Speaking Truth in Love

Or Why I Prefer Ephesians 4:15 over Romans 15:14

Romans 15:14 (NASB95) And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.

This verse has been foundational to biblical counseling ever since Jay Adams was instrumental in restoring counseling to the church. It has been important for several reasons. One was its emphasis on laypeople [1]Paul is addressing the average Christian in the passage, not pastors or other professional ministers. being able to admonish or instruct each other. Jay Adams taught from this verse that counseling was not the domain of a professional class. The average church member should be able to take God’s Word and counsel other believers from it.

A second reason for its importance is based on the actual word translated, admonish, in the verse (νουθετέω). Early on it was called Nouthetic Counseling [2]Jay Adams was less than enthusiastic about it being called this, but he felt that since every counseling system eventually is named, he would like to name it rather than letting its detractors name … Continue reading because of this Greek word in Romans 15:14. It’s a wonderful Greek word, but it tends to communicate a sterile, firm, confrontational expression of biblical truth.  

νουθετεῖν, however, describes an effect on the will and disposition, and it presupposes an opposition which has to be overcome. It seeks to correct the mind, to put right what is wrong, to improve the spiritual attitude. …It does not mean “to punish,” but through the word to cause the appeal to the moral consciousness to gain a hold over men and bring them to repentance and shame, so that punishment is superfluous.[3]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vols. 5-9 Edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 Compiled by Ronald Pitkin. Edited by Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, Vol. … Continue reading

There are other Greek words that could have been used to communicate a more nuanced definition of biblical counseling. For example, parakaleo (παρακαλέω) means coming alongside someone, to encourage or comfort. It could be symbolized as teammates comforting each other after a loss where noutheteo might be pictured as a coach “admonishing” the quarterback after an interception.

This verse has had an outsized impact in the biblical counseling movement for good reasons. Even today the Biblical Counseling Coalition’s podcast is called 15:14 because of the significance of this verse. I like Romans 15:14, and have pointed many to it over the years.

However, I think another verse has all of the benefits and more of Romans 15:14; therefore, I think it better explains biblical counseling.

Ephesians 4:15 (ESV) Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

This verse occurs in a context where the Apostle Paul is describing how the church functions. In verse 11 we find that God gave gifted people to the church—they are spiritual gifts, but Paul relates them as gifted people, not just gifts. Then in verse 12 we learn that the immediate purpose of giving gifted people that minister the Word to the church is so the saints are equipped for the work of the ministry.

Then we’re taught at the end of verse 12 through verses 14 and 16 that the church is built up and protected from error by these gifted people and us exercising our spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church. The entire point of verses 11-16 is how the church is built.

In that context we’re taught that we should “speak the truth in love.” God’s people grow through proclaiming truth in love. Some think this is more than just speaking truth in love. In fact, one person translated it as “truthing” in love because it’s more than just speech. it’s also conduct.

This combination of truth and love is exquisite, and I think a better foundational verse for biblical counseling. It has the advantage of also being addressed to laypeople. The average Joe Christian is supposed to speak the truth in love and thereby help the church grow.

What happens if we have truth, but no love? We are offputting, harsh, probably unkind. What happens if we have love, but no truth? We are accepting, compassionate, but ineffective. We don’t actually help anyone. Eph 4:15 has all the advantages of Rom 15:14 plus a clear emphasis on communicating truth in a loving way.

Any claim to speak the truth without love is not really speaking the truth. Any claim to love without the truth is not really love. Love is not indifferent to truth.

Growth for you and me means having difficult conversations about spiritual truth because we love people. Any claim otherwise (e.g., I don’t have a personality that can do difficult conversations) is just an excuse for staying immature.

And when truth in love happens we grow. “Grow up in every way” means every way maturity should characterize us.

So what is the biblical counselor doing when counseling? Rightly understood he or she is communicating God’s truth in love. This means we don’t take the edge off of biblical truth, but we do communicate it with compassion, patience, grace, and mercy. We are not disinterested in the person in front of us—their struggles, history, hurts, concerns, weaknesses, and failures. So we point them to Jesus with kindness. That’s “speaking the truth in love.” And that’s what makes Eph 4:15 a great summary of the counseling task.

References

References
1 Paul is addressing the average Christian in the passage, not pastors or other professional ministers.
2 Jay Adams was less than enthusiastic about it being called this, but he felt that since every counseling system eventually is named, he would like to name it rather than letting its detractors name it. Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1970), 52.
3 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vols. 5-9 Edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 Compiled by Ronald Pitkin. Edited by Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, Vol. 4, Page 1018, 1020. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976.
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