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“You shall not bear false witness.” The ninth commandment isn’t just a commandment for the courtroom. Jesus shows us in the Sermon on the Mount that the Decalogue goes much deeper than we might think, down to the heart level. And in His summary of the law, Jesus taught that the Ten Commandments include both the positive—you shall—even as they state the negative—you shall not. So where does this leave us? For now, it leaves us in a garden.
Remember that the Ten Commandments tell us first about the character of our God before they tell us what we should do as His people. Or, as the Westminster catechisms teach us, Scripture can be summarized as what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of us. The God who commanded, “Do not lie,” is a God of truth, who reveals to us through His Word the truth about Himself, about ourselves, and about the world in which He has placed us.
Getting back to the garden, when God created man in His image, He created sinless humanity to be absolute truth tellers like He is. We could argue that Satan tempted Adam and Eve to break all Ten Commandments when he tempted them in the garden, but certainly, in that temptation, there was a heavy emphasis on breaking the ninth commandment. Satan tempted Adam and Eve with lies about God; he tempted them to become liars about God. Adam’s willingness to believe lies resulted in the fall of humanity, a humanity that now bends, breaks, sullies, and disregards truth. Pontius Pilate spoke for the fallen human race when he said to Jesus, “What is truth?” But before we can see the cure to this hopeless situation, we need to add to our discussion a brief look at this thing called a “reputation.”
A Reputation Cuts Both Ways
Throughout history, one of the applications of the ninth commandment has been that believers are to protect the good name of our neighbor. A good summary word for a “good name” is a “reputation.” A person’s reputation is a short list of adjectives that accompany them like their given name. But, unlike a given name such as Bob, Jim, or Sarah, a reputation is earned over time and susceptible to change. So, someone might have the positive reputation of being trustworthy and hardworking or the negative reputation of being dishonest and lazy. Reputations, in this way, are influenced by both truth and lies. Someone may have their reputation altered by truth, receiving the acclaim of virtue demonstrated. But someone might also have their reputation altered by slander or gossip, being considered by others to be someone they are not. Are you starting to see how the ninth commandment applies to our reputations? Before we answer that question, we have to move from the garden to a hill.
A Simul and a Cross
On the hill of Golgotha stood the cross that changed human history. Jesus, the Truth, bore the punishment for all the sins of His people. In that great act, Jesus declared us unable to save ourselves even as He simultaneously proclaimed Himself to be utterly able to save us. Now, as Christians, we have a new identity, described in the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator. As Christians, we simultaneously are justified before God by the imputed righteousness of Christ and we also continue to sin, even as we look to God for grace. This simul affects our reputation. As we are in Christ, we are perfect, sinless, and beloved of God. As we are growing in holiness, we are accomplishing good works, virtuous works, reputation-building works. As there is remaining sin, our reputations will be pocked with the blemishes of divine rebellion. How, then, do we guard the good name of our neighbor on this side of the cross? The ninth commandment sets three guards as we defend the reputation of another believer.
The Three Guards
We post our first guard when we determine to speak well of fellow Christians as we see God grow them in holiness through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Christians were made for good works. God gets all the glory for these good works, as it is the result of His willing and doing, but good works also contribute to a Christian’s good name, his reputation. So, when you see a brother or sister growing in good works, obey the ninth commandment and say something to him or her and others about it.
We post our second guard when we refuse to give or receive gossip or slander about a brother. Even Christians, at times, sin by spreading lies or refusing to confront untruths about another believer. These lies can unjustly damage the reputation of a fellow believer. So, when you hear a brother or sister gossiping or being gossiped about, slandering or being slandered, obey the ninth commandment by confronting it, refusing to believe it, and not participating in it.
We post our third guard when we set the expectation that Christians will both sin and repent of sin. Speaking well of a fellow believer does not mean we assume he does not sin but quite the opposite. Our reputations will reflect much of the remaining sin that we hate. Christians will have reputations for being short-tempered or, at times, fearful of men. These aren’t patterns of sin that we tolerate. Instead, we hate them. But it also affects how we speak of one another. To say that a brother is prone to outbursts of anger but hates it, is repenting of it, and is looking to Christ for mercy shows his excellent reputation of fighting sin and living by faith. He is a real sinner depending on a real Savior. Sinless perfection isn’t a part of any Christian’s reputation . . . yet.