Questions of truth and integrity are rarely far from the headlines and public life. Misinformation and disinformation are alleged and advanced from many directions. In an age where truth is a common casualty it is easy for standards to be reduced almost without our realising. One way in which the truth frequently suffers is through a half truth. It can seem so innocent and correct on face value that it seems very far from being a species of lying. That is what soothes our conscience and makes it so dangerous and deceptive. It takes the truth and presents part of it while also concealing the rest of it to manipulate others to the conclusion we want them to reach. Or out of fear of their reaction to the whole truth. A straight lie can be discovered far more easily. Perhaps the worst form of lying is half-truth but is it possible that this could be done in religious things?
Satan knows how effective half-truth is, partly quoting a Bible verse while concealing its context to try to persuade. Transforming himself into an angel of light like false teachers if it will serve his purposes (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
The ninth commandment relates to promoting and preserving the truth in everything but it has a special reference to the court room. Witnesses in court cases are under oath to tell the “whole truth” because there are such things as half-truths. We need to avoid them in everything not just when under oath in court of law. Christians are not to be economical with the truth, however fashionable that may be.
The Westminster Larger Catechism gives a comprehensive, biblical treatment of all Ten Commandments. Questions 144 and 145 deal with the ninth commandment. It reveals the depth and spirituality of the law of God and there are bible references for all its statements.
The Catechism shows that the commandment requires “appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever.”
There is a great deal in the ninth commandment and we can only consider part of it, particularly in relation to half-truth. We need to reflect on the painful and difficult matter of what we might call evangelical half truth. Sadly in a crisis evangelicals can often spin their language much like politicians in order to save face. We all want truth and to be associated with it but sometimes we cannot handle the full truth or we think others cannot and so we only emphasise part of it. But as we have seen this is dangerous even when done with the best of intentions.
1. Half truth gospel
The Larger Catechism speaks of “concealing the truth” as a breach of the ninth commandment. It is possible to present a gospel which is true in so far as it goes but which is effectively a half truth because it does not tell people the whole truth or the whole of the gospel. If the gospel that is presented fails to tell people the bad news about sin and what it deserves then the good news we offer is only a half truth. It is possible to use the word brokenness as a euphemism for sin but this excludes the reality of rebellion against God and His law. It describes sin in terms of its consequences rather than its true character and is therefore a half truth.
If people are told only that God is a God of love without any mention of his holiness and justice (or vice versa), then are we telling them the whole truth about God? When the message “God loves you” is given as a substitute for the gospel with no real qualification or supplement it gives the impression that God accepts us and approves of all we do just as we are by nature. The real message is that we are all undeserving rebels and free grace can transform anyone no matter what they have done. J I Packer noted how it was possible through omissions “that part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”
The Larger Catechism also speaks against “rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous.” But is this happening at funerals when the impression is given that those who give no unmistakable evidence of true faith are commended as though they were going to heaven? Perhaps some outwardly commendable aspects of their life are pointed to which are not signs of grace and so the impression is given that these things merit eternal life. In fact we are not obliged to pronounce or hint either way concerning someone’s eternal destiny. When funerals also become celebrations of life without a proper sense of the solemnity of death and eternity are we implicitly presenting a half truth about what death means?
2. Half truth gossip
It is easy for all of us to engage in gossiping half truths, indeed it is a rather respectable sin. The Larger Catechism says that this can involve “aggravating smaller faults” in others and “unnecessary discovering of infirmities.” It may even lead to “raising false rumours, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defence”. Sometimes the information is garbled or without substance but it gets passed on. Do you find yourself wanting to convey negative information that you hear to others? It may be true in part or whole but does it become a half truth by failing to assess what is positive or additional mitigating information? We need to be on our guard against something that can easily lead to and justify “backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring.” We sin when we listen to malicious reports and do not give those who are affected by them opportunity to defend themselves (Leviticus 19:16). But also when we do not reprove those who engage in backbiting and talebearing.
3. Half truth doctrine
Surveys show the concerning level of confusion and error amongst professed evangelicals. Error and heresy generally begin by emphasising one verse or one truth above the rest and then to the exclusion and denial of other truths. Or perhaps they use perfectly biblical terms and phrases yet in an unbiblical sense. It is also easy to rely on slogans that only express part of the truth but do not communicate all that is necessary. We need to be careful with the truth in teaching and matters of doctrine that we do not end up “perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful or equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice.” If this is necessary in relation to the words of others how much more when it is the words and truths of God?
Again simply through omission we can present misleading half-truth. If we only teach about free grace and neglect the holiness and obedience that flow from it, we are presenting half truths. If we avoid parts of biblical teaching that humble us and exalt God we are giving a misleading partial message. If there are parts of the Bible that we do not want to expound we are not presenting the whole counsel of God but at best half. It is vital for the good of souls that we take heed to our doctrine and teaching (1 Timothy 4:16).
Is it not both dangerous and wrong if you tell part of the truth and withhold another part of the truth to create a false impression? Perhaps we fear people will be offended by difficult truths and tell ourselves that they are not ready for it yet. But Paul’s epistles were all written to new Christians. The Larger Catechism also reproves “holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others.” It is wrong to do any of these things at any time but how much more so when speaking to people about their souls on God’s behalf?
The fear of others can be a significant influence (1 Samuel 15:24). Yet when it is attacked we are not to be slow in “appearing and standing for the truth” whatever the cost. We must avoid “undue silence in a just cause.” We should promote the truth, the whole truth “from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever.”
4. Half truth suspicion
It is against this commandment to engage in “misconstructing intentions, words, and actions” and it is also contrary to the wisdom that is from above (James 3:17-18). It is what the Larger Catechism calls “evil suspicion.” That surely is a kind of half truth where we take what we know about someone and make inferences that we believe to be true but cannot prove. How easy it is to take half truths from others and pass them on without investigating them. Part of it seems plausible and it fits with what we want to believe and so we pass it on to many as though it were the complete truth.
It is easy to dress up suspicion as orthodoxy and take the high ground. Someone we disagree with or of whom we are not sure then forfeits the benefit of the doubt in most of what they do and say. They are guilty until proven innocent. It can even lead us to put the worst construction on things that are in fact good. But are we correct or have we impugned the motives of others through suspicion? Are we inferring their motives or other suspicions without grounds? It is the Lord that assesses the heart (1 Corinthians 4:5). How much we need that true charitable esteem that is altogether contrary to this (1 Corinthians 13:7). We are required to have “a charitable esteem of our neighbours” rather than a default suspicion. This does not mean a gullible lack of discernment but rather a gracious respect as well as a concern for the truth (see How Can We Stop Discernment Turning into Sinful Suspicion?).
5. Half truth godliness
We are well aware of how it is possible to use certain aspects of Scripture to as it were deny other aspects. This is what liberals do with the parts of the Bible they do not like, particularly sins that are condemned that they want to justify and even celebrate. But it is subtly possible for all of us is easy to emphasise some things to the exclusion of others. Some assert certain aspects of our Christian behaviour but not others. Others emphasise personal piety but not activity, whereas others virtually reverse this. We must all beware of a form of godliness that denies the power of it (2 Timothy 3:5).
6. Half truth opinion
This is closely related to gossip and suspicion. It relates to the opinion we form and communicate concerning others. We are asked for our opinion of a preacher, writer, church, individual and immediately go to listing negative points. Perhaps this is the sum total of what we have to say. They are dismissed with a mere characterisation that may well have much truth but is surely not the whole truth about them. It is in effect “denying the gifts and graces of God.” We report something about them as evidence of the characterisation and so convey what is true but we may well be “speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end.” It is certainly “prejudicing the good name of our neighbour” and a kind of slander. But because of the context it is not considered in that light.
Of course, we can go to the other extreme of praising someone too much with some evidence and only giving part of the truth in that case. This is why the Catechism warns against “thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others.” The catechism also speaks of “fond admiration” i.e. flattery and extravagant praise that goes beyond the facts? Has this not infected evangelical culture when we hear sycophantic introductions for conference speakers or hyperbolic endorsements for books that are more average than world-transforming. Yet other times people can also be lauded as “faithful” in a way that commends their principles while implicitly hinting at the harsh way in which those are defended which gives the impression this too is praiseworthy though there is a reluctance to say so.
Perhaps we are giving our opinion on a situation far removed from us about which we know only a little. Our limited knowledge means we do not have the whole truth and can therefore probably only offer half truth. Is it helpful and edifying to share our hastily informed opinion or would it be better to give someone principles by which they can come to a conclusion if they need to?
We are all implicated in this and tempted to it one way or another and it is not easy to read (or write) such home truths. How much this should teach us to be more careful and also value and love the truth (see Using Our Words to Love the Truth). As Thomas Boston says, “Truth is a sacred thing, which we are to cleave to as we would to God, who is true essentially, and therefore called truth itself…Truth is to the soul as light is to the body; and they that walk in the light, will walk in truth.” We must speak truth at all times when we speak, (Ephesians 4:25) let us therefore “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
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