Ronald H. Hanko is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church, Houston, Texas.
We have seen that the ninth commandment, thought expressed negatively, requires positively that we love the truth, also that this love for the truth is nothing less than the love of God Himself, Who is a God of truth and without iniquity (Deut. 32:4). Every form of deceit and falsehood is, therefore, an act of violence against God and His glory.
The sin explicitly forbidden in the ninth commandment is the sin of “bearing false witness,” what we today would call perjury. This is, however, only the grossest form of sin against God in the whole matter of loving, knowing, and speaking the truth. As with all the other commandments that are prohibitive, the ninth commandment means to forbid all forms of deception, lying, and evil speaking in forbidding the gross sin of lying under oath (perjury).
It is necessary to remember this in order to understand the strong statement of the Belgic Confession, that “all men are liars and more vain than vanity itself” (Art. VII). We see this in the world and in our own lives only when we realize how exceedingly broad the commandment is in its condemnation of sin. But it is also broad in its implied positive requirements. Obviously, the positive calling to speak the truth is something that applies in every area of life and not just in our civic responsibilities. We must, as Scripture teaches, be ofthe truth (John 18:37) and walk in it. (II John 1:4).
The commandment is important, then, first of all in our own personal relationships with God, particularly in prayer, repentance, and the study and reading of His Word. Prayer, for example, is essentially nothing more than truth-speaking. That means in the first place that it must be much more than just presenting our “want lists” to God. It must be before all else a confession of the truth concerning God Himself in His high glory. Thus and only thus does prayer become what Scripture teaches it ought to be, an act of worship. Christian prayer is often very weak at this point, being little more than a kind of information session held for God’s benefit. Speaking God’s truth in prayer means too, that we not only speak the truth about Him in our prayers, but the truth about all other things as He reveals it in His Word. This is crucial for our prayers. It means that even when we come with our own needs, cares, griefs, and troubles, we speak of them to God in harmony with everything that He Himself tells us about them in His Word, not simply as we feel moved to speak of them. In His Word God tells us the truth concerning the importance of our various needs. There He tells us what we must seek first, when we must pray “Thy will be done,” and how we may be certain in our praying that our prayers are truly heard and answered by Him.
Our repentance beautifully illustrates this point. Repentance is not a matter of informing God about our sins. He knows them better than we do. Rather it simply means that we speak God’s truth about our selves and our sins by way of humbling ourselves and showing our contrition. Among other things this means, for example, that we not only confess the actual evil we have done, but include in our confession the truth that all our sins are the result of our depravity, as David does in Psalm 51:5. To say anything less is really finally a denial of our sinfulness, and as John says in I John 1:10, if we in any way deny our sin or sins, we not only deceive ourselves, but make God Himself a liar because His truth is not in us (I John 1:8).
As far as prayer is concerned, then, the Scriptures which alone teach God’s truth (Belgic Confession, Article VII) must be the foundation and source of all our praying and other acts of worship and devotion, especially those that involve our speech. As John Bunyan once said, “It is blasphemy, or at best vain babbling, when the petition is unrelated to the Book.”
As important as this commandment is for our personal life of devotion to God, it is even more important for the fellowship of the church. Since that fellowship is “in the truth” it can be enjoyed by the members of the church only when they learn and practice the speaking of the truth to one another (Eph. 4:15, I John 3:18). And it must be God’s truth that is spoken, both as it concerns Him, and as it concerns the life and members of the Church. The truth must be the substance of our encouraging one another, admonishing one another, and even speaking about one another in the Church. Nothing else can comfort the brethren in their afflictions, whether those be the pains of the body, or the distresses of the soul. Nothing but the truth can restore an erring brother or sister, and only the truth can build up and edify the church.
One matter that needs attention here is that among the sins forbidden by Scripture under the ninth commandment is the sin of backbiting, also called the sin of whispering, tale-bearing, tattling and gossiping. There is perhaps no other sin that is so great a cause of strife, division, and trouble in the life of the church. This sin, Solomon says, adds wood to the fire and coals to burning coals. The end of tale-bearing is the end of strife, therefore, for where there is no wood the fire goes out (Prov. 26:20, 21).
We have the idea that we may say anything at all about others as long as it is true, and forget that the Scriptures solemnly enjoin not only the speaking of the truth, but the speaking of it in love (Eph. 4:15). Without love all our speaking of the truth is only vain jangling, whether we speak it about God or about other persons. The difference between the sins of slander and back-biting lies here. Slander is a matter of telling deliberate falsehood about another to his hurt. The sin of backbiting is the sin of telling to the wrong persons rumors or even the truth about another to his hurt. The only way of love is the way mandated in Scripture inMatthew 18:15-20. These guidelines, laid down by Christ, show how we are to deal with a brother’s faults and weaknesses by covering and hiding them as much as possible for the sake of preserving his place and character among the other members of the church. This is the love that covers a multitude of sins (I Pet. 4:8). It is very easy for us to convince ourselves that we are only interested in the welfare of the church or of a brother, or that we are deeply troubled by certain sins or weaknesses, and so engage in these sins, but the Word of God is very clear on this point. Going only to the brother is the way of love, and if we have not that love we are nothing (I Cor. 13:2). Gossip, rumor-mongering, and tale-bearing are as much sin against the ninth commandment as perjury and lying, because they are without love, always the love of God, even though they may say what is factually true.
This whole matter is also important in controversy. We must follow the rules of decency and good order in dealing with matters of controversy, and not “settle” these matters by whispering and gossip. For the church at large that way of decency and order is the way of protest and appeal and deliberation on the floor of the church, assemblies. All too often such matters are decided before they ever come to the assemblies, and the result is harm and grief in the church.
We must remember what Augustine says in connection with such sins, that the tongue is a terrible instrument of murder, not of flesh and blood, but of reputations and brotherly love. It causes greater wounds, he says, than those of the sword, wounds which no physician can heal. In the same vein James tells us that the fires kindled by the tongue are the fires of hell itself.
Along with such sins as back-biting and gossip must be mentioned the sin of listening to tale bearers. It is no less an evil than the actual tale bearing, and brings if possible even more wood to the fires of strife. As Solomon says, an angry countenance is the only proper answer to a backbiting tongue, because it drives such a tongue away (Prov. 25:23).
Speaking God’s truth is important also in our relationship to the church and world around us. Speaking the truth is the heart of our witness to the world, but it must be the truth which we speak, else our confession is nothing but boasting. That truth must be spoken as a witness, not only in giving an answer for our hope (I Pet. 3:15), but in all the obligations and day-to-day business of life. This is difficult especially in our work because the world operates by lies and deceit, so that the Christian worker or businessman will be at a definite disadvantage in the world. But for God’s sake he must speak and do truth, not only in buying and selling, but in seeking a job, in the problems and difficulties of his work, in the paying of taxes, and in all that belongs to making his daily living.
In the church it must needs be emphasized today that speaking the truth means speaking the whole truth. If is a form of the lie, practiced first by Satan (Gen. 3:1), to tell only part of the truth. Often on the mission field and in evangelism the church does this while priding herself in her faithfulness to the gospel and her commission. Without telling deliberate falsehood, the church can and does lie simply by failing to preach the whole counsel of God, or by covering up and hiding certain doctrines that it deems difficult or obstructive to the progress of the gospel. There are many excuses for this, but the Word of God is clear in the example of Paul (Acts 20:18-27).
These, of course, are only some examples of the positive and negative requirements of the ninth commandment, but they are sufficient to show that these sins infect the church and the people of God. Only the grace of God in the cross of Christ can heal, and for our healing Christ, our Lord, spoke truth even in the agony of His last sufferings. Thus He paid for our lying and deceitfulness, and now His obedience is our example, His Spirit our teacher, His grace our strength and guard against these sins. And so, speaking the truth in love, we not only enjoy the blessed fellowship of saints, make a good confession before the world, and find in prayer the way to God, but grow up in all things into Him Who is the Head (Eph. 4:15).