Previous article in this series: September 1, 2012, p. 461.
Polemics will bring results. Both proper and improper, biblical and unspiritual, polemics, by the power of God, will have effects. Those who have lived in the church very long have witnessed this. Godly polemics will have good (that’s not to say “pleasant”) effect, because polemics is the use of God’s Word to battle error, and God’s Word never returns to Him “void” ( ). Unbiblical polemics will also have consequences. The effect, according to the sovereign judgments of God, will be damage to the very cause the battle purports to protect—the church.
Results of improper polemics
The hymn-writer John Newton, in his old age, wrote a letter to a young pastor advising the young man how to engage in controversy. The letter is worth reading.¹ In it, Newton warned of the dangers of carelessness in polemics. Those who conduct themselves poorly, he said, “provoke those whom they should convince and puff up those whom they should edify.”
When the sword of God’s Word is wielded improperly, the cause of God is damaged and the name of God, which ought to be protected, is dishonored. The collateral damage can be widespread.
Consider those who are too easily revved up by a good fight. They are probably harmed the most. The false accusation by David’s brothers—that David visited them in the battlefield in the “naughtiness of his heart” and only “to see the battle”—does accurately describe some immature men. Controversy inflames their sinful tendency to fight in pride. In controversy, their evil nature is not mortified, but fed. If this evil is not subdued, it will spread just like the leaven of heresy spreads, and most likely to their children, until pretty soon the church has a whole tribe of hot heads, “sons of Zeruiah.”
At the same time, there will be negative effect also on those who recognize and dislike the unspiritual polemics. They will shut their ears to the arguments and logic, as tight and biblical (in form at least) as they may be, because they are nauseated by the unspiritual nature of the battle. It’s anyone’s guess how much, but my experience is that a good deal of opposition to polemics can be traced to reaction against polemics that these more sensitive souls instinctively knew was offensive to God.
And, especially the impressionable youth will be influenced for harm. You may have heard stories from older saints who, in their youth, hiding on the landing at the top of the stairs, listened in horror to the unholy ecclesiastical debates of their parents and relatives, and were damaged by them. Of course, stories may be told of how children observed godly battles and were profoundly influenced for good. We thank God for them. But the negative impact of ungodly battles must not be underestimated.
In the end, and not surprisingly, improper polemics will hurt the man himself who speaks or writes irresponsibly. He will ruin his reputation, isolate himself from all but a few like himself, and may finally end up miserably alone. When worse comes to worst, if a merciful God does not intervene, this kind will start his own little fellowship, set up a web-site, and then probably proceed to “excommunicate” everyone who does not see eye to eye with him. It doesn’t always get that bad. Pray that it does not. But I have seen enough of this kind to be realistic, and wary.
The Old Testament is instructive here. King David had problems of this kind with the sons of Zeruiah—Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. Their violence was ungodly. They were “too hard” for David.² Time and again David not only had to rebuke these ruthless brutes, but had to distance himself publicly from them so that all Israel would know that he was not behind their approach. It may be surprising that these men are catalogued among David’s “mighty men of valor” (see, for example,). They were skilled warriors, performed great things for the kingdom, led many campaigns to victory over the enemies, were zealous to fight and effective in it. But David disowned these strangely respectable thugs. In the end he cursed Joab, and had Solomon “take care of” him (read ).
Calvin’s commentaries on the history of king David indicate he was not unfamiliar with such improper battling.³
. . . if the servants of God…are sometimes badly advised, evil then is doubled, as we see here in Joab. He upheld a good cause. He was David’s captain. In brief, he was one of the leaders of the church . . . . (But he) treated as a game what he should have detested . . . .
. . . Hence, we are constrained to fight, but let it be in spite of ourselves. And moreover, when we are involved, we must be very careful to pray to God that he will govern the hearts of his own—for today we see once again that in the army marshaled under the name of Jesus Christ and of the gospel, there are many rascals among the troops. Some of them are there to strip and pillage, and others to commit outrages; some to satisfy their appetite for vengeance; others to murder no matter how; and still others for publicity. Hence, let us learn to pray to God that he will not allow the armies which have been gathered in his name to be blackened, either by our wicked affections, or by the desire for vengeance, or by any such thing.4
. . . let us rise above our passions and always keep our eyes on our Captain and Protector by whom we are guided. Let us be careful, I say, not to indulge in vainglory and to confide in it . . . . Let us call on him to be pleased to govern us. If he has strengthened us, may he temper our zeal and keep us from throwing ourselves into excessive cruelty. Instead, may he give us grace to use our zeal modestly.5
Repeatedly, Calvin commended what outwardly was commendable in Joab, but condemned what dishonored his master, David. In his next sermon, entitled “Disunity and War,” after praising Joab for having “compassion on his unfortunate brethren,” Calvin astutely points out that even some of God’s elect may misbehave in battles (though some may question the application of this to Joab). Some “are given over to evil and . . . nevertheless belong to him [God] according to his [God’s] secret decree and are eventually to serve him along with us.”6 Calvin’s applications are timely when he explains these public statements of David regarding Joab’s unjust violence: “I and my kingdom are guiltless before the Lord forever from the blood of Abner the son of Ner: Let it rest on the head of Joab, and on all his father’s house; and let there not fail from the house of Joab one that hath an issue, or that is a leper, or that leaneth on a staff, or that falleth on the sword, or that lacketh bread” ().
Reading Calvin’s sermons is worthwhile if only to profit from his predictable but very beautiful concluding paragraphs, in which he always teaches his congregation (us) to confess their own faults. Notice Calvin’s particular reference in the prayer to Joab’s misbehavior.
Now, let us prostrate ourselves before the majesty of our good God, recognizing all our faults, praying that he will make us feel them so much that it will cause us more and more to be displeased with ourselves. Let us pray that . . . in all our battles, he will give us an invincible constancy, so that we may walk the narrow path according to His Word . . . making no compromise with the wicked when we are aware of their cruelty and craft. At the same time, may we have pity on them without deviating from what is taught us by our Lord.7
As a good type of Christ and an example to church leaders today, David would not allow damage to be done to his own reputation, the reputation of his kingdom, and the name of his God. This military commander sought wisdom, control, and God’s glory above his own.
Results of proper polemics
On the other hand, how thankful we may be that God is pleased to use His Word as it is preached and explained in a godly way. Warfare, as part of Old Testament typology—difficult to accept because of all the physical violence—is fulfilled in the New Testament church’s polemics: fighting words. And by those fighting words, false doctrine is eradicated, impenitent heretics are cut off, so that the leaven is checked, saints are put on guard for deception, and young people are inoculated against the pestilence of false teachings.
The history of the church is replete with examples of this great mercy of God. Athanasius’ fighting words rooted out Arianism (denial of the divinity of Christ). Polemics saved the church, for a time, from Pelagianism (the earlier form of Arminianism). God used Luther’s pen not only to expose the errors of Roman Catholicism, but to put to flight the swarms on the radical right. Although some do not like the Canons of Dordt, this creed is one of the best examples of the church using fighting words, which God has powerfully used for almost five hundred years now. The “weapons of our warfare” () have pulled down the strongholds of the Anabaptists, Pentecostalism, evolutionism, and dozens of other noxious “isms.” The crosshairs have been on Freud as well as Bell, Marx as well as Hinn, the local heretic and the world-renowned huckster.
But polemics not only destroys error; by polemics every thought of believers is brought into captivity to “the obedience of Christ” (). The Lord’s mercies are evident in so many ways.
The Word of God promised this, and not only in II Corinthians. Elders “instruct those that oppose,” confident that God “will give (some) repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (). If God does not grant repentance, elders’ words drive off the sinner, as Paul’s did Elymas the sorcerer ( ).
Till the Lord of truth and right returns, the sword of the Spirit must be used, with confidence in its power. The language is now figurative, but modern Jezebels must be thrown down to the street to be trampled by horses and eaten by dogs. The doctrine of Balaam, now threatening to destroy many, must be rooted out, lest God Himself come and take care of wicked men with the sword of His own mouth (as He warned in). Heresies that have names, and others un-named, even ones yet to be identified, must be exposed for what they are, and any proponent must be put out of the church by Christian discipline. If we are afflicted with the malady of being “too nice,” we must be aware of the consequences. At the same time, we remember the cautions.
Done, and done rightly, polemics will be a great blessing to our churches. In Jehovah’s goodness, former doubters of the value of polemics may come on board, perhaps even to encourage their pastors to preach polemically when necessary. Without fear, elders will remind their pastors of the Church Order’s Article 55; and our pastors will hear the reminders with glad hearts. Once in a while, our consistories will study together the Formula of Subscription, remembering the vows each one has publicly made. The next generation will rise up to recognize their identity as members of the church militant, even as they pray for their place in glory where there are only plowshares.
¹ Google “Newton ‘on controversy’” and you will easily find a copy of the letter. You may not agree with everything Newton says, but in the main he gives very good counsel. The Beacon Lights reprinted this letter in April 1980.
² The Hebrew word means “cruel, severe, rigorous.” Read these stern words of David in II Samuel 3:39 and, using a good concordance or commentary, follow David’s relation with these violent brothers all the way to the end of his (and their!) lives.
³ I give rather extensive quotations of Calvin’s wise applications. Perhaps these will spur you to read Calvin’s fine sermons.
4 Calvin’s Sermons on II Samuel, p. 72.
5 Sermons on II Samuel, p. 75.
6 Sermons on II Samuel, p. 88.
7 Sermons on II Samuel, p. 91.