This post is an appreciation of the cover story to the May 2012 issue of Tabletalk Magazine by Ligonier Ministries.
Controversy exists because God’s truth exists in a world of lies. ~ Burk Parsons
John Newton wrote an article titled “On Controversy” in 1771 in response to the debates that were occurring between Calvinists and Arminians. In the article he set forth three rules to consider when engaging in controversy, that of considering our opponent, considering the audience, and considering ourselves. In this day and age of the ‘Young, Restless and Reformed’, Facebook, and the infestation of blogs that exist, it is not uncommon to see debates and arguments quickly get out of hand. Not only that, but anyone with an opinion can start a fire with a few minutes of graceless comments and a social network account. While the technology is new, the principles on how to discuss and rebuke have not, and Newton’s framework is, in my opinion, not only thoroughly biblical but desperately needed.
In Part 1, I will give a brief introduction into what I feel is a biblical criteria regarding what is worth contending for.
Part 2 will consider how to engage our opponents.
Part 3 will expand on being aware of the audience.
Part 4 will reflect on considering ourselves.
Controversy is Necessary
The only way to avoid all controversy would be to consider nothing we believe important enough to defend and no truth too costly to compromise. ~ R. Albert Mohler Jr.
There is a time and place for debate and rebuke. To give three examples: the prophet Nathan rebuked David for his affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-15), the apostle Paul opposed Peter in public for his hypocritical double standards in being embarrassed for dining with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14), and our Lord Jesus Christ regularly criticised the Pharisees for obeying the letter of the law but entirely missing the point of the spirit of the law (for example Mark 7:1-8). There is a train of thought that I have come across that says that ‘criticising’ is unloving and not covering offenses in grace, perhaps citing passages like Proverbs 17:9. But if that is the case then Jesus is one of the most unloving persons to have ever walked this earth (just read Matthew 23!). The truth is that we must uphold the truth, but by what criteria should we discern that something is worth fighting for?
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. ~ Jude 3-4 (ESV)
The number 1 reason to engage in big debate and discussion is when the Gospel is at stake. In the above passage Jude, a brother of Jesus, exhorts his readers to contend for the faith against false teachers who do not preach the truth of the grace of God of Christ Himself. Gospel issues are topics that are central to salvation and to the very heart of Christianity. Such topics include, but are not limited to the Trinity, the Incarnation, Original Sin and our sinful nature, the work of Jesus Christ (e.g. life, death, resurrection, ascension, second coming), justification by faith alone, and the infallibility of the Bible. These are hills to die on and we need to be willing to defend the faith when the time comes (notice I did not say ‘if’). Now that being said there are hundreds of other topics that are also important to the faith that are worthy of debate and serious consideration.
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…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. ~ John Newton
Parenthetically let me say that I do not think that Calvinism is a hill we need to die on. As Dr. RC Sproul says “Saved? Most are, barely… really the debate between Calvinists and Arminians is an intramural debate among Christians.” That is not to say that Arminianism is right (I am convinced it is not), or egalitarianism, or premillenial dispensationalism, or transubstantiation for that matter. However these are examples of topics that, generally, are debates within the Church and not false teachers (depending on where in the world you are). In any case, the core Gospel issues must be defended primarily for the sake of the other saints. Our fellow brothers and sisters, and the elect whom God will save everyday and in the future, cannot be allowed to be led astray by false teachers. We need to fight for their sake.
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. ~ Revelation 2:4-5a
There is also an important place to rebuke brothers and sisters who have committed an offence or have fallen into habitual sin. Paul writes to the Corinthians to rebuke a man who was committing sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-7) and Jesus taught about what to do when a brother sinned against you (Matthew 18:15-20). If we really do love our brothers and sisters then we need to rebuke when necessary. It is unloving to let them continue in their sin without someone saying something. Dr. John Gerstner used the letters of Paul’s name to spell out four characteristics that we can see in the apostle’s ministry. U and L stood for ‘Uncompromising’ and ‘Loving’, but Dr. Gerstner did not consider these individual characteristics. He said ‘Uncompromising, therefore Loving’, and that is how we should be as well. You need to be loving with your brothers and sisters by rebuking, exhorting and encouraging as need be. And we need to shoot the wolves (the ones who threaten the core Gospel issues listed previously) when they come seeking sheep to devour.