To Hold the Truth In Love

There is no bane so avoidable in the church, and no missed opportunity for blessing so regrettable, as failure by saints in the body of Christ to hold the truth in love.  Let us consider the scriptural imperative for carefully maintaining both of these balancing principles: truth and love.

The church of God is presented in the New Testament using several different analogies, including a “house” and a “body”. In I Timothy 3:15, we read of the necessity of appropriate behavior in the “house of God, which is the assembly of the living God, the pillar and base of the truth.” Pillars and bases (foundations) are architectural elements that go along with the picture of the church as a building, and we can understand from this passage that God’s revealed truth is to rest firmly here. Other religious groups or societies, including parachurch organizations, may seek to maintain Christian principles and biblical teaching, and that is commendable. However, it is to the assembly of God alone, functioning according to the New Testament’s teaching on the church, that God gives the commission for upholding (as on a well-grounded pillar) divine truth.

It should be clarified at this point that the church as such does not teach, as organized religion has commonly held over the centuries. Rather, the assembly of God is taught by those teachers and pastors (shepherds) whom God gives as gifts to it. The assembly, if in a good state collectively, then judges the truth or error of that which is taught in it, receiving and growing by the truth, and rejecting the error. Assembly discipline and even excommunication is appropriate when a teacher persists in teaching error, and especially so when that teaching denigrates the glorious person of the Son of God or the infinite worth of the work of Christ.

As vital as it is to maintain the truth in every local expression of the body of Christ, we find in Ephesians 4 some very specific teaching on how it should be held or practiced. We are taught in that chapter about the body of Christ and its essential and practical unity, of the gifts given to build up the body, of its end goal of growing up to the “perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The process of growth to that end, to the “unity of the faith”, assumes that the body of Christ is exercised in “holding the truth in love,” while taking care to avoid the deception of false teachers and their systematized error.¹

A Bible teacher once wrote: ‘But God is never satisfied with negative results, and it is not enough therefore that we should be shielded from error. He desires something more for us, that we, “holding [not merely speaking] the truth in love, may grow up unto Him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ.” The knowledge of the faith is, as we have seen, the weapon which alone enables us to “hold the truth” amidst the “opposition of science falsely so called.” But there must be a corresponding state of soul, showing that the truth is operative in the heart as well as the mind, that it is forming the affections as well as the intellect. Hence the truth must be held in love; for without both of these there can be no “growing up unto Christ in all things.” Where, on the other hand, the truth of God is really held, not simply as an intellectual creed, but in love, the believer will grow up unto Christ – will become more and more assimilated in his walk and ways to the blessed Lord.’ ²

Attempting to maintain the truth of God without being collectively exercised about the imperative of doing so “in love” will eventually lead to legalism and division. The apostle Paul by the Spirit is careful to direct the hearts of the Corinthians to the “more excellent way” of love, after laying out for them the principles of truth as the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12 & 13. Without love, there is a real danger of pride and sectarianism, as Paul cautioned in using the body analogy practically in the second half of chapter 12.

In his second epistle to the Corinthians, in chapter 2, Paul begs the assembly to reaffirm their love toward the man they had had to put away because of the truth, for fornication (I Corinthians 5). For to put away a person so that the assembly can “keep the feast . . . with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”, and yet to fail in being ready to manifest love toward such as soon as there is evident repentance, is to fail to hold the truth in love. If love is already in proper exercise in the assembly, this display of love in restoring the backslider will be no difficulty, but will flow naturally from the hearts of those who are controlled by the love of Christ (II Corinthians 5:14).

When a local assembly fails to maintain the truth as taught by the Spirit of truth, it fails objectively as a testimony to the One who is “the Truth”.  And when such an assembly fails to maintain or hold that truth in love, it fails to subjectively demonstrate the love of God in Christ toward souls. Dispensing with the truth for the sake of an emotional love may draw in many souls with more interest in good feelings than truth.  Conversely, lacking the exercised energy of God’s love (agape) and brotherly love (philadelphia)³ will cause assemblies that hold objective truth in a cold or clinical way to wither over time. Sadly, we have all seen examples of both of those imbalances.

The apostle John is occupied much with both truth and love in his gospel and epistles. He records the last hours that the Lord Jesus spent with His disciples in that upper room, where the Lord referred to Himself as “the Truth”, and then promised the “Spirit of truth” who guides into all truth. But even more of His time with them there was spent, in exhortation and prayer, to the end that they should love one another, as He had loved them, and to have in themselves the same love with which the Father loved Him.* Those eleven disciples (and some others) would form the original local expression of the body of Christ and house of God on the earth. It is the truth they taught, maintained in the love of Christ that they enjoyed in their hearts, that is still able to bring growth in the body of Christ, satisfying His heart, while we await perfection at His coming.

 

¹    Ephesians 4:11-16 (Darby translation).  There is no word in the Greek for either “speaking” or “holding” in this verse; rather, the word for “truth” is given in verb form.

²    T. B. Baines, “The Christian’s Friend” (1879): Edification of the Body of Christ

³    Romans 12:9-10; II Peter 1:7

*    John 15:26; 16:13-14; and see all of John 13-17.

Learning From an Apostle’s Failure

There is a tendency within us to project the faultless character of the inspired scriptures onto the fallible vessels used by the Holy Spirit to write them. Upon reflection, we might remember that the apostle Peter was rebuked for his error by the Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, for his hypocrisy in separating from Gentile believers for fear of the reaction it might cause among Jewish Christians (Galatians 2).  But while Paul was singularly used of God in the revelation of His mind as to the mystery of Jew and Gentile believers being united in one body by the cross of Christ, we can discern his failure in not wholly following the Spirit’s direction during one period of his ministry.

In Acts 16, we read of the clear direction of the Spirit of God forbidding Paul and his company from preaching the gospel in Asia. While we may not at first understand this restraint by the Spirit in the spread of the gospel of God’s grace, we must bow to the implied truth that the time is not always ripe for the gospel message to be proclaimed in a particular place or to certain people. Paul came back to Asia later, as seen in Act 19, and his labor was rewarded in Ephesus with many believing souls. But first, the Spirit uses the vision of the man from Macedonia to lead Paul into Europe, where many were saved in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth.

It is in Acts 18:18 that we first find an indication that Paul’s former devotion to law-keeping had not completely fallen away to give way to walking by the Spirit on the principle of grace.¹  He had taken a vow that apparently ended with his head having to be shorn. We find no defense of this practice in all of the New Testament’s doctrinal teaching, nor for the vows and offerings that Paul later becomes party to in Acts 21:20-28, after arriving back in Jerusalem for the final time. God mercifully intervenes before Paul, at the behest of James and the elders, carries out the animal sacrifices that would only serve to compromise the Christian testimony with non-Christian ritual.

On his way back from Corinth to Jerusalem, Paul stops briefly in Ephesus, but though it might have seemed to be of the Spirit that he stay there for a while longer, for the Ephesian Jews desired that he stay, he is determined to “keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem” (Acts 18:21). Paul had a real love for his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3), and being with them in Jerusalem for a “feast of the Jews” still tugged strongly at his heartstrings.

We read of him purposing “in his spirit” to return to Jerusalem again for the feast of Pentecost, after traveling again to Ephesus and Macedonia on his third missionary journey.² We find no indication that he was being led of the Holy Spirit to return to Jerusalem, and we find further that the Spirit used certain prophets to specifically warn him against going there at that time. He sailed to Tyre and tarried there for seven days, during which some disciples “said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.”³

Paul had a heart that was true to his Lord and Savior, and no one should doubt his devotion to the glory of Christ. His zeal for God after his conversion is perhaps unmatched in the history of the church, and yet he failed for a time in this, that he was deterred from fully following the Spirit’s direction because of love for his Jewish brethren and an understandable hesitation to give up the trappings of the law of Moses. The words of Jesus in Luke 5:39 even applied in part to Paul: “No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth the new: for he saith, The old is better.” It took the Lord’s chastening hand upon him in what befell him there in Jerusalem and afterwards to bring him to the point where he could write to his fellow Hebrews: “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle . . . Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:10-13).

Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians, who were Gentiles in danger of being led astray by Judaizers, that “if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit”.*  This is perhaps the greatest practical truth of Christianity, and we all fail in it often. And there are a few lessons we can learn from the temporary failure of the dear apostle Paul, to whom we owe so much for being used of the Lord in making known the surpassing truth of Christianity:

  • The “honey”° of natural affection, family ties, or ethnic loyalty often become hindrances to following the leading of the Spirit.
  • The “old wine” of Judaism, as well as any other religious tradition, may also hinder believers in walking by the Spirit.
  • If we fail to wait on the Lord’s counsel or follow our own desires or natural affection, the Lord will send leanness to our souls (Psalm 106:13-15), and may chasten us in various ways to bring about the “peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11).
  • A man may have a heart exercised unto godliness and an irreproachable walk before others, yet still fail to walk by the Spirit in certain matters where the faith to do so would take him down a lonelier path of reproach for Christ’s sake.
  • While we may be persuaded in our spirits that we are walking according to the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the matter of worship and ministry, we must learn to take care not to set at naught or make little of other godly believers who may not yet be similarly exercised.

While Paul was in custody before the high priest after his arrest in Jerusalem, he uttered a few more hasty comments that he regretted later, giving evidence that he was not in the state of soul that would make it natural for him to take the spiritual high road.°° But after the Lord worked to bring about restoration and redirection, Paul seemed at the end of his path of service to take a softer approach toward those saints who fell short in walking by the Spirit in Christian fellowship and ministry.  He simply sorrows that “all they which are in Asia” had turned away from him (II Timothy 1:15). He grieves that “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present age”, and then asks for the Lord’s mercies upon those that forsook him: “At my first defense no man stood with me, but all deserted me. May it not be imputed to them” (II Timothy 4:10 & 16, Darby translation).

May we by the grace of God learn from Paul’s failure to distrust our flesh and natural desires in seeking to follow the Spirit’s guidance, while we have long patience with and loving care for all our brethren seeking in any measure to walk by faith.

 

¹    Galatians 5:16-25; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 13:9

²    Acts 19:21 (Darby trans.); Acts 20:16

³    Acts 20:22-24; 21:4-14

*    Galatians 5:25 (Darby translation)

°     See Leviticus 2:11

°°    Acts 23:2-10; 24:21