In “God STILL Has Eyewitnesses To the Bible” (children please do not click the link), GunnerQ took issue with my recent post “Patriarchal Forgery?” and by implication raised the age old question about what constitutes a lie. There he used some disrespectful language and accused me of being a liar and deceiver. I insist that I am most emphatically not trying to deceive anyone. You can decide for yourself.
This essay is on the nature of lying and what God says about it. I will make the following claims…
(C1) A lie is an outward expression.
(C2) The sin of lying, deceiving, and bearing false witness requires intent
(C3) Presenting information without explicit judgement or commentary is not inherently dishonest
(C4) You are not responsible for people drawing the wrong conclusions on their own
(C5) You cannot lie to fight lying
…by extensively citing the Word of God, so that you can see what the Word of God says. You can read and study the scriptures to see if what I am saying is correct. Let the Word of God speak for itself. As always, I welcome feedback.
What do Christians say?
In GunnerQ’s article, he accused me of being a liar and a deceiver. I fired back that I was not a liar. Which one of us is right? It turns out that Christians have been debating the question of what constitutes a lie (and thus a liar) for as long as Christ’s church has existed. So before we can answer that question, let’s see what others have to say.
The dictionary defines a lie as “A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.” and “Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.” Under the second definition, Jesus would be guilty of lying (see below). But it is the first definition that concerns us most, for it is the standard definition used by Christians.
I’m not a Roman Catholic and the simplest explanation of scripture indicates that Papal Roman Catholicism is the Beast of Revelation, but not everyone reading may agree with that. So we start with the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” #2482:
“A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
The Roman Catholic Church clearly views the sin of lying as not merely a falsehood, but one with the intention of deceiving. This view is echoed by the Gospel Coalition:
“But note: not all falsehoods are lies. A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. [..] A lie is the intentional declaration or communication of a falsehood designed to deceive someone who has a moral and legal right to know the truth. A lie is telling an untruth to someone to whom you are morally and legally obligated to speak the truth.”
— TGC, “Perplexing Passages: Do Exodus 1 and Joshua 2 Permit Christians to Lie?“
They give a few exceptions to what constitutes a lie—some of which support my thesis, some which do not—but these exceptions are not required. The point I want to highlight is that they also assert that…
…a lie must be an intentional falsehood.
While this view is not the universal opinion of all Christians, it by far the most common one. With these views in mind, we will dive into scripture to see if it confirms these views.
Lies are Expressions
(C1) A lie is an outward expression.
Proverbs repeatedly identifies the liar by the words that he speaks and the righteous by what is in his heart:
Proverbs 12:5“The thoughts of the righteous are just; the counsels of the wicked are deceitful”.
“The righteous hates falsehood”
Examine this extensive list of scripture references on lying, with a clear emphasis on speaking. Lying involves the active expression of what one knows is not true. What comes out of the mouth represents what is in the heart, but it is what he speaks that condemns him. James makes this clear:
James 1:26 (ESV)
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
For Jesus had said:
For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
One’s salvation is solely a matter of faith—trust—in Jesus: by the confession of your words, which come out of your heart, are you saved:
For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.
You are acquitted or condemned by your words. Those words are an outward expression that reflect the intent of your heart.
A Matter of Intent
(C2) The sin of lying, deceiving, and bearing false witness requires intent
It is not enough that what one expresses is merely untrue. A mistake is a problem, but not the same kind of problem as a lie. People are wrong all the time, but it is not a sin to merely express something that is untrue. It is a problem, but it is not a sin, for such untruths do not spring forth from the heart.
Proverbs 16:1 states that:
The intentions of the heart belong to a man, but the answer of the tongue comes from the Lord.
The NET commentary notes that at certain times “what one actually says differs from what the person intended to say. [..] the Lord directs the words according to his sovereign will.” and as the REV commentary states “it is saying that a proper answer can only be found in the wisdom that God gives.” If one speaks truth, it is not because of what what is in the heart of a man, the contents of which belong to him, but because of God himself. Truth comes from God. Speaking truth is enabled by God. Without the wisdom that comes from God, no man could speak truth regardless of what was in his heart.
This is why those who are saved by their words continue to speak things that are not true. They cannot help this. They can only speak truths by the grace of God. A false heart is not determined by truth values of one’s expressions. The expression of evil comes from an evil heart: one’s intent.
You offspring of vipers! How are you, being evil, able to speak good things? For the mouth speaks what overflows from the heart.
…nothing that goes into a person from the outside is able to defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defiles that person. [..] What comes out of a person, that is what defiles the person. For evil thoughts come from within, out of people’s hearts, such as sexual immorality, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, wickedness, deceit, unrestrained behavior, stinginess, insults, pride, senselessness—all these evil things come from within and defile a person.”
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
And so we see that when the Commandment says…
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. — Exodus 20:16
…it is referring to untruth designed to deceive, as in a civil dispute against your neighbor given before the local magistrate. One cannot, after all, knowingly choose not to say something that is untrue if one does not know it is untrue. This is why Jesus, echoing Proverbs 4:23, said:
But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. — Matthew 15:18
Mistakes and other errors of fact do not come from the heart—they are not deceit—and so do not defile like a lie does. The liar knows what he is saying is false and willingly chooses to say it. His action is the result of the intent of his heart.
No man can know another’s intent: we cannot read another’s heart. If one thinks that a brother has lied, Jesus said to go to them privately, point out the fault, and attempt to work it out. Failing this, take witnesses. Failing this, have the church hear the case, as would a magistrate. This reveals the heart’s intention and ensures that the act of confronting a lie is not itself false. Whether you convince them or find you were mistaken, what is broken is restored.
Leviticus 4:2-3 makes it clear that unintentional sin is still a sin:
“Say to the Israelites: ‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands—If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the Lord a young bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed.
For example, while accidentally taking a life lessens the consequence, it does not excuse the act. Intention matters, but the sin is still a sin. So when Jesus cried out on the cross…
Luke 23:34 (REV)
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”
…it was in recognition that unintentional sin was sin. And yet, he could declare forgiveness in the absence of repentance!
Having good intentions is not sufficient to avoid unintentional sin, but lying is a sin that explicitly requires intent. Lies are the outward expression of the inward state. While taking a life can be done unintentionally, bearing false witness cannot be done by accident. Thus, in the case of lying, you cannot lie—an act of intention—unintentionally, and so it is not an unintentional sin.
Information and Responsibility
(C3) Presenting information without explicit judgement or commentary is not inherently dishonest. (C4) You are not responsible for people drawing the wrong conclusions on their own: each man answers to God alone.
Hebrews 11:31 (NIV)
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
James 2:25 (NIV)
[W]as not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?
These passages are often used by Christians to state that lying is okay if you have good intentions. The Old Testament describes Rahab welcoming the spies and then lying to keep them alive. But Hebrews and James do not say “By faith, Rahab lied to the guards.” She demonstrated faith because she welcomed them and providing them a path of escape. In lying she sinned.
Both the Old Testament and New Testament accounts of Rahab fail to make an explicit judgment or commentary about her dishonesty. In praising her faith, Hebrews fails to condemn her sin. This has led to countless numbers of Christians arguing that not all lying is a sin, but that some is in fact good (“white lies”). If presenting information as-is and allowing people to draw the wrong conclusions is inherently dishonest, then both the Old and New Testaments stand condemned in their presentation of Rahab. This is absurd, thus such a presentation is not inherently dishonest. Unless your intent is to lie and deceive, you are not morally responsible for people drawing the wrong conclusions. The onus is on the hearer.
Jesus routinely said things that people misunderstood, and he didn’t correct them. Moreover, he intentionally said things that he knew they would misunderstand, drawing false conclusions, and he still said them anyway.
Matthew 11.25 (NIV)
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
Jesus spoke in a way that confused his listeners and he sometimes withheld his explanations. Even Jesus’ disciples often did not understand and were confused. But, unlike Rahab, Jesus never lied. Jesus was not obligated to provide the full set of information or explanation to them, nor was he responsible for their lack of understanding nor their confusion. In some cases, they did not even possess the capacity to understand.
In John 6, Jesus gave his well-known Bread of Life talk. Many did not understand what he was speaking of and he lost disciples over it. They did not understand that when Jesus spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he was not speaking of cannibalism, but the Words that he has received from the Father. But Peter understood:
“Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of life in the age to come. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
As Peter noted, Jesus had the Words of Life. This was not something minor, but a matter of salvation:
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.
So we can see from the example of Jesus that even when salvation was at stake, Jesus was not dishonest when he withheld information and allowed people to draw their own conclusions. He was not sinning, even when he knew the people who heard his words would be lost. What he was saying was true.
Was Jesus intentionally deceiving his listeners by speaking words of truth that he knew they would interpret falsely? That defies belief. It is thus my belief that one cannot deceive someone if they are speaking the truth, that is, if the intent of the speech is truthful, even if they know the listener will misinterpret it.
Unlike Jesus, we have no divine assurances that when we speak we are speaking truth. We have a responsibility to do our best in only presenting what is true, but ultimately we cannot always succeed. Whether we speak or say nothing at all, so long as we do not lie to them, if someone draws the wrong conclusion, that is ultimately their responsibility. To show this, we look at the story of “The Man of God from Judah” in 1 Kings 13.
The man of God was immediately punished with death for not obeying the Word of God that he had received. The prophet who lied to him was not. The man of God did not get to excuse himself because he was deceived, and the immediate punishment came to him, not the one who did the deception. He answered to God and to God alone.
So too Adam was held fully responsible for disobeying the Word of God, despite Eve’s actions. Eve was punished, but this did not alter Adam’s responsibility or punishment. Obedience to the Word of God—in any form it is received—is absolute and self-evident. It involves no external authority or attestation, even if an external authority is claimed, whether or not one has the means to verify it. The Word of God must be followed without any excuse at all, including ignorance. No one can blame another for not following the Word of God.
But what about saying things that are not lies, but have the intent to deceive? Consider Rahab. She could have lied, deflected, or said nothing. What should she have done?
Fighting Evil With Evil
(C5) You cannot lie to fight lying
In “Temptations in responding to the oppressions of here-and-now evil“, unaffiliated Christian Bruce Charlton says:
One major strategy of purposive-evil – here and now, in The West and globally – is to oppress people with so much actual and prospective evil that people will give-up and yield, go crazy, or try to fight evil with evil.
(To clarify: resistance-to-evil is not itself good. Good can be accomplished only by striving for ‘positive’ good.)
One cannot combat evil by doing evil in the process. Christ has already defeated evil and we are only waiting the Day of the Lord for judgement to be carried out.
Romans 12:19 (REV)
Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance belongs to me, I will repay, says the Lord.
There is nothing left for us to defeat. You cannot lie to stop a lie or a liar. We must instead choose to do positive good, and not worry about defeating evil, for that is not our job. We are not supposed to win against evil, except it be a personal victory through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
We cannot win at this business of life; but it is a colossal error to suppose that we are supposed to win. We are supposed to learn-from living, not to win a prize for it.
I agree with Charlton. We are not supposed to defeat evil. We are supposed to learn from living. The Bible is clear that no man can achieve perfection this side of death. This is why I write. It’s why I wrote “Patriarchal Forgery?“, to hopefully learn something from the experience, perhaps from the feedback of another. Learning is an error-prone process. It is not possible to explore the question “What is Truth?” without discussing things—possibly approvingly—that will inevitably prove false. That is why intention matters.
I cannot expect to defeat evil, and so it is not my purpose. But what about Rahab? First, God cannot lie:
Numbers 23:19 (NIV)
God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
To be human is to lie, but God is not human and cannot lie. What Rahab did was wrong because she lied. She attempted to fight evil with evil. Far from showing her faith, it showed her fallen human nature. Lying is always wrong. Far from showing her faith, her lying and her prostitution only serve as contrast to her true faith.
But what if she had deflected instead? This brings us back to the question: if your intent is to do good and you know your words will be misunderstood, can you say them? If what you say is a lie, no you cannot. If what you say is true, it appears from Christ’s example that you may be permitted. But as we’ve seen, intent matters. Had Rahab deflected, her intent would have been to deceive. Even when Jesus knew his words would be misunderstood, I would not claim that he had any intention to deceive. Consequently, it is my belief that one should avoid speaking truth for the purpose of some other positive outcome if it also means you intend to deceive them. Perhaps it is subject to personal conviction and discernment.
Assuming that Rahab must not have deflected, she would have been forced to neither lie nor deflect. This reflects the notion that you cannot fight evil directly and should not try: only fight evil indirectly by always doing good.
Let’s summarize what we’ve seen in our examination of scripture:
A lie is an outward expression. The sin of lying, deceiving, and bearing false witness requires intent. Presenting information without explicit judgement or commentary is not inherently dishonest. You are not responsible for people drawing the wrong conclusions on their own: each man answers to God alone. You cannot lie to fight lying.
In my next post, “Fighting Evil or Doing Good?”, I will expand on this discussion.
A Note On Repentance
One is unable to repent of lying if they did not knowingly lie and had no intent to deceive. It wouldn’t be a lie. To repent, one must knowingly lie or else have intended to deceive with truth. They can, however, repent of telling an untruth (upon being made aware of it). These are not equivalent. Repentance requires turning aside from what has been done. A falsehood is repented by correcting it. Repenting of sin involves seeking forgiveness from God.
A Note on Teachers
James 3 says that teachers are held to a stricter standard, but what that standard is is not precisely stated. It serves as a warning that those who teach (and perhaps even those who opine in essays on their blogs, as I do), should take extra care that their words do not lead others astray. It is, of course, impossible to never be wrong, but it is not good to be careless either.
It is a constant battle to avoid things like false teachings (2 Peter 2:1) and motivations of envy and rivalry (Phil. 1:15), selfish desires (Phil. 1:15), and wealth (Titus 1:11). Many men end up teaching the doctrines and traditions of men as if they were commandments of God (Mark 7:7). Thus a teacher must always check his motives, again and again, diligently asking God to reveal both truth and falsehood, always ready to repent of error.
As stated above, it is impossible to explore truth without the possibility (and indeed the inevitability) of making a mistake. For example, no parent, in instructing his children in Scripture, can ever expect to teach his child perfectly. Ideally it would be done with sober, prayerful, and careful intention, out of a good and pure heart, not a perfect one.
- Christianity Today, “The Seven Levels of Lying” (2011)
- Baptist view part 1 and part 2
- Additional scripture readings:
- On Lying: Isaiah 30:9-11, 59:13, Jeremiah 5:31, John 8:31-55, Acts 5:1-9, Romans 1:19-25, 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12
- On Self-Deception: 1 Corinthians 3:18, Galatians 6:3, James 1:22,26, 1 John 1:8, 2 Timothy 4:3-4
 The Gospel Coalition was founded by D. A. Carson (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Reformed evangelical) and Tim Keller (PCA).
 For example, Proverbs 19:22
 Proverbs 6:16-19, 10:18, 12:9, 12:22, 14:5, 14:25, 17:7, 19:5, 19:9, 21:6, 24:28, 26:18-19, and 26:28.
 It is—among other things—a problem of uncertainty. It is not possible for people to fully grasp truth outside the Word of God. Where a thing is not described in the Word of God or personally revealed by the Word of God, that thing can only ever be a false approximation of truth. This highlights the difference between a fact (something true or proven in the conventional dictionary sense, based on information, evidence, objectivity) and a truth (something true because it comes from God). Only truths that come from God can be truly known. All other things we call truths are approximations that are—by definition—false, that is incomplete, representations of truth. A demonstration of this claim comes from KJV-only Christians, who state that the entire KJV Bible is true as written, even though it is a conventionally proven truth that the words in their Bible are not original, that is, conventionally false. See “Changes to the KJV” by Daniel B. Wallace.
 God does not, for example, ensure what when a Christian makes a scientific claim that it is true. One Christians can claim that the Earth is flat while another that it is an oblate spheroid.
 Baptists, especially, will say that man is hopelessly and utterly lost, that it is impossible for man alone to be good, and that even after salvation, no man is righteous, even though they are saved. If everyone is equally fallen, then pointing out another person’s error would be equally hypocritical.
 Even so, one is saved once-and-for-all by their words upon the profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Even though one does what they do not want to do, they are not condemned, for they have already been acquitted.
 In Matthew 18:15-20.
 Or forgive them. Privacy is important. It is a sin—disobedience of Christ—to not at least attempt to resolve an issue privately. But because one always has the option to forgive their brother instead, the obligation to a private confrontation is not necessary if one is not accusing their brother of sin. It is one thing to give someone advice, another to accuse them of sinning. If anyone didn’t follow Christ’s commands and accused someone publicly of sinning without first approaching them privately, this would be both sinning and hypocrisy.
 The Greek word ‘church’ (ecclesia) means ‘assembly’ and originates from the ancient Greek legal assembly of the citizens in a city-state. The role of the congregation or assembly is to weigh the evidence of the claim. Denominations that use excommunication act as a tribunal in confronting sin. The objectives are to find the truth of the accusation and to seek restoration.
 Rahab, the Hebrew midwives, and Elijah all lied with intent to deceive, but were not explicitly condemned, even though the outcome of their actions was positive. The ends do not justify the means. Had Rahab, who had already demonstrated her faith, refused to lie, she would not have sinned.
 To this day, Roman Catholicism interprets the words of Jesus—”For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned”—such that you must have works in order to be saved.
 This explicitly excludes speaking things you know are false, but with good intent, that you know they will misinterpret. You cannot speak something you know to be false, regardless of your intent. You can speak something you believe to be true.
 How much obligation you have to ensure whether something is true or not is not something that I can describe dogmatically. The sheer impossibility of knowing for sure obviously doesn’t mean we cannot speak at all. That is why I say “try your best”. It is a matter of conviction and discernment, not rules following.
 See also: Titus 1:2 and 1 John 1:5
 One can have intent to deceive someone (including oneself) even if one only says things that are true. This is why one must not knowingly lie and must also not intend to deceive, even if your reasons for doing so are allegedly good in intention. However, you are not morally responsible for cases where your words are merely misunderstood, even if you know this outcome is likely. What matters is the intention of your heart: for good or evil.
 Self-deception is a sin motivated by the intention of one’s heart to deceive oneself. In practice, it can be difficult to tell if one is merely wrong or motivated by self-deception. This is one reason that it is a good idea to repent of all errors when they become known: admit the mistake and repair it.