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What Luther Says

Undoing The Devil's Advocate: Confronting And Rebuking Sin (Both Private And Public)


In common parlance, a "Devil's Advocate" is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position they do not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm).

Typically, the person playing the Devil's Advocate wants to avoid admitting something, wants to debate, or wants to explore a specific thought further.

Either way, in taking this position, the Devil's Advocate always seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion rather than in a humble and transparent one that could lead to a quick resolution.

When encountering the Devil's Advocate in Christian circles (which always disgusts me whenever you're trying to have a serious conversation with another brother or sister in Christ and they choose to actually use that phrase!), it's hard not to recall Genesis 3:1 where each and every Devil's Advocate since the beginning of time received their marching orders: "Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?"

With that in mind, I thought about the kind of advice I would give to someone who asked me how they can essentially undo the Devil's Advocate, especially when it's a dear loved one who's playing the part (who plays the "Devil's Advocate Card" even in the midst of being gently confronted and rebuked regarding some private or public sin).

I think it's quite obvious to anyone reading this that any discussion along those lines brings to mind thoughts of the 8th Commandment, Matthew 18, 1 Timothy 5, Ephesians 4:15, and Jude 1:3 among many other passages and verses from the Bible.

So, let's take a closer look at some of them to ensure we fully understand what the Lord is communicating to us, and that we're on guard against the ways in which Satan, "your adversary the devil" who is like a "roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8), will surely attempt to twist them in order to convince you that your best bet is to say absolutely nothing.

When does the admonition in Matthew 18:15 apply -- for a brother to rebuke a brother privately or secretly? When the sin is known only between the two of them. In that case, it would unnecessarily harm the reputation of the sinner to alert others to it.

When does 1 Timothy 5:20 apply? When the sin is committed in the presence of other witnesses.

In addition to the different circumstances in which Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5 apply, they also emphasize different purposes. Matthew 18 focuses on the repentance of the one who has sinned, while 1 Timothy 5 focuses on the effect the public rebuke is to have on “the others.” 
Speaking of the 8th Commandment, Lutheran theologians, starting with Luther, have uniformly observed the distinction between private and public sin, by the way.

For instance, Luther writes in the Large Catechism...

The true way in this matter would be to keep the order in the Gospel. In Matthew 18:15, Christ says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Here you have a precious and excellent teaching for governing well the tongue, which is to be carefully kept against this detestable misuse. Let this, then, be your rule, that you do not too quickly spread evil about your neighbor and slander him to others. Instead, admonish him privately that he may amend his life. Likewise, if someone reports to you what this or that person has done, teach him, too, to go and admonish that person personally, if he has seen the deed himself.

But then he adds,

All this has been said about secret sins. But where the sin is quite public, so that the judge and everybody know about it, you can without any sin shun the offender and let him go his own way, because he has brought himself into disgrace. You may also publicly testify about him. For when a matter is public in the daylight, there can be no slandering or false judging or testifying. It is like when we now rebuke the pope with his doctrine, which is publicly set forth in books and proclaimed in all the world. Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public, that everyone may learn to guard against it.

That's pretty definitive for us (and it's all derived from Scripture alone too).

All of this comes directly from a an excellent piece titled "The Devil Can Quote Matthew 18, Too" that marvelously simplifies what far too often becomes a complicated web of words.

As we distinguish between Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5, it is not as if we are being required by God to choose “love” in some cases (Matthew 18) and to choose “lovelessness” in other cases (1 Timothy 5:20). Both actions – rebuking in private when called for and rebuking in public when called for – are commands of God, and therefore, both are perfectly loving. (A person’s attitude for doing either may or may not be motivated by love, but that is a separate question.) 
But here is where the devil perverts the Holy Scriptures and reverts to his ancient temptation to turn man into God. He would make us to be gods who judge what love is or isn’t. “How can it be loving to publicly rebuke someone? That will harm their reputation. God tells you to guard your neighbor’s reputation, and therefore, it’s never appropriate to rebuke him in public. Remember, Jesus said, ‘…just between the two of you!’” 
The devil would have us remember Matthew 18 while forgetting 1 Timothy 5. This is no different than what he did when he tempted Jesus. He wanted Jesus to remember Psalm 91:11-12 while forgetting Deuteronomy 6:16. (Thankfully, the Word incarnate didn’t forget Himself inspired.) 
Then the devil inserts the following argument, “Besides, if you rebuke this man publicly, then it will hinder his preaching of the gospel and bring turmoil to his congregation, which will also hinder the work of the gospel. And since spreading the gospel is the most important work of all, you shouldn’t do anything that might hinder it. Surely discipline in the Church is a lesser work than spreading the gospel!” 
Thus, Satan would convince us that one work of God is to be pitted against another. That is, the goal of “evangelism” is more important than following God’s commands for dealing with the one who has publicly sinned. The trouble is, of course, that the God who calls on his Church to preach the gospel is the same God who calls on his Church to rebuke public sins publicly, and this God never works against himself. 
What does the devil accomplish when he succeeds in misquoting Matthew 18 in our ears? Several tragedies result:

(1) Our definition of “love” supersedes God’s definition of “love,” and our purposes in “evangelism” trump God’s commands regarding public sin. We, therefore, make ourselves to be gods, and leave the First Commandment lying in pieces. 
(2) Public sins go publicly unreproved. God’s command to reprove publicly has the loving purpose of warning others. When the devil gets his way, others are not warned, but rather emboldened to commit the same sin, knowing that there will be no public consequence for it. 
(3) Those who act appropriately according to God’s command in 1 Timothy 5:20 are threatened with acting out of line with Matthew 18:15, and may even be censured for acting in line with God’s command. 
(4) If a sin is committed publicly by one pastor, but the rest of the pastors refuse to address it publicly, then the people of God lose trust in all their pastors. 
(5) The name of God is “blasphemed among the Gentiles” when elders of God’s Church commit well-known sins, without there ever being any well-known rebuke for those sins. If the sin is well-known but the rebuke is only private, then the world’s suspicions of “clergy cover-up” will not be entirely without merit.

Matthew 18:15 is God’s Word. 1 Timothy 5:20 is God’s Word. The devil can quote either one against the other, and in our time, he seems to be having a great deal of success pushing Matthew 18 when Matthew 18 does not apply. Distribuite tempora, et concordat Scriptura. Distinguish the times, and the Scripture agrees with itself. Fail to distinguish when Matthew 18 applies, and it becomes another weapon in the devil’s arsenal.

Understanding these key truths will help you to undo the "Devil's Advocate" who would rather hide his/her sin, than humble themselves and repent of it.

In a Lutheran layman's terms, the Devil (and those who belong to him or, at the very least, those who are being influenced by him) are just Scripture twistin' tools! At the end of the day, "God's Word, rightly used, is the devil's undoing, but God's Word, twisted and perverted, is the devil's tool."

NOTE: I'm not a called and ordained minister of God's Word and Sacraments. I'm a layman or a Christian, Candy-Making, Husband, Father, Friend who lives in the "City of Good Neighbors" here on the East Coast. To be more specific, and relevant to the point I want to make with this note, I'm also a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism a little over a year ago. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is inconsistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and point us back to) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Finally, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote on this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that category since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a Christian "Book of Concord" even existed (Small/Large Catechism? What's that!?!). In addition, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by those old beliefs of mine. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because we now have this disclaimer, and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Most importantly, please know that any time I engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always closely follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible and/or include references to the Book of Concord unless otherwise noted. Typically, I defer to what other Lutheran Pastors have already preached and taught about such passages since they are the called and ordained shepherds of our souls here on earth. Finally, I'm going to apologize ahead of time for the length of most entries. I'm well aware that blogs should be short, sweet, and to the point, but I've never been one to follow the rules when it comes to writing. Besides, this website is more like a dude's diary in the sense that everything I write about and share publicly isn't always what's "popular" or "#trending" at the time, but is instead all the things that I'm studying myself at the moment. For better or for worse, these posts tend to be much longer than most blog entries you'll find elsewhere only because I try to pack as much info as possible into a single piece so that I can refer to it again and again over time if I need to (and so that it can be a valuable resource for others -- if possible, a "One-Stop-Shop" of sorts). Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Grace and peace to you and yours!


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

1 comment

  1. A friend (a WELS Pastor) reached out to me about Rev. Paul Rydecki and had this to say about him...

    "He was removed from the WELS ministerium for teaching false doctrine. He taught against objective justification. Doesn’t mean everything he wrote is bad. But be careful."

    I'm so grateful that this man cared enough to let me know and to warn me, which is why I wanted to do the same for all of you.

    Grace And Peace,


Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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