Thursday, September 18, 2008

If you must engage in controversy...

I recall reading somewhere in one of the Puritans that the temptations that that a minister faces when engaging in controversy are greater than those he faces from "wine and women." Controversy is dangerous for Christians because the cause engaged too easily becomes a justification for sins committed in promoting or defending it.

When convinced that you are engaged in the high and holy calling of defending the cause of God and His truth it is very easy to overlook the basics of the Christian life, such as:
  • God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5)
  • A greater, deeper, more mature theological understanding is worthless without love (1 Cor. 13:2)
  • Zeal for the honor of Christ never justifies vengeful dispositions (Luke 9:54-56)
No one has helped me more with this than John Newton. His sermons, treatises and letters exude the kind of humble conviction that adorns the doctrines that he espouses. That is what provoked John Piper to make the subtitle of his biography of Newton "The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness."

Newton believed that perhaps his greatest usefulness in ministry came from the letters that he wrote. One of them, reprinted below, is to a fellow pastor who was about to publish an article refuting the opinions of another minister. It is filled with the kind of wisdom that we moderns desperately need to hear.

Today it is far easier for someone to get his or her words spread abroad than it was 200 years ago--or even 20 years ago. We can do it in seconds by clicking "send" or "publish post." That ease and immediacy often work against wisdom and humility. With Google cache retaining our published words long after any attempt to remove them due to regret, Pilate's words are equally true of us and should serve as a sober precaution, "What I have written, I have written" (John 19:22).

As a convinced "5 point Calvinist" (though I would be happy to let that nomenclature fade away), let me issue a more direct appeal to my fellow Reformed brethren. John Newton writes as one who shares our theological understanding. He held unashamedly and tenaciously to the doctrines of sovereign grace. As he warns,
Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.
As I wrote the in a previous post, the issue of "Calvinism" is not going away. Southern Baptists--and evangelicals of various stripes--will be forced do discuss it. How we do so will bring either honor or dishonor to our Lord. Let's hold one another accountable for representing Jesus Christ well to those with whom we disagree as well as to a watching world of believers and unbelievers. Our ongoing responsibility is to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) and to have our "speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt," so that we may know how we ought to answer each one (Col. 4:6). We must speak to people better than they deserve to be spoken to (grace) and strive to do so in a way that they will find our words appetizing (seasoned with salt). I love the way that the Puritan, John Flavel put it, "A crucified stile [style] best suits the preachers of a crucified Christ."

Heed the wise counsel of John Newton.
Dear Sir,

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armor, that you need not complain, as David did of Saul's, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the Word of God. I take it for granted that you will not expect any apology for my freedom, and therefore I shall not offer one. For method's sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.


As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord's teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.

If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: "Deal gently with him for my sake." The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.

But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! "He knows not what he does." But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defense of the gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.

Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose. "If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth." If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their principles, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.


By printing, you will appeal to the public; where your readers may be ranged under three divisions: First, such as differ from you in principle. Concerning these I may refer you to what I have already said. Though you have your eye upon one person chiefly, there are many like-minded with him; and the same reasoning will hold, whether as to one or to a million.

There will be likewise many who pay too little regard to religion, to have any settled system of their own, and yet are preengaged in favor of those sentiments which are at least repugnant to the good opinion men naturally have of themselves. These are very incompetent judges of doctrine; but they can form a tolerable judgment of a writer's spirit. They know that meekness, humility, and love are the characteristics of a Christian temper; and though they affect to treat the doctrines of grace as mere notions and speculations, which, supposing they adopted them, would have no salutary influence upon their conduct; yet from us, who profess these principles, they always expect such dispositions as correspond with the precepts of the gospel. They are quick-sighted to discern when we deviate from such a spirit, and avail themselves of it to justify their contempt of our arguments. The scriptural maxim, that "the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God," is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. The weapons of our warfare, and which alone are powerful to break down the strongholds of error, are not carnal, but spiritual; arguments fairly drawn from Scripture and experience, and enforced by such a mild address, as may persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls, and contend only for the truth's sake; if we can satisfy them that we act upon these motives, our point is half gained; they will be more disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions.

You will have a third class of readers, who, being of your own sentiments, will readily approve of what you advance, and may be further established and confirmed in their views of the Scripture doctrines, by a clear and masterly elucidation of your subject. You may be instrumental to their edification if the law of kindness as well as of truth regulates your pen, otherwise you may do them harm. There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.

I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from and are nourished by the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse were always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind. I think I have known some Arminians, that is, persons who for want of a clearer light, have been afraid of receiving the doctrines of free grace, who yet have given evidence that their hearts were in a degree humbled before the Lord.

And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility, that they are willing in words to debase the creature and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit.

Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.


This leads me, in the last place, to consider your own concern in your present undertaking. It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own day, when errors abound on all sides and every truth of the gospel is either directly denied or grossly misrepresented.

And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?

Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views; and though you set out in defense of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God.

Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who "when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not." This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, "not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called." The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savor and efficacy of our labors.

If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.
Reprinted from The Works of John Newton, Letter XIX "On Controversy." Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2002. Available online at the OPC website.


Russell Taylor said...

I will file these words and read them often. I've often said that if I offended people that I hoped it would be the truth and not my personality that offends. Sometimes we assume that people are offended by the truth, when they are really offended because we are jerks. I've been guilty of this myself. I would encourage anyone who's ministry includes using the tongue or pen to have someone hold them accountable on this. Someone who's free and willing to say, "you were harsh" or "you were arrogant". For me it is my wife and I thank God for her excellent critiques of how I've communicated the truth. Furthermore, perhaps we should hold our Calvinist brethren accountable as much as others. I welcome this if I cross the line. Applying Newton's words, may benefit us as much as a good argument. We may win an argument and still not when our brother. May God give us the grace to win both.

Stephen Garrett said...

Dear Tom:

"A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle." (Proverbs 18: 19 KJV)

We won't win anyone being offensive.

God bless,


Terrell Academy Chapel said...

Well that's phenomenal and I thank you, Tom. I, too, will be filing this away to return to again and again.

My greatest regrets almost all involve words rashly or harshly spoken.

I'm a long way from where I should be, but I'm slowly developing the ability to breathe and think and pray before responding to whatever it is that has aggravated me.

Thanks for this.

Wyman Richardson

debt said...

A good word, Tom. Thanks! Rick and Deb Tarter

Litl-Luther said...

I'm guilty. Very convicting. Thank you!

G N Barkman said...

I should have read Newton's words 35 years ago. But that's what growing in grace is all about.

Greg Barkman

Tim said...

Thank you Tom for bringing this treasure of a letter to us and for your wise words of introduction. I'm painfully and joyfully convicted.

I've heard people claim that every newly convinced Calvinist should be locked away for a time to prevent the kinds of offense you address here. Perhaps a prayerful read of this post could shorten their stay in "purgatory."

I've added a link at to hopefully expand the number of zealous 5 pointers who get exposed to it.

Litl-Luther said...

I'm not sure that is true about new Calvinists. Perhaps it is, but historically, and even today, it has been the Arminians who draw first blood. But my favorite flower is the TULIP so perhaps I'm bias.

Tim said...

You are right on who often draws first blood (a much more general statement), but there is a strong tendency of newly convinced Calvinists to go out and seek to prove everyone else wrong. Often doing so with all the gentleness of a bull in a china shop.

Danny said...

Sarcasm in itself is not a sin. I've come full circle. Started out trying to convince everyone. Step two was realizing my conceit and trying to get along. Where I am now is defending what is taught in the doctrines of grace. You want to be an arminian fine...I'll see you in heaven. Debate is not hate. The "serrated edge" is a tool in debate. I find most Calvinist are harder on other Calvinists for being too outspoken.

Litl-Luther said...

Danny makes a good point.

Tim said...

True Danny. Sarcasm is not a sin, but the attitude behind it may well be. I don't think I have seen anyone here condemning the use of sarcasm nor has anyone devalued the importance of debate.

I believe the point of this excellent post was to do so exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit.

James White describes the phenomenon I was attempting to describe here.

Joshua Owen said...

Yesterday I was reminded of the last qualification for elders listed in Titus 1: "He must also be able to rebuke those who contradict." The issue was not Calvinism. It was the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures (the black letters, as James White puts it).

I am inclined to be non-confrontational so this is often difficult for me. It was made more difficult by the fact that the offending party was a 79 year old Baptist preacher at a small gathering of pastors. I did not want to address this man's error, but no senior men in the meeting would address it (I believe out of respect for his age). Yet, he was of sound enough mind to ridicule the application of Scripture to contemporary life, and deny the authority of the writings of Paul.

I tried to be respectful and loving in my rebuke, though I must confess that much of my concentration was on trying to control my shaking knees and quivering voice.

Humility and love should always accompany the truth. Yet I believe there are times in which outrage is appropriate, and it may indeed be immoral not to express it at times. I'm reminded of Elijah's ridicule of the prophets of Baal and of Peter's blistering condemnation of false teachers in 2 Peter 2.

I realize that Newton's letter and this blog are dealing with how we handle our Christian brothers in debate. And I do not want to equate Arminians with the false teachers Peter was addressing or the prophets of Baal. I am just addressing another side of the issue of confronting error for those who may be more timid, as I am.

Thank you Tom, for modeling humility and boldness, and for simply holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught.

Litl-Luther said...

Good balance to this discussion Joshua.

John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen, Peter and Paul all confront, quite harshly, Pharisees among God’s people. A good example of this is the fierce contention that Paul, Barnabas and Peter engaged in against the “Pharisees who believed” in Jesus (Acts 15:1-11). Should we assume that these “Pharisees who believed” did not believe? It seems more likely that they are Christians with messed up theology, and it was necessary that other Christians confront and rebuke them openly.

Also, another good example is Paul opposing Peter to his face (Gal. 2:11-16). No one would question that both Peter and Paul were strong Christians, yet it was necessary for Paul to rebuke Peter to his face, and publicly, because Peter was not living in accordance with the Gospel. There are indeed times when it is necessary to confront and rebuke genuine Christians, and as Joshua points out, this is a requirement of elders in the Church.

Russell Taylor said...

One thing I think is helpful for me to remember is that there's no pressure to "win converts" immediately. I've learned that if I will take the approach that I'm going to stay in a relationship as long as it's up to me to do so, I don't feel the need to settle every issue during one conversation. If "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." Then giving a relationship time to manifest it will certainly aid in our efforts to win our brethren. Being "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit" involves both a doctrinal and relational pursuit. If people know that we love them, they'll see our efforts to convince them in a different light. When we speak the truth 'in love' it's often heard better.


ps- If this doesn't work, then shoot them in the face with a bazooka:)

SJ Camp said...

How are you dear brother? I pray for you daily and trust the Lord is restoring your health and giving you the grace necessary to carry on for Him...

I love you and appreciate you greatly.

Thank you for this post. As one who deals with controversial subjects fairly often as hopefully one who defends the faith and gives a reason for the hope that is within him as opposed to the gadfly who looks for anything that might inflame the reader, I thank you. Some really great things here...


The reason why, it is easily for us to become offended and defensive. But if we count our lives as nothing and do not value them even as unto death for the sake of the gospel and His glory, it can help us keep the main thing the main thing.

IOW, it is not about us - it is all about Him.

Whatever someone might say about me (and there are thousands of comments out there that do :-) ), I remember the words of Spurgeon when wrongly criticized or blamed: "[you] speak to highly of me. For if you knew my wicked, sinful heart as I do, you wouldn't shower me with such praise."

I really like that.

But if the Lord is the one being maligned; His word being wrested; His name being derided; and His character being slandered, then those things are noble and worthy.

If it is us... we are not worth defending. Our reputations are in His hands - does that make sense?

Thank you for letting me post here. I treasure our friendship and miss you greatly. Looking forward to being with you and others at the Leadership Retreat in October.

Until then,
I remain yours for the Master's use,
2 Cor. 4:5

graceb4me said...

This post, and the discussion that it is causing, is an answer to prayer....

Litl-Luther said...

Lock and load!