When Soft Words Are Not Enough

“We see that our Saviour multiplies woe upon woe when he has to deal with hard hearted hypocrites (Matt. 23:13), for hypocrites need stronger conviction than gross sinners, because their will is bad, and therefore usually their conversion is violent. A hard knot must have an answerable wedge, else, in a cruel pity, we betray their souls. A sharp reproof sometimes is a precious pearl and a sweet balm. The wounds of secure sinners will not be healed with sweet words.” – Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (emphasis added)

Galatians 2 recounts an interaction between Peter and Paul—two towering apostles tasked with overseeing the spread of the gospel to the Jews and Gentiles, respectively.

Picture the scene with me: Peter makes his way to Antioch and begins the relatively new practice of sharing a table during a meal with non-Jews (i.e., Gentiles). This was a pretty big deal, given the amount of hostility the two groups previously shared, but it was right in line with the precedent Jesus had set for His followers.

But then an impressive Jewish entourage makes its way into town from Jerusalem and suddenly Peter begins to slowly back away from the communal table and adhere to old ways. What’s worse—others see this example and begin to follow him (reminiscent of John 21:3). Paul sees and confronts this blatant hypocrisy, but let’s re-envision their interaction through a softer lens, shall we?

Looking to Peter, Paul says, “Hey Pete, can I chat with you privately over here for a minute?”

“Sure, what’s up man?”

“Well bud, let me start by saying how thankful I am of you. I’ve seen a lot of growth over the past few years, and I want to affirm you in that.”

“Gee, thanks!”

“Of course, brother. But just one thing I wanted to float past you for your consideration: maybe think about how you may be acting a bit different around the Gentiles since that group from Jerusalem rolled in?”

“Happy to consider, brother—so thankful you’d care enough to share!”

Confrontation achieved! Right?

But how had Jesus confronted Peter in the past? Looking at just a handful of examples, He had (1) thrice questioned his love for Him (John 21:15-17), (2) threatened to have no part with him (John 13:8), (3) cast dramatic eye-contact his way (Luke 22:61), (4) told him Satan was coming after him (Luke 22:31), and of course, (5) called him “Satan” (Matt 16:23). Peter was a “rock” in more ways than one…

Jesus didn’t treat everyone this way—there are times when He was incredibly light-handed in His reproof of others (c.f., John 3:10). Some needed little more than a gentle question to see the error of their ways; others needed an eviscerating condemnation (c.f., Matt 23, Luke 13:32).

Bear in mind the context of the quote that opened this article. Puritan Richard Sibbes expertly expounds upon Christ’s unique office as the gentle shepherd, of whom Isaiah declares: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Is 42:3a). But not all fall into this category—a few chapters later, the Lord says this of His people: “…I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass” (Is 48:4). Bruised reeds require a gentle touch—iron rods need more forceful persuasion.

Looking back to Galatians 2, this is what Paul actually ended up saying:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned… I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?…” – Galatians 2:11,14b

Christians can fall into either ditch: crushing the bruised reed or cajoling the iron rod. The question then becomes, “which am I confronting, the reed or the rod?” The evidence provided by Scripture (plus Sibbes’ reference) seems to bring up a common theme: blatant hypocrisy requires a strong response. When dealing with a high-handed hypocrite, those that are godly set a precedent in Scripture of confronting the sinner as one would bend metal. Heat and force.

Why so forceful? Sibbes put it best when he said, “A hard knot must have an answerable wedge, else, in a cruel pity, we betray their souls.” The goal is to help the meandering Christian see the error of their way and point them back to Christ. A bruised reed will need little coaxing towards Jesus—too much force may lead to crushing. A will of iron is foolishly confident in the way it is going—setting its sight back on Christ requires a force exemplified by Christ, Himself.

Soft words may seem like they are always the considerate approach, but when the goal is loving the sinner and pointing them to Jesus, an “answerable wedge” is the caring tool.

Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash

Stefan Nitzschke
Stefan Nitzschke serves on the pastoral team at Faith Church. He and his wife have a passion for discipleship and evangelism. They are the blessed parents of four carefree boys and one sweet girl.