Winsome Is The New Nice

Tom Hervey has published an interesting essay on the Aquila Report. In it he questions the legitimacy of “winsomeness” as a virtue. He is correct. It should be questioned.

In some circles it is beyond question that Christians are morally obligated to be winsome. Hervey reports that Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary uses adverbs such as “sweetly” and “innocently” and adjectives like “charming” to define winsome. As he notes, a good lot of the biblical prophets and apostles fail that test. Our Lord Jesus fails that test. The obvious retort is that we, you and I, are not apostles, prophets, nor the Lord. True enough but the objection misses the point. Are we really to settle for the notion that the discontinuity between the biblical prophets and apostles and us is such that our norms of politeness cannot be challenged by their example? I find such an approach quite unsatisfactory and unpersuasive.

Yet the culture of “winsomeness” and “niceness” is so pervasive in Evangelical and (“progressive” or “enlightened”) Reformed circles that it is considered heresy to question it but it needs to be questioned for all the reasons that Hervey gives and more.

This question has occupied my attention intermittently for 17 years. In 2005 I published an essay for the Nicotine Theological Journal defending John Frame’s freedom to call me stupid. He was made to apologize for that remark, which I think is a shame. He was wrong about the material issue (that critics who say that Norman Shepherd’s theology denies the gospel are stupid) but the idea that he may not call someone stupid is, well, stupid, i.e., it is thoughtless, demonstrating a lack of reflection. There is nothing wrong with the word stupid. It is derived from the Latin stem stup, as in the noun stupor (i.e., numbness) or the adjective stupidus, which has the same range of meaning (senseless, dull, stunned). When someone wakes we describe him as emerging from his stupor. People sometimes fall into a stupor figuratively. They fail to think. They assume. They draw false conclusions. These are symptoms of stupidity. If someone really is being stupid it is not loving to allow them to continue in it for fear of being thought less than “nice.” If someone is looking at his phone and stupidly walks into traffic the Christian thing to do would be to wake him from his stupor by getting his attention even if that required a sharp tone or sharp words.

The history the church is replete with “nice” and “winsome” people but we know little to nothing about them. They did not leave a mark because they stood for nothing never put themselves in the way of criticism. As Charles Barkley says, “you give your honest opinion every day, half the people are going to like it and half the people are going to dislike it.” Those who dislike it are apt to characterize that opinion or its tone as less than nice or insufficiently winsome. Typically, however, the expressed concern (tone or lack of winsomeness) masks the real issue: a disagreement over the substance of an issue.

Tertullian is the father of the Western (Latin) church. He was also perhaps the most brilliant rhetorician (including Augustine) in the history of the Latin church. Every fall semester we read a couple of his treatises and they are, even after many readings, delightfully sharp (even cutting) and sometimes downright hilarious. Of course we should adjust our rhetoric to our setting (contextualization and all that) but we could learn a little from Tertullian. He cared less about whether anyone thought he was winsome or nice and more about what is true.

The same was true of Athanasius. His opponents said all manner of slanderous, mendacious, and malicious things about him. They accused him of murder—it was not true. He produced the body, alive and well, in question—bribery and more. It was all a pack of lies. They attacked his character because they could not refute his arguments. It is a good thing for us that Athanasius was as fearless as he was and as relatively unconcerned about his reputation and more concerned about the honor of Christ.

Just as Hervey walked us through the history of redemption so too we could walk through the history of the church. One could, I suppose point to Lombard (about whom little criticism has been published) or Thomas as examples of winsome stalwarts for the faith. Fair enough but were they involved in the battle for essential truths as Tertullian and Athanasius, or Luther and Calvin were? It is easy to multiply examples of heroes of the faith who were attacked ostensibly for their unbecoming rhetoric when, of course, the real issue was the substance of their views. As Hervey notes, Machen’s critics called him “temperamentally defective.” That was a long-winded way of saying that he was not winsome enough.

This is not an apology for being a jerk. It is true, however, that anyone who stands for truth and perhaps especially for the Reformed confession of the Christian faith is apt to called less than winsome. The Reformed churches confess some hard truths—especially in a post-Christian culture. We confess that humans are not autonomous but that God is. He is sovereign and we are but creatures and sinful ones at that. We confess that Christ is alone the way of salvation and that our good works contribute nothing to our salvation. We confess that there are true churches and false churches, indeed that there is truth and error and that much of the world is held in darkness and bondage to error. Those are considered offensive things in our culture (and truth be told, in every culture).

Underlying this debate about tone, winsomeness, and niceness is how we think the culture will regard us. Let me tell you, for the most part the culture is not regarding us. When they do, there is little we can do to mask the offense of the gospel or the rest of the faith. It is true that we want the message to be offensive and not the messenger but we are kidding ourselves if we think that if we say these things sweetly enough people will not be offended. If they are not offended we should wonder whether we have said them clearly enough. I say this as a former pagan, who was much offended at Christian truth but I needed to hear it. I needed to hear the uncomfortable truth about my sin and the even more uncomfortable truth about Jesus’ suffering and death on behalf of and in the place of sinners. Praise God that people risked my disapproval to tell me these uncomfortable truths. God used them to soften my heart and open my eyes and to draw me to Christ.

There is a place for niceness and winsomeness. I come from the Land of Nice and it is a relief to go home and be able to walk fearlessly to any door in any neighborhood to ask for help—it is true. My wife and I have held 20 minute conversations with complete strangers repeatedly just because we happened to be walking by. My people are the most helpful people on earth. They still need Jesus, however. Niceness is a great lubricant for social friction but it is not a virtue in the sight of God and does not save or justify. Jesus, who was hated for his sometimes sharp truths and sharper words to sinners, justified us sinners who are saved only by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Winsomeness and niceness belong to nature and not to grace. In the realm of nature, niceness has its place but it is not a fruit of grace.

There are virtues, fruits of grace, that must be formed in those who are saved. Kindness is a biblical virtue. Paul wrote to the Colossians, who were surrounded by pagans in the pre-Christian world, “Put on then, as God’s elect, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness (χρηστότητα), humility, meekness, and patience…” (Col 3:12). Kindness, however, is not an easy equivalent for winsomeness or niceness.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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4 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you so much for putting into prose what I have thought for many years, especially in the trenches of ministry in the local church. I have often noticed a disparity between the examples held up in the Evangelical (and in many cases, Reformed) world as ‘commendable’ and ‘exemplary’ and the examples of the prophets, apostles, and even our Lord. I have often times been rebuked for being ‘mean’ or ‘harsh’ when in reality I was putting my finger precisely on the issue in question. I say this reverently but it seems to me that our Lord didn’t suffer fools lightly. He was willing to pour into and teach those who were truly teachable and yet walk away from those with ulterior motives and worldly agendas; after he rebuked them of course.

    Certainly there is balance to all of this that I will be seeking to strike for the rest of my life. The words of Qoheleth have become my life-long agenda and endeavor:
    16 Do not be excessively righteous, and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?
    17 Do not be excessively wicked, and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?
    18 It is good that you grasp one thing, and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them. (Eccl. 7:16-18, NAS).

    Blessings on you, your tribe and your contributions to the kingdom!

  2. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t need any encouragement to be a rude jerk. I can do that just fine on my own.

    On the other hand, I live in a nice suburb where people live just a wonderful life and think, consciously or otherwise, that they have no need at all for Jesus. They’ve gotten along without Him just fine so far, and why should they change?

    And so the bottom line is, as ever, trust in the Lord. He alone can change hearts. He alone can bring people to Himself. My job is just to be faithful and keep on witnessing. Results in other people’s hearts are strictly up to him. And I try to remind myself of that often.

  3. “Niceness is a great lubricant for social friction but it is not a virtue in the sight of God and does not save or justify.”

    AMEN! While the Good News IS good in the ears and eyes of believers, that which is “good” is more subjective than ever in today’s fractured, allegedly “woke” society. Moreover, the Gospel includes some less-than-“winsome” truths, including the daunting reality of Hebrews 10:31: “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

    The Good News cannot always sound “nice”. Thus witnessing believers will winsome and lose some in what my South Indiana friend calls this “wackadoodle” world.

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