Ask Steve: What is Truth?



Currently Reading:

What is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics

by R.C. Sproul

Category: Theology

1997, Baker Books





Question: Steve, can you define truth and explain how we can know it?

Answer: Shortly before Jesus’ crucifixion, Christ engaged in a brief conversation with Pontius Pilate about the nature of His identity and mission on earth. Pilate asked Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus replied, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” To this, Pilate comments sarcastically, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:33-38)

The question “What is truth?” has been a matter of debate through the ages. It is still an issue now in a postmodern era, which does not believe in absolute truth and error. The idea of real, defined truth is under attack because of society’s ever-increasing tendency to promote tolerance amidst different religions, ideologies, philosophies, and lifestyles. It appears that the only thing we can know for sure is that there is no such thing as absolute truth. No doubt, this statement is itself an absolute statement claiming truth.

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Is there truth and can we know it? We certainly can. We know it not only because Scripture says so and demonstrates it (through Christ), but also because it is seen in every aspect of life (physics, chemistry, biology, morals, mathematics, etc). It is important to establish this idea of absolute truth, because without it, a person lives in delusion. He lives a misguided life. But most importantly, his eternal welfare is on the line.

Before I explain what truth is, it is best to have a discussion on what truth is not. Truth is not pragmatism. It is not what best works or what is most efficient and productive in a given situation, whether it involves vocation or relationships. Truth is not what makes feel people good. Just because people enjoy doing drugs, eating like a glutton, living a sinful heterosexual or homosexual lifestyle, or participating in a feel-good religion does not make it right or true. Truth is not simply our own personal beliefs. It is not subjectivism. We can sincerely believe that no harm will come to us when we cross a street with racing cars or that a futile vaccine can actually cure our deadly disease. But it does not change the reality of what will inevitably happen because of our choices. Truth is not what the majority of the population believes. A majority of the people can believe that slavery and racial genocide is right, but it doesn’t make it true. A majority of the people can believe that abortion and homosexual marriages are right, but it doesn’t necessarily make it true. Truth is not defined by a particular person’s stance or beliefs, such as the Pope, Oprah Winfrey, or the President of the United States. Truth is also not measured by intention. Someone may have good intentions for murdering a particular person (for the cause of a greater good). But that doesn’t make his actions, or the principle behind it, right or true.

So what is truth? Truth is whatever corresponds to reality. It is simply what is real and defined. It is the way it is, regardless of what one thinks about it or tries to redefine it. Truth is unchanging. It is absolute. It affects all people and sectors of life. No one or nothing is excluded. Therefore, anything that contradicts what is true is false and erroneous. As it regards morality, the opposite of truth is evil and sin.

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In order for truth to be defined, real, and objective, it must be based on a transcendent source. Otherwise, there can be no such thing as truth, because every man would define what is right and wrong. No one can claim monopoly on truth. However, if there is an author of life who has designed and instituted fixed laws that govern the universe, as well as morality, ethics, and social relationships, then there exists truth. That source is God, who is author and definer of truth. He is the ruler, canon, and standard. In essence, God is truth.

John MacArthur provides a solid definition of truth as it relates to God: “Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. Even more to the point: Truth is the self-expression of God.” Dr. MacArthur also accurately describes the origins of truth when he states: “The one most valuable lesson humanity ought to have learned from philosophy is that it is impossible to make sense of truth without acknowledging God as the necessary starting point.”

Because God created and sustains the world with fixed laws of nature (Gen 1; Col 1:16; Heb 1:3), there is such thing as truth. Because God operates in the moral realm by implanting His law into the hearts of all men (Rom 2:14-16), there is such thing as truth. Because there is truth, there is also falsehood. It is true that reptiles can never have dog offspring. It is true that 2 + 2 can never equal 5. It is true that the current orbit of Jupiter stops space material (like asteroids) from bombarding and destroying life on earth. To think otherwise would be ludicrous, because it has no basis in reality. The same applies to morality. God has a real code for human conduct, which governs the earth as much as the laws of nature timelessly govern the cosmos. Murder will always be wrong. Kindness will always right. Adultery will always be wrong. Marital faithfulness will always be right. Lying will always be wrong. Truthfulness will always be right. Covetousness will always be wrong. Gratitude will always be right.

Where do we find this standard of truth? It is in God’s word. It is in the Bible. The Bible is the revelation from God Himself concerning His being, character, attributes, and will. Man must come to it in order to learn how to be reconciled to a holy God and to live in a way that is pleasing in His sight. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Furthermore, He says of the Father, “…Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). The Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and all-sufficient word of God which alone guides people in how they are to conduct themselves in life, as the Creator and Author intended.

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Although the Bible speaks important truths concerning science, geography, and history, it speaks ultimately of man’s main problem (sin) and where the solution is (Christ). Every man needs to heed the message of Scripture because it reveals the way of salvation. That is the ultimate truth that men need to hear – that Jesus Christ is the only way to God and eternal life (Jn 3:16; Jn 14:6; Acts 4:19). There is no other way to salvation, or even proper worship life, other than through Jesus Christ. Therefore, other religions, and their teachings concerning salvation, are false and even dangerous. There is no such thing as “all roads lead to Rome.” It is salvation either through Jesus Christ, or no salvation. This is truth, according to God’s word.

Is this saying that there is no truth apparent anywhere in other religions, philosophies, or ideologies? No. There is true statements and teachings in other sources. Buddhism teaches that suffering is bad and needs to be rid off. That is true. Islam teaches that there is only one God, and men need to worship God. That is true. However, the only reason these observations and convictions are true is that they are based on what God has revealed in His general revelation, which every person on earth has access to. The whole world knows that there is a Creator who designed the world and empowers life (Rom 1:18-20). The world knows that there is a real moral law that governs human behavior, which is apparent in social relationships and government statutes (Rom 2:14-16). This general revelation testifies to God so people are without excuse on Judgment Day, yet the truths apparent in general revelation do not save people or make their paths straight. That can only be done through God’s special revelation, which is in the Bible. Thus, things in life are true in so long as they do not contradict what God has revealed in Scripture. And the most important truth which men must heed is the message of salvation.

Truth is God, and He reveals Himself in Scripture, which is the source of truth (Ps 119:60; Prov 30:5). Men ignore, distort, and malign this truth everyday because of their sinful, depraved nature. If they were without sin, then they would come to God in humble, true worship. However, men suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18), and they will be justly judged by the Creator someday, being held accountable to what God has already shown them in general revelation (and maybe even special revelation). That is why it is important to discover truth and to respond to it before it is too late.

Recommended Resource: The Truth War by John MacArthur