John Newton is best known as the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Were that all he bequeathed to the church, it would be an incredible legacy. There is another small work by Newton, however, that I believe could be of great benefit to the church if it was more widely read. The work to which I refer is a brief letter written by Newton to a fellow minister who was preparing to write an article criticizing another minister for his lack of orthodoxy. In the published collection of Newton’s letters, the editor has titled this one “On Controversy.” I first read this letter a little over a decade ago, and since I often write on controversial topics, I was profoundly affected by it.
Newton begins by recognizing that his friend has truth on his side, and states that he is not concerned about his friend’s ability to win the argument. He is concerned that his friend conquers not only his opponent’s arguments but also that he conquers his own passions as well. Otherwise, he may win the battle but be seriously wounded in the process. He proceeds to offer him advice about his opponent, the reading public, and his own heart.
Regarding his opponent, Newton commends him to prayer. If we pray for those against whom we write, this will affect the way we write. Newton adds that if we consider our opponent to be a fellow believer, albeit a mistaken one, we must remember that the Lord loves him and bears with him as He bears with us. “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.” If, on the other hand, we think our opponent is an unbeliever, we must remember that were it not for the grace of God, we could be the one outside of the kingdom.
Regarding the reading public, Newton notes that there are three types of readers. For those who differ with us, the same principles stated in connection with our opponent apply here. A second type of reader is one who is undecided on the issue. Although he may not have the ability to judge a theological argument, he probably is able to judge a writer’s tone. He will recognize meekness, humility, and love, or the lack thereof. This type of reader will often use our lack of love as a justification for his contempt of our arguments. “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.”
A third type of reader is one who agrees with us. We may edify them if both truth and kindness guide our pen. Otherwise, we may cause them harm. Newton explains: “There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.” He argues that our Calvinism should produce humility, but we often allow it to produce pride. “Selfrighteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon 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. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments.”
Regarding our own hearts, Newton observes that we must contend for the faith, but he also observes that very few writers of controversy have not been 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 which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. 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?” Newton concludes this extraordinary letter with the following warning: “If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.”