Author: Ron Graham
Truth and Error
—Truth’s source, scope, and substance
The Bible often mentions truth as opposed to error. Truth and falsehood are among the most basic of all Bible opposites. Read this lesson on truth.
1 The Source of Truth
Before we believe that something is true, we should take account of the source of the information. When Nathanael was told the Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth, he was moved to ask, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-51). Nathanial was not prepared to believe this Messiah until satisfied that he was truly the Son of God.
We are wise to question the source of information we receive before we believe it. This is especially important regarding the truth about the bigger questions of life. Who are you, why are you here, and where are you going? There are plenty of answers, but are they true? Can you trust them? The good news is that there is one source you can trust completely.
¶“1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Everything was made [created] through him, and nothing was made without him —of all that has ever been made. 4In him was life, and the life was humanity’s light. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not understand it” (John 1:1-5).
¶“14And the Word became flesh [a human being] and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory —the glory that belongs to the unique Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Jesus once prayed for his disciples, “I have given them your word... Sanctify them by your truth —your word is truth” (John 17:14,17).
Some of those disciples left a record of the truth they received from Jesus, and which he received from his Father. Jesus is the impeccable and ultimate source of the truth that matters most.
Jesus himself claimed to be the source of truth, indeed the very truth itself: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Nobody can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Having considered the source of truth, we now move on to another consideration: the scope of truth.
2 The Scope of Truth
If someone correctly says, “It is morning”, that truth has a limited scope. It is not true everywhere on the planet at once. And even where it is true, it will later become false as the earth turns.
Example 1: Becoming One Flesh
Many truths have a limited scope, beyond which they become falsehoods. For example, consider this truth: “[God ordained that] two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The scope of that truth is a marriage between a man and a woman. Outside that scope, the truth becomes falsehood. Paul makes this clear.
“Don't you know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Or don't you know that he who is joined to a harlot is one flesh with her? For 'the two', God says, 'shall be one flesh'” (1Corinthians 6:15-16).
We see that when two become one flesh without being married to each other they are outside the scope imposed by God. So it is untrue that their union is ordained of God. Rather, it is forbidden.
Example 2: Salvation by Works
As a further example, consider this truth: “You have been saved by grace through faith. You did not save yourselves. Salvation is the gift of God. You are not saved by works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
To understand this wonderful truth, we need to determine the scope of the “works” which cannot save us. Obviously they are not the works of Christ. His works surely save us. The truth that “you are not saved by works” is limited in its scope to our own works.
But should we define this scope as all the works we do? Should we interpret the truth “you are not saved by works” as including any and every work we do? If so, how could Abraham be “justified by works” (James 2:21-24)?
Obviously there are two kinds of works.
- First there are works which God commands and requires of us. We are under an obligation to God to faithfully do those works.
- Second there are works that we may presume to offer to God as payment or for our salvation. We may suppose that God is thereby obliged to save us.
The truth that “you are not saved by works lest anyone should boast” is limited in scope to that second class of works. If the scope includes all works, then we can be saved without obeying God’s commands.
God “will take vengeance in flaming fire on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2Thessalonians 1:8). To be saved it is necessary to obey the gospel. So works of obedience to the gospel of grace are not within the scope of the truth that says, “You are not saved by works”.
Example 3: Keeping the Sabbath
It is true that “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Genesis 2:3). It is also true that God said, in the ten commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy... on the seventh day you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:8-11).
What is the scope of this truth that the Sabbath must be kept holy as a day of rest? Does the scope include all people in all times, or only the people of Israel in Old Testament times? Do the ten commandments have a wider scope than the rest of the law of Moses?
Paul described the ten commandments as “The ministry of death, written and engraved on stones” (2Corinthians 3:7-11). That puts it outside the scope of the gospel by which Christians live.
If we don't understand the scope of a truth, then we don't understand the truth itself, and we will turn the truth into an error.
3 The Substance of Truth
A truth is a truth, but not all truths have great substance. It is a truth that 1+1=2. But this is hardly a foundation truth on which to build our lives. Again, it is a truth that kookaburras eat snakes. But that isn't a truth of great substance unless you are a kookaburra or a snake.
On the other hand there is the truth that “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Now that's a truth of substance to every human being.
A truth in one situation might have little substance or importance, but it might be a substantial truth in another circumstance. If someone says, “There's a train coming”, and it's true, that truth would have more substance if you were approaching the railway crossing, than if you had already safely crossed over.
If you learn that a certain spider bite causes death within hours, and it's true, that truth will be mere trivia to you —if there are no spiders of that kind where you are. But if you've just been bitten by such a spider, the truth that it kills quickly will be of more gravity and substance than most other things you know to be true.
We should realise that even in the holy Scriptures, there are truths with more substance than others.
It is true that John baptised in Aenon near Salim (John 3:23). It is also true that he baptised for forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). Which truth has the most substance: that Aenon is near Salim, or that John baptized for forgiveness of sins?
Paul told Titus, “Avoid foolish disputes over genealogies, and quarrelsome arguments about the law. They are are to no use or profit.” (Titus 3:9). There is nothing wrong with scriptural genealogies or the law of Moses. Nevertheless, they are only “a shadow of things to come, whilst the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17).
We must be found “handling accurately the word of truth” (2Timothy 2:15). To interpret God’s word of truth correctly, we must give each truth its proper scope and proper weight. I hope this brief lesson has helped you to understand this.