Right now, conservative evangelicals are at an impasse on the issue of boldness.
A few months ago, I observed that today there is greater stigma attached to speaking the truth in a tone that seems slightly unnerved or terse than speaking dangerous falsehoods sweetly, politely, and deferentially. A number of controversies over the last few months have confirmed that hypothesis.
By way of prolegomena, let us recognize that to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) requires attention to both content and tone. And here, we must plainly confess that there are ditches on both sides. The jerks-for-Jesus model of discernment ministry is destructive of Christian love, but just as pernicious is the equal and opposite error of the whitewash of “winsomeness”— virtue-signaling of the sort Jesus condemned in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (“Lord, I thank thee that I am not like those angry Reformed Baptists on Twitter. I fast from social media twice a week, and I only post photos of sunsets”).
Between these two extremes is the light-giving-yet-salty speech (Colossians 4:6) modeled by the apostles—“wholesome” (Titus 2:28) and “not quarrelsome” (2 Timothy 2:24), yet willing to say the hard thing, and sometimes with rhetorical flair (cf. Galatians 5:12). There is a time to be bold and a time to be nuanced, and wisdom consists in knowing the fitting occasions for each. God uses both irenic Ezras and zealous Nehemiahs. The question, then, is in what regard and to what extent a Christian communicator’s tone affects content, and vice versa.
Men wiser than I have already spilled much ink extolling the graces of pastoral gentleness, and we should heed their warnings, every now and then shutting off our phones and marveling at one of those sunsets. At the same time, I would contend that the season to be unduly nuanced is not in wartime, when Western society is diving headlong off the cultural cliff with hordes of well-meaning evangelicals in tow. In such cases, Scripture, not emotion, determines what is truly loving speech: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).
The problem is that gentleness, as a fruit of the Spirit, is often mistaken for its placebo, niceness. Gracious words are “like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24), but niceness, like most artificial sweeteners, leaves a sour aftertaste. Niceness masquerades as love but fears men more than God. As a result, niceness almost invariably assigns greater weight to tone than truth, taking up verbal arms only when something “big” like substitutionary atonement or the Trinity is on the line—by which point it’s too late.
Godly writing and preaching, well-seasoned with grace, will hit both savory and sweet notes. So, in order to appreciate what Scripture says is truly sweet speech, we must also develop a taste for salt.
The Missing Ingredient
Boldness is a key New Testament theme. In the book of Acts, synonyms for the phrase “to speak boldly” are used at least nine times, and the general concept is even more prevalent. Boldness is a mark of Spirit-empowerment (Acts 2:14-41) and is granted in response to prayer amidst persecution (Acts 3:41). Paul prays to increase in boldness (Ephesians 6:20, Colossians 4:4). And in each instance, boldness is not a general character attribute but a specific grace for proclaiming the word (cf. Acts 28:31).
Where does this salty flavor come from? Though we certainly see a supernatural explosion of fearless preaching after Pentecost, our broader theology of boldness begins in the Old Testament, and it is grounded in forgiveness.
Psalm 51, well-known as David’s penitential prayer after committing adultery with Bathsheba, is also an evangelistic song. This is because after David pleas for cleansing (vv. 7-12), he anticipates: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13, emphasis mine).
David recognized that one must receive free grace to extend it. Evangelism presupposes the evangel. The same gospel we declare declares us righteous. The believer’s source of courage is the “no condemnation” verdict over his life, because if God doesn’t condemn us, never mind if men do (Romans 8:1, 33-34). Forgiveness is the salt mine of biblical boldness.
One might object: But isn’t New Testament boldness a particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit for that period of time—a certain anointing for preaching—not always directly connected to the subjective experience of forgiveness? And since it was for that period, what gives us the right to be just as cutting today? Yet notice how the Apostle Peter was emboldened after Pentecost not just because the Spirit happened to fill him with fiery speech, but because that same Spirit had applied redemption to him, realized through his personal restoration (see John 20:15-19). Similarly, Paul remarks that though he is “insufficient” to preach the gospel (2 Corinthians 2:16), the Spirit makes him sufficient (3:5-6), branding him as a member of a new and better covenant in which sins are forgiven. Even for the apostles, propitiation precedes proclamation. This pattern is normative for anyone who ministers the word.
To further demonstrate the connection between forgiveness and boldness, consider two areas of thematic overlap: confession and gratitude.
The Habit of Confessing
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). When we first encounter the gospel and it requires us to repent, something important is happening: God is getting us in the habit of confessing. Not only do we confess sin, but we confess faith as well. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Note how, in another psalm, David’s inner turmoil over unaddressed sin parallels Jeremiah’s burning in the bosom with the prophetic word:
“For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” (Psalm 32:3-4)
“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! ‘Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’ say all my close friends, watching for my fall. ‘Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.’” (Jeremiah 20:9-10)
Just as the gospel requires confession of sin, the gospel itself must be confessed. Saving faith speaks (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:13).
The correlation between confessing guilt and confessing Christ is more than a coincidence of human psychology. Because fear of judgment and fear of man both find their root cause in the fact that we are sinners, the remedy for both is blood-bought mercy.
This means that grace disarms the very sins that which should disqualify anyone from listening to us, the very miscalculations in tone that reveal our lingering immaturity, and the spiritual authorities who would silence us. The same grace that plunges our sin into the depths (Micah 7:19) quenches our shame in all its shapes and sizes. And in the place of shame, gratitude springs forth.
The other connection between the forgiveness and boldness is the simple virtue of gratitude. David, speaking for Jesus, sings of Yahweh’s saving power after recounting his own rescue: “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; behold, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord” (Psalm 40:9).
David publicly proclaimed the Lord’s deeds of deliverance not out of mere duty but the overflow of his experience. In turn, these messianic lyrics reveal Jesus himself as the ultimate evangelist, vindicated publicly in the resurrection. Gratitude for rescue results in telling glad tidings.
Back to the Salt Mines
Perhaps the reason many of us are so confused as to when to be bold and when to be nuanced is that we haven’t sufficiently plumbed the depths of our freedom in Christ.
When your sins are washed away, you are free to overflow with good news. When you are dead to all earthly lords, you can walk with a clean conscience before your true Master. When your reputation and relationships are nailed to the cross, you can speak loudly and clearly with the gracious, salty Bible words of almighty God. Because Jesus died and rose for sinners, we are dead to the world and made alive as fearless messengers.
Tone matters. But if we ever blush at a single jot or tittle of revelation, it’s because we’ve forgotten the freedom of forgiveness. If you are in Christ, there is no condemnation. Let us return and mine the gospel of grace for the salt we need.