Three controversies are going on right now among people close to me. The only one in which I’m involved personally hardly deserves the title, but it could have deserved a worse one—mêlée, fracas, altercation—if the participants had not loved the Lord and one another.
During the years I had to write about controversy as part of my job, I made a habit of re-reading a letter John Newton wrote to a friend. This friend was about to engage in public debate over a doctrinal matter, and the letter is titled “On Controversy” in Newton’s works.
Here are a few excerpts from the piece that have stuck in my mind and heart over the years, starting with the one that I think of most often:
If you account [your opponent] a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, . . . . 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.
. . . .
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. 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. 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 moderation. If, indeed, they 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 strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose as taught in 2 Timothy 2:25, “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.”
. . . .
I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from and are nourished by the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse were always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind. I think I have known some Arminians, that is, persons who for want of a clearer light, have been afraid of receiving the doctrines of free grace, who yet have given evidence that their hearts were in a degree humbled before the Lord. And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility, that they are willing in words to debase the creature and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of.
. . . .
It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own day, when errors abound on all sides and every truth of the gospel is either directly denied or grossly misrepresented. And yet 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, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things that are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters that are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous.