The truth in love: A key principle for church growth (Ephesians 4:14-15)

Slogans are catchy. Slogans crystallise our thoughts and capture our imaginations. That’s why they’re so useful for selling ideas. “Just Do It” inspires you to get out there and get active, preferably wearing a certain brand of sporting gear. “I’m lovin’ it” inspires you to get in there and feed the tasty fast food into your system so you can experience the sugar rush. Christians use slogans, too. “Jesus is Lord” is Paul’s brilliantly concise summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “What would Jesus do?” was a popular 1990s catch-cry designed to inspire people to imitate Christ. Sometimes, Christian slogans use old languages. The old language gives the slogan weight because it connects us with the great figures of former generations. Take, for example, the Latin slogan semper reformanda.[1] It was probably first introduced by seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed preacher Jodocus van Lodenstein. Semper reformanda is often translated “always reforming”, and explained this way: because the church will never be perfect this side of eternity, it always needs to reform itself in each new generation. So semper reformanda is used as a call to remember that the reformation is never over, and to keep up the reformation effort always.

The problem with slogans in old languages, however, is that they can be mistranslated, misconstrued and misapplied. Semper reformanda is a prime example. “Always reforming” is, in fact, both a mistranslation and a shortening of the original Latin slogan. The complete phrase is: ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei: “the church reformed and always being reformed in accordance with the word of God.” Certainly, those who first used the slogan believed that the church is always in need of reform. But they didn’t express it as “always reforming”. Why? Firstly, because they didn’t see the church as doing the reforming; they saw it as “being reformed” by God through his Spirit. Secondly, they realised there was a vital principle that must guide all reformation: “the word of God”. If we translate it as “always reforming”, the slogan might be taken to mean that it’s our job to re-form our ministry or our ideas about God for each new generation based on the needs of the hour. But those who first used the slogan were saying the opposite. They were trying to say that the unchanging word of God needs to constantly reform us. And they were thinking particularly about the need to grow in holiness and piety: to bring the daily lives of Christians into line with the truth of the gospel.

Understood according to its original intention, this slogan semper reformanda captures many of the important ideas in this passage in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Here in Ephesians 4:14–15 Paul is talking about the growth of the “body of Christ” (which earlier in his letter he described as the “church”). He’s giving a key principle for how this growth happens. When we think about principles for church growth today, we often have in mind things like how we must reform our structures or update our language and presentation of the gospel for the needs of the current generation. While we do need to think carefully about these things, they’re not what Paul is talking about here. Paul’s principle for the growth of the body of Christ here is something far more fundamental. It’s not a principle of presentation or organisation or structural reform. Rather, it’s a principle for us, and for our hearts and lives. It’s a principle for what we say to one another, and how we treat one another. This principle involves God’s word—the gospel of Jesus Christ—reforming us as we speak and live in light of that gospel. And the phrase Paul uses here to express this principle is “speaking the truth in love”.

” This is Christ’s purpose: that we might no longer be infants, sea-tossed and carried around by every wind of teaching by human trickery, by craftiness in lying schemes; but rather, speaking the truth in love, we might grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ.” Ephesians 4:14–15

Lying schemes

Before Paul gets on to talking about “speaking the truth in love”, he describes its opposite. Paul’s language here is a roller-coaster ride of various images: you need to hold on tight as you read it! In the previous verses, Paul has been speaking about the goal for Christ’s body (i.e. Christ’s people). This is a body united in faith and knowledge of the Son of God, which makes it a “grown up” and mature body. But that goal is not necessarily the situation for Christ’s body now. The opposite of maturity is being infantile. So here, Paul describes what an immature body looks like: instead of being united in faith and knowledge as one mature adult, it’s like a bunch of babies. Paul then shifts the images and describes what being infantile in faith looks like in another way: it means being tossed around by wild seas, and being blown around by wild winds. The point is that if we’re not united and mature in our faith and knowledge of Jesus, then we won’t have a firm anchor that will keep us secure, rooted, stable and well-founded when the raging waves and storms come. What are the storms Paul is talking about? Well, he finally finishes up his wild mix of word-images and tells us what the storms are: false teaching. There’s poetry here, isn’t there? Paul’s rapid storm of words reflects the disastrous effects of false teaching, bewildering us and blowing us here and there.

The teaching Paul is talking about here can be called “false” for two reasons. Firstly, it’s false because it doesn’t reflect the truth: the “faith and the knowledge of the Son of God” (see back in verse 13). False teaching is teaching that’s not centred on the truth of Jesus Christ: who he is, what he’s done, and what that means for us as we believe in him. False teaching distracts us from, or contradicts, the truth about Jesus, and so it tosses us and blows us around here and there. Secondly, false teaching comes from false motives: “human trickery,” and “craftiness in lying schemes”. False teachers have false intentions, whether they admit it or not. They’re not seeking to draw us to Jesus Christ, but to catch us up in some other, human concern of their own making. This, according to Paul, is what the immature body of Christ looks like: not firmly rooted in the truth of God, and so unstable and blown around by human ideas.

Speaking the truth

Then, after describing false teaching, Paul goes on to describe the members of Christ’s body “speaking the truth”. What is the truth? It’s not just referring to true things in general. In this letter, when Paul mentions “truth”, he’s talking about a specific truth. Early in Ephesians, Paul talks about the “word of truth, the gospel” (Ephesians 1:13). The gospel is the message about salvation for all those who believe in Jesus. Ephesians 2:1–10 spells this out further. The gospel is about being rescued from the futile life of this world, from our sins, from God’s wrath, from the control of the powers-that-be. We’ve been forgiven through Jesus Christ’s death for us. We’ve also been given a new life, which is secure, because we’re with the risen and victorious Jesus Christ. And we’ve been given a whole new life to live, to honour God, to walk and talk in new ways. So in Ephesians, “truth” means the gospel message and its implications for our lives (see also Ephesians 4:21245:96:14).

In the original language of Ephesians 4:15, the phrase “speaking the truth in love” is literally “truthing in love”. Of course, ‘truthing’ isn’t an actual English word. But it helps us to see what Paul is getting at here. He’s not just telling us that we should ‘say true things’ in general. Rather, he’s saying that we should be speaking in a way that is constantly informed by the key truth that matters: the gospel. ‘Truthing’ involves speaking this truth: speaking the gospel, speaking about the implications of the gospel, speaking in a gospel-shaped way. This of course will involve saying true things. It will also involve saying challenging things. But it means so much more. It means speech that flows from the gospel.

In love

But Paul isn’t simply saying here that we are to speak the truth, full stop. Rather, we are to speak the truth “in love”. What does “in love” mean? It’s not just an attitude, and it’s not just referring to acting in a charitable way. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, there is a particular, and amazing, kind of love in view: God’s love. God’s love undergirds his eternal plans for us (Ephesians 1:4–5)God’s love stands behind his mercy in rescuing us and raising us with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–6). Christ himself loved us when he sacrificed himself for us, dying for our sins (Ephesians 5:2). This love of Christ should change everything about our lives. When we grasp how vast this love is, it provides an anchor and grounding for our lives (Ephesians 3:17–19). Love should characterise our lives as God’s children (Ephesians 5:1). Knowing the love of Christ causes us to live lives of love for others, because we’re secure in his love. And here, Paul is saying that God’s love brings us into a whole new sphere of loving relationships—the body of Christ—where we live out that sacrificial and costly love with others.

So what is “speaking the truth in love”, according to Ephesians 4:15? It doesn’t just mean “saying true things in a charitable way”. It’s about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it’s about relationships. It means speaking the gospel, speaking the implications of the gospel, and speaking in a gospel-shaped way within the whole network of loving relationships characterised by God’s love for us in Jesus. It’s the opposite to being carried away by false teachings which point us away from Jesus. Instead of false teaching, we’re to build one another up with the truth of the gospel.

Growing up

Speaking the truth in love, then, is a key principle for church growth. It’s not a simple recipe or a sure-fire easy-to-follow ten-step-plan. It’s something more fundamental: a core principle that undergirds everything else.

“Speaking the truth in love” is a package deal. It’s not talking about two different competing principles. It’s not as if you can have gospel “truth” on the one hand and gospel “love” on the other hand. You can’t weigh them up against each other or try to “balance” them. You can’t say things like, “we’ve had enough truth, now it’s time for a bit more love” (or vice-versa). It just doesn’t work that way. Truth and love go together. Gospel truth is to be spoken in loving relationships formed by the gospel of God’s love for us. So gospel truth without gospel love is a mockery of the truth, because the gospel is all about God’s immense love for us. And “love” without gospel truth isn’t gospel love. If we think we are “loving” someone by putting aside the truth of the gospel—the truth about God’s love for us through Jesus in saving us from sin and death and raising us with Christ—then we’re not being true, and we’re not being loving either.

Furthermore, “speaking the truth in love” is a package deal for all of us in Christ’s body together. While we all have different gifts and we all play different roles in Christ’s body, “speaking the truth in love” is something for all of us. It’s not as if there’s “truth” people in one part of Christ’s body and “love” people in another part of Christ’s body. Each of us needs to speak the truth to one another (even though we’ll do it in different ways). And each of us needs to love others in Christ’s body (even though we’ll do it in different ways). That’s why a Christian who doesn’t think church is important is a contradiction in terms. If you’re not regularly meeting with God’s people, then you don’t have real opportunities to be speaking the truth in love. We need church—because church is the place where we, in a real and concrete way, speak the truth in love to one another. This is how Christ’s body works and grows.

For reflection

In your own situation, what opportunities do you have to “speak the truth” of the gospel? How can you make use of these opportunities more?

In your own situation, what opportunities do you have to respond to God’s love for you by loving others? How can you make use of these opportunities more?

[1] See Peter Tong, ‘Doing Theology in the Digital Culture’, chapter 1 in Women, Sermons, and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2014), available as an ebook.

This article was originally published on Lionel’s website Forget the Channelas part of his series in the book of Ephesians, ‘Lift Your Eyes’. You can subscribe to the whole series and podcast here.