Speak Truth with Your Neighbor

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By John Piper About Truth
Part of the series Faith And Everyday Life: Ephesians 4:17-5:20

Ephesians 4:25

Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

Is It Ever Right to Tell a Lie?

I would like to begin this morning by addressing the most notorious but not the most important issue relating to falsehood; namely, the question: Is it ever right to tell a lie? I am going to address the issue, but I am not going to answer the question directly. What I am going to say is this: It is possible to be a person who never intentionally lies and yet be a hardened sinner, living in darkness and cut off from Christ in unbelief; and it is possible to be a person who fears the Lord, walks by faith, and yet feel constrained in extreme, life-threatening situations to oppose evil by lying intentionally.

The reason I say that you can be virtually free from intentional lying and still be unregenerate and bound to sin is that there may be cultural or personal incentives that have nothing to do with God, and yet make you want to have the reputation of dependability—to be known as a person whose word is as good as an oath.

And the reason I say that you can be a godly person who trusts Christ and still feel constrained to lie in extreme, life-threatening situations is that there are several stories in the Bible where this is exactly what happened.

The Hebrew Midwives

For example, in Exodus 1 the Egyptian Pharaoh decides to deplete the strength of the nation of Israel by killing all the boys that are born. He says to the Hebrew midwives in verse 16, "When you serve as a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live."

But, verse 17 says, "The midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live." When the king of Egypt asked them (v. 18) why they did this, they answered (in v. 19), "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before the midwife comes to them."

Now, regardless of how vigorous the Hebrew women were in childbirth, this statement is in effect a lie. It is meant to lead Pharaoh to believe a falsehood, namely, that the midwives were doing their best to obey him but just couldn't get there in time to make the death look like a stillbirth.

But verse 17 says that the motive behind their disobedience to the king was a genuine fear of God: "They feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them." And in verse 20 it says, "God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God he gave them families." So they are not rebuked; they are blessed.

Rahab and the Two Spies

Another example is found in Joshua 2. Joshua sent two men to spy out Jericho, and the king of Jericho found out that they were there. They hid in the house of Rahab the harlot. Verse 6 says that she took them to her roof and covered them with stalks of flax. When the king's messengers come to Rahab's house and inquire about the men, she says (in vv. 4–5), "True, men came to me, but I did not know where they came from; and when the gate was closed, at dark, the men went out; where the men went I do not know."

The rest of the chapter tells how she believed in the God of Israel and pleaded for the deliverance of her family when Jericho would be attacked. Hebrews 11:31 says, "By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies." So the biblical interpretation of her action was that it was done from a heart of faith, even though she lied to the king's messengers.

So I conclude from these two biblical stories that it is possible to be a person who fears the Lord (like the Hebrew midwives) and acts in faith (like Rahab) and yet feel constrained in extreme, life-threatening situations to oppose evil by lying.

No Specific Biblical Commendation for These Instances

The reason that this is all I am willing to say instead of answering the question: Is it ever right to tell a lie? is that in neither of these cases (nor anywhere else in Scripture that I am aware of) does the Bible explicitly commend or approve the lying itself. The midwives are commended for fearing the Lord and not killing the babies. And Rahab gives evidence of her faith by giving a friendly welcome to the Israelite spies. But her lying is not explicitly commended.

I've struggled a long time with how to think and teach about these borderline cases. And I have concluded that pastorally the wisest thing for me to do is to acknowledge that in the fear of God and in the walk of faith worthy saints have chosen to oppose the effects of evil by concealing the truth from wicked men. And having recognized that fact and that possibility, we do well to shift our attention to the overwhelming biblical emphasis on the condemnation of falsehood and lying.

Scripture's Clear and Heavy Testimony Against Lying

We are going to focus on Ephesians 4:25, but first let me give you some idea from the rest of Scripture how serious this matter is in the eyes of God.

  • Proverbs 6:16–17, "There are six things which the Lord hates, seven which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers."
  • Proverbs 12:22, "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord."
  • Proverbs 12:19, "Truthful lips endure for ever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment."
  • Proverbs 20:17, "Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth will be full of gravel."
  • Proverbs 21:6, "The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death."
  • Revelation 21:7–8, "He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." (Cf. 21:27; 22:15.)

What I want you to see from these few texts is that we must not play fast and loose with this issue as though it were a matter of indifference to God whether we tell the truth or not. There is some kind of connection between the practice of lying and the condition of the heart that makes biblical writers certain that those who practice lying in their ordinary lives are outside the scope of salvation. So we do well to ponder this matter together.

Where Lying Comes From

You recall that Ephesians 4:25 is a specific, practical instance of verse 22. Verse 22 says, "Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts [i.e., desires]." Then verse 25 uses the same word for "put off" and says specifically, "Therefore, putting off falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another."

So it is clear that falsehood is a specific characteristic of the "old nature" referred to in verse 22. Put off the old nature, specifically, put off falsehood. Why is this helpful? It is helpful because it shows us where lying comes from.

Verse 22 says that the old nature—the pre-conversion nature—is corrupted because of desires, and the thing that makes these desires bad is that they come from deceit. There is nothing wrong with desire in and of itself. What's bad is when desire goes after the wrong things. And the reason desire goes after the wrong things is because our hearts are is deceived about what is truly desirable.

But now we have seen that lying is one of the characteristics of this old nature. In other words when Paul says that the old nature is corrupt, he means (among other things) that the old nature is a liar. And this means, then, that the corruption of lying comes from the desires of deceit. Very simply this means that the reason we lie is because we have desires that we shouldn't have, and the reason we have them is because we are deceived about what is truly desirable.

To pick up the lesson from verses 18 and 19, our hardness of heart against God leads to darkness of understanding, and darkness leads to ignorance of what is truly valuable and desirable in life, and ignorance lays us open to all the deceits of Satan who Jesus says is the father of lies (John 8:44).

Deceitful Desires Which Tempt Us to Lie

Let's be specific and make ourselves aware of some of the deceitful desires that tempt us to lie. I think all the desires that lead people to lie can be summed up in these two: fear and greed. Two kinds of fear and two kinds of greed.

Two Kinds of Fear

Let's think first about fear. In Matthew 21:23–27 the authority of Jesus is challenged by the chief priests and elders. "By what authority do you do these things?" Before he answers them, he gives them a test question to see if they really love the truth or whether they are only trying to justify themselves and trip him up.

He asks, "The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?" Now we can watch a lie in the making. We can see what desires go into the making of a lie. It says (in v. 25) that the chief priests argued with one another and said,

"If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

The chief priests and the elders fail the test. They prove that their deep desire is not for truth. What is it for? It is for personal esteem and physical safety! They are controlled by fear. Two kinds of fear.

First, they fear getting egg on their faces and losing the esteem of the people. They fear being shown wrong. We see this in verse 25: they conclude that they can't answer Jesus' question by saying John's baptism is from heaven. Why? Not because it is untrue—that is quite irrelevant to them. No. It is simply because if they answer that way, they will give Jesus a chance to show them in an inconsistency—"Why then did you not believe him?" So they are driven toward a lie by their desire for the esteem of men and their fear of having to admit an inconsistency.

The second kind of fear that controls them is fear of physical harm. Physical safety is more important than truth. We see this in verse 26: they can't answer that John's baptism is from men because the multitudes believe John was a prophet and so the people might get mad and stone the priests!

So instead of giving the answer that they believe is true (namely, from men) they lie. They are evasive, diplomatic, or (as some say) political: they say, "We don't know!"

So we see the origin of a lie in two kinds of fear: fear of losing personal esteem and fear of getting physically hurt. But note well! These desires for safety and esteem are deceitful desires. Satan is deceiving the chief priests. It is a lie that popular esteem is to be desired more than speaking the truth. It is a lie that physical safety is to be desired more than speaking the truth. Ask the martyrs! Listen to Jesus! Don't run from persecution by lying or evading a testimony of truth. What does he say? Blessed are you when men persecute you for righteousness' sake!

And so the lie of the chief priests is produced by the lies of Satan, the father of lies. And that's how it is with virtually all lying. We are deceived into thinking that the mockery or abuse from some group is more to be feared than the disapproval of God, and so we lie.

Two Kinds of Greed

I said that lying is not just caused by two kinds of fear, but also by two kinds of greed—greed for money and all it can buy, and greed for praise and approval.

Ananias and Sapphira are an example of the first kind of greed. The sold a piece of property and kept back some of the proceeds for themselves and took the rest of it to the apostles, presenting it as the whole sum. Peter said (in Acts 5:3), "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?" Satan is on hand again in his usual role. How did he get Ananias to lie to Peter and to God?

He deceived Ananias into thinking that it is more blessed to keep than to give. And that is a lie—exactly the opposite of the word of Christ. Satan probably suggested to Ananias all the possible expenses that might be coming up, and all the legitimate pleasures that he and his wife Sapphira have gone without all these years. So a deceitful desire was born from a lie and gave birth to a lie. And Ananias dropped dead and so did his wife. And great fear came upon the whole church. The lying tongue is an abomination to God.

That is one kind of greed that produces lying—the greed for money and what it can buy. The other kind of greed that produces lying is greed for praise or power or position or approval. I will leave the examples here to your own imagination. We must hasten on to the positive half of the command in Ephesians 4:25.

The Truth of Jesus Which Begets Truthfulness

What we have seen in the connection between verses 22 and 25 is that the old nature is given to lying because it is enslaved to desires that are based on deceit. The lies of Satan beget the lies of sinners. So Paul says, "Put off that old nature—put off lying—and put on the new nature—the nature created by God and marked by righteousness and holiness that come not from Satanic deceit but from the truth" (v. 24).

The lies of Satan that beget lies of sinners have to be replaced by the truth of Jesus (v. 21) that begets truthfulness of saints. This is what is meant in verse 23 by the renewing of the spirit of the mind. The mind has to be filled with Satan-fighting truth. And out of that truth will come righteousness and holiness, and part of this holiness is what verse 25 calls, "speaking truth with your neighbor."

O, how I wish we had time to go into all the truth of God's character and promises that take away the impulse to lie. There are such incredibly great promises for God's people that if we really believed them, the fear and greed that tempt us to lie would melt like icicles under an April sun and we would be full of freedom and light—and, therefore, truth. Truth-telling is a "work of faith" (1 Thessalonians 1:3), because faith in the goodness and sovereign power of God conquers the deceitful craving for esteem and safety and money and power that causes us to distort the truth in order to gain a worldly advantage.

"Members of One Another"

But instead of going into all those promises, let's close by focusing briefly on the one truth Paul chooses to focus on at the end of verse 25. Paul says, "Let every one speak the truth with his neighbor—(WHY?)—FOR WE ARE MEMBERS ONE OF ANOTHER."

So out of all the relationships he could have focused on, he chooses to admonish us to tell the truth to our fellow Christians, because we are all members of one body, and therefore members of each other (1:23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:16; 5:28–30).

I think he has in mind this kind of idea: if the body is eating with a fork, and the eye lies to the hand about where the mouth is, why, the hand may stab the eye. In other words, when you deceive a fellow believer, it's like deceiving yourself. When you mislead a believer, it means that the truth of God concerning the body of Christ hasn't renewed the spirit of your mind.

When the truth concerning the reality of the body of Christ and your part in it really hits home and you believe it, the spirit of your mind will be transformed about how you act toward other believers. When the truth of the body of Christ renews the spirit of your mind, you will no more intentionally lie to a brother or sister in Christ than you will intentionally close your own eyes while trying to adjust the blade on a live buzz saw.

Summary and Application

Let's end with this summary and application: With the possible exception of very extreme, life-threatening situations, lying is part of the corrupt old nature. It is caused by desires that come from the deceit of Satan about what is truly desirable. And therefore it should be stripped off with the old nature in ALL our relationships. But especially in the church!

Let every vestige of the deceitful old nature be put away! In the church, let's not have any lying to each other, or hypocrisy, or duplicity, or deception, or varnishing the truth, or evasiveness, or equivocation. Let's not be like that at Bethlehem!

But instead let's be candid with each other, and straightforward, and plain, and frank, and open, and real, and unaffected, and accurate, and truthful, and honest. Let's walk in the light as he is in the light. In every board and committee meeting and every business meeting let's be open and above-board and straight-out in our dealings, and especially in our leadership.

I have tried my best in my six years here to set an example of honest and up-front and straight-forward and candid leadership in my involvement with the staff and the Council of Deacons and in all our meetings and in the weekly newsletter. To my knowledge I have never had an agenda that I have hidden from the Council of Deacons, nor ever come to a congregational meeting of this church without the readiness and commitment to answer every question asked with honesty and fullness to the best of my ability. And I believe that by and large this is the spirit of our church. And I pray that this will increase and grow.

Be renewed in the spirit of your mind by trusting in the promises of God and by remembering the body of Christ. And let us put away all falsehood, speaking truth to our neighbor, for we are members one of another. This is our new nature, the creation of God in true righteousness and holiness. Perhaps the children of the world will see and come to glorify our Father in heaven. Amen.

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