A sermon preached at University Church, Athens, Ga., 7/3/16. To hear the audiofile, go here:
1 John 1:1 The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; and not only I, but also all who love the truth, 2 for the sake of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace and mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, The Son of the Father, in truth and love. 4 I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father. 5 And now I ask you, lady, not as writing to you a new commandment, but the one that we had from the beginning, that we love one another. 6 And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it.
In these opening verses of Second John, the key word that keeps ringing through the salutation (and indeed throughout the epistle) is “truth.” John loves the elect lady (probably she is the church, and her “children” are its members) in truth, with all who love the truth, for the sake of the truth. This is a truth that abides in us and will be with us forever. Jesus is the Son of the Father in truth and love. John is very glad to find some of her children walking in the truth, which is walking in love, which is walking according to the commandments. What does this all mean? What does this tell us about truth and our relationship to it and how we should live in the light of that relationship? We can analyze the implications of John’s statements under three headings: the existence of truth, the nature of truth, and the effects of truth.
- The Existence of Truth.
For truth to abide in us, it must first exist. But today, the very existence of truth is not something we can take for granted. Cynicism about truth is not a new thing. Oliver Wendell Holmes once cynically defined truth as “the majority opinion of that nation that can lick all the other nations.” That cynicism has risen to a fever pitch in the so-called “post-modern” world. We have accepted as a given and even tried to make a virtue of the conditions that George Orwell portrayed as a horrible defeat for our humanity in 1984. The inside of the main character Winston’s head reads now as a chilling prophecy indeed.
At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia. . . . But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. . . . The frightening thing, he reflected for the ten thousandth time, . . . was that it might all be true. If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened, that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”
Winston knows that he knows the truth. “But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated.”
I don’t know if a more chilling line has ever been written. Winston’s grasp on the truth is horribly insecure because he has no other basis for it than the flickering neurons of his own brain. When he dies, when his consciousness is annihilated, then where will the truth be? How will the Party’s lies be combated? They will reign supreme. And it will be as if the other version of things, the one actually corresponding to the way the world was, had never even existed.
This is not just a dilemma faced by fictional characters. When I lived in Atlanta, I used to attend the annual silent march to honor the victims of the abortion holocaust. There would be about three thousand marchers, walking silently through the streets of town to the steps of the Capitol. About fifty or so counter-demonstrators would show up to heckle us. Then I would go home and watch the event on the 6:00 news. No actual lies would be told, but the camera angles and the editing would give the impression that the two groups were about equal in size. Then—equal time for both sides, right?—the paid professional speaker flown in by the Pro-Choice group would be interviewed, and this would be paired with a microphone being stuck into the face of some unprepared housewife from Unadilla. Not an accurate representation of reality at all!
OK, where was the truth about that event once it was over? It was inside the heads of the few thousand people who were there. Where was the falsified, skewed, and manipulated image of the truth? It was in the heads of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who watched it on TV. And how long would the true picture of things be able to remain in those few thousand heads? Only a few more decades at most. But the false, edited images would be archived to be accessed again and again indefinitely. Do you see the problem? If truth exists nowhere but in our own heads, then it is so fragile as to be doomed to extinction. It is really irrelevant. Only the image matters. And if that is true, then everyone can create his own image, and who’s to say which one is better than the others? Might as well accept this situation, says the Post-Modernist, and enjoy the freedom it gives you–for if there is no truth, there can also be no legitimate authority, no universal laws that have any validity beyond what Society grants them, and nobody who can tell you what you can or cannot do. But that way lies madness–and chaos.
It is an exciting thing to realize that the Christian—and the Christian alone—is not left in this precarious position. The Christian is indeed the only person who does not face this intractable dilemma. For he can believe that even when his own mind is asleep, even if his own mind is deceived, even if his own mind becomes demented, even if his own mind is dead, truth cannot be lost. Why not? Because God sees. God sees, and God remembers–perfectly, accurately, reliably, exhaustively, and forever. And therefore we can believe that truth is more than just the passing opinion of the powerful, more than the majority opinion of that nation that can lick all the other ones, more than just the version of things favored by Big Brother, more than just the lie that is currently being told most loudly and insistently. And that leads us to the next point.
2. The Nature of Truth.
If truth exists, what is it? It is a rich concept in Scripture. I spoke about it from Ephesians a few years ago: “Speaking the Truth,” Ephesians 4:25, June 12, 2011. The source of truth is Christ, the nature of truth is faithfulness, the context of truth is the church, and the practice of truth is faithfulness, not just to the facts, but also to God, to the covenant, and to one’s neighbor as well. More on this later. John here gives us a different but complementary summary, a number of coordinated statements which, taken together, add up to constitute his perspective on the biblical idea of truth. The first epistle of John sets the stage for the statements we are seeing in 2 John, so we will reach back to it as the context for what we are seeing here.
First, truth is that which is so. Its opposite is that which is a lie. We see this usage back in 1 Jn. 1:6 and 8. If we lie, we do not practice the truth. If we say we have no sin, we lie, and the truth is not in us. Why? Because in fact we do have sin. Likewise in 1 Jn. 2:4, the one who claims to know God but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. In these passages truth is a statement or a claim that corresponds to a state of affairs that actually exists; the lie is one that does not. Truth is a property of propositions such that their content conforms to and accurately reflects the way the world actually is.
Second, truth is that which is real. In this sense, its opposite is the false, the counterfeit, the fake. In 1 Jn. 2:8, the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining–that is, the light which is really light, not a false or counterfeit imitation of the light. In 1 Jn. 5:20 the Son Jesus Christ is the true God, i.e., the real God, not a false God. In this sense, truth is an attribute not so much of a statement or proposition as of a thing. It is a thing which is really what it claims to be, not an imitation (cheap or otherwise).
Third, truth is that which is correct or right or straight. The opposite of truth in this sense would be the slanted or the twisted or the erroneous. In 1 Jn. 4:6, John distinguishes the spirit of truth from the spirit of error. Those who are faithful to correct doctrine are true; those who deviate from it are false. You have the truth when you are right; you are in error when you are wrong. But this is more than simply making accurate versus inaccurate statements (as in the first sense, truth as that which is so). There is a moral quality which causes one to adhere to the straight line (the spirit of truth) or to veer off from it (the spirit of error). Ultimately the spirit of truth is the Holy Spirit, who give us the moral discernment and backbone required if we are to adhere to the truth. And both of those two things, moral discernment and backbone, are required if we are to adhere to truth in a fallen world.
Fourth, truth is always something that is practical. You walk in the truth. In this sense, the opposite of truth would be sin, evil, or hypocrisy. John is constantly talking about walking in the truth, doing the truth, practicing the truth (1 Jn. 1:6, 3:18, 2 Jn. 1:4, etc.). Truth in Scripture is never something that can remain abstract. It has to be incarnated, it has to be lived, or it is something less than the truth. And if we do not practice the truth, the alternative is not simply to ignore it. If we do not live it, we will live the lie instead, and our deeds will be evil.
Or, as I summarized it in different words a few years ago speaking of Paul’s concept, truth is faithfulness. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for truth, emeth and aletheia, have faithfulness as their root meaning. But it is not just faithfulness to the facts (truth as what is so). Modernism reduced the rich biblical concept of truth to faithfulness to the facts, and in Post-Modernism we do not even have that! Biblically, truth is more than being faithful to the facts, but it is not less. It is also being faithful to the Father, faithful to the Covenant, and faithful to one’s neighbor. That is, one is only true when one is faithful to the facts in such a way that one is also faithful to God, to the covenant, and to the neighbor—so that gossip, for example, is still false speech (as unfaithful to the neighbor) even if it is factually correct. Paul and John both emphasize a practical view of truth, truth as a path in which we walk.
Finally, and most profoundly, truth in Scripture is personal, in fact, a Person: it is Jesus Christ. In this sense, the opposite of truth is AntiChrist. All these other aspects of truth flow from the powerful dynamic of Christ’s person, the divine Reality that dwells in Him and caused John in his Gospel to call Him the logos (logos), the Word. Truth as statement (that which is so), truth as quality (that which is real), truth as character (that which is straight), truth as action (the practical out-working of all of these): all flow from Christ, all are expressions of the Reality which is Christ reaching into the created world. All are defined by their conformity to His dynamic character. That is why truth can never remain abstract. As John Ciardi put it, “An idea is always something with a skin around it.” A mere abstraction is something less than an expression of harmony with this One whom C. S. Lewis called the ultimate Fact and the Father of all Facthood. Our job is to take Christian truth, Christian doctrine, and put skin around it. And that is why truth can “abide” in us (2 Jn. 1:3). It is also why, when it does abide in us, it transforms our lives. Life eternal is simply life continually renewed and transformed by the abiding and indwelling Person who is the living Truth: Jesus.
3. The Effects of Truth.
Finally we are ready to read 2 Jn. 1:3 with understanding. If truth is ultimately Personal, then for persons to be in relationship with that Person is for them to partake of truth, which manifests itself in every aspect of their lives. Right teaching, right seeing, right walking, right living, and right loving are all the effects of indwelling truth. And because it is the eternal Truth which is God’s Son, not the flickering and ephemeral epiphenomena of our transient minds (or Winston’s from 1984), so therefore the effect is a life that is eternal. But of all these effects, the one John focuses on most is love. Because of the truth which indwells both John and the elect Lady, he loves her. We could paraphrase his statement this way: “For the sake of (on account of, because of) the fact that Truth abides in you and me, I truly love you–and so must anyone else in whom the same Truth abides.”
Do you see what John is saying? For Christianity to be concerned with truth does not mean that its theology should be constituted of dry and dusty facts and boring arguments. Of course there are a number of rather earth-shaking facts that are connected by some rather scintillating and mind-blowing arguments, and to master them requires a certain amount of intellectual effort. But when we expend that effort, we must never forget that it is in pursuit of the abiding Truth which is expressed in God’s love for us and is the basis for our love of the brethren. After all, the truth is that God commended his love to us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Theology must get its facts right, but that is only the beginning. Any theology that does not lead us to repent of our sins and lay down our lives for the brethren is false theology. It is not true, even if it is factually correct. For its job is simply to make explicit in all its implications the living and indwelling Truth that laid down its life for us and was raised from the dead to abide in us forever through faith. Good theology is theology that fosters indwelling truth, and indwelling truth shows itself in right doctrine, yes, but not just in that. Indwelling truth shows itself in outworking love. That will be our topic next week.
There is then an intimate and unbreakable connection between Truth and Love, because the God of Truth is also the God who is Love. Where there is no truth, there can be no true love. Where there is no love, there can be no abiding truth. Truth without love is truth distorted; it is ultimately deceptive. And love without truth is love perverted; it is ultimately destructive. This is so even when the truth is factually correct and the love emotionally sincere. But true love and loving truth all come together in the Person of Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Therefore, he who has the Son has life, and he who has not the Son has not life–because there is no truth in him. Let us therefore examine ourselves, whether we be in the Faith. And if we are, let us express our unity in truth and love by walking in the truth together. Let us be separately individuals and together a church that is known by indwelling truth and outworking love. Amen.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America with many years of pastoral experience, he has spent several summers training local pastors in East Africa and India for Church Planting International. His most recent books include Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006); Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (Chalice, 2007); The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008); Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays Toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012). His latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis will be released by Square Halo Books in September, 2016, Material on literature, theology, the inklings, and apologetics can be found at his website, http://donaldtwilliams.com. He blogs at www.lanternhollowpress.com and www.thefivepilgrims.com.