I was reading an article the other day by Rosario Butterfield. She was sharing a classic difficulty that all of us recognize as Christians trying to keep a gospel witness in an increasingly polarized world, characterized by incivility. On the one hand, there’s a desire to be hospitable and loving, as we’re called by Christ to be. And yet, we also know we need to be truth-tellers. As she notes, the first-century Church correctly realized that false teaching was more dangerous than persecution. It was worse, in the estimation of these early Christians, to be wrong than to be marginalized by society for being right. In our desire for comfort and acceptability, we often have that backward, leading to ineffective biblical teaching.
When we try to think rightly about our engagement with the world around us, though, we believe intuitively we should be balancing grace and truth to those who aren’t believers, who don’t approach life from our worldview. But, is balance really something we’re trying to achieve? Is it balance, or something else? Instead of striving for balance, maybe we really ought to be striving for unity.
As Westerners, descended from Greeks and Romans, we tend to think of ourselves as divided into parts, but we’re not. We’re image-bearers of God, and God is not divided into parts; He is a whole. We may see different attributes of God emphasized at different times–God’s love, justice, mercy, truthfulness, grace, holiness, and all other attributes co-exist and are unified in God. When John says in chapter 1 that Christ is “full of grace and truth”, He’s not saying that part of Jesus is grace and part of Him is truth. He is saying Jesus is 100 percent grace and 100 percent truth at all times, together and whole.
Why does this matter to us? Here’s an example. Take God’s mercy and His justice. People, or at least Westerners, like us, naturally think of mercy and justice as two separate things, that sometimes a person may be merciful, and sometimes she may be just. It is possible for a person to be merciful and not just, or to exercise justice without mercy. But, God is not like that. When God thinks and acts, He is all justice and all mercy, 100 percent of both, simultaneously. Everything He thinks and does is perfectly just and perfectly merciful, at the same time.
So, why is this important? Here’s why. With God’s unity in mind, “How can a loving God send anyone to hell?”- is not a biblical question. The question assumes either that mercy is more important than justice, or that God can only choose one or the other, or be only one at any given time. But, God is a god of justice, and while He loves us perfectly, He does so in the context of being perfectly just. In this case, God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful, 100 percent of both at the same time. By providing a way through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection to escape condemnation, He is perfectly merciful and perfectly just. Completely and simultaneously.
It works the same with grace and truth. When John says Jesus was “full of grace and truth,” He didn’t choose one over the other. He wasn’t full of grace at some times, and full of truth at others. He wasn’t 50 percent grace, and the other half truth. He was fully grace, and fully truth, all at the same time. And, as Christ’s imagers, this can be true for us, as well.
We can love people who don’t agree with us. We can exercise grace. But, grace without truth is not really love at all. Whether it’s your spouse, or your children, or your friend, or anyone you truly love, love and grace are always undergirded by truth. Love never wants that which it believes is harmful to befall the subject of its love. If it did, it wouldn’t be love; it would be indifference at best, or, if it wished ill, hate. True grace and love always has to be undergirded by truth. As the popular slogan says, “Love Wins,” but only when truth is behind it. If not, it’s not love.
Likewise, godly truth can’t exist without grace and love. Hate and intolerance, a lack of grace, are evil, and contrary to truth. A lover and imager of Christ walks in 100 percent grace and 100 percent truth, not perfectly like Jesus, but always aspiring, and with a heart inclined toward repentance when we fall short.
This means grieving the sadness and brokenness of the world. It means not using love and grace as a weapon or a pawn, but loving and extending grace regardless of what those we live, work, and play with believe about life, or love, or us. And, it also means unequivocally believing God’s Word speaks truth, not engaging in exegetical gymnastics to avoid unpleasant dialogue, or expressing some tepid counterfeit of care, our own cowardice clothed in false love. As Butterfield says, “we prepare for the hard work of building strong relationships and the clear dangers of speaking gospel truth.”
The unity of God, manifested in us, demands it. And, we are children of the light, children of grace and truth.