What distinguished the first Christians from the world around them? It certainly wasn’t their buildings—they had none. It wasn’t their programs—they had none. It wasn’t their political power—they had none.
Read Acts 2 and Acts 4 and you see a radical difference in the church, a profound transformation in the way people treated each other. Christians were different in the way they behaved, in the way they lived. They were characterized by visible acts of love and generosity and joyous sacrifice for the good of others.
Acts 4:32-33 says, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.” The truth of the resurrection and the grace of generous living—truth was what they believed and spoke and grace was how they lived. After the similar description in Acts 2, where we’re told the believers sold their possessions to help the needy, it says “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
The grace they gave was an echo of the grace they received. As thunder follows lightning, our grace to others follows God’s grace to us.
Two ingredients combined to make this impact on the world: truth and grace. The truth, the teachings and doctrines of the church, was the ethical foundation of right and wrong. And the grace of God, which granted them forgiveness and empowered them to forgive others, enabled them to embrace what was good and turn away from what was bad. That is the heart of ethics—discerning and living out what is good while rejecting what is bad.
When the world heard and saw the distinctive ethics of the early Christians—what they believed and how they lived, truth and grace—people were drawn to the living God.
Colossians 1:6 says “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.”
The gospel is characterized by grace and truth. But grace and truth are not just part of a religious system. They are both embodied in Jesus Christ. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The word translated “made his dwelling” is the word for “tabernacled.” Christ tabernacled among us, picturing him as the dwelling place of God on earth. God’s glory no longer dwelt in a building, the temple, but in Christ. He was the holy of holies. But when he ascended he deposited the shekinah glory of God in us—we became the living temples, the holy of holies, both corporately as churches (1 Cor. 3:16-17) and individually as Christians (1 Cor. 6:19).
God’s essence, his shekinah glory, was visibly manifested in two things: grace and truth. To be Christlike is to be full of what he was full of: grace and truth. Is the world seeing Christ in us? If we are receptacles of his glory we have a very short biblical checklist of what we should be full of: grace and truth.
John tells us, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
The law was righteous but it had no power to transform us. It was necessary, but not sufficient. Jesus brought us what no law, no list of rules—no matter how righteous—could bring us. He brought us grace and truth.
The world today is desperately hungry for two things—truth and grace. It is not enough for us to offer them one—if we are to be true Christians, we must offer them both. Today you can make a case that the church is simultaneously too hostile to the world and too friendly to it. Sinners wanted to be around Jesus, but today they don’t want to be around the followers of Jesus. Why?
On the other hand, when the church tries to make itself a place where sinners are comfortable, the distinctives of Christianity are sacrificed. The church becomes one more social club that helps people feel good but fails to help them be good. Why? Because in the one case Christians emphasize truth but neglect grace. In the other case they emphasize grace but neglect truth.
Some churches are strong on truth but weak on grace. Some are strong on grace but weak on truth. Truth is not complete without grace and grace is not complete without truth. Grace without truth deceives people. Truth without grace crushes people.
Martin Luther said the devil doesn’t care which side of the horse we fall off of as long as we don’t stay in the saddle. A saddle has two stirrups. To stay in the saddle, the church needs to mount the horse with one foot solidly in the stirrup of truth and the other solidly in the stirrup of grace.
Now, finding this balance isn’t easy. In the past I’ve intervened on behalf of children at abortion clinics and been arrested and gone to jail for peaceful nonviolent civil disobedience. One of the consequences of that was having to step out of pastoral ministry when one of the clinics tried to garnish my wages from the church. I believed and still believe the truth that unborn children are created in the image of God and that truth has compelled me to say and do things that are not popular not only among nonchristians but many Christians. I’ve always tried to represent the truth in a spirit of grace, but not everyone sees it that way.
Last year my church, Good Shepherd Community Church, was picketed by thirty protestors because some of our people go down to LoveJoy abortion clinic and sidewalk counsel. We offer women alternatives to abortion and share the gospel with them and sometimes hold up signs encouraging them to reconsider their decision and let their babies live. So three pro-abortion groups decided to combine forces and give us a taste of our own medicine. (The groups were Radical Women for Choice, Rock for Choice and Lesbian Avengers.)
We heard they were coming so we set out donuts and coffee for them and tried to strike up conversations. I spent an hour and a half talking with a man named Charles who was holding a sign saying “Keep Abortion Legal.” I gave him coffee and when it started raining I held an umbrella over him. We talked a bit about abortion, but most of the conversation was about Christ. I shared the gospel with him start to finish, he gave me his address and I’ve sent him a couple of my books and some other gospel material.
Now, I really liked Charles. But when you believe as strongly as I do that abortion is the killing of a child, it’s a bit awkward serving coffee and holding an umbrella for someone who is holding a proabortion sign—imagine if they were holding a sign saying “Legalize rape” or “Let’s kill black people.” To me, it’s the same thing. Yet, because of the opportunity to share the love of Christ, his truth and his grace, I felt it was the right thing to do. As truth sometimes puts us in awkward situations, so does grace.
The morning we were being picketed, some brothers had heard about it and showed up wearing sandwich boards that talked about sin and hell. Their message content was biblical. However, there was a bit of a philosophical difference. One of the street preachers barged between my daughter and I and a few of the Lesbian Avengers just as I thought we had a chance to open a conversation with them. Several of us spoke with the street preachers, most cooperated but a few decided we were compromisers waffling on the truth and that it was an abomination for us to be giving donuts to people who needed to be confronted with their sin.
A few letters were exchanged that week and the following Sunday two street preachers came to our church and picketed us.
When you stand for truth you get picketed by some nonchristians, and when you try to demonstrate grace you get picketed by some Christians. With some you may be way too radical, with others not nearly radical enough. So you have to decide you’re not going to live for the applause of one particular group, but live out your life before the Audience of One, your only final and ultimate Judge.
Directly out of truth flows ethics. Ethics is a subject matter many people see as irrelevant or secondary, not at the heart of the Christian life. I disagree. Ethics is how we follow Christ, how we live out our lives to the glory of God. Embracing Christian ethics, in truth and grace, can be a powerful witness for Christ.
Last year I met with a businessman who’d been attending our small group Bible study. A few days earlier at our study this man opened up about his job situation where his employer routinely promises his customers things the company doesn’t deliver. Once he got into the details a few men in the group graciously pointed out that he needed to confront his boss with this and if his boss doesn’t change his business ethics, he should resign. His already sensitive conscience had led him to the same conclusion. The group’s counsel struck a very responsive chord in him.
The next day he called me. He said “You know, listening to you guys at the group made me realize you have a perspective I really need.” Two days later we met for lunch to discuss his ethical dilemma. I had the privilege of sharing with him the ultimate ethical dilemma, sin, and the provision of Christ for his sin. We bowed our heads and there in a restaurant in Boring, Oregon, he confessed and repented of his sins and gave his life to Christ.
What did God use to bring about this man’s conversion? Though many factors played a part, the immediate thing that week was his ethical dilemma. The persuasive power of Christian ethics advocated by men in that group appealed to his conscience in a world that had violated his conscience. In a context of grace he heard the truth.
Both truth and grace are necessary, but neither is sufficient. One without the other leads to heresy and superficiality.
The darker the world gets, the brighter the light of truth shines. Romans 2 says God has written his law on human hearts, in the conscience. When the world hears the truth, accompanied by grace, many are drawn to that truth by the moral vacuum they feel in their lives.
My wife’s folks have a cabin in Manzanita, down on the Oregon coast. Every year they have a July 4th parade, with hundreds of people lining the streets. People in the parade, on the floats and trucks, throw salt water taffy into the crowd. One year, an hour after the parade was over, I walked up the main street to a store. I was shocked at what I saw. The street was covered with salt water taffy wrappers. Hundreds of them, everywhere. If there’d been one or two, you probably wouldn’t notice. But the cumulative effect was huge. The whole town had become an eyesore.
Sin is like that. As Scripture says, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”
Take each violation of truth, each case of lying and cheating, and multiply them by a million daily situations in business, school, family and government. Any one of those by itself might seem harmless and insignificant, but put them together and you have a monumental moral drift. The cumulative results of “little deceptions” add up to the moral crisis surrounding us, from the White House to the houses we all live in.
According to Patterson and Kim’s book The Day America Told the Truth, 74% of Americans say, “I will steal from those who won’t really miss it” (James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth, New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991).
64% say, “I will lie when it suits me, so long as it doesn’t cause any real damage.” 53% say, “I will cheat on my spouse—after all, given the chance, he or she will do the same.” Only 31% of Americans agree with the statement “Honesty is the best policy.” When asked what they would do for ten million dollars, 25% said they would abandon their entire family, 23% said they would become prostitutes for a week or more, and 7%—one out of fourteen—said they would murder a stranger.
To what can we attribute this startling unraveling of the moral fiber of our nation? Patterson and Kim say, “In the 1950’s 75% of Americans believed that religion was very important. Today the figure is 54%” (Patterson & Kim, p. 3).
They say Americans now live in a “moral vacuum” where “the religious figures and scriptures that gave us rules for so many centuries, the political system that gave us our laws, all have lost their meaning in our moral imagination.” (Patterson & Kim, p. 32) Based on thousands of interviews, they claim
Americans of the 1990s stand alone in a way unknown to any previous generation. 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. We have made ourselves the clear authority over the government. We have made ourselves the authority over laws and the police.
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. Most Americans are very confused about their personal morals right now (Patterson & Kim, p. 27,34).
Patterson and Kim ask and answer a critical question about the relationship between religion and morality in this country.
How does the growing number of nonreligious Americans compare to those who still hold to traditional beliefs? Can a judgment be made about who’s more moral?
People describing themselves as “very religious” (14 %) definitely make better citizens. In the self-portraits they painted for us, the very religious scored much higher than did other people on moral questions that most of us would accept as defining citizenship in a civilized society...Religious people are far less likely to have a price (Patterson & Kim, p. 201).
...Religion appears to play a strong role in building moral character. We found that people who defined themselves as religious showed a much stronger commitment to moral values and social institutions than did nonreligious people (Patterson & Kim, p. 61).
Based on their interviews Patterson and Kim maintain, “A let down 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” (Patterson & Kim, p. 8).
Unfortunately, no suggestion is made as to what these morals and ethics could be based upon if not what they always were in our past-the Judeo-Christian morality rooted in the Scriptures. But there is a second problem—even if we recognized the truth, we have no internal righteousness to live out the truth. Unless, that is, we understand the meaning of God’s grace. When traveling in the Soviet Union in 1991 I had the opportunity to talk with two public school principals. Both were communists and both had followed the strict practice of keeping religion out of the classrooms.
After seventy years under Lenin’s atheistic state, they now realized there was a severe moral crisis in the Soviet Union.
One of them said, “Our children have nothing to believe in, no morality, no reason to be honest, good citizens.” His solution to this problem? “We want to bring the Christian religion back to our young people, back to our classrooms, so we can have a moral society again.”
Though these men had no strong religious faith themselves, they were recognizing what we in America have forgotten—the essential connection between a society’s morality and its religious beliefs. They were open to seeing the truth—and we sought to use the opportunity to share with them the truth-based life-changing grace of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, the moral condition of the church—which alone is capable of helping this immoral world—is itself in serious jeopardy. In the early 80’s I was writing my first book Christians in the Wake of the Sexual Revolution. At the time it was highly controversial, because I was pointing out that instead of the spirit of the church invading the spirit of the city, the spirit of the city had invaded the spirit of the church.
My premise was that because we have become so much like the world we have very little to offer the world. In other words, an unholy world can never be won to Christ by an unholy church.
People could hardly believe back then my stories of pastors committing immorality—that was before the era of Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker. What were startling revelations in my book fifteen years ago have long since become routine. My illustrations of offensive TV programming that were so shocking then now seem tame.
We have become so desensitized to sin that it’s common for Christians to recommend movies to each other that have nudity, sex scenes and offensive language, but “aren’t that bad” compared to other movies. After all, they only have “just a little” immorality in them. (Question: if you knew there was “just a little” excrement in a cookie, would you eat it?)
To bring home the degree of the church’s moral desensitization in the past decade, let me say something I hope you’ll find disturbing.
Suppose I came to you and said, “There’s an attractive girl down the street. Let’s get together and go look through her window and watch her undress and lay back on a couch and pose naked from the waist up. Then this girl and her boyfriend will go get in a car and have sex—let’s get as close as we can and listen to them and watch the windows steam up.” You’d be shocked. Your respect for me would dissolve. You’d think, “he’s disqualified for the ministry.” And you’d be absolutely right.
Suppose I then said, “Listen, the young woman has given us permission. She knows we’ll be looking at her. She doesn’t mind.” Would that change your thinking about the situation? Of course not.
But suppose instead I had you over to my house and said, “Let’s watch the Titanic.” The majority of Christians have seen this movie, many recommend it, whole youth groups view it together, and many have purchased it and show it in their homes.
Instead of looking through a window glass, they look through a television glass. But they still watch people undress and seduce each other and have sex together. They never seem to ask how something shameful somehow becomes moral because it’s watched through one kind of glass instead of another.
“Titanic? Wonderful. It wasn’t even rated R!”
Suppose I said to you, “My wife and I are going to make love tonight. Why don’t you come over and watch? And when we’re done, we’ll watch you and your wife have sex. It’s okay, we’re married.” How would you react? What about if I said, “Let’s watch Braveheart”?
Think about it. Every day Christians across the country, including many church leaders, watch women and men undress through the window of television and watch people commit acts of fornication and adultery that our God calls an abomination. That’s what it is—that’s the truth. And that’s how out of touch with the truth we’ve become. We’re a bunch of voyeurs, peeping toms, entertained by sin.
There’s nothing new about sexual immorality. But there’s something new about the ease with which it invades our home. We live in a technological Corinth. 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 without supervision. Christians who wouldn’t consider going to a strip club watch strippers on videos, TV shows and news programs.
Because we’ve become desensitized, our ethics as Christian parents have sunk so low, our children learn to think of immorality as normal. Why are we surprised when a girl gets pregnant or a boy gets a girl pregnant when we’ve allowed them to watch hundreds or thousands of acts of sexual immorality on television and hear tens of thousands of jokes with sexual innuendoes? A survey was taken at one Promise Keepers gathering of 1500 men. One half of them had viewed pornography within the previous week. Not the previous five years, the previous week. And that didn’t count watching R rated movies.
This isn’t the place or time to elaborate further on sexual temptation, but we’d be glad to send anyone at no charge a copy of my booklet Sexual Temptation: How Christian Leaders Can Win the Battle. It offers help not only for Christian leaders but to anyone, especially to men. It offers both truth and grace.
I’ll end by telling a story about a day seven years ago where I was greatly tempted to underplay God’s truth in the name of grace.
I was raised in a nonchristian home. A year after I became a Christian at age fifteen, my mom came to the Lord. But my father was the most resistant person to the gospel I’ve ever known. He had told me never to talk to him about that “religious stuff” again.
I’d still give him Christian books and give him my own books, which always have the gospel in them, knowing my books were the only Christian books he’d read. (Deadline and Dominion both contain things I wanted my Dad to hear.)
Seven years ago, at age 84, Dad was diagnosed as having terminal cancer. The doctor estimated he had six months to live. One day I got a call from him, from his home in Vancouver, Washington. He sounded very distressed and he said, “I’ve called to say good-bye. I’m in pain from the cancer—I know the end’s coming. I’ve got a gun to my head. Sorry to leave you a mess.” I knew my Dad well enough to know he had never bluffed in his life. I begged him to put down the gun and to hold on till I got there.
I jumped in the car, made the thirty-minute drive in twenty. I knocked on the door, no answer. I walked in, and on the floor I saw a rifle and a handgun. I called out for my father, turned the corner into his room and held my breath for what I was about to see. Right then he walked out and bumped into me. Heart pounding, I took him to the hospital and they scheduled surgery for the next morning.
I came in early, an hour before surgery. I prayed that somehow, in his pain, with no easy way out, God would break through to my father. I opened to Romans and read some verses from chapter three. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I knew my father had been offended at the idea of being called a sinner, so part of me wanted to gloss over this and move quickly past the bad news to the good news. I was greatly tempted to underemphasize the truth of human depravity. But I forced myself to keep reading verse after verse talking about our sin.
I told myself, if I really loved my dad I had to tell him the whole truth, and if God was going to do the miracle of conversion, that was his job, and it was mine just to tell the truth.
Finally we made it to Romans 6, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” After half an hour of going from verse to verse, I looked at him and asked, “Dad, have you ever confessed your sins and asked Jesus Christ to forgive you?” (Of course, I knew the answer.)
“No...,” he said, then paused for what seemed a long time. Even as he paused I thanked the Lord for giving me this opportunity, and helping me to share the truth, even though I was sure Dad wouldn’t accept Christ. Finally he finished his sentence: “...but I think it’s about time I did.”
To say I was shocked is the ultimate understatement. What I and many others had prayed for all those years was being answered, and I couldn’t believe it. My father prayed aloud, confessed his sins and placed his faith in Christ that morning, just before they wheeled him into surgery. The surgery was successful.
God graciously gave me five more years with my dad (so much for the doctor’s “six months to live”). My wife and daughters and brother and I were with him when he left this world for the next. I can’t wait to see him and my mom and many of my friends in heaven.
My point is this: part of me wanted in the world’s worst way to skim over or minimize the truth of human depravity. Yet without the bad news, there is no good news—the good news is unnecessary without it. Without the truth of God’s holiness and the truth of our sin, the grace of Christ on our behalf becomes meaningless or irrelevant.
The worst thing I could have done to my father was to hold back the full power of God’s truth. Without knowing that truth, it is possible to repeat a prayer from a gospel booklet, but it is impossible to experience the grace of God. For grace is not simply kindness, it is a specific response to sin. If there is no knowledge of sin, there can be no experience of grace.
The other mistake I could have made was this—believing that Dad had turned his back on the truth for so many years that his Creator had given up on him. I could have withheld God’s grace from my father, reasoning that when I’d shared it before he had always been hostile, and there was no point in doing it again. (That too had been a temptation.)
To withhold God’s grace or God’s truth is equally wrong and equally devastating. May we as Christians never make the mistake of choosing between truth and grace. May we eagerly offer them both to a world that so desperately needs to know the One who is full of grace and truth.