The Grace and Truth Paradox: Excerpts
Note from Randy Alcorn: The following material was originally part of my book The Grace and Truth Paradox. However, we had to edit it out because of limited space in the very small book format. I initiated most of the cuts, and agreed to those my editor initiated.
In some cases I was able to reinsert a line or even a whole paragraph that was cut, so if you’ve read The Grace and Truth Paradox, you may occasionally recognize something as having been included in the book. But surrounding paragraphs were cut that are included here. They need the full context to make sense.
Editing is simply part of the writing process, and a good part. However, sometimes it requires eliminating concepts that are valuable and important, and/or that may have interest to certain readers. If you’ve read The Grace and Truth Paradox, some of this may be helpful as supplementary material. If you haven’t read it, you might wish to do so before reading the following.
Keep in mind these were originally portions spread throughout the book, so by cutting and pasting them here they inevitably lose their overall context and in some cases may not read smoothly. Usually the presence of asterisks (****) indicates there was considerable material before or after what is cited, so that the surrounding portions in this document will probably not logically relate to each other.
Anyway, I hope some will benefit from this. May we serve our Lord in the spirit of grace and truth that fills Him. RA
Portions of The Grace and Truth Paradox in early drafts but not in the published book
Four Paradigms of Grace
There’s a lot packaged as grace that’s not the genuine item. Here are four different notions of who needs grace and what grace is:
1) The Discouraged Little-Leaguer (Grace as affirmation) The poor kid keeps striking out. His coach takes him aside, shows him how to hit a ball, and tells him, “You can do it, son.” This is Christ as a people-affirmer, a “you can do it” role model.
2) The Stranded Motorist (Grace as Assistance) The car dies, rolling to a stop. The motorist isn’t sure how to fix it. He’s stranded. A mechanic stops, props up the hood, and gets the stranded motorists back on the road. He refuses to take payment. We drive off, waving our gratitude.
3) Baby Jessica in the Well (Grace as Rescue) Some readers remember 1987, when eighteen month old “Baby Jessica” fell twenty-two feet into that well in Texas. As every news program in the country covered the story, paramedics and other rescuers labored nonstop to save her. After 55 grueling hours, her life hanging in the balance, finally they reached her, and extracted her from the well. The nation breathed a sigh of relief and cheered the heroes.
None of the media said, “Baby Jessica managed to claw her eighteen month old body up the side of that twenty-two foot well, inch by inch, digging in her little toes and working her way up. She’s a hero, that Jessica!”
Everybody knew Baby Jessica was utterly helpless. She could do nothing to deliver herself. Her fate was in the hands of her rescuers. Left to herself Jessica didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Likewise, “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
We don’t get any applause for our redemption. God gets it all. Not 98%. 100%.
4) Osama bin Laden (Grace as Self-Sacrifice to Pardon a Murderer) Of the three previous analogies, Baby Jessica’s is by far the best. But it still falls way short. Why? Because we all consider little Jessica worthy of rescue.
“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).
New York Firefighters gave their lives trying to rescue people trapped in the World Trade Centers. But suppose the only ones trapped were the terrorists who caused the explosion. Suppose it was Osama bin Laden stuck in that building, and he was known to have masterminded the crime? Wouldn’t that change the equation?
Sacrificing everything to rescue the innocent is commendable. But giving your life to rescue those you know to be guilty of horrible crimes? Who would do such a thing?
Scripture doesn’t call him “a God who helps the unfortunate” but “a God who justifies the wicked” (Romans 4:5). Our level of desperation is real, but it’s only half the picture. The other half is that we don’t deserve to be rescued….we deserve to be executed!
Read Romans 3:10-18. “There is none righteous, no, not one…All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
The cross is about Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. He gave us the exact opposite of what we deserve. He rescued us from hell by going to hell on the cross for us.
So don’t think of rescuing Baby Jessica. Think of rescuing Osama bin Laden.
Make it more personal. Imagine a soldier who lost his wife and child in the World Trade Center because bin Laden ordered those suicide bombings. Imagine him carrying bin Laden out of the smoke and dust, giving him water, nursing him back to health. Unthinkable? Now we’re getting closer to grace.
Truth is rooted in the eternal God who’s all powerful and unchangeable. Therefore His promises cannot fail. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is Truth” (John 17:17). Not only can we depend on Scripture, we can be transformed, sanctified by it.
Truth is far more than facts. It’s not just something we act upon. It acts upon us. We can’t change the truth, but the truth can change us. It sanctifies (sets us apart) from the falsehoods woven into our sin natures.
As Christ the living Word is truth, so his written word is truth. Though heaven and earth will pass away, God’s truth never will. (*)
The common Old Testament word for truth speaks of a reality that’s solid and binding. When applied to people it describes integrity of thoughts, speech or actions. Truth is the bedrock of human relationships (Exodus 20:16).
Over half the New Testament uses of “truth” (aletheia) are in John’s gospel. Truth is reality. It’s the way things really are. What seems to be and what really is are often not the same. As I develop in one of my novels, “Things are not as they appear.”* To know the truth is to see accurately. To believe what isn’t true is to be blind.
God has written His truth on human hearts, in the conscience (Romans 2:15). Shame and twinges of conscience come from a recognition that truth has been violated. When the world hears truth, if spoken graciously, many are drawn to it by the moral vacuum they feel. The heart longs for truth—even the heart that rejects it.
As followers of Christ, we are to walk in the truth (3 John 3), love the truth and believe the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10,12). We are to speak the truth, in contrast to “the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). We’re to speak the truth “in love” (Ephesians 4:32).
Truth is far more than a moral guide. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6) He didn’t say He would show the truth or teach the truth or model the truth. He is the truth. Truth personified. He is the source of all truth, the embodiment of truth and therefore the reference point for evaluating all truth-claims.
That Jesus is the God-man, the second member of the trinity come in human flesh, is central to our faith. To deny this is to be a “liar” (1 John 2:22). If we get it wrong about Christ, it doesn’t matter what else we get right. *(cut in Oprah section)
The phrase “I tell you the truth,” appears 79 times in Scripture, 78 times spoken by Jesus. He is the truth, and he tells the truth. We can fully trust everything he says.
The Holy Spirit leads men into truth (John 16:13). Christ’s disciples know the truth (John 8:32), do the truth (John 3:21), and abide in the truth (John 8:44). We are commanded to know the truth (1 Timothy 4:3), handle the truth accurately (2 Timothy 2:25) and avoid doctrinal untruths (2 Tim. 2:18). The “belt of truth” holds together our spiritual armor (Ephesians 6:14).
God “does not lie” (Titus 1:2). He is “the God of truth” (Psalm 31:5). “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19).
"For the word of the Lord is right and true” (Psalm 33:4). As Psalm 119 depicts in every one of its 176 verses, God’s truth is at the heart of the spiritual life.
Christ the Truth-Teller versus Satan the Liar
Unlike God, the devil promises but doesn’t fulfill. He’s always denying, revising or spinning the truth, rearranging the price tags. Jesus said “there is no truth in Him” and called him a “liar, and the father of lies.” He said, “When he lies he speaks his native language” (John 8:44).
Everyone speaks his native language fluently. Have you ever known people who lie so convincingly that it’s difficult to not believe them? Satan’s the best liar in the universe. “Go ahead, you deserve it. This won’t hurt anybody.” He’s eloquent, smooth and persuasive. When he lies, he doesn’t register spikes on our lie detectors. When we speak the truth we speak Christ’s language.
When we speak lies we speak Satan’s language.
As Americans, we embrace democratic ideals which give us the illusion we should have a voice when it comes to truth.
The universe is not a democracy. Truth is not a ballot measure.
We can’t negotiate God’s truth any more than we can negotiate gravity. We’re not comfortable with something God says? So what? When it comes to truth, we get no vote.
The most alarming trend among evangelical churches is the freedom we now feel to revise God’s truth. Consider “openness theology” which contends that God doesn’t know what future choices people will make. Or the waning belief in an eternal hell, or human depravity. Or that sexual behavior, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is always wrong outside of marriage.
Today, truth is regarded as a smorgasbord, with many equally valid options. In fact, truth is what it is regardless of tastes. There is not one truth for you and one truth for me, and another for someone else. Either there is a God or there isn’t. Either Jesus is God or he’s not. Either he rose from the dead or he didn’t.
We are too slow to trust God and too quick to trust ourselves. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). We will tend to believe what sounds good, and what we imagine is in our own best interests. This is more than subjectivity. It’s an expression of our relentless Herod-like campaign of self-deification. It’s making ourselves God by being the source of truth, finessing truth to serve our bent desires. God has the last word—so whenever we place our opinion as a trump card upon Scripture, we play God. This is Satan’s sin, and Adam’s.
All of us have a theology. The only question is whether it’s true or false. Much teaching today is popularity-driven not truth-driven. “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine; to suit their own desires they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). Some pastors and television preachers are well-paid to lie to their audience.
Scripture as God’s Truth
The test of whether Scripture is my authority is this—do I allow God’s Word to convince me to believe what I don’t like, what’s contrary to what I’ve always believed and wanted to believe? Do I believe it even when it offends me? In that case, and in that case only, the Bible is my authority.
“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11)
They searched the Scriptures—probing, not just skimming. The Bible should be primary, all other truth-claims secondary. We need a worldview informed and corrected by God’s Word.
They searched the Scriptures daily. People died to get the Bible into our hands; the least we can do is read it. Unless I establish a strong biblical grid, a scriptural filter with which to screen and interpret the world, I’ll end up thinking like the world. Churches desperately need not only Bible teaching, but practical group Bible study.
We live in the age of dialogue. But when it comes to truth, we need less dialogue and more monologue.
We need to shut up and listen to God.
(Note: A small portion of this was included in the final book, but most of it wasn’t)
When people reject God’s truth they don’t believe in nothing, but anything. [i] Once you surrender objective truth, what rational basis do you have to reject even the most absurd truth-claims?
Bible-believing Christians are skeptics. Our belief in specific truths makes us skeptical about hundreds of other truth claims that daily assail us. In contrast, secular society—which we often think of as skeptical—has become remarkably gullible. People are skeptical about truth they ought to believe, yet gullible about falsehoods they ought to reject.
People long to believe in the other, the transcendent, something above and beyond us. That’s why UFOs and benevolent aliens fascinate people—they offer hope and transcendence while not requiring us to surrender to God.
While many of us laugh at the tabloid headlines (85 pound, two headed baby born to ghosts of Elvis and Princess Di), there’s a large segment of society that believes these outrageous stories—and some of those same people reject Christianity because they think it unbelievable!
Visit the metaphysics section of a large bookstore. Look at the hundreds of books on the New Age, astrology, tarot cards, horoscopes, astral projection, time travel, reincarnation, visits to the afterlife, talking with angels. Secular humanism and materialism have been around long enough that people recognize they don’t satisfy. That’s why “spirituality,” which was scorned a few decades ago, is now cool. And no one has mainstreamed spirituality more successfully than Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah’s “you can have it all” worldview is a hodgepodge of biblical truth, undefined spirituality, psychology, 12 step recovery, and self-affirmation. The Oprah way is church-free build-it-yourself spirituality that never condemns. She speaks often of a higher power, sometimes God, seldom Jesus. After September 11, 2001, Oprah said “Today, whatever it is you believe most deeply, now is the time to embrace it.” [ii]
Really? Even if you believe in genocide, terrorism or child abuse? Even if what you believe is utterly false?
Oprah likeably embraces generic spirituality*. All roads lead to heaven. Karma? Sure. Fate? Why not? Reincarnation? Could be. Buddhism, Hinduism, New Age, angel-guided living. It’s a “Have it your way” designer religion made to order for a post-Christian culture. Oprah’s faith is amorphous, shape-shifting to the contours of individual preference. This appeals to our tendency to self-deification, in which we strive to be our own gods, setting our own standards and controlling our own mini-universes.
Oprah erupts into testimonies and occasional prophetic words from the priestess. Spiritual subjects frequently surface. But Oprah doesn’t talk about biblical reliability, depravity, Christ’s deity, substitutionary atonement, the final judgment, the resurrection or hell. Why? Because they reduce spirituality to specific truths which refute false belief systems—including the ones championed on the program.
Oprah says, “One of the biggest mistakes humans make is to believe there is only one way. Actually, there are many diverse paths leading to what you call God.” [iii]
Not according to Jesus. Remember that part about Christ being the way, the truth and the life? And “No man comes to the Father but by me”? And how about, “Neither is there any other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)?
Either Jesus and the apostles were wrong, or Oprah is wrong.
“Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?" declares the LORD. "Is not my word like fire," declares the LORD, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:28-29).
The fire of God’s truth consumes the fleeting opinions of men. The hammer of truth breaks the porous crumbly stones of man’s opinions. God’s Word alone is the true rock. We can beat our fists against the rock of Gibraltar. But it’s not the rock that will be the worse for wear, it’s us.
“Hammer away, you hostile hands. Your hammers break. God’s anvil stands.”
On the doctrine of depravity:
Robert J. Lifton devoted much of the seventies to interviewing many Nazi doctors and their victims, as well as family, neighbors and associates. [iv] Here were men who tortured and murdered women and children with apparent ease. Jewish himself, Lifton was determined to find out what made these monsters tick.
What the author discovered was something much more frightening than he anticipated. He discovered that these were “normal” people who had good friends, loved their families, were affectionate with their pets, and thought of themselves as decent citizens. What curdled Lifton’s blood was to find that these monsters were just ordinary folks, much more like than unlike himself.
You and I take great comfort in thinking we are not like Stalin or Hitler or Dodd or Dahmer, don’t we? These men are “beasts” or “demons,” right? Not like us.
Oh, we may be “sinners” but we’re “good” sinners—like Mother Teresa or Billy Graham—not “bad” sinners like Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. We sin like a well-meaning child who makes mistakes, whereas they sin like evil monsters. They killed innocent people—we would never do such a thing! It’s one thing for Christ to offer salvation to people like us—but them?
My sins and yours nailed Jesus to that cross as surely as the sins of a child killer or the terrorist who flew a 747 into the side of the World Trade Center.
Unless we come to grips with the fact that we are of the exact same stock—fallen humanity—as Dodd and Bundy and Hitler, we will never appreciate the grace of Jesus.
Dodd, Bundy, and Dahmer each claimed to have converted to Christ before their deaths. Were these conversions genuine? We can’t know, but in each case there was evidence. The question is, if they did truly repent and put their trust in Christ, were they saved? I asked that question at a college students’ retreat years ago, and one of the students, very zealous in his faith, answered “No way.” He couldn’t see it. Within the next year, he walked away from the faith. I can’t help but wonder if his inability to believe God could forgive serial killers meant he did not grasp the meaning of the gospel, and was never saved himself.
“But they didn’t deserve to be saved.” Of course they didn’t! Neither do I. Neither do you. If we deserved God’s grace, we wouldn’t need it. And if we deserved his grace more than Dodd or Dahmer, we’d get partial credit for being in heaven. God insists that He gets full credit. We get none, precisely because we deserve none.
“But I want justice—Dodd should have gotten what was coming to him.” Do you really want what you have coming? There’s a four letter word for it: Hell. Dodd deserved hell. So do I. So do you. Truth alone would send Dodd to hell. And me. And you. Forever.
Let’s be thankful we’re not getting what we deserve!
If God isn’t big enough to save Dodd and Dahmer, He’s not big enough to save me.
Jesus told us, “rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20. If we can begin to grasp God’s grace for us, if we fall on our knees and weep, and then if we dance and smile and shout and laugh out loud because God has overwhelmed us with His grace, people will see Jesus in us. They will believe what we tell them about Jesus, because we—just like Him—will be full of grace and truth.
Truth on Campus?
(*Some of this was included in the book, some wasn’t)
University students were once known as truth-seekers. But minds are so “open” now most don’t think critically. They sit passively in classes where professors affirm, without hard evidence, the random evolution of complex life forms. No mention is made of the biochemical discoveries of irreducible complexity at the cellular level, which refute Darwinism and constitute overwhelming scientific evidence for intelligent design. [v] Few students know enough even to challenge shaky truth claims.
Students absorb a false worldview, usually specifically anti-Christian. Christian young people, unprepared for colleges’ assault on truth, are seduced by unbiblical philosophies. Many never recover.
The Christian faith is the one offering on the truth smorgasbord for which there’s zero tolerance. It’s fine to say you’re searching for truth. It’s not fine to say you’ve found it. If you believe in horoscopes or reincarnation, you’re cool; if you believe the apostle Paul, you’re an idiot.
Why is it okay to believe any silly thing we want to, but not okay to believe Scripture? Because if it’s true, we’re in real trouble. If there’s a God who created me, is my judge, says I am a sinner and makes demands on my life, I don’t want to hear it.
That people are so quickly offended by Christian beliefs is evidence for their truth. Satan’s strategy is not simply to deny the truth, but to bury the truth under an avalanche of emotionally appealing false “truths.”
A professor says: · “The really important thing isn’t finding the truth, it’s searching for it.” Apply the same logic to your search for a job, a parking space or a life preserver when you’re drowning. · “There’s no such thing as truth.” Is that a true statement? If so, then there is such a thing as truth. So if the statement is true, it proves itself wrong. (Why does anyone go to college to learn truth from professors who believe there is no truth?) · “Truth is whatever you sincerely believe.”
You can step off a building sincerely believing you won’t fall. But gravity cares nothing about your sincerity. We’re not nearly as sincere as we imagine, but even when we are sincere, we’re often wrong. [vi] In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom said, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” [vii] “What’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me.”
So if we step off the roof at the same time, I’ll fall because I believe in gravity, but you’ll hover in the air because you don’t?
True education is impossible in an environment that scorns the existence of truth. Facts can be taught, skills learned, propaganda disseminated, diplomas dispensed. But that isn’t education.
Jesus said God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). It’s not arrogance to believe what the Bible teaches. It’s the opposite of arrogance. Arrogance is when we’re presumptuous enough to believe whatever suits our tastes. Or when we tailor-make truth to our preferences. There’s a short leap from “God is dead” to “I am God.” God determines truth. If we dismiss Christ as mistaken, the Bible as irrelevant, is prideful beyond description. “Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar” (1 John 5:10). What could be more arrogant—or dangerous—than calling God a liar?
A Gallup poll concluded, “Americans revere the Bible--but, by and large, they don't read it. And because they don't read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates...eight in ten Americans say they are Christians, but only four in ten know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Fewer than half of all adults can name Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four Gospels, while many do not know that Jesus had twelve disciples or that he was born in Bethlehem...today's teenagers know even less about the Bible than do adults. “ [viii]
According to Barna polls, two in five evangelicals believe “it does not matter what religious faith you follow because all faiths teach similar lessons about life.” Seventy-seven percent of evangelicals believe that man is basically good by nature, with 84 percent of them saying that in the matter of salvation, "God helps those who help themselves." Well over half of churched evangelicals thought that that statement was an actual quotation from the Bible.
One-third of “evangelicals” believe all people pray to the same God, and that faith in Christ is not absolutely necessary, so long as one is a good person.
Amazingly, Protestants are more likely than any other group to say that “there is no such thing as absolute truth” (73 %). Over half of church-going evangelicals “strongly agreed” with that statement.
David Wells laments, “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.” [ix] Sadly, Christians so ignorant of the truth are severely handicapped in representing Christ to a truth-starved world.
Churches need more than ever to focus on teaching people God’s truths.
What if the Truth Seems Unfair?
A common argument against certain biblical teachings is that they’re unfair. For instance, “It would be unfair to have a sexual attraction if it would be wrong to act on it.” But take this to it’s logical conclusion. Someone attracted to children has a real sexual desire, but is that evidence it’s alright to fulfill it?
I know people who are handicapped, who will never walk again in this life, never see, never be able to engage in the natural bodily functions most of us take for granted. Isn’t that unfair?
As I feel compassion for someone who cannot see or walk, I feel sorrow for people who can’t be married in accord with their desires. But my sorrow doesn’t negate the truth of Scripture. Because Jesus went to the cross for them, they and I together can enjoy an eternity in which we will walk and run and see and hear and know that every desire we have is good, will be satisfied and will never mislead us.
My subjective sense of fairness and “grace” may lead me to ignore or even deny God’s truth.
But left to myself, I don’t think straight. I believe the lies that are currently popular. God gives me his truth as a moral compass, a reference point to guide me. It’s not my job to argue with or “fix” the compass so it points the direction I want it to. I must believe the truth as it is, and seek to communicate it graciously to others.
Where It All Begins
Summarizing thousands of interviews, Patterson and Kim conclude Americans now live in a “moral vacuum”:
When we want to answer a question of right and wrong, we ask ourselves…. The overwhelming majority of people (93%) said that they—and nobody else—determine what is and what isn’t moral in their lives. They base their decisions on their own experience, even on their daily whims…
We are a law unto ourselves. We have made ourselves the authority over church and God….
What’s right? What’s wrong? When you are making up your own rules, your own moral codes, it can make the world a confusing place.
Based on their interviews the researchers conclude, “A letdown in moral values is now considered the number one problem facing our country. Eighty percent of us believe that morals and ethics should be taught in our schools again.”
These are the hungry heart of unbelievers longing for truth, crying out for standards. Notably, though, these researchers offered no suggestion as to what morals and ethics could be based upon…if not God’s eternal truths revealed in Scripture and embodied in Christ, the living Truth.
“As the reservoir empties itself into the pipes, so hath Christ emptied out His grace for His people…He stands like a fountain, always flowing, but only running in order to supply the empty pitchers and the thirsty lips which draw nigh unto it…Grace, whether it’s work be to pardon, to cleanse, to preserve, is ever to be had from Him freely and without price.” [x] Charles Spurgeon
The Need for Grace
Truth without grace is unbending, like the law of gravity. Gravity doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the individual in the car is young, kind, tired or didn’t mean to get too close to the edge of the cliff. When the car plunges off the precipice, gravity shows no sympathy.
Truth tells us we’re sick. Only grace can cure us.
Jewish tradition says that when the high priest went into the holy of holies, a rope was tied around his ankle. Why? Because if God struck the priest down for some infraction, how else would they retrieve his body? (Would you go in after him?!).
If that was the caution and dread with which the holiest man in Israel approached God on the most holy day, what must the average person have felt? To approach this holy God was inconceivable. Yet consider Hebrews 10:19: “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.”
“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). To a devout Jew the notion of unhindered access to God is scandalous. (If it’s not startling to us, it’s only because we don’t understand God’s holiness.) The only explanation is the word that appears twice in the verse: grace.
The Church’s Track Record on Truth and Grace
The vast majority of older American colleges were built with the vision and funding of Christians. Why? To teach truth.
Nearly every older hospital in America was built with the vision and funding of Christians. Why? To extend grace.
What religions besides Christianity have established hospitals throughout the world, or networks of famine relief and development to help starving people, victims of disasters and refugees? Who has shown grace, bringing in tons of food, clothing, shelter, man-power and medical supplies after every disaster? Buddhists? Hindus? Muslims? Animists? Atheists? Agnostics?
When Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are suffering in far corners of the world, it’s Christians who come to help. This flies beneath the cultural radar, which reduces Christianity to crusades and persecutions. (Never mind that more Christians are persecuted than anyone else in the world, and more than any religious group in history.)
Evangelicalism, rejecting the “grace only” attempts of liberalism’s social gospel, once swung the pendulum the other way with the “truth only” approach that neglected meeting physical needs. But this has radically changed.
Across America, and increasingly in other parts of the world, there are abortion alternative centers providing free pregnancy tests, counseling, ultrasounds, childcare, adoption resources, materials and clothing to pregnant women. Medical and legal help is provided at no charge. There are more prolife help-giving centers, well over three thousand of them, with perhaps over 100,000 volunteers, than there are prolife education and political action centers. [xi] In fact, these pregnancy centers and their associated services constitute the single largest grassroots volunteer movement in American history.
The church’s track record on grace is far from perfect. But it’s certainly better than anyone else’s.
Truth, Grace and Media
Parents who wouldn’t dream of letting a dirty-minded adult alone with their children do it every time they let their kids sit and surf channels and access the internet without supervision. There’s nothing new about sexual immorality. But there is something new about the ease with which it invades our homes.
Why do we do this? Because we want to trust our kids, and show them children grace. We don’t want to be known as restrictive, anti-fun or legalistic. We want to be cool parents. The kind that don’t get hung up on rules. Such “grace” is merely parental neglect in disguise.
We sacrifice our children on the altar of appearing cool (which never works anyway). Our children may never recover from this “grace” we’re showing them. In fact, it’s moral child abuse. We should repent of it. Our children don’t need cool parents. They need parents full of grace and truth.
A college ethics professor who passionately teaches moral relativism was outraged when she discovered over half her class cheated on the final. But shouldn’t she have given them extra credit?
Why did she get upset when her students acted out the very ethical system she advocated? Because no matter what she claims to believe, she knows that when they cheated, when they violated truth, they were absolutely (not relatively) wrong.
What’s shocking is how the moral relativism of our society has penetrated the church—a testimony to our failure to teach our people the truth. Relativism reigns, with believers improvising their morals as they go.
A woman walked away from her marriage—without biblical grounds—because, in her words, “the Holy Spirit gave me peace about it.” When I tried to point to the truth, she said she wasn’t going to be “legalistic.” She’s still going to church, claiming the spiritual high ground. She told me, “I’ve never been so close to God.”
Is Psychology a Reliable Source of Truth?
Many who don’t know the meaning of “substitutionary atonement,” “sanctification,” “holiness” and “depravity” are intimately acquainted with the meaning of “codependency,” “enabler,” “dysfunction” and “abuse.” The biblical model of personal responsibility, man’s sin and God’s redemption is being replaced by the psychological model of victimization, dysfunction and recovery.
James Boice said, “Like the liberals before us, evangelicals use the Bible’s words but give them new meaning, pouring bad secular content into spiritual terminology. But differently, of course. We live in a therapeutic age now. So evangelicals have recast their theology in psychiatric terms.” [xii] People once looked to Scripture for grace and truth. Now, for truth they look to science, education and media. For grace they look to psychology, recovery groups and social service programs.
Understanding addictions involves two warring alternatives—the sin model and the disease model. Truth advocates embrace the sin model, which is solved by repentance and reformation. Grace advocates follow the disease model, which is solved by understanding and compassion. So what’s the answer—grace or truth? Neither by itself. Both together. Integrating grace and truth is the key.
Psychology isn’t all bad. God in his common grace has allowed unbelievers to discover significant insights on how our minds work. But psychology lacks the vital moorings of truth. No worldview rises above its fundamental premises. “Who is God?” “Who is man?” “What is the nature of the human dilemma?” “What is the solution to the human dilemma?” “What authority should govern our beliefs and methodology?” “To whom are we ultimately accountable?”
Secular psychology has the wrong answers to all these fundamental questions. It fails to recognize God as Creator, Savior or Judge. Changing the adjective from “secular” to “Christian” often amounts to a superficial attempt to convert and baptize psychology. It’s easy to claim submission to the authority of Scripture, while in practice we simply take psychological beliefs and methodology, then reinterpret Bible verses to support them.
We place ourselves under the authority of a worldview which we’ve uncritically assimilated. We end up seeing ourselves, others and even God through the eyes of psychology, not Scripture.
The Bible condemns drunkenness and other immoral behaviors, holding people fully accountable, never suggesting the disease model. In therapy many people come to believe their lives will be inevitably centered on their “disease” (e.g. they are lifetime “sex addicts” or “food addicts” or “alcoholics”). But 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 says otherwise, distinguishing between who we were and who we are. Without this truth, people are robbed of hope in the power of God’s grace. The beginning of life-change is confession and repentance, to which God responds with grace and empowerment. This requires taking full responsibility for our choices.
Therapy is helpful when it directs us to biblical long-term changes in thinking and behavior, to overcome entrenched patterns. But is it possible some problems meant to be dealt with in a moment at the cross have now become the center of years of therapy?
Grace and Guilt
I live in Oregon, the physician-assisted suicide state. The idea of physician-assisted suicide deserves the same level of respect as pastor-assisted adultery. Thirty years ago, every Christian and nearly every non-Christian knew that. But we have many people in our churches today who don’t. In two elections in a row, polls showed that many Oregon Christians cast their vote for physician-assisted suicide. In their eyes, it was the gracious, compassionate thing to do. But grace apart from truth isn’t grace. In the name of grace Christians advocated playing God with human lives.
The ancient historical Jesus came full of grace and truth. The modern mythological Jesus comes full of tolerance and relativism. Even in the church truth has given way to subjectivism and cowardice. Grace has deteriorated into permissiveness and indifference.
Without truth, we lack courage to speak up and convictions to speak up about. Without grace, we lack compassion to bring the solutions people desperately need.
The Question We Don’t Ask
If we were holy, we’d realize the strange thing isn’t why God would send people to hell. He’s infinitely holy and we’re sinners, steeped in rebellion, offensive even to finite angelic holiness, let alone infinite divine holiness. Send people to hell? No brainer. Where else would you send them?
The really disturbing question, if we were holy, would be, “How could a holy God send sinful men to heaven?” Holy angels could reason, “God is far more holy than we, and we wouldn’t let these evil people into heaven—so how could he?” Angels might write a book entitled “Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People?”
We ask the wrong questions because we don’t grasp the truths of God’s holiness and our sin. Therefore, we don’t grasp the wonders of his grace.
We imagine hell is out of proportion to our offenses precisely because we don’t grasp how serious our offenses are.
God’s grace faces straight on hell’s reality, and offers full deliverance. Denying hell takes the wind out of grace’s sails. If there’s no eternal hell, the stakes of redemption are vastly lowered. What did Jesus die to rescue us from?
Grace is God’s work to deliver us from the full extent of our depravity, and its full punishment (eternal hell). By understating depravity and denying eternal hell we lower the cost of our redemption. We cheapen grace. By diminishing the truth that demanded the ultimate price for sin, we diminish the grace that paid that price.
What makes us think we’re qualified to revise and edit God’s truth to make it compatible with what we imagine grace to require? How quick we are to bring Almighty God before the bar of human reason!
The fact that I can’t wrap my brain around God’s grace and the truth of hell, proves only one thing—I have a very small brain.
We’re determined to tone truth down, sand off its hard edges. We’re embarrassed by God’s truth, afraid it’s making him look bad. But we’re not God’s speech writers. He appoints us to deliver his message, not to compose it. He’s already done that—it’s called the Bible. He doesn’t need editors and PR people. He needs faithful messengers.
Who do we think we are?
If Matthew 25:46 isn’t true when it says hell is eternal, what makes me think John 3:16 is true when it says God loves us and offers us eternal life?
There’s another reason we embrace false doctrine—cowardice. Because I’m afraid to tell people they’re going to hell without Jesus, I solve the problem by deciding they’re not going to hell without Jesus. Now I can relax.
But my denial of truth does nothing to change it.
Telling Each Other the Truth
Thirty years ago, many chose churches based on whether they believed and taught the truth. Today many choose churches based on whether they make them feel comfortable. If a church tells the truth, it will gain some people, but lose others.
One out of five women having an abortion in America claims to be a born again Christian. Yet pastors tell me “I don’t talk about abortion because it will make people feel guilty, since many have had abortions.”
Isn’t that exactly why we should talk about it? To help people—men as well as women, since men are always involved in a pregnancy—recognize and deal with their guilt, and receive Christ’s grace? And to help others avoid the sin that creates the guilt?
I know many women who have experienced God’s forgiveness and profound healing after past abortions. The women who suffer most from abortion are those who do not face the truth. Deep inside they know it, their conscience accuses them, and they pursue self-destructive behaviors. Our silence isn’t grace—it’s cruelty.
Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the truth in love, not “withhold the truth in love.”
At a time when many churches have backed away from truth-telling, confrontation and church discipline, secular recovery advocates are embracing truth-telling, in the form of interventions with addicts instead of looking the other way while friends and family destroy themselves, some are lovingly yet firmly presenting the truth, even when it’s not invited or welcomed. Why this move to truth-telling? Not simply because it’s right, but because it works. God’s way always works better, and truth-telling is God’s way.
Isn’t it patronizing to withhold truth from people because we imagine they can’t handle it?
Grace always deals with truth, and offers forgiveness when there’s been wrongdoing. The way to no longer feel guilty is not to deny guilt, but to face it and ask God’s forgiveness. Grace liberates us. The time to take responsibility for our actions is now, not later at the judgment seat of Christ.
The truth isn’t something we should protect people from—it’s something God gives for their protection.
I confronted a friend who appeared to be flirting with a disastrous decision. I said, “I know I’m risking our relationship. Jesus said to do to others what we wish they would do for us. If you saw what you thought was sin or danger in my life, I’d want you to come to me about it. I owe you the same. I don’t want our friendship to end. But I’m willing to take that risk because I love you enough to tell you the truth.”
Grace overshadowing Truth?
Phillip Yancey is one of my favorite writers. His book What’s So Amazing About Grace was selected “Book of the Year” by evangelical publishers. 98% of the book is profoundly biblical and balanced. But it contains some statements that appear to minimize truth in the name of grace.
Yancey tells the story of his friend Mel White’s struggle with homosexual temptation, and White’s decision to end his marriage and come out as gay. Since that time White has become a well-known advocate of “Gay Theology.”
Yancey says “Frankly, I think our friendship takes far more grace on Mel’s part than on mine.” [xiii]
Yancey is sincerely trying to be Christlike. But what does he mean that White is showing “far more grace” than he? The word grace has a biblical meaning. The King shows grace to rebellious subject who murdered his son, by offering him forgiveness. The subject doesn’t show grace to the King by putting up with the King’s servants or eating his food without complaining. If Yancey means, “Mel White has been nicer to me than I have been to him,” he should say that. But grace is something far greater, something which Christ not only inspires but empowers, through the transforming work of his spirit in a life repentant of sin. We cheapen grace when we reduce it to niceness or tolerance.
I don’t know Mel White. If I did, I’d hope to show him grace and truth. But I have seen the effect of his teachings. I’ve seen Christians confused about their sexuality and terribly misled by Mel White. I’ve heard people once convinced the Bible is true, now convinced by White that homosexual behavior is acceptable to God.
This is Scripture-twisting. It’s destructive. It encourages sin and discourages repentance. Scripture warns us “there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies...Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute” (2 Peter 2:1-2).
I’m not questioning whether Mel White is a nice person. I’m simply stating he’s not telling the truth about God, Scripture, sexuality or morality. Am I withholding grace from him by saying this? No—because I have no power to extend grace except in the way God does, which is always in the context of truth, not deceit. Am I condemning or persecuting him? No. I’m simply believing God.
After relating how Christians have mistreated Mel White, Yancey gives another example of “ungrace,” by telling of a friend who “lost her career as a broadcaster after a campaign critical of her writings.” [xiv]
This indeed sounds harsh and ungracious. But unfortunately it doesn’t mention why people were critical of her writings. This was a woman I respected and have no hostility toward. But I read one of her books where she spoke in intimate terms about her spirit guide. In fact, she’d given him a name, and dedicated the book to him. She described him as a young man appearing in her dreams. “He was tall ... well formed and trim, somewhere in his early thirties ... His fine, dark hair fell in a thick lock across his forehead ... his blue-gray eyes looking earnestly into mine.” He said to her, “You are everything I have ever wanted spiritually.” She claimed this experience had taken place “six or eight times a year for the last four or five years” and had a “positively profound effect” on her.
When a Bible conference director asked me whether they should keep her as the scheduled speaker, I recommended he talk to her, and ask if she’d changed her viewpoints about these and other things. If she hadn’t, I suggested he owed it to Christians attending the conference to arrange for a different speaker.
What would’ve been the proper response of the Christian community? “Go right on with your radio ministry—keep speaking at conferences and writing Christian books even though you’re advocating beliefs that violate Scripture?”
Or is a better response, “I pray for you and deeply regret I can no longer support your program. I feel a moral obligation to people who read your books and listen to you through the platform of our publishing house, conference center and radio station. If you renounce these false beliefs then we’ll welcome you back. But if you don’t, we can’t.”
Readers are left thinking that grace is synonymous with approval, and that criticizing false teaching somehow violates grace.
Yancey then says, “The public image of the evangelical church today is practically defined by an emphasis on two issues that Jesus did not even mention.” [xv] He refers to abortion and homosexuality. But Jesus also never mentioned molesting children, beating wives, kidnapping, terrorism or rape. That certainly doesn’t mean he didn’t have strong convictions against them, does it?
Phil Yancey remains one of my favorite writers. But Christians who read Yancey’s book and who are silent or indifferent about abortion and homosexuality, are left feeling that they stand on the moral high ground of grace.
Truth-oriented Christians who address abortion and homosexuality without grace are dead wrong. Grace-oriented Christians who assume every attempt to speak out against these comes from people who know nothing of grace, are equally wrong.
Since Christ is full of both, we dare not choose truth over grace, or grace over truth.
“Grace substitutes a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our need, a joy in total dependence. We become ‘jolly beggars.’” C. S. Lewis
John Fisher says in 12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee, “It is the creed of the Pharisee to be better than everyone else and to devise means of measuring and comparing that support his assessment.” [xvi]
Jesus acknowledged that some truths are more important than others. Loving God is first, loving your neighbor second (Matthew 22:37-39).
Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices…but you have neglected the more important matter of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23). Jesus didn’t tell them they should throw God’s smaller truths out the window. He just told them to focus on the larger truths.
It’s not about earrings, tattoos, clothing styles, drinking wine, smoking cigars or playing cards. It’s about justice, righteousness, love, and mercy. It’s about grace and truth. The big themes, not the little ones.
Remember Margaret Holder, who told us about “Uncle Eric,” Eric Liddell? Every morning in that prison camp he rose early to study Scripture and pray. Every day he served as Christ’s ambassador to the children, and cared for the older, the weak and the ill, suffering in the squalor of open cesspools, rats, flies and disease with 1,800 people packed into a camp measuring 150 by 200 yards.
Margaret related another story. The children played basketball, rounders and hockey. Liddell was their referee. But he refused to referee on Sunday. On Sundays, however, the children fought. Liddell struggled over this. He believed he shouldn’t stop the children from playing, because they needed the diversion. But in his absence, fights got worse.
Finally, Eric Liddell decided to referee on Sundays. This made a deep impression on Margaret (who later became a missionary). Why? She saw that the athlete world famous for sacrificing success and fortune for the sake of principle and conviction, was not a legalist. When it came to his own glory, Liddell would surrender it all rather than run on Sunday. But when it came to the good of children in a prison camp, he would referee on Sunday.
Liddell was a man of truth who refused to be bound by the law from extending grace. He would sacrifice a gold medal for the sake of truth, but would stretch his convictions as far as he could for the sake of grace.
Though every spoken word was agony, Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
This thief would never be baptized, make restitution, attend church, take communion, sing a hymn or give an offering. He had nothing to offer Christ, no way to pay him back.
Neither do we.
Yet Jesus gave him an absolute guarantee he’d be with Him in heaven. No delay. No purgatory. No catch. No doubt.
He offers us the same.
Peter told us to stand fast in “the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12). As opposed to what? False grace, counterfeit grace.
If you ask a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness if he believes in grace, he’ll say yes. But because he believes works contribute to his salvation, he does not believe in true grace.
Grace is utterly one-sided. Human merit and divine grace are mutually exclusive. They cannot coexist. “If it were [by works], grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).
Someone invites us to dinner. We ask, “What can I bring?” Our host replies “Nothing.” Sometimes we bring something anyway.
God invites us to heaven. We ask, “What can I bring?” He says “Nothing.” He means it.
Remember the story of the King who invites you to come live in his house, even though you rebelled against him, and murdered his son? Suppose you collected some shining rocks, then came before the King and said, “Here. I appreciate what you’ve done for me. Now I’m paying you back.”
Imagine the King’s response. You can’t begin to pay him back. The attempt cheapens his Son’s death.
But doesn’t God offer us rewards for faithful service? Absolutely. Immediately after saying salvation’s not by works, God says we’re “created to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Paul says, “I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
We should seek Christ’s empowerment to serve him so one day he’ll say to us those awesome words: “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:21).
Salvation can’t be earned—it’s God’s work for man. Rewards can be earned—they’re man’s work for God, empowered by His grace. *See ILOE
If we could get this straight it would deliver us from grace-abuse and truth-abuse.
Political Glimmers of Grace and Truth
(*Some of this was included in the book, some not.)
Conservatives emphasize truth (morals), liberals emphasize grace (compassion).
Conservatives want to conserve for society what’s right. Liberals want to liberate society from what’s wrong. Liberals’ desire to fight racism in the 60’s was commendable. I praise God for what liberal groups like the ACLU accomplished in that arena (even though I oppose much of what the ACLU does today).
But often liberals fought good standards, like those that said abortion, fornication, adultery and homosexual behavior were wrong. They embrace tolerance, a grace-substitute. Liberal Christians end up being liberals first, Christians second.
Conservatives want to restore old values. They fondly remember “The good old days” when America was a Christian nation. Unfortunately, “the good old days” included women being unable to vote. They included slavery, then segregation.
Conservatives want to go back to the days when prayer was allowed in schools. But they forget that the same schools that allowed in prayer didn’t allow in black children! By trying to con* things that were wrong, conservative Christians ended up conservatives first, Christians second.
But why should we have to choose between conservativism’s emphasis on truth and liberalism’s emphasis on grace? Why can’t we oppose injustice to minorities and to the unborn? Why can’t we oppose greedy ruination of the environment and extreme anti-industry New Age environmentalism? Why can’t we affirm the biblical right to the ownership of property (“thou shalt not steal”) and emphasize God’s call to his people to voluntarily share their wealth with the needy? Why can’t we uphold God’s condemnation of sexual immorality, including homosexual practices, and reach out in love and compassion to those trapped in this lifestyle and dying from AIDS?
We cannot do these things if we are first and foremost either liberals or conservatives. We can do these things only if we are first and foremost followers of Christ…who is full of grace and truth.
Scripture recognizes how risky grace is. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Romans 6:1) “Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—’Let us do evil that good may result’? (Romans 3:8).
If our doctrine of grace doesn’t subject itself to the slanders New Testament grace does, it’s because our doctrine is different, safer, more works-friendly.
Today I visited a university professor who’d read one of my books. He said, “I can’t get past the idea that someone could live a selfish no-good life, and then repent on his death bed and go to heaven. It just sounds too easy, too cheap.”
I pointed out his underlying assumption, that we think we can earn God’s grace, and that going to heaven takes work on our part. We discussed that the hardest part about grace may be swallowing our pride and saying, “I don’t deserve this any more than that criminal on his deathbed deserves it.” (By God’s grace, he prayed and asked for Christ’s help.)
Grace was enormously expensive for God, but since there’s nothing we can offer to pay for it, in that sense it is indeed “cheap.”
Jude writes: “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4).
Any concept of grace that makes us feel more comfortable about sinning is not biblical grace. Anyone who misuses grace as a license for violating God’s truth does not grasp the infinite price God paid for our redemption.
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12).
God’s grace never encourages us to live in sin; on the contrary, it empowers us to say no to sin and yes to truth. It’s the polar opposite of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”
That God is omniscient means that he has seen me at my worst and still loved me. That he’s omnipotent means he has the power to transform me.
No skeletons will fall out of the closet in eternity. God won’t say say, “If I’d known that, I’d never have let Randy into heaven.” Only because God knows all my sins he could die for them all.
We’re so used to being lied to, we’re suspicious of the gospel, like it’s too good to be true.
“What’s the catch?”
There is none.