John Newton (1725–1807) was one of the great English Christian leaders of the eighteenth century. He was a slavetrader-turned-abolitionist, mariner-turned-pastor, and blasphemer-turned-hymnodist (“Amazing Grace” being his most famous). He also was one of the great pastoral letter writers of church history. And he was one of the great peacemakers of his generation.
Healer of Breaches
Newton was an unashamed Calvinist. But he counted many Arminian Christians as personal friends, including Methodist founders, John and Charles Wesley. He believed that truth is precious, and therefore theological debates are necessary. But he also believed that sin is the reason theological controversies turn toxic. So he made it his aim to “strive for peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14).
Such was Newton’s irenic reputation that John Wesley once wrote to him,
You appear to be designed by Divine Providence for a healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and an uniter (happy work!) of the children of God that are needlessly divided from each other.
In one letter to a friend, Newton wrote,
The longer I live, the more I see of the vanity and the sinfulness of our unchristian disputes: they eat up the very vitals of religion. I grieve to think how often I have lost my time and my temper that way, in presuming to regulate the vineyards of others, when I have neglected my own; when the beam in my own eye has so contracted my sight, that I could discern nothing but the mote in my neighbor’s. I am now desirous to choose a better part. . . .
I allow that every branch of gospel truth is precious, that errors are abounding, and that it is our duty to bear an honest testimony to what the Lord has enabled us to find comfort in, and to instruct with meekness such as are willing to be instructed; but I cannot see it my duty, nay, I believe it would be my sin, to attempt to beat my notions into other people’s heads. Too often I have attempted it in times past; but now I judge, that both my zeal and my weapons were carnal.
Crucial Counsel for Controversy
In another famous letter now titled “On Controversy,” Newton advised a friend who planned to publish an article refuting a fellow minister’s Arminian theology. It is timeless and priceless counsel, which, if we’re wise, we will receive as if we were the recipient of this letter. Twitter is not the only forum for controversy today, but it has become unusually fertile soil for the weed of ungodly argument.
First, Newton urges us to pray for our opponent as we prepare to engage him. “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.”
Second, Newton counsels us to deal gently with our opponent because,
The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. . . . In a little while you will meet in heaven . . . 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.
Third, Newton appeals to us to instruct our opponent with meekness, remembering that God is the one who ultimately changes the mind of a person who is in error (2 Timothy 2:24–26; Philippians 3:15). Calvinistic theology requires “the exercise of gentleness and moderation,” and the Bible tells us “not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose.” So we must not use “expressions that may exasperate” our opponents and become stumbling blocks to their accepting the truths of Scripture.
Fourth, Newton points out that our public tone and words influence other Christians. Some, even if they don’t understand the arguments themselves, “know that meekness, humility, and love, are the characteristics of a Christian temper,” so if our presentation lacks these qualities, they will feel justified in rejecting our theology.
You may be instrumental to their edification, if the law of kindness as well as of truth regulates your pen [or keyboard], 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.
Fifth, Newton warns us of the subtle self-righteousness that inevitably infects our attitude toward those with whom we disagree:
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 this 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.
And sixth, Newton tells us to beware of the negative effects controversy could have on our own character:
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. . . . What will it profit a man if he gains his cause, and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses the humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights. . . . 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.
Pursue the Peaceable Wisdom from Above
In every debate or controversy we engage in, Newton wants us to remember that
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.
Let us heed the counsel of this seasoned pastor and gentle controversialist and make sure that, in seeking to win an argument, we don’t end up losing the war for love.