Uprooting Sensibility

The Plain Speech of Godly Men

Luckily for Jesus, the disciples were there that day to provide some public-relations help.

The sheep huddled together and devised a question: “Excuse me, Jesus . . . um, Rabbi . . . uh, Master . . . do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard your teaching?”

Jesus hadn’t thrown the first punch. The Pharisees, activists of “cleanliness is next to godliness,” had complained of the disciples’ unwashed hands. “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat” (Matthew 15:2). Without flinching, Jesus counters with a right hook: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).

You see, some Pharisees in that day ran a little religious hustle, giving his money “to God” instead of his parents, whom God commanded they support. Jesus unmasks them:

God commanded, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” But you say, “If anyone tells his father or his mother, ‘What you would have gained from me is given to God,’ he need not honor his father.” So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. (Matthew 15:4–7)

He catches these Holy Handwashers with their arms down. As they stumble back, Jesus presses his opponents into the corner:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:7–9)

Finally, he calls the people over to give the ten count:

He called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:10–11)

As the Pharisees exit the ring enraged, the disciples, stunned at the first-round finish, ask Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (Matthew 15:12).

Mannerly Messiah

Had we been there, I imagine most would have been tempted to wonder something like this: “Does he know he comes off a little strong?” “Was his manner of bluntness all that it could have been?” “Was that really the most persuasive manner for handling that theological disagreement?”

And I imagine how we might expect a godly leader to answer our concerns: “You know, you’re right. I did not need to embarrass them like that. I did not have to draw the crowd to myself or brand them with Isaiah’s confounding prophecy or apply the fifth commandment so nakedly. I did not have to oppose their traditions with such combativeness. I could have reasoned more and corrected less, and done so less publicly.”

But Jesus answers distinctly. He knows his speech offended the Pharisees, and he does not mind. He doubles down, as we say. And he does so proverbially: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:13–14). What does he mean?

Uprooting Sensibility

Jesus leans on divine sovereignty in this tense situation of his own making. If they are not of his Father — saved by the Father, chosen by the Father — they will be uprooted. His bluntness, his directness, his risking offense — these were not the issue. The issue was not what he said (for it was perfect), but how they responded. The wind was not to blame but the plant’s roots. Jesus entrusted not only himself, but his teaching, to his Father’s care.

The same word that caused them to stumble could have caused them to repent. The same flame that burns the chaff refines the gold; the same wind that tests the oak uproots the weeds. The Gentile woman of the very next scene seeks healing for her demon-possessed daughter and ends up astounding Jesus as her roots withstand the gust of being called a “dog” (Matthew 15:21–28). Yet the Pharisees blow away. “Leave them alone,” Jesus says. The blind lead the blind into pits. They would repent or they would be offended, but he would speak as his Father taught him without losing sleep at their anger.

“Jesus, if on earth today, would uproot much of our sense and sensibilities.”

Am I wrong to think we need such Christlike men willing to speak plainly and risk offense? Jesus, if on earth today, would uproot much of our sense and sensibilities. His words would be quoted with scorn online. Many frail plants would be uprooted; a politically correct cross would be raised. He came as a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling, and so he remains (Isaiah 8:13; 1 Peter 2:7–8).

Deputy Politeness

What’s the point?

Many Christians today, including pastors, need to be more comfortable giving plain statements that displease, true assessments without the sugary coating. And, like Jesus, remain unmoved when they are received unfavorably. My aim here is category-creation, not precise application. The categories Jesus creates confront the spirit of our age by teaching:

  • If men are offended, it is no sure proof that sin has been committed.
  • Such offense is no proof you lack Christlikeness.
  • At times (even if at seldom times), risking offense is not just permissible but righteous.

A broad space exists between the Citadel of Comfort and the Wilderness of Sin — a tristate area of Rebuke, Admonishment, and Correction. Many prophets, apostles, pastors, and saints have lodged there to the benefit of their hearers, and often at great cost to themselves.

But the enemy of souls would not have any men of God dwell there. He sends deputies called Politeness and Niceness to apprehend and evict. At the sound of lawful reproofs, especially of a creative variety, even the meekest men need to be arrested for that plainness of speech that brings weight to correction. Now, lords Smooth-Tongue and Tickle-Ear enshrine euphemisms, allowing sin to escape while cuffing plainspoken confronters. But Richard Baxter captures the courageous response:

When reproofs themselves prove so ineffectual, that they are more offended at the reproof than at the sin, and had rather that we should cease reproving than that themselves should cease sinning, I think it is time to sharpen the remedy. For what else should we do? To give up our brethren as incurable were cruelty, as long as there are further means to be used. (The Reformed Pastor, 4)

Let’s reclaim this timeless remedy. I hear a description of pastors we need today when Merry speaks of the now heightened Gandalf the White: “He has grown, or something. He can be both kinder and more alarming, merrier and more solemn than before, I think” (Two Towers, 590).

Going Viral

Good men can be more influenced by this embargo than they know. Some grow offended (often on another’s behalf) and quote the apostle with perfect accuracy: “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), and “correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:25). These texts mean something and instruct the Christian. Many of us are agreed that we want our speech to adorn and not hinder the advance of the gospel and the salvation of souls.

But the application of these texts must follow the dictates of holiness, not likeability or our untethered sense of things. Did Paul mean to cast shadows upon the credibility of those fiery arrows shot by the likes of Moses, David, Nathan, Elijah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jude, James, Peter, and Jesus himself? Or take Paul himself as an example. To those insisting on circumcision for right-standing with God (and so undermining the gospel and ruining eternal souls), he is not content simply to charge them with error or challenge them to a carefully moderated debate. In at least one place, he fires stronger ammo: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:11–12).

Graphic. Personal. Direct. Offensive. Inspired. The cross has its offense (Galatians 5:11). Wishing that false teachers would castrate themselves contains another (Galatians 5:12).

Burning Speech

I am simply trying to move the border further from any assumption that truly godly talk is always smooth, polished, palatable, somewhat predictable. No thorns. No sharpness. No use of the two-edged sword. Only Nerf weapons. For years, what I considered godly speech was calibrated more by a trivial and sin-loving world than by a jealous and sin-hating Spirit. I did not yet appreciate, as John Piper writes,

Sometimes spiritual sleepers need to be shocked. If you want them to hear what you have to say, you might even need to scandalize them. Jesus is especially good at this. (Desiring God, 77)

Giving offense is not an aim of our ministries. But holiness is. God’s glory is. Eternal happiness for immortal souls is. Jesus cared about the crowds and would not have them deceived. Jesus cared about his disciples and would not have them enslaved to man’s tradition or the Pharisees’ umbrage. Jesus cared also about the Pharisees and would not let them perish in silence. He cared too about his Father’s commands and, in speaking, sought the glory that comes from God, not man.

Are we like that? A flesh-indulging mannerliness moves softly through many churches. A spirit of Eliab chides godly zeal as impertinence: “I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” And some earnest men sigh with David, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” (1 Samuel 17:28–29).

Have you ever felt like David, surrounded by Eliabs? In sermons, in small groups, they seem to know the evil and presumption of our hearts if we raise our voices, make people uncomfortable, transgress iron laws of likeability. Yet pressures come from without and from within. Baxter identifies the Eliab of our own pride as accomplice to filing off the roughness:

When God chargeth us to deal with men as for their lives, and to beseech them with all the earnestness that we are able, this cursed sin [pride] controlleth all, and condemneth the most holy commands of God, and saith to us, “What! will you make people think you are mad? Will you make them say you rage or rave? Cannot you speak soberly and moderately?” (The Reformed Pastor, 125)

I know that inner voice well, the one that concerns itself not with bringing to bear what God thinks of some sin, but what they will think of me. When pride governs our counseling or ailing accountability, sin is to be nodded at respectfully, thoughtfully, and then asked questions — endless questions — but not confronted directly. Yet I know that when I am deeply concerned with souls (which is too seldom), I wonder at the deceit of sin, the subtlety of Satan, the horror of falling away from Christ. How can I be silent? The closed mouth becomes a shut vent, fuming (Psalm 39:2–3). The mind kindles flame. But what of God? What of eternity? What of your soul?

Redrawing the Boundaries

Let me venture a few applications. To those who hear offense at nearly every uncomfortable word spoken, inhale and remember the line of godly men who spoke in ways and with tones that would provoke equal, if not greater, dismay. Pray for Scripture to govern your sensibilities. As Spurgeon requests from this text,

Do not . . . be needlessly alarmed about our ministry. Just give us plenty of elbow-room to strike right and left. Let not our friends encumber us. Whether they be friends or foes, when we have to strike for God and his truth, we cannot spare whoever may stand in our way. To our own Master we stand or fall, but to no one else in heaven or on earth. (The Weeding of the Garden)

To those frontiersmen always pressing at the boundaries, ensure that prayerfully profitable and not technically permissible is still the aim. To our own Master we stand or fall, and Christ will judge every careless word (Matthew 12:36).

And to all of us, may God give us grace to hate sin more than rebukes for sin, grace to love the Lord Jesus Christ and the souls of men more than the hellish treaty of nominal politeness. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:5–6).