Speaking the Truth in Love

The Christian life, as I have said repeatedly, is often about getting the biblical balance right. Both in terms of beliefs as well as behaviour, there are many unhelpful and unbiblical extremes Christians can gravitate to, and we must always guard against this.

Of course to speak of balance does not mean that we all just wallow in lukewarmness and shades of grey. Being an extremist for Jesus in terms of love, obedience, passion, devotion and radical discipleship sounds great to me. Nor do I mean that we just go for the lowest common denominator doctrinally so that we all might just get along.

In some aspects of the Christian life the last thing we want to be is walking in the middle of the road. But there are many issues which do demand that we get the balance right. For example, on theological matters, such as God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, we must affirm both.

That is because Scripture affirms both. How the two can nicely line up is not easy to fathom. But Scripture emphasises both, so we should as well. To emphasise just one of these vital biblical truths while ignoring the other will simply get us into all sorts of trouble.

Indeed, most cults and heresies begin in exactly the same fashion: they take hold of one biblical truth and push it to major extremes at the expense of other biblical truths. So biblical balance is often the key to remaining biblically orthodox. And the same with behaviour.

I have just written recently on some hot potato issues involving matters of Christian conscience. Whether it is the celebration of Christmas, or the use of alcohol, there are unhelpful extremes believers can get into. Paul nicely deals with how we should consider such issues in Romans 14.

There he makes it clear that there are two extremes which must be avoided at all costs: license and legalism. Either one is bad news. Paul says the weaker brother should not judge the stronger in these areas. And the stronger brother should seek not to stumble the weaker one. Moreover, he says all believers should be fully persuaded in their own minds about such things.

Here I want to speak to another biblical balancing act. I have spoken about this many times already. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:15 about “speaking the truth in love”. And I have usually emphasised the truth bit of this one. That is because so much of the church today does not give a rip about truth, and is awash in lousy, sentimental notions of love.

We are terrified of standing up for what is true and right, all because we have bought the world’s notions of love and tolerance. It is an unbiblical love which accepts everything, tolerates everything, questions nothing, and opposes nothing. But I speak to that here: billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/23/truth-and-love/

And here: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/07/12/love-and-truth-again/

But now, to the surprise of some of you perhaps, I want to emphasise the other half of the equation. The sad truth is, many can err in emphasising truth over against love, just as some have erred by emphasising love over against truth. There are plenty of folks who are sticklers for good doctrine and theology – and they should be.

But often they can be very heavy-handed with their knowledge. They can easily get into theological browbeating, and not have the same amount of love and grace on display as they do truth and doctrine. And I should know, because I have often been guilty of this myself.

Of course anyone who knows me knows that I value truth and sound theology very highly indeed. We all should. But it is easy to end up seeking to win a theological argument, while perhaps losing the person. I am aware that many times more knowledgeable believers can be too heavy-handed here.

They may claim that truth is important, and that false teachings can cause many to go astray. That is perfectly true. But it is also true that by bashing some folks with the truth in an ungracious manner, we can cause them to go astray as well.

The desire to speak truth can come from mixed motives. The desire to be right, or to win an argument, or to impress others, can be part of the reason why we seek to champion truth. But we should be doing it to glorify God and to win others to Christ.

Lots of folks just like to debate, or to get into heated arguments, and they can easily be quite off-putting, even in sharing true truth. So once again we have another example of seeking to get the biblical balance. It is not always easy to do so.

We must always stay on our knees before God, asking him to help us get it right. Truth can be a weapon. Used wisely and lovingly it can draw people and save people. Used wrongly it can turn people off and wound people unnecessarily. So we must always be on guard in this area.

We must never compromise or play fast and loose with the truth, but we must also always seek to have on full display the love and grace of Christ. This is especially so for those involved in apologetics, theology, and related ministries. As Jude 1:3 tells us, we are to earnestly contend for the faith – but without being contentious.

We must defend the faith without being defensive. Other texts speak to this as well. In Colossians 4:5-6 we read this: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

And in 1 Peter 3:15-16 it says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

So please, never shy away from proclaiming truth. It is the need of the hour, but please always do so graciously and in love. Is that hard to get right? Yes it sure is – at least for me. So pray for me that I get the balance right, and represent Christ rightly both to the world and to other believers. And please forgive me when I have gotten it wrong.

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12 Replies to “Speaking the Truth in Love”

  1. Bill,

    Appreciate your honesty, openess & vulnerability on this issue.

    Let’s make no mistake about it, Jesus didn’t mince his words by calling a spade a spade in speaking very strongly to those of his day who were attacking him & the kingdom he was fighting for, however it has sometimes troubled me the tone of some of the things that you have shared through this column.

    In the heat of the battle, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that our battle is not with flesh & blood (people), but with with the powers & authorities Paul spoke of in Eph 6:12

    Howard Savage

  2. “walking in the middle of the road” – wouldn’t that be a good place to get mown down by the traffic – coming at you from both directions?

    John Angelico

  3. Yes John, as Margaret Thatcher also said: “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Point taken. I also can struggle in this area. I can deal with vicious God hating atheists who make no claim to godliness all day long with patience and longsuffering grace.

    It’s heretics I have trouble with. The most ferocious words of the bible are reserved for those calling themselves by the name of the Lord and who defile that name with idolatrous beliefs and practices. All the judaizers had to do was add circumcision, the once actually true sign of the covenant, to the gospel and Paul pronounced God’s curse upon them as well as his wish for their castration.

    At the risk of sounding the wrong way, God has equipped me as a formidable debater. It is a constant struggle and subject of daily prayer that He also allow me to wield His gifts to His glory and not my own.

    As I say, point well taken.

    Greg Smith, US

  5. Greetings from a fellow Ephesians 4 labourer in Holland. May God bless you as you continue to walk the walk & talk the talk.

    Judy de Jong

  6. Thanks Bill – this is a perfect word in season for me as I wrestle with how to continue responding to a family member professing Christianity yet failing to adhere to a Biblical mindset. Your article has brought great clarity, thank you Jesus and thanks Bill.
    Max Prosper

  7. Bill, I thank God for your honesty and integrity. This truly is a balancing act, and as ambassadors of Christ, we do need to be careful what we say to people. God bless your wonderful Teaching and Watchman on the Wall ministry. I am reminded of Psalm 24, which asks the question “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place?
    The answer: He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood.
    I find the world wants me constantly to believe in lies – often nice little comfortable lies like fairies and santa, or bigger ones like gay marriage. The Lord has to constantly bring me back to the reality of Him and His Kingdom being the most important thing in this short earth-life.

    Ian Brearley

  8. We ‘judge’ according to Gods Word. Keep the standard high, true and right, according to our Lord’s teacing.
    Judith Bond

  9. Bill, we need to speak, share and stand for Bible truth. There is NO middle ground. Too many are too soft and not standing for our Lords teaching.
    Judith Bond

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