John 1:1, 14 tells us Jesus is full of two things: grace and truth.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... 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.
Not “full of patience, wisdom, beauty, compassion, and creativity.” In the list there are no commas and only one conjunction—grace and truth. Scripture distills Christ’s attributes into a two-point checklist of Christlikeness.
The baby born in a Bethlehem barn was Creator of the universe. He pitched His tent on the humble camping ground of our little planet. God’s glory no longer dwelt in a temple of wood and stone, but in Christ. Jesus was the Holy of Holies.
But when He ascended back into the wide blue heavens, He left God’s shekinah glory—that visible manifestation of God’s presence—on Earth. We Christians became His living temples, the new Holy of Holies (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 6:19).
People had only to look at Jesus to see what God is like. People today should only have to look at us to see what Jesus is like. For better or worse, they’ll draw conclusions about Christ from what they see in us. If we fail the grace test, we fail to be Christlike. If we fail the truth test, we fail to be Christlike. If we pass both tests, we’re like Jesus.
A grace-starved, truth-starved world needs Jesus, full of grace and truth.
What does this hungry world see when it looks at us?
Surprised by Grace
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 also see Truth Himself. No longer fleeting glimmers of grace, but Grace Himself. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, NASB).
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.
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 Christ who gave them their first clear view of grace.
The law could only reveal sin. Only Jesus could remove it.
Today, many of us embrace truth but need a heavy dose of grace. (Spend ten minutes on social media if you need an embarrassing eyeful of examples.) Others talk about grace but forget their need for a heavy dose of 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 Bible study and see moral standards as “legalism.” They’re strong on grace, weak on truth.
When I invited a lesbian activist to lunch, she hammered me for an hour, telling of all the Christians who’d mistreated her. She seemed as 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 okay. Jesus went to the cross for her—the least I could do was listen.
Suddenly she cried and sobbed—broken. I reached across the table for her hand. For the next two hours the story spilled out, of 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.
With only one wing, birds are grounded. Likewise, the gospel flies only with the wings of both grace and truth.
The apparent conflict isn’t because grace and truth are 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 percent grace, 50 percent truth, but 100 percent grace, 100 percent truth.
Countless mistakes in marriage, parenting, ministry, and other relationships result from 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 was in his mouth, the other was on the floor. Large dogs can get two balls in their mouths. Not Moses. He managed that feat only momentarily. To his distress, and our great amusement, one ball or the other spurted out onto the floor.
Similarly, our minds don’t seem big enough to hold on to 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 speak truth and suddenly switch to grace. Jesus constantly and permanently engaged both. And so should we.
There is always one answer to the question of what Jesus would do: He would act in grace and truth.
Tim Keller wrote, “'Truth’ without grace is not really truth and ‘grace’ without truth is not really grace.”
Truth without grace breeds a self-righteous legalism that poisons the church and pushes the world away from Christ. Grace without truth breeds moral indifference and keeps people from seeing their need for Christ.
Jesus doesn’t need publicity agents; He wants followers. 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.
Adapted from Randy’s book The Grace and Truth Paradox.