John Newton on Handling Controversy

John NewtonJohn Newton provides us with some very helpful words in a letter he wrote to a man who was involved in some kind of controversy in his day:

As to your opponent, I wish, that, before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may 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…[if he is a believer,] in a 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…[If he is an unconverted person,] he is more proper the object of your compassion than your anger.  Alas! “He knows not what he does.”  But you know who has made you to differ [I Cor. 4:7]. (John Newton, “On Controversy,” The Works of John Newton, page 269).

What practical and soul-preserving counsel is here!  Newton encourages us to desire only the best for our opponents and to demonstrate great love toward believers and heart-broken compassion toward unbelievers.  But what is the foundational reason that a Christian is able to look on an opponent this way? Because he knows that it was neither his intellect or his wisdom that has made him different from the person who is currently in error; rather, it was pure grace that has given him insight into and conviction of the truth.  Just as Paul reminds us, “For who regards you as superior?  What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it (I Corinthians 4:7)?  Knowing this, then, let us proceed into controversy, not only with keen minds and well-grounded arguments but with broken hearts and tender compassion toward our opponents.

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