Once we have got to grips with the basics of biblical teaching, it sometimes happens that further truths snap into focus when previously they were unknown or unclear to us. Even when, compared to the foundational truths, these truths are less significant and less necessary, yet once the Lord has shown them to us, there is a moral responsibility to keep hold of them and confess them and teach them. But not everyone sees the same things with the same degree of clarity. How then should we interact with people whose views of these truths are more blurry and misty than they could be? In the following updated extract, James Fergusson explains that, rather than allowing these truths to remain fuzzy around the edges, there is an appropriate way to bring others along on their journey to where they too can have the benefits of seeing these truths with the same clear focus.
In Philippians 3:15-16, Paul exhorts believers to follow his example – even believers who had made (or seemed to themselves to have made) the furthest progress – and to be of the same mind with him in the details he has just mentioned in the previous part of the chapter. Some of them had been seduced by the false apostles, and were of a contrary mind in some things, but he gives them ground of hope that God, who had brought them to the knowledge of the gospel, would reclaim them from their error, and show them the danger of it (v. 15). At the same time, he exhorts them to unity and orderly walking, according to the rule of Scripture, in the things in which they remained harmonious, keeping mutual love, and holding off from making any further divisions than there were already.
What kind of perfection can we reach?
Although no one can attain to absolute perfection in holiness, yet as there are different degrees in grace, so there is diversity of growth among Christians. Some are but weak, infirm, and babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-2). Others have come to greater ripeness, are endued with a larger measure of grace, and are confirmed by much experience. These, in comparison with the former, are here called “perfect.”
The greatest perfection attainable in this life is to renounce all confidence in ourselves, to rely wholly on Christ, and, from the sense of our own imperfection in grace, to be constantly aspiring to a greater measure of grace. This is what Paul prescribes to the choicest Christians to be exercised in when he says, “Let those that are perfect be thus minded.”
What was Paul’s example?
As examples are of more force than bare precepts, Paul draws an argument from his own practice. “Let us…” That is, being conscious of small progress, and of a great distance yet before us, let us press forward. That’s how he was minded, as he showed in verse 14 (“I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”), and that’s the mind he wants the Philippian believers to have too.
How should we treat people who only have a shaky grasp of the truth?
There are usually some within the visible church who, because their understanding is misted over with error, do not come up to give thorough assent to all divine truths.
We are to deal more tenderly with some of those who are be-misted with error than with others. For example, we are to keep charity towards them, and express our charity for them in the expectation that God who has begun to enlighten them in other things would also show them the truths that are yet unknown to them. Also, we are to wait for them patiently. The severe exercise of church discipline is not something to resort to, at least until some appropriate period of time has elapsed – enough time for them, with God’s blessing on their own endeavours and other people’s work with them, to attain the knowledge of these truths (or, enough time for their lack of knowledge to be otherwise inexcusable).
Yet this tenderness is not the way we are to treat every individual who errs from the truth. For one thing, tenderness is not for those who seduce others into error, but for those who are seduced.
Secondly, tenderness is only for those who are seduced in less necessary truths, not fundamental truths, which are absolutely necessary. Their error lies only in some circumstantial truths, relative to the greater ones which the apostle assumes they have already grasped.
Thirdly, assuming their error is only in what we might call inferior truths, they also must not be so devoted to their own opinions that their desire to propagate them leads them to split the church and make schisms. Rather, they are to walk in a joint and orderly practice with others in the things on which they agree, not creating strife and division (whether in affections or practice) about those things in which they differ. This may be taken as a condition of the tenderness and forbearance they are to be shown, and a condition of God revealing things to them further. It is only “if we walk by the same rule, and mind the same thing.”
So on one hand there is no ground here for a boundless toleration of all heretics, sects, or seducers of others. On the other hand, there is no basis for tolerating even all who are seduced into error, but only those whose behaviour evidences them to be concerned for both truth and peace.
How can we expect God to act?
It is only God who can reveal truth to those who are overtaken with error. He does this by giving His blessing on the ordinary means of grace, when they are made use of for that purpose. So there are promising grounds of hope that He will indeed do this to some, namely, those to whom He has already revealed many soul-saving truths, and who are endeavouring, by their orderly walking according to those truths, to edify both themselves and others. Paul’s hope is that God will reveal even this to them – not by any direct revelation, or any other way without the Word, but by His blessing on the Word preached and their own endeavours (Isa. 8:20). He has revealed much to them already, and at the same time He subjoins the condition, “whereunto we have attained, let us walk,” i.e., unitedly and orderly, as soldiers keeping rank, without disturbing one another.
How can we expect the church to act?
The church of Christ ought not to be, on every difference of opinion, rent into schisms and factions, setting up one church against another, or counteracting each other’s work so as to undervalue and suppress one another. Rather, unity and orderly practice according to an uncontroverted rule, so far as is possible, is to be kept, notwithstanding differences in opinion. This is what the apostle exhorts us to, “Let us walk by the same rule.”
When divided opinions in a church lead to divided practices, further division and tearing apart necessarily follows, both in opinion and affections. When Paul exhorts us to joint practice, he adds that we are to “mind the same thing.” That is, “Let us keep unity, both of affections and opinions, in those things on which we still agree,” implying this is not possible without joint practice.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.