A brother has solicited our views on the subject of exhortations, particularly as they are found in the New Testament. With a desire to comply with our brother's request, we must first confess our great feeling of inability to express what is understood by us concerning this theme. We have long held the view that most of what are generally regarded as exhortations in the New Testament are rather simple statements of fact, as the Lord and the apostles gave them. Nevertheless, as there are those texts that have been perplexing to many, we offer a few lines. We trust our brethren will adopt our remarks, only as they are sufficiently sustained by the Word of God.
"Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation: for I have written a letter unto you in few words (Hebrews 13.20-22)."
There are probably few of God's little children that have not been at some time troubled as to how they should understand the Bible subject of exhortations. On the one hand many good brethren cautiously shun the subject altogether, fearing perhaps they will be wrongly castigated as Arminians if they broach the subject. They know the Bible is replete with verses perceived as exhortations, yet nevertheless they feel compelled to remain silent as the tomb. Others seem to feel they have a "duty" to boldly charge the saints with every "do" and "don't do" they can dream up. To act otherwise, they appear to believe, would be Antinomianism of the worst sort.
Paul, in concluding his epistle to the Hebrews, them with "And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation." Notice, he initially says, "And I beseech you." Here, in effect, he explains the rudimentary meaning of exhortations. A good concordance will tell you that to exhort means to call near, invite, invoke, beseech. This is precisely what Paul does; he beseeches his readers, or hearers. Additionally, he tells them to suffer the word of exhortation. There are no dire threatenings nor sweet enticements; only a "suffer the word." This, we understand, is a fitting pattern to safely guide each of us as we search to comprehend the subject. It is readily acknowledged there are various scriptures where this pattern may not be fully applicable, but let us proceed, trusting the Lord will graciously effuse sufficient light so that we stray not into the darkness of preconceived notions and long cherished errors.
Lest there be anyone that considers this a subject of no great weight, we point out that the words, exhort, exhortation, exhorted, exhorteth, and exhorting appear a combined total of 34 times in the New Testament. Were there but a single appearance it would still demand our recognition and careful attention.
When the theme of exhortations is introduced, "We are not under the law; we are under the gospel" is often used as a response. Yes, blessedly, we are under the gospel, and it is those many Scriptures interspersed in the Bible from Matthew to Revelation we seek to understand, not as legal exhortations, but as profitable gospel instruction. Paul wrote to Timothy, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (II Timothy 3.16, 17)." From this we gather that no matter how we classify any text, be it doctrine, history, prophesy, instruction, or exhortation, it is profitable. Not profitable for all mankind; only the man of God, meaning His elect children. Not profitable for their condemnation; profitable for their perfection. Not profitable to strip or deny them; profitable to furnish them. Not profitable to encourage slothfulness; profitable unto all good works. By the grace of God we shall view our subject with this in mind, ever looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.
We do not think there is a Bible student alive willing to deny that much of the New Testament is made up of instructive matter as well as pure doctrinal matter. The Book is open before us that all may see. We also have great confidence that the doctrinal portions of the Word of God could hold little value without the attending complimentary instructions. A classic example of this can be found in John 15, concerning the Lord's instructions to His disciples regarding the vine and the branches. The chapter abounds with weighty doctrinal matter, as can be seen in "Now are ye clean through the word which I have spoken unto you," and it contains serious exhortations, such as "Abide in me," and "continue ye in my love." And how do these things compliment each other as we contend? Hear our Saviour explain: "These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full (verse 11)." "These things" include all the Lord told His disciples; not just the doctrinal part, nor just the commandments; all these things.
It is well worth mentioning in this connection that the heaven-born child feels the value of "abide in me" and "continue ye in my love" not nearly so much as iron-clad instructions or exhortations as they feel them to be blessed personal favors pronounced from the lips of their dear Lord. "My Lord has bid ME abide in Him." "Praise His holy name!" "Jesus has told ME to continue in His love." "What grace! What mercy!" "Can it be true?" Here they see the grand doctrine of the union of Vine and branches, together with a wondrous injunction to abide in Him, as one grand theme. There is no fleshly urgency to separate these themes and then proclaim they have rightly divided the Word of God. No; whatever Jesus speaks to them, either doctrine or commandment, brings joy that will both remain and fill them. Those are the spiritual motions of all given eyes to see themselves as needy sinners. This brings us to a corollary item, which is the seeming contradiction between exhortations and God's sovereignty. We emphasize seeming, for there is no real contradiction.
We shall touch only briefly for the time on the perplexities that arise concerning the exhortations, commandments and instructions found throughout the New Testament. Believers know that ... .without me ye can do nothing (John 15.5)." On the other hand, they also know that "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (Philippians 4.12)." They are, moreover, all too keenly aware, and we may say painfully aware, of the text, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not (Romans7. 18)." And, again, "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would (Galatians 5.17)" Over against all these are the mountains of injunctions that seem to loom over them as solemn warnings, such as "Beware," "Be not deceived," "Take heed," "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof (Romans 6.12)." But these, and countless other texts and phrases, are as Scriptural sentinels, marking out the path and way of holiness, that those with eyes to see may not fall into the deep abyss of fleshly lusts.
Seeing then believers are such complex beings, having both an old and a new nature; an old and a new man; being also, as the poet exclaimed, "Both a sinner and a saint," how shall they then look on the business of exhortations? Are there contradictions between God's sovereignty and God's exhortations? Of course not! The perplexities come about when the foolish attempt to pit one against the other.
Having no desire to appear authoritative, we shall, the Lord willing, attempt to introduce this fulsome subject to our readers, being aware they may well know much more of the subject than ourselves. We proceed with only a few well known examples of apparent exhortations contained in the Word of God, most particularly in the New Testament. They will be found to fall into several categories, which, for lack of better names, we call, particular exhortations, general exhortations, and directional exhortations. The particular exhortations are aimed specifically at a single person, group, church or class, although many of these can also be applied in the general sense. By general, we mean those exhortations that are not necessarily restricted to the specific individual written or spoken to. Directional exhortations are those that aim at a goal that may or may not be readily attainable by the recipient of the exhortation. To some, these latter exhortations have proved the most difficult to understand. We, however, feel that with some broad understanding of the whole subject, they are no more trying to our limited understanding than the others.
"According to all that I show thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it (Exodus 25.9)." This was a particular exhortation if ever there was one. The tribes of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, were instructed to build the tabernacle after the pattern shown by God. It would require the combined presumption of a thousand Arminian kingdom-builders to even dream that this exhortation applied to any but those wandering Israelites of centuries past. We suggest that herein we have established clearly that all exhortations do not apply to all who may read them. Joyous as it may be to study the travels of those twelve tribes, we cannot be bound by those exhortations given them unless there is some clear warrant from the Lord.
"The beginning of the word of the Lord by Hosea. And the Lord said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord (Hosea 1.2)." This again is a very specific, or particular exhortation. Hosea was instructed to marry a harlot. There is no doubt that this exhortation was not intended for another person on earth, then or now. It is an exhortation or commandment beyond question, but is in no wise binding on any other than Hosea. We might also add that Hosea did exactly what he was exhorted to do; without fail.
Turning now to the New Testament we look at several other cases of particular exhortation. "And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him (Matthew 4.19, 20)." The Master called Peter and his brother Andrew, but none other at that time. These poor fishermen were called specifically, and follow Him they did. Could any other person on earth properly assume this call was an exhortation for them to follow Jesus? We think not.
"And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth (John 11.43)." No command or exhortation in all the New Testament could be more particular than this. Beautiful as the whole event was, none but Lazarus was instructed to come forth from the tomb. The power of the resurrection was intended for none but this one dead and buried sinner, and, as may be expected, none but Lazarus came forth. We might add that not even the stench of death could prevent Lazarus from obeying this command, for as soon as Jesus spoke, Lazarus came forth. It may here be contended by someone that this is not the type of exhortations they speak of when they insist on exhorting the brethren. This is just the point at which we aim. There is a variety of exhortations in the Scriptures, and each must be examined individually, not lumped together with the singular purpose of proving that we must exhort the saints of God.
Before examining some of those exhortations we consider general, we must preface our views. It is a solemn truth that often we discover no matter how willing our spirit may be to comply, the flesh is yet weak. For example, consider the admonition of John the beloved. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen (I John 5.21)." This is clearly an exhortation to all the little children in general. In a most positive manner John concludes his epistle with this warning relative to idolatry. It is written to no particular person or church, but rather the believing children scattered abroad everywhere in every age. But do believers not often chasten themselves with the knowledge that idolatry yet lurks within them? They remember that covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3.5) and few of them are free from that hideous sin. So then, while the exhortation is general, and touches their lives along with all others of the redeemed family, they bow submissive to the message, and at the same time feel its condemnation. This circumstance, we feel sure, applies to nearly all those general exhortations we find in the Scriptures.
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Romans 12.1,2)." Whenever a discussion regarding exhortations ensues between Predestinarians and those with a more limited view, these verses are usually mentioned to prove the necessity of exhorting the brethren. "What do you do with these and kindred Scriptures?" Predestinarians are asked, as if Predestinarians secretly wished they were not in the Bible at all. But these verses are in the Bible, and multitudes of saints throughout the ages have been immensely blessed in contemplating them. We would point out again that Paul properly prefaces the exhortations with "I beseech you." He was addressing the brethren, thus this is another general exhortation, and yet at the same time having limitations. Only brethren are instructed; there is not a soul on earth outside the brotherhood that may appropriate these verses. Paul also invokes the mercies of God, establishing beyond dispute that these injunctions are far removed from the whim or will of man, to be complied with or not, as it might please the person addressed. The exhortation was to present their bodies a living sacrifice. And why? Because they are holy, meaning set apart by the power and purpose of God. How? As being acceptable unto God. Paul's argument? It was their reasonable service. Reasonable comes to us from the Greek word, logikos, which is commonly translated logical. Had he written, "when you survey the situation, you have only one logical course to follow; that is the presentation of your bodies as a living sacrifice," it would have been essentially the same as what he did write.
The exhortation continues in Verse 2 with an admonition to "be not conformed to this world." Certainly, this was a clear exhortation, especially in the light of what the apostle had previously written in Romans 8.29. There he said that these foreknown brethren were "...predestinated to be conformed to the image of his son." Only the most hardened Arminian would dare attempt to deny the correlation. Here the doctrine and the exhortation once again compliment each other, as we have previously suggested. Since Paul had first established that those foreknown of God were also predestinated to be conformed to the image of the Son, then they may with sufficient comfort receive the exhortation, "be not conformed to this world."
What was the purpose of Paul's exhortation, "be not conformed to this world"? Answer: "That ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." First, Paul had written of the conformity of predestination to the image of the Son. Then he admonished the saints regarding non-conformity to the world. Finally, then, he wraps all these things together with, not surprisingly, the will of God!
To further strengthen this whole discourse, it is exceedingly interesting to observe that as Paul concluded what we perceive as the doctrinal portion of the Roman letter, he wound up with, "For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen (Romans 11.36)." So, finishing the doctrinal portion of the book of Romans with a powerful statement on the will and purpose of God, as forceful a statement on predestination as can be found in all the Word of God, Paul goes right into the exhortation we have examined in Romans 12.
Before examining those exhortations we call directional, we will point out the way Paul approached exhorting the brethren. "For our exhortation was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile: But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts (I Thessalonians 2.3,4)." The construction of Paul's statement to the Thessalonians clearly establishes that he perceived exhortations as apart of the gospel, and not separate and distinct from it. Thus he spoke to please God, not men. Next, he establishes the need for tenderness in the exhortations of the gospel. "But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children (I Thessalonians 2.7)." Paul was a servant of God, to the little children, and carried out this delicate business as a nurse would with her charge of infants. There would be nothing harsh or cruel in the dispatch of his service. He would be as tender as a loving nurse would be to the needy child.
As the little child grows, the need of nursing is replaced by the care of parents; thus Paul continues with, "As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory (I Thessalonians 2.11,12)." He exhorted, comforted and charged as would any loving father! This is a pattern worthy of our emulation. Finally, we see that Paul knew that, whether as a nurse or as a father, his exhortations would not be in vain. This is crystal clear from the following: "For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe (I Thessalonians 2.13)." "Effectually worketh" gives us assurance that exhorting with the idelines given in the Word of God shall not be in vain. There is no cause for concern that believers "may, or may not" give heed to gospel exhortations. God, Who effectually worketh, will see that all that is predetermined shall certainly be accomplished in due season, and that without fail.
We would explain again that by directional exhortations, we mean those things that are enjoined upon the saints that are, in the estimation of the reader or hearer, not possible to fulfill; that is: The texts we cite should readily be seen as exhortations beyond the reach of honest believers, unless, or until aided by the Spirit of God.
"Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath (Ephesians 4.26)." This is not an exhortation to be or to become angry. Rather, it suggests that when you do become angry, let it not conclude with sin. But, who among the saints of God has risen above sinning when sudden anger consumed them? Honesty compels us to admit we fail, and often fail miserably. Paul has pointed us in the direction of holiness, but we must confess we fail. Only as enabled by the grace of God will believers ever avoid sinning when angry.
"Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God (Philippians 4.6)." The word, careful, seems to mean here, worrying, fretting, anxiety, trepidation, apprehension, dread, and so on. May not all confess guilt? However close the believer may come to attaining a position of caring for nothing, unless they arrive spotless in the pursuit, they have failed. Again, the message appears to be a goal, and not the accomplishment thereof. Paul had by the exhortation shown the believer the path or direction, but without specific strength each of them must fail. Does this mean then that it is a waste of time to bother with the injunction since we surely will come short? Paul did not think so, and neither do we. If nothing else comes of the exhortation, it shall drive the children of God to beg Him for both strength and forgiveness when they discover their inability.
"Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul (I Peter 2.11)." Notice too, Peter used the expression, beseech, as he addressed the scattered strangers (I Peter 1.1). They were dear and beloved to him, and he exhorts them towards, or directs their minds to, abstinence. We seriously doubt that the Apostle assumed these strangers would perfectly and completely abstain from all lusts at all times. Had this been the case, it would surely have crushed their feeble hope of ever standing pure before God. What it would do, we repeat, was drive the pilgrims to their knees, humbly pleading for God to grant them strength, and at the same time wash them from all uncleanness.
We offer two final examples of directional exhortations, in both quoting from the words of our Lord. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5.48)." First, we would mention that this is not really an exhortation as many believe it to be. It is simply a declaration of facts as the Lord willed for the matter to be. He did not say that His hearers "ought to get perfect." Neither did He implore them to become perfect. Rather, He, with the power in His words of a king, pronounced them perfect.
Arminians contend that the word "perfect" as used in this text really does not mean perfection, but implies full development, growth in maturity of godliness, not sinless perfection. Were that the case, how could it be, "even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect?" Would the Lord instruct His flock to grow in maturity even as their Father grows in maturity? Or, would the Lord use the word "perfect" twice in the same sentence, and mean two different things? Just as sure as the Lord fully intended to calm the troubled waters when He said, "Peace be still," He purposed to perfect, or pronounce the saints perfect when He said, "Be ye therefore perfect."
"For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5.20)." Most expositors would use this text to exhort the sin-weary believer to vamp up his personal conduct, lest any be left out of the kingdom. According to them, they must come up with a superior walk and conduct than that of the strictest gang of religionists that ever plagued the earth. May we rejoice to say, however, that the Lord was giving us a comparison, not an exhortation.
There are many other texts in the Scriptures which are pronouncements rather than exhortations, but we must leave them. Sufficient has been given to show the drift at which we aim, however imperfectly we may have handled the subject. Believers need not fear the genuine exhortations, for they will at the last be comforted by them rather than condemned. It would be folly of the worst sort if we contended we understood this subject with any great measure of light. What we may say is, that we stand in no dread of true exhortations, for wherein we fail, or wherever the Lord withholds sufficient grace, we believe His cleansing blood has, if we are His, secured us a place before the Father. There we shall stand in His righteousness; there He shall be our obedience; and there He has already satisfied all the Father may require of us. Those called of God unto eternal life know all too well they fail and come far short of the glory of God, but they also know that Jesus never fails them.
J. F. Poole
Volume 10, No. 3