reproof
may, in other respects too, be varied according to the occasion.
Sometimes you may find it proper to use many words, to
express your sense at large. At other times you may judge it
more expedient to use few words, perhaps a single sentence;
and at others, it may be advisable to use no words at all, but
a gesture, a sigh, or a look, particularly when the person
you would reprove is greatly your superior. And frequently, this
silent kind of reproof will be attended by the power of God, and consequently,
have a far better effect than a long and laboured discourse.
10. Once more: Remember
the remark of Solomon, "A word spoken in season, how good is it!"
It is true, if you are providentially called to reprove anyone
whom you are not likely to see any more, you are to snatch the present
opportunity, and to speak "in season" or "out of season;" but
with them whom you have frequent opportunities of seeing, you may
wait for a fair occasion. Here the advice of the poet has place.
You may speak Si validus, si laetus erit, si denique poscet:
When he is in a good humour, or when he asks it you. Here you
may catch the Mollia tempora fandi, -- time when his
mind is in a soft, mild frame: And then God will both teach you
how to speak, and give a blessing to what is spoken.
11. But here let me guard
you against one mistake. It passes for an indisputable maxim, "Never
attempt to reprove a man when he is intoxicated with drink." Reproof,
it is said, is then thrown away, and can have no good effect. I dare
not say so. I have seen not a few clear instances of the contrary.
Take one: Many years ago, passing by a man in Moorfields, who was
so drunk he could hardly stand, I put a paper into his hand. He looked
at it, and said, "A Word -- A Word to a Drunkard, -- that is me, --
Sir, Sir! I am wrong, -- I know I am wrong, -- pray let me talk a
little with you." He held me by the hand a full half-hour: And I believe
he got drunk no more.
12. I beseech you, brethren,
by the mercies of God, do not despise poor drunkards! Have compassion
on them! Be instant with them in season and out of season! Let
not shame, or fear of men prevent your pulling these brands out of
the burning: Many of them are self-condemned: Nor do they not discern
the evil plight That they are in; but they despair; they have no
hope of escaping out of it; and they sink into it still deeper, because
none else has any hope for them! "Sinners of every other sort,"
said a venerable old Clergyman, "have I frequently known converted
to God. But an habitual drunkard I have never known converted." But
I have known five hundred, perhaps five thousand. Ho! Art thou one
who readest these words? Then hear thou the words of the Lord! I have
a message from God unto thee, O sinner! Thus saith the Lord, Cast
not away thy hope. I have not forgotten thee. He that tells thee there
is no help is a liar from the beginning. Look up! Behold the Lamb
of God, who taketh away the sin of the world! This day is salvation
come to thy soul: Only see that thou despise not him that speaketh!
Just now he saith unto thee: "Son, be of good cheer! Thy sins are
13. Lastly: You that
are diligent in this labour of love, see that you be not discouraged,
although after you have used your best endeavours, you should see
no present fruit. You have need of patience, and then, "after
ye have done the will of God" herein, the harvest will come. Never
be "weary of well-doing; in due time ye shall reap, if ye faint not."
Copy after Abraham, who "against hope, still believed in hope." "Cast
thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days."
14. I have now only a
few words to add unto you, my brethren, who are vulgarly called "Methodists."
I never heard or read
of any considerable revival of religion which was not attended with
a spirit of reproving. I believe it cannot be otherwise; for what
is faith, unless it worketh by love?
Thus it was in every part
of England when the present revival of religion began about fifty
years ago: All the subjects of that revival, -- all the Methodists,
so called, in every place, were reprovers of outward sin. And, indeed,
so are all that "being justified by faith, have peace with God through
Jesus Christ." Such they are at first; and if they use that precious
gift, it will never be taken away. Come, brethren, in the name of
God, let us begin again! Rich or poor, let us all arise as one man;
and in any wise let every man "rebuke his neighbour, and not suffer
sin upon him!" Then shall all Great Britain and Ireland know that
we do not "go a warfare at our own cost:" Yea, "God shall bless us,
and all the ends of the world shall fear him." Manchester, July 28,