Results tagged “charity” from Reformation21 Blog

A Censorious Spirit


Sinclair Ferguson once lamented the fact that whenever he overheard others discussing some public theologian or individual at a conference, the statements were almost always prefaced with a negative comment such as, "Well, you know, the problem with him is..." Sadly, those sorts of conversations are far from uncommon among those of us who have been in the church for any length of time. We are all almost certainly guilty of making similar statements about brothers and sisters and, we have, no doubt, been the objects of such pejorative statements. So what are the marks of this all too common spiritual deficiency? And, how can we check our spirits so that we rid them of this censoriousness? 

In what is arguably one of the most important books ever written, Charity and Its Fruits, Jonathan Edwards sounded the theological alarm about a censorious spirit being contrary to Christian love. In the course of his sermon on this subject, Edwards set out three ways "wherein a censorious spirit or a disposition uncharitably to judge others consists:

  1. A censorious spirit appears in a forwardness to judge ill of others' states.
  2. A censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others' qualities; to overlook their good qualities, and to think them destitute of them when they are not, or to make very little of them, or to magnify their ill qualities and make more of them than they are, or to charge them with those ill qualities of which they are free.
  3. A censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others' actions.

First, A censorious spirit appears in a forwardness to judge ill of others' states. When we are not walking in love toward others in the body, we are apt to make a sinful judgment about the spiritual condition of another based on our own faulty assumptions, observations or presuppositions about them. Edwards wrote:

"Persons are guilty of censoriousness in condemning others' [spiritual] state when they,

...condemn others as hypocrites because of God's providential dealings with them, as Job's three friends condemned him as a hypocrite for the uncommon afflictions with which he met...

...condemn them for those failings which they see in them, which are no greater than are often incident to God's children; and it may be no greater, or not so great, as their own, though they think well of their own state...

...condemn others as those who must needs be carnal men for differing from them in opinion in some points which are not fundamental.

...or when persons judge ill of others' state from what they observe in them for want of making due allowances for their natural tempers, and for their manner of education, and other peculiar disadvantages, under which they labor."1

Second, a censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others' qualities. When we are not walking in love toward other professing believers, we are often quick to see the worst in others and slow to affrim the best in them. Edwards explained,

"Some men are very apt to charge others with ignorance and folly and other contemptible qualities which in no way deserve to be so esteemed by them.

Some seem to be very apt to entertain a very low and despicable opinion of others, and so to represent them to others, when a charitable spirit would discern many good things in them, and would freely own them to be persons not to be despised.

And some are ready to charge others with those morally ill qualities from which they are free, or at least to charge them with them in a much higher degree than they are really in them. Thus some have such a prejudice against some of their neighbors that they look upon them as much more proud men, or more spiteful and malicious, than they really are." 2

Finally, A censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others' words or actions. When we are not walking in love with other believers, we are ready to have evil suspicions about their words and actions, without any justifiable reason or evidence to think evil of them. Edwards noted,

"A suspicious, jealous spirit, whereby persons are apt to be jealous of others, of their being guilty of such and such things when they have no evidence of it, is an uncharitable spirit, and contrary to Christianity. Some persons are very free of passing their censures on others with respect to those things which they suppose they do out of their sight. They judge they commit such and such wickedness in secret and hid from the eyes of men, or that they have done thus, or said thus, among their companions or those who are united with them in the same party or design, though they keep it hid from others who are not in the same interest. These are the "evil surmisings" spoken of and condemned in 1 Tim. 6:4.

...Very commonly persons show a very uncharitable and censorious spirit with respect to others by being forward to take up bad reports of persons. Merely hearing a flying ill report of a person is far from being sufficient evidence against persons that they have been guilty of that which is reported. Yet, it is a very common thing for persons to pass a judgment on others on no other foundation.

...It is very common with men, when prejudiced against others, to put bad constructions on those actions or speeches of others which are seemingly good, and as though they were performed in hypocrisy. And especially in the management of public affairs, or affairs in which others are concerned with them. If anything be said or done wherein there is a show of concern for public good, or for the good of their neighbors, or the honor of God, or the interest of religion, others will be ready to judge that this is all in hypocrisy; that the design really is only to promote their own interest, or to advance themselves, that they are only flattering others, that they have some ill design all the time in their hearts."3

This ought to convict us deeply of how often we have harbored subtle censoriousness in our hearts toward those we ought to have loved the most. Instead of rushing to the worst possible conclusions about others, we ought to consider our own failings and sinfulness. This is such a challenging yet richly rewarding goal for us to pursue. The more we focus on our own hearts and motives, the less we will sinfully judge others in the body of Christ. The more we see our own sinfulness and need for the Savior, the more we will extend the same grace to others we profess a need of for ourselves. The more readily we extend love to others and are committed to thinking the best of them, the more our words and actions toward them will reflect the deep, deep love of Jesus.

1.  Jonathan Edwards, Ethical Writings ed. Paul Ramsey and John E. Smith, vol. 8, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1989), 285.

2. Ibid., 286

3. Ibid., 287

A Horror of Theology


The noisy gongs of acerbic and judgmental discernment bloggers, podcasters, vloggers and conference speakers are scattered throughout our social media feeds...and they're here to stay. The uncharitableness with which such individuals speak online immediately ought to leave a bad taste in the mouth of Christ's true lambs. After all, the fruit of the Spirit in the life of believers is an inextricable constituent of doctrinal truth. No amount of insistence that one is speaking the truth in love (when, in fact, he is speaking the truth in anger) will mask the fact that he is actually speaking in loveless pride. As Jesus said, "A tree is known by its fruit." The bitter fruit of an acrimonious "truth speaker" will inevitably be the bringing forth of disciples more fractious than himself. Nevertheless, the root of the problem does not lie in a love of the truth and a desire to trumpet forth sound doctrine--it is rooted in pride and self-love.

In Scripture, God everywhere charges us to be lovers of biblical truth. The early believers "continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship" (Acts 2:42). The Apostle Paul teaches us to be lovers of truth and practicers of love when he wrote, "Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1:13). It is often, on account of a loveless defense of truth that many Christians succumb to the opposite error, namely, the embrace of the diminution of sound doctrine. One doesn't have to scroll through his or her social media feed for long to come across an influential pastor or teacher warning his followers about the dangers of an overemphasis on sound doctrine. It sounds quite pious to sophisticatedly downplay truth in order to up play love. Nothing, however, could be more fallacious and factitious. It is impossible to love the truth and to speak the truth too much or too often. In fact, where there is no truth, there is no love. Christians have been redeemed in love by the One who said, "I am the truth."

Of course, the danger of swinging from one error to another is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the fall. Though it comes in new sociological and philosophical packages, the human heart has always revolted against embracing, loving, propagating and defending the truth about God. Throughout the early decades of the 20th Century, J. Gresham Machen warned about the destructive dangers of the theological liberalism that had stealthily yet persistently crept into the church and the academy. The strength of the theological liberalism of Machen's day is that it downplayed doctrinal truth under the guise of up playing love--much as it seeks to do in our day. In his The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History, Machen wrote, 

"Many Christians today have a horror of theology; they suppose it must necessarily be a cold and lifeless thing. As a matter of fact, theology is merely thinking about God. Every Christian must think about God; every Christian to some degree must be a theologian. The only question is whether he is to be a bad theologian or a good theologian. If he contents himself with his own preconceived notions, or gives free scope to his own natural feelings, he will be a bad theologian; he will soon find himself cherishing a miserable, imperfect, unworthy conception of God which makes God a mere creature of man's fancy. If, on the other hand, he makes himself acquainted, through patient study, first with the teaching of the Bible about God, then with the mighty acts of God that the Bible records, then with the Bible's explanations about these acts, he will soon be in possession of a 'theology' which will give backbone to his who religious life. There need be nothing technical about such a theology; it may not even be called 'theology' at all; it may be expressed in language that a child can understand; but whatever it is called and however it is expressed, it is absolutely necessary for a genuine Christianity. Christianity is based, not upon the shifting sands of human feeling, but upon solid facts; and the apprehension and understanding of facts inevitably requires the use of the intellect."1

Christians today, no less than in Machen's day, desperately need to come to terms with the fact that we are all theologians--whether good ones or bad ones. While we must be zealous to guard our hearts against embracing the ethos of the vitriolic doctrinal voices around us, we must equally avoid giving ear to those who, under pretense of love and charity, have functionally encouraged "a horror of theology." As Machen rightly noted, "Every Christian must think about God; every Christian to some degree must be a theologian. The only question is whether he is to be a bad theologian or a good theologian." 

1. J. Gresham Machen The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth, 1976) pp. 374-375.

Sodom's Great Sin?


Sodom. Arguably the most notorious city in Scripture. We cannot read or hear its name without our thoughts running to certain sins (most likely sexual in kind) that famously found a home there.

Given John Calvin's reputation for a certain moral rigidity and/or prudishness, we might expect him to find much fodder in the biblical narrative of Sodom's demise (Gen. 19.1-29) for pontifications against sexual perversion. Indeed, we might expect to find in Calvin's comments on Sodom moral judgments and consequent rhetoric applicable to our present day cultural setting, wherein certain sexual acts which Scripture denounces have been normalized if not glorified.

On both scores Calvin disappoints. Indeed, if we approach Calvin expecting him to guide us, with his comments on Sodom, into a parable of the modern West's moral failures and pending destruction at God's hand, we will walk away frustrated and -- best case scenario -- alert to the fact that Calvin, in the moral judgments he forms on the basis of Sodom's history, is pointing a finger at us more than our secular contemporaries.

It's not that Calvin is uninterested in the apparent attempt of Sodom's male populace to rape two visitors to the city. He labels that attempt "execrable wickedness" and "vial and outrageous barbarism." He deems it "diabolical" that "all [of Sodom's men] so readily conspired to perpetrate [that] most abominable crime." But his judgment of that "crime" is tempered by at least three convictions: firstly, that "it is probable that there were some" among Sodom's residents "who fanned the flame" more than others; some, that is, who were culpable above and beyond others for inciting the "collected troop" to propagate such wickedness. Secondly, that this level of wickedness in Sodom was "quite a new thing." Calvin supposes, in other words, that immorality in Sodom reached its peak at precisely that point when God sent his ministering Angels both to judge Sodom and rescue Lot and his family from the same. And thirdly (and most critically), Calvin believes the "execrable wickedness" on display in Sodom in Gen. 19.1-10 has roots which run much, much deeper than sexual perversion.

Calvin takes his cue in this regard from Ezekiel 16.48-49, in which text God reproves his bride, Israel, by likening her to Sodom, and in that process names Sodom's fundamental sin. "Now this," God himself says to his people, "was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." Calvin comments: "Although Moses ... explains [in Gen. 19] the most filthy crime which reigned in Sodom, we must nevertheless remember what Ezekiel teaches, that the men of Sodom did not fall at once into such execrable wickedness; but that, in the beginning, luxury from an abundance of bread prevailed, and that, afterwards, pride and cruelty followed." Calvin judges this development of more heinous practices in Sodom an instance of that divine retribution for sin described in Rom. 1.18-28. "At length," he writes, "when they were given up to a reprobate mind, they were also driven headlong into brutal lusts." Nevertheless, there is notable continuity between Sodom's final and most brutal act of perversion, the attempt to rape strangers, and their earliest and fundamental perversion, the hoarding of food and wealth and reluctance to share the same with those in need. A lack of love for others is apparent from the beginning to the end of Sodom's moral slide.

Sodom stands in stark contrast, then, to Lot, who much like Abraham in Gen. 18, proves to be an exemplar of charity in the particular form of hospitality offered to Sodom's angelic visitors (Gen. 19.1-3). Sodom's citizens seek to exploit these strangers; Lot offers them accommodation, food (indeed, "a feast" according to Gen. 19.3), and -- at length -- protection (at rather considerable peril to himself). Lot receives much praise from Calvin in this regard: "It appears from the fact that Lot went out and exposed himself to danger how faithfully he observed the sacred right of hospitality. It was truly a rare virtue that he preferred the safety and honor of the guests whom he had once undertaken to protect to his own life. Yet this degree of magnanimity is required from the children of God: that where duty and fidelity are concerned, they should not spare themselves." In sum, Lot preferred the needs and desires of others -- even those who could not to all appearances reciprocate his kindness -- to his own, while his compatriots were happy to sacrifice the dignity and well-being of others on the altar of their own lust.

The crucial question for us, then, is this: do we more reflect the character of Lot (and Abraham, as like Lot a paragon of charity) or Sodom's citizens in our own lives? If we define Sodom's sin by its most extreme manifestation, we very likely lose the opportunity -- and it is, by God's grace, an opportunity -- to see that sin reflected in our own lives, and so to repent of it. But if, like Calvin (and following Scripture's own lead), we define Sodom's sin according to its root -- if we define it, that is, as arrogance and abundance coupled with disinterest in the plight of those in need -- we might find that we have more in common with Sodom's infamous citizenry than we initially supposed. Arrogance, abundance, and disinterest in the poor and needy can, after all, be found in persons and institutions that take the name of Christ as much, arguably, as they can be found in persons and institutions that don't.

"Therefore," Calvin advises, "let us cultivate temperance and frugality" -- as well, of course, as charity -- "and let us always fear, lest a superfluity of food should impel us to luxury; lest our minds should be infected with pride on account of our wealth, and lest delicacies should tempt us to give the reins to our lust." 

But in the midst of such warnings, Calvin reserves an implicit word of comfort and encouragement for those who find themselves without a superfluity of food and/or other necessities and goods: "Let us also hence learn that God best provides for our salvation when he cuts off those superfluities which serve to the pampering of the flesh; and when, for the purpose of correcting excessive self-indulgence, he banishes us from a sweet and pleasant plain to a desert mountain."