Truth [Not Greater Than] Grace
Recently, I was sitting in a gigantic ballroom listening to a (very good) preacher share his personal testimony of being rescued by God’s Spirit from a life of debauchery and rebellion. It was pretty powerful stuff. Even so, among the 1,800 of us who crowded around tables surveying this man’s movements and gestures on two cinema-style screens, there was an eerie quiet. Frankly, I couldn’t tell if people had mentally checked out or if they were that riveted.
As the saying goes, you could’ve heard a pin drop. Until, that is, the preacher changed directions with his message. Moving away from his personal story, he implored us to learn to dwell in the tension between grace and truth. “We must not be people who are all grace or all truth,” he argued, “but those who live in the middle.” When he said this, the room became electric. People started cheering and applauding. Some even gave him a standing ovation.
It was at that point, however, that he lost me.
On some level, I get it: sometimes the truth hurts and we need to temper our truth-telling with the requisite level of graciousness. That makes total sense (and was probably the point the aforementioned speaker was trying to get across). But I hear all the time about the need to balance grace and truth, as if somehow they are at odds with each other. “Let’s not err too much on one side,” it’s often said. But my question is: Since when did grace become untrue? And at what point did truth become ungracious?
Grace is simply undeserved favor. A gift to those who don’t deserve it. Performance-free acceptance, we could say. Truth, though, is just as rich: it gives account of the way things really are. Not just at the surface but beneath it, where clichés meet their bitter end.
It is sometimes argued that if not balanced by truth, grace will make you lazy and apathetic. But the apostle Paul says it’s grace that teaches us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2:12). Others contend that, if not balanced by grace, truth will lead to legalistic rule-keeping. But Jesus says the opposite: he says “the truth will set you free” (John 8).
What was the context for the latter statement? In John 8, Jesus is rebuffed by the Jewish religious leaders who don’t believe they need anything from him. They’ve never been enslaved to anyone, they argue. Which is a pretty ridiculous notion. At this point in redemptive history, the Jewish people had been tyrannized by just about every powerhouse nation in the world: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks. And even at the time of John’s writing, they were under the oppression of Rome.
How could they make such an argument? Well, what they were boasting of was their perceived spiritual status. They believed that they were spiritually free and consequently had no need for a savior, especially a carpenter from Nazareth. After all, they were descendants of Abraham, the great father of the faith. They were so puffed up with ethnic, familial, and religious pride that they failed to understand the truth, the one thing Jesus says offers liberty.
That truth is that they were enslaved, under the curse of sin. But that’s what Jesus came to deliver them from. Like we, they were broken, sinful, and helpless people in need of a Savior, a Savior who forgives us despite our varied faults and independent of our ethnic heritage and very best moral efforts. This truth is we are all saved by faith alone in Christ alone and through no merit of our own … and this is also the greatest news of grace.
My friends, don’t ever worry about being too gracious. That’s impossible. And don’t ever fear that when you tell someone the truth you’ve somehow dealt gracelessly with them (unless, of course, you were callous or unloving with your tone). Grace never affirms the practice of sin, nor does truth present hopeless condemnation. Grace and truth work together in beautiful symmetry. In fact, the two are inseparably joined together in the person of Jesus Christ. He was all grace and all truth. All the time.
“For from his fullness,” says John the Evangelist, “we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Make no mistake: truth and grace are not at odds with each other. When we assure a fellow believer of God’s one-way love for them in Christ we are simply telling them the truth. Likewise, when we offer a gentle word of correction to an erring spiritual sibling, we are showing him or her tremendous grace. We are loving them enough to remind them of what they don’t deserve but receive by faith: God’s immediate and sin-canceling forgiveness in Jesus Christ. How gracious and how true!
For his glory,