To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8:31 & 32, N.I.V.
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked this question of Jesus, rather cynically, I think. The truth was embodied in the One who stood before him. The words of Jesus that had precipitated this query were: “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me” (John 18:37 & 38, N.I.V.).
Well, what is truth? I shall pose Pilate’s question and try to answer it. How does one define truth? Truth is enlightenment about a reality. We speak of truth in many ways. There is scientific truth. It enlightens us about scientific realities, such as the law—or truth—of gravity. There is sociological and political truth. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” These words from the Declaration of Independence and others from the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights are all based on what was assumed to be truth, foundational truth about the rights and responsibilities of the governed and those who govern. Truth has to do with that which cannot be disputed, that is real, and foundational. Truth presupposes realities that are beyond dispute, realities that govern human relations and the universe itself. We recognize that the universe is governed by laws and that these laws exist because certain things are real, that is, true.
Spiritual truths are based upon spiritual realities. The most important spiritual reality is the existence of God, the God of the Bible, and of Jesus Christ, His Son. Because God is real, because He is the way He is, certain conclusions follow, certain truths that affect our lives whether or not we recognize and believe in them. If we presuppose the existence of a spiritual reality that exists apart from the observable physical universe, one that is responsible for the existence of that physical universe, that includes the human race, its origin, purpose and destiny, then we must admit that spiritual truth is more important than any other kind of truth. What could be more important than the reality that makes all other realities possible? Every kind of truth depends on the reality of God and the reality of how He is working out His purposes in the universe in general, and with mankind in particular.
Many religions, cults and philosophies claim to have insight into the most basic and important truths that govern human existence and human destiny. Who are we to believe? The Scientologists? The Christian Scientists? The Buddhists? The Hindus? Or does it even matter, as some would have us believe? Such people will say something like “take any road to God. We will all end up at the same place in the end.” This sort of thinking is very common these days.
“What am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Do I have any choice about my destiny?” Many religions claim to have the answers to these and other such ultimate questions. Who are we to believe? The assumption of such systems of thought is that their conclusions are based upon inexorable and unalterable truth.
In my own spiritual quest I have come to certain conclusions. One, the truth is not to be found within myself, but outside of myself. Two, I have found that the source of all truth is God Himself. Three, I have found that the source of all truth about God is to be found in Jesus. Jesus is the way to God: Jesus, not truths about Jesus, but Jesus Himself. In His interview with Pilate, Jesus says, “Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me.” These words imply that there are people who know something about truth, at least enough to know where to find it. Where do we find it? The answer is that we must go to Jesus, who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6, K.J.V.)
If we say that truth, spiritual truth, is enlightenment about spiritual reality, enlightenment about the reality and true nature of God—if we say these things, then we can only draw the conclusion that Jesus is saying, “I am the only one who can impart enlightenment about the most important and vital truth.” He is even saying, “I embody in my person all that man needs to know about God” or, “If you seek enlightenment, look to me and I will enlighten you.” That is quite a claim to make. Only a fully divine Savior, the Son of god, the Second Person of the Trinity, could make such a claim if it is accepted as true.
There are many truths to choose from. There are many paths that seem to lead somewhere, but take us into confusion and futility. It is important to know the right truth and stay with that truth. There are many teachings about God, about Jesus, about salvation, victorious living, and eternal life. It is possible to be one hundred percent in error, fifty percent in error, ten percent in error, and even a very little in error, say, one percent. One can be very orthodox, very close to what is taught in the Bible, and err in one small but important area. And a little error can create big problems. A small error in doctrine can give rise to a cult within the Christian faith. Within orthodox Christianity, among those who would agree to everything in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed there are many deviations, false doctrines, bad teachings and misguided methodologies that lead Christian people into unproductive service of God, legalistic bondage and sometimes even overt sin. The traps are many and they are everywhere. How do we avoid them?
To do this, it will help you to understand the real nature of truth in its purest Biblical sense. Again truth is enlightenment about the things of God. By its very nature it brings forth growth and change in the one who is enlightened. If you understand rightly, you will walk rightly. If you understand wrongly, you will err. Wrong understanding is deception, and deception is the tool of the devil.
In understanding a difficult idea, it helps sometimes to understand its opposite, that is, to understand what it is not. Thus, the opposite of truth, deception, clouds the mind and introduces confusion. It inevitably causes us to make wrong choices because we begin with the wrong assumptions. Enlightenment in the truth clears the mind of confusion. It brings clarity and ordered thinking. It enables us to choose our path rightly, because we see clearly where we are, where we are going and how we are to arrive there. It also harmonizes with all other teachings of scripture. It produces godly character. It draws people closer to the purposes of God.
I wish to make what I am saying very practical. We must be clear on one thing: we are utterly incapable of being enlightened in the way I have mentioned, to truly grasp the things of God as God intends us to do, without the help of God Himself. We may see this clearly in the next verse I will examine: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:12-14, N.I.V.). The task of imparting spiritual truth is the exclusive prerogative of the Spirit of truth. Divine truth comes from God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Spirit. Settle it in your mind that you cannot get to spiritual truth without the Holy Spirit. God is the custodian of all spiritual truth, and He withholds it from those who seek it for the wrong reasons. He withholds it from those who seek it through reliance on human intellect. He withholds it from those who seek it from a heart filled with human pride. He withholds it from those who are living in disobedience to His holy laws. To learn holy things, you must be holy. To be holy, you must fling yourself at the foot of the cross. You must have an obedient heart. You must hunger and thirst after God. You must repent of all that keeps you from a life of total obedience to God.
When you are handling spiritual truth, then, realize that this is the gift of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit searches all things. He sees those who are seeking to obey God and He blesses them with greater enlightenment. When He sees those who are resisting God, He withholds further revelation of truth until they have come to repentance. Christian people get into trouble when they seek to add to their store of spiritual knowledge, but they are living in rebellion against the truth that has been revealed to them. Such people will store up human knowledge about divine things that is the fruit of human intellect. It will not necessarily be in error, but it will not have life and it will not produce life because it has its source in man, not God. “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots” (Matthew 15:13, N.I.V.). If it doesn’t come from God, it will not last. Submit yourself to God. Submit your study of the scripture to God, for He alone can make it come alive. Learn to be taught of the Spirit and distrust everything that brings forth confusion. This must be your task. It is the task of your entire life and you will not learn everything in one day. Be a student of the scripture. Meditate on it constantly. Be careful of drawing conclusions until you have light from the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes when we do not even know it, we are being taught of the Spirit. Other times, when we pride ourselves in our scriptural knowledge, we are really not on the path of truth. I have no easy techniques to suggest, only much prayer, much study of scripture, much patience, much living, much spiritual growth that will take years. One thing will help to keep you on the path: a determined purpose to seek God, to know Him, to love Him and obey Him whatever the cost. The Christian life is not easy. Yes, it is easy to get into heaven. It is the gift of God through faith in Jesus. But it is not easy to get heaven into you; it is the task of a lifetime. It is not a matter of earning your way into grace, for you are already there. It is a matter of becoming less in yourself and more in God, of losing your life completely in His life. You will not complete this task in this life, but you must try and you must never tell yourself that you “have arrived.”
Without the Spirit, the early church would have foundered and lost its way. Only the Spirit could give them the equipment they needed to do what they did—and they did much! Are we, today, any less needy of the Spirit, as He attempts to draw people into insight into the purposes and plans of God? You cannot continue in the Christian walk apart from the enlightenment and aid of the Spirit of truth. We do not see things as we ought apart from the Spirit, nor do we behave as we ought without the Spirit’s help. The Spirit is our link to the true Vine, to Jesus. Do not let anything sever your link to that Vine! It is your life! We dare not serve God, not in the least capacity, in the smallest labor, without a conscious reliance upon the Spirit. The Spirit imparts the life of Jesus. He is the Vine; we are the branches (see John 15:1-7). He makes His power available only through the ministry of the Spirit. There is no other way. Service apart from the Spirit is no service at all, but disobedience and rebellion. It has its roots not in God, but in man. God has promised to pull it up by the roots!
So much of what is done these days by Christians is done in the power of the flesh. It may even be done in the pretense that it is being done in the Spirit. Nothing done in the flesh has God’s blessing. It does not proceed from Jesus. And if anything doesn’t originate with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, then it does not have the blessing of God. God didn’t plant it, so He will have to pull it up! That fact should be obvious to all of us who call Jesus Lord, but I fear it is not. We need to be reminded. And we need to learn how to walk by the power of the Spirit. How, then, do we walk by the Spirit? Truth is God’s weapon against the powers of evil. Where there is reliance on the truth there is reliance upon God, and where there is reliance on God, there, the Spirit of God is active. Walking by the Spirit is not a matter of coming into an ecstatic state, it does not mean waiting until we feel an exalted sense of the presence of God. Our walk is by faith, not by feelings. Faith is the element that must be present if we are to walk in the Spirit. And so is truth. If we speak the truth, teach the truth, act out the truth, we will be walking in the Spirit. If we are honest in our dealings with men and women, forthright in speaking what we know to be right even when it is costly, even when we are ridiculed, then we are walking in the Spirit.
He is the Spirit of truth. He cannot tolerate lies and deception. When we put ourselves on the side of truth and honesty, when we refuse to be silent in the face of opposition from unbelievers and believers who are in error, we are walking in the Spirit. We will not always be functioning in the Spirit, because none of us are perfected. We must be humble enough to be reproved when we are in the flesh by those who are in the Spirit. We must not be so much in the right that we are unwilling to be shown to be in the wrong. All of us walk in the flesh and stumble. But the way back into fellowship with God is always there through repentance and confession of sin.
The Christian life is really easier than some make it. It is difficult, but it is surely not impossible to follow Jesus. We are all spiritual children with eons of spiritual growth before us, stretching beyond this life and into eternity. I do not believe we will be absolutely perfect in the next existence; sinless, yes, but not perfect in the sense of being absolutely complete in our growth in Christ.
Our time in this world is very brief and limited, and we must do the best we can with what we have while we are here, relying completely on God. God has made us partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:14) and this makes us all, who are partakers in Christ, potentially equal to the task. God has given us His own nature that we might live lives that are pleasing to Him. It is an affront to the Spirit of God for any believer to draw upon his own resources when divine resources are so freely and graciously offered to him. You cannot serve God without God’s help. You can make a lot of people think you are serving God and still be serving in the power of your own flesh. Many who recognize the need for the Holy Spirit to impart new life through the new birth are guilty of trying to live without the help of the Spirit after the new birth. We must continue in Christ in the Spirit, just as we have begun with Him. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:6 & 7, N.I.V.).
And now I will try to make this matter of truth still more practical by making it very personal. I am a very imperfect Christian. I do not pray enough, witness enough, study enough. I am always failing and always needing to repent. And I do not even repent as I should. As of this writing, I have been walking with the Lord for forty-four years. And yet, more than ever, I am conscious of my weakness and imperfections. I suppose growth itself guarantees a heightened sense of one’s imperfection, but this does not excuse me before my own conscience. When I began to serve the Lord, in the first decade or so, I wondered why He didn’t use me more, since I seemed, in my own eyes, to be equipped for greater tasks than those He had given me. But now, years later, I wonder that He uses me at all. I can think of others who would be much better servants, who seem to be wiser, more zealous, more consecrated than I. I am surprised that I am singled out for what seem to me to be very important tasks of ministry. I think that only when we are wretched in our own sight that it is safe for God to use us, yet I am mindful of how easy it would be for me, even now, to be puffed up with pride and forget my own unworthiness.
So many times when I am absorbed by the mundane things of life, necessary and unnecessary, and a bit forgetful of the spiritual, God puts a task in my path, a sermon to preach, a lesson to teach, a job for His kingdom, where I dare not venture forth without the power of His Spirit. Then, in the midst of my spiritual torpor, when I feel uninspired, weary of mind, apathetic, lazy, bored, I must beseech Him to impart to me the fire and zeal of the Spirit lest I fail my task miserably. And, then, He never fails me.
The reason for all this digression is to prepare you for what I must say about my approach to truth. I see more now, more than ever, the preciousness of Spirit-imparted truth. I thirst for it. I do not assume that a cursory glance at scripture will bring me into contact with the influence of the Holy Spirit. We should all read scripture when we feel like it and when we don’t feel like it. The mind stores up what we read when we feel uninspired by the Spirit and later the Spirit often brings it to remembrance and breathes life into it. There are many tasks, many duties in life, and in many of them, maybe most, we will not be very aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
I think if we had a sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence at all times we would become very smug, prideful, conceited and impossible for others to live with. In other words, I don’t think many of us are ready for such a constant dwelling in the presence of God. We need to be prepared by God, and much of His preparation is in the form of humbling. I am not speaking of being made worthy of God’s presence. We are not worthy of God’s presence when we are at our very best. I am merely saying that growth in grace is probably a longer process than most of us realize, and that God knows that we can handle just so much of His power without a rest.
However, having said this, I want to add that, for me, the search for truth is an obsession. I want nothing but pure unsullied, untainted truth. I am tired of legalistic religiousness. I have been victimized by it, as have most of us. I have played Christian. I have mimicked the right phrases. I want to get to the heart of things, to bedrock truth. I know how easy it is to get off on a doctrinal tangent, a sidetrack of man’s reasoning that attempts to explain and interpret God’s word. I know enough to know that I can be dry and dead inside and fool a lot of people into thinking I’m very spiritual and close to God.
You can be an interpreter of the scripture without the Holy Spirit and fool many people into thinking you are wise and that your insights have God’s blessing. It is extremely easy. You can know so much and impress so many people and still miss the mark.
I know how to fool people into thinking I am very spiritual. And I know how easy it is to lapse into an attitude towards the Bible that is Pharisaical, cold, and utterly devoid of charity or grace. I know how to use the stock phrases. I know how to apply a verse to a situation in someone’s life without relying on the Holy Spirit to guide my tongue in wisdom. It is so easy to spout out verses and clichés when confronted by another’s shortcomings and sin. It is hard, so unnatural to be a listener to others and to the Spirit of God. We are all so full of empty talk and so devoid of sanctified common sense. If I am different from this now it is only because the Holy Spirit has had many hard dealings with me and I’ve been broken and broken of my reliance upon my own wisdom and forced to see myself as needy, as a fool, as unworthy of any worthy task for Jesus.
Truth! How much we need it! But the price is dear! It is never cheap. It costs to be a disciple. The real lessons are always in the context of your everyday life. The lessons are never easy; the way is always hard. Do you think you will get great riches of truth from attending just a few Bible studies? Not that Bible studies don’t help. But the truth of scripture must be chewed and re-chewed, meditated upon over months, years and decades. They must be chewed and digested and repeatedly put to the test in the crucible of hard experience and unpleasant trials. There is no cheap way to gain insight into things divine. The study of scripture is like mining for gold; you have to sift out much useless dross from your conclusions before you have nothing left but pure and precious metal. And the search is not all purely a matter of scholarship, of time spent reading and studying the scripture. That is only part of it. The Holy Spirit will certainly honor and bless our study of scripture, but God must also prepare our hearts for His revelation in the crucible of life’s hard trials and bitter experiences. It is slow and progressive, and God gears our learning to our personal growth. Study, study endlessly, and make it a way of life. Seek the truth on its own terms, and do not fear to go where it leads you.