A witness for Christ in any age–and certainly in this present age–requires a prayer-saturated, Christ-centered, Gospel-motivated, Bible-shaped, Spirit-filled and God-glorifying commitment to “speak the truth in love.” But this essential command for effective Gospel ministry to both those not yet saved and those already saved is easier said than done. The prevailing tendency is to sacrifice “speaking the truth” in the name of love, or to thoughtlessly speak the truth without love. We cannot truly love without speaking truth truthfully; and we can’t speak truth truthfully without loving intentionally and thoughtfully. You can “speak the truth” without loving but you can’t “love” without “speaking the truth.” To paraphrase a much more able Gospel minister from another age who confronted this issue with a clear, insightful and captivating observation: “Truth without love is barbarity, but love without truth is cruelty” (Bishop J. C. Ryle).
Because speaking the truth is central to an effective Gospel ministry, there is little doubt that Satan will devise as many reasons possible to discourage Christians from either speaking to those living in the death spiral of sin and idolatry; or to distract them from intentionally, thoughtfully and relentlessly loving sinners drowning in the brokenness of a sin-deceived life.
Furthermore, it is equally obvious that if Satan cannot silence the truth, he will attempt to trap us into speaking the truth without love. If he can’t stop us from loving, he will entice us to quit speaking the truth. He does this in two ways. First, Satan tempts us to minimize truth with meaningless euphemisms that disguise the horrific consequences and the irrationality and blasphemy of sin. Second, and often even more effectively, he will culturally intimidate us into outright silence in the name of love. Our diminished truth speaking or silence actually reveals that we are more interested in people loving us than we are in them knowing truthfully the love of Christ and being brought into the life-changing blessing of loving the Christ who first loved them.
So Satan–with an insatiable desire to reduce love into deeds that are void of truth or to communicate truth through self-righteous arrogance–today employs five deceptive myths:
Five Deceptive Myths
- To love someone, we must initially avoid speaking the truth about sin, the idolatry that produces the sin and its consequences for time and eternity. To love simply requires you to manifest Gospel deeds of love. Do not tell them the truth about sin, even though the love of Christ revealed in the Gospel is directly related to the reality of sin, the sinfulness of sin, and the wages of sin– which is death.
- To love someone you must accept them; and, to accept them you must accept their behavior. At the very least you must be silent about their sin, the rationale for its idolatry, and the lifestyle arrangements created to embrace that sin and affirm it as culturally acceptable–unless and until they give you permission to speak about it.
- To love others acceptably we must not simply speak in terms and vocabulary they understand, but only in the terms and vocabulary they approve and dictate (i.e. deceitful world view euphemisms)–e.g. adultery becomes an “extra-marital affair” or “recreational sex” or “hooking up”; homosexuality becomes “gay” or “an alternative lifestyle” etc.
- You have not loved someone acceptably unless they approve and affirm the truth you have spoken and the love you have given.
- You have not spoken the truth in love unless those to whom you have spoken are drawn to love you in return.
What is the Result?
In the present age the influence of these myths (when they are individually and/or collectively embraced) are almost always initially revealed by “selective truth speaking”–all of which is done in the name of “sensitivity.” The result is that many contemporary Christians following their leaders will sacrifice truth speaking in the name of love; yet, amazingly, they will boldly address the sins and prevailing issues that the culture agrees are undesirable. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with speaking to cultural sins (cultural sin and justice concerns must both be addressed, after all). However, though many boldly speak the truth on issues found on the list of “Culturally Approved Topics for Denunciation,” there is an astonishing silence about other prevalent issues the Bible clearly identifies as heinous sins. Why the silence? First of all, those who the masses confront are confronted with permission by today’s culture shapers. Many suppose that by speaking to these issues the cultural capital of the church will be enhanced. But in contrast, those sins–corporate, cultural, and individual–which are avoided, are the ones that have been declared off limits because they are on the “Cultural Approved Lifestyle List.” Even more, those issues on the Culturally Approved Lifestyle List are not only declassified as sins but now are to be celebrated, perpetuated and propagated. This brings us to the crux of the question: is “selective truth speaking” an evidence of sensitivity or is it a lack of courage; is it compassion or is it cowardice?
Multitudes of ministers and leaders are imploring Christians to embrace this “selective truth speaking” as an exalted virtue. For example, the present culture expresses concern about refugees, sex trafficking, racism, and other heinous sins and injustices–and rightly so! Churches and pulpits join the culture’s efforts by truth speaking affirming these practices as sins and lovingly instituting ministry initiatives to eradicate these acts of iniquity and minister to the victims. And so we should and must! But by doing so an unassailable fact emerges – leadership is speaking publicly with compassion, courage and conviction. In fact, when pastors speak publicly on these issues, in their sermons and on their podcasts or blogs, people praise them for the very fact that they are being leaders. They should be praised for this.
However, at the same time, many of the voices that speak boldly on these issues are silent in the same public square concerning the agenda of culturally normalizing unfettered sexual eroticism, marital anarchy, and the sanctity of life (among others). In addition to their deafening on these issues – which the culture is now promoting and celebrating – it is now considered unspiritual or unbecoming for the Christian and/or the church to participate in the messiness of bringing the blessings of common grace to the culture by promoting and debating public policies rooted in a Biblically informed public theology for human flourishing.
A Crucial Theological Fact
Often, in all of this, one important theological fact is forgotten. We live in a world that, emphatically, does not desire the love of Christ or the truth of the Gospel. It never has and, apart from the moving of the Holy Spirit; and, it never will. Neither did I, until the grace of God changed my heart by the power of the Holy Spirit, who brought me from death unto life. What did He use? He used believers who spoke the truth in love to me. They did so with varying degrees of sophistication, but praise the Lord they were willing to speak the truth and love me. Now I, as a beneficiary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through their courageous compassion, must also speak the truth–lovingly–to those who need me to do so (even if they do not approve me doing so – even if they do not want me to do so)–we still must do so as others did so for me and you.
We must seek to speak the truth thoughtfully, timely and with words carefully chosen–even while we create an environment of love for effective communication. If a doctor knows you have a terminal condition and loves you he will not be silent. He will thoughtfully tell you the truth. He will likely take you aside in a private room providing an appropriate environment. Then he will tell you the truth in love and he will love you with the truth. Ministers are physicians for the soul. We know sin brings death and we know God’s grace has provided the solution to sin’s guilt and power. We also know that God has commissioned us to speak the truth in an environment of love. We cannot be silent about the truth they need to hear in the name of love any more than the doctor could. Nor would we tell them the truth about sin and God’s grace in Christ without creating a thoughtful environment of love.
Those who have not yet come to Christ need to hear the truth of His Word spoken from those who will love them sacrificially and intentionally. And those who know Christ but have faltered in their walk for Him need us to love them enough to speak the truth. Those around us need us to deliver truth with a love that demonstrates the astonishing and unstoppable love of Christ and Him crucified.
In a world that has grown increasingly hostile to the truth of the Gospel, it would be easy to fall prey to perhaps right-hearted but wrong-headed statements like the one famously attributed to the renowned St. Francis of Assisi: “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” Instead, we must preach the Gospel and we must use words because they are necessary. Why? Because God’s word tells us that “faith comes by hearing.” In a word, we must speak the truth.
Love is essential because it opens the door for truth, affirms the truth and authenticates the truth; but, it is the truth that will “set you free.” We are all born with a desire to be approved. But for believers our approval rating does not come from the world. “Do your best to present yourself unto God…handling accurately the Word of Truth.”
Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. Harry completed his doctoral dissertation on “The Biblical Paradigm of Church Revitalization” and received a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina (where he serves as adjunct faculty member). He is the author of From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church, as well as a number of other published works.