How do you combine compassionate love with confrontational truth? What’s the secret to “speaking the truth in love”? The apostle John knew. Pastor John MacArthur gives us a glimpse of this remarkable disciple:
“No one likes confrontation. Even those who like to confront others don’t like being confronted themselves. It’s awkward, unpleasant, and nerve-racking. The proud can feel attacked and the humble discouraged. Only self-righteous confronters feel good about it.
That’s why Christians who confront sinners with biblical truth are regularly labelled as unloving. Since the popular notion of love is whatever feels good, confrontation cannot be loving. Too often when churches claim the motto, “Love God, Love People,” what they mean is they go out of their way to avoid making people feel bad about their sin.
Moreover, while the accusation of being unloving is often used by sinners to divert attention away from themselves, the accusation can also have some legitimacy. If we’re honest, we often feel the tension between speaking the truth about sin and being loving. Biblical truth can be presented in a harsh and unloving way. And finding the right balance can be difficult to discern. With this in mind, the apostle John’s life serves as an outstanding biblical example of finding that balance.
John affirmed that love for Christ is authenticated by obedience to Christ (John 14:15–23). He also pointed out that love for fellow Christians is the defining mark of true Christianity (John 13:34–35) and the dividing line between God’s children and Satan’s children (1 John 3:4–10). But John’s theology of love never softened his zeal for truth—it actually brought balance into the life of this Son of Thunder.
John seems to have been committed to truth very early in life. From the beginning we see him as a spiritually aware man who sought to know and follow the truth. When we first encounter John (John 1:35–37), both he and Andrew are disciples of John the Baptist. But like Andrew, John without hesitation began following Jesus as soon as John the Baptist singled Him out as the true Messiah.
John’s love of truth is evident in all his writings. He uses the Greek word for truth twenty-five times in his gospel and twenty more times in his epistles. He wrote, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in truth” (3 John 4). His strongest epithet for someone who claimed to be a believer while walking in darkness was to describe the person as “a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). No one in all of Scripture, except the Lord Himself, had more to say extolling the very concept of truth.
But sometimes in his younger years, John’s zeal for truth was lacking in love and compassion for people. He needed to learn the balance. The incident in Mark 9:38 where John forbade a man to cast out demons in Jesus’ name is a good illustration of this. That is a rare glimpse of John without James and without Peter, speaking for himself. John’s lack of compassion was also evident in his request (along with his brother, James) for permission from Jesus to call down fire on a Samaritan village that rejected Christ (Luke 9:54). On both occasions, John showed a lack of love—for both believers and unbelievers respectively.
Peter, James, and John’s private viewing of Christ’s glorious transfiguration on the mountaintop seems to have fuelled a simmering rivalry among them that also brought out John’s lack of love. When they subsequently arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:33). Jesus did not ask because He needed the information; He was looking for a confession. He knew exactly what they were talking about.
But they were embarrassed. So “they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). They realized they were wrong to debate these things. Their own consciences obviously were smiting them. That is why they couldn’t bear to admit what all the fuss was about.
Of course, Jesus knew. And He seized the opportunity to teach them once again: “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). It was a lesson about love. “Love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). Love is manifested in service to one another, not by lording it over each other.
The kingdom needs men who have courage, ambition, drive, passion, boldness, and a zeal for the truth. John certainly had all of those things. But to reach his full potential, he needed to balance those things with love. I think this episode was a critical rebuke that started to move him toward becoming the apostle of love he ultimately became.
John was always committed to truth but that was not enough. Zeal for the truth must be balanced by love for people. Truth without love has no decency; it’s just brutality. On the other hand, love without truth has no character; it’s just hypocrisy.
Many people are just as imbalanced as John was, only in the other direction. They place too much emphasis on the love side of the fulcrum. Some are merely ignorant; others are deceived; still others simply do not care about what is true. In each case, truth is missing, and all they are left with is error, clothed in a shallow, tolerant sentimentality. It is a poor substitute for genuine love. They talk a lot about love and tolerance, but they utterly lack any concern for the truth. Therefore even the “love” they speak of is a tainted love. Real love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).
On the other hand, there are many who have all their theological ducks in a row and know their doctrine but are unloving and self-exalting. They are left with truth as cold facts, stifling and unattractive. Their lack of love cripples the power of the truth they profess to revere.
The truly godly person must cultivate both virtues in equal proportions. If you could wish for anything in your sanctification, wish for that. If you pursue anything in the spiritual realm, pursue a perfect balance of truth and love. Know the truth, and uphold it in love.
In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul describes this balance of truth and love as the very pinnacle of spiritual maturity. He writes of “the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). He is speaking about full maturity, perfect Christlikeness. This is how he epitomizes the goal for which we ought to strive: “[That] speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). This is what it means to share Christ’s likeness. He is the perfect expression of truth and the perfect expression of love. He is our model.
As a mature apostle, John learned the lesson well. His brief second epistle offers vivid proof of how well he balanced the twin virtues of truth and love. Throughout that epistle, John repeatedly couples the concepts of love and truth. He writes, “To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth” (2 John 1). He says, “I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth” (2 John 4), and then he spends the first half of the epistle urging them to walk in love as well. He reminds them of the New Commandment, which of course is not really new, but simply restates the commandment we have heard from the beginning: “that we love one another” (2 John 5).
But John balances that emphasis on love in the second half of the epistle by urging this woman not to compromise her love by receiving and blessing false teachers who undermine the truth. Genuine love is not some saccharine sentiment that disregards the truth and tolerates everything:
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (2 John 7–11)
John is no longer calling down fire from heaven against the enemies of truth, but he cautions this lady not to go to the other extreme, either. She is not to open her home or even bestow a verbal blessing on people who make a living twisting and opposing the truth.
Love and truth must be maintained in perfect balance. Truth is never to be abandoned in the name of love. But love is not to be deposed in the name of truth. That is what John learned from Christ, and it gave him the balance he so desperately needed.”