CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Being Negative Or Positive

Nov 4, 2012

What should our emphasis be as believers? Should we only focus on the positive, or is there a place to also highlight the negative? For example, should we only talk about righteousness, goodness and God’s love, and so on, or should we also talk about sin and its damaging effects, judgment, etc?

Plenty of Christians believe we should only focus on the positive stuff, and just ignore the negative. They claim that the emphasis in the Bible is only on the positive, so we should also be doing this. But are they in fact correct? Is it really the case that the Bible does not talk much about sin and the negative, and instead mainly emphasises the positive?

I mention all this because of a recent exchange which occurred elsewhere. It is amazing when you simply post a Bible verse or a one-line Christian quote how various believers will almost spring out of the woodwork and give you some flak.

They almost seem to think they can improve upon Scripture. Now that is something that really baffles me. They almost think they are somehow more spiritual, wise and loving than even Jesus is! They will often insist on making false dilemmas as they try to force us to take just one of two complementary biblical truths.

On this issue they insist that we should only latch on to the positive, and dismiss the negative, as if Scripture commands us to do that. But in fact Scripture nowhere makes that demand. Indeed, the Bible speaks to the issue of sin, judgment, holiness and wrath just as much as it speaks to the opposite.

Yet some believers think we must choose one or the other. Sorry, but I am not buying this unbiblical either/or baloney. I am taking the biblical both/and position. I have written before about how the emergent church movement is especially guilty of this silly false polarisation:

billmuehlenberg.com/2008/08/12/on-biblical-love/
billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/01/jesus-law-and-relationship/
billmuehlenberg.com/2008/06/27/on-emergents-and-false-dilemmas/

But since these unnecessary battles keep cropping up, let me once again seek to address this issue. The text which resulted in this recent debate was 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

I had simply posted it along with this remark: “So could this be one of the most well-known Bible verses amongst Christians but the least observed and practiced?” But then the critics started coming at me, insisting that we should not focus on sin and so on, but just concentrate on the positive.

They said Christianity is all about relationship and love, and that should be our main focus, not on negative things like sin and the need for demanding holiness and so on. Loving God and others and having good relationships should be our real goal, not concentrating on sin and our lack of holiness and righteousness.

This of course is all the usual stuff which the emergent church folks have been saying for years now. They latch on to some biblical truths, but at the heavy price of rejecting others. They foolishly take some important biblical themes but then seek to ignore or downplay other vital biblical themes.

Thus they end up being biblically unbalanced. And of course if that goes too far, then you end up with heresy. Indeed, every heretical and cultic teaching basically involves this sort of Scripture twisting. Some truths of Scripture are elevated at the expense of others, resulting in genuine distortion and faulty teaching.

So what about these claims: what’s it gonna be? Discussion of sin and holiness, or discussion of love and relationship? But why in the world should we be forced to choose here? Of course we can’t discuss one without the other – they go together. To love God is to simultaneously hate sin. The 2 Chron 7:14 text makes this perfectly clear. As do heaps of others.

The emphasis in the Bible is on both, so I prefer to go along with that emphasis, instead of making false dichotomies. There are as many warnings about avoiding and shunning sin in the Bible as there are about seeking righteousness. The Bible is full of these side-by-side listings.

Simply start with a passage like Galatians 5:19-26. There we find a list of the sins of the flesh and then a list of the fruit of the Spirit. And for what it is worth, there are around 15 sins mentioned, yet just nine fruit of the Spirit. My critics must be thinking that Paul has really got the wrong emphasis here, and he needs to start concentrating on the positive.

That is basically what these folks are at least implying here: Paul must have been mistaken to give both such a full emphasis. ‘If I were Paul, or God, I would have done things differently here.’ They seem to think they can do a better job than Paul who was inspired by the Spirit of God in giving the proper emphasis on these matters.

Or consider a passage like Deuteronomy 28 as another such text. There we find a long list of curses for disobedience, and a list of blessings for obedience. So simply by having both side by side the biblical writer sees it as quite important to emphasise both, and not just concentrate on the good stuff.

Indeed, it is quite interesting once again to observe that the negative stuff predominates here. The list of curses (vv. 15-68) is much longer than the list of blessings (vv. 1-14). In fact, you also get another list of curses in 27:14-26. Again my critics would be hard pressed to explain such a discrepancy. Some of them would likely want to delete the curses altogether, to make the text much more positive and uplifting.

Sorry, but I always prefer to take the biblical emphasis as it is, instead of thinking I can somehow improve upon it. God knew what he was doing when he gave us his inspired Word, so I am not sure why some believers think they can tinker with it and make some improvements to it.

In sum, our focus on sin (or the other “negative” bits of Scripture) should be just as much as Scripture itself focuses on – no more and no less. We get that balance throughout the Bible, just as we do in individual texts like 2 Chron 7:14. I just don’t see an either/or here. I see a clear both/and. The Bible is quite plain on this actually: we are to love God and we are to hate sin, beginning with our self of course.

And we do these things simultaneously and with equal passion and commitment. Both are part of the walk of the believer and neither can be ignored or jettisoned. There can be no real love of God and others without a corresponding hatred of sin and revulsion of evil.

The Bible never tells us to pick between a love relationship and holiness. It never insists that we dwell on the “good” stuff while ignoring the “bad” stuff. We are to embrace it all, and embrace the emphasis which the Bible itself provides. The Gospel always contains the bad news as well as the good news.

As Charles Spurgeon rightly taught in a slightly different context: “The Divine Spirit wounds before he heals, he kills before he makes alive. We usually draw a distinction between law-work and gospel-work; but law-work is the work of the Spirit of God, and is so far a true gospel-work that it is a frequent preliminary to the joy and peace of the gospel. The law is the needle, which draws after it the silken thread of blessing, and you cannot get the thread into the stuff without the needle: men do not receive the liberty wherewith Christ makes them free till, first of all, they have felt bondage within their own spirit driving them to cry for liberty to the great Emancipator, the Lord Jesus Christ. This sense or spirit of bondage works for our salvation by leading us to cry for mercy.”

But if this message is still not sinking in to some folks, one last scripture will have to suffice: “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). Kinda says it all, don’t you think? There is the biblical balance for you. Why I needed 1400 words to make this point is unclear, but I guess some folks need some convincing here!

[1430 words]

12 Responses to On Being Negative Or Positive

  • Thank you Bill, very sound and very timely – we did the blessing only circuit much to our chagrin – it was captivating at the time but unhealthy, untrue and very carnal.

    Ilona Sturla

  • Yes quite so Ilona

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Great article, as always, and yes, very timely. I’m copping it at the moment too, for daring to say that homosexuality is unbiblical. But the people I’m copping it from are so-called Christians! Very sad when one gets castigated for speaking God’s truth. We are indeed in perilous times.
    Karina van Vliet

  • I am so glad you brought this up, Bill. I recently encountered what I would call a “militant positivist”. and it set me thinking. In order for good to triumph, evil must be done away with, for it is an intruder, not an alternative to good.
    God did not give us a scale, but a measure. He created a full measure of good from which sin – evil took away. Since the fall, God has been at work to refill that measure, Christ filled it up at the cross and yet we continue to take away from good through our sin. I am not surprised and I am actually glad God gets so mad at sin, we should join Him in this.
    By ignoring sin, sin does not go away, but grows quietly in a dark corner, where it feels most comfortable and while it grows, it festers and stinks.
    It must be sought out and destroyed with the only weapon the blood of Christ. If we are not aware of the destruction, the ugliness, the meanness, the rottenness – I could go on here – of sin, we will never fully appreciate what Jesus did on the cross. No wonder Jesus called the pharisees white washed tombs, for they were expert at hiding and disguising sin, because they were too proud, too ashamed, too afraid to bring it out into the open. We probably all have that response in a measure, but Jesus says, “I know you are evil, just admit it, so I can help you.”
    I think, this verse in 2 Chron might lead us to announce a national day of repentance, for it requires the church, those who are called by my name, to repent of its sins. I pray someone might call such a day and see how many will come.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Bill, here is something to tack onto your article – people who only focus on the positive are by default admitting (without verbally admitting) that there is the negative because when they say that Jesus died on the cross because of your sins then the negative is that we have sinned. If a non Christian person asks one of these Christians why Jesus died on the cross then they are forced to acknowledge the presence of sin by virtue of their answer because if they don’t then they are just going to look foolish. So, in short, they could save themselves a lot of embarrassment and simply embrace both positive and negative concepts at the start.
    Steve Davis

  • I remember a number of years ago Hillsong came out with an album called ‘Mighty to save’. They used the scripture 2 Chronicles 7:14 in the CD cover and in all their multimedia promotions.
    I sadly wasn’t surprised to see that whenever they presented this scripture in the promotion of the CD they always left out the key repentance part of the scripture, ‘and turn from their wicked ways’.
    Without the turning from our wicked ways there is no mercy or forgiveness. Forgiveness is conditional upon our free will choice to repent or turn from our wicked ways.
    These mobs that want to leave out the preaching on sin righteousness and the judgment to come will have blood on their hands.
    Eze 3:18 When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

    Act 18:6 And when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles.

    Totally agree with this article Bill, whatever happened to the beholding of the goodness and the severity of God.
    Rom 11:22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8d9t5Z0cf8
    (Mighty to save promo with 2 Chronicles 7:14)

    Daniel Hagen

  • This positive and negative thing really irks me Bill. And I think I have said this before.They are electrical terms not biblical terms. From an electricians perspective the most important is the negative as a point of reference. We always establish this “first” and foremost, usually by hammering a stake in down thru the earth.Only when this is secure do we start to deal with the positive.
    From a biblical perspective the important thing is not whether something is positive or negative but what is God truth and often that is negative. Electricity kills and so does the cross!
    So it makes me a little mad when people swallow the lie that positive is good and of God and negative is bad and of the devil hence we need to accept the one and reject the other. I think a lot of this has to do with the satanic visions Napoleon Hill had and passed onto the world as a new revelation from god His mantle being taken up by Rev Norman Vincent Peale who took the church by storm with his best seller,The power of Positive Thinking. Now every second Christian I meet seems to be infected and thinks positive confession has the power to change reality. I believe the coming last days will sort this lie out.

    Rob Withall

  • Yes I too am forced into a corner on this issue. My Thursday night Bible study group don’t like my (balanced) focus on sin and the positive. Yes over a few months I have had to say in clear terms, hey guys, what’s the deal here? Why it is every time I mention the wrath of God or God is not just about love you know?
    I get the cold looks the no comment silent treatment. It’s not like I’m making lots of friends taking this line, but is there really any other line to take?
    I’m not very good at this because I’m too um, volatile sort of a person. I know the lord says, be slow to anger, but I get angry pretty quickly, I’m so tired of looking like a lunatic.
    Daniel Kempton

  • Bill,

    Great article. Haven’t read much of your stuff lately as I’ve been following Facebook updates of the US elections more closely as I know you have, but really enjoyed this. This idea of positive and negative I’ve always thought is rather ridiculous. As you pointed out there is both. In my terminology, there are just truths and whether we consider something to be positive or negative is irrelevant. I have never tried to view myself as either an optimist or a pessimist, rather a realist and I think Christians need to be realists. Sin is sin and we all need forgiveness. Trouble is that seems to be forgotten nowadays.

    Once again, excellent article.

    Graeme Cumming

  • Too much ‘gospel reductionism’ preaching is the problem – that is, the message of the Bible is REDUCED to the gospel. It is extremely common. God loves you; that’s all you need to know. At fault here are the many training colleges who do such a demolition job on the Old Testament’s credibility in their degree courses – even some so called ‘conservative’ ones – that students with a simple faith in scripture come out like I did mourning for years. If you looked in the library of the college I went to you, would see in the Old Testament section, one or two books which took the OT books especially Genesis as historical text, the rest of the shelves filled with masses of books with these words in the title: ‘favellas, legends, fables, myths, JEDP’ and so forth of the Old Testament.

    Anne-Marie Modra

  • Its not just the emergent church. There is what I would call a “hyper-grace” movement propagated by Joseph Prince (Singapore) and many others. They come under the banner of the 4:11 Foundation. They believe that the teachings of the OT have no bearing on the church. We are not expected to be able to overcome sin in their belief system. They also believe that the New Covenant began on the day of Pentecost, so we don’t have to abide by Jesus’ teachings. Many of my friends have been duped by this.

    Rodney Gynther

  • Great article, Bill. It is about light and darkness. Absence of light is darkness, absence of truth is lies. Sin and the reality of its consequences is the context for salvation and the good news.

    A world that is focused on self and what pleases the flesh is walking away from the light, the truth, the only way out.

    Beena Saju

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