Christians often talk about the need to “speak the truth in love,” a command found in Ephesians 4:15. Many times what they mean is the need to share difficult truths in a gentle, kind, inoffensive manner. From a practical standpoint, we know that difficult things are best heard when our defenses are not up. In a loving, non-threatening environment, hard truths are more readily received. So it is biblical to share hard truths with others “in love,” in the manner that the phrase is commonly used. Looking at the context of Ephesians 4:15, however, gives us deeper insight on what it means to “speak the truth in love.”
In the verses prior to the command to speak the truth in love, Paul writes about unity in the body of Christ. He urges the Ephesians, and all Christians by extension, to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1). He describes this life as one in which we are humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love, and making efforts toward unity. Paul reminds his readers that we all serve the same Lord and are part of the same body. He talks about Christ giving apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12–13). Having reached maturity, we will not be spiritual infants, easily deceived, and tossed to and fro “by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
In this context—of church unity and spiritual maturity—Paul writes, “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Rather than be spiritually immature and easily deceived, we are to speak the truth to one another, with love, so that we can all grow in maturity. We are to train one another in truth—the foundational gospel truths, truths about who God is and what He has called us to do, hard truths of correction, etc.—and our motivation to do so is love.
The “love” referred to in this verse is agape love, a self-sacrificial love that works for the benefit of the loved one. We speak truth in order to build up. Several verses later Paul writes, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). Our words should be beneficial to the hearers of those words. We should speak truth in love.
Paul also counsels “to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of you minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:22–25). As members of the same body, we should not deceive one another. We cannot defraud each other through lies. Nor should we attempt to hide things about ourselves out of shame or in an effort to manage our images. Rather, as those who are part of the same body intended for the same purpose and united by the same love, we should be characterized by honesty. Those who love must speak the truth: “Love . . . rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Dishonesty is unloving and abusive.
Speaking the truth in love is not as much about having a gentle demeanor as it is about the way truth and love go hand-in-hand. Because we love one another, we must speak the truth. Because we know the truth, we must be people characterized by love (John 13:34–35; 15:1–17). Jesus “came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). As His followers who are being conformed to His image (Romans 8:29), we should also be characterized by grace and truth.
Importantly, we are also called to love those who do not know Christ. The best way we can show love is to share with them the truth of the gospel. Apart from Christ, people are dead in their sins and destined for an eternity in hell (John 3:16–18; Romans 6:23). But in Christ they can receive new life and eternal salvation (Romans 10:9–15; 2 Corinthians 5:17). This is a message we must share. Peter wrote, “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). We share the gospel because we love the people for whom Christ died. We speak God’s truth because of His love and in a way that clearly and unapologetically communicates both truth and love (1 John 4:10–12).