You heard in the last part of this sermon against strife and brawling how we may answer those who maintain their argumentativeness in contentions, and those who want to avenge with words such evils as other people do to them. And finally, you heard how we may, according to God’s will, order ourselves, and what we should think about others when we are provoked to contention and strife with railing words. Now, to proceed on this subject, you need to know the right way to counter and overcome our adversary and enemy.
Answering a fool
This is the best way to counter an adversary: so to live, that all those who know your honesty may bear witness that you are slandered unworthily. If the fault for which you are slandered is such that for the defence of your honesty you need to make an answer, answer quietly and softly in this fashion, that those faults are laid against you falsely. For it is true what the wise man says: “A soft answer turns away anger, and a hard and sharp answer stirs up rage and fury”( Proverbs 15:1). The sharp answer of Nabal provoked David to cruel vengeance; but the gentle words of Abigail quenched the fire that was all in a flame (1 Samuel 25:9-35). And a special remedy against malicious tongues is to arm ourselves with patience, meekness, and silence; lest with multiplying words with the enemy, we are made as evil as them.
But those who cannot bear one evil word, perhaps, for their own excuse will cite what is written: “The one who despises his good name is cruel.” Also we read, “Answer a fool according to their foolishness” (Proverbs 26:5). And our Lord Jesus held his peace at certain evil sayings, but to others he answered diligently. He heard people call him a Samaritan, a carpenters son, a wine drinker, and he held his peace (John 19:9; Matthew 11:19, 13:55); but when he heard them say, “You have a devil within you” (John 8:48), he answered to that earnestly.
It is indeed true that there is a time when it is appropriate to “answer a fool according to their foolishness, lest they should seem in their own conceit to be wise” (Proverbs 26:5). And sometimes it is not profitable to “answer a fool according to their foolishness”, lest the wise person be made to look like the fool (Proverbs 26:4). When our infamy (or the reproach that is done to us) is joined with the peril of many, then it is necessary in answering to be quick and ready. For we read that many holy people of good zeal have sharply and fiercely spoken and answered tyrants and evil people. These sharp words came not from anger, rancour, or malice, or desire for vengeance, but from a fervent desire to bring them to the true knowledge of God, and from ungodly living, by an earnest and sharp rebuke and reprimand.
Answering with zeal
In this zeal, St. John the Baptist called the Pharisees “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7); and St. Paul called the Galatians “fools” (Galatians 3:1); and the people of Crete he called “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12); and the false apostles he called “dogs and crafty workmen” (Philippians 3:2). And this zeal is godly and to be allowed, as it is plainly proven by the example of Christ who, although he was the fountain and spring of all meekness, gentleness, and softness, yet he called the obstinate Scribes and Pharisees “blind guides, fools, whitewashed tombs, hypocrites, serpents, a brood of vipers, a corrupt and wicked generation” (Matthew 23:16-33, 12:39). Also, he rebuked Peter eagerly, saying, “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23). Likewise, St. Paul rebuked Elymas, saying, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun” (Acts 13:10-11). Also, St. Peter rebuked Ananias very sharply saying, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has filled your heart, that you should lie to the Holy Spirit?” (Acts 5:3).
This zeal has been so fervent in many good people, that it has stirred them not only to speak bitter and eager words, but also to do things which might seem to some to be cruel. But indeed, they are very just, loving, and godly, because they were not done out of anger, malice, or a contentious mind, but from a fervent desire for the glory of God and the correction of sin, executed by people called to that office. For in this zeal, our Lord Jesus Christ drove the buyers and sellers out of the Temple with a whip (John 2:15). In this zeal, Moses broke the two tablets which he had received from God’s hand, when he saw the Israelites dancing around a calf, and caused three thousand of his own people to be killed (Exodus 32:15-19, 27-28). In this zeal, Phineas the son of Eleazar thrust his sword through Zimri and Cozbi, whom he found together joined in the act of sexual immorality (Numbers 25:7-8, 14-15). These examples are not to be followed by everyone, however, but only as they called to office and set in authority.
Returning again to contentious words, and especially in matters of religion and God’s word, which should be used with all modesty, sobriety, and love, the words of St. James ought to be well noted and remembered, where he says that from contention rises all evil (James 3:16). And the wise King Solomon says, “It is to one’s honour to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3). And because this vice is so hurtful to the society of a commonwealth, in all well-ordered cities these common brawlers and critics are punished with a notable kind of pain, such as being being set on a cucking stool, pillory, or such like. And those who do as much as they can to brawl and criticise to disturb the quietness and peace of the realm are unworthy to live in it. And from where does this contention, strife, and disagreeableness come, but from pride and vainglory? Let us therefore “humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6), who has promised to rest upon those who are humble and lowly in spirit (Luke 1:52; Isaiah 57:15).
If we are good and peaceable Christians, let it appear so in our speech and tongues. If we have forsaken the devil, let us no more use devilish tongues. The one who has been a railing critic, now let them be a sober counsellor. The one who has been a malicious slanderer, now let them be a loving comforter. The one who has been a vain ranter, now let them be a spiritual teacher. The one who has abused their tongue in cursing, now let them use it in blessing. The one who has abused their tongue in evil speaking, now let them use it in speaking well. “Let all bitterness, anger, malice, and slander be put away from you” (Ephesians 4:31).
If you can, and it is possible, in no way be angry. But if you cannot be completely clear of this passion, then so temper and bridle it, that it does not stir you up to contention and brawling. If you are provoked with evil speaking, arm yourself with patience, gentleness, and silence, either speaking nothing or else being very soft, meek, and gentle in answering. Overcome your adversaries with goodness and gentleness. And above all things, keep peace and unity. Do not be peace breakers, but peace makers. And then there is no doubt that God, the author of comfort and peace, will grant us peace of conscience, and such concord and agreement, “that with one mouth and mind we may glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6). To whom be all glory, now and forever, Amen.