The same apostle who said, “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18), also recorded Jesus saying, “These things I speak . . . that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13), and, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).
If the “speaking” of Jesus imparts joy, and the “words” of Jesus give spiritual life, then surely such speaking is love.
It has always troubled me that 1 John 3:18 could be taken to imply that what we do with our mouths is a less real or less frequent form of love than what we do with our hands. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” It seems to me that we have practical and biblical reasons for saying that the muscle of the tongue is more frequently the instrument of true love than any other muscle of the body.
So, let’s step back and see what John is saying in 1 John 3:18 and what the wider witness of Scripture is. Notice the context, the structure of his words, and what other witnesses say.
1. The Context
The preceding verses give us a clue what John means:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:16–17)
If it comes down to your life or my life, and I take the bullet, no demonstration of love could be greater. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
“The most frequent witness to the love of our hearts is what comes out of our mouths.”
Then John draws out a principle of love which is more pervasive and less dramatic: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” In other words, true love not only gives its life for the loved ones, but also its goods.
This is what James was saying: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16). This is what John is criticizing: Saying, “Be warmed and filled,” but giving no food and clothing when you have them to give.
So the first thing John has in mind is people who say they love others, but when it comes down to practical sacrifices, and acts of self-denial, they don’t do them. That’s what John means by loving “in word or talk.” It’s not real. Deeds of sacrifice validate words of love.
2. The Structure of His Words
But there are more clues. You can’t see this one in the English translation, but the contrasting pairs of words (“word or talk” vs. “deed and truth”) are not exactly parallel. The first two are dative, and the second two are objects of the repeated preposition en. Hence literally: “Little children, let us not love by word or by talk but in deed and in truth.” The difference may be incidental. Or perhaps there is a reason for it: “Let us not think of love as actions of instruments like tongues and the sounds they make (words). Let us rather think of love as a reality that is happening in our deeds and in truth.”
In other words, love can never be reduced to sounds (words) or muscle movements (whether the tongue or any other muscle). Rather, love is always something real within and beneath those actions. Something true. That’s why Paul said, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Deeds by themselves are never love. Never. Love is “in” the deeds. So John’s point is: Don’t identify love with words or tongue-acts. Love is deeper. It is active in muscle actions, but is never identical with such instruments. The words, “in truth,” push the issue deeper.
But even more important than the grammar is the surprising contrast between “tongue” and “truth.” “Little children, let us not love by word or talk but in deed and in truth.” We expect the contrast between “word” and “deed.” But not “talk” and “truth.” We might have expected something like “not by talk but by hand.”
The simplest lesson to draw from this is: Don’t make loving promises with your tongue that don’t come true in reality. If you say you are going to come to help, come. The promise is encouraging, and therefore loving. But all that encouragement dies when you don’t show up. Tell the truth. Love in truth.
“Many fail as lovers by thinking they can replace words with deeds. And many fail, thinking words are enough.”
A second lesson to draw from the contrast between tongue and truth is that truth itself is a wonderful gift. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Speaking the truth to others, whether they like it or not, is a great gift. “The words that I have spoken to you are . . . life” (John 6:63). That was true for Jesus and for the apostles: “Speak to the people all the words of this Life” (Acts 5:20).
Which means that when the tongue and its sounds (words) are “in truth,” they become acts of love. The line of lovelessness is not drawn between speaking and doing, but between speaking and doing in the truth, and speaking and doing in emptiness. Truth turns word-love into deed-love.
3. What Other Witnesses Say
The concern I raised at the beginning was that 1 John 3:18 could be taken to imply that what we do with our mouths is a less real or less frequent form of love than what we do with our hands and feet. I don’t think John was saying that. Here is how real and frequent and important mouth-love is.
With the mouth everlasting joy is imparted:
“These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” (John 17:13)
With the mouth faith is awakened:
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
With the mouth courage imparts profitable things:
“I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable.” (Acts 20:20)
With the mouth blessing comes:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14)
With the mouth grace is given:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up . . . that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
We will be judged according to our mouth-deeds as much as by our hand-deeds:
“On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36–37)
Two Ways to Get it Wrong
When John says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” he does not diminish the reality or frequency or importance of loving with our words. In fact, even though the most dramatic and decisive expression of love may be the deep sacrifices we make for those we love, two things remain true.
One is that there are sacrifices which have ulterior motives and are not real love (again, 1 Corinthians 13:3 says, “If I deliver up my body to be burned . . .”). Love is not identical to deeds. Ever. It is always “in” the deeds, or not.
“The muscle of the tongue is more frequently the instrument of true love than any other muscle of the body.”
The other is, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Therefore, the most frequent witness to the love of our hearts is what comes out of our mouths. In this sense, our words are deeds. And God knows when they are true.
But let us never treat the mouth-deed or the hand-deed with neglect, or preference. Many fail as lovers by thinking they can replace words with deeds. And many fail, thinking words are enough. Rather let us always think: Both! Both word and work! Mouth-work and hand-work! Both!
Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Colossians 3:17)
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience — by word and deed. (Romans 15:18)
May God . . . comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:16–17)