On Calvinists, Conflict, and Controversy (Newton)

Select Letters of John Newton Newton, John cover image

There are some areas of the Christian faith that are not matters of chief importance.  They are important, but not essentially or fundamentally important.  For example, there are different views of Christian schooling, different views of the elements of the Lord’s Supper (grape juice or wine), different views of how deacons should function in a church, and so forth.  Too often, these things sadly split Christians and even churches.  Some Christians become so hardened in these non-essentials that they are not even pleasant to be around.  So how can we discuss and debate these secondary or tertiary issues in a Christian way?

John Newton wrote a great letter on this topic.  The letter has been titled, “Controversy” and it’s found in his Works and in Select Letters of John Newton.  Here are some slightly edited excerpts.

“The whole time you are preparing your answer to the person you disagree with, 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.”

“[Assuming he’s a Christian], 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.”

“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 our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, abusive speech, or scorn, we may think we are doing service to the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit.”

“I would be glad if this were true: that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind.”

“Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as 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.”

To sum up: when we get into a disagreement with another Christian about various issues, we should pray for the other person, love him, bear with him, and maintain a spirit of true humility while fighting against self-righteous doctrinal pride.  These things are good for us to remember whether we’re speaking face to face or virtually on websites and social media.

I strongly recommend this entire letter (which is quite brief): “Controversy” by John Newton.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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