Is Lying Always a Sin?

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips July 15, 2001

Our question tonight is, “Is lying always a sin?” This particular question deals with the Ten Commandments, and so we want to turn there and see what it says. In the 9th commandment, in Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20, we read, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

Primarily, this has to do with legal testimony in a court of law. The Jewish legal system relied upon honest witnesses. As is seen in the false condemnation of Naboth due to the scheming of wicked Queen Jezebel, a conspiracy of false witnesses could legally have a person put to death (1 Kings 21:13). Human testimony having power such as this, we can see why the Lord would safeguard truth in testifying. Other safeguards included the need for more than one witness for a death sentence (Dt. 17:6) and the provision that the accusers would themselves throw the first stones (Dt. 17:7). If someone was caught committing perjury, they received the same punishment the accused would have received (Dt. 19:16-19). These provisions, along with the ninth commandments, safeguarded civil justice in Israel. 

This is the primary context for the ninth commandment, and we always need to keep that in mind. Nonetheless, this stands upon the broader biblical condemnation of lying in general. Surely false testimony renders harm even outside a courtroom, and is thus is a sin wherever it takes place. Whenever we give testimony, that is whenever we make a truth claim, we are required by God to do so truthfully. The biblical condemnations of untruth spread a very wide net; they include false witness and accusation, cheating in any form, wrongly defending yourself, denying the truth, leading others astray, and slander of any kind. No wonder the wise man prays, in Proverbs 30:8, “Keep falsehood and lies far from me.” We have to say that lying is a sin deeply ingrained in the human sin nature. Jeremiah was speaking of us all when he said, “They bend their tongue like a bow; falsehood and not truth ahs grown strong in the land” (Jer. 9:3). 

God obliges us to always seek and serve the cause of truth; as Jesus said, “Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'” (Mt. 5:37). Paul writes, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25). 

The Westminster Larger Catechism lists, among the duties required by the ninth commandment: “preserving and promoting truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor… appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbours… discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers… keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.” (Q/A 144). Among the things forbidden are these: “All prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors… giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses… [exaggerating] the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil… concealing the truth… speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning… lying, slandering, backbiting, talebearing…” and a host of other false uses of truth (Q/A 145). If you read that list, all of which is born out in Scripture, it is hard to imagine what kind of lying might be done without sin. 

People reply, isn’t it true that by speaking the truth we often do greater harm? Should I, for instance, say Yes when someone asks me, “Do you think I’ve gained weight?” Should I say I’m sorry, but it was awful, to the bad cook who anxiously asks about the meal? Let me say, in response to this, that there is a place for social tact; honesty does not always demand brutality. Yet, before we start excusing any pattern of untruth on tongues such as ours – which take to lies so eagerly – perhaps we would do better to seek wisdom in our speech, seeking to be an edifying presence without being a false one. We should seek a godly truth that is no bedfellow with a flippancy about falsehood.

What, then, about deceiving an enemy in war? What if someone comes into my house and puts a gun to my head demanding to know if my wife is upstairs? (The latter is the classic example of situational ethics.) Do these and other examples not prove that no ethic is absolute; that we have to produce some hierarchy of values, a hierarchy of love as some put it? The problem with any hierarchy of values which pits, for instance, preservation of life versus preservation of truth, is that you find this nowhere in the Bible. How, then, do we handle seemingly competing values?

The answer, as usual, is that we should pay closer attention to the Bible. The Bible does not say that everybody has the right to demand information from you. Here, we return to the main context of the ninth commandment as truth in testimony. The Bible handles other matters, such as the conduct of war, in other places. The reason Rahab was not sinning when she deceived the soldiers in Jericho was that she was participating in Israel’s war with the Canaanites; it is not lying to deceive your opponent in war. There are, in fact, a number of circumstances in which people do not have the right to demand information from you. When a car salesman asks, “How much money do you make?” the wise answer is, “Not enough to be cheated by you!” In the case of the criminal looking for your wife, or of the Nazi soldier looking for the Jews hiding in your basement, these are not the “neighbors” spoken of the ninth commandment, at least not in that capacity. 

The Bible, and in this case, the 9th commandment, turns out to be more sophisticated than we often think; we don’t need to reinterpret according to modern sensibilities but rather to obey it in spirit and truth according to what it says. 

Therefore, we should not quickly or easily discount the many lies we speak according to some flippant situational ethic. Our problem is not that the Law is not flexible enough to meet our real-world situations, but rather that our hearts are deceitful, that we so seldom want the truth to be known, that, as Paul says of us, “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit” (Rom. 3:13). Far from thinking of situations in which we may excuse the impulse to untruth that is so deeply ingrained on our hearts, we should ask God for a new heart, for his Spirit to work his own character into us – including a deep and abiding love for truth –so that we might do his will in every situation.

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