Gracious exhortation

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Exhortation to obey God and do what pleases him is very different under grace than it was under the law. Under the law the message was, “Do this or else suffer the consequences.” Under grace, exhortation is entirely different – it is an appeal to the new life that God has placed in people.

Instead of treating people as though they are sinners who constantly need rebukes and correction, gracious exhortation begins with the knowledge that Christians have God’s new life in them, and they have been given a new nature that loves to do what God loves and is bursting to come out and find some kind of expression. Give it half a chance, and the life of God that is in them will come bubbling up and overflowing from within them. (If this is not your experience, then you are most likely dealing with people who have been disempowered and bound by rules and regulations – and the sooner they hear about grace, the better!)

Paul exhorted people this way all the time. Even when there was a serious problem in the church, as there was in Corinth (sexual immorality, factions, law suits between Christians and more), he didn’t just go in and correct them – he reminded them of who they were, thanked God for them, repeated God’s promises to them and encouraged them to live in a way that was consistent with who they really were now and with God’s calling on their lives.

Gracious exhortation also doesn’t react to problems in a way that limits or restricts people’s freedom. He agreed with the statement, “Everything is permissible” (1 Corinthians 6:12), but pointed out that “not everything is beneficial” and encouraged them to use their freedom to act in love (10:24; see Galatians 5:13).

The right heart to exhort people with is demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 7:35: “I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” The end result of gracious exhortation is people who have an “undivided devotion to the Lord” – but the way to get there is through loving encouragement and reminding them of who they really are, not through constant rebukes and correction.

For reflection:

People respond very strongly to the way their leaders see them. If they are constantly told that they are sinners who need to be straightened out, then that is how they will act. But if they are told they are saints who are becoming more and more like Jesus, then they will be free to do that.

God is so committed to building people up in this way that he even “calls things that are not as though they were” (Romans 4:17). He looks at a valley of dry bones and sees a mighty army (Ezekiel 37). He looks at an unstable and impulsive disciple and calls him a “rock” (Matthew 16:18). And he looks at his church and sees a beautiful, mature and magnificent bride. If we agree with God and tell her that’s who she is – then that’s how she will be.

“The Lord gave me [authority] for building you up, not for tearing you down” (2 Corinthians 13:10)

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