I’ve been in a wrestling match for some time now. What have I been wrestling with you ask? A topic of great importance, and the more I struggle with it, the more it’s mulled over, prayed over, talked over, the more I realize how important and central it is to our interactions with others and our understanding how we live in the Kingdom now. This struggle is in understanding the interplay between grace and truth.
Let me set it up this way – in my experience with fellow Christians, and in my own life, I feel a very real tension between grace and truth. I visualize a sort of tug-of-war with grace on one side and truth on the other. Truth is the side that sets an absolute standard, that says this is wrong and this is right. Truth points out sin. Truth says we’ve gone too far over the line, we’ve messed up, we’ve sinned. Grace, on the other side, says, your sin is not counted against you; you are forgiven and free.
Now how this struggle plays out with Christians in real life, I believe, is something like this. We see sin in the world around us, and we feel like if we show too much grace, if we let people off the hook too much, if we don’t point out sin, then anything will go, and nothing will be seen as wrong or sinful. What it will be like is that the only sin left in this scenario is the sin of negatively judging others’ behaviors and attitudes. This scenario, or the potential of this scenario, doesn’t sit well with me or many evangelical Christians. We feel like the world is getting more and more accommodating to sin, and that they view those of us who might point out sin as backwards, close-minded jerks.
But then let’s look at the other side. When we just stand on the truth, the standard of right and wrong, there is coldness and harshness there that leads us to look down on people and push them away. The image of this is sort of a ‘holy huddle’ where we insiders are all OK, and we’re pointing our fingers at those bad sinners out there who aren’t measuring up the way we are. We have the truth, and we’re good people, so what’s their problem? They need to just get in line and do what’s right. There are many, many former church members and attenders who have left the church because they have felt the pain of truth poured down on them without the grace alongside of it. They’ve seen the hypocrisy of some from the inside, where the standard of truth gets applied to others, but not to themselves, and it looks ugly, so they’ve chosen to turn away from it. My heart breaks for them.
So, the central question for me in this is: How can I stand on God’s truth, how can I have His standard, not just of what’s right and wrong, but hold to the fact that there is right and wrong at all and that people do the wrong, how can I stand on that, and yet not do it in a way that alienates, puts people down, pushes them away, or devalues them in any way, but rather draws them to God?
John 1:14 says,
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The ‘Word’ is Jesus. He came to this earth, from His Father, and He was full of grace and truth. For Jesus, there was not a tension between showing too much grace or showing too much truth – He was completely filled with both at the same time, and at all times. So, to begin to answer this question I turn to Jesus, and look at who He is and what He did. Looking into His life and His interactions with others there are many incidents where we see grace and truth at work, but I want to share two stories of Jesus’ interactions with sinners that help me get a handle on what being full of grace and being full of truth might look like lived out. The stories both come from John’s gospel, the woman caught in adultery in John 8 and the woman at the well in John 4.
In both of these stories there is clear measurement of truth that these women did not meet. They had both committed sins, they had both fallen short of God’s standard of holiness and purity. Both passages make it clear the women had sinned, the woman in chapter 8 had committed adultery, that charge was never challenged or dismissed, this was not a matter of someone spitefully bringing up false charges, no, there was a sin committed. In the John 4 passage Jesus points out her sin to her, she’s living with a man who’s not her husband, and has had a string of husbands (although we don’t know the details of how each of those marriages ended, the implication is that she was at least partially to blame). So, what is clear is that these women fell short of truth, they fell short of the standard. These women had both sinned. But it’s in these interactions here, I believe, we see the power of Jesus being full of grace and truth on display.
Jesus, being full of truth, never says their sins are OK. He never says that what they did was no big deal, but, being full of grace, He did not make them bear the punishment of their sin right then. He held out the full standard of truth, and they didn’t measure up, but yet they were not condemned and by the grace they were shown, they were offered life, life to be lived according to God’s truth, but by God’s strength. To the woman caught in adultery He says to her, “Go and sin no more.” The sin was evident, it was what others would use to define her, but Jesus calls her to a more truth-filled life, and he underlying implication is that this cannot be done on her own strength, but that God’s grace covers her sin and strengthens her to live faithfully. We see even more evidence of this in the John 4 passage.
This woman who Jesus met at the well was ashamed. She tried to hide from the effects of her sin. She didn’t go to the well when others did so that she didn’t have to face ridicule or shaming. When Jesus talked about living water that she could drink so she would never thirst again, she thought that was a pretty good idea, that way she wouldn’t have to keep coming out in public every day, she could just hide herself away, but when she was touched by the truth of her sin and the overflowing powerful grace from Jesus, she was filled and strengthened to not hide behind her sin anymore. It no longer defined her, and she boldly went to the same ones who ridiculed her, to share with them the great truth of who Jesus was. She was no longer feeling beaten down by her sin, but liberated from its effects, and empowered to boldly point to the one who poured grace out on her.
Dallas Willard defines grace as God empowering us to do the things we could not do on our own. Grace is not just something that saves us from the effects of our sins, but rather that it is the fuel that propels the Christian on to righteousness and purity. So when we merely look at offering grace to others just as ‘letting them off the hook’ (and also fail to realize the great number of times that we ourselves have been ‘let off the hook’), we miss the great truth that God’s grace is empowering – it truly is what enables us to live a faithful, holy, pure life, something that we could never even come close to on our own strength.
And also, one of the great problems with applying truth to others, is not that we don’t correctly point out their sin, rather it’s when we fail to apply the truth to our own lives as well; when we don’t realize that I too, you too, are a wretched sinner who doesn’t measure up to God’s standard of truth and holiness. The more that we realize the bar is so incredibly high that we haven’t measured up, I believe we’re able to deal more gently with others. Now, it’s at this point where we could go off and say, well since none of us measure up, then it’s no big deal the sins any of us commit, let’s just try to be decent people. No, then we’re losing sight of God’s truth. We must hold on to truth, but to apply it to our own lives as well. Yes, there may be some sins that you struggle with that are not a struggle for me, but that does not make me better than you, that makes me different than you, because there are sins that I struggle with that you may not, and that doesn’t make you better than me. All of us fall incredibly short of God’s standard of truth; the bar is far too high for any of us to reach, which is where God’s grace comes in to fuel and strengthen us. May we be humble people who hold onto God’s great truth, but also generously offer God’s grace to help fuel others to deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.
There is so much more in this struggle that I have yet to work out in my mind and even more to work out in my words and actions, but my prayer is that I seek after God to drink deep of His living water so that I may know who I truly am in Him, may know His truth fully, and may know His grace fully, and offer that grace generously to those around me.