As a teenager, I longed to be whatever my father was not. If he wore a dress shirt and khakis, I sported a t-shirt and jeans. If he listened to classical music, I listened to jam bands. If he liked tea, I liked coffee. If he liked impressionism, I liked fauvism. This rejection of my father’s styles and preferences continued well into my 20’s. By God’s grace, I never intellectually rejected my father’s theology. I was raised in a strong Christian home, in which my parents faithfully taught my sister and me the Scriptures and robust Reformed, covenantal, and Christ-centered theology. Though my life reflected a practical rejection of the truth on account of my deep spiritual rebellion, the Lord graciously brought me to repentance and faith in Christ in my mid-20’s. I attribute my conversion to the gracious working of the Spirit of God through the means of the biblical and spiritual foundation my father and mother laid so many years before. There are ways in which I am still quite different from my dad today. However, the older I get, the more I have learned to appreciate the many ways in which he modelled biblical faithfulness. He was a man of Scripture, prayer, giving, provision, instruction, and commitment. I can only hope that the Lord would mature me in these areas and make me more like my father.
It takes biblical wisdom and discernment to be able to sift through the good and the bad that we experienced as children. Anyone can overreact to their parents’ deficiencies. The very theology we profess to believe teaches that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). James specifically has in mind the way in which we use our tongues to say hurtful things, to speak ill of those made in the image of God (James 3:9), and to tear down rather than build up. Like Isaiah, we need the Lord to touch our lips with the coals of the altar—the blood of Christ (Isaiah 6:6—7). However, we can just as easily apply what James says about the tongue to what we do with our eyes, ears, and hands. We are a frail and sinful people, who, have an “irreconcilable war” (WCF 13.2) raging within. Each of us ought to easily be able to own the words of the Apostle:
I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Romans 7:18—25).
The reality of indwelling sin means that we must be in the habit of going back to God with a broken spirit, remembering this truth: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Doing so, enables us to rightly view that which at one time or another may have only appeared to have been a speck in our eye. Sadly, we are all far too quick to magnify the sin we see in our brother’s eye rather than focus on our own (Matt. 7:2—5). A lack of self-examination often leads to a self-righteous spirit, and ultimately to a swift overreaction to error we see in others and in the church.
It’s easy to be hyper-critical about the failures of our parents, or the generation of ministers who preceded us. Too often we manifest a disrespectful and unthankful attitude for the multitude of good things of which we have been the recipients—choosing rather to focus on what we believe to be sinful deficiencies intermixed with the good. We desperately need to learn to react in a way that is moderated and marked by biblical faithfulness and humility. This is no less true of the child growing up in his or her parents’ home, as it is the person who sits in the assembly to listen to those who are engaged in a public teaching ministry. It is no less binding on those who bring up children as it is those who engage in a public teaching ministry. What we need more than anything, in a day of internet outrage and social overreaction, is to be self-aware of the way in which we react to the errors of our parents, our peers, and our pastors. It takes spiritual knowledge, wisdom and understanding to ascertain how to hold fast to the good while rejecting the deficient in the examples we have been given.
In his defense of justification by faith alone against the charge of Antinomianism, the eighteenth-century Irish Calvinist, Robert Traill gave several important insights into the way in which the human heart tends to fall into error when reacting to error. He wrote:
It is a sad, but true observation, that no contentions are more easily kindled, more fiercely pursued, and more hardly composed, than those of divines, sometimes from their zeal for truth; and sometimes from worse principles, that may act in them, as well as in other men.
A theologically educated person may be driven by zeal for truth; however, that same individual may also be driven by “worse principles” of pride, harshness, rashness, or a party spirit. Traill’s observation is a call to serious self-examination of the motives that drive our responses to error. It is, in many respects, a call to remember the words of the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 13:1—3:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
The Apostle is not here pitting truth against love. He is not suggesting that love is to be preferred to truth. He is not encouraging a sort of “let’s all just get along for the sake of getting along” mentality. Rather, love rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6); and, we are to be committed to speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
In his pastoral letter to Timothy, Paul also instructed ministers to conduct themselves in the following way in the midst of controversy in the church:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (1 Tim. 2:24-26).
And, in his letter to Titus, the Apostle charges ministers to remind the people of God “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).
Both ministers and congregants must adopt a posture of gentleness in our engagement in theological controversy. Gentleness is, of course, not antithetical to a strong refutation of error. It is, rather, the converse of harshness. It is far too easy—as is observable in our day of internet outrage—for us to respond with a sinfully rash cynicism or harsh tone. When we do so, we show that we are acting on the “worse principles” that are common to all men.
It’s easy to overreact to error. This is nowhere as evident as it is in theological controversies. We have a propensity to move from one extreme to another in reaction to error. This is partially understandable. Those who love truth rightly want to distance themselves as far as is possible from the error they are seeking to correct. However, the propensity to overreact is amply illustrated in many of the theological controversies that have occurred throughout the history of the church.
Traill’s second insight has to do with the overreactions to error one may fall into on account of their trajectory. He wrote,
Usually such men that are for middle ways in points of doctrine, have a greater kindness for that extreme they go half-way to, than for that which they go half-way from.
If someone has moved away from his or her legalistic background, he or she will almost certainly have a tendency to be softer to forms of antinomianism than to forms of legalism. Likewise, if someone has come out of an antinomian background—and is in reaction to that particular doctrinal error—he or she must guard against naturally gravitate to legal forms of doctrine. This principle can be applied to any movement that seeks to correct what is considered to be faulty in another movement. It is a call for us to be attentive to the way in which we react to errors when they come close to our person, families or church fellowships.
More than anything, we need to develop biblically informed self-awareness. This comes from a diligent use of Scripture. When we look into the perfect law of liberty, we see our reflection as in a mirror. As the writer to Hebrews explained, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than anytwo-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, anddiscerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12); and, “everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he isa child. But solid food is forthe mature, for those who have their power of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:13—14). Then, we need to give ourselves to a serious defense of the truth with a gentle, humble, and loving spirit. Finally, we need to learn to react to error in a way commensurate with the truth—not in a way in which we go far as possible in the opposite direction. It seems to me that if we all committed to doing this, we would have far more productive and profitable interactions with those we are seeking to help out of error.