The Grace and Truth Paradox: Grace Passages
Surprised by Grace
That first century Jewish culture understood truth far better than grace. Grace comes first in John 1:14 because it was more surprising.
When Jesus stepped onto the world’s stage, people could not only hear the demands of truth but see Truth Himself. No longer fleeting glimmers of grace, but Grace Himself. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
When God passed in front of Moses, He identified Himself as “abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The words translated “love” and “faithfulness” are the Hebrew equivalents of grace and truth.
Grace is a delightful, fragrant word.
It also confounds. It’s as though God said, “You know about truth. It’s taught in synagogues every Sabbath. But let Me tell you about grace….”
The Old Testament teaches the fear of God, spelling out the horrendous consequences of disregarding truth. It presents truth relentlessly. Uzzah was struck down just for steadying the ark with his hand.
There’s certainly grace in the Old Testament—lots of it—but it was overshadowed by truth. The Pharisees, God’s self-appointed gatekeepers, never emphasized grace. Christ’s hearers had seen truth in the law of Moses, but it was He who gave them their first clear view of grace. The law could only reveal sin. Jesus could remove it.
Some churches today embrace truth, but need a heavy dose of grace.
Other churches talk about grace, but cry out for a heavy dose of truth.
I invited a lesbian activist to lunch. For the first hour, she hammered me, telling of all the Christians who’d mistreated her. She seemed hard as nails. I listened, trying to show her God’s grace, praying she’d see the Jesus she desperately needed. She raised her voice and cursed freely. People stared. But that was OK. Jesus went to the cross for her—the least I could do was listen.
Suddenly she was crying, sobbing, broken. I reached across the table and took her hand. For the next two hours I heard her story, her heartsickness, her doubts about the causes she championed. I told her about Christ’s grace.
After four hours we walked out of that restaurant, side by side. We hugged.
In our conversation, truth wasn’t shared at the expense of grace, or grace at the expense of truth.
Birds need two wings to fly. With only one wing, they’re grounded. The gospel flies with the wings of grace and truth. Not one, but both.
The apparent conflict between grace and truth isn’t because they’re incompatible, but because we lack perspective to resolve their paradox. The two are interdependent. We should never approach truth except in a spirit of grace, or grace except in a spirit of truth. Jesus wasn’t 50% grace, 50% truth, but 100% grace, 100% truth.
Truth-oriented Christians love studying Scripture and theology. But sometimes they’re quick to judge and slow to forgive. They’re strong on truth, weak on grace.
Grace-oriented Christians love forgiveness and freedom. But sometimes they neglect biblical study and see moral standards as “legalism.” They’re strong on grace, weak on truth.
Countless mistakes in marriage, parenting, ministry and other relationships are failures to balance grace and truth. Sometimes we neglect both. Often we choose one over the other.
It reminds me of Moses, our Dalmatian.
When one tennis ball’s in his mouth, the other’s on the floor. When he goes for the second ball, he drops the first. Large dogs can get two balls in their mouth. Not Moses. He manages to get two in his mouth only momentarily. To his distress, one ball or the other spurts out onto the floor.
Similarly, our minds don’t seem big enough to hold onto grace and truth at the same time. We go after the grace ball—only to drop the truth ball to make room for it. We need to stretch our undersized minds to hold them both at once.
A paradox is an apparent contradiction. Grace and truth aren’t really contradictory. Jesus didn’t switch on truth, then turn it off so He could switch on grace. Both are permanently switched on in Jesus. Both should be switched on in us.
Truth without grace breeds a self-righteousness legalism that poisons the church and pushes the world from Christ.
Grace without truth breeds moral indifference and keeps people from seeing their need for Christ.
Attempts to “soften” the gospel by minimizing truth keep people from Jesus. Attempts to “toughen” the gospel by minimizing grace keep people from Jesus.
It’s not enough for us to offer grace or truth. We must offer both.
That’s what this little book is all about.
What is Grace?
We spent an unforgettable day in England with Phil and Margaret Holder. Margaret had been born in China to missionary parents with China Inland Mission. In 1939, when Japan took control of Eastern China, thirteen-year-old Margaret was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. There she remained, separated from her parents, for six years.
Margaret told us stories about a godly man called “Uncle Eric.” He tutored her and was deeply loved by all the children in the camp. We were amazed to discover that “Uncle Eric” was Eric Liddell, “The Flying Scott,” hero of the movie Chariots of Fire. Liddell shocked the world by refusing to run the 100 meters in the 1924 Paris Olympics, a race he was favored to win. He withdrew because the qualifying heat was on a Sunday.
Liddell won a gold medal—and broke a world record—in the 400 meters, not his strongest event. Later he went as a missionary to China. When war broke out, he sent his pregnant wife and daughters to safety. Imprisoned by the Japanese, he never saw his family in this world again. Suffering with a brain tumor, Eric Liddell died in 1945, shortly after his forty-third birthday.
Through fresh tears, Margaret told us, “It was a cold February day when Uncle Eric died.”
At times it seemed unbearable to be cut off from their homes and families. But Margaret spoke with delight of “care packages falling from the sky”—barrels of food and supplies dropped from American planes.
One day, Margaret and the other children were lined up as usual to count off for roll call. Suddenly an American airplane flew low. They watched it circle and drop more of those wonderful food barrels. But as the barrels came near the ground, the captives realized something was different. Her eyes bright, Margaret told us, “This time the barrels had legs!” The sky was full of American soldiers, parachuting down to rescue them.
Margaret and several hundred children rushed out of the camp, past Japanese guards who offered no resistance. Free for the first time in six years, they ran to the soldiers, raining down everywhere. They threw themselves on their rescuers, hugging and kissing them.
Imagine the children’s joy. Imagine the soldiers’ joy.
God rejoices in the grace He offers, as much as we rejoice in receiving it. Whether it’s Him returning from the sky to liberate us, or drawing us to Himself through our deaths, we will be rescued and at last reunited with loved ones who’ve gone before us. We’ll be taken home.
The Cost of Grace
Hounded by the Pharisees, betrayed by a friend, forsaken by His disciples, brutalized by police, beaten by His inquisitors, led in disgrace to a rigged trial.
Arrogant men sitting in judgment over Him, crowning Him with thorns, mocking and disdaining. Beating Him without mercy, nailing Him to the cross, the worst of tortures, stretched out between thieves.
Miserably thirsty, utterly forsaken by His Father for the first time, the picture of utter aloneness.
Hell on earth! Not just one man’s hell, but the hell of billions. At any moment-in a millisecond—He could have called legions of angels to deliver Him and destroy His enemies. Instead, He bears forever the scars of sin, rebellion, mockery, and hatred…the scars of God’s grace.
The cost of redemption cannot be overstated. The wonders of grace cannot be overemphasized. Christ took the hell He didn’t deserve so we could have the heaven we don’t deserve.
If you’re not stunned by the thought of grace…then you aren’t grasping what grace offers you, or what it cost Jesus.
In 1987 eighteen month old “Baby Jessica” fell twenty-two feet into a Texas well. 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.
This was not the story: “Baby Jessica clawed 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!”
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 had no chance. Likewise, when it comes to our salvation, we’re utterly powerless. That’s grace: “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
We get no more applause for our redemption than Baby Jessica got for being rescued. God alone deserves the ovation. In the story of redemption, He’s the only hero. And it didn’t just cost him 55 hours of hard work—it cost him everything.
Do you want to say “thank you” right now?
A Wretch Like Who?
Before I spoke at a conference, a soloist sang one of my favorite songs, “Amazing Grace.”
It was beautiful. Until she got to the tenth word.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me.”
My heart sank. The word “wretch” had been edited out! I thought about John Newton, the song-writer. This former slave-trader, guilty of the vilest sins, knew he was a wretch. And that’s what made God’s grace so “amazing.” Mind-boggling. Knock-down awesome.
If we’re nothing more than morally neutral “souls,” do you see what that does? It guts grace. The better we are, the less we need grace. The less amazing it becomes. (Change the Baby Jessica story to rescuing Osama bin Laden and you have a better picture of redemption.)
The Bible makes an astounding proclamation: “God showed us his love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
When you cut “wretch” out of the song, you shrink grace. You reduce it to something more sensible, less surprising.
If we weren’t so bad without Christ, why did He have to endure the cross? Paul said if men were good enough, then “Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).
Grace never ignores the awful truth of our depravity. In fact, it emphasizes it. The worse we realize we are, the greater we realize God’s grace is.
Grace isn’t about God lowering His standards. It’s about God fulfilling those standards through the substitutionary suffering of the Standard-setter. Christ went to the cross because He would not ignore the truths of His holiness and our sin. Grace never ignores or violates truth. Grace gave what truth demanded: the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.
Human depravity may be an insulting doctrine, but grasping it is liberating. Why? Because when I realize the best I can do without Him is like “filthy rags” in His sight (Isaiah 64:6), it finally sinks in that I have nothing to offer. Salvation therefore hinges on His work, not mine.
You and I, after all, weren’t (or aren’t, if you don’t yet know Him) merely sick in our sins, we were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1-3). That means I’m not just unworthy of salvation, I’m utterly incapable of earning it. Corpses can’t raise themselves from the grave.
What relief to realize my salvation cannot be earned by good works—and therefore can’t be lost by bad ones.
If we see God as He really is, and ourselves as we really are, there’s only one appropriate response: to worship Him. Humility isn’t pretending we’re unworthy because it’s spiritual—it’s recognizing we’re unworthy because it’s true.
A. W. Tozer said, “Only the humble are sane.”
Grace and Gratitude
“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” (Romans 11:35). The answer is nobody.
Our culture is riddled with a poisonous spirit of entitlement. We always think we deserve more. We’re disappointed with our family, neighbors, church, the waitress, the sales clerk, and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Ultimately we’re disappointed with God. He hasn’t given us everything we want.
What madness! If we could only see our situation clearly—even for a moment. We deserved expulsion, He gives us a diploma. We deserved the electric chair, He gives us a parade. Anything less than overwhelming gratitude should be unthinkable. He owes us nothing. We owe Him everything. When you realize you deserve nothing better than hell, it puts “a bad day” in perspective, doesn’t it?
Christians in Sudan—who’ve suffered unspeakably for their faith—are deeply grateful for God’s daily blessings. But us? We whine and pout.
Thankfulness should draw a clear line between us and a Christless world. If the same spirit of entitlement and ingratitude that characterizes culture characterizes us, what do we have to offer?
If I grasp that I deserve hell, I’ll be filled with gratitude not only for God’s huge blessings—including my redemption and home in heaven—but His smaller blessings: sun, rain, a beating heart, eyes that see, legs that walk, a mind that thinks. If I don’t have these I’ll be overwhelmed with the knowledge that I have plenty else I don’t deserve. And—because Christ allowed Himself to be crushed under the weight of my sin—I’ll enjoy forever a clear mind and perfect body.
Imagine a great and generous king. In the midst of his benevolent reign, he hears his subjects have revolted. He sends messengers to investigate. The rebels kill them. So he sends his own dear son, the prince. They murder him viciously, hanging his body on the city wall.
What would you expect the king to do now? Send his armies and take revenge, naturally. Kill the rebels. Burn the villages to ashes. He has both the power and the right.
But what if the king offered these criminals a full pardon?
“I will accept my son—whom you murdered—as the payment for all your rebellion. You may go free. All I require is for you to admit your transgressions.”
We’d be stunned—blown away—to hear this, wouldn’t we? But the king’s not finished.
“I invite any of you to come live in my palace, eat at my table and enjoy all the pleasures of my kingdom. And, I will adopt you as my own children and make you my heirs, so everything that’s mine will be yours forever.”
Then he says, “I won’t force you to accept my offer. But the only alternative is spending the rest of your life in prison. The choice is yours.”
Can you imagine anyone responding, “How dare the king send anyone to prison? What a cruel tyrant!”
This is God’s grace to us. If trying to comprehend it doesn’t stretch your brain, you just aren’t getting it.
Because grace is so incomprehensible to us, we bootleg in conditions so we won’t look so bad and God’s offer won’t seem so counterintuitive. By the time we’re done qualifying the gospel, we’re no longer unworthy and powerless. We’re no longer wretches. And grace is no longer grace. The worst thing we can teach people is that they’re good without Jesus. The fact is, God doesn’t offer grace to good people, any more than doctors offer lifesaving surgery to healthy people. Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
Never believe anything about yourself or God that makes His grace to you seem anything less than astonishing.
Because that’s exactly what it is.
A Closer Look at Grace
Wesley Allan Dodd tortured, molested and murdered three boys in Vancouver, Washington, fifteen miles from our home.
Dodd was scheduled to be hung—the first U. S. hanging in three decades—shortly after midnight, January 4, 1993.
At dinner that evening, both our daughters, then eleven and thirteen, prayed earnestly that Dodd would repent and place his faith in Christ before he died. I agreed with their prayer…but only because I knew I should.
I stayed up and watched. Reporters from all over the country crowded round. Twelve media representatives were firsthand witnesses to the execution. When they emerged thirty minutes after Dodd died, they recounted the experience.
One of them read Dodd’s last words: “I had thought there was no hope and no peace. I was wrong. I have found hope and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Gasps and groans erupted. You could see and hear the anger. How dare someone who has done anything so terrible say he has found hope and peace in Jesus? Did he really think God would let him into heaven after what he’d done? Shut up and go to hell, child killer—you won’t get off so easy!
The idea of God’s offering grace to Dodd was utterly offensive.
And yet….Didn’t Jesus die for Dodd’s sins just as He did mine? No sin is bigger than the Savior. Grace is, literally, not of this world. I struggled with the idea of God saving Dodd only because I thought too much of myself and too little of my Lord.
I’d imagined the distance between Dodd and me as the difference between south and north poles. But when you consider God’s viewpoint from light-years away, that distance is negligible. In my standing before a holy God, apart from Christ…I am Dodd. I am Dahmer. I am Mao.
The thought horrifies me, but it’s true. It was also true of Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa. This isn’t hyperbole; it’s biblical truth. Unless we come to grips with the fact that we’re of the same stock—fallen humanity—as Dodd and Hitler and Stalin, we’ll never appreciate Christ’s grace.
You say you want justice? You want Dodd and those like him to “get what’s coming to them”? Be careful! Are you also willing to take what you have coming? There’s a four letter word for it: Hell.
My sins and yours, including our self-righteousness, nailed Jesus to that cross as surely as the sins of any child killer, terrorist or genocidal tyrant. 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.
Present Grace, Future Grace
After saying Jesus came full of grace and truth, John added, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16). One wave after the next crashes onto the beach, before the previous wave is diminished. Thus the tide of God’s grace never ceases to bring one blessing after another.
Many think of grace only in the past tense. But grace didn’t end when Christ purchased our ticket out of hell.
Agencies try to trace people with large bank accounts that haven’t been accessed for twenty to fifty years. The money, sometimes millions of dollars, just sits there, accumulating interest. When the legal heirs are finally discovered, they’re sometimes living in poverty. All along they had great wealth freely accessible…if only they had known it.
Similarly, you and I often fail to understand how abundant the supply of grace really is. As a result, we live in spiritual poverty. We have now all the grace we’ll ever need. All we have to do is ask for it.
God’s grace didn’t get us going then leave us to get by on our works. Grace didn’t just justify us in the past, it sustains us in the present and will deliver us in the future.
“Our Lord Jesus is ever giving, and does not for a solitary instant withdraw his hand…the rain of His grace is always dropping, the river of His bounty is ever-flowing, and the wellspring of his love is constantly overflowing. As the King can never die, so His grace can never fail.”
Perhaps parents’ greatest heritage to pass to our children is the ability to perceive the multitude of God’s daily blessings, and to respond with continuous gratitude. We should be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:7).
Jesus said, “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). If we truly grasped God’s grace—even a little—we would fall on our knees and weep. Then we would get up and dance, smile, shout and laugh, looking at each other and saying, “Can you believe it? We’re forgiven! We’re going to live forever in heaven!”
How could we do anything less?
Grace and Forgiveness
Many hear God say “Do more” and “Do better.” But not “I’ve done it for you—rest.” Yet this is what Jesus meant when he said “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden; take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
That’s a stark contrast to the “Just try harder!” message countless Christians labor under. Many religions offer non-stop programs of self-reformation, forever walking the treadmill, putting in the miles but never finishing the work.
God invites us, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1).
There’s only one requirement for enjoying God’s grace: being broke…and knowing it.
The Greek word teleo was commonly written across certificates of debt when they were canceled. It meant “paid in full.” Just before Christ died, He cried out, teleo, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Christ died so that the certificate of debt, listing all our sins, could once and for all be marked “paid in full.”
Even though forgiveness has been offered, however, it’s not yours until you accept it. Courts have determined that a pardon is valid only if the guilty party receives it. Christ offers each of us the gift of forgiveness, but the offer alone doesn’t make it ours. To have it, we must accept it.
A friend told me he’d failed God so many times he no longer felt worthy of God’s grace. But he was never worthy in the first place! Neither am I. Grace means Christ paid for us. There’s nothing left for us to do but joyfully accept what He’s done.
The apostle Paul himself was a murderer. Yet God not only forgave him, he elevated Paul to leadership in the church. There are no limits to the forgiving grace of God.
This world pours cold water onto the fires of grace and truth. As smoldering coals need each other to keep burning, we need to gather with others to celebrate Christ’s grace and truth. A good church will teach you biblical truth, and will also provide you grace, acceptance, and support.
Imagine a slave ship captain, a cruel Englishman who acquired slaves from Africa and transported them in horrific slave ships to be sold like animals at auction. Imagine that this man later writes lyrics which become the most popular song of English-speaking blacks in the entire world.
The song is “Amazing Grace.” Some black churches sing it every Sunday. Sometimes it goes on and on, for ten or fifteen minutes. Many African-Americans love that song more than any other…even though it was written by a white man who sold black slaves and treated them like filth.
What can explain this? The same thing that explains how Christians throughout the centuries have treasured the letters of Paul, who zealously murdered Christians. It’s built-in to the message:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
The man who abused those slaves and the man who wrote that song were both named John Newton. Both shared the same DNA, but the songwriter was a new man. He became a pastor and labored to oppose the slave trade. 82 years old and blind, Newton said shortly before he died, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”
“Amazing Grace” moves my heart more than any song I’ve ever heard. This hymn has been recorded more often, by more musicians, than any other. It can be sung at the most secular event or pagan concert and a hush will fall on the audience. Eyes tear up. And not just the eyes of Christians.
Grace is what hearts cry out for!
Grace is what people long for, even those who don’t know Jesus.
Especially those who don’t know Jesus.
The Grace We Long For
A little English girl prayed, “God, make all the bad people good, and all the good people nice.”
She’d probably seen adults with stern faces stare her down because she dared to fidget during a church service.
Truth without grace breeds a self-righteous legalism. People become frightened deer caught in the headlights of manmade rules. Long lists and long faces turn people from Christ.
But grace frees us from bondage and pulls the world toward Christ. Truth is good advice. Grace is good news. Good advice isn’t enough. Human hearts crave good news.
My father, the tavern owner, also supplied pool tables, juke boxes, and amusement machines for other taverns. Dad sometimes took me with him on his route. At ten years old I’d been in more taverns than most Christians ever see. And I loved it. The men would ask me to shoot pool. The bar maids would invite me to sit at the bar and talk. They’d give me soda pop and corn curls. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait until I’m twenty-one so I can go to taverns whenever I want.”
When I was in high school I became a Christian, and soon heard a sermon against taverns. I figured the pastor hadn’t seen what I had—nice, friendly people who listened to and loved each other, generous with their money and time. Most of them felt far more welcome and accepted in a bar than they ever had inside the doors of a church. Until very recently, so had I.
I’m not romanticizing taverns. But I’m saying that Jesus, who had a reputation for investing time with sinners, would preach five sermons against self-righteous churches for every one against taverns!
Why has Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables been so wildly popular as a novel, play and movie? Why do people see it again and again? Why does it make them weep?
Transformed by the grace of a bishop, who shields him from his theft and assault, Jean Valjean makes a new life for himself as a businessman, mayor and benefactor. But he’s stalked relentlessly by the police detective Javert, the ultimate legalist, determined that the letter of the law must be carried out.
Valjean saves Javert’s life. He frees the man who’s his only obstacle to freedom. He releases someone who has the power to destroy him. Unable to comprehend such startling grace, Javert ends his life, restoring Valjean to freedom.
Les Misérables runs on the tracks of grace—surprising, shocking, amazing grace. Valjean is transformed by grace. Then he extends that grace to an equally unworthy man. And where did this cycle of grace begin? With the One who showed grace to the bishop who showed grace to Valjean—Jesus Christ.
Les Misérables is about the greatness of grace. It’s incredible popularity should remind us how people long for Christ’s grace.
The Lost Son
Jesus tells us of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The son scorns his father, demands his inheritance, leaves and squanders it all in immorality. Starving, he comes back to his father to beg mercy.
How would you expect the father to respond? Refuse to let him on the property? Tell him he’s disowned? Flog him? Make him a slave? Yell at him? Lecture him? Say “I told you so”?
Jesus tells us: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
The father dresses him in the finest robe, puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. He prepares the fattened calf, putting on a feast, celebrating on the grandest scale. He cries, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Dignified men in the Middle East didn’t run. And they certainly didn’t throw parties for a son guilty of shame and waste.
The meaning? Our father rejoices at repentant sinners, showering us with grace.
(Just off-stage there’s a truth-oriented older brother who has no place for grace. Resenting his brother’s reinstatement, he essentially says to his father, “Look at all I’ve done for you. You owe me!”)
Philip Yancey tells a modern day version of the prodigal son, about a girl with a nose ring and an attitude. She rebels against her parents, runs away, and becomes a drug-addicted prostitute in Detroit.
The months go by. She sees her face on a milk carton but never bothers to tell her family she’s alive. Then, two years later, she gets sick and desperate. Her pimp throws her out on the street.
All other alternatives exhausted, she calls home. She leaves a message on the answering machine, gets on a Greyhound, and shows up at the bus station, figuring she’ll scrounge a ride to her old house.
As she steps off the bus she finds herself greeted by forty brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and her parents, all wearing party hats, with a huge banner stretched out saying, “Welcome home.”
Before she can finish saying “I’m sorry” her father murmurs, “Hush, sweetheart, we’ll talk later. We’ve got to get you home to the party; there’s a banquet waiting for you!”
Such abundant grace almost makes the parent look foolish, doesn’t it? Looking foolish is a risk God willingly takes in extending us grace. We expect Him to extract His pound of flesh, to make us grovel and beg. But He doesn’t.
Just before He told of the prodigal son, Jesus said, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Again, he said, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Those in heaven see and celebrate conversions on earth. Heaven throws a party for every sinner who repents.
Sinners embracing God’s grace means it’s party time in heaven. And it should mean party time on earth.
Grace Versus Tolerance
Think about the girl who ran off to Detroit. Some would blame her parents, because their standards were too high. If they’d never set a curfew, never had any rules, their daughter wouldn’t have had anything to rebel against.
If she wants to watch sleazy movies, fine. If she wants to hang around kids who do drugs, okay. If she wants to sleep with her boyfriend, well, it’s her life—we’ll just provide her with birth control. We don’t want to alienate her by being uptight or bossy.
Such parents sometimes imagine they’re showing “grace” to their children. But it isn’t grace at all. It’s just low standards and high tolerance of sin.
Grace never lowers the standards of holiness. Jesus didn’t lower the bar, he raised it! “You’ve heard it said, don’t commit adultery, I say don’t look at a woman with lust” (Matthew 5:27-28).
A home full of grace is also full of truth, because grace doesn’t make people less holy—it makes them more holy. Grace doesn’t make people despise or neglect truth—it makes them love and follow truth. Grace isn’t a free pass to sin—it’s a supernatural empowerment not to sin (Titus 3:5).
By failing to address sin in each other’s lives we send an unspoken message: I’ll overlook your sin if you overlook mine.
Grace raises the bar—but it also enables us to joyfully jump over that bar.
Any concept of grace that leaves us—or our children—thinking truth is expendable, is not biblical grace.
Jesus came down hardest on the very people whose doctrinal statement was the closest to His own. The Pharisees were the Bible-believing faithful of their day.
Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself. God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’”
His words drip with self-congratulation. He achieves status by comparison, elevating himself by pulling down others.
Then Jesus describes the other man: “But the tax collector stood at a distance.” He felt unworthy to even stand near the temple, a place of God’s holy presence. “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
Jesus said, “I tell you that this man rather than the other, went home justified before God.” (See Luke 18:9-14)
To be justified is to be declared righteous. But how can the unrighteous be declared righteous? Paul tells us: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). Righteousness never comes by faith in self, but by faith in God. The religious leader believed in himself, giving no mercy. The tax collector believed in God, begging for mercy.
There are two kinds of people: sinners who admit their sin and sinners who deny it.
Which kind are you?
Objections to Grace
During a British conference on comparative religions, scholars debated what belief, if any, was totally unique to the Christian faith.
Incarnation? Other religions had gods appear in human form. Resurrection? Other religions tell of those returning from the dead. The debate went on until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. The scholars posed the question to him.
“That’s easy,” Lewis replied. “It’s grace.”
Our Babel-building pride insists that we must work our way to God. Only the Christian faith presents God’s grace as unconditional. That so goes against our instinct, so violates our pride, man never would have made it up. (That’s a major reason Lewis believed it.)
“All religions are basically the same”? Imagine a geometry or French teacher who said to his students, “It doesn’t matter what answers you give on the test. All answers are basically the same.”
Hinduism’s gods are many and impersonal. Christianity’s God is one and personal. Buddhism offers no forgiveness or divine intervention. Christianity offers forgiveness and divine intervention. In Judaism and Islam men earn righteous status before God through doing good works. In Christianity men gain righteousness only by confessing their unrighteousness and being covered by Christ’s merit. Every other religion is man working his way to God. Christianity is God working His way to men.
If you want a religion that makes you look good, Christianity is a poor choice. It does, however, have something wonderful going for it—it’s true!
Michael Christopher’s play “The Black Angel” is about Herman Engel, a Nazi general guilty of despicable war crimes. At the Nuremberg trials he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
When he got out he made a new beginning, building a cabin for himself and his wife in a remote part of France.
But there was a French journalist named Morrieaux, whose family had been massacred by Engel’s troops. Morrieaux clung to thirty years of bitterness, and was bent on revenge.
The journalist traced Engel to the French village, went into town and stirred up hatred. The men agreed they’d go up that night and kill Engel and his wife, burning their cabin to the ground.
But that afternoon Morrieaux confronted Engel, interrogating him through the afternoon. As time wore on Morrieaux saw this tired, pathetic man’s guilty and tortured soul. Revenge began to taste sour.
Finally Morrieaux said, “They’re going to kill you tonight. Come with me now and I’ll get you out.”
Engel looked at him intently: “I will go with you on one condition.”
“That you forgive me.”
“No,” said Morrieaux. “I will save your life…but I cannot forgive you.”
Engel refused to leave. That night his cabin burned to the ground. He and his wife were murdered.
Why was this forgiving grace more important to Engle than life itself? And why could Morrieaux not find it in himself to grant it? Haunting questions.
The good news is that there’s a God much bigger than Engel, a Savior much bigger than Engel’s sin. And there’s a God much bigger than Morrieaux… much bigger than his inability to forgive.
Remember George, the university professor I drove home from that theatre parking lot? When we met again several months later, two hours before he came to Christ, he said, “I can’t get past the idea that someone could live a selfish, no-good life, then repent on his death bed and go to heaven. It just sounds too easy, too cheap.”
I challenged his underlying assumption, that we can earn heaven. We discussed the hardest part about grace—swallowing our pride and saying, “I don’t deserve this any more than that criminal does.”
Grace was enormously expensive for God. Yet there’s just nothing we can offer to pay for it.
A thief on the cross asked Jesus to save him. 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.
Remember the King who invites you to come live in his house and be his heir, even though you rebelled against him, and murdered his son? Suppose you worked hard, saved up money, then came to the King and said, “Here. I’m paying you back.”
Imagine the King’s response. You can’t begin to pay him back. The very attempt is an insult. It cheapens his Son’s death.
On the other hand, some people take advantage of grace, reducing it to an excuse for sin. 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” (Jude 4).
Any concept of grace that makes us feel more comfortable about sinning is not biblical grace. 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.”
God has seen us at our worst and still loved us. No skeletons will fall out of our closets in eternity. God won’t say, “Well, if I’d known that I never would’ve let Randy into heaven!” God knows all my sins. Jesus died for them all. No exceptions.
Better Than I Deserve
We’re so used to being lied to, we’re suspicious of the gospel—like it’s too good to be true. You know: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
“What’s the catch?”
There is none!
“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. Yet that access is ours, freely. Because of Christ’s work, God’s door is always open to us.
True grace undercuts not only self-righteousness, but self-sufficiency. God often brings us where we have no place to turn but to Him. As with manna, he always gives us enough but not too much. He doesn’t let us store up grace. We have to go back for it, fresh, every day, every hour.
Whenever I ask “How are you doing?” my friend CJ responds, “Better than I deserve.”
It’s not just a cute remark. He means it. And he’s right. We don’t deserve God’s daily graces, big or small.
The Roman centurion sent word to Jesus, “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof…I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you” (Luke 7:6-7).
Living by grace means affirming daily our unworthiness. We are never thankful for what we think we deserve. We are deeply thankful for what we know we don’t deserve.
When you know you deserve eternal hell, it puts “a bad day” in perspective! If you realize you’re undeserving, suddenly the world comes alive—you’re surprised and grateful at God’s many kindnesses that were invisible when you thought you deserved better. Instead of drowning in self-pity, you’re floating on a sea of gratitude.
When I sense “I’m unworthy”—and I often do—I’m sensing the truth. I don’t need you to talk me out of my unworthiness. I need you to talk me into humbly setting it before Christ and asking Him to empower me. Yes, I cling to the reality that I’m a new person, covered in Christ’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). But the same Paul who told us that said “I am less than the least of all God’s people” (Ephesians 3:8).
Pride is a heavy burden. There’s is nothing like that feeling of lightness when God graciously lifts our self-illusions from our shoulders. Even refusing to forgive ourselves is an act of pride—it’s making ourselves and our sins bigger than God and His grace.
Are we trying to atone for our sins? We can’t. Only Jesus can, and He already did.
Don’t try to repeat the atonement—just accept it!
Embrace God’s forgiveness.
Extending Grace to Others
Jesus told of a servant whose debt to his master was 10,000 talents, the equivalent of millions of dollars. The servant begged forgiveness. Though the master had every right to imprison him for the rest of his life, he offered full pardon.
Then this servant went out and found a fellow servant, who owed him a much smaller amount—1/600,000 of what he’d been forgiven.
He demanded full and immediate payment. The debtor fell to his knees and pleaded for mercy. But he showed no mercy, throwing him into prison.
When the Master heard about this, he said, in essence, “Had my forgiveness really touched your heart you would have extended it to your brother.”
The master withdrew forgiveness, since a man who won’t extend grace shows an utter disregard for grace.
This parable teaches:
Our debt to God is infinitely beyond our capacity to pay.
Our debt to God is infinitely greater than any person’s debt to us.
When we truly experience God’s forgiveness for our sins it will transform us into forgiving people.
“But how can I forgive my father for abusing me, my ex-wife for betraying me, my business partner for cheating me? That would take a miracle.”
Exactly. Grace is that miracle.
“Do you expect me to pretend he didn’t do those terrible things to me?” Not at all. God doesn’t pretend we didn’t do all those terrible things to him. He doesn’t pretend the nails in His hands didn’t hurt.
He says, “I died to forgive you…and to give you grace to forgive others.”
Extending grace frees us from the terrible burden of resentment and bitterness. Bad as they may be, anyone’s offenses against me are far less than my offenses against God. If He’s forgiven me, by his grace I can forgive them.
God’s grace to us is lightning. Our grace to others is thunder. Lightning comes first; thunder responds. We show grace to others because He first showed grace to us.
Go and Sin No More
The truth-only crowd, the Pharisees, were ready to stone a woman for adultery (John 8:1-12). Had grace-only folks been there, they would have said, “Don’t worry about an affair, dear. God understands, and so do we.”
Jesus rebuked the woman’s accusers. But that isn’t the end of the story. He could have said,
“Go burn for your sins.”
“Go and feel free to sin some more.”
What He did say was, “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus didn’t deny truth. He affirmed it. She needed to repent. And change.
Jesus didn’t deny grace. He offered it. He sent her away forgiven and cleansed, to a new life.
Grace-only folk don’t understand why Jesus said, “fear him who has the power to throw you into hell” (Luke 12:5). Truth-only folk don’t understand why Jesus hung out with sinners, and why He hung on a cross for them.
Instead of the world’s apathy and tolerance, we offer grace. Instead of the world’s relativism and deception, we offer truth.
If we minimize grace the world sees no hope for salvation. If we minimize truth, the world sees no need for salvation. To show the world Jesus, we must offer unabridged grace and truth, emphasizing both, apologizing for neither.
Truth is quick to post warning signs and guardrails at the top of the cliff. Yet it fails to empower people to drive safely—and neglects to help them when they crash.
Grace is quick to post ambulances and paramedics at the bottom of the cliff. But without truth, it fails to post warning signs and build guardrails. In so doing, it encourages the very self-destruction it attempts to heal.
Truth without grace crushes people and ceases to be truth. Grace without truth deceives people and ceases to be grace.
Truth without grace degenerates into judgmental legalism. Grace without truth degenerates into deceitful tolerance.
Christ’s heart is equally grieved by grace-suppression and truth-suppression, by grace-twisting and truth-twisting.
We need to examine ourselves and correct ourselves. We who are truth-oriented need to go out of our way to affirm grace. We who are grace-oriented need to go out of our way to affirm truth.
“Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” No one did either like Jesus.
Truth hates sin. Grace loves sinners.
Those full of grace and truth do both.
This article is an excerpt from Randy Alcorn’s book, The Grace and Truth Paradox.