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!
A pastor wrote to John Newton about a public letter he was planning to write to a fellow pastor confronting him a aberrant doctrinal views. Newton took the opportunity to send back a letter full of gospel wisdom about the proper way an evangelical Christian should engage in correction and controversy. In our harsh, reactionary social media age Newton’s letter may be more applicable to our context than it was his context. Nevertheless, the biblical wisdom in his letter is applicable in any age.
I thought about simple providing a few excerpts from Newton’s letter but decided even though fewer people may read it they will benefit to a greater degree (C’mon, it is only 2,100 words). Other than adding some additional headings I have not made any changes to Newton’s letter.
A Guide to Godly Disputation
by John Newton
As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with 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 outcome of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but also 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 armor; 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 that it is taken from that great armory 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 methods sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.
Respecting You Opponent
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 Consider Your Opponent to be a Believer
If you account him as 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.
If You Consider Your Opponent to be an Unbeliever
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 from him. 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!
Calvinists Should be the Most Gentle and Compassionate to Opponents
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 compassion. If, indeed, those 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 argue, but in meekness to “gently teach those who oppose the truth—if perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge 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 which may exasperate their passions, or confirm them in their false principles, (humanly speaking).
Considering the Public as You Engage in Controversy
By printing your article, you will appeal to the public—where your readers may be ranged under three divisions:
Consider those with Whom You Differ in Principle
First, such as differ from you in principle. Concerning these I may refer you to what I have already said.