There’s been a lot of discussion in the last year (and the last week) of what it means to be winsomely reformed. And, sadly, the loudest voices have been undeniably against the idea of being winsome. It has been critiqued as wishy-washy, a failed cultural strategy, or as an expression of weakness rather than strength.
While this is certainly an important conversation for any evangelical right now, it is particularly relevant for Reformed Theological Seminary because we have historically emphasized the importance of being winsomely Reformed.
Indeed, I can still remember that I was asked about this issue in my original faculty interview, back in 2001. The concern was not just that we hold firmly to historic Reformed theology, but that we do so with a posture of grace, warmth, and respect—especially with those we disagree with. It was clear to me at the time that this value extended back to the earliest days of the seminary.
So, whatever one might say about the desire that we be winsomely Reformed, I don’t think it can be chalked up to recent cultural pressures. RTS, at least, was concerned about this back in the 80’s and 90’s (and before)—long before social media, Trump, and recent divisions in evangelicalism.
So, I thought it might be helpful to lay out what it means to be winsomely Reformed, and why that matters.
What Do We Mean by “Winsome”?
The English word “winsome” is not a biblical word, per se. That is, it does not appear, for example, in the ESV. But it is typically used as more of a catch-all term designed to summarize the kind of Christian character emphasized in the Bible.
Consider, for example, Paul’s exhortation in Col 3:12-14:
Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another . . . And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Similar sentiments are found in other places. Christians, particularly Christian leaders, should not lord it over, but be a servant (Mark 10:43–44); not be a bully, but gentle (1 Tim 3:3; cf. Titus 1:7); not domineering, but setting an example (1 Pet. 3:3); and not quarrelsome, but kind (2 Tim. 2:24).
When Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit he includes similar traits: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
So, the word “winsome” is just a way of summarizing what these verses are describing. In more modern terms, to be winsomely Reformed is to be Reformed but not boorish, curmudgeonly, or quarrelsome.
With a little bit of a definition behind us, we turn to the question of why this all matters. Let me offer a few reflections on why I think winsomeness is important for us to emphasize.
Because Character Matters
The first reason is the most obvious. We should be winsome simply because it reflects the kind of character that God asks us to have. Indeed, biblically speaking, it reflects the character of Christ.
So, whether it’s 1822 or 2022, whether we are culturally favored or disfavored, whether it’s an election year or not, we are to act like Christians.
It should also be said that being winsomely Reformed does not mean that one is weak, fearful, or lacking in conviction. To say we should be winsome is not to say everything a Christian should be. Christians should also be strong and faithful, even courageous and bold.
But let us not confuse being strong with being belligerent. Nor should we mistake being bold with being caustic. The loudest and most aggressive people are not always the ones with the most confidence in God’s word.
Ironically, behaving in such a manner makes us come across like we have a theological version of a Napoleon complex, always trying to make up for some insecurity. Whereas true confidence flows from a deep and quiet trust in God’s sovereignty, leaving the outcome to him.
Because Our Character Affects the Way Our Message is Received
Ok, let me be clear. Even if we were perfect and sinless, we would not be loved and accepted by our world. Indeed, Christ was perfectly sinless, and yet despised and hated by many. So, no one is arguing that being winsome suddenly causes everyone to convert.
This should do away with the common misconception that being winsome is some sort of cultural strategy. Some have critiqued winsomeness because it has failed to “win over” our hostile culture. But, I don’t know of anyone who believes this is the purpose of winsomeness. We should be winsome simply because it’s the right thing to do—regardless how anyone responds.
But saying good character will not automatically win over our world, is not the same thing as saying our character is irrelevant to how people receive our message. If a pastor is known for being a philanderer or embezzler of money, we do not pretend this is irrelevant to how he is heard in the pulpit. Character, and the credibility that goes with it, affects the way our words are received.
And the Bible confirms this reality. Jesus tells us, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). We are called to shine the brightest rather than shout the loudest.
Likewise, Peter tells us that when we defend the faith, “do it with gentleness and respect, so that, when you are slandered those who reviled your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:15-16).
Note that in both these passages, it is our “good works” or “good behavior” that affects those who hear our message. While most may reject our message, there are still some who receive it—and our character affects that reception.
Even Jesus won over some people by his behavior. The centurion at the foot of the cross, after seeing Jesus’ actions on the cross, even declared, “Surely this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47).
Because the Reformed World Needs to Grow in This Area
While every branch of evangelical Christianity needs to be winsome, I think it is fair to say that Reformed folks certainly need that reminder as much as anyone.
The standing joke is that every time someone converts to Reformed theology, they go through a “cage stage” where we feel obligated to lock them away for a period of time, hoping they will grow out of their newfound zeal which often plows people over in aggressive ways that are, well, less than winsome.
While other theological traditions might have their own “cage stage,” there is a history of this behavior in the Reformed world. It might be helpful to read (or re-read) John Frame’s article, “Machen’s Warrior Children,” so as to recognize this pattern over time.
To be clear, I don’t think Reformed theology itself is the problem here. On the contrary, Reformed theology, properly understood, should lead to humility and kindness. But, there does seem to be something in Reformed culture that needs to be addressed—and calling people to winsomeness is one small step in that direction.
In sum, to be winsome is to be like Jesus. Strong and gentle. Courageous and kind. Bold and loving. Jesus said as much about himself: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29).
Excellent, biblical, and winsomely wise. Thank you.
Van Rhodes says
Thank you, Dr. Kruger for this reminder. Having been somewhat in need of being caged I often find myself having to resist the temptation to not be winsome. Your thesis that it not a tactic but a character that we should pursue in sanctification is spot on.
Also thank you for the link to the article on Manchen. Most informative.
JT Borah says
I have heard the term used ever since I joined the Reformed community back in 1998. It sounded wishy-washy to me back then but I was informed that it was tied to the idea that all of our interactions should be “with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). However, I recently had a Facebook interaction with John Frame on this exact issue and he asserted that the term was coined as a reaction to the TRs (Truly Reformed). I don’t know whether that is true but it rang true to me. So, it is, for some of us, a word that seems to be for the purpose of division between certain camps in our community. I think we have had enough of dividing the Reformed community with the most recent iteration being the “confessional” vs. “missional/progressive” divide in the PCA.
I think the term should be abandoned because it is divisive and we have a perfectly biblical phrase that I believe captures the idea and has none of the divisional baggage that comes with “winsomely reformed”. So, what is so wrong with simply being robustly Reformed in a gentle and respectful way?
Can someone please tell some of the Reformed folks on Twitter to please interact in a winsome manner. It’s a dog eat dog world on there, even between those with similar confessions.
Walter Schroedter says
Interesting. I was just pondering the fact that Jesus was both meek and strong. I did this because it seemed to me that this morning the Lord gave me special grace with my job as a school-bus driver. I drive a wheelchair bus, and have special needs students, some in wheelchairs and some not. And their siblings, who are not “special needs”.
I need to combine gentleness and firmness ongoingly. It is a fine balance. And as I pondered this this morning, I thought I am being like Jesus, both meek and strong. I did not do this with a sense of pride in myself, but more so as a sudden awareness that I am indeed being shaped into the image of Christ. I do not see this as a personal accomplishment, but as a work of God in me. I suppose it is not “unspiritual” to recognize that God is achieving what he has set out as his purpose with us, his children. (Rom.8:29) Thank-you for this excellent article and for putting it all together like this.
Strong convictions in hearts but gentleness in relating to all kinds of people. This is what is missing. The reputation out there is brutal. I just met a new believer of 6 months who was in tears (when it should be his spiritual honeymoon!) because of being berated by some know-it-all who was challenging him to accept all his reformed views …
Imagine Paul, so deeply affectionate of people, even though he could have used authority to order people yet he humbly pleaded with their hearts to accept his ways.
Come on, church leaders, do better.
Thanks Michael for calling this out. May it spread far and wide.
And may most brothers remain caged for 20 years or so until the humbling happens.
Ken Temple says
Great points and balance!
The reference here:
Consider, for example, Paul’s exhortation in Col 4:12-14
Should be Colossians 3:12-14
I agree with your treatment of the term, but shouldn’t we be all of those things you quoted from Scripture with even using the term reformed? Jesus didn’t go about being winsome because he was reformed. Not debating, just asking “winsomely”.
Jamey Hinds says
I believe Jesus was “winsome.” John, too. But Paul would probably be on the other end of this, as they were times he seemed caustic (e.g., Galatians 5:12; Acts 13:9-11).
Great article. My mind went to John 1:14 — describing Christ as full of grace and truth. Dane Ortlund’s Gentle & Lowly has aided in my understanding of the winsomeness of Christ displayed in his grace, truth, gentleness and beauty.
JB Boren says
While I agree entirely with your explanation of the attitude and approach believers should use with the lost, I still won’t use the word, “winsome.” It is entirely Finney-esque. It seems to imply that if we are nice enough to people, they knock the doors of the church down to get saved. (I suppose that means I know some folks you don’t, Dr. K.) This is the current approach of the leadership of my own SBC denomination, and it is a train wreck. (Watch the current “Jesus gets us, all of us” ads for an example, a group with which our own NAMB has partnered.)
I prefer the term “pastoral,” though I know even it has some baggage. If someone comes from and IFB background, to be “pastoral” means to scream at somebody about their perceived sins. But outside of that oddity, I find it a better and more biblical term.
Perhaps “faithful” is the best choice. A faithful Christian doesn’t act with belligerence or causticity. A faithful believer acts with the fruit of the Spirit you cited in your article. A faithful Christian doesn’t compromise on the truth when it would be easier or more, well, winsome. And most importantly, a faithful Christian honors obedience, which means they “love your neighbor as yourself.” And finally, for the reformed believer in any stage that suggests the need for a cage, “faithful” is a term that tends to calm them down a bit. 🙂 “Winsome” tends to make them obstreperous. (Been there, done that.)
The terminology is not a hill worth dying on, IMO. If you want to use “winsome,” use it. I choose not to use that appellation. But I’ll still support and pray for my B/S who are striving to be winsome in a faithful way.
I like your approach to this article. I would like to correct you on one thing. NAMB has just retracted any partnership with the “He Gets Us” ads. FYI. Thanks for your comment.
Thank you for a kind and gracious approach. It is much needed, for all Christians, to show the people we interact with in this world how Jesus is full of grace and truth.
I take exception to one thing. Maybe you need to consider that Reformed theology is the problem. It tends to lead to arrogance, often by the stated new converts who have memorized five points and ten verses, that they have all of the answers.
Only God has all of the answers. Reformed theology is a very flawed system. I leaned to Reformed theology in my younger years, but found that it doesn’t answer all of the questions, and, in fact, often causes more issues than it solves.
If Reformed theology is true, we wouldn’t care about our non-winsome actions toward acquaintances as they are either the elect or non-elect, and it wouldn’t make any difference. Before going into attack mode, let that sink in.
We need less branded theology and more of the Living Word (Jesus) and the written Word (The Bible). I glory in Him, not my particular, and humanly flawed, theology.
May God bless you!
Qoheleth wrote, ” Maybe you need to consider that Reformed theology is the problem. It tends to lead to arrogance, “
The same argument has been made against Christianity. It may be true that some Christians tend to be arrogant, but it doesn’t follow that Christian theology is false. In fact, doesn’t Christianity (and Reformed theology) teach that we’re all wretches and have no ground for arrogance?
Qoheleth wrote, ” If Reformed theology is true, we wouldn’t care about our non-winsome actions toward acquaintances as they are either the elect or non-elect, and it wouldn’t make any difference.”
Jesus was predestined to die for our sins, and he struggled mightily at Gethsemani. Did the actions of those who follow Him, and of those who crucified Him, make no difference, because He was predestined?
If I understand the doctrine of predestination correctly, the whole course of our life is predestined, not just its final destination, and that includes all the choices we make. If we care about our actions, it is because we’re predestined to care, and if our actions make a difference in the lives of other people, it is also because they are predestined to make a difference. But we won’t know what is predestined for each of us, until we have reached the final destination, and can look back and see how the grace of God pervades our entire lives.
Angus J says
An excellent article – my thanks to the author.
The sentence “We are called to shine the brightest rather than shout the loudest.” sums up the whole subject, and is good enough to be framed and put on the wall as a constant reminder to all.
RGB Rao says
Excellent post. I want to add the following:
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).
Gracious behavior ought to be proportional to our understanding of grace.
Of two people – whoever has the greater understanding of grace – then of that person, a far greater graciousness is expected.
If your understanding of grace is far greater than those with whom you dialogue, then longsuffering, patience, forbearance, reasonableness, kindness, gentleness, humility, meekness, and so on are far more expected of you than of those who do not have such a great understanding of grace.
Honestly, it does not matter how rude they are. If your understanding of grace is greater, well then . . .