Keith Mathison contributed the next article for Tabletalk, and it was a pippin. The article is basically a reprise of John Newton’s great letter to a friend “On Controversy.”
Assuming the truth of your position, and your ability to win the argument, there are still other considerations. As my father puts it, there is a deeper right than being right. The goal, for Newton, is not only to conquer the opponent’s arguments, for to conquer one’s own passions as well. Valiant-for-truth needs to fight the enemy outside, certainly, but also has to keep guard against the adversary within the breastplate. Mathison, channeling Newton, gives advice concerning his opponent, the reading public, and his own heart.
With regard to the opponent, don’t fight with anybody you don’t pray for, and this will affect the way you write, and what you are willing to say. Your opponent is either a brother or he isn’t. If he is, then remember that the Lord loves him, and bears with him. If he is not, remember that apart from the grace of God, we would be right there with him.
Concerning the reading public, the people there can be divided into three categories. Those who differ with us fall under the same heading as the one we write against. Those who are undecided, and not up to speed on all the theological issues, are still in a position to judge the disputants’ tone and demeanor. Which one is snarliing? Which one speaks words of grace? You have to win the audience before you can win the argument. The reader who agrees with us is the one who has the same temptations we do. And so we should write and speak in such a way as to mortify those tendencies that need to be mortified, and encourage those which need to be encouraged. Mathison then cites from Newton one of my favorite quotes from Newton, one which I quoted earlier in this series of posts. “Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works . . .”
And with regard to the controversialist’s own heart, Newton warns that few controversialists have not been hurt by it. The service may be honorable (and I maintain that it is), but it is nonetheless dangerous. The controversialist needs to remember, in the midst of controversy, that he is still a pilgrim, and that his soul is still heading one direction or the other.
This was a superb article, and a timely caution and warning. My only complaint is that it should have been at the front of the magazine, and not near the end.