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The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover imageI’m moving toward the end of The Works of John Newton. There are a few items in the 4th volume I want to address separately. The one that seems pertinent to me existentially is Thoughts on the Government of the Tongue.

We are in the midst of political polarization as a nation. As a denomination, we are in the midst of theological polarization. As I think about my own words they are not always what they should be. I also feel kicked around, misunderstood and attacked at other times. I’m beginning to make more use of the FB snooze function. However, I am not looking forward to 2020 because this election looks to be even more polarizing and spiteful than 2016 was.

Newton begins his thoughts this way:

There is perhaps no one test or proof of the reality of a work of grace upon the heart, more simple, clear, and infallible, than the general tenor of our language and conversations; …”

He is applying James 3 in light of Jesus’ words “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” James warns us of the danger of the tongue. It can burn down families, churches and nations. We can build up or tear down with our kids, spouses or friends.

The last year or so has been an exercise in holding my tongue. Some people may not believe it, but they didn’t hear all that is in my heart because I don’t want to damage relationship in my anger. James warns that the one who can’t bridle his tongue has vain religion.

“It is not the restraint of the heart, the apostle requires.”

While it is our duty to watch and mortify the sinful desires of our hearts. But “he supposes that the grace of God in a true believer will check the evils of the heart, and prevent them from breaking out by the tongue.” This means that a husband won’t light into his wife (or a wife her husband) when they disagree. This means that you don’t attack your neighbor who votes differently than you but perhaps seek to understand their perspective. We note the hatred and anger arising in our hearts and refuse to give vent to them.

Newton notes that restraining our tongues is not to be taken so strictly that we think a Christian never speaks unadvisedly. We see godly men like Job and Jeremiah cursing the day they were born. While godly people frequently restrain their tongues, James also notes that we all sin in many ways, including our speech. This is part of the sanctification process.

I don’t know if Trump is a genuine Christian. Taken strictly, one would be tempted to say “No way, Jose.” But if his reported conversion a few years is genuine, we should not be surprised if it takes time for a man who used speech sinfully in many ways to begin to restrain his tongue (and his tweets). If grace is in his heart, “it will so regulate and control the tongue, that it shall not customarily offend.” People need time to change, and it is frequently incremental. This should give most of us hope. We see change, but long for more (if we are honest).

But the counterfeit Christian cannot bridle his tongue because there is no grace in his heart. He may learn theology, help out around the church but the tongue will persist in gossip, slander, unwholesome speech and verbal assault.

Newton moves to what it means to bridle the tongue. One aspect is their language toward God.

“So likewise the hearts of believers teach their mouths to speak honorably of God under all their afflictions and crosses, acknowledging the wisdom and mercy of his dispensations; and if an impatient word escapes them, it grieves and humbles them…”

In affliction the sinful heart wants to curse God, blame God. The Spirit of grace works to restrain that sinful desire. When we do accuse or curse, the Spirit of grace convicts us so we are grieved.

It also restrains our prideful speech of ourselves. That tendency we have to assert we alone are right and good, and those who disagree with us are singularly evil, stupid or blind. We speak as though we have all the answers. Instead, the Spirit moves us to speak of ourselves as unworthy, needy creatures.

“In what they say of or to others, the tongues of believers are bridled by a heartfelt regard to truth, love and purity.”

Not just truth. Not just love. Our tongues are bridled by truth and love. And purity. Truth and love restrain our tongues so we don’t speak falsehood or hatefully. We begin to have an internal restrain, which is the key. That restraint is truth, love and purity. It isn’t fear.

Newton recognizes that we can unwittingly speak untruths. We can speak from ignorance, forgetfulness. We aren’t speaking to deceive. But we are wrong. Sometimes your opponent is just plain wrong, not lying. Keep that in mind as the election draws near.

The tongue is bridled by truth because God is the God of truth. Jesus is the truth. It is bridled by love because God is love. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness. As a result we are restrained by purity. We are holy because He is holy.

“… though true believers may, on some occasions, speak rashly, and have great cause for humiliation, watchfulness, and prayer, with respect to the government of their tongues…”

Yes, we have a goal and a motive but we have not arrived. This is cause for humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand. This is cause for watchfulness when in disagreement with another. This is cause for prayer that God will guard our mouths and tongues.

Newton provides us with some helpful, edifying thoughts and direction for governing our tongues as manifestation of grace. It is well worth heeding as we move into an election year, as we continue in denominational debate and engage in everyday conflict.

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I read Reconciliation Blues to better understand the tension between the races that exists in the American Church. I had the blues. After reading this book, I feel even more blue.

I’ve been wanting to read this book since it first came out in 2006. Since it is 7 years old, some of the material is a bit outdated. But many of the issues still ring true- progress is so slow as Edward Gilbreath notes late in the book.

As one chapter notes, the barriers still exist on “Christian radio”. He brings up an interview with Nicole Mullen, whose award winning music was not played much on “Christian radio.” Neither was GRITS, whose member Teron Carter said, “They feel safer with a white face promoting that kind of music than with a black face.” Christian radio still struggles with this. You will hear Toby Mac, but not Lecrae. The names have changed, but not the circumstances.

He knows the blues of being often misunderstood, left out, dismissed and more. He knows the frustration of being the “first black.” Many of the people he interviewed or discusses were older and experienced the bitter sting of racism (hearing white students at school cheering when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered).  Many other stories seem more mundane, unless you are in their shoes of course.

“… it took me awhile to shake the white off I got there- the stiffness, the narrow theological perspectives.” Chris Williamson

There was a provocative chapter on Jesse Jackson. He is a polarizing figure on the national landscape. Gilbreath himself wrestles with how to understand Jackson, as do many black evangelicals.

Much of the book frustrated me, honestly. I felt misunderstood because he (and those he quoted) refer to “whiteness”. It is a subject I struggle with. If whites voted as a block like blacks, I could see this “white mentality”. Even among evangelicals, there is a fair amount of disagreement on issues theological, social and cultural. I more understand what it means to be white by what it means to not be black. And that isn’t very helpful.

“I grew up around whites. I know how they think …” Chanel Graham

(more…)

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If you follow my other blog, you know CavWife and I have adopted 2 children from Africa. In a recent post there, I mentioned that we expect to experience various forms of racism.

Racism has many sources. Okay, ultimately one source- the sinful heart of a man or woman. Why they sin in this way can have many different causes. Some people have grown up among racists, and “caught” it. They heard various lies all their lives, and take them as true.

Sometimes racism has found a place in our hearts because of mistreatment at the hands of people from that race. We’ve been robbed, beaten or worse. We wrongly project our fears upon all of those from that race. As I have been (slowly) reading about the Great African War in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, one thing that stuck out to me as the tales of ethnic hatred (racism) was that people recall the atrocities committed against their tribe, but not those committed by their tribe. I notice the same thing in America. Each ethnic group is quick to point out how they have been wronged, but can’t seem to remember how they have wronged the other groups.

Another reason I can think about is fear. Often new ethnic groups threatened to take away job from the working poor. That fear often drives racism. Where I grew up, we saw prejudice against French Canadians and Puerto Ricans. The French Canadians often came south for jobs in construction.

I’m sure you may be able to come up with other reasons for racism. I really want to focus on the cure of racism.

I’m sure education has its place. But it really is insufficient. In his book Union With Christ, Billings brings us to union with Christ. As a Christian, individuals have to realize they are not only united to Jesus by the Spirit, but also with all those who are united to Jesus. This means you are united to people of the ethnic group you despise or look down upon. Ponder that. The Reformed Church in South Africa began to ponder that, Billings notes. Separate communion is part of what justified apartheid. Restoring communion between people of different races is part of what dissolved apartheid, or more correctly the racism that drove it.

This is a theological reality that we need to grow into as we are sanctified. We come into a greater understanding and experience of our union with Christ, and one another. This union is not merely an intellectual thing. But as a spiritual union, is done by the power of the Spirit. It is by that union that we receive the power of the Spirit by which God raised Christ from the dead. The Spirit gives us the power to love- both God and neighbor. We begin to ask God to give us, by virtue of this union and the power of the Spirit, love for those for whom we currently have no love.

I am a big movie goer. Or I should say watcher since I rarely go to the movies anymore. But if you watch the movies that deal with racism, like Remember the Titans, American History X and The Hurricane, you find a commonality. Racists change, not because of education, but because of relationship. There was a relationship they had which slowly eroded the lies, fear and bitterness. Soon the hatred was replaced by love.

Too often we want God to just reach in to our miserable, sin-ridden hearts and pluck out the racism and bigotry. He refuses to do this. What He tells us to do is love them, or get into a relationship with some of the people you hate. As you relate to people and get to know them better, the lies and fears will rise to the surface. Now is when the real sanctification takes place. We put those sinful desires to death. We confront those lies with truth. We overcome those fears with courage. We bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on these sinful responses, and begin to love these people we have refused to love in the past.

Racism is a sin against both creation and redemption. It fails to recognize our common ancestry, and (at least for Christians) our common redemption. Racist have a gospel problem, and need the gospel cure. That cure is more severe than forgiveness. The gospel calls us to, and empowers us to, put these particular sins to death. The gospel enables us to put on love. Being gospel work doesn’t mean it is easy. It is painful to face the racism that exists in our hearts. It is shameful to have those thoughts about another’s supposed inferiority based on the color of their skin, ethnic background or other reason not connected to their character. Faith and repentance are painful to the sinful nature. But they are something that must happen if we are to move beyond racism, one person at a time.

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