One of the most frequently used words at Reformed Theological Seminary is the word “winsome.” I believe it is a good word that describes a necessary and thoroughly biblical idea. But I realize that what we mean by this word and why we think it is important for us to exemplify may not always be so clear. At RTS, we strive to be winsome in everything that we do and in every interaction that we have. We want to defend the truth of God’s Word faithfully and also as winsomely as we can. We want to engage those who disagree with us in this same manner, whether we are talking about a face-to-face interaction or an online forum. We believe it is important to hold fast to the truth and to do so as winsomely or graciously as we can.
The Bible speaks a great deal about Christians knowing what they believe and holding fast to that truth. Jesus even defines Christian discipleship in such terms in John 8:31-32, when He says: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The Holy Spirit, moreover, is frequently described as a “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), which means that every Christian who is indwelt by the Spirit—and every Christian is (see Rom. 8:9)—has an inherent commitment to the truth. That is no doubt why Paul encourages Timothy to “Keep a close watch on [himself] and on the teaching [or doctrine],” because “by doing so” he “will save both [himself] and [his] hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). And it is why, in the face of false teaching, Jude exhorts every believer to continually “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Holding to the truth and defending that truth are, therefore, part and parcel of what it means to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as He is the truth (John 14:6), so His people are to be a people of the truth. That much is plain in the Bible.
In our quest to defend the truth, however, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the Bible also calls us to do so as winsomely and graciously as we can. Thus Paul says in Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
Regardless of the forum, the person we are talking to, or the force of the invective directed against us, we are always to respond as graciously as possible. So much of the interaction that I see in online platforms fails to do this. We may say the right things, but the way we say them—according to Colossians 4:6—is at least as important as what we are saying, if not more so. That is why Paul says that we fulfill the admonition to speak graciously when we know “how [we] ought to answer each person” instead of what we should say (emphasis added).
Much of what follows is drawn from an article I published entitled, “Speaking the Truth in Love,” Tabletalk Magazine 39:2 (February 2015), p. 45.
Paul says something similar in Ephesians 4:15, when he advocates for every believer “speaking the truth in love.” The controlling principle here is not truth but love. Yes, we are to speak the truth. That is a non-negotiable. But we are to do so “in love.” If love is defined as doing what is best for the other person (the object of our love) and not what is most convenient or even best for ourselves, this will directly affect our truth-speaking in at least two significant ways: it will affect how we speak the truth, and it will affect what truth we decide to speak and what we decide to leave unspoken.
If love is what is driving us to speak to others, we will, first of all, be concerned about how we speak. We will seek to watch the words that we use as well as the attitude, motive, and tone of voice with which we say them. We will strive not to give offense by the way we speak the truth, but seek to be “all things to all people” so that we “might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). This is precisely what Solomon is talking about in Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Being winsome means that we seek to give as “soft” an answer as we can possibly give to those who disagree with us or who are opposing us. It means that we present the truth in the best light without compromising the truth. The goal is not to make the unpalatable truth palatable by hiding some aspect of the truth. It is to reduce obstacles to the reception of the truth that we put up ourselves by our attitude, our word-choice, or our tone of voice. To borrow the words of one of my former seminary professors, we seek to be “as gentle as possible” in inculcating the truth of God’s Word. Sometimes, this may mean that we should read every post we make online twenty or thirty times and ask ourselves if we are being divisive or unloving in the way we are saying what we believe we need to say.
Second of all, if love is what is driving us to speak to others, we will also exercise restraint in the truth that we choose to communicate. We will recognize that “speaking the truth in love” sometimes means saying nothing at all, as it seems to on at least three occasions in the life and ministry of Jesus. Passages like Matthew 5:38-40, 7:6, and 27:11-14—all of which are cited below—teach us that there are times when it is better for us to remain silent than to speak the truth, either because the individuals involved are not yet ready to hear the truth or because saying it would do more harm than good.
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well (Matt. 5:38-40).
Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you (Matt. 7:6).
Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You have said so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed (Matt. 27:11-14).
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, moreover, confirm that we are to let love guide us in determining what truth we share and what we leave unsaid:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
The fact that someone we know is fat or ugly may well be true, but it is probably not loving for us to point it out to them with our words. The point is that love for others ought to cause us to think very carefully about what we say before we ever say it. We need to examine our intentions. Are we really chiefly concerned for the best interest of the other person? Or is it a selfish desire to clear the air or get things off our chest or to demonstrate that we are in the right?
No doubt, there are times when the best interests of others will require us to speak the truth in ways that may sting. But we need to be very careful and very prayerful in those situations—and in every situation—to ensure, as much as we can, that we are motivated by love and not by selfish pride. I pray that our Christian witness in every forum, but especially in online forums and debates, will be more shaped by love for the other(s) than by a desire to be right. Then and only then will we be winsome in the way we present the truth. Then and only then will the world begin to ask for the reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15).