Balancing Truth and Love
August 24, 1997
“Affiliation with the enemies of the Cross spells a lie to all claims to believe the truth.”
This little letter contains one of the strongest warnings in the New Testament. If a false teacher comes to your house, do not receive him (that means, do nothing that appears to give him public or private support), and do not greet him (that means, do nothing that will identify you with him or his false teaching). Verse 11 gives us God’s opinion on the matter: If you do receive and greet such a person, you share in his evil deeds.
These are exceedingly strong words and one can wonder why John should feel impressed to write so bluntly. I think I know the answer. The longer we condone error, the easier it is to compromise. Little by little we become conditioned to moral decline and intellectual apostasy until it no longer seems so wrong to us.
What we do not oppose, we tolerate.
What we tolerate, we accept.
What we accept, we praise.
What we praise, we practice.
This is what the “Apostle of Love” fears—that by not vigorously opposing evil, believers will end up practicing the very thing they say they presently reject. It may not happen overnight—and rarely does, and in fact the process of spiritual decline may take it course over the years, the decades and the generations, but in the end the bills come due for not standing for the truth.
Most of us know the famous illustration about the frog in the kettle. Put a frog in a kettle with cold water and the frog will sit contentedly. Now slowly turn up the heat a few degrees at a time. Because the frog’s system has time to adjust, he doesn’t notice the changing temperature. When the water finally reaching a boil, the frog sense danger and tries to jump out, but it’s too late. His legs won’t move anymore.
Something like that happens to us when we coddle evil instead of facing it head on and calling it what it is. When we refuse to oppose that which is wrong, in the end evil doesn’t look so bad.
The Age of Enlightenment Skepticism
Many people struggle with these verses because they seem too strong, too harsh, too unkind. They appear to call for rude treatment of people who disagree with us. Can that be right? Is the apostle urging us to slam the door on false teachers? And if he is, doesn’t that contradict the Law of Love which should guide our conduct.
I admit that these words of John do not sound right in this tolerant age. Several years ago Newsweek magazine called this “the Age of Enlightenment Skepticism.” That simply means that we live in a world that no longer believes in truth. In another day men and women argued passionately about the truth, today we argue or whether truth even exists, and if it does, how can anyone know the truth? We are no longer sure as a culture how to determine right from wrong—or even if we should make the effort. The other term for this is “postmodernism”—which simply means that truth exists in the eye of the beholder—”That’s true for you but not necessarily for me.” Truth becomes an entirely private affair with no implications for society at large.
Against that growing trend we have these solemn words of John. There are many false teachers who themselves are the very spirit of antichrist. They deny the Incarnation—the central truth that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh—and they travel from place to place peddling their spiritual poison. Christians must reject such teachers—to the point of refusing them any sort of personal welcome. If we do welcome them, we are guilty of sharing in their evil deeds.
Strong words indeed. But greatly needed in this day of immense spiritual confusion. At the risk of being called narrow-minded, I wish to say that I agree entirely with the Apostle John. There are times when believers must aggressively oppose and refute false teaching and false teachers. To do less is to traffic with the enemies of the Cross and make a mockery of everything we believe.
I might pose the question this way: Is it ever right to be rude to an unbeliever?
I. Understanding the Background
In order to answer that question let’s begin by considering the background of this little letter. It’s important to know that 2 John was one of the last letters written in the New Testament era. Scholars date it during the period A.D. 85-90. That’s significant because by that time Christianity had spread widely across the Roman Empire. As the faith spread, so too did numerous bizarre offshoots of genuine Christianity. These spiritual counterfeits would proliferate in the early centuries of the Christian era. Here are just a few of those groups: Judaizers … Arians … Modalists… Docetics… . Sabellians … Cerinthians … Nicolaitans …Ebionites. Some were closer to historic Christianity and others much farther removed. It appears that John was concerned about a form of false teaching that came to be known as “gnosticism.” These “gnostics” (the word comes from the Greek word gnosis—”knowledge”) claimed to have secret knowledge beyond that possessed by ordinary Christians. That is, they disdained as pedestrian the doctrines handed down from the apostles and claimed to have received secret revelation that only the initiated could share. Such a thought appealed to many people seeking “deeper knowledge” of God.
Verse 9 seems to suggest that such people had crept into the church because John warns against those who have “run ahead” of the fundamental truth about Jesus Christ. These first-century “progressives” evidently viewed with some disdain those whose faith was built upon the truth handed down from the apostles. “That’s old new. It was good for those days, but we need new truth for a new day.” Sounds beguiling, doesn’t it? After all, who wants to be stuck with “old news” when you can “new truth” by joining an elite group?
John’s concern was for those Christians who might unwittingly welcome such false teachers and even support them as they subverted the work of the church.
It’s also important to realize that the early church practiced hospitality differently than we do. Because they didn’t have hotels and motels like we do, when a traveling teacher came to town, he had to stay with one of the church members. Thus the idea of warning against welcoming false teachers was very practical. John is thinking about something much bigger than how to respond when the Jehovah’s Witnesses knock at your door. He has in view a situation whereby a Christian might give lodging to someone whose ultimate purpose is destructive to true faith. Said another way, John is writing to urge his readers to practice spiritual discrimination. Sometimes love needs to say No. True love makes choices.
What about today? Is this still relevant? Consider the wealth of input we have that was not available 2000 years ago: TV, Radio, magazines, books, CDs, cassettes, and the Internet. Taken together these various sources produce a vast amount of information that bombards us on every hand. Some of it is good, of course, but much of it is decidedly harmful.
We need discernment lest me end up supporting heresy!
There are many today who want …
God but not Jesus
Jesus but not Jesus only
Jesus of their own making
Jesus but not Jesus the Son of God
Buddy …a pal… . a friend … but not the sovereign Lord
Good example but not an Eternal Lord
A multicultural gospel that promises everyone will go to heaven.
Religion but a relationship with Jesus Christ
Gay Rights, abortion, and radical feminism in the church
And end to dogma and strong Bible doctrine
To bring non-Christian religions to a level equal with Christianity
To do away with sin, judgment, and eternal hell
Do it yourself Christianity but not the Christianity of the Bible
We must be aware of these tendencies and we must actively oppose those who promote them.
II. Staying in Balance
Lest all of this sounds sound too negative, consider how perfectly John balances the first few verses of his letter:
The elder, to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only—but also all who know the truth—because of the truth, which lives in us and will be in us forever: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love. It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (vv. 1-6)
He mentions “truth” five times in the first four verses. To John’s readers, the “truth” was the teaching handed down to them from the apostles. To us, it is the Word of God written and revealed in the Bible. To know the Bible is to know the truth. To obey the Bible is to obey the truth.
Then John mentions “love” five times in six verses. What is love? It is caring for others on the basis of the truth. Thus there is perfect balance between those two concepts. We are walk in truth and to live in love—both at the same time.
III. Practical Ramifications
What does this mean for us today? How do we practically apply John’s warning against false teachers and the challenge of balancing truth and love? I’d like to suggest five areas for our consideration.
Loving the Lost
In light of John’s stern warning, what does this say about loving the lost. I suppose it is at this point that John’s words have been most misunderstood. Nothing he writes is meant to forbid having unsaved friends. Not only may be, we should and we must! How else can we win the lost unless we befriend them one by one? Remember, Jesus was call a “friend of sinners.” He loved the lost and felt right at home with them. He hung out with drunkards and spent time with gluttons, fallen women felt comfortable in his presence. He also welcomed proud Pharisees and curious soldiers into his presence. He came to seek and to save that which was lost—and so must we as his people earnestly seek to save the lost around us.
Celebration Sunday is coming up in just three weeks. On that day our entire congregation will meet at the Oak Park-River Forest High School in a celebration of our unity in Christ. We’ve asked each Calvary member and regular attender to bring someone with you on that—preferably someone who does not know Jesus Christ. Who will you invite to come with you? This week a good friend said to me: “I don’t know many lost people.” He wasn’t making an excuse in the least, but simply stating a fact. May I say that many of us have cut ourselves off from the lost all around us and for that reason have trouble finding someone to invite on Celebration Sunday. That’s not a compliment or anything to brag about.
You can hardly win the lost if you don’t know the lost. You can’t reach a person with whom you have no contact. Jesus met Nicodemus at night and the woman at the well in broad daylight. He made them feel welcome in his midst.
Therefore, I conclude that nothing in John’s warning is meant to dissuade us from doing the work of evangelism—including loving lost people one by one.
Preaching the Gospel
This warning does say something about the importance of preaching the gospel. Recently I read a note from a friend that said something to the effect that correct doctrine is not that important. A more foolish statement could hardly be imagined—especially as it respects the gospel message. We must preach the gospel with all our might because it—and it alone—is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). God only has one plan of salvation—the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no other plan for mankind. It’s the gospel or nothing at all.
Therefore, I say to you—Never be ashamed of the gospel. Never be ashamed to stand up for Jesus. Never be ashamed to own his name and to confess your allegiance to him. The workers of iniquity aren’t ashamed of their sin? Why should we be ashamed of our Savior?
This week the American Psychological Association came out against “reparative therapy”—treatment for homosexuals who wish to change their sexual orientation. The APA has long since bowed to the Gay lobby and taken homosexuality off the list of mental illnesses. Now they wish to censure any therapist—Christian or secular—who dares to offer homosexuals the hope of lasting change.
But Christians have known since the beginning that homosexuals can change. So can adulterers. And abusers. And murderers. And rapists. And swindlers. And sinners of every variety. By the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ the chains of sin can be broken and men and women set free to serve God in purity.
We have the message that can change the world. Some of us have been silent while false teachers and moral reprobates have held center stage too long. We have turned away while the purveyors of poison have grabbed the microphone.
No more! It is time for God’s children to come of the closet preaching the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Welcoming all God’s Children
John’s warning also says something to us about how we should regard the true children of God. It’s possible that some would read his words and think that he is warning against other believers with whom we have various doctrinal disagreements. But that is a complete misreading of the text.
This is a warning against unsaved false teachers, not against other Christians. We are to welcome other believers with whom we have some lesser disagreements. Romans 14:1 says, “Accept him who is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” That means we aren’t to split hairs with believers who may see things different than we do. Inside God’s family there are so many intramural debates: Arminianism vs. Calvinism, covenant theology vs. Dispensationalism, congregational government vs. Presbyterianism, contemporary vs. traditional worship, baptism by sprinkling, pouring or immersion. Will Jesus come before, during or after the tribulation? And on and on the list goes.
I’m not suggesting these debates aren’t important or that churches should have well-defined views or that we should just say Anything Goes when it comes to what we teach in our Sunday School classes. That would only lead to chaos. However, I’m saying (and the Apostle John is saying) that there is a huge difference between disagreeing over the timing of the Rapture and denying that Jesus is the Son of God.
Over the years God has opened my eyes to see how big and vast his family is. At this very moment he has his children spread in every country, in every culture, on every continent, praising him in a thousand different languages. It’s easy to be provincial and to see everything through the eyes of our own local congregation and to judge the world from Calvary Memorial Church. God doesn’t do that. He loves all his blood-bought children … and so should we.
Rejecting all False Doctrine
John’s warning certainly teaches us something important about rejecting all false doctrine. If you’d like to do an interesting Bible study, I suggest that you study what the New Testament has to say about false doctrine. You’ll be surprised, I think, because warnings against false doctrine start in Matthew, end in Revelation, and may be found in virtually every book in between. It is truly a major theme of the New Testament.
This week I did a brief survey of how we are to respond to false teachers. Here is what I found. We are to …
1. Guard against them—Acts 20:31
2. Have no fellowship with them—Ephesians 5:11
3. Avoid them—Romans 16:17
4. Reject them—Titus 3:10
5. Refute them—Titus 1:9
6. Refuse them—2 John 7-11
One question might be raised at this point. How can we reach an unsaved person if we must reject him outright? That’s a good question. Here’s the answer. These warnings are directly at false teachers, not confused people. Most of the unsaved people around us could hardly be called “false teachers.” The vast majority (well over 90%, I would say) are so confused that they hardly know what they believe, much less are able to share it with anyone else. John isn’t warning us about spending time with confused people. Not at all. But he is warning us against spending too much time with those people who have given themselves over to the promotion of false doctrine and/or moral evil. When we find such a person, we are not to support him in any way. Let me make that stronger. We are not to support, encourage, or in any other way encourage those who teach, spread, or promote falsehood or moral evil.
The application of that truth is simple: We have to live in a fallen world, but don’t have to support things we know are wrong.
But in case I am being misunderstood, let me offer a few clarifying statements. John says we are not to “welcome” or “receive” or “greet” false teachers. In practical terms, what does this mean?
One thing to…. Another thing to …
Talk to someone at your door Invite them in for a Bible study
Watch someone on TV Send him your money
Buy a Hindu book to read Give it to a friend
Meet once with a New Age mystic Meet every week
Be a friend Be a supporter
Ask curious questions Take lessons in reincarnation from Shirley
Talk to a loved one who is confused Give an audience to a Mormon missionary
Share your faith Encourage a false teacher to share his faith
Study world religions Go to India to study with a guru
Welcome foreign students Let them use your home as a teaching forum
for spreading their religion to others
Speak at a World Religion Convocation Participate in a Buddhist prayer service
Be a friend to a homosexual Be silent when you ought to speak the truth
about their sinful lifestyle
It would be fairly easy to add several dozen more illustrations, but the general point should be clear. John isn’t warning us against normal social intercourse, intellectual curiosity, or being exposed to differing points of view. These things we will all do at various times and in various ways. But there is a vast gulf forever fixed between intellectual curiosity and personal support of that which is wrong. The first is morally defensible, the second is not.
Willing to be Misunderstood, if necessary
Finally, this warning reminds us that we must be willing to be misunderstood, if necessary, for the same of the truth. I realize that this is not a popular message these day when so many people doubt the very existence of truth. John demands that we draw a line between and error when many people think they are basically the same thing. In some situations, this may mean refusing an invitation or even breaking a relationship for the sake of the gospel—which is easier to say than it is to do.
While reading John Stott’s commentary on 2 John, I came upon a statement that struck me greatly. He noted the difficulty many people have with the concept of refusing to welcome false teachers—and the many excuses people offer for not obeying this command. In the end, however, he commented that if this teaching seems hard to us, perhaps it is because we don’t care as much about the truth as John does.
A Spot on Your X-Ray
Suppose that at when you go for your annual checkup, the doctor finds a suspicious spot on your x-ray. After studying it, he tells you that he thinks it is cancer. Now the question becomes, What do you want your doctor to do? What if he says, “Leave it alone. After all, you’ve got lots of other good tissue with no spots?” Will that answer satisfy you? I doubt it. What if he suggests ignoring it in hopes it will disappear? If you’re like most people, you’ll be justifiably unhappy with your physician.
Let me put it this way. If your doctor knows you have cancer, and if he knows something needs to be done, and if he knows what could be done but doesn’t care enough to do it, he’s guilty of malpractice. He’s not your friend. When you’ve got cancer, you need a doctor who cares enough to tell the truth and then has the courage to take action.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. There is such a thing as spiritual cancer.
–Begins small and insidiously grows.
–Starts with doubts about the Bible, about creation, about heaven or hell.
–Questions the moral teachings of the Bible.
–Doubts that Jesus is really the only way to heaven.
–Suggests that there are many equally good ways to God.
–Wear down the ‘sharp edges” of the Christian faith.
–Wants to be progressive, accepted, with it, on the cutting edge.
–Desires worldly acceptance.
–Promises freedom but always leads to slavery and death.
The Bible tells us two important facts people who say such things:
1. They are the very spirit of antichrist (2 John 7)
2. They come from “among” us—our friends, family, loved ones, respected teachers, favorite authors, sports figures, celebrities. (Acts 20:30)
That is why over and over the New Testament warns us to “Be on your guard.”
Do not say, “God bless you” to such people.
Do not welcome them in your home.
Do not support their teaching.’
Do not say, “I know you mean well.”
Do not wish them good luck.
Do not encourage them in any way whatsoever.
Jesus, the Friend of Sinners
Let me wrap up this message by bringing before the one and only Person who ever perfectly followed this teaching. His name is Jesus Christ.
He loved sinners and felt comfortable around them. He routinely went places and spent time with people in ways that I personally wouldn’t care to do. (That statement tells you nothing important about Jesus, but it does say something about me. I confess that I fall far short of his compassion for the lost.) He welcomed everyone and turned no one away. He encouraged every genuine seeker who crossed his path. And he answered every question—the good and the bad, the honest and the insincere. But that same Jesus also rebuked the Pharisees, cleared out the temple courtyard with a whip, and repeatedly spoke hard truth to powerful people without the slightest regard for his own safety.
What was he like? John 1:14 tells us that he was “Full of grace and truth.” What a wonderful phrase that is. He was perfectly balanced at all times between truth and love.
We face the same challenge today: To balance truth and love in all our relationships. We are to know the truth and to walk in love—all the time.
–If we emphasize only the truth, we risk becoming hard and meanspirited. That will only alienate other believers and turn away the lost from Christ.
–If we emphasize only love, we risk become soft and sentimental. That soon leads us to compromise the gospel, excuse sin, and welcome evildoers.
Somehow—though it isn’t easy—we must speak the truth in love. Which brings me back to the question I raised earlier: Is it ever right to be rude to an unbeliever? The answer is yes and no. No, if by that you mean being discourteous, unkind and unwilling to listen. But yes, we may sometimes need to act in ways that seem rude when we simply are attempting to obey God’s Word about false teachers.
Some Questions to Ask
As a practical way of applying this message, here are some questions we ought to ask ourselves:
1. Do I really believe the gospel of Jesus Christ?
2. In what areas of my life am I guilty of supporting that which I know is wrong?
3. Have I been silent about evil when I should have been outspoken for the truth?
4. Have I been slowly lowering my standards of right and wrong in order to maintain friendships or to gain some personal advantage?
5. Have I been dabbling in falsehood when I really need to speak up for the truth?
6. Is there a relationship in my life that needs to be broken because it is dragging me down spiritually?
7. If my friends at church could see me during the week, would they be embarrassed by the things I do and say? Would Jesus be embarrassed?
Not easy questions, but ones we need to ask.
Love must have limits. We must love people but we must not thereby tolerate false doctrine or condone moral evil. To use a familiar phrase, we must love the sinner while hating the sin. Sometimes we may appear to love the sinner too much and sometimes we may appear to hate the sin too much. Both will be necessary if we are stand for Christ and win the lost in this evil day.
Perhaps in our tolerance we have become indifferent to truth. When it comes to eternal issues, there is no room for neutrality.