John Newton wrote a short but compelling letter to a fellow minister who was about to write a publication criticising a minister for his unorthodox beliefs. The letter is a masterly treatment on the theme of controversy and in just a few lines brings the gospel to bear on how to argue in so many ways. Reading it got me thinking about what it means to contend for the faith and how to argue well along with the hidden dangers of entering into controversy.
I’m preaching through 1 Timothy on Sunday evenings and am reminded of Paul’s opening appeal to Timothy to fight the good fight but with a real warning not to be like those who have ‘an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels and words that result in envy, strife’
Paul charges Timothy (6:11) ‘But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.’
So how do you contend for the truth of the gospel and fight the good fight with love and gentleness?
How do you argue with gospel motives and gospel motivations?
Here are some gems from John Newton’s letter as to how the gospel informs our interaction with others whether in church, in an e-mail, on a blog, etc..
A. Arguing with a fellow-believer
1. Argue with gentleness out of love
The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly.
2. Argue remembering you WILL be reconciled if not now then in heaven
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.
B. Arguing with an unbeliever
1. Argue with great compassion because of your great privilege over him
He is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.”
2. Argue remembering that apart from God’s grace you too would have held his views!
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.
C. Remembering the reading public
When we argue, publically, in a blog or through a publication we have a second, sometimes forgotten, audience. John Newton highlights three readers and offers his advice.
1. The reader who disagrees with you in principle
Newton urges you to remember them in the same way as your recipient above.
2. The reader who is naturally sympathetic to your point of view but who have little knowledge
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.
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.
3. The reader who shares your view
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.
D. Watch out and pray for your own heart
Most striking of all in Newton’s letter is his concern for what controversy can do to us and the natural temptation to a self-righteous heart. It is sobering when Newton writes
We find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it….If the service is honorable, it is dangerous.
Pray for your own soul that you will not be corrupted by your own defence of the gospel!
E. Pursue God’s glory and your fellow mans good in how you write
If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honour nor comfort to ourselves.
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 favoured with the unction of his Holy Spirit.
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