The Right Hand and the Left

by Glenn Conjurske

“Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left.” (Joshua 1:7).

“By the armour of righteousness, on the right hand and on the left.”

(II Cor. 6:7).

There was a time when I saw nothing particular in these texts concerning the right hand and the left. I assumed that nothing particular was meant—-that this was merely a form of emphasis, not to be taken literally—-that to turn not aside from the commandment of the Lord, either to the right hand or the left, meant nothing more than not to turn aside from it at all. But a deeper understanding of the nature of things has led me to the conclusion that these expressions of Scripture are not mere empty words. There are in actual fact two sides to every question. The path of truth is a narrow one, and there is a ditch on either side of it. To walk in that narrow path requires care and vigilance, in addition to commitment.

The fact is, there are two sides to every question, and the man who sees only one side will certainly err. Those who are well aware of the danger on one side of the path, but oblivious to the danger on the other, will almost certainly fall into the error on the side where they see no danger. Well aware of the danger on this side, but seeing no danger on that, they naturally seek to keep as far as they can from the danger which they plainly see, and so depart from the truth into the opposite extreme. A great deal of the false doctrine and false practice in the church of God is due precisely to this sort of one-sidedness, and when controversy is added to ignorance, we often see the combatants entrenched at equal distance from the truth, one party on the right hand, and the other on the left. This I believe to be exactly the case with the Bible version controversy which rages in the evangelical church at the present time. We behold a strong party entrenched in the ditch on one side of the truth, and a strong opposing party entrenched in the ditch on the other side—-some exalting the King James Version too high, and others placing it far beneath its real merits—-some preaching the perfection of the old version, while others spurn it altogether, and replace it with something altogether inferior. Few stand on the solid ground of truth between the two parties, and it seems that even among those who take a middle position, there are few who do not have at least one foot in the ditch, on one side or the other.

We are well aware that to keep our feet altogether in the narrow path of truth is no easy matter, yet the mere recognition of the fact that danger exists on both sides may go a long way towards inspiring men with that caution which will keep them from the danger. The commandment ought to stand always before our eyes, “turn not from it to the right hand or to the left.” We ought always to be engaged in the battle with “the armour of righteousness, on the right hand and on the left.” For be assured of it, whatever the particular issue may be, we may err on either side of it.

We may err on the side of love, and we may err on the side of truth.

We may err on the side of justice, and we may err on the side of mercy.

We may be too strict, or we may be too soft.

We may err on the side of unbelief, or on the side of credulity.

We may err on the side of superstition, or on the side of infidelity.

We may be too conservative, or we may be too liberal—-too unwilling to change, or too eager to change.

We may be carnal, or we may be hyperspiritual.

There is legal theology on the one side, and antinomian on the other.

We may be too tight in our standards, or we may be too loose.

We may require too much of men, or we may require too little.

But some of these statements are likely to raise outcries on both sides. “How can we err on the side of love?” says one. “We cannot be too loving. `God is love.’ It is always right to love.” Perhaps it is, in some sense, yet it is God who says to Jehoshaphat, “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? Therefore is wrath upon thee from before the Lord.” (II Chron. 19:2).

Another says, “Hyperspiritual! How can a man be too spiritual? Every time I hear the term `hyperspiritual,’ I know that somebody is trying to make an excuse for sin!” Yet that is strictly true which an old proverb says, Right overstrained turns to wrong, and another, Extremity of right is wrong, and it is God who says, “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” (Eccl. 7:16).

Now it should be understood that though certain truths may have several facets, the truth is not something which has five sides, or a dozen, but commonly two. There is reason for this. Truth is a moral thing, and its two sides are a reflection of the two sides of God’s own moral nature. “God is light,” and “in him is no darkness at all”—-no evil, and no complicity with evil—-and yet “God is love.” The one side of his nature demands judgement upon sin, and the other side pleads for mercy upon the sinner. These two facts, “God is light” and “God is love,” are the two pillars of the truth, and the two pillars of all true religion. These two facts are the key to the Scriptures, and the key of all sound theology. When these two facts are recognized, and both of them allowed to stand as they are, and to control the mind and the heart and the walk, then we walk true, and turn not aside to the right hand or to the left. But when either side of the divine nature is emphasized or exalted at the expense of the other, we turn aside to the right or the left, and, to the extent that we do so, make havoc of faith and truth and righteousness.

Some turn aside to the right hand, standing for truth and righteousness with a high hand, with little of mercy or compassion, and untouched by the feeling of the infirmities of frail humanity. Such become proud, hard, and Pharisaical. Others turn aside to the left hand, preaching love and mercy and compassion, but with no proper regard for truth or holiness. Such become soft and latitudinarian, and turn the grace of God into lasciviousness.

Now it should be clearly understood that this turning aside, whether to the right hand or the left, may go much beyond a mere intellectual or doctrinal mistake. When God commanded Joshua not to turn aside to either the right hand or the left, he obviously meant something other than a mere mistake in understanding. This turning aside is not a mere matter of doctrinal ignorance, but of moral delinquency. The soft and liberal Neo-evangelicals, who preach love in glowing terms, while they disregard the rights of the Lord and the claims of his holiness, are wrong in their hearts. Those Fundamentalists who condemn all who do not see eye to eye with them, and gratuitously impugn the motives of men better than themselves, under the cloak of standing for the truth, are wrong in their hearts. These things are not mere mistakes of the understanding.

Nevertheless, there is a constant danger of doctrinal error on both the right hand and the left, whether that error proceeds from mere ignorance, or from the unjudged passions of the flesh. Reformers are in peculiar danger here. Such a one was Martin Luther. Moved by fervent zeal, impetuous in his nature, and firmly set to withstand the errors of the papacy, he was almost certain to fall into an equal error on the opposite side—-and it is a fact that he did so. He fought a theology which was legalistic, and fathered a theology which was antinomian—-a theology which moved him to reject the epistle of James as an epistle of straw, an epistle which, (Luther affirmed), had nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. Not that Luther was consistently antinomian. Far from it, in fact. Yet he fathered a theology which has always been antinomian in its tendencies, and which multitudes of Protestants have followed into the most blatant antinomianism, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and making Christ the minister of sin. Certain men who lived and died before the Lutheran Reformation—-such as Richard Rolle and John Wycliffe—-were much sounder on the terms of salvation than many Fundamentalists are today.

But as an old French proverb affirms, By dint of going wrong, all will come right. For a thousand years ere the birth of Martin Luther, things were going wrong, in general, to the right side. A reaction was certain to come, in time. Luther was the instrument of that reaction, but all did not come right, but rather went wrong on the other side, for under Luther’s influence Protestantism has been (more or less) going wrong to the left side for half a millennium. There have been reactions to this, in the ministries of Richard Baxter and John Wesley, and many lesser men—-yet the tide has not been stayed. Antinomian doctrines have never in the history of the church been so rife as they are today. Repentance and holiness are generally regarded as optional, and even many who regard them as necessary define them so as to make them optional in fact. The time has come for a reaction against such theology. May God grant that those who labor to bring about that reaction may have wisdom enough to recognize both sides of the question, humility enough to acknowledge all that is good and true even in the position which they oppose, and prudence enough to employ the armor of righteousness “on the right hand and on the left.”

Humility is one of the primary keys in this matter, for pride is one of the main contributing factors to departures from the truth. When men set themselves to oppose errors, this may naturally and unavoidably lead them to oppose others. Thus, if they are lacking in love and humility, they soon fall to seeking for controversial victory, rather than humbly inquiring after the truth, and their pride will then usually drive them to an opposite extreme. And worse than that, they may also drive their opponents to the extreme of the other position, and thus establish them in the very error from which they sought to deliver them. “None of us liveth to himself.” (Rom. 14:7). Like it or not, the things which we do have an effect upon others. Fleshly passions in one man provoke the same in another. One man’s obstinate adherence to an error on the one side is very likely to provoke a reaction which will put men in an equal error on the other side, and thus is fulfilled the old proverb which says, Disputations leave truth in the middle, and a party at both ends.

But who is sufficient for these things? How easy it is to err, and how difficult to walk true. What wisdom, what grace, what love, what humility, what diligence, what diffidence, become us all. Mere knowledge cannot keep us true, but neither can we keep true without it. Neither is all knowledge of the same importance or value. I would suggest, however, that to know to employ the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, and to understand the reason of this—-this is one of the most valuable nuggets of wisdom which we may possess.

Glenn Conjurske