Rethinking the Whole “Truth and Grace” Thing
It was Sunday morning, and I was squirming in church. My pastor had just hit his stride, launching fierily (real word?) into an assault on weak, shallow teaching and belief in churches. He’d chosen a phrase from the Gospel of John, one that he didn’t even have to cite because it’s so well known.
“The Bible says that Jesus came from the father, full of Grace and Truth. Now churches nowadays are grace this and grace that, but they ignore the truth part of it. And you don’t get to pick and choose with Jesus. In fact, you can’t have grace before you have truth. We have to accept God’s truth to get God’s grace.”
My pastor likes to jokingly ask, as my wife and I make our way through the receiving line after every church service, “How was it? Everything check out?”. He says this with a wink, because he knows that I’m in seminary and assumes (fairly accurately) that I have beatified overconfidence in my every spiritual opinion. He also knows that I have at least heard the counterargument to everything he just declared from the pulpit.
Today, everything did not check out. My mind raced, firing silent questions at the stage from the safety of my own head. Why does truth have to come first? Don’t we all believe in prevenient grace, in some way? Doesn’t the scripture literally have grace, grammatically, coming before truth? Doesn’t our experience of God’s grace enable us to accept the truth? Is my pastor a “truth guy and I a “grace” guy? Blah blah blah blah blah.
Looking up the phrase online reveals a similar dilemma. Article on article asks essentially the same question: How do we solve the truth and grace paradox? How do we find the truth and grace balance? Essentially, what is the right mix of good and bad news?
So my pastor is a truth guy and I’m a grace guy. Here’s why I think we’re both off, and why that matters.
Grace upon Grace
John 1, from which this ever-present phrase hearkens, is to my mind a poetic masterpiece. It takes some attention and unpacking, but in eighteen short verses, John binds the stories of creation, incarnation, and redemption in language that would be recognizable to Greek minds but still connects directly to the story of Israel, all while exploring the dynamics of being a witness through John the Baptist and expressing the beauty and tragedy of Jesus’ life on earth. It’s actually kind of perfect.
The phrase is repeated twice. The first time, it’s in context of the glory of the incarnation. Jesus is God in human form. He has the glory of heaven around him. What does that glory look like? “grace and truth”. The next time, it speaks to the new blessing that Jesus is adding to the blessings already present in terms of God’s coming and covenanting with His people – the fulfillment of God’s plan to truly come and live among us. What new thing does Jesus bring to the table? “grace and truth”.
This reminds me of a particularly beautiful passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which deals with the same subject matter in plainer language.
The old way, with laws etched in stone, led to death, though it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. For his face shone with the glory of God, even though the brightness was already fading away. Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory under the new way, now that the Holy Spirit is giving life? If the old way, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new way, which makes us right with God! In fact, that first glory was not glorious at all compared with the overwhelming glory of the new way. So if the old way, which has been replaced, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new, which remains forever! (2 Corinthians 3:7-11 NIV)
The sense is given that grace and truth are not in tension, but are rather two parts of one thing – the revealed glory of God in Jesus. Nowhere here is there any mention of a balance, or a paradox, or an apparent contradiction. Jesus encompasses both truth and grace, and He is not at war with himself. Therefore these two ideas can not be at war with each other.
“What is truth?”
I think our downfall is taking our definitions and ideas from our culture, and reading them into the Bible. We use phrases, at least here in modern america, like “The truth hurts”, “brutally honest”, or “The weight of truth”. The idea is that if you realize the truth, and you have the guts to accept it, it will seriously bum you out. It might even crush you.
What does that say about reality? It says that the final word is hopelessness and condemnation. That all our hope or goodwill is our unwillingness to accept the fact that we are flawed, that we are messed up, that we are alone, and that we can’t do anything about it. The truth hurts, doesn’t it?
Let’s contrast this with the words of Jesus. What John starts in his first chapter he develops as a theme throughout his account: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” says Jesus, and elsewhere: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
What is the truth – the full truth, the final say of reality? It can only be found in the person of Jesus. What does that truth do for us? It liberates. It empowers. It sets free.
The subtitle above is taken from the final, despairing words of Pontius Pilate, as he reluctantly condemns Jesus to death – knowing that what he is doing is wrong, but unwilling to endanger his own position of power by going against the will of the subject Jewish people. The truth is standing right in front of him, but he can’t accept it. And so comes the denying, avoiding question – the final, even pitiful attempt to free his own mind and conscience. It’s tragic.
Truth sets free, if it’s really truth, because Jesus is truth, and Jesus sets free. It’s always good news. I’m reminded of the now-common adage “Everything is going to be fine in the end. If it’s not fine it’s not the end.” It’s a cliche, but it works here. If we’re not free, if we just feel bad, we don’t have the full truth yet. Jesus is the end we all seek. So the suffering, the hurt, the condemnation, the shame, is not our final acceptance of reality but our unwillingness to accept it fully. The pain does not come from the truth, but from our dark hearts who run from the truth. Our veiled minds which see the truth but don’t recognize it.
Grace and truth aren’t the “good cop, bad cop” approach to spiritual teaching. They’re not the carrot and the stick. The good news and the bad news. We need both, and we need both desperately. They’re both good news. We need grace to open our heart to God, and truth to set us free from lies about who we are and what we’re here to do. We need to know that the most true thing is not that we are evil, not that the world is broken, but that in Jesus God has found a way to come and live with us anyway, and to bring us back into eternal relationship.
I’m not saying that we need to angle our teaching and preaching around never making anyone feel sad or angry, or that we never need to bring up issues that might touch on serious hurts in people’s lives. I’m just saying we can’t leave them there, because the Gospel doesn’t leave them there. The truth doesn’t lead them there and leave. A sermon that’s all about “truth” (in other words, all about sin) is really only half a truth at best – at worst, it’s bullying.
This is the danger of seeing these as exclusive – we then want to pick our favorite side instead of seeking to understand the other. Truth people run the risk of preaching a gospel of effort, of trying desperately to “fix” our reality for ourselves when God has already fixed it for us, has already overcome the world, has already paid the price for our failures.
“Grace people” run the risk of preaching a God who loves us but never bats an eye at the wreckage we make of our lives and world, an endlessly long-suffering and laissez-faire God who doesn’t have a plan to fix anything but is always there with a smile and a thumbs up. A God who is oblivious to demands of justice. But there’s no sense in going to the other pole; it’s not punishment we need. It’s not more shame – it’s change. It’s a chance to do things different, to do them right. It’s a new life. To throw off the shackles of what has kept us trapped in every destructive behavior and belief, to empower us to really love God and love one another.
Don’t be content with half of Jesus. He has come from the Father, he is alive today, and he is full of truth and grace.