A Far Nobler Aim: Newton on Grace in Debate

John Newton’s fame to most evangelicals’ centers around his testimony of transformation from participating in the slave trade to becoming a believer who would write the most popular Christian hymn of all time “Amazing Grace.”

While that hymn captures the essence of Newton’s biography and theology, there is much more to learn from the man. The Banner of Truth publishes a four-volume set of his works that I highly commend (https://banneroftruth.org/us/store/christian-living/works-john-newton/). Volume 1 contains many letters that Newton wrote with one entitled “On Controversy.” In this letter, one might think that John Newton lived in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs when it comes to discussing theology. Especially with the issue of social justice, social media does not resemble a place where grace is shown by brothers and sisters seeking to work through these issues. Newton’s letter is worth the read and can be viewed in its entirety here: https://founders.org/2017/07/08/on-controversy/.

Consider a few thoughts from Newton that captured my attention and caused me to examine my own heart.

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.

As Newton counsels this fellow minister who prepares to engage in theological debate, he tells him to remember to treat him as a brother in Christ. It should startle us as believers to consider how we speak to one another online when it comes to debating important issues. Would we speak to each other in such a manner if we were face-to-face? Do we show more grace to the pagan we work with or are related to by blood than one who is washed by the blood of the Lamb that we happen to disagree with? This is not encouragement to pursue a squishy love that never calls out errors. Rather, this is brotherly affection that should mark our engagements with those who are a part of the household of faith. The next time that you decide to discuss a point raised by a brother or sister you disagree with, remind yourself that this individual is one you will spend eternity with. Will that shape how you respond to them?

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.

Suppose you believe the person you are engaging with is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, should you not pity and mourn over the eternal doom of that person? Newton’s advice should be kept close to our hearts. Yes, we should call out false teachers, those who preach another gospel, and declare that their eternal fate is hell lest they repent. However, if we do this with a grin or glee in our hearts, there is repentance and examination that needs to take place in our lives. Anathematizing people on Facebook and Twitter happens frequently. Do we grasp the eternal weightiness that comes along with that view and are we praying for such ones to truly behold Christ if we think they know Him not?

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.

Social media helped me connect with fellow Calvinists, Particular (Reformed Baptists), and like-minded brothers. This has been a great blessing and joy to me in my life and ministry. However, it grieves me to see that the hashtag #1689Twitter became synonymous with men on Twitter who were ungracious, uncaring, and overtly harsh in their interactions with others, specifically regarding issues surrounding social justice. While I think the hashtag was used in an unfair way to avoid critical discussions, it saddened me to see a noble confession expressing the doctrines of grace become connected with ungraciousness. Newton’s words are needed for everyone who claims to believe in the doctrines of grace. If I might be so bold, may the doctrines explained in TULIP not be lodged in our minds intellectually but be imprinted on our hearts experientially. No two words should be further apart: cantankerous and Calvinist. Those of us who hold strongly to the doctrines of grace should heed the instructions given to us by a champion of amazing grace.

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

Believers are called to have a passion and zeal for truth. There are times when a godly anger should be demonstrated by us when we see the gospel distorted and twisted. Yet, this cannot be a 24/7 phenomenon. In fact, though, it is easy for us to tell ourselves we are warriors for the truth when in fact our angry theological tirades are a pious cloak for selfishness and egotism. If we appoint ourselves as commentators on every single issue that arises in the world or evangelicalism, people begin to label us, sigh when they see our posts, and will remark, “There he/she goes again.” Content does matter when it comes to theology. Tone does as well.

What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?

Out of all that Newton says in this letter, perhaps this is the one that cuts the sharpest. Newton asks a pointed question: what advantage is there if you win the debate but dishonor God? In our theological discussions, do we ask ourselves if we are seeking to honor God or display our intellect? Are we seeking to prompt others to glorify God or to stand in awe of our debating skills? What kind of heart does the Lord delight in and accept? There dwells not room for a broken, contrite heart and an exalted, selfish heart. 

John Newton understood the need for addressing theological controversies. Yet, in his wisdom, he accurately noted that controversy should not be something we are always looking to get into. Sadly, the social justice debates are the latest example where a controversy is bemoaned while platforms are being built at the same time. Let the world watch how we engage one another amidst real differences and let them be amazed. How will they be amazed? By seeing that we do not handle our differences like cable TV. Instead, we come together around the Word of God, loving one another as members of Christ’s household, and seeking to honor the God who showed us amazing grace.

How can we, who have been shown such grace, not show it to each other?

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