One of the things that you are taught on your first driving lesson is that there is a blindspot over your right shoulder. No matter how much you check your mirrors there is an area that you cannot see. Ignorance of that blindspot has the potential for causing accidents. It is like that with sin. We can deceive ourselves that our actions are acceptable in one area, and our consciences are clear, but lurking in the blindspot are thoughts, attitudes and even actions that are dishonouring to the Lord. This may well be the case in our zeal for the truth in the context of controversy. Engaging in polemics can blind us to our own sins.
That we can sin in this way should come as no surprise to us. After all there is no other situation that we experience where we are free from temptation. When engaging in controversy there are particular sins that we will face.
Before getting to the main part of the argument there are some preliminary matters to bear in mind. Those who vocalise concern over false doctrine are of course an easy target. There is a consistent, and at times quite inaccurate, typology at work in these debates. There is the stigma of being branded unloving, ungracious, narrow, harsh, and even schismatic, for defending the truth. Strong words about error are not allowed. But that is itself a narrow-minded view, far narrower than the Bible.
There has to be room for Paul's responses to the Galatian and Colossian false teachers, and Christ's words to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. I'm sure that it is possible for us to be strong on condemning error and yet to be humble at the point of assessing the reasons for our own right understanding--at the same time. Whether we are guilty of pride in our own orthodoxy is a matter to search our own hearts about. It isn't something that can be read off automatically and infallibly whenever we see someone become angry because of destructive heresies.
But although sinful attitudes are far from synonymous with condemning error they are not totally unavoidable. Consider Francis Schaeffer's description of the sins in the blindspot:
“Thus whenever it becomes necessary to draw a line in the defense of a central Christian truth it is so easy to be proud, to be hard. It is easy to be self-righteous and to self- righteously think that we are so right on this one point that anything else may be excused— this is very easy, a very easy thing to fall into. These mistakes were indeed made, and we have suffered from this and the cause of Christ has suffered from this through some fifty years.” (The Great Evangelical Disaster, p. 352).
We can examine ourselves along these lines both positively and negatively. What graces am I expected to display even when I am dealing with theological opponents? What attitudes and actions am I to avoid when dealing with perceived error? Paul takes this two-fold approach in 2 Timothy 2:23-26 (ESV):
23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Opponents of the gospel are in a desperate spiritual situation. Is there any hope for them? Maybe the Lord will grant them repentance so that they will come to know and believe the truth. Until, or unless, that happens they are ensnared by the devil. Failure to think in these categories seems to be the cause of the ungodliness that can exist on the part of the defender of the gospel. Right belief of the gospel, true saving faith, is a work of grace. There is no room here for pride in our rightness but thankfulness. Who, after all, has made us to differ? What do we have that we did not receive? Patience, gentleness, kindness, and a refusal to be quarrelsome are the fruit of consciously knowing that there is a great spiritual battle going on. John Newton provided solid counsel from Paul's words here:
“If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy; but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose”.
They are culpable since they have chosen to embrace error, but they are also deceived. Now, what else but knowing that a change of heart is something solely God given can temper the approach of the polemicist? What other explanation is there for patience and gentleness as appropriate dispositions? Coming to a knowledge of the truth has never been self-generated. Calvin wrote that “when we remember that repentance is God's gift and work, we shall hope the more earnestly and, encouraged by this assurance, will give more labour and care to the instruction of rebels”. Such gentleness and patience should not be confused with moral weakness and softness. Paul's words here are consistent with those written to Titus on silencing the false teachers, rebuking straying believers sharply, and after two warnings having nothing to do with divisive people.