Be Honest!

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

WSC 76-78 of 107

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Exodus 20:16

WSC 76. Which is the Ninth Commandment?

A. The Ninth Commandment is, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 

1Ex 20:16.

WSC 77. What is required in the Ninth Commandment? 

A. The Ninth Commandment requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man,1 and of our own and our neighbour’s good name,2 especially in witness-bearing.3

1Zech 8:16; 23 Jn 12; 3Prov 14:5, 25.

WSC 78. What is forbidden in the 9th  Commandment? 

A. The Ninth Commandment forbiddeth whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name.1

11 Sam 17:28; Lev 19:16; Ps 15:3.

Which is the first sin against man recorded in the Scriptures? It is the breaking of the Ninth Commandment.  

What specific sin against man does the Scripture speak about most frequently? It is the violation of the Ninth Commandment.  

Which commandment in the second table is most frequently broken in our society today? I believe it is the Ninth Commandment.  

Which commandment in the second table is the most difficult to interpret and genders the most disagreements among theologians? I believe it is the Ninth Commandment: 

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Ex 20:16

In this sermon, the Lord helping us, we want to look at this very important and famous commandment in seven brief points under the acrostic HONESTY. 

  1. Honesty is the theme of the Ninth Commandment
  2. Overt lies and half-truths are all forbidden
  3. Non-verbal deceit is likewise prejudicial to truth 
  4. Excuses, exaggeration and flattery are usually wrong 
  5. Slander, backstabbing and backbiting are abominable. 
  6. Telling the truth is encouraged; talebearing is not. 
  7. Yes, there are permissible deceits; but such are rare. 

1. Honesty Is the Theme of the Ninth Commandment 

The Ninth Commandment reads: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” On the surface, this concerns a courtroom situation in which we are called to be witnesses. Indeed, when Moses expounds this commandment in Exodus 23:1-3, he says:  

Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness…

Ex 23:1-3

In other words, we must be impartial witnesses. When a person is being tried for a crime, we must never give a false account. We must speak only the truth. This is why Question 77 of our catechism teaches that:  

The Ninth Commandment requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man, and of our own and our neighbour’s good name, especially in witness bearing.

But notice how our catechism extends the application to outside the courtroom. Remember that the Ten Commandments must always be interpreted with their broadest and most general meaning. So, the First Commandment has to do with the being of God; the Second, the worship of God; the Third, the name of God; the Fourth, the day of God; the Fifth has to do with the authority of man in society; the Sixth, with human lives; the Seventh, marriage; the Eighth, personal property. What about the Ninth Commandment?  

It is easy to see that the subject is HONESTY or “truth between man and man.” John Calvin, the great Reformer, puts it succinctly: “The purpose of this commandment is: since God (who is truth) abhors a lie, we must practice truth without deceit one to another.”  

Whenever we tell a lie about someone, we damage his good name. Whenever we tell a lie to someone, we sin against him, for we would have fed him with false information which pollutes his soul. At the same time, we would hurt our own name, for we would make ourselves out to be a liar, that is, a sinner.  

Thus, our Shorter Catechism teaches us in Question 78: 

The Ninth Commandment forbiddeth whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name.

WSC 78

2. Overt Lies and Half-Truths Are All Forbidden 

Explicit lies or deceit are the most apparent ways truth is perverted or prejudiced. There are many different ways to lie. But the most obvious way to lie is to say something contrary to fact.  

This is one of the six or seven things that are hateful and abominable to God (Prov 6:16-17). In fact, if you look at Proverbs 6, you will quickly realise that deceit is repeated in the list! It is also one of the clearest marks distinguishing a true Christian from an unbeliever. Several passages in Scripture in the Psalms and Gospels highlight this fact. We think of John 8:44, where the Lord Jesus speaks of the unconverted Jews as the children of the devil, the father of lies. We think of Psalm 52:1-4, where the unconverted is called “a deceitful tongue”!  

Know a man who lies habitually or a man who lies and is unrepentant, and you are most likely looking at an unregenerate man, whatever the man may claim. 

But remember that lying does not necessarily need to take an overt form. That is why the courtroom witness is required to swear under the pain of prosecution to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  

Very few genuine believers will tell overt lies without feeling much guilt. 

But let us remember that half-truths are also lies! The word translated ‘false’ in the Ninth Commandment does not only mean ‘false’. It can also be translated as ‘deceptive’, ‘disappointing’, ‘vain’, or ‘wrongful.’  

In other words, the Ninth Commandment is not only about the prima facie value of the spoken word. We often hear people saying, “I told the truth,” when they only refer to the face value of their words.  

Abraham was telling the truth when he said that Sarah was his sister. But was he telling the truth? He hid the fact that she was also his wife! 

I am not saying that you must always say everything or have no right to withhold anything from anyone. However, withholding certain facts would violate the Ninth Commandment if you give a wrong impression. Overt lies and half-truths are forbidden since they are prejudicial to truth. But note that… 

3. Non-Verbal Deceit Is Likewise Prejudicial to Truth 

You don’t need words to deceive. The apostle Paul warns the Corinthian Christians to beware of “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:13). “And no marvel,” he adds, “for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). 

What if an angel of light disguises himself as an angel of Satan? That would be unthinkable! But does this not, in a sense, happen when a church disguises so-called gospel meetings as worldly concerts? 

Or consider: Is it alright for believers to pretend to conduct transport surveys outside the MRT stations as a guise for sharing the gospel with unsuspecting passengers? Of course, if it is a religious survey and the data collected is actually used rather than discarded, then it will be a different story. But if the survey is a pretext, it is deceptive, just as the gospel meeting advertised as a concert. 

These are non-verbal deceit. So is hypocrisy.  

Hypocrisy has to do with doing something pretentiously so that there is a disparity between what is in the heart and what is done outwardly. The apostle John was referring to this sin when he says: “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1Jn 1:6). 

We know how our Lord reserves some of His harshest words for the hypocrites  (Mt 23:27-28).  

Remember that non-verbal deceit is also prejudicial to the truth. 

4. Excuses, Exaggeration & Flattery Are Usually Wrong 

It is important to remember that the Ninth Commandment is not only broken when your lies hurt someone else. There are no such things as white lies. Why? Because even if they do not hurt anyone else, they injure your own good name and damage truth between man and man. 

Remember that excuses, exaggeration and flattery are usually sinful, even if they may not be maliciously spoken. 

Of course, honest excuses do not violate the Ninth Commandment. But if you give an excuse for a mistake to make yourself look less foolish, you would be violating the Ninth Commandment. So, children, if you claim to have no time to learn your catechism but have spent a few hours playing your favourite computer game, you would be violating the Ninth Commandment with a deceitful excuse. 

Similarly, exaggeration or overstatement in everyday speech is also a falsehood. Of course, there is such a thing as hyperbole in speech. Hyperbole occurs in the Scripture, too. When hyperbole is used, the hearer knows that the speaker is exaggerating to emphasise a point. The whole of Singapore came out to pay their last respect to our founding prime minister! The spider was at least a metre across!  

But if you exaggerate to manipulate, then you know it is wicked. So, for example, if you run a business and exaggerate your sales volume to entice more investors, you would certainly be breaking the Ninth Commandment. Well, it’s business strategy, nothing malicious, you say. But still, it violates the Ninth Commandment. 

Similarly, flattery is sinful, though it may appear to make someone happy rather than hurt him. Indeed, flattery does a tremendous disservice to those flattered: “A man that flattereth his neighbour spreadeth a net for his feet” (Prov 29:5). But whether the person is hurt eventually or it is intended to encourage, flattery is sinful. 

So resist all temptation to flatter.  “He that rebuketh a man afterwards shall find more favour than he that flattereth with the tongue” (Prov 28:23). Remember that excuses, exaggeration and flattery are often sinful even if they may not be maliciously spoken. But if this is so, consider fifthly that … 

5. Slander, Backstabbing and Backbiting Are Abominable 

Slander, backstabbing and backbiting are a wicked triplet. Our Catechism refers to these when it speaks of that which is “injurious to… our neighbour’s good name.” 

This was what Potiphar’s wife did to Joseph after he refused to give in to her advances. She accused him of molesting her, which is grossly false and slanderous. This sin is prevalent in the workplace. Backstabbing and backbiting are essentially the same as slander. 

Lying to a person is a gross sin; lying about another person is an abominable sin. It is equivalent to murder and receives the strongest condemnation of our Lord, “Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer” (Ps 101:5).  

Slander is often a result of pride and hatred. Resolve never to slander, beloved brethren and children. The Christian must understand that it is far better to be slandered than to slander. “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile” (Ps 34:13). Cultivate transparency between one another. Learn to speak your mind with love, and you will have little occasion to resort to slander.  

Yes, the Scripture tells us that there are times when we have to warn others about certain persons by name. But if you have to do so, remember always to get your facts correct. Else, you would be slandering and backbiting. Indeed, let us understand sixthly that… 

6. Telling the Truth Is Encouraged, Talebearing Is Not 

Question 77 of our catechism teaches us that: “The Ninth Commandment requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man, and of our own and our neighbour’s good name, especially in witness-bearing.” 

So, the Ninth Commandment encourages us to spread the truth, especially where it promotes our own and our neighbours’ good names. So, if someone has been maligned or misrepresented by those who do not know him, and you know the truth, you must not keep silent.  

Of course, this does not mean that Christians should be gossipers. Instead, it means we should carefully consider what we should say or avoid saying about others. 

Whenever you want to say something about someone, ask yourself: Is it a fact or hearsay? Is it the truth, or is it an opinion? Is it actual or conjectural? And ask also: will it be edifying for me to say it?  

Moreover, when you hear something negative said about someone you know, then make sure you verify it instead of repeating it. How do I verify? Moses gives an example of how to do it in Deuteronomy 13:14: 

If thou shall hear say in one of thy cities, … Then shalt thou [1] enquire, and [2] make search, and [3] ask diligently; and, behold, if [4] it be truth, and [5] the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you…

What should you do after you verify? If it is true and you are really concerned, you should approach the persons involved rather than spread gossip. Gossips are very dangerous and often damaging.  

“A true witness delivereth souls: but a deceitful witness speaketh lies,” says Solomon (Prov 14:25). Spurgeon has rightly observed, “A lie travels around the world while Truth is putting on her boots.” For this reason, we say: While telling the truth is encouraged, talebearing or gossip should be avoided regardless of veracity. 

Finally, we must add: 

7. Yes, There Are Permissible Deceits; but Such Are Rare

But how can it be? If God hate lies, how can any lies be permissible? 

For this reason, many ancient commentators, from Augustine to Calvin to John Murray insist that there can be no exception to the sinfulness of deceit and lies. Calvin, for example, says:  

“Whatever is opposed to the nature of God is sinful; and on this ground all dissimulation, whether in word or deed, is condemned” (Calvin on Ex 1:19).  

This view seems to be the most consistent view from a theological standpoint. I would love to take this view for consistency’s sake. However, after much consideration, it appears to me that this view does not square with the Scriptures. Consider the following instances. 

i. Hebrew mid-wives (Ex 1:15-20). 

The Jews were slaves in Egypt. Pharaoh wanted to kill all the firstborn males. He instructed the midwives to kill all the males at birth. The midwives chose to disobey. Pharaoh called them up for questioning. They claimed that the Hebrew women always delivered their babies so quickly that the babies were out before they arrived. Well, on account of what they did, we are told, “God dealt well with the midwives…” (Ex 1:20).  

What did they do that was commendable? An honest exegesis of the text will require us to say that they were lying to Pharaoh! When I was in Bible College, I mentioned this, and the lecturer said: “No, the midwives were telling the truth; the babies were indeed delivered before they arrived.” If that were the case, why did God bless the midwives? If they were intent on following Pharaoh’s instructions, which their statement to Pharaoh suggested, then they deserved a curse, not a blessing.  

It is, of course, possible that God was pleased with their intention not to kill the babies, but not their lies. 

ii. Rahab and the spies (Jos 2:1-7; Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). 

Joshua had sent two spies into Jericho. They entered the city and lodged with Rahab, the harlot whose house was built on the city wall. The king of Jericho got wind of their presence. He sent soldiers after them. But Rahab hid the men on the rooftop under the stalks of flax. She told the soldiers, “They’ve gone off; go, chase after them; you might catch them.” 

Now, what she did is commended in the New Testament:  

Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

Jas 2:25; cf. Heb 11:31

What was Rahab’s heroic act? It was not just letting the spies stay in her house. It was to protect them, and that includes lying to their pursuers. Some would condemn Rahab for lying but praise her for harbouring the spies. But imagine what would have happened if the pursuers came, and Rahab said, “Oh, they are up on the roof.” Then, she would be condemned as a traitor, wouldn’t she? We need not resort to sophisticated arguments to say that God would have overruled because if He had, Rahab would not have been a hero of faith. 

iii. Joshua’s victory over Ai (Jos 8:1-8). 

Joshua sent his army to fight against Ai. They lost the battle because one man, Achan, disobeyed God by taking things God had forbidden them to take. Achan was punished. Joshua prayed, and the Lord heard his prayer. He instructed Joshua to set an ambush behind the city (Jos 8:2). He was to divide his army into two: one was to hide behind the city, and the other was to pretend to attack and then withdraw from the city to lure the defenders out to pursue them. And when they were out, the ambush team would close in to take the city.  

This is a military strategy. It is a strategy that necessarily involves deception or lying. And this is a strategy given by God to Joshua. Lying in warfare is not a sin. Indeed, it is often necessary. 

iv. Samuel’s trip to anoint David (1 Sam 16:1-2). 

The Lord had rejected Saul as king. He instructed the prophet Samuel to go and anoint David to be king. Samuel was afraid that Saul might find out and kill him. What did the Lord say? “Fear not! I will protect you”?  

No, God usually uses ordinary means. He instructed Samuel to bring a heifer along and tell anyone who asked him that he had come to sacrifice to the Lord. Yes, indeed, he did go to sacrifice. But what was his primary reason for going to Jesse’s house? It was to anoint David. His bringing a heifer was part of a deception to fool Saul. It was a lie. This is a God-sanctioned deception.  

Prof John Murray tried very hard to distinguish between a lie and a deception to absolve God of guilt for instructing Samuel to lie. There is no difference between deception and lying because the intention is fundamentally the same. Neither did God sin. Deception is not wrong when lives are threatened. If we present it as evil, then we make God the author of evil. We must derive our ethics from the Scriptures, not vice versa. 

From all these examples, we may conclude that lying under some rare circumstances is no sin. We have seen that the Sixth Commandment allows for exceptions. Killing an enemy during war is not breaking the Sixth Commandment. Killing in self-defence is no murder. In the same way, I believe there are exceptions to the Ninth Commandment. 

What are the exceptions? Well, we can see from the biblical examples that lying to protect lives, especially in war, is no sin. It is always a sin to lie under any other circumstances. But deception in self-defence when lives are threatened unjustly, I believe, does not break the Ninth Commandment.  

I say “unjustly” because if you are being investigated for a crime, then lying to escape punishment is an evil act that will only add to your guilt. 

This point should be carefully noted. During the Nazi campaign, many Germans harboured the Jews. Did they do right when they lied to the soldiers who came to their houses to search for the Jews? Yes, I believe so. We must not water down their heroic act by saying, “Oh, they sinned by telling lies!” We must not impute sin where there is no sin.  

So then, if one day we are put in a situation, perhaps during wartime, where telling the truth would mean the death of someone, and you feel compelled to lie, I do not think you need to feel guilty.  

But there is one exception, which we must insist on. If you are required to lie about your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to live, then never do so. It is never permissible to deny your faith under any circumstance. It is better to die a martyr than to pledge allegiance to a false god. And make no mistake, Peter sinned grievously when he denied knowing the Lord. 

But what if someone dear to you is dying of cancer? And the doctor says, “If you don’t tell him, he has a greater chance of fighting and living.” What should you do? This situation involves life and death. Can you lie? I believe this is quite different from the situation in which life is immediately threatened. Perhaps you can discuss this in family worship. Is this legitimate? 


Here are the seven points expounding the Ninth Commandment once again: 

  1. Honesty is the theme of the Ninth Commandment 
  2. Overt lies are forbidden, but so are half-truths  
  3. Non-verbal deceit is likewise prejudicial to truth 
  4. Excuses, exaggeration and flattery are usually wrong 
  5. Slander, backstabbing and backbiting are abominable 
  6. Telling the truth is encouraged; talebearing is not 
  7. Yes, there are permissible deceits, but such are rare 

Beloved brethren, youths, children and friends, what is this commandment to you?  

May I remind you that the devil is the father of lies? Those who do not find it essential to tell the truth at all times are, no doubt, held captive by the devil.

Are you a liar? Unless you repent and come to the Lord Jesus Christ for healing, your lies will drag you into eternal damnation.  

One of the marks of true conversion is that the person begins to hate lying. His heart is changed. He desires to please God. He desires to keep the commandments of God. He does so naturally because his heart has been made alive.  

But because the tongue displays the heart so clearly, the transgression of the Ninth Commandment is particularly a problem among those whose hearts are not right. An unregenerate person cannot sincerely keep this Commandment, and a backslidden believer will find the temptation to give in to lying very strong.  

Is that not the case with you, beloved brethren, children and friends? Oh, will you not flee to the Lord Jesus Christ to apply for forgiveness and cleansing? Remember that just as there are no murderers and adulterers in heaven, there are no liars in heaven. Liars will not enter the kingdom of God.  

But even the worst liar can find forgiveness in Christ. Only come to Him in repentance and honestly believe He can save and deliver you from your self-destructive habits. Amen. 

—JJ Lim