Immodest Speech: Speaking the Truth in Love

John Stott
Friday, June 22nd 2007
Nov/Dec 2000

The spirit of our age is very unfriendly towards dogmatic people. Folk whose opinions are clearly formulated and strongly held are not popular. A person of conviction, however intelligent, sincere and humble he may be, will be fortunate if he escapes the charge of being a bigot. Nowadays the really great mind is thought to be both broad and open-broad enough to absorb every fresh idea which is presented to it, and open enough to go on doing so ad infinitum.

What are we to say to this? We must reply that historic Christianity is essentially dogmatic, because it purports to be a revealed faith. If the Christian religion were just a collection of the philosophical and ethical ideas of men (like Hinduism), dogmatism would be entirely out of place. But if God has spoken (as Christians claim), both in the olden days through the prophets and in these days through His Son (Heb. 1:1,2), why should it be thought “dogmatic” to believe His Word ourselves and to urge other people to believe it too? If there is a Word from God which may be read and received today, would it not rather be the height of folly and sin to disregard it?

Of course the fact that God has spoken, and that His revelation is recorded in a book, does not mean that Christians know everything. I fear we may sometimes give the impression that we think we do, in which case we need the forgiveness of God for our cocksure pretensions to omniscience….

…Christian dogmatism has, or should have, a limited field. It is not tantamount to the claim to omniscience. Yet in those things which are clearly revealed in Scripture, Christians should not be doubtful or apologetic. The corridors of the New Testament reverberate with dogmatic affirmations beginning “We know”, “We are sure”, “We are confident”. If you question this, read the First Epistle of John in which verbs meaning “to know” occur about forty times. They strike a note of joyful assurance which is sadly missing from many parts of the church today and which needs to be recaptured. “It is quite mistaken,” Professor James Stewart has written, “to suppose that humility excludes conviction. G. K. Chesterton once penned some wise words about what he called ‘the dislocation of humility’…. ‘What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe on the multiplication table.’ Humble and self-forgetting we must be always,” Professor Stewart continues, “but diffident and apologetic about the Gospel never….”

…[W]hen the biblical teaching is plain, the cult of the open mind is a sign not of maturity, but of immaturity. Those who cannot make up their minds what to believe, are “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine,” Paul dubs “babies”. (Eph. 4:14) And the prevalence of people “who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” is a characteristic of “the times of stress” in which we are living (Heralds of God, by James S. Stewart; Hodder, 1946; p.210)….

The Unbalanced Hatred of Controversy

It is very easy to tolerate the opinions of others if we have no strong opinions of our own. But we should not acquiesce in this easygoing tolerance. We need to distinguish between the tolerant mind and the tolerant spirit. Tolerant in spirit a Christian should always be, loving, understanding, forgiving and forbearing others, making allowances for them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, for true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). But how can we be tolerant in mind to what God has plainly revealed to be either evil or erroneous?…

Some of our divisions are not only unnecessary, but sinful and debilitating, an offense to God and a hindrance to the spread of the gospel. In my own conviction, the visible unity of the church (in each region or country) is both biblically right and practically desirable, and we should be actively seeking it. At the same time, we should ask ourselves a simple but searching question. If we are to meet the enemies of Christ with a united Christian front, with what kind of Christianity are we going to face them? The only weapon with which the opponents of the gospel can be overthrown is the gospel itself. It would be a tragedy if, in our desire for their overthrow, the only effective weapon in our armoury were to drop from our hands. United Christianity which is not true Christianity will not gain the victory over non-Christian forces, but will itself succumb to them….

This “lowest common denominator” approach gives the impression (although it has often been denied) of a regrettable indifference to revealed truth. It has also led sometimes to a love of the unambiguous statement which conceals deep and sincerely held differences and does no lasting good. It merely papers over the cracks. This looks nice and tidy for a while, for the cracks are temporarily hidden from view. They remain there beneath the surface, however, and will one day break into sight again, by that time probably wider and deeper that before. It is neither honest nor helpful to make out that divergent opinions are in reality different ways of saying the same thing….

The proper activity of professing Christians who disagree with one another is neither to ignore, nor conceal, nor even to minimize their differences, but to debate them. Take the Church of Rome as an example. I find it distressing to see Protestants and Roman Catholics united in some common actof worship or witness. Why? Because it gives the onlooker the impression that their disagreements are now virtually over. “See,” the unsophisticatedspectator might say, “they can now engage in prayer and proclamation together; what remains to divide them?”

But such public display of unity is a game of let’s pretend; it is not living in the real world….

[T]he Christian church, whether universal or local, is intended by God to be a confessional church. The church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Revealed truth is thus likened to a building, and the church’s calling is to be its “foundation” (holding it firm so that it is not moved) and its “pillar” (holding it aloft so that all may see it). However hostile the spirit of the age may be to an outspoken confession of the truth, the church has no liberty to reject its God-given task.

1 [ Back ] This article is an edited form of the chapter "A Defense of Theological Definition" in Christ the Controversialist. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.
Friday, June 22nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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