“Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.”

—John Wesley

Reflecting on the Role of Passion

If there is anything liberalism in the church has taught us over the last century, it is this: Passionless churches are empty churches. This phrase, while I don’t remember where I first heard it, is demonstrably true. The pews of those who hold no convictions are vacant. This reality highlights the undeniable draw of passion in matters of faith. What do you believe and how much do you believe it?

Men on Fire Are Not Alone . . . Or Are They?

John Wesley once said: “You set a man on fire, and people will come for miles to watch him burn.” This rings true. Look at the great churchmen over the years who have garnered a crowd. Look at Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon, and Moody. These men shared something in common: their undeniable passion and conviction.

Lunch with a Man on Fire

At a lunch meeting, I engaged with a man whose unyielding convictions about Christianity attracted and intrigued me. His beliefs ran deep. He took them seriously. His standards for a “real” Christianity were stringent. He was a passionate Calvinist, seeing all who disagreed as compromisers. He was a Young-Earth Creationist, having no room for any other interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. He believed in inerrancy, excluding all who disagreed as pawns of demons. On top of these and many other doctrinal demands, another thing became clear: there was no room for hiccups in one’s lifestyle and habits. He began to condemn so-called Christians who drank alcohol, cursed, smoked, or vaped. Midway through our conversation, I noticed he was only drinking water. I found myself slowly putting down my latte as I was not sure if I was soon to be denied access through the heavenly gates due to my possible addiction to caffeine.

Confused by Agreement

While his passion was initially captivating, it soon became apparent that something was terribly wrong. I agreed with this guy to a tee on every doctrine of theology that he broached. We should have been two peas in a pod. So why did I feel so distant from him?  This man was definitely on fire, but I was not finding myself comfortable in the light of his fire. Why was I confused by this agreement?

Deepening Perspectives on Teaching and Evaluation

Over the years, my approach to assessing theological teachings has evolved. Beyond passion, clarity, and systematic presentation, I’ve grown sensitive to signs of imbalance. It is easy to gain a following but have no real credibility. It is easy to fill the pews. Passion needs a passionate bedfellow. What is the dynamic at play here? The irony is that if you have no answers, no one shows up; if you have all the answers, everyone is left out.

A Hierarchy of Passion

Overstating one’s case, particularly in theology, can be destructive. It elevates every point to red-alert status. It blurs the lines between what of critical import and what is not. In my conversation, the man’s insistence on secondary issues began to dilute the primary message of Christianity. His overstatements not only alienated all those who disagreed with him doctrinally on every issue but also those who disagreed with his hierarchy of passion.

Strunk and White’s Insight on Overstatement

Strunk and White, in “The Elements of Style,” caution against overstatement. Listen to this carefully:

“When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.”

—Strunk and White

Elements of Style, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 7

Although merely from a writing guide, this wisdom profoundly applies to theological communication, highlighting the need for temperament, balance, and restraint.

Tempering: Conviction and Humility

The challenge for believers is to express convictions with confidence while maintaining humility and respect. It’s not about suppressing passion but about channeling it wisely. Acknowledging the subjective nature of many of our beliefs allows for a richer, more productive dialogue. This balance enhances our credibility and invites a deeper understanding and placement of our perspective.

Of First Importance: Paul’s Emphasis in 1 Corinthians 15

This brings me to Paul’s essential statement in 1 Corinthians 15 about the essentials:

1 Cor. 15 1-5

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

“I delivered to you as of first importance…” Here, Paul distills the essence of the Gospel – the person and work of Christ. He intentionally prioritizes these central truths over other teachings, reminding us of the importance of focusing on what truly matters in our faith.

Is it Better to Burn Out?

I do agree with the importance of what John Wesley said. We want to be on fire for the Lord. People will be most, or at least initially, attracted to you by your passion and conviction. However, there is another quote about this out there by Jack London. He says, “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot.” Or, according to Def Leppard, “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away.” Herein lies the problem. People will come to watch you burn. But you can also burn the house completely down. It is not better to be ashes. Why? Because it is not about gaining a crowd or being a novelty on fire.

Conclusion: Christ as the Primary Object of Our Enthusiasm

In our zeal to defend various doctrines and practices, we must be careful not to overshadow the central message of Christianity: Christ Himself. When lesser issues are given equal or more emphasis, Christ, the true object of our enthusiasm, can diminish. Our passion should first and foremost be for the Gospel. The beauty and power of Christ’s work must remain at the forefront, ensuring our enthusiasm for Him isn’t lost in a sea of overstatements. As believers, we must strive to keep the Gospel central in our teachings and lives, allowing Christ’s transformative message to shine through every word we speak and action we take.

In the end, remember this: If everything in our lives is in italics, nothing is in italics.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    4 replies to "The Problem With Overstating Your Case"

    • Bibliophile

      I think you need to take what John Wesley said in cultural and historical context. This notion of “being on fire” developed at a time when, after rebelling against the established Church, there was a division within protestant Christianity over how to respond to the Enlightenment challenge. The more passionate “liberals” (as they came to be known), unlike their so-called conservative counterparts, generally tended to value personal experience over rationalist ideology. In reaction to the challenge from both liberals and rationalists, conservatives invented the doctrine of an innerant Bible as the only infallible source and foundation of true and certain knowledge. And we ended up with this massive split in protestantism, still ongoing, of course, but now with many more – literally, tens of thousands more – iterations all across the liberal/conservative spectrum, all disagreeing and constantly arguing with each other over what should or not be included in an arbitrary list of “core doctrines”, selected on the basis of confirmation bias and personal incredulity more than anything else.

      You quoted Paul, but only up to a point, as a proof text to support your own position; yes, he did say, this is of first importance: but he also went on to say that the Corinthians need to basically grow up and stop eating baby food: so this verse, in context, doesn’t necessarily imply that these teachings about Jesus are anything like what modern protestants take to be “core doctrines”.

      Apart from that, I agree with you in so far as you say that “When lesser issues are given equal or more emphasis, Christ, the true object of our enthusiasm, can diminish.” Nevertheless, you have no legitimately objective means to determine what those “lesser issues” are. In other words, both conservative and liberal protestants are basically in the same boat.

      • C Michael Patton

        Just wait for it! I’ve been writing a book on this for 15 years. I do think there is a very satisfying and rational way to know what beliefs warrant our firm adherence and which are of lesser import.

    • Bibliophile

      So do I: Sacred Scriptures, Sacred Tradition & infallible Magisterium 😉

    • Ross Peterson

      We need to burn without being consumed.
      Our God is a consuming fire and our Lord is a life-giving Spirit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.