CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Truth and Love

Mar 23, 2009

I return again to a theme which I have been writing much of as of late. I have mainly been doing so because so much silly thinking on these biblical concepts has arisen from segments of the church. The emerging church especially has been guilty of some rather unhelpful and unbiblical understandings here.

Quite simply, a move has been made lately to seek to drive a wedge between truth and love. We are informed that truth is not something we need to give much notice to. Doctrine, teaching, creed and dogma are all frowned upon. But love and relationship are what we are to give full attention to. As if we can have one without the other. As if Christian love can be divorced from biblical truth. As if Christian doctrine has nothing to do with how we treat one another.

This false dichotomy must be absolutely rejected, for the simple reason that Scripture nowhere tells us to make such a silly divorce. Both are needed and both go together. The one cannot stand without the other.

To illustrate all this, I wish to look at one New Testament book, II John. This very brief book is comprised of just 13 verses. But it is rich in teaching about these two topics. I also want to focus on this book because I have rediscovered an old commentary which is so very helpful here.

I refer to the Tyndale commentary on the Epistles of John written by John Stott way back in 1964. Stott has always been a model of clear biblical exposition and teaching, and his writings are always worth paying attention to. Now in his late 80’s, the English evangelical has been a leading light in promoting Christian truth.

(Of course this is not to suggest that he is to be followed in every respect. Sadly, beginning in the late 1980s, Stott began to flirt with the idea of annihilationism, the belief that only the saved will live forever in the next world. Perhaps I will write an article on this topic soon.)

Now there are plenty of solid commentaries on the letters of John. I happen to own eleven of them. The newest and most detailed – by Yarbrough – I have recently reviewed: billmuehlenberg.com/2009/01/24/a-review-of-1-3-john-by-robert-yarbrough/

But the volume by Stott is well worth grabbing from the shelves, blowing off the dust, and re-reading, which I have recently done. Stott is always a master of careful attention to the text and helpful and incisive exposition, commentary and application. So here I note a few points about II John, and feature a number of choice quotes from Stott.

The main theme of II John is truth and love. Stott nicely summarises how the two are to be viewed: “Our love for others is not to undermine our loyalty to the truth. On the other hand, we must never champion the truth in a harsh or bitter spirit. . . . Our love grows soft if it is not strengthened by truth, and our truth grows hard if it is not softened by love.”

A foolish and unbiblical emphasis made by many believers today is that Christianity is all about love and relationships (true enough) but that these have absolutely nothing to do with rules, regulations and commandments (which is false). In this short epistle we are clearly commanded to love. Yes, love can be commanded. Moreover, we are told that those who truly love God are those who keep his commandments. See also Luke 10:25-8; John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10, 14; 1 John 2:3; 5:2-3, etc.

So love and commandments are intimately connected here, and cannot be pulled asunder by those who think they know better than Scripture. We are ordered to love, and our love will be demonstrated in keeping the commands of God. As Stott comments,

“The Christian life is here viewed from the standpoint of commandments. . . . Christian liberty is not inconsistent with law any more than love is. True, the Christian is not ‘under law’, in that his salvation does not depend on obedience to the law. Yet this does not relieve him of the obligation to keep the law (Mt 5:17-20; Rom 8:4, 13:10). The freedom with which Christ has made us free is not freedom to break the law, but freedom to keep it. ‘I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought thy precepts’ (Ps 119:45).”

Simply looking at the occurrences of these key terms in this short letter speaks to their importance. In the NIV truth is mentioned five times; teaching is mentioned three times; command(s) is mentioned four times; and love is mentioned five times.

Says Stott: “Truth is the ground of reciprocal Christian love. . . . If this is so, and Christian love is founded upon Christian truth. We shall never increase the love which exists between us by diminishing the truth which we hold in common. In the contemporary movement towards Church unity we must beware of compromising the very truth on which alone true love and unity depend.”

Another theme in this short letter is what we are to do about false prophets. John writes that false teachers are not to be given a church platform. Thus much of the interfaith dialogue that takes place today (inviting Muslims to speak in churches, eg.) is violating clear Scriptural guidelines. The key mark of these false teachers is a denial of the incarnation, and the person and work of Christ, something which Islam of course does.

Verse ten is quite strong in its insistence on not receiving the false teachers. Comments Stott, “This verse is relevant both to compromisers who refuse to withdraw from anyone and to separatists who like to withdraw from almost everybody.” Stott says three things must be borne in mind for a balanced interpretation of it.

First, it applies to false teachers, not to those who merely believe in false doctrine. Second, this has to do with extending official welcome to them, not private hospitality. Third, not every false teaching is referred to here, but false teaching about the incarnation.

Of course other NT texts also admonish us not to have fellowship with false teachers: Rom 16:17-18; 2 Cor 6:14-18; 2 Thes 3:6; 2 Tim 3:1-5. This sounds all rather unloving and intolerant to our ears today. But as Stott notes, “If John’s instruction still seems harsh, it is perhaps because his concern for the glory of the Son and the good of men’s souls is greater than ours, and because ‘the tolerance on which we pride ourselves’ is in reality an ‘indifference to the truth’ (Alexander).”

In sum, John declares that walking in love and walking in truth are equally vital, and both must be insisted upon. “The fellowship of the local Church is created by truth and exhibited in love. Each qualifies the other. Our love is not to be so blind as to ignore the views and conduct of others. Truth should make our love discriminating.”

We are warned in Scripture that in the last days the love of many will grow cold, and truth will be rejected. Thus we must give all due diligence to ensuring that both truth and love are in full view in our individual and collective Christian walks.

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4 Responses to Truth and Love

  • Thanks very much for these timely reminders. I often feel like I am a ‘Truth-Nazi’, and I know that I sometimes come across as being too harsh. But I feel like a dying breed, a little Dutch boy with all ten finger (Ten Commandments?) stuck in a very leaky church dike.
    Steve Swartz

  • Hi Bill,
    Part of the emphasis on love comes from 1 John 4:8 where John declares “God is love”, and the great love chapter 1 Corinthians 13. People who use these verses ignore the other facets of God’s nature found in the rest of Scripture, & especially summarised in Exodus 34:6-7.

    There God is portrayed as loving, patient, compassionate, merciful, faithful, slow to anger – what might be called His attractive attributes – but also just and righteous, punishing anything that falls short of His holiness.

    From this, we can conclude that “God is love” does not mean that God is love only, but that He is the source of true love, and wherever true love is found, God is there. But God is also righteous. All His qualities He calls His ‘goodness’ (Exodus 33:19), what A.W. Pink calls “the perfection…the essence, of His eternal nature.”

    It is not by chance but by design that Christian reductionists want us to focus on the attractive attributes of God and ignore the full gamut of His nature. This fault is epitomised by their iincessant but incomplete quotation of Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery (John 8) – ‘Neither do I condemn you! Go and sin no more!’

    Geoffrey Bullock

  • I think what the modern church is steering clear of today is the fact that the Old Testament points out very clearly that God’s love has to be tough at times – not just lovey-dovey, especially when His people are going about their own ways. Ezekiel is full of how God’s people were rebellious, impudent and idolatrous. They wanted the ease and comfort of life rather than the suffering and humility that goes with taking up our cross and following Him. This sounds familiar…Ezekiel states that the people were perplexed when they were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Why? Had God left them? I say no and a thousand times No! Some decided that God was suddenly not as powerful and followed the gods of the Babylonians, others denied these things were happening and then others decided that there was no hope because nothing was ever going to change. So what are we doing about the current changes we are facing and will face in the future? We have voices – we have heart and most of all we have the Lord who is on our side because its His side we are fighting for.

    Francesca Collard

  • Hi
    I agree. Love and law are part of the same thing. A simple illustration: A loving parent dosen’t let their child drink poison just because they want to. A truly loving parent won’t even let them eat unlimited sweets and kill themselves slowly.
    Actually in the main those who are strict about doctrine are often (should be always) those who show most love.
    I’m not saying it well but I am trying to say that love and law are not opposed but part of the same thing (or Person).

    Katherine Fishley

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