You may have heard the common joke, “There are two types of people: those who divide people into two groups, and everyone else.” There is another version I find particularly amusing: “There are two types of people: those who accept false dichotomies, and cannibals.”
Erecting false dichotomies is human nature. A classic example of this tendency is the way most Christians view the concepts of truth and love. Many modern evangelicals see these as opposite poles on a spectrum. But historically, the church held the true, the good, and the beautiful in equal regard. What is the proper relationship between truth and love? Paul’s final lines of the introduction to his epistle to the Philippians will give us clarity.
Paul is no stranger to joy. In this letter, we have already seen him rejoice in his gospel partnership with the believers in Philippi (1:1-6) and rejoice in gospel suffering (vv. 7-8). In verses 9-11, the apostle rejoices in the result of this gospel partnership and gospel suffering: gospel fruit. The nature of this fruit is especially instructive for us.
Paul prays that his readers’ “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” so that they “may approve what is excellent” (v. 9; emphasis added). Each of these words is laden with biblical meaning. Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is more concerned with defining love than 1 Corinthians 13, in which we see that love is the unconditional choice to place the good of another over oneself. Knowledge, too, is a layered concept implying not only intellectual assent but relational intimacy. We are called not only to know about God but to know God. To illustrate the wide semantic range of the word in biblical thought—Adam “knew” Eve (Genesis 4:1), and the result was the conception of Cain.
What God has brought together we dare not tear apart. We are not called to hold love and truth in tension as though the ideal recipe of the Christian life called us to use half of each. Rather, love and truth fit together like a gem and its setting. To borrow a phrase used in the Second London Confession of Faith (1689) concerning God’s law and the gospel, they “sweetly comply.”
This unity finds its basis in the simplicity of God. But when theologians say that God is simple, we are not saying he is uncomplicated or intellectually shallow. Rather, we mean that God is not composed of parts; his essence is an indissoluble whole. And since God is not built out of parts, then his attributes themselves—including love and truth—are inseparable from one another, describing God’s unified essence. Hence, God is love (1 John 4:8), and God is truth (John 14:6) all at once. Likewise, in an analogous way as his creation, we are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Note that Paul also prays for their discernment. Unfortunately, today we often associate discernment with its more extreme forms, marked by those on the internet whose job it is to engage in angry debate. But we must not let these caricatures blind us to the value of true discernment. Ours is an age of ignorance in which wide swaths of professing evangelical Christians are ignorant of, or outright deny, vital doctrines concerning the nature of God, man, Christ, moral law, the church, and society. We need more discernment, not less.
For Paul, love, knowledge, and discernment are all aimed at an objective: “so that you may approve what is excellent” (v. 10a). Discerning error is only half the equation. The other half is “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8). We must pursue what is true, good, and beautiful. We must not just tear down the works of darkness—we must also build families, churches, businesses, and other institutions for the glory of God.
Perhaps the reason so many of us are so weak in evangelism is because we are not growing in love, knowledge, and discernment. If we do not understand what the Word of God says about the exclusivity of Christ and the plight of the lost, we will have no motivation to share the gospel. If we have no compassion for those without Christ born out of love for God and for others, we will be tempted to stay comfortably in our Christian enclaves. If we are compromised in our Christian doctrine or ethics, we cannot expect God’s blessing in our churches, families, or other spheres of life. If we have no deeper vision of what is excellent, we will be aimless in our pursuits. Growing in Christ means growing in these virtues until the day of Christ, when we see him face to face.
I believe that you will finish the good work you started in my life (Philippians 1:6). Help me to grow in love, knowledge, and discernment so that I may approve what is excellent and so be pure and blameless on the day of Christ. Grant me a heart to sacrificially put others first, learn more of your truth, and distinguish truth from error. Deepen my love for you, for my fellow believers, and for the lost as I steep in the richness of your gospel truths.
In Jesus’ name, amen.
- Pray for your church and family to grow in the graces described in Philippians 1:9-10.
- Pray for greater discernment in your life. Ask the Lord to expose any errors in your thinking that may be inhibiting your effectiveness in Christian service. Pray that God would do the same in your spheres of influence.
- Pray for church leaders in the developing world—85 percent of whom lack formal biblical and theological education. Consider using your gifts in theological education, and ask God to continue to equip his ministers in biblical knowledge.
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