Balancing Grace and Truth

The Gospel of John begins with a picture of God entering our world and making himself known in the person of Jesus. John’s description of “The Beautiful One” opens with a sentence that may be at the same time one of the simplest and most profound ever written. When I was a sophomore at Rice University, John 1:1 was the first sentence we read and translated in Greek 101. Even then I was struck by the elegance and power of the Greek, which is translated “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

“The Word,” of course, is Jesus, and John tells us more about Jesus’ coming into the world later in his prologue: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” John 1:14). When John describes the beautiful life of Jesus, he says that Jesus came with both grace and truth.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 9.45.25 AMGrace is compassion for people. Grace is being better to people than their actions deserve. It’s trying to understand their struggles, caring for their needs, and sharing their burdens. We see this grace in the ministry of Jesus over and over again throughout the Gospels.

Jesus also came with a passion for truth. He spoke the words that people needed to hear even if they didn’t want to hear them. He was faithful to his principles even when doing so angered the authorities. He refused to compromise his message even when he knew that he would lose followers as a result, even when he suspected that if he continued to proclaim the truth he would be nailed to a cross. Jesus was as committed to the truth as he was to grace.

Grace and truth — we see them both in the most beautiful and powerful life ever lived. I believe that one reason Jesus dramatically impacted the lives of so many in his day was that he perfectly combined compassion for people with passion for truth, and that’s one reason why his words and life still have the power to transform people 2,000 later. I am convinced that if we, as individuals and as God’s people together, are to be instruments of real influence and transformation in our time, then we will have to learn how to combine grace and truth in the same way that Jesus did.

Jesus lived a “both-and” life, not an “either-or” life. Throughout his ministry we see him committed to both compassion for people and passion for truth. Rather than viewing grace and truth as being in opposition to each other and feeling the need to choose one or the other, Jesus believed and demonstrated that both are essential in representing the Father’s heart and transforming the lives of people. And he told his disciples to follow his example.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said. “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything” (Matthew 5:13). Salt was important in the time of Jesus. It was used to season food — to bring out its best — and to preserve meat and fish from decaying and becoming rotten. Jesus tells us in this passage that people who follow him should be like salt, bringing out the best in others and keeping the good in this world from becoming spoiled and rotten.

The table salt we use in our homes is a combination of two elements: sodium and chlorine (NaCl). Sodium is never found alone in nature; it is always connected with another element. Its “gregarious” nature is evidenced by the fact that there are over 200 sodium compounds. You might say that it’s willing to accept just about anything that’s out there.

Chlorine, of course, is the gas that gives bleach its pungent odor. It’s a powerful disinfectant, but you have to be careful with it. If misused, chlorine can be poisonous and destructive.

Grace is like sodium. Its nature is to reach out and receive. As long as grace is embracing people, it’s similar to what we see in Jesus. But often in the name of grace, just about anything is accepted, including beliefs that contradict what the Scriptures reveal as the mind of God and behaviors that oppose his will.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 9.44.37 AMTruth is more like chlorine. It’s a cleansing agent, and there are times when we need to use it to “clean up” our thinking and the church’s teachings. But by itself, truth can be offensive and difficult to be around — and if mishandled, truth even can be deadly.

If we’re going to be salt, if we’re going to make this world a better place as Jesus said we should, then we need to possess both grace and truth just as Jesus did. We must have compassion for people and passion for truth — not one instead of the other or one more than the other, but both together in equal measure.

A good friend accepts you, believes in you, and encourages you. And if this person is truly a good friend, he or she also tells you when you are failing. A good friend isn’t the one who only makes us feel good about who we are but the one who also loves us enough to help us become better than we are spiritually and emotionally — and sometimes that means speaking words that are difficult for our friend to say and for us to hear. But sometimes that’s what love requires.

I hope that we, as individual Christians and as the church, will be a good friend to all — the greedy, the self-righteous, the sexually immoral, the prejudiced, the alcoholic, and the judgmental, to name a few. Being a good friend means loving people as they are, speaking the truth they need to hear, and then nurturing their growth so that they can become the persons God desires them to be. Anything less and we will fail God and the people we are called to help. We must be committed to being a good friend to people who need to know the hope that is to be found in Jesus Christ. And that means combining grace and truth the way that Jesus did — both-and, not either-or.

Balancing grace and truth isn’t easy. It’s like walking a tightrope, holding onto a long pole to help you keep your balance.

Many of us watched aerialist Nik Wallenda walk across the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon on June 23, 2013. Fifteen hundred feet above the canyon floor, he walked on a tightrope for a quarter of a mile, trying to keep his balance as the wind blew at speeds of 30 miles an hour. It was excruciating just watching him make the 22 minute journey. If his pole tipped too much one way or the other, he would fall off the wire and plunge to his death.

Trying to live and minister the way Jesus did is something of a high wire act, too. To keep our balance, we hold onto the gospel like an aerialist holding onto a balance pole. On the one side there is grace. On the other is truth. Let the pole tip too much one way or the other, and we’ll lose our balance. Lean either way too strongly, and we’ll fall off. It’s only as we hold the pole in balance that we can walk the way that Jesus walked, live the way that he lived, and impact our world in a way that is truly transformative.

None of us does this balancing act perfectly. We are all influenced by a myriad of factors that affect how we combine compassion for people with passion for truth. Usually we aren’t even aware of how they shape our ideas about grace and truth.

There will be times when we will have to lean toward grace and other times when we will have to emphasize truth. As we talk with and minister to wounded persons, especially those who have been hurt by the church, it will be right for us to favor the side of grace. As the winds of our culture blow in the direction of postmodernism and moral relativism, we will have to lean a little harder in the direction of truth. It’s a balancing act, and there’s freedom — actually a necessity — to favor one side of the pole and then the other. But all of the time we must keep a firm grip on both sides, knowing that if we let go of either, the results will be tragic.

There’s something else Nik Wallenda did as he made his journey across the canyon. Over and over again he called out to Jesus. One of the bravest men in the world, Wallenda was humble enough to ask Jesus to help him stay on the wire and keep his balance.

You and I are called to something that is terribly difficult and immensely important. And if we get it wrong, the results will be disastrous. We are called through our words and our actions to make known the One who was a friend of sinners and the transformer of lives. If we choose either grace or truth, we won’t keep our balance or represent him well. It’s only when we combine both compassion for people and a passion for truth that we will walk in his footsteps and be used by him to do the work of his Kingdom. And there’s nothing more essential for us to do than humble ourselves, confess our need for help, and call out to Jesus for strength and wisdom.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. Excerpted from The Trouble with the Truth: Balancing Truth and Grace by Rob Renfroe. Used by permission of Abingdon Press, 2014 (www.abingdonpress.com).

 

Comments

  1. Victor Galipi says

    A good friend loves someone for who they are and who they can be in Christ. A good friend in Christ loves someone for who they truly are, underneath the layers of sin that keep them from being who they truly are, as created by God in His image. A good Christian friend loves someone enough to tell them when they are doing something that keeps them from becoming a Christian or growing in Christ, something that offends God, hurts others, and is self-destructive.

    When someone is about to have an elective abortion, or force someone to have an elective abortion, gracious truth compels us to encourage them to keep the unborn child or put the unborn child up for adoption, as well as providing love, support and practical help.

    When someone is involved in a homosexual relationship or relationships, truthful grace requires us to lovingly show them in God’s word that this is sinful and destructive, and how through faith and repentance they need to be and can be forgiven and freed, of all sin, in Christ.

    To tell someone they are doing something sinful, without telling them about the love, forgiveness and freedom of Christ, and without offering to support and help them, is to try to be truthful while lacking in grace.

    To tell someone that the sinful thing they are doing is not sin but is good, and that there is no need for repentance, forgiveness and freedom, is to try to be gracious while coming up short on truth.

    Grace is not really grace without truth, and truth is not really truth without grace. For both are found perfectly in, and in perfect unity in, Jesus Christ.

    May we be full of grace and truth as followers of Jesus Christ.

  2. Yes. Now, if only pastors would apply this to their sermons. Too many soft messages these days about the love of God, without the balanced message of God’s holiness, our sinfulness, and the need for repentance. We need both.

    • Victor Galipi says

      Mom, this pastor agrees. God is holy love, and God wants His people to walk in holy love, perfect love. This is Biblical, and it is Wesleyan and Methodist. Love without holiness may be some kind of love, but it is not the love of God.

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