What does it mean to speak the truth in love? This phrase comes from Ephesians 4:15, where the apostle Paul writes, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” As with any verse, this phrase is just a small part of a much larger context. If we don’t understand the context, chances are we are not really speaking the truth in love when we use this phrase.
A Fatal Assumption about Truth and Love
When we encourage one another to “speak the truth in love,” we tend to make the assumption that there is a natural tension between truth and love. We assume the truth is a “hard truth,” a word of correction or rebuke, and is juxtaposed with a posture of love. One of the problems with this assumption is that anytime we see two concepts as being in tension with one another, we tend to resolve the tension by emphasizing one over the other.
Some Christians resolve the tension in favor of “truth.” They tell others exactly what they think, unloading their “truth” on them like a cannon blast, but justifying themselves by saying, “I am motivated by love. If I didn’t love them, I wouldn’t tell them how wrong they are.” They see themselves as obeying the “truth in love” principle because they are motivated by love, even if the way they deliver their truth is anything but patient and kind.
On the other hand, there are those who resolve the perceived tension between truth and love by favoring love over truth. They hardly ever offer any sort of correction, because it feels like doing so would not be “in love.” Many Christians are riddled with guilt and anxiety, because they feel they should be correcting others, but don’t know how to do so in a loving way.
Perhaps our biggest problem is not that we are being too “truthful” or too “loving.” The problem is the assumption we have made that there is supposed to be a tension between truth and love at all.
The “Truth” of Ephesians 4
The first three chapters of Ephesians are filled with reminders about what it means to be God’s chosen people in Christ. Paul shares with the church how he prays constantly for their spiritual understanding and comprehension:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.Ephesians 3:14-19
In chapter 4, Paul begins to pivot to practical instruction. He explains that the truth of the Gospel, the truth he has been explaining for the last three chapters, the truth taught by “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11), is the truth that will equip and mature the church.
It is this truth, the truth about God’s grace and our hope in Jesus Christ, that Paul is encouraging the church to be “speaking” (Ephesians 4:15). He is telling the church to always have the message of Jesus on their lips. He is telling them that if they will constantly be speaking this truth to one another, they will be mature, understanding, and impervious to false teaching.
This definition of truth should make perfect sense, because Jesus said he is “the truth” (John 14:6).
The “Love” of Ephesians 4
Once we understand that the “truth” of Ephesians 4 is the truth of the Gospel, it is easy to see that truth and love are not in tension with one another, but are in perfect harmony. Loving one another is exactly how Christians are supposed to live out the truth we proclaim.
It isn’t enough for Christians to simply speak the truth of Jesus’ reign. We must speak this truth while living with, “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3). If we have been transformed by the truth we speak, we must, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Paul’s point is that if we will continue to speak the truth about Christ and live out the love of Christ, then we will “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Christians collectively mature to reflect Christ when the word of Christ dwells in us richly and we selflessly serve one another in love. When the church does this, the church “builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16).
“Speaking the truth in love” means we are to be constantly speaking the Good News of Jesus and living in love. But what does that mean about speaking “hard truths”? Does this mean we don’t correct, admonish, and even rebuke one another? Of course not.
But we do have to stop making “truth” synonymous with “rebuke.” Speaking the truth to one another is not primarily about correcting one another. We speak the truth in love when we do things like:
- participate in a Bible study
- sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs with one another (Ephesians 4:18-21)
- put our arm around a brother or sister and reassure them they are loved by God
There are times when someone’s behavior is “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14) and they need to be corrected by “speaking the truth in love.” But your words are only “the truth” if Jesus is at the heart of them. And your words are only “in love” if they are “good for building up” and “give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
I love you and God loves you,