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.


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.

3 Encouraging Metaphors of Belongingness

We like to be included, don’t we? In the ’80s there was sitcom called Cheers about a Boston Pub and the characters that regularly came or worked there. Do you remember the song? One line was “You want to go where everybody knows your name.” It was a place you belonged. Granted, a bar is really a terrible place to find this sense of belongingness, but that was their pitch.

Have you ever put something together and had extra bolts? Everything works but you have extra pieces. Have you ever felt like that extra piece? Maybe in some groups you feel like an extra bolt. You don’t think you belong. When I don’t feel like I belong, it’s God’s grace that makes me think of others and not just myself—to stay and please Christ by loving others. It’s hard to feel like an extra part. We shouldn’t give in to that feeling at church because we really do belong.

Our kids are going to be home for Christmas—we’ll see all of them even though we will only be all together for one day. This is a big deal because we have one child in each of the four time zones of the lower 48 states which makes it difficult to get together often. God has been gracious to us, and our family loves being with each other. If your family is close, you have a good start to understanding the three metaphors of belongingness or the three metaphors of inclusion that the Apostle Paul uses to describe the church in Eph 2. They really are remarkable.

You Are Citizens in Christ’s Kingdom (2:19a)

Ephesians 2:19 (ESV) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

Paul is using the metaphor of national identity. Specifically here it’s being part of Christ’s kingdom, but it’s a national identity. Our political battles about illegal immigration give us some insight into how Paul is describing us. We’re aware that we have people in our nation that don’t have the full rights of citizenship. Because they’re very concerned about being deported, they are susceptible to being oppressed. They don’t want to draw any attention to themselves, so they won’t contact the police. They feel they don’t quite belong.

In a previous ministry we knew a Canadian woman married to an American man, and she told us that she was always exceptionally careful to follow all traffic laws. In my naivete I didn’t think she could be tossed out of the U.S., but she said she could, and for any reason whatsoever. And this could happen even though she was married with children.

Paul is telling us that we’re no longer illegal immigrants in someone else’s nation. We belong. We’re full members of Christ’s kingdom, not second-rate citizens. There aren’t two classes of residents in Christ’s kingdom: Jews and Gentiles. No, out of the two Christ made one new humanity (2:15).

To use the language of the text, we are fellow citizens—a word only used here in the New Testament. You’re not homeless anymore. You’re not stateless anymore. You belong to Christ’s kingdom. Now you are fellow citizens (Phil 3:20) with people of every race and tongue—saints who have trusted God. You belong. You have an identity in Christ’s kingdom.

You Are Members of God’s Household (2:19b)

Ephesians 2:19b (ESV) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, …and members of the household of God,

Family is a great metaphor because it speaks of intimacy. It’s possible to be a citizen of a nation and be alone. Yes you have security; you don’t get kicked out of a nation. You’re always a citizen and that brings rights and privileges that cannot be abridged. But it doesn’t bring closeness necessarily. It doesn’t bring intimacy. For that we have the metaphor of God’s household—His family.

Being part of a family means knowing you always belong.

When my kids were younger we celebrated many birthday parties at our house. One particular time we were planning it with the child and one of her siblings wondered if he were invited to the birthday party too. The answer was “Of course. You’re part of the family.” Family members don’t need an invitation; of course they can come to the party.

When you go on vacation, you don’t have to tell each kid individually that they are invited on the family vacation. Family doesn’t have to invite immediate family members to Christmas either. They know they are welcome.

That’s the picture of God’s household. You belong. You’re part of the family. Family in the best sense of that word is a good word to describe the relationships that we have with each other and with God in the church.

This is a metaphor that doesn’t really work if we’re talking about the universal church. A local church can be a family in all the wonderful senses of that metaphor.

You Are the Structure of Christ’s Growing Temple (2:20-22)

Ephesians 2:20–22 (ESV) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

It’s still a metaphor for the church, but it uses a growing temple as the picture. A temple where the apostles and prophets are the foundation. And the passage goes on to say that Jesus is the Cornerstone—a real person, not His teaching. And saints are the structure—again real people, not our teaching.

What does it mean that Jesus is the Cornerstone of this growing temple? We don’t get the importance of this picture with our modern building methods. Nowadays with an important building, the cornerstone is laid at the building dedication, when construction is completed. It’s normally inscribed with the date, but it’s not really important to the construction of the building. It signifies the end of construction.

However, in the first century and before, the cornerstone was the very first stone laid. It wasn’t haphazard. It took time to lay the cornerstone because every other stone in the foundation and superstructure was measured by the cornerstone. The position of all the other stones was determined by the Cornerstone. All other stones adjust themselves to the Cornerstone.

The Apostles and prophets and the saints mentioned above all adjust themselves to Christ. Christ gives the church its direction.

We have a structure that fits together but also grows. It’s like a building in that it fits together and is built, but it’s like a plant in that it actually grows. It’s not a static building. And every Christian is part of the structure of this building (cf. 1 Peter 2:5).

Verse 21 tells us that in Christ the entire structure becomes a holy temple “in the Lord”—in Christ. Our union with Christ makes us part of this temple.

The unity and growth of the church are joined in these verses and Jesus is the secret of both. And the growth here is not individual growth; it’s corporate. This metaphor reminds us why we need the church. We cannot grow without it.

You belong; you have an identity. You are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. You are a member of God’s family. You are part of Christ’s growing temple. All of these metaphors should find their best definition in your local church. That’s where a sense of belongingness is most felt.

I hope you are there on Sunday. I will be.

A Better Illustration of Spiritual Blindness

Every pastor, every biblical counselor has talked to a counselee that really couldn’t see his sin very accurately. You’ve patiently showed him how he’s hurting his marriage, how he’s not fulfilling his biblical role, how he’s not loving his wife as Christ loves the church, and he’s not seen it. He refuses your counsel. He doesn’t own his sin. He rejects blame. It’s difficult to communicate the biblical concept of spiritual blindness—that we don’t see our sin very clearly. Sin deceives us to its existence (Heb 3:12-13), and we want to be deceived about it.

In this life we will never have 20/20 vision about our own sin. The Laodicean church shows us that.

Revelation 3:17 (ESV) For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

Did the Laodicean church think that everything was okay while in fact, everything was radically wrong? Did they really believe that things were A-Ok when they were really wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked? Yes they did. So do you. And so do I (Cf. Mt 7:3-5).

So what illustration can a biblical counselor use to communicate our tendency to be spiritually blind? Most use physical blindness which works, but has limitations. One, a physically blind person knows they are physically blind; a spiritually blind person often does not know they are spiritually blind. Two, physical blindness as an illustration is all or nothing, but there can be degrees of spiritual blindness.

Protanopia or deuteranopia are types of color blindness. With protanopia you cannot see the color red (1% of men) and with deuteranopia you cannot see the color green (5% of men). Most commonly a colorblind person struggles to differentiate between reds and greens. What is life like for the colorblind? They go through life without seeing all the colors we see. Most times it doesn’t affect them—at least in ways they are aware. They look at their child’s crayon drawing, and they don’t know what they’re missing. They notice the cut and shape of a new dress on their teen daughter, but they don’t know that the colors are fantastic.

We had a student in our church who didn’t know he was colorblind until he took his vision test for his driver’s license. You need to be able to distinguish between reds and greens if you’re going to have a license—stoplights demand it! His family enjoyed camping and in looking back, it made sense that he wasn’t ever impressed with the sunsets while sitting around a campfire. His life worked fine—as far as he could tell—while being colorblind.

YouTube videos of colorblind people seeing colors for the first time are somewhat common now.[1] http://enchroma.com/ A company called EnChroma worked with Valspar Paints to develop glasses that allow colorblind people to see colors. It’s amazing. In one I saw a guy look at a sunset and say, “So is that what you guys see every day?” He’d never understood the glory of a sunset.

Colorblindness is a better analogy to our spiritual lives than total blindness. Think about what it means to be colorblind. You can function fine. You might know that you’re colorblind, but you really don’t know what that means. You don’t know what you’re missing because you’ve never seen it. You look at a flower garden and you can see the different shapes and some differences in hues, but you have no idea that you’re missing the eye-popping colors in the garden. You’re missing something that is obvious to everyone around you. That’s spiritual blindness. You and I can function in life, and because we can, we don’t notice our blindness to our true condition. We go through life ignorant of the depths and extent of our sin. We cannot see it.

Sin is blinding. By nature it fools us, and when we’ve sinned for a long time in the same way, we become less and less able to see it in all its ugliness. I’ve rarely, maybe never, talked to a person whose tongue was destroying his family who thought his problem was as severe as it really was. That’s the human condition. Sin is blinding.

Colorblindness is a better illustration of spiritual blindness than actual blindness. It illustrates the blindness-to-our-blindness characteristic of spiritual blindness. It illustrates that we can function with our spiritual blindness. We’re not incapable of making our way through life. And that fact keeps us from seeing our sin very well.[2]The picture at the top is a test for colorblindness.


1 http://enchroma.com/
2 The picture at the top is a test for colorblindness.

3 Cautions with Personality Tests

A while ago I was playing a game called 9 Books with our family and a family friend. It’s one of those parlor games where you need to know the trick to get it, and once you get it, you can never play it again. In this game we put books in a 3×3 pattern on a table and one person left. The rest of us picked a book and then the absent person was called back. Our family friend pointed to book after book and when she pointed to the one we picked as a group, he called it out. The trick was to figure out how he knows, and I must not be good at it because I was probably the last person to figure it out. In my case I had a lot of guesses, but when I finally guessed correctly, it was an aha moment.

Tim LaHaye’s Spirit Controlled Temperament was like that for my family (and many other evangelicals) when I was growing up. I was taught the four temperaments—choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine, and melancholic—and we took the test to figure out which one we were. It seemed to explain each of us. (For the record I was a choleric-sanguine mix.)

Those two incidents are analogous to me for how people tend to feel when they get the results back from a personality test. It seems insightful; there is an aha moment. When I find out I’m Cool Blue (Insights Discovery), it seems to give me information that I didn’t have before.

And personality tests are big business. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most commercially successful personality test; it’s used more than two million times a year. But there are others–close to 2000 personality tests on the market today.[1]Louis Menand, “What Personality Tests Really Deliver,” September 3, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/10/what-personality-tests-really-deliver However, it’s questionable to me if they really are helpful for sanctification. Like parlor games I think they can be fun and interesting, but I question whether they actually lead to greater growth. Apparently some outside the church wonder similar things, even calling them the astrology of the office.[2]Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office,” September 17, 2019, … Continue reading One author said, “Personality testing is an industry the way astrology or dream analysis is an industry: slippery, often underground, hard to monitor or measure.”[3]Annie Murphy Paul, National Public Radio, “Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?,” June 25, 2016, … Continue reading I’m sure some are more scientific and others less so (I’m looking at all you otters in the 4 Animals Personality Test), but I wonder if any are truly helpful for the biblical counselor. They’re interesting. They’re probably fun. But are they actually insightful? Can they really help me change?

Some people invest them with almost biblical importance. Here are three cautions I have about personality tests.

Caution: We Might Confuse Personality with Spirituality

So you’ve taken a personality test and the results say you are a patient person. That’s great! God gives some people a greater measure of patience in his common grace to us. But don’t confuse the results of a personality test with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23-23). Those are virtues that are the result of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives. They are by definition, unnatural. So be careful not to take the results of a secular personality test as evidence of spiritual growth. They’re not the same. God’s work in us is something that can only be explained by the Spirit, not by personality.

Caution: We Might Believe that Personality Is Fixed

Even though some have found evidence that variables in taking the test can affect your results (i.e., you can get different results with some tests depending on when you take it), overall we are tempted to think like the world that our personalities are fixed. So we get our results back and believe we cannot change. But where your personality is not Christlike, it has to change. It can change. The Great Commission and the 2nd Great Command aren’t just for extroverts. Us introverts have to share the gospel and love our neighbor. A personality test result is not an excuse for avoiding your neighbor too. Even introverts can be progressively sanctified resulting in loving others better. Personality tests are based on the assumption that personality cannot change. That’s not a biblical assumption.  

Caution: We Might Believe they Are Explanatory Rather than Descriptive

This is my primary concern. I can regard them as tools of self-discovery that explain me. I think they tell me why I do something rather than what I do, and the personality test makers promote them this way. They sell them as describing why we think and behave like we do. There are two potential ways I can misuse this assumption.  

  • Accusingly: “You do that because you’re an otter!”
  • Excusingly: “I cannot really help it. It’s what Cool Blues do.”

But Scripture doesn’t let us accept such poor explanations for our behavior and thinking. Instead it teaches us that all sin comes from the heart (Mt 7:15-20; 12:33-35; 15:10-20; Mk 7:14-23; Lk 6:43-45). It’s the bad fruit of a bad tree. It’s good news then that Jesus changes hearts. A personality test might describe the characteristic ways that I handle conflict or whether I prefer people or tasks, but it can never explain why I do what I do. The Bible is rich with motivation theory. Why let the insights of unbelievers explain you?

Like parlor games, personality tests are probably mostly harmless—with the above cautions in mind. Just don’t expect your personality test to say something about you that is more important than what Scripture already says about you. Be careful making life decisions off of a personality test. Don’t live based off the “insight” you received.

Are there any cautions you might add? Any pushback you might give?


1 Louis Menand, “What Personality Tests Really Deliver,” September 3, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/10/what-personality-tests-really-deliver
2 Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office,” September 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/personality-tests-office.html?.?mc=aud_dev&ad-keywords=auddevgate&gclid=Cj0KCQjwt-6LBhDlARIsAIPRQcKIMy3FHWkex5pioSrHoedPIYPm4wDTUeOyl8Pw-shMfjvQBhuM1GkaAl_QEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds
3 Annie Murphy Paul, National Public Radio, “Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?,” June 25, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/25/483108905/personality-tests-are-popular-but-do-they-capture-the-real-you

Self-Confidence and a Near Death Experience

I passed my driving test when I was sixteen—barely! Not that I passed it barely, but I was less than three months from my 17th birthday. It was winter in Wisconsin, and I managed to get the car temporarily stuck in a snowbank when I was trying to parallel park. Maybe I did barely pass. Fortunately I got it out, and the examiner didn’t hold it against me.

American car culture never really enticed me. Lots of teenage guys get their driver’s license and then buy their first car. I didn’t own my first car until my junior year in college. It was more practical than romantic—I knew I would need to pay my own way through college, and cars are expensive.

But during my junior year I started looking for a used car, and with the help of some guys in my church, I found it. It was a Mazda GLC 4-door station wagon late 70s or early 80s edition—can’t remember the exact year. I told you I wasn’t a car guy. Google it; it was quite the vehicle. GLC stood for Great Little Car which sounds like what an ad agency would come up with for a car that was little, but not great.

It was my first car, and it was a manual shift. I hadn’t ever driven one before, so my dad took me to the local stadium parking lot and gave me 30 minutes of lessons. Then I dropped him off and started my 90 minute drive back to college. My Dad was not a helicopter parent; it turns out 30 minutes might not have been enough.

I killed the engine a few times, but mainly the drive was a two-lane highway all the way there, and once I got up to speed, I could maintain it. At one point I decided to pass a car that was going too slow. Now my Dad’s instructions didn’t include advice on passing another vehicle while driving a stick shift. So I was in fifth gear going the top speed for a Mazda GLC when I pulled out in opposing traffic to pass this vehicle.

If you’ve googled the picture, you realize that I was not driving a muscle car. It didn’t accelerate very fast, and I didn’t know that downshifting to fourth gear would help me accelerate. I wasn’t making much progress when I noticed an 18 wheeler coming right at me. I willed the car to go faster and still didn’t get anywhere, but now I was too far into passing to pull back into my lane. The semi was getting closer and finally I jerked the wheel to the left shoulder of the road as the semi went between me and the car I was passing. I hit the brakes on the gravel shoulder hearing the semi honk long and loud. My heart was beating fast; I was sweating. I was scared. I immediately prayed, “Oh Lord, thank you for saving this stupid, stupid boy.” I caught my breath for a few minutes, and gently pulled out onto the highway crossing the road to get into my lane and continued my way up to college.

That near-death experience reminds me of my tendency to be self-confident. God’s goodness includes Him reminding me that I am dependent upon Him. His reminders are most often not as dramatic, but they are always necessary. I am prone to look at any little success as saying something about me, so I need reminders that I am dependent upon God.

Jesus said,

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5 (ESV)

It’s not that I can do some things, but that I cannot do anything without Jesus. Certainly not anything that bears fruit for God’s glory. But give me a little ministry success, and I will be tempted to believe that it’s because of me. And I’ll be inclined to attempt greater things in my own strength. Just like when I was 21 and thought because I’d been driving a stick shift for an hour, that I was a pretty decent driver. Self-confidence is a dangerous thing for a believer.

It’s good to remember that I cannot bear fruit on my own. I need Jesus.

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