Poles of Tension, Balance, and Nuance: Making Sense of Things When it’s Hard to Be Dogmatic

I recently wrote a tribute here in REO to Brother Leroy Forlines. There are so many of us who learned so much from him, both by his teaching and possibly even more so from his example. Mr. Forlines frequently talked about “poles of tension” in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and probably beyond. This was to illustrate truths that often must be stated in more than one way in order to achieve balance. Mr. Forlines wrote in The Quest for Truth:

Life is not always simple. The complication presented by sin, the shortage of time, money, ability, help, etc. limit what we can do. We cannot do everything we would like to do. Frequently, we need to look at a situation from several different angles, and then make a decision. We are pulled at from many directions. We experience tension. The best is not always possible. We have to prioritize in the light of reality. Proverbs 26:4,5 illustrate for us what I call: “the principle of tension and counterbalance.” The first verse reads, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him.” The next verse reads, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”

One verse tells you to not answer a fool. The other verse tells you to answer a fool. Obviously, you cannot do both of these in every situation. If that be the case, how do you obey these two verses? What you have to do is to consider what the greatest risk is. If the greatest risk is that you will be like him, you do not answer him. If the greatest risk is that he will be wise in his own eyes, you do answer him. It will not always be easy to decide which of these to do, but you must do one of them. It is a serious mistake to choose one of these and adopt it as your approach to every situation.

These verses help us develop an important principle of interpretation: There are some truths that cannot be set forth in one principle alone but must be set forth in two or more principles which counterbalance each other. Here we need tension. There is tension between the different sides or angles of truth. This tension is needed to keep balance. This principle of interpretation guides us in areas where we are dealing with what we might call general truth instead of absolute truth. As is illustrated in Proverbs 26:4 and 5, there is no absolute truth about whether and when to answer fools. This principle is similar to the principle, “There are two sides to the same coin,” or “There are many facets of truth.” I will call this principle of interpretation: the principle of tension and counterbalance.

It is important to remember that there are absolute truths such as the moral teachings of the Ten Commandments. These we must obey. But there are some areas of life for which we have general principles rather than absolute truths to guide us. In these cases, we are by the help of God to make wise choices.

F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth

As Mr. Forlines suggests, the answer is to found in the remainder of each verse. To blindly and thoughtlessly respond as a fool does is to become as foolish as he. On the other hand (v.5) there will be times when you have to call a fool out, because otherwise he will be wise in his own eyes, and assume he is right. The context determines the response.

Balance is frequently the best and wisest way. Or, as my son David likes to say “nuance,” to not simply take sides dogmatically. Avoiding extremes. We humans have a tendency to gravitate to extremes, and not see nuance, or an even slightly moderated position. We attack our opponent mercilessly and allow no room for compromise and fail to consider time, place, historical perspective, and heart attitude.

Sometimes balance is not the response, of course. The exclusivity of the gospel, for examples, requires a fixed position, because that’s what the Scriptures state categorically. “There is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved,” allows for no deviation. The law of gravity is fixed. Mathematical formulas like two plus two equal 4. But many, if not most, things in life do allow more than one point of view.

By way of illustration, there’s an example I would like to share. I have long been intrigued by the phrase “a sinner saved by grace.” In fact, one of my favorites of the Gaither songs carries that title.

I’m just a sinner saved by grace
When I stood condemned to death He took my place.
Now I grow and breathe in freedom with each breath of life I take.
I’m loved and forgiven, back with the living,
I’m just a sinner saved by grace.

A “sinner saved by grace.” Some say we should not use that phrase, that if we are saved we are no longer a sinner, and that we are advocating license to sin by using it. I think we can legitimately use the phrase, as long as it’s properly nuanced, and we aren’t advocating continuing in sin while claiming grace. (See Romans 6)

  1. There is a past and present perspective, or before and after. I was a lost sinner who has been saved by God’s amazing grace. Before meeting Christ, I was without God and without hope (Ephesians 2). After I am His and He is mine.
  2. Being a sinner saved by grace does not mean continuing in sin. Absolutely not. At no time in this life am I perfect or sinless. But as a believer, I must, and do sin less.
  3. Paul, the great Apostle, refers to himself in I Timothy 1:15 as the “chief of sinners.” To me, Paul’s referring to himself as the “chief of sinners,” even though he is an apostle, church planter, and long-time believer. This shows that it isn’t out of place when used properly and given nuance to refer to oneself as “a sinner saved by grace.”
  4. We are now saints, holy ones. A sinner saved by grace is a saint of God. Both are true. Poles of tension. I am not what I was, though I’m not yet what I long to be. A redeemed, saved sinner, reborn a saint, a child of God.

James Gray was president of the Moody Bible Institute from 1904 until 1934. He wrote the hymn “Only a Sinner Saved by Grace.” (Also may be known as, “Naught Have I Gotten by What I Received.”) Gray wrote the lyrics and a member of the music faculty wrote the music. This hymn has been a great blessing in my life over the years:

Naught have I gotten but what I received;
Grace hath bestowed it since I have believed;
Boasting excluded, pride I abase;
I’m only a sinner saved by grace!

Only a sinner saved by grace!
Only a sinner saved by grace!
This is my story, to God be the glory,
I’m only a sinner saved by grace!

Once I was foolish, and sin ruled my heart,
Causing my footsteps from God to depart;
Jesus hath found me, happy my case;
I now am a sinner saved by grace!

Tears unavailing, no merit had I;
Mercy had saved me, or else I must die;
Sin had alarmed me, fearing God’s face;
But now I’m a sinner saved by grace!

Suffer a sinner whose heart overflows,
Loving his Savior to tell what he knows;
Once more to tell it, would I embrace—
I’m only a sinner saved by grace!

Determining the truth in the most accurate way is vitally important. I’m thoroughly convinced that looking at all sides of an issue, striving for balance in matters that don’t require a dogmatic, inflexible stance, and nuanced position is generally the best way to go.

Steve Lytle
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Steve Lytle

Steve and his wife Judy have spent the majority of their ministry in Panama with Free Will Baptist International Missions. They recently retired and are hard at work serving the Lord locally. Steve is serving the elder generation of Cofer's Chapel mainly, but is also involved in visiting sick, hospitalized, and shut-ins of any generation at our church. Steve is also heavily involved in the church's Hispanic ministry as teacher and translator.

4 thoughts on “Poles of Tension, Balance, and Nuance: Making Sense of Things When it’s Hard to Be Dogmatic

  • March 18, 2019 at 5:15 pm

    Great discussion of Proverbs 26:4, 5.

    • March 18, 2019 at 7:09 pm

      Mr. Forlines analyzed those verses as well as anyone I ever heard or read after.

  • March 19, 2019 at 10:01 pm

    Great thoughts Steve. Thanks so much for writing!


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