Words And Things: Practicing The Truth (Part 6)

Already in this series we have looked at two things that will be further illustrated here. First, we have to be very careful with the whole notion of a “literal” translation. Literal does not necessarily mean more accurate. The second thing is the difference between a gloss (i.e., an English word substitute for a Greek word) and a description of a word’s meanings. Both of these will come into play when we examine the use of the phrase “do truth” in 1 John 1:6.

The ESV renders our verse as: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). There is nothing particularly difficult about this verse. It is the first of three alternating strings of warnings about false profession of faith that open with, “If we say” (1 John 1:6, 8, and 10). These are interspersed with positive statements in verses 7 and 9, which give us encouragement to walk in the light through living according to his will and that the Lord forgives our sins since we are not perfected in holiness in this life. John is telling us we must practice real holiness, not perfect holiness (cf. 1 John 1:9–2:2).

Back to our word study though, we see that John states his evaluation of the hypocritical “faith” in Christ of those who say that they “have fellowship with him,” but all the while “walk in darkness.” The judgment is that they “lie and do not practice the truth.” At first glance, this seems to make perfect sense, because John is stating his point positively (“we lie”) and negatively (“and do not practice the truth”). This fits John’s style very well because he uses positive statements contrasted with negative statements elsewhere—for example, when he reports that John the Baptist “confessed” and “did not deny” in John 1:20.

Furthermore, a “lie” and “truth” seem to be polar opposites. We are lying and therefore not speaking the truth. The problem is that in 1 John 1:6, John does not say, “speaking the truth.” Rather, as the ESV renders it, “practicing the truth.” This is not what we expect and, frankly, needs some further study.

The translation “practicing the truth” is good, but it is not quite understandable. What does it mean? “Truth” is something we say, confess, or believe, but not “practice.” We practice the cello, baseball, or righteousness, but not “truth.” It becomes even more difficult to fathom if we were to render “practice” as “do the truth” (which is possible).

The problem is resolved when we treat “do truth” as a set phrase. When we search for this phrase, the only other place it appears in the New Testament is John 3:21, where all we can tell is that “doing truth” is a good thing in contrast with doing wickedness (John 3:20).

When we broaden our search to the Old Testament, we find the meaning of our phrase is clarified. Although there is more we can do, we will just look at two key places. The first appears like this in the ESV:

And Jacob said, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, “Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,” I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.’” (Gen 32:9–10)

Our phrase appears here in the Greek OT translation as “the faithfulness that you have shown.” This is the same “do truth” phrase found in 1 John 1:6. The key is the phrase “steadfast love and faithfulness,” which both in Hebrew and Greek can be rendered as “love and truth,” but are technical covenant terms that refer to one’s allegiance (“love”) to his covenant partner and fidelity (“truth”) to that commitment.

The second OT passage confirms the covenant context of our phrase: “And when the time drew near that Israel must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, ‘If now I have found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me.’” (Gen 47:29). We see Jacob (i.e., Israel) calling on his son to make a solemn commitment (i.e., a covenant) to “deal kindly and truly” (where the highlighted words are our “do truth” phrase).

The result of our brief search is that John is employing a phrase in 1 John 1:6 that was inspired by the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The phrase is rendered as “practice the truth,” but may be better, if less literally, rendered as “keep (covenant) fidelity” or even “keep faith.” John’s point is that people who profess to be in covenant bond with Christ, but willingly and wantonly act in a way that betrays this essential covenant allegiance, are not “keeping faith” with the Lord. New Testament words and phrases are not always (and maybe even not frequently) rooted in OT words and phrases, but it sometimes does happen as with “do truth” in 1 John 1:6.

©Westminster Seminary California. All rights reserved. Reprinted on the Heidelblog by permission.

This article was first published on the WSC Blog in 2011.

You can find the whole series here.


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