Years ago I accidentally ran a red light in Colorado Springs, Co. Moments later, siren blaring and lights flashing, a squad car appeared behind me, commanding me to stop.
I rolled down my window to begin pleading my case. I immediately recognized I was in trouble. Glaring at me was a female officer sporting biceps that would have made any young man envious. Hand on her revolver, she listened, stone-faced, to my stuttering defense. Without comment she pulled out her pad and with a glimmer of satisfaction wrote me a $130 ticket. She was the picture of truth and justice. I had committed a traffic violation, and now I was receiving the just consequences.
As the policewoman walked away, I turned to the woman sitting in the passenger seat on the other side of me. What would she say? To my great relief, my wife flooded me with words of grace. Whew! That was nice!
It has struck me that in our world this is how we mostly encounter truth and grace. We get one, or we get the other. One person gives justice. Another gives mercy. Expressing both truth and grace at the same time is difficult to impossible for any one person…with a major exception. About Jesus, the Apostle John wrote: “We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14b).
In the man Jesus Christ, God’s glorious goodness found its most complete expression. And at the heart of this divine self-revelation stood grace and truth, undiminished and in perfect harmony.
Here’s the rub. Even though I’m a Christ follower who is indwelt by the Spirit of truth (John 16:13) and grace (Hebrews 10:29), I don’t feel “full of grace and truth.” I feel more like a pinball bouncing back-and-forth.
To be honest, I doubt that it is even possible to oversell grace. It’s simply that good. In fact, God’s grace is so scandalously good, that it will always antagonize any lingering self-righteousness. So be it! Mercy has triumphed over justice!
Nonetheless, I sometimes wonder if the way we emphasize grace unwittingly communicates that God accepts everyone just as they
are…period. End of story. This leaves the seductive but hazardous impression that God’s grace precludes any need for repentance and the subsequent pursuit of holiness. Yes, mercy triumphed over justice. But not by ignoring it! We would do well not to ignore God’s justice either.
At other times I worry that I’ve crushed people with a burden of truth too heavy to bear, unintentionally giving them the impression that one must believe and live right to be saved. “Living right” is the appropriate response to salvation; however, it is never a means of salvation. Sanctification grows out of justification, not vice versa. The order is important.
Timothy Keller writes, “The power of the gospel comes in two movements. It first says, ‘I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe,’ but then quickly follows with, ‘I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope’…One of the great challenges is to be vigilant in both directions at once” (Keller, City Church, 48).
A great challenge, indeed! A challenge we face not just in preaching but also in many other areas of our lives.
As parents we want to model grace for our children, but we also want them to know the difference between right and wrong and understand that there are consequences for our choices.
When we interact with those who don’t believe, we don’t want to come off as intolerant; but we also do not want to abandon God’s clear moral teaching. How do we communicate truth without appearing arrogant or hateful? How do we communicate grace without going light on sin?
We must thoughtfully engage these questions if we are going to be the reflection of Christ in our culture. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are some suggestions to get us started.
1. Keep the cross in view.
At the cross, God’s love and faithfulness—his grace and truth— most dramatically meet together and “kiss” (Psalm 85:10).
Christ’s sufferings on the cross confront us with the ugly truth of our sin and the just punishment it deserves. The cross gives us an uncensored picture of what God thinks of our sin, and it is terrifying. We really are more desperately sinful than we dared believed!
Amazingly, at the very same cross, we also encounter the infinite depths of God’s unrelenting grace. Jesus took our place! He drank down the horrible punishment we so thoroughly deserved! He satisfied the righteous demands of God’s justice, so that forgiveness, righteousness, and reconciliation could be extended to us. We really are more loved than we dared hope!
The stark justice of the cross compels us to drop our sin, whereas the extravagant grace of the cross draws us inexorably to Jesus.
When we start getting muddled about grace and truth, we need to contemplate the cross. It provides wonderful clarity. That is why we need to preach the gospel to ourselves every day.
2. Practice teamwork.
No single person perfectly reflects Jesus. In every community of believers, the Spirit has wired some to be sensitive to truth and justice, whereas he has gifted others with grace and mercy. It is good to have people who watch doctrine closely. It is also good to have people who eagerly extend compassion. It is even better when these same people value each other, learn from each other, and work in tandem.
I once talked with a woman who had gotten a divorce and then later reconciled with her husband. She told me that after the divorce one of her close friends wrote her “missiles of truth,” mostly quoting scripture. The woman had another friend who just offered her a listening ear.
As she talked, I expected her to tell me how much more helpful she found the second friend. The “missiles,” she admitted, had been painful. However, her conclusion was this: she had needed both friends. Both truth and grace were needed to bring her back to her senses. It took a team. It usually does. Together, as a team, we reflect Christ more fully. And by working together, each one of us makes progress in discovering the elusive harmony of grace and truth as expressed through Jesus.
3. Keep the conversation going.
The Apostle John only recognized the fullness of grace and truth in Jesus because Jesus first chose to “pitch his tent” among us. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling (literally ‘tabernacled’) among us” (John 1:14a). It was in the context of ongoing relationship that grace and truth became evident.
In our current cultural climate we Christ-followers are bound to be misunderstood and labeled. However, if we can avoid both the fight or flight impulses and instead choose to keep pursuing the relationship and the conversation, backing it up with acts of kindness, a door for the truth might swing open in people’s hearts.
At the end of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Like Jesus, we are in the world to reveal God’s grace and truth. This was never easy, and it will only get harder. The shifts we’ve seen in the culture demand that we learn to be intentional and courageous in loving people genuinely while holding steadfastly to our convictions. In other words, we have to choose to be more like Jesus—full of grace and truth. Some believers bemoan the times we live in. However, if our troubled times force us to become more like Christ… great! Let’s do it.
Editor’s Note: Kip Cone serves at the Grace Brethren Church, Winona Lake, Ind., where he is the proclamation pastor.