The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘principle

Sentiment and principle

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There has been an outpouring of grief and shame following the horrific pictures of a Syrian child lying drowned on the shore of the Mediterranean. If you think those photographs are painful, read the account of the father who tried to fight his way through the surf to the beach, losing his wife and then his two sons to the waves, one by one. It is truly agonising. Many have agonised.

It has prompted a spurt of sympathy for the flood of refugees pressing into Europe from various points east. News footage pummels us with insights into the horrific sufferings of their previous lives and their often-incredible journeys. We are stirred by video of them arriving in ‘free Europe’ to the acclaim of cheering crowds who pour out their affection verbally and practically. Nations are – to use the dry rhetoric of government – increasing their refugee quota, spurred on by the feeling of the populace and their knee-jerk reaction to what they have seen.

This is not a comment on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of offering refuge to some or all of these men, women and children. It is not a question about whether or not the flood of refugees contains a trickle of terrorists. It is not in any way an attempt to dismiss the gut-wrenching misery suffered by people made in the image of God, or the gut-wrenching grief we feel as those made in the image of God when we see that suffering before us. It is not a comment on compassion fatigue or our almost voyeuristic fascination with suffering.

But I wonder how long such a response will last, and what kind of investment it will sustain? It won’t be long before those refugees, if they are permitted to stay, are no longer wrapped in the warm embrace of liberal sentiment, but facing the cold reality of life in foreign countries which will not prove to be the Promised Land. They will quite likely be living in enclaves where either they are banding together for security, or among – even surrounded by – others who quite possibly resent them and will manifest their resentment. Even many of those moved to tears by their sorrows and sufferings will find those tears drying up as the realities of life bite and time passes. The tears will be stimulated again by fresh atrocities but the old ones will quickly drift away. Many will feel much and do nothing.

I wonder if the same thing has happened or is happening with the Planned Parenthood videos. Remember those? Yes, just a few weeks ago many were up in arms because of the footage of those who work for Planned Parenthood negotiating the transfer for gain of the body parts of murdered children. Even many of those for whom abortion per se is no issue were stirred by the graphic nature of some of the pictures and the callous nature of the conversations. But again, the consequence has not been the sustained mobilisation of a great mass of committed humanity against the murder of the unborn. Rather, we are troubled by the gross appearance of the thing. Doubtless, if it can be tidied up and carried out in a ‘humane’ way – because there’s nothing like a properly humane murder to assuage the conscience – then we shall go on quite content with the fact of abortion. Sentiment will be assuaged, and life can go on as normal.

I wonder if we could go back even to the slave trade. There is, it seems, little doubt that the primary opponents of the slave trade used powerfully emotive arguments to raise the profile of their cause and enforce their principles. The appalling testimonies of ex-slaves, the diagrams of human beings packed like sardines into the squalid interiors of slaving vessels, the protestations of ex-slavers, some of them converted – all of these served to further the cause. But the cause itself did not advance because of this, nor was it eventually won because of this. It was advanced and won, under God, by men and women who were moved by more than sentiment. It was carried forward by those who were governed by principle.

Reasonable sentiment need not in itself be sinful, but it is not always substantial. Sentiment can be swayed, one way or the other. Sentiment in one direction can be turned back by an opposing sentiment that seems equally reasonably. Sentiment tends to be reactive; it is rarely proactive. It bubbles up in a moment and melts away just as quickly. The sentiment that wishes to find a home for poor refugees might be overcome by a different sentiment when they move in next door. Principle – especially Christian principle – should be grounded in enduring truth. It is anchored in such a way that tides of sentiment or waves of feeling (whether that be weariness in pursuing principle or opposition to the principled) will not carry it away. Principle stands against pressure. Principle identifies and reacts to the fundamental issue, not the peripheral and perhaps unpleasant phenomena surrounding the issue. Righteous principle takes full account of misery, but it is moved by a regard for fundamental reality – matters of truth, mercy, justice, peace, righteousness. Righteous principle acts proactively out of allegiance to God in Christ. Christians need to be a people of principle.

Mere sentiment can be dangerous. In the unprincipled – and, once we have abandoned any notion of enduring, fixed, eternal truth, truth grounded outside of our experience and feelings, we have no real basis for true principle – sentiment can move individuals and groups far and fast. It can even leave them horrified by what they accomplished under the influence of sentiment and in the absence of principle. Principle can also be dangerous if it is the wild-eyed conviction about things that are foul and vile. Then unrighteous zeal can drive a person or group to truly terrifying extremes. But principle grounded in divine truth, with appropriate sentiment yoked behind, can and should accomplish much.

So, we will, in this fallen world, hear or see many things that horrify us. Many of them should horrify us. But they do not properly and persistently move us because principle is lacking. Perhaps we also hear and see things that ought to horrify us and move us, but do not because principle is lacking. How many vile things do we see – perhaps even enjoy – without a proper feeling reaction? Principle is not unfeeling; it actuates and directs feeling in proper channels. When faced with a moral challenge, we would do well to ask not only, “What do I feel?” but “What should I feel and what should I then do?” We must dig down to and stir up righteous principle. Reasonable sentiment might galvanise and stir us, but only righteous principle will guide and sustain us.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 9 September 2015 at 13:11

Well, OK, but just this once …

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My concern is, more generally, how very practiced evangelical Christians seem to be at backing down. I imagine we believe that it is gracious. Do not resist the evil person, turn the other cheek, give your cloak to him who wants your tunic (not as catchy, I admit), go the extra mile, give to him who asks, surrender every point of principle … oh, hang on!

Read about the dangers of capitulation at Reformation21.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 19 December 2014 at 15:26

Posted in General

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The invention and use of gospel means

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It is easy to snipe across established boundaries.

Some of us look at men whom we consider too pragmatic, and assure ourselves that if they had any principle they would not do what they do, and they would of course be less successful.  From the other side we look at men whom we consider frigidly principled, sterile and fruitless but self-assured and unshakeable in their conviction that their very ineffectiveness is a mark of their faithfulness.  Perhaps, for many genuinely Reformed Christians, our accusations of mere pragmatism (even where legitimate in degree) mask the fact that our principles are not practically employed as they ought to be.

john-angell-james-2John Angell James addresses men who ought to be in earnest for the salvation of souls in the following excerpt from his excellent book, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times.  He calls us neither to abandon true principle nor to embrace mere pragmatism, but to cultivate a holy pragmatism in accordance with Scriptural principle, and so to seek to accomplish the ends God has given us by the invention and use of means that accord with Scripture.  It is not pleasant reading, but it is good medicine.

But this touches a THIRD thing implied in genuine earnestness, and that is the studious invention and diligent use of all appropriate means to accomplish the selected object. An earnest man is the last to be satisfied with mere formality, routine, and prescription.  He will often survey his object, his means, and his instruments: will look back upon the past to review his course, to examine his failure and success, with the causes of each; to learn what to do, and what to avoid for the future.  His enquiry will often be, What next?  What more?  What better?  And as the result of all this, new experiments will be tried, new plans will be laid, and new courses will be pursued.  With an inextinguishable ardour, and with a resolute fixedness of purpose, he exclaims, “I must succeed-How?”

And shall we ministers possess nothing of this earnestness, if we are seeking the salvation of souls?  Shall dull uniformity, stiff formality, wearisome repetitions, and rigid routine, satisfy us? Shall we never institute the inquiry, “Why have I not succeeded better in my ministry?  How is it that my congregation is not larger, and my church more rapidly increasing?  In what way can I account for it that the truth as it is in Jesus, which I believe I preach, is not more influential, and the doctrine of the cross is not, as it was intended to be, the power of God unto the salvation of souls?  Why do I not more frequently hear addressed to me, by those who are constantly under my ministry, the anxious inquiry, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’  I am not wanting, as far as I know, in the regular discharge of my ordinary duties, and yet I gather little fruit of my labours, and have to utter continually the prophet’s complaint, ‘Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?'”  Do we indeed indulge in such complaints!  Have we earnestness enough to pour forth such lamentations?  Or is it of little consequence to us, provided we get our stipend, keep up the congregation to its usual size, and maintain the tranquillity of the church, whether the ends of the ministry are accomplished or not?  Are we often seen by God’s omniscient eye pacing our study in deep thoughtfulness, solemn meditation, and rigorous self-inquisition; and after an impartial survey of our doings, and a sorrowful lamentation that we are doing no more, questioning ourselves thus?  “Is there no new method to be tried, no new scheme to be devised, to increase the efficiency of my ministerial and pastoral labours?  Is there nothing I can improve, correct, or add?  Is there any thing particularly wanting in the matter, manner, or method of my preaching, or in my course of pastoral attentions?”  Surely it might be supposed that such inquiries would be often instituted into the results of so momentous a ministry as ours; that seasons would be not unfrequently set apart, especially at the close or beginning of every year, for such a purpose.  The result could not fail to be beneficial.

Here it may be proper for us to look out of our own profession, and ask if the earnest tradesman, soldier, lawyer, philosopher, and mechanician, are satisfied to go on as they have done, though with ever so little success?  Do we not see in all other departments of human action, where the mind is really intent on some great object, and where success has not been obtained in proportion to the labour bestowed, a dissatisfaction with past modes of action, and a determination to try new ones?  And should we who watch for souls, and labour for immortality, be indifferent to success, and to the plans by which it might be secured?  In calling for new methods, we want no new doctrines; no new principles ; no startling eccentricities; no wild irregularities; no vagaries of enthusiasm, nor phrensies of the passions; no, nothing but what the most sober judgment and the soundest reason would approve; but we do want a more inventive, as well as a more fervid zeal in seeking the great end of our ministry.  Respectable but dull uniformity, and not enthusiasm, is the side on which our danger lies.  I know very well the contortions of an epileptic zeal are to be avoided, but so also is the numbness of a paralytic one; and after all, the former is less dangerous to life, and is more easily and frequently cured, than the latter. We may, as regards our preaching for instance, examine whether we have not dwelt too little on the alarming, or on the attractive themes of revelation? – whether we have not clothed our discourses too much with the terrors of the Lord? and if so, we may wisely determine to try the more winning forms of love and mercy: or whether we have not rendered the gospel powerless by a perpetual repetition of it in common-place phraseology? whether we have not been too argumentative? and resolve to be more imaginative, practical, and hortatory: whether we have not addressed ourselves too exclusively to believers? and determine to commence a style of more frequent and pungent address to the unconverted: whether we have not been too vague and general in our descriptions of sin? and become more specific and discriminating: whether we have not been too neglectful of the young? and begin a regular course of sermons to them: whether we have not had too much sameness of topic? and adopt courses of sermons on given subjects: whether we have not been too elaborate and abstract in the composition of our discourses? and come down to greater simplicity: whether we have not been too careless? and bestow more pains: whether we have not been too doctrinal? and in future, make all truth bear, as it was intended to do, upon the heart, conscience, and life.

Nor must the inquiry stop here.  There ought to be the same process of rigid scrutiny instituted as to the labours of the pastorate.  We must review the proceedings of this momentous department, for here also is most ample scope for invention as to new plans of action.  Perhaps upon inquiry we shall find out that we have neglected various channels through which our influence might, have been poured over the flock committed to our care, and shall discover many ways in which we can improve upon our former plans, in the way of meeting the inquirers after salvation, giving our aid to Sunday schools, setting up Bible classes, or visiting the flock.  What is needed is an anxious wish to be wanting in nothing that can conduce to our usefulness, a diligent endeavour to make up every deficiency, and a mind ever inquisitive after new means and methods of doing good.  Could we all but adopt the plan of setting apart a day at the close of every year for solemn examination into our ministerial and pastoral doings, with the view of ascertaining our defects and neglects, to see in what way we could improve, to humble ourselves before God for the past, and to lay down new rules for the future, we should all be more abundantly useful than we are. And does not earnestness require all this?  Can we pretend to be in earnest if we neglect these things?  The idea of a minister’s going on from year to year with either little success, or none at all, and yet never pausing to inquire how this comes to pass, or what can be done to increase his efficiency, is so utterly repugnant to all proper notions of devotedness, that we are obliged to conclude, the views such a man entertains of the design and end of his office are radically and essentially defective.[1]


[1] John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993), 45-49.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 20 February 2009 at 18:09

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