Brian L. De Jong
In my first article on the science of elenctics, I proposed a definition of this much neglected practice. I also sketched the main characteristics of elenctics, and proposed a model for ministry. That article was implicitly resting on a biblical theological foundation. In this second installment, I will attempt to make this foundation explicit. This will enable us to think more thoroughly and carefully about the practice of elenctics in ministry, as well as shedding light on a variety of scriptural passages and themes.
The cornerstone of a biblical theology of elenctics should be Christ himself. Jesus’s earthly ministry is summarized in John 3:19–21:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.
Jesus came into the world as the Light of the world. His very presence had an elenctic quality to it. He exposed things simply by being who he was. As he shined upon men, there were two distinct reactions to his presence. On the one hand, the men of the world loved the darkness rather than this newly arrived Light. Their deeds were evil and they instinctively knew he would expose them for who and what they were. Because they practiced evil, they hated the Light and refused to come near to the Light, lest he elencticize them for all to see. This establishes the important role of elenctics toward unbelievers.
The other reaction also involves exposure. The Light also shines on those who practice the truth. They have no fear, so they gladly approach the Light. As the Light shines upon them, it is plain to all that their good deeds have been wrought in God. God’s grace has had its effect, and these justified persons are now bearing the fruit of righteousness. When Jesus elencticizes them, it is altogether positive. Praise is given to God for his great salvation and its impact upon the righteous of the earth. So we see that elenctics is also practiced toward believers, though with much different purposes and results.
No matter where he went, or what he did, Jesus constantly practiced elenctics. As the Light, he could no more cease exposing men than could the physical sun stop illuminating the earth.
Another important passage is John 16:8–11. In teaching about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says this:
And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
An overlooked area of the ministry of the Spirit is his work among unbelievers. His impact upon Christians is widely appreciated, but what does he do among the unbelieving men of this world? First and foremost, he convicts them. In other words, the Holy Spirit is elencticizing unbelievers in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment. In this usage the verb ἐλέγχω (elengchō) carries the connotation of condemning what is exposed. This is not a dispassionate exposé of unbelief, but rather a passionate demonstration of the guilt of sin in the sinful world, together with God’s negative judgment against it.
The elenctic ministry of the Spirit has three aspects. First, he is convicting the world concerning sin because they do not believe in Christ. Here is the chief sin of the ungodly man—his failure to believe Jesus to be all that he claims to be. From this serious sin of unbelief flow all sorts of other evils, but failure to believe in Jesus is the fountainhead of their many soul-damning corruptions. Unbelief is everywhere exposed and condemned by the Holy Spirit.
In his commentary on John, D. A. Carson says:
The Holy Spirit presses home the world’s sin despite the world’s unbelief; he convicts the world of sin because they do not believe in Jesus. This convicting work of the Paraclete is therefore gracious: it is designed to bring men and women of the world to recognize their need, and so turn to Jesus, and thus stop being “the world.”
The second component of the Spirit’s elenctic work is more obscure—“concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see me.” Carson argues that the righteousness in view is the world’s righteousness—a righteousness of their own making. Just as Jesus frequently exposed the utter inadequacy of the so-called “righteousness” of the Jews, Carson asks:
Is it not therefore thematically appropriate that the Paraclete should convict the world of its righteous? ... The reason why the Paraclete convicts the world of its righteousness is because Jesus is going to the Father. As we have observed, one of Jesus’ most startling roles with respect to the world was to show up the emptiness of its pretensions, to expose by his light the darkness of the world for what it is. But now Jesus is going; how will that convicting work be continued? It is continued by the Paraclete, who drives home this conviction in the world precisely because Jesus is no longer present to discharge this task.
The final prong of the Spirit’s elenctic ministry is concerning judgment. The world has weighed Christ in the scales and found him wanting. Their judgment is wrong and wicked, and the Spirit will demonstrate this fact. In reality, the world willingly links arms with the devil and joins his cause. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, the prince of this world was exposed and condemned. The Spirit would therefore expose and condemn all of Satan’s allies for their part in this cosmic rebellion against God the Son.
A third passage that deserves our attention is arguably the single-most important statement in Scripture about Scripture. The bedrock for our understanding of the inspiration of the Bible is 2 Timothy 3:16–17. Those familiar verses say this: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” In this passage the elenctic work is focused upon the believer—the “man of God.”
The second function of “all Scripture” in that text is “elenctics”—for reproof and the rebuking of the sinner. This is a necessary step in the sequence outlined in these verses. Scripture is profitably taught in a broad and general sense, but it is also profitable for zeroing in on the specific misdeeds of men. As sin is exposed and rebuked, then Scripture can be applied for correction. In other words, before the cure can be applied, the wound must be opened and cleansed. Scripture opens up and cleans out the wound, and then applies the healing ointment so restoration can proceed. Finally, Scripture trains a man in righteousness so that he will not fall back into the same trap again. Thus is the man of God made adequate, equipped for every good work.
What Paul records in 2 Timothy 3:16 provides the important complement to Jesus’s words in John 16. Elenctics is the work of the Holy Spirit, and he sovereignly and graciously employs the Scriptures in this work. Since the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit, it makes sense that he would employ his own sword in this necessary ministry.
Next, reflect upon Paul’s words to Titus:
For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith. (Titus 1:7–13)
Here Paul spells out qualifications for an overseer. These instructions relate especially to ministers. A minister is to hold fast the faithful word in accordance with the teaching. He must be theologically sound and biblically orthodox. His commitment to the word of God is for two purposes. First, so that he will be able to exhort believers in sound doctrine. Through a ministry of preaching and teaching, he must expound and apply the Scriptures to the minds, hearts, and lives of Christians.
The second purpose for holding fast to the faithful word is so that he can elencticize those who contradict the truth. This may include members of the visible church, or those critics from outside the church. In this instance the verb ἐλέγχω (elengchō) emphasizes the exposing, contradicting, and refuting of false doctrine, together with an explanation of what the truth actually means. Ministers who preach must be equipped to identify heresy, to dissect it and to use the word to refute whatever is erroneous.
Often when rebellious men inject their influence into the church, they gain a hearing from well-meaning but gullible Christians. Such deceivers were at work in the first century, and they inflicted profound damage. They were upsetting whole families by teaching things they should not. To top it off, they did so for the sake of sordid gain. How should Titus respond? Paul prescribes elenctics. Reprove them severely, he says. The severity of this elenctic encounter is needed because of the persuasive strength of the opposition. Later Paul underlines this when he says in Titus 2:15, “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” Reproving is elencticizing. Speak and exhort and elencticize with all spiritual authority, and allow no one to disregard you!
When it comes to the duty of ordinary believers, we look to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:11–14, where he writes:
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Here the Apostle exhorts believers to refuse participation in the “unfruitful deeds of darkness.” To be involved in such sins would constitute hypocrisy and would blunt any criticism offered by the believer against pagan practices. Paul’s warning does not stop there. He does not merely counsel Christians to steer clear of those deeds of darkness. Instead Paul advises that Christians should even expose those pernicious practices. Here is the command to “elencticize” the unfruitful deeds of the sons of darkness. Such wickedness must be exposed for what it is so that everyone can see the disgraceful nature of such conduct. In verse 13 Paul expands the thought by saying that all things become visible when they are exposed by the light. This again shows us the nature of elenctics— it is the exposing of all things to the light, so that those things might become visible to everyone—believer and unbeliever alike. Shining the light on sin displays the true corruption and ugliness of sin. So long as it lurks in the shadows, and operates under the cover of darkness, no one can actually see what sin looks like. Only in the blazing brilliance of the light of Christ can these actions and motives be shown for what they truly are. In verse 14 Paul then draws together various ideas and phrases from Isaiah to call the sleeper to awake “and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Now we see the function of elenctics in calling the exposed sinner to repentance and faith—to new life in Christ.
As this falls in the midst of a chapter of ethical imperatives for believers, the duty to practice elenctics is not restricted or limited to ordained ministers or professional apologists. Elenctics is a duty of each and every Christian. No Christian should ever participate in unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead every follower of Christ should expose the disgraceful deeds done by evil men.
Having looked at a number of key passages from Scripture about the practice of elenctics, let us briefly survey some historic examples of elenctics in practice. Perhaps the most memorable instance of elenctics in the history of Israel is found in 2 Samuel 12. King David had sinned grievously in his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, and the murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite. David hid his sin, but God saw what his servant had done. Hence the Lord sent Nathan the prophet to King David. While Nathan wove his tale about injustice and arrogance, David was caught up in the narrative. David’s anger burned against the main character, and he demanded justice and fourfold restitution. Nathan then uttered those immortal elenctic words, “You are the man.” Nathan exposed David’s sins and crimes for the king to see, and David was broken by it. After Nathan details the offenses of David against Bathsheba, Uriah, and the Lord himself, and pronounces God’s judgment on the wayward monarch, David replies, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Psalms 51 and 32 detail David’s confession, repentance, and restoration, which flowed from Nathan’s effective elenctic ministry.
Another Old Testament instance of elenctics is the confrontation of Elijah with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Before the eager eyes of the watching Israelites, this is what Elijah said about Baal in 1 Kings 18:27: “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ ”
This exposé was the necessary prelude to Elijah’s humble prayer before a waterlogged altar. When the fire fell from heaven and consumed everything, then the people realized that Yahweh is God and Baal is not. Before they could be brought to their senses, they had to see convincingly that Baal was no god at all, and that the prophets of Baal were religious charlatans. Having exposed the bankruptcy of Baal worship, the compelling scene at Elijah’s altar had a decisive effect. Before men can know that the Lord, he is God, they must be convinced that Baal, he is no god at all.
Moving to the New Testament, among the first figures we meet is John the Baptizer. When John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he said this in Matthew 3:7–9: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
When tax collectors came to be baptized, John exposed their sins of greed: “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (Luke 3:13, NASB). To soldiers he said, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14, NASB). In saying this he exposes three failures of the soldiers: (1) their thievery; (2) their bearing false witness; (3) their discontentment with their wages. John’s elenctic ministry came to a zenith when he reprimanded Herod the tetrarch for unlawfully taking Herodias, his brother’s wife—an elenctic encounter that led to imprisonment and death.
No better practitioner of elenctics ever existed than our Savior himself. Examples abound in the gospels, including the clear instance recorded in John 10:24–26:
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.”
The Jews were disingenuous in their demand. Jesus had told them plainly, as well as demonstrating the truth of his claim by his works. Jesus therefore calls them on their hypocrisy and then exposes their essential problem—unbelief. Twice he convicts them of sin because they did not believe in him or the works he had done. On an even deeper level, he exposes the true cause of their refusal to believe—“you are not my sheep.” These were the recognized religious elites of their day, but Jesus was showing them for what they truly were—blind guides and false professors.
The quintessential elenctic chapter is Matthew 23. There Jesus exposes the scribes and Pharisees for their high handed hypocrisy. Observe how Jesus blisters them:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! ... Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt. 23:23, 25)
The Apostles also carried out elenctics in their ministries. Peter’s Pentecost sermon ended on this note: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). That last phrase—“whom you crucified”—tore the iron mask off the audience. They were faced with their sin, and their hearts were pierced.
In Acts 3 Peter struck the same chord again, saying “But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14–15).
Likewise Stephen’s defense before the high priest was a piece of strong elenctic preaching. He concluded in Acts 7:51–52 with these words:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered.
On Paul’s first missionary journey, he encountered Elymas the magician. Paul exposed that deceitful man’s heart with strong words: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10).
Preaching in Pisidian Antioch, Paul rebuked the envious Jews. He said in Acts 13:46, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.”
Paul’s ministry among pagan Gentiles was no less pointed. Speaking in Athens to the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill, Paul showed them that they worshiped in ignorance. Since the Greeks boasted in their wisdom, Paul’s insistence on their ignorance would be galling to their selfish conceits. Moreover, as Paul critiqued the rampant idolatry of that society, and illustrated its obviously ridiculous nature, he was proving that the philosophers of Athens were not as insightful as they supposed. He drove his point home by announcing that God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent—including the philosophers in his audience that day.
Not only did Paul use elenctics in his preaching, but he employed this approach at times in his epistles. He chided the Corinthians for their divisions and disunity. He called them arrogant, and suggested that their tolerance of sexual immorality in their congregation was something even the pagans of that day wouldn’t condone. Likewise he had sharp words for the “foolish” Galatians. Other New Testament writers are equally scathing at points, such as the scorching section in James 4:1–4.
But alas, we have only scratched the surface. God’s Word overflows with elenctics—it is a biblical theme impossible to miss!
 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 537.
 Ibid., 538.
Brian L. De Jong is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Ordained Servant Online, June 2016.