A lot of theological warfare and carnage can be avoided:
It is for good reason that the popular phrase about not discussing politics or religion in polite society is still popular and still quite good advice. If you want to have an amicable and peaceful social life with others, you probably should avoid these two mega-topics like the plague. They can so easily spiral out of control and become major bloody battlegrounds.
That is because not only are both topics quite important, but far too many folks are not exactly gifted in the art of argument, debate and discussion. As a result, heat rather than light is too often generated during such discussions. Folks have their pet peeves on both major subjects, and they can easily just run with emotion and get increasingly angry when they see their fav viewpoints being challenged.
It takes some effort to rationally, logically, calmly, coherently and in a properly informed manner have lively discussions about political and religious matters. Here I want to look at the second of these, and narrow it down specifically to theological debates and discussions.
I happen to love theology – always have, ever since I became a Christian a half century ago. Thus for 50 years now I have done a lot of hardcore reading, studying, teaching and writing on theology. I know a bit about it, but as with all knowledge, the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.
So humility is an essential trait of any would-be theologian. We do not have all the answers, we only have partial understanding, and our views can and will change somewhat over the years. So while we should strongly affirm core theological beliefs, we also need to show some flexibility and allow for some room to move, at least on secondary issues.
If and when
As such, we need to know when to pick our battles. Sometimes we need to engage because truth is at stake. But other times we may need to just pass on the particular battle, even if truth is still under attack. We need real wisdom and discernment as to when and where we should engage.
That is because the Christian is to be committed to unity as much as to truth. All unity with no truth is NOT the way to go, but all truth with no attempt at Christian unity is not the way forward either. Both are important and we need the right balance here.
Let me mention how I tend to respond when I am challenged or criticised for something I believe. As mentioned, sometimes we just let it go through to the keeper (for Americans, that just means to let it pass and not worry about it). At other times we must get involved and respond. The trick is to know which way to proceed.
In the case of a very recent debate that arose, I did what I often do: after my morning Bible reading I went on a morning prayer walk. So just recently ago I prayed this: ‘OK Lord, what do you want me to do with this latest skirmish? Should I just ignore it or try to engage with the person?’
In this case it seemed that neither was the way to go, but a third option instead should be pursued. And that was to write an article about it! I do this now and then, and for several reasons. It may well serve as a useful teaching platform. Perhaps what I pen in these sorts of pieces will be of help to others. So as a learning device, this article hopefully will be instructive and helpful for others who find themselves in similar situations.
One major reason why big theological fights can erupt is because folks are clinging to some truths or beliefs that they really are committed to, but they may ignore or overlook other vital doctrines and truths. That is how most cults and heresies develop by the way: some biblical truths are emphasised, but to the neglect and detriment of other important doctrines.
When we move away from the biblical balance and into these one-sided sorts of directions, it is easy for false and even heretical views to arise. We need great care here. We must give full weight to all biblical truth. Or as Paul put it, we must always offer the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Not to do so will almost always get us into theological trouble.
A little theological bun fight that just erupted over something I had posted yesterday is a case in point. It involves one or two folks getting rather bent out of shape by something I said. They had their own emphasis that they wanted pushed, and they seemed quite happy to ignore or overlook other important biblical emphases.
So let me lay out this particular example. Yesterday I penned a theological piece – also in part to bring some biblical balance to a particular biblical truth. I had had a non-Protestant get upset with me for simply talking about music and the Reformers.
He launched into a rather bizarre attack on John Newton and his hymn “Amazing Grace”. Presumably he hated the idea that Newton thought of himself as a wretched sinner. So I wrote an article on the biblical truth that yes we all are sinners in desperate need of God’s amazing saving grace: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/05/04/yes-i-am-wretched-and-so-are-you/
On a popular Christian social media site I posted a link to this piece, hoping it might be of some help to other Christians. It did not occur to me that instead, I would actually get some angry believers rather offended and upset by what I had said! Oh dear, you just can’t win sometimes!
One fellow in particular came back with this rather impassioned comment: “what is it with all these christians that still say ‘we are wretches’? In Christ we are A NEW creation. We are born again. Makes me sick that people hold themselves back for full grace, love, power and faith! Faith is what nearly sank Peter when he tried walking on it. We are a new creation- and that’s what this song is all about. Being set free!”
Yes but… If this critic had actually bothered to read the article instead of simply emoting, he would have seen that the main point of my piece was to state that we are ALL wretched sinners apart from Christ and his salvation. In this case it is about what we were before salvation.
However – and this is a big however – it is also perfectly biblical to suggest that the more the Christian grows in Christ, the less of a flattering opinion he has of himself. As the Apostle Paul matured, he became increasingly aware of his own sinfulness and his daily need for the grace of God in his life. As I said in an earlier piece on this:
When we first became Christians we repented of our sins, agreed with God about them, and received his forgiveness. But that initial conviction of the repellent nature of our sin was only the beginning. As we grow in grace, holiness and righteousness, we grow even more aware of the horror of sin and the depth of our own rebellion and sinfulness. How can it be any other way? All true followers of Christ know this truth. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/07/20/the-normal-christian-life-a-growing-awareness-of-sin/
This stands over against the error of the hyper-grace movement which can so highlight grace that it can lose biblical balance. Some of its proponents actually suggest a Christian never needs to repent once they are saved. They are great on justification but weak on sanctification – more on this in a moment.
So back to my critic: Are we new creatures in Christ? Absolutely! Are we set on a new path with newness of life, and a new way of doing things? Absolutely! But that is not the end of the story. In fact, biblically and theologically speaking, it is just the beginning.
The theological term for this is justification. It is the one-off work of God that brings dead sinners into a relationship with the living Christ because of what took place at Calvary. By faith and repentance we enter into a new life, a new walk, and a new reconciled relationship with God. Hallelujah.
But that is only the start. The rest of our life until we go to glory is about putting off the old man, dealing with besetting sins, crucifying the flesh, saying no to self and yes to God, and so on. That is the process we call sanctification. It is a life-long process. It never stops until we die.
And yes of course, it is also due to the grace of God and the indwelling Holy Spirit. But still, it is a cooperative effort. We obey God and his promptings and do all we are asked to do, and God does his deep work within us. The hundreds of New Testament commands that we are meant to obey are an indication of this cooperative work with God as we grow in sanctification – that is, as we become more like Christ. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/22/sanctification-cooperating-with-god/
So guess what? The biblical Christian will insist on both. Yes we are a new creation thanks to what Christ has done for us. But that does NOT mean we become sinlessly perfect the moment we get saved. Yes, God looks at us in terms of Christ’s imputed righteousness, but we still are to grow as believers, becoming more holy and less fleshly. That has to do with the difference between our standing and our state. But see more on this matter here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/01/standing-and-state/
So I was perfectly right to emphasise the biblical truth that we are all wretches, lost in sin, and unable to save ourselves. That was the main point of yesterday’s article. This critic was right to stress what new things occur when we come to Christ.
But he was wrong to suggest that somehow the believer never need worry about indwelling sin, the flesh, the old man, the carnal nature, the need to daily carry the cross, and the need to crucify the flesh. That is all 100 per cent biblical as well, and when we push just one side of the equation at the expense of the other, we get into real biblical and theological error.
In sum, one way to reduce the number of fatalities that can occur with intense theological battles is to be aware of the bigger picture, to compare Scripture with Scripture, and to present the whole council of God. Running with just one biblical truth while ignoring or downplaying the others just never ends well.
No wonder Paul made this command: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).