In John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, there is a character Mr Facing Both Ways who lives in the village of Fair Speech. Bunyan is exposing one of the temptations in life which is to speak out of both sides of our mouth in the hope that everybody will appreciate us. Yet there is a very real sense in which the Christian message does come with two voices; there is indeed a double-sidedness to the Christian life. Charles Spurgeon commented once that ‘The Christian is the most contented man in the world, but he is the least contented with the world.’ The believer is at once the most joyous and winsome human being in the world, and the fiercest critic of the world.

            This is a daunting task for the Christian. A substantial part of the problem can be located in what we might call the public face of the faith as distinct from the private face. For example, on the sensitive subject of divorce, Jesus declares openly that ‘whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery’ (Matt.19:9). He is pointing out what is right and what is wrong in the sight of God, and there is no mention of forgiveness and grace for the sinner in such a context. Yet when Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman who has had five husbands and is having sexual relations with a sixth who is not her own (John 4:16-18), there is no pretending that the woman is not a sinner. Her sins are pointed out to her, and she is startled, and convicted. Later she will testify of Jesus as the Messiah who told her all that she ever did (John 4:39), obviously referring to her sins. For all that, Jesus goes on to speak with a certain strong tenderness, about the true worship of God and the identity of the Messiah (John 4:20-24, 25-26). He is dealing with her more evangelistically, to draw her into the kingdom. There is no contradiction between Matthew 19 and John 4; the differences are due to different contexts.

            We might apply the same categories to adultery, where Jesus denounces it in the strongest of terms (Matt.5:27-30; 15:19), yet also offers grace to a woman caught in adultery (John 8:7-11). Homosexual acts are similarly denounced as abominations (Lev.18:22), yet ‘such were some of you’ as they had been washed, sanctified, and justified in Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor.6:9-11). There is a greater vehemence in public, and a greater softness in evangelism – yet all the time God is holy and His law is holy (Lev.19:2), while His steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting (Ps.103:17).

            I once spoke at an Eid festival where I had the opportunity to explain the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen.22). Although the Qur’an does not specifically say so, Muslims invariably believe it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was almost sacrificed, yet the Qur’an calls it a ‘momentous sacrifice’ (Sura 37:107). A great sacrifice that never happened! In Islam it is not obvious that it points anywhere; in Christianity it points to God’s sacrifice of His Son so that sinners could go free. The ram dies in the place of Isaac. I tried to be at my charming best, restricting myself to this one point. Indeed, the Muslim academic who ran the feast said after he heard the Christian view that he had never heard that before and never thought of it. However, there were some Christians present who tried to present all the errors and inconsistencies of Islam to the largely Muslim audience, and only succeeded in antagonising those who were present. It is not that they were wrong in their evaluation of Islam but inappropriate. Our two voices are not contradictory, but one tends to predominate depending on the context.

            Psalm 2 illustrates how the two voices can be present in the one passage of Scripture. The psalm speaks of the universal reign of the Messiah over all the nations, not just Israel. Those who reject Him will be punished severely: ‘You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel’ (Ps.2:9). So much for the seeker-sensitive approach! Yet there is another voice present. We are to kiss the Son, embrace Him as one who calls us to Himself (Ps.2:12). Hence there is both fear and rejoicing in the hearts of those who respond (Ps.2:11-12).

            It is not easy to sing two notes at once. Somehow we are to denounce sin so that the sinner is convicted of the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God; and woo and entice the sinner with the assurance that God can be approached even with boldness through the blood of His Son. ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner’ is a slogan which will not quite work. It is more complicated than that – humble the sinner and welcome the sinner almost at the same time.

With warm regards in Christ,

Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Australia