I can remember when most advertisers would not mention negative things or name their competitors when they presented their goods for sale. That has changed, and maybe it’s a clue as to where our whole society has gone—more negative than positive. That attitude can also infect the church.
Certainly in an election year, we expect some negatives about opponents in a campaign. This year may set new records in “going negative.” Negativity is often fraught with inaccuracies, half-truths, and opinions. It does little to help the hearer, since you never know if you can believe it. The old adage is, “figures can lie, and liars can figure.”
This is not to say that we can never be critical, or that we should condone error as liberals have done. But if anyone is going to say something negative, it had better be accurate or it is a violation of the ninth commandment. In addition, as our catechism states, “all lying and deceit is the very work of the devil.” The positive side of this commandment is, “insofar as I can, defend and promote my neighbor’s good name” (HC112). God’s people are commanded to condemn lies, speak the truth, and do so in a loving way.
Being positive does not mean we have to tolerate error or shy away from being critical when it is necessary to defend the truth. Our Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles often rightly condemned error when they spoke and wrote. But it never ended there. They always countered error with a positive message and a call to repentance. If negativism is left by itself, it is just a condemnation without recourse.
When Jesus hung on the cross, He had a right to be very negative about those who crucified Him, yet He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk. 23:34). When Paul tried to build up the saints in Philippi, he wrote, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8). And again, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Col. 4:6).
The true Gospel is a very positive message, yet it must first proclaim that all men by nature are condemned in sin. This may sound negative, but is in fact the diagnosis that is necessary before the good news can be preached, which is, “repent, and believe, and you will be saved.” A negative message would actually be to proclaim that man is a sinner, but he can provide salvation for himself or decide by himself to make the changes necessary to be saved. That is not good news, since his dead nature will not and cannot turn to a Savior. Apart from grace, there is no positive message.
If we remember the writings of the sixteenth-century Reformers, they were positively negative when they exposed the errors of the church in their day and countered them by proclaiming the truth. They seldomly minced words, placing themselves in grave danger by doing so. But the Reformation was not won with negativity alone. The Reformers brilliantly set forth the truth, and in so doing exposed the darkness that had enshrouded the church of their day. They did not base their objections on their own personalities, or to win applause for themselves. Their goal was the truth of the Word of God, for His glory. It is not simply negative to tell people that they are dying in their sin as long as we also say that salvation is found by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Yes, there is a time to be negative in the sense of exposing grave errors where the Word of God is being compromised or denied altogether. At the same time, we need to positively expound the truth. It does no good to tell someone that you don’t like their shirt, and when asked, “Well, what should I wear?” all you can say is, “I don’t know, but not that one.” When you are going to be negative, you had better know that you are right, and that you have a positive answer to it. Anything else does not edify.
When Paul wanted to demonstrate Christian unity and teach how to avoid being tossed around with false doctrine, his solution was to address it positively: “but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:15–16).