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Grace and truth

February 17, 2016 1 comment

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I recognize that there is some inherent danger in writing about stuff like this on the internet. I have no formal theological training; I only know what I think I know. I’m just a lawyer with a curious mind who happens to have a checkered history with Christianity.

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, I think better with my fingers on keys. (Mostly because I can’t read my own handwriting.) To that end this entire site is a peek into my cobwebbed confusion as I try and make sense of what I read in the Bible, what I believe God is revealing to me in my mind, and what I perceive as I look at my religion’s history. I realize that I’m deeply conflicted with my faith, and that my relationship with God is frankly, complicated.

I will also confess that some of my hope is to reveal a side of Christianity that the world doesn’t always see. I hope that some of these thoughts will sow seeds that may someday germinate in a mind that has otherwise not found much use with Jesus.

Balancing “grace” with “truth”

I am fortunate enough to be connected with a great church and some amazing guys I get to explore life with. We meet each week off the highway in Conifer, Colorado and we explore what God seeks to tell his followers though the book we call the Bible. Hopefully we are iron sharpening iron, and not just a bunch of rocks bashing against each other.

On the menu this week is the tension between “demonstrating grace” and “revealing truth.” One of the guys posed the question of balance – How do we balance the demonstration of grace, mercy, and love against the instruction to correct others?

As a starting point, I believe that neither grace nor truth is ours to give. We can only demonstrate and extend the grace and truth that God has first extended to us. As a reinforcing point, all the scripture references I’ve come across deal with Christians correcting each other, not correcting or admonishing others. (See Titus 3:10, Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 5:11, 1 Timothy 1:20, Romans 16:17, several others.)

Like everything in the Bible, these verses must always be read in the broader context in which they’re presented. To do otherwise is intellectually dishonest. But read in their proper context these passages and many others speak to the Christian’s duty to correct and admonish other Christians – and only in love and mercy. They do not give Christians license to “lead with truth” and attempt to correct other people who do not first know Christ.

The model of Jesus: different standards for different audiences

If we look to Jesus as our model – and if we dare to call ourselves Christians, we have no other model – Jesus applied different standards to different audiences, depending on what they needed most.

To the Pharisees, the religious insiders, and the politically connected – those who thought they had religion all figured out and had solved God like a theological equation – Jesus led with truth. In fact, Jesus was “all truth, all the time.” We see this in the accounts of Jesus’s interactions with the Sanhedrin and with other Jewish leaders of the day. (See Matthew 12:24-37, calling them a “brood of vipers.” See also, Matthew 23, calling them – among other things – white-washed tombs, blind guides, blind fools, etc.) Jesus always saved his harshest words for the self-righteous who thought they already had it dialed.

But to those who knew they were broken, to those who knew they didn’t have it all figured out, Jesus led with grace. Consider the account of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Jesus did not condemn her, but interceded with grace for her and “truth” for those who would cast the first stone. Only after saving her life did he say “…go and sin no more.” This is a consistent pattern through Jesus’s ministry. Look up most accounts of miraculous healing or his intervention. You will find that in almost every circumstance he first gives the tangible thing the person needs before he says anything to admonish them toward truth. (And sometimes he just lets grace do the work anyway.)

This can be reinforced by a macro view of Jesus’s most popular public address, the “Sermon on the Mount.” (Matthew 5) Jesus leads off with

  • God blesses…
  • God blesses…
  • God blesses…

A total of nine times! He talks about letting our good deeds shine. He says that his followers are to be salt to give flavor and preservation to a bland world, and to be light shining in the darkness for all to see. Only after talking a lot of “grace” did he ever start talking much “truth.”

When Jesus spoke with people who would listen, grace was always the hook.

Truth cuts both ways

We must likewise lead with love and grace in all our interactions. We must let others know that we love them and that God has mercy and grace for them before we ever presume to give any dose of “truth.” If we ever allow our relationships to get so far as to genuinely and consistently demonstrate love, only then can we presume to have permission to correct or admonish. And if we dare go that far, any admonition must be bathed in mercy and love, not in fire and brimstone.

Underpinning all this is the sense that any opportunity to admonish must first be rooted in a genuine loving relationship. It can’t be lip service, and it can’t be contrived. And it is only genuine if it is consistently demonstrated time, time, and time again.

We also have to be willing to receive admonition in return. As the Sermon on the Mount continues in Matthew 7, we must first carefully examine our own lives and correct ourselves before we ever presume to point out a flaw in someone else. If we dare to correct another person, not only must we do it in love (see Matthew 15:11 (we are defiled by the words that come out of our mouths); Romans 14), we must also expect that we will be judged by the same standard we use to judge others. (Matthew 7:2)

The trouble is, “truth” is alluring; grace feels too easy. Dosing out truth gives us the ability to take our critical attention away from ourselves and focus it on someone else. By saying, “Well, at least I don’t do THAT!” we turn away from the work God would have us do in our own lives. Not only do we alienate ourselves from the other person, we turn our backs on the improvement God wants to do to us and we drive the wedge even deeper between the other and God.

At this point in my life I have so many flaws to work on that I can’t afford to give anything but grace. That’s what I want for myself, so that’s what I try and give. Perhaps someone who has it more put together can get away with dishing out “truth” and admonition, but I am not there yet.