Consider the Public
This next section of John Newton's letter addresses the public nature of the proposed method the inquirer sought to address the pastor with whom he disagreed.
I find within it much to consider when I post my thoughts on blogs or even on facebook. There are times when we engage in discussions of a spiritual nature on the various social networks and just as the pastor that Newton was writing to we need to bear in mind who the hearers might be.
I recently commented on a friend's post about an issue related to how we as Christians ought to observe Christmas. I wished to support her in her desire to make Christ the heart of it and lay aside the focus of Santa, Elf on the Shelf, etc. I knew she was a believer and my response sought to encourage her and at the same time acknowledge that not all will share our convictions in this area-even other Christians will think we are foolishly depriving our children. The only one who will convict and convince of these things is God Himself and unless He does so then we will continue to look foolish to them. I made the mistake of saying in essence that they were the ones who were actually foolish and only God could straighten them out. While that is true, the problem with putting these things in writing is that people read their own tone and intent into it and if we are not careful with our word choice we can leave them with a very bad impression. That is what happened in the discussion that followed. Everyone reading my friend's post was not like-minded. Some were not even believers. That is the point that Newton is making here- while we may write with a particulal indiviual in mind, the public nature of our engagement means that we need to be aware of those who will also be reading it as well.
Newton identifies three types of people who make up our audience. In the particular case he was addressing, the first person is the one with whom we disagree and those who share his opinions. He reminds his reader to keep in mind those ideas I shared in Part 1.
Next are those "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. " These are people who know what a Christian should look like and demonstrate as far as humilty, meekness, and love and will be quick to point out our lack of it if we are not careful. Newton says, "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." I can say with experience, yes they do! We need to be very careful in our discussions to maintain humilty throughout. If we engage in angry, embittered discussion Newton says we will discredit rather then further the "cause of truth." That is a point I really need to learn! I can become very self-righteous if I am not careful and be no better than the Pharisees of Jesus day.
The third type of people who make up our audience are those who agree with us. Even with this audeince we have the oportunity to edify or bring harm. Newton makes this inportant observation, "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." In other words we often do not play nice with those who have differing opinions and the way we handle them can have an affect on even those with whom we agree on the issue at hand.
He closes this portion of the letter with this point: "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." Now if that is not a warning to reconsider jumping into the fray if I ever saw one. We really need to decide on these clearly controversial issues whether or not to even share our mind. And if we do it needs to be solely from a place that means to instruct for good and not because we feel the need to defend our viewpoint to feel superior. And above all it must be done in complete humility.
Now if only I will take the time to consider all of these things before hitting "publish."
Grace, peace, and mercy,
John Newton wrote this letter to a fellow minister who had written about his plan to write an article criticizing another minister on some point of disagreement over theological matters.
Within Newtons answer to this man are hidden some insights into what Calvinists believe. BUt more it is a great treasure about how to handle people with whom we disagree; not only with fellow believers but also with those who are not of Christ.
First a little bit about John Newton. He was born in 1725 and died in 1807. Newton was an English sailor who at a young age became involved in the slave trade. After accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior he became a clergyman, hymn writer, and a prominent supporter of the abolition of slavery. He is perhaps best known for one of the hymns he penned...Amazing Grace.
Now on to John Newton's Letter On Controversy.
Newton begins by addressing how to approach the "opponent." He begins by encouraging prayer for the person with whom we have the disgreement. "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."
Imagine that. Through my recent meditations on Psalm 119 I have been praying for the Lord to teach me-it is just as important to pray the same for others. Too often when I approach a disagreement I am more intent on being right, proving my point, but the Great persuader is God Himself not me. I may be an instrument, but that is all. If anyone is going to be won over to God's side it is God Himself who will do the winning. (And by implication of all of this I have spent time in prayer to be sure that I am indeed on the right side of the issue myself, not because I believe so by my own wit, but because God's Word and testimonies prove it out.) I underlined this final thought from Newton on what our attitude should be as we approach a fellow believer we disagree with and desire to correct "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." Newton was directing his reader to that great and glorious future when we will get to heaven. I have seen some pretty ugly church splits that make you wonder if either side remembered that- or even gave it much thought. Too often in our desire to be right we vilify our opponent and oh how this must grieve the Lord's heart.
Newton then goes on to address the issue of dealing with controversy with a non-believer- someone "in a state of enmity against God and His grace." He first of all admonishes that if you are not absolutely sure about the persons standing you should be unwilling to identify them as such. I have heard many, many conservative Christians of late calling fellow believers all sorts of names and questioning their position before God becuase they do not share the same beliefs, this is exactly the kind of behavior Newton is warning against. Only when the evidence supports such a conclusion without question is the judgement just. But the evidence must be very clear and stand up in a court of law so to speak, not the court of opinion.
Having determined the person to be an unbeliever Newton makes this statement, "he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! 'He knows not what he does.'" Because the Calvinist believes that we are not Christians by our own choosing, but rather because God has predestined us to believe, He chose us for Himself and so we can look upon the non-believer with great compassion and humility. They are not in that place because of their choice, but rather because God has not yet called them to Himself.
This is one of the great problems people wrestle with in the Calvinist view-Predestination. (John 6:44; Romans 8:29-30;Ephesians 1:4-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 2:9) How can a god who is kind and good not save everyone? Why are there only some who are the elect; the chosen? If He desires that not anyone should be lost why doesn't He just save us all from death and hell? Those are all very good questions.
Nevertheless, that being the case for those who are called Calvinists, of which John Newton was one, then this is what follows when we are faced with controversy with a non-believer that we should not be argumentative and ugly, but rather with meekness seek to instruct. If our purpose becomes to instruct in this manner we will be careful not to become stumbling blocks for those whose eyes have yet to be opened. Bearing in mind that they are the blind referred to in Scripture. We need to be careful also not to inflame them with our language. (Does that ring any bells for you?) They may wish us a Happy Holidays but if we jump all over them for it rather than respond gently in kind we have in no way glorified God through our actions. That clerk in the store is not the enemy and should not be treated as such. Over and over God's word admonishes us to be gentle, to live at peace, to love others and count them as better than ourselves- instead we get our hackles up and pounce like mad dogs. And what about that person who lives a lifestyle contrary to what God has said, what about the homosexual, the liar, the person "living in sin", the democrat, the liberal, the fan of the new Star Trek movie? We are to have compassion for them as well. We should be praying for their eyes to be open and their hearts to be softened so that they too may believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whosever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life-if God so loved the world how can I do anything less?
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