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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Truth, Delivery and Imperfect Ministers

"Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?" Saint Paul

Imagine a man caught in the act of adultery by his wife and then responding more severely to the manner in which she reacted to his infidelity than to his own guilt. Even if the wife’s knee-jerk reaction were not to have taken into account her own sinfulness - is there a place for a husband to turn the tables on his wife without first dealing with the wretchedness of his own premeditated behavior? If the husband were to deal with the plank in his own eye, wouldn’t any perceived speck in his wife’s eye disappear, at least from his sight? Now imagine people “caught” in sin through the ordained preaching of the word and then becoming more disturbed, even outraged, by the manner in which the pastor delivered the message than their personal guilt before God. It seems to me that what is at work in both such cases is an avoidance of truth through a conveniently cultivated seared conscience. When feeling good about oneself (or at least the desire not to feel bad about oneself) takes precedence over a longing to be sanctified, there can be little chance of experiencing true contrition, the sine qua non of God-sent repentance. I have found that all too often mortification through the gospel-means of heart-felt, Spirit-wrought remorse is replaced by focusing on perceived imperfections in the messenger. One must question whether the evangelical graces of repentance, spiritual cleansing and biblical restoration can be present in such cases.

When subjective self-esteem becomes more important than developing objective Christian character, the crucified life becomes purely theoretical, an abstraction if you will. After all, wouldn’t one with a conscience that was laid bare before God be exceedingly more consumed with dealing truthfully and biblically with his own objective guilt than making an issue of any perceived flaw in the messenger’s bedside manner? Should not our first and greatest desire be to deal with our own sin before contemplating the imperfect instrument God is so often pleased to use to point it out? Indeed, would the manner in which the message was delivered be of any consequence whatsoever if we were in agreement with God and saw ourselves as we truly are, guilty before him? Not to belabor the point, but if the judge in the courtroom were even rude in the manner in which he interrogated a serial rapist, would we say the rapist "deserved" better? And assuming he did in some horizontal sense (i.e. creature to creature), would it not be true that if he were truly contrite he would not even notice - let alone complain about (!), the civility of the judge’s address? Of course not! If the guilty party were even in close proximity to thinking rightly about his sin, which is to say if he were dealing in reality, would he even notice any harshness at all, and if he did, would he not receive it as a divinely appointed, providential tempering of the justice deserved? If there were God-sent sorrow, would there even be any chance that the guilty party would become the messenger’s accuser? Sadly, in the church today this sort of thing has become all too common. When the Christian cloaks his guilt in the face of correction, the concealment is usually accompanied by the guilty party going on the offensive against God’s anointed; all in an effort try to extricate one’s own shame.

As David Wells rightly observes:

“To feel embarrassed because we were caught… deceiving, or (shamelessly)
self-promoting is an entirely good and healthy emotion! To argue, then, that we
need to be liberated from these uncomfortable feelings, that the ultimate
liberation is to become entirely shameless, is to sever our connection with the
moral law entirely.”
Unfortunately, all too often Christians are more concerned – even consumed, with ridding themselves - apart from any semblance of gospel formulation - of feeling shame. The objective reality of guilt is something that Christians are often pleased to live with as long as they don’t feel soiled. When shame is due to being found out by others, as opposed to agreeing with God’s objective verdict with a contrite heart, the cause of shame in the mind of the sinner is indexed to the messenger rather than to the holy demands of the Law-Giver. When one feels embarrassed and cloaks his guilt, the simple and obviously less painful solution becomes “kill the messenger!” The goal is to rid oneself from feeling bad. Contrition, something that is too often wrongly perceived as more Catholic than Protestant, is missing - otherwise the messenger would not be in danger!

I am aware of a pastor who (merely) stopped congregational singing in order to admonish the saints to sing out more loudly unto the Lord, as they were to have been engaged in the worship of the triune God. Yet sadly, there were some within the congregation who took great umbrage with the pastoral admonishment. Why was that? For those who were singing out as they ought, the correction obviously did not apply to them (other than being organically part of the whole congregation). However, for those who were not singing out, the correction was indeed appropriate. (I suppose if you throw a rock at a pack of dogs, the one who yelps the loudest is the one who gets hit most squarely.) Any number of examples could be cited. The general point is shouldn’t the guilty party be more concerned with receiving correction (and in this casing repenting of apathetic worship) than with the manner in which the pastor discharges correction? If a minister of God’s word dares to dare to speak the unvarnished truth, he better sugar-coat it and make sure to put the accent on his own need for grace. For a minister to reprove, rebuke or exhort without ensuring both in word and demeanor an acute understanding that he is the chief sinner, the one standing in need of admonishment might very well conjure up vain images (and assert them as dogma) of how far short the messenger falls from Jesus’ manner of conduct. Offense taken ends up being equated with an offense given, a monstrosity indeed. However, the ultimate deception results when the tables get turned, wherein the dismissal of guilt is exchanged for an attack on the messenger.

May God be pleased to protect his ministers and not allow them to cave into the pressures that would keep them from that part of their job description that requires them to be ready in season and out of season.


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Jason said...

Sound words, brother. Humble repentance is a hard thing, and in my experience, rarely given immediately. Hopefully in time the subjects involved will recognize their sin and own it. Thanks for the exhortation.

Jason D.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Dear Ron,

It's been too long since I visited your blog (this time I was referred by your friend Mark Chambers).

Wow!! What a great, great post. It is well-argued and it is timeless. And because it is timeless, it shows the lasting worth and value of your counsel in this particular blog post.

Tangentially, this post kind of reminds me of the TV show called "House M.D."! A lot of people object to House's bedside manner without considering that he is really fixated on medical truth which is to their physical betterment.

Lastly, there is a minor word error. You wrote, "Any number of examples could be sighted." It should be "cited", not "sighted".

An off-topic P.S. It's been many, many months but I've been meaning to politely re-engage you regarding the post (actually your comments) about the place of traditional/evidentialist apologetics vis-a-vis presuppositional apologetics. And I say that as someone who prefers a presupp approach!

John Moore said...


The John MacArthur distinction is a good one. Thanks for adding that. The climate has changed in the church. The church has adopted the "feel good" spirit of the age, and we know that that is not after Christ. I don't think many Christians today would like the Apostle Paul, or the Prophets for that matter! Men of God are not always good for our self esteem! :)

Keep on pluggin'.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, this is a very helpful post! This is helpful not just in the churches but in homes and extended families. I can only imagine how differnt personal relationships would be if each person owned their own sin and didn't point the finger at someone else. This was a great encouragement! Keep up the good work.

A mother

Anonymous said...

Are you insinuating that a pastor can not rebuke and correct in a direct loving way.It seems the height of subjectivity to assert a pastor has to deliver his corrections from the pulpit in a certain manner(your preference).It is the holy spirit whom convicts us of our sin.There are eyewitness accounts of the famous Edwards sermon(Sinners/angry God)being read by weak voiced pastors and people reeling in the pews convicted of their need of repentance! Blessings

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

I think you might have missed the point. As I noted to one of the readers, "I am not arguing for any kind of bedside manner. I simply am trying to point out that much of what is construed as rudeness would not be seen as such if we'd mourn over our sin. A sub-point is that it's doubly worse to go on the offensive and retialiate over the subjective manner in which one who points out the objective truth, rather than deal with the truth itself."

In addition, the manner in which Stephen rebuked his hearers right before they killed him, and the manner in which John "the Baptist" called to account the people of God would be considered unacceptable today. Certainly, the words (no matter what the tone) would not have been construed as "loving" (in the flabby way in which people use that word today). The real issue angry hearers have is rarely the delivery; that's just a cloak for the problem. After all, how often do you find someone agreeing with the message, accepting the guilt, showing contrition, repenting and then make a negative comment about the manner in which the message was delivered? The reason that is so rarely seen is that if one TRULY repents, he will be more grateful than bothered by the message and delivery. His focus will be on his own objective guilt.

Finally, it would seem that you are suggesting that the monotone voice in which Edwards delivered his message is a sufficient condition for a "loving" delivery and that a soft-tone is a necessary condition for a proper delivery. Nothing could be more untrue. Moreoever, for your point to carry any weight, it would seem that you'd have to first show that Edwards' message was not construed as rude by any of the unrepentant. :)



Anonymous said...

Thanks for fleshing out your view some more.I agree with your argument.Whether correction is delivered hard or soft means nothing to the christian not willing to look at his objective sin.The bible is chock full of examples of hard and soft approaches in confronting sin.The Holy Spirit always testifies to the truth.Thanks

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

I'm glad you see what I was trying to say.

We live in a postmodern world in which all opinions are considered equally valid, even if they are philosophically untenable or worse - heretical. Personality has become more important than character I'm afraid, and respectability is not measured by God's word but man's good opininon of himself that need not be informed by anything other than himself.

Unworthy but His,


Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

Truth, Unites and Divides,

Thanks for the commments (and the correction on "sighted").

I'm glad you found the post useful. It's something that has been on my mind more and more of late. I'm not familiar at all w/ House MD. I suspect the doctor is at least very direct in his address. Let me, therefore, qualify something. I am not arguing for any kind of bedside manner. I simply am trying to point out that much of what is construed as rudeness would not be seen as such if we'd mourn over our sin. A sub-point is that it's doubly worse to go on the offensive and retialiate over the subjective manner in which one who points out the objective truth, rather than deal with the truth itself.

An old dispenstationalist-Arminian friend of mine, who ended on the mission field, never had issues with John MacArthur when he preached on any number of things. Yet he found him "arrogant" when he preached on the subject of predestination. I suspect that the variable in the equation was not John's manner but the lack of agreement my friend had with John on that particular subject. In other words, isn't it more reasonable that John's manner was no different when when he preached on credo-baptism and the rapture than when he preached on the doctrine of predestination? I suspect that the difference was that this person had no problems with John's manner when John was preaching on something this person happen to agree with!



Anonymous said...


I want to learn about the philosophical issues you discuss on your blog. However, much of what you talk about here is over my head and I quickly get lost in what you are saying. Can you recommend for me introductory level works on such things as logic, christian philosophy, presuppositionalism etc.?

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

I really don't know where to begin to point you apart from discussion. The most efficient thing is to be able to talk with someone who understands the things you're interested in learning about.



Anonymous said...


Well, in a nutshell, I want to know what you know so, how did you gain the knowledge you currently have? Through reading? If so, what books do you consider to have been the most helpful to you? Or, have you benefited from a formal education in philosophy/theology? What degrees did you earn?

Btw, here's my email address so that if we end up corresponding at length then we won't clutter your blog up with off topic discussion.

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

I read several books but none were all that helpful with respect to presuppositional apologetics, aside from Bahnen’s reader on Van Til. The most helpful tools at my disposal w/ respect to apologetics were Greg Bahnsen's tapes, especially the Bahnsen-Stein debate. I listened to that debate until I not only could exegete every syllable uttered but most of all give an in-depth elaboration of every point made. I needed not only to understand what the scholars were saying; I also had to be able to defend and refute, which required a thoroughly revelational epistemology. I’ll email you to see if you’d like to take this off-line.

For those who are following along, I will say that I find Clark brilliant and in many ways more so than Van Til. Clark demolishes Thomistic apologetics and secular philosophy like no other. And although I am thoroughly convinced that Clark’s dogmaticism was no mere dogmatism (i.e. he appreciated that he *knew* as true that which he asserted as axiomatic), I don’t have any reason to believe that he appreciated the genius of Van Til. What is absent in Clark is the transcendental challenge, which not only asserts the Christian worldview as true but rather also asserts it as that unifying scheme which must be presupposed to make sense of reality, knowledge and ethics. In that respect, Clark is very much Plantinga. For Clark Christianity is posited as most intelligible – yet, we don’t find in Clark that the very notion of intelligibility can only be saved by revelational Christianity. Indeed, scriptural revelation was Clark’s starting point, but nowhere will you find in Clark that an intelligible interrogation / investigation of opposing worldviews can only be justified by presupposing that which (only) special revelation affords. Clark was close in this regard but a step-change away. In a word, nowhere in Clark does one gain an appreciation that to argue against God, one must first presuppose that which only God’s special revelation can justify, a common creator that stands behind a priori internal knowledge and providential external experience.



p.s. I have no formal education in theology or philosophy. Also, as an old friend who now is a professor at WTS told me years ago when I was wrestling with these things - it will take a lot of hard thinking and prayer.

Joshua Butcher said...


I just noticed your summary of Clark and Van Til. I think you are spot on. I haven't read much Van Til, but from what I've read of Bahsen and in Bahnsen's exegesis of Van Til it is clearly a more thorough-going apologetic than Clark's own internal critiques of opposing viewpoints.

It is my suspicion that Clark's blindness of Van Til's genius stems from his almost exclusive consideration of epistemology. It seems odd to say this at first, since the transcendental challenge touches directly upon what the unbeliever MUST know. However, the point rests upon God's having created all men with an innate knowledge of Himself. Clark's emphasis upon man as God's image was in man's ability to reason and use logic, but to the neglect of the specific ideas that God implanted in man's mind a priori. Clark comes close when he talks about Kant's a priori categories, but Clark never makes a positive exposition of what ideas God has implanted upon the mind of man. Van Til's explicit marking of man innate idea of God's existence and basic nature (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent) is a necessary presupposition for man's knowledge of God's law--for God's law cannot be innately known unless God Himself is innately know (law being impossible to know apart from lawgiver).

I admire Clark's attention to epistemology, and it is a frustration I have with Frame that he makes the starting point of philosophy arbitrary between ontology, epistemology, and ethics. It seems to me that epistemology is primary, but that doesn't mean that ontology or ethics cannot make an important distinction upon epistemology, as it does in this particular case.