Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 4:15a “. . .but speaking the truth in love,. . .”
No better motto for Christian living can be found than the words of this text. They deal with two of the most prevalent dangers believers ever face: compromise with error and lack of compassion.
“Speaking the truth” translates “aletheuontes,” which literally means “truthing.” It denotes every phase of life–being, thinking, doing, speaking. Lips can be truthful only to the extent lives are authentic to the core.
“In love” is the element, the atmosphere, in which truth must operate. Arrogance is disallowed, as are bitterness, sarcasm, rudeness, and holier-than-thou smugness.
“But,” a conjunction of contrast, highlights the fact “speaking the truth in love” is the antithesis of the roguery and chicanery described in verse 14. Christians are not to use the dishonorable methods of devious men. Every phase of our lives should be in absolute contrast to those mentioned in verse 14. Avoid error; act truthfully in all things. Avoid deceit; be open, above board. Avoid selfishness; be self-less. Our standard is, be real and loving–real as opposed to phony, loving as opposed to selfish.
Truth and love are wonderful things, and each is its most wonderful when coupled with the other. They are wed together forever in God’s own Person. The Father “is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 J 1:5), and His children “walk in the light, as he is in the light” (1 J 1:7). God “is love,” also, and His children abide “in love” (1 J 4:16). “Grace and truth came by Jesus” (JN 1:17) the Son. The third Person of the Trinity is the “Comforter” and “the Spirit of truth” (JN 14:16-17). Truth and love belong together by divine right. Never separate them.
Beware love without truth. Truth is intertwined with the essence of being a Christian. Each believer is a repository of truth. Truth is so much a part of our being that we all are expected to become teachers of it in some way. There comes a time when we all “ought to be teachers” (HB 5:12). Every Christian is expected to be able to explain the basics of the faith, whether they have the spiritual gift of teaching or not.
Truth is us, our very life-blood. “The Christian message is precise truth” (Lloyd-Jones). Holy Writ contains truths about the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, about Heaven, Hell, death, and about how to live on earth the best life possible. These truths must never be down-played. If truth were unimportant, why have apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers to secure it? The very purpose of these offices was to protect from error. We dare not toss their labors aside.
Love without truth slips into a mere sentimentality which spinelessly smiles at everything and shows itself overly indulgent. A parent who never disciplines a child is cruel indeed, as is a pastor who never speaks against particular sins. Ever guard against cowardly appearing to acquiesce in wrong for fear of giving offence. To sin, never give consent, vocal or silent.
Perceived error in another has to be dealt with, for love desires what is best for others. Initially, love sees others as they are and accepts them that way, but this acceptance is a beginning, not the end. Love envisions what the beloved can become, and yearns for this potential to be realized. The Pharisees welcomed sinners “after” they became better; Jesus accepted them “before” they improved, but then helped them become all they could be. Love challenges others to be the spiritual best they can possibly be.
Love without truth is anemic, but when coupled with truth, love is tough as well as pure. Paul spoke sharply to the Galatians and then asked, “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (GL 4:16). He once publicly withstood Peter face to face (GL 2:11,14).
Love often has to be rough in order to be kind. Our Father taught us this by His own example. “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth; and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (HB 12:6). When bolstered by truth, love seeks to safeguard the beloved from sin. This is often difficult work, but must be done, for love is not to be tolerated without truth.
Beware truth without love. Apart from love, truth freezes into harsh orthodoxy. “It is an important thing to stand for the fundamentals, but as we seek to bear witness to the great fundamental truths, let us never forget that the greatest fundamental of all is love” (Ironside). We are servants of God only to the extent we speak truth “in love.” When our motives become something else, we become the servants of Lucifer.
May God keep us from speaking His truths with the devil’s tone in our voices, or with Satan’s motives in our hearts. We are to speak truth “in love,” but the Evil One ever tempts us to speak truth for other reasons.
Some speak truth in deceit. The Pharisees said of Jesus, “This man receiveth sinners.” True words, but they implied Jesus condoned sin.
Some speak truth in envy. Jesus went home with Zaccheus. Pharisees said He “was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.” True words, but showing envy that a lowly tax collector was treated with respect.
Some speak truth in sheer meanness. They seek to give pain, and boast of speaking their mind, which usually consists of blurting out whatever they think, regardless of the pain their words may cause. There is no virtue in a truth which leaves its hearer bleeding and shattered. Truth spoken in love has redemption as its goal. If your words are not meant to help the listener, do not speak them.
Some speak truth in selfishness. We who prize truth and try to hold it as dear as life itself are ever in danger of making our advocacy of truth a selfish matter–a means of exalting self, and feeding our own egos. We are ever in jeopardy of yielding to vanity, and giving the impression our sole concern is to prove we, as pompous and smug kings-of-the-hill, are right while everyone else is wrong. We must somehow convey the sense that our ultimate aim is to win people for Jesus, not to win arguments for our egos.
Some speak truth in fear. Sometimes we are overly vociferous in our crusades for truth because we are insecure in our position, and fear being contradicted or out-debated. We are afraid of being proved wrong, embarrassed, or losing face. “Speaking the truth in love” frees us from this anxiety and allows us to lose sight of all concerns other than knowing and promoting the unadulterated, absolute truth of God.
Always remember, Holy Writ is infallible, but we are fallible. The Bible is true, but we can misinterpret it at times. It thus behooves us to speak humbly, and to deal gently with one another. A well-known principle first enunciated in the early days of Church history still says it well, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”
Our own personal interpretations of Scripture may be wrong, and when this is shown to be the case, we must alter them because our objective is to hold nothing but authentic truth. If we have a genuine love for the Bible, the Holy Spirit will guide us into truth. Thus, we must ever be asking ourselves, do we love the Word, or do we love to use it as an aid to help us win arguments? Is it our light and guide, or is it our war club?
Some speak truth in harshness. Our anger over sin must not be allowed to overwhelm a sense of sorrow we sense for sinners. Denounce sin, but do so only after we have prayed to the point we can do it “in love.”
In standing for the truth, we must be fearless, and at the same time gentle and kind, never harsh or bitter. Our effectiveness for God often depends on the spirit with which we speak. What we say and the way we say it are both vital. In fact, the spirit in which the truth is spoken may be as important as the utterance of truth itself. Truth can be proclaimed in such an unpleasant way that it fails to win anybody. Cold truth is a blunt sledge hammer, a stern hard thing, like the bare branches of winter. Love softens and beautifies, like the green foliage on a summer tree.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (PR 25:11). However, “apples of gold” taken from “pictures of silver” and thrown at one’s head become instruments of pain, harm, and devastation. Words not “fitly spoken” may in themselves be good and true enough, but if uttered in a rude, insolent, arrogant way they result in bad rather than good.
Some people are absolutely honest, but speak truth in such a way that they actually harm more than they help. How much better it is to be like those who speak truth in such a tender and gracious way that even when they find fault or seriously reprove another they are able to gain a friend for life and make the recipient feel grateful for the correction.
Be winsome. Piercing words, when winged with love, by their own sweetness heal the wound they strike. Speak with caution in your words, and with concern in your tone. Convey the spirit displayed by the shepherd of King Admetus, whose
Words were simple words enough,
And yet he used them so,
That what in other mouths was rough,
In his seemed musical and low.
We are not at liberty to speak truth at all hazard, but rather discreetly and kindly. We are never entitled to act in an un-Christlike way, no matter what the provocation. This thought pierces me to the quick. All of us are hourly conscious of how unlike Jesus we are. Much about us would never have been seen in Jesus. Every night we all need to bow the knee, acknowledge our failure, and pray for grace to be more like Him.
“Speaking the truth in love” is a most difficult thing to do, but Christians are never excused from doing their duty because it is difficult. Our God has promised us strength equal to any task He requires of us.