"I went to Jerusalem to become acquainted (Gk. istoria) with Cephas" - Paul's words from Galatians 1:18.

Why We Should Positively Teach the Gospel Rather than Engage in Polemics with Gusto

I recently came across a blog post written by Tim Keller on his City to City Blog that spoke to my heart. The application for me and my ministry is clear, and I thought I would pass it on to see if it was as helpful to others. Tim wrote ....

D.M. Lloyd-Jones once had a memorable encounter with T.T. Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto, and a leading defender of orthodoxy against the growing liberal theology of the churches in Canada. Shields regularly attacked other church leaders in both his preaching and his writings. Lloyd-Jones shared virtually the identical theological positions with Shields, but he believed "'that the Baptist leader (Shields) was sometimes too controversial, too denunciatory and too censorious.' Rather than helping young Christians by the strength of his polemics against liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics, Lloyd-Jones believed that Shields was losing the opportunity to influence those whose first need is positive teaching.” (I. Murray, D.M. Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, p.271). We should recall that Lloyd-Jones was quite willing to engage in polemics himself. He and John Stott clashed publicly over whether evangelicals should remain in the Church of England. (Lloyd-Jones said they should not.) And yet Lloyd-Jones opposed making polemics a major part of one’s ministry, and challenged Shields.

In their meeting, Shields asked Lloyd-Jones if he enjoyed reading the works of another contemporary defender of orthodoxy. Lloyd-Jones said that he seldom read the author, because, “he doesn’t help me spiritually.” Shields responded: “Surely you are helped by the way he makes mincemeat of the liberals?” Lloyd-Jones responded: “You can make mincemeat of the liberals and still be in trouble in your own soul.” This touched off an extended debate. At one point Shields said that he was only doing what Paul did to Peter—contradicting and opposing him. Lloyd-Jones responded “The effect of what Paul did was to win Peter round to his position and make him call him ‘our beloved brother Paul’ [2 Peter 3:15]. Can you say the same about the people whom you attack?” For this Shields had no answer. The simple fact was that his polemics were really designed simply to stigmatize and marginalize his opponents, not persuade them. Suddenly the younger Lloyd-Jones appealed to Shields in a bold way. In the 1920s, Shields had expected an appointment to McMaster University, but theological liberals blocked it. Lloyd-Jones pointed out that from that time it had changed the tone of his ministry. “Dr Shields, you used to be known as the Canadian Spurgeon, and you were…but over this McMaster University business in the early twenties you suddenly changed and became negative and denunciatory. I feel it has ruined your ministry. Why don’t you come back! Drop all this, preach the gospel to people positively and win them!” (Murray, p.273)

On the lips of someone else, this could be seen as an appeal to “just preach Jesus” and not care about sound doctrine. But it is hard to accuse Lloyd-Jones of that. Rather, Lloyd-Jones was standing in the tradition of Gillespie and Alexander. Polemics is medicine, not food. Without medicine we will surely die—we can’t live without it. This is why “polemical theology’ must be a required part of every theological curriculum. Yet we cannot live on medicine. If you engage in polemics with relish and joy—if polemics takes up a significant percentage or even a majority of your time and energy—it is like trying to live on medicine alone. It won’t work, for the church or for you. That was Lloyd-Jones’s message.

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7 comments:

Debbie Kaufman said...

Thank you for linking to this series. I would recommend reading Parts 1-3 which are the best I've read on this subject. I pray that this moves other hearts.

B Nettles said...

Wade, a good friend of mine once introduced a Bible study with this statement: "The Scripture is truth, and the all truth has application. If you start with the truth, you will get to the application. If you start with the application, the truth can be elusive." That stuck me as profound, and it has become a favorite quote for me.

Could it be that a career of polemical theology ends up avoiding the truth of the Gospel because the speaker is starting with the application?

Bob Cleveland said...

One of my earlier mentors said "If you would win some, be winsome". I've never forgotten that.

Since them, I've learned that our God is a redemptive God; how dare I pretend to be about His business, acting any other way?

Joe Blackmon said...

The simple fact was that his polemics were really designed simply to stigmatize and marginalize his opponents, not persuade them.

I'm sorry. I missed the part where that was a bad thing.

wadeburleson.org said...

It's also, Joe, why you miss out on persuading anyone of the truth.

Rex Ray said...

B Nettles,
You quoted: “The Scripture is truth, and all truth has application. If you start with the truth, you will get to the application. If you start with the application, the truth can be elusive."

That sounds easy, but how do you know truth?

I believe everything that’s true is from God, but the main question is what is Scripture?

Anything the Bible records may or may not be true such as the lies of the devil and man, ignorance, stupidity etc.
Because the Bible reports them in truth does not make what is said true.

Case in point:
Some believe you must be baptized to have your sins washed away, while Baptists believe you’re sins are washed away by faith in Jesus.

Since each side quotes Scripture, which thinking starts with truth and which starts with application?

Jesus said the Holy Spirit will teach us, but did he ‘zap’ the apostles all at once so ALL they said was from God or did they say and write what they believed without ever changing their minds?

Peter didn’t believe Gentiles could be saved until God gave him a vision, and he saw with his own eyes. Did that change his former belief when the Bible records him saying?...

“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 Holman)

Note Peter said the Holy Spirit came AFTER being baptized.

But while Peter was preaching, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles WITHOUT them first being baptized. (Acts 10:44)

Peter changed his mind from Acts 2 since he said in Acts 15:11 NLT:

“We are all saved the same way, by the underserved grace of the Lord Jesus.”
I think Peter believed John 3:16.

Rex Ray said...

Hey! I just looked up the definition of “polemical”:

“1. A controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine. 2. A person engaged in or inclined to controversy, argument, ...”

and found out I’m just a big medicine pill!

But I’d pale in comparison to my twin brother who was told by his 8th grade teacher:

“Hez Ray, if you saw a sign pointing NORTH and you thought it was SOUTH, you’d argue with that post all day!”

He’s probably the only person in the world that was put in a ‘choke-hold’ while standing in line to pay a bill by a total stranger.

I suppose the stranger became angry hearing Hez continuing to argue why he should be able to leave his check without standing in line.

Hez never saw the guy, but realizing he was about to pass-out and him being a wrestling coach, broke the hold which I won’t describe but left the stranger in such agony he crawled to a wall.

The incident stopped Hez’s gripping and a policeman apologized for his cp-worker’s behavior.


Hez is the type that doesn’t get even—he gets ahead.

Once he was in a bad mood from waiting to see a doctor. An old lady was also waiting, but she’d gone to sleep in her wheelchair.

“Well, how are you all doing?”
“OK, but that woman died.”
“Is she really dead?!!”
“Dead as a hammer!”
The doctor rushed out; came back with help and woke the lady.

Sorry about the stories, but we’d never been apart until we were 21 and then we haven’t seen each other much and I love him to death. He’s such a nut he’s gone back to teaching school at the age of 79.