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Speaking the Truth in Love — and Being Reformed?

2 November, 2009

corcpicsmallIn Ephesians 4:15, Paul enjoins that as Christians we should “Speak the truth in love.” It seems to me that we in the Reformed world are all too commonly beset on both sides of this statement.

‘Love’ without Truth

On one hand we have those who seem to be all too willing to sacrifice the truth for the sake of love, a love which ends up ringing hollow. How can we speak in love, in accord with Paul’s exhortation, if it’s not in fact the truth we’re speaking? He didn’t say, “Speak what people happen to want to hear at the time in love” or “Speak what you think will be most popular or least offensive in love.” Neither of these approaches, in fact, could be taken in the kind of love Paul is talking about. Is it really loving someone to deny them the truth fitly spoken? And although it sometimes feels like we need to downplay the truth in order to show love, it’s just not so. Being tactful, gracious, discerning and wise in our speech, are not attributes which are in contradiction to being truthful. Love without truth is not truly love, not least because God himself is both truth and love (John 4:24, 17:2-3), so these can never be at odds with one another.

On the other hand we have those who seem to be quite ready to sacrifice love for the sake of truth. We talk a lot on this site about the importance of being confessional (see here, for example). There are many among the Reformed who, frankly, do not agree with much that would be considered historically ‘Reformed.’ Some who tend to sacrifice truth for love seem to suggest that what’s really the truth is a shared personal commitment to following and serving Jesus — a kind of ‘salvation by experience’ that professes the truthfulness of the Bible without acknowledging that the Bible itself calls us to recognize its own nature as God’s objective and self-consistent revealed word, especially concerning who he is and what he’s done. In other words, the nature of biblical Christianity is confessional (though we might argue about which confession is most faithful to what God has said). But it must also be said, and said loudly and repeatedly, that confessional conviction and faithfulness should never suggest a hint of ‘salvation by doctrine’, as unhappily it so often does.

‘Truth’ without Love

Again, as with ‘love’ without truth, ‘truth’ spoken in this way is often far from gospel truth. Integral to the truth of the gospel is the truth of our own sinfulness and the righteousness of Christ that is ours merely of grace. We aren’t saved by doctrine or traditional distinctions or by confessions — and no one who participated in the writing of the Reformed confessions would disagree. While it’s true that we should never be affable at the expense of being faithful (as Chaos recently put it), it’s also true that it is indeed an unfortunate state of affairs when a group of Christians are widely disliked by and disreputable among their brothers and sisters. This isn’t a good situation, and at least part of it is that we are speaking ‘truth’ without love, and forgetting the gospel in the process. No matter how weak or faulty one’s faith is, if it’s true faith, it grasps faith’s true object, the only one who is Faithful and True (Revelation 19:11), who is strong to save even by the weakest faith. We need to remember this, not only when we’re speaking to our Christian friends who disagree in some areas with us, but if we’re to have any Christian friends at all who are not carbon copies of ourselves (and equally self-satisfied about it).

Further, why do those of us who are more doctrinally sound so often fall into the trap of thinking we are the strongest in faith or in fruitfulness? We may not be dispensationalists, but we need to recognize that in reality many dispensationalists (like Lewis Sperry Chafer) understand law and gospel better than many Reformed. John Wesley may have told his old Calvinist friend and colleague George Whitefield in the heat of argument, “Your God is my devil!”, but Whitefield fully believed that when he and Wesley got on their knees to pray (or picked up the pen to write a hymn!), they were in fact praying to and worshipping the same God. The proverbial Arminian grandmother who has prayed every day of her life for her children’s and grandchildren’s salvation and perseverance, knows and believes in the sovereignty of God much more truly and consistently than the proverbial hyper-Calvinist minister who refuses to evangelize for the sake of his doctrine of predestination. And, not speaking proverbially, how often it happens that those of us who constantly speak of free grace fail to show any! The answer isn’t to stop speaking the truth, but to truly speak the truth — in the kind of repentant, trusting gospel-centered love that understands both our own sinfulness and frailty and the righteousness and mercy of God.

The gospel isn’t only for other traditions, it’s for the Reformed tradition. If the strongest Reformed advocate of the widest doctrinal flexibility relies to any extent on that tolerance and liberality instead of upon Christ alone, to that extent he or she is condemned; just so, if the staunchest professor of the strictest Reformed position relies to any extent on that profession instead of upon Christ alone, to the same extent he or she is likewise condemned (Galatians 2:11-21). I would argue that the confessionally Reformed should be that much more humbled by our doctrinal and practical sin, because we spurn the greater light. If we are to stand before the Lord, he must forgive us even for what we do (fairly) well, even for what we get (fairly) right, in the same way and just as much as he forgives us for everything else we’ve done in falling short of the glory of God: freely through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26). Jesus died for us, too, and we only live because of his resurrection. Let us then speak the truth in love while looking to him who humbled himself in order to lift us up (Philippians 2:5-11).

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3 Comments
  1. Donna Ellis Burrell permalink
    3 November, 2009 3:41 pm

    Thanks for your views on this subject…it adds greatly to what I am studying in Sunday Class.

    We are reading “Respectable Sins” by Jerry Bridges. He really hits home with what he states as “confronting the sins we tolerate”. He writes about the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11).

    He goes on to explain that even as we (as believers) condemn him, we can easily fall into the same attitude through our pride of moral self-righteousness (feeling superior to others and treating them with contempt), the pride of correct doctrine ( boasting that any other beliefs are theologically inferior), the pride of achievement (failing to acknowledge that all successes come from God), and the pride of an independent spirit (resisting authority and having an unteachable attitude).

    This can result in what you wrote about…not speaking the truth in love. Jerry cautions us to guard against moral self-righteousness by seeking an attitude of humility based on the truth that “there but for the grace of God go I”. He refers to I Corinthians 8:1 to address the pride of correct doctrine (“knowledge puffs up”). For the pride of achievement he reminds us that in Like 17:10 that we are unworthy servants and in Psalm 75:6-7 that it is God who puts one down and lifts up another. When encountering an independent spirit we should look to Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you”.

    • 3 November, 2009 7:28 pm

      Great book. And excellent thoughts on it.

      Kate just got a book by Carole Mayhall, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: Speaking the Truth in Love (NavPress, reprint 2007), that looks like it’ll be really good.

      ~B

  2. 4 November, 2009 3:32 am

    I’m telling you dude. You’re a preacher.

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