21 March 2015

Oh, for More Grace and Truth in the Church!

I believe we desperately need within the evangelical church a tenacious commitment to a both/and mentality in regards to grace and truth.  It seems that one side screams for more grace and the other demands more truth.  Both have good points to make, yet both sides can't seem to come together for good.  This emotional, ideological and spiritual tug-o-war is a clear and present danger to the church's witness to the world.  We who are in the church should be faithful to God in how we behave and what we proclaim.

Of course, the model for the embodiment of grace and truth is Jesus.  John wrote, "And the Word [Jesus] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (ESV).   In this confession of who Jesus was and is, John tells us that he possessed grace and truth.  Indeed, he displayed grace to others and always spoke the truth.  Jesus is the perfect model of the "both/and" proposition.  He reminded Thomas that, he not only spoke truth, but he was "the truth."  And the fact that he came to take up the cross for our sins displays his grace.  Therefore, as our savior, he was and is grace and truth. Additionally, in the way he interacted with people, he displayed both of these qualities during his earthly ministry.

Although one might go to many narratives in the Gospels to see Jesus demonstrating either grace or standing firm in truth, the story of the woman caught in adultery is the perfect example of both on display.  In John 8:1-11 we read about one of the several Pharisee set-ups for the purpose of shaming Jesus.  They had witnessed Jesus' compassion and grace for the people, but they wanted to  maneuver him into a legal corner and let him pronounce judgment on a woman, presumably guilty as charged, but certainly being used in an attempt to make Jesus less popular. The Pharisees reminded Jesus of the letter of the Mosaic Law.  Leviticus 20:10 clearly instructed Jews in this matter.  "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death."   Of course, many have observed that the man in the alleged offense was conspicuously absent, revealing the Pharisee's motivations.

Apparently, the Pharisees were reasoning that Jesus had one of two options, and whichever choice he made would serve their purpose of undermining his ministry.  If Jesus chose to consent to her stoning, the crowds might now perceive him as not so gracious anymore.  Not to mention, he would have been complicit to their exploitation of the woman.  If Jesus chose to simply excuse her sin, then he would be flaunting the Law of God on the subject that clearly condemned such behavior.  This choice would indict him among religious leaders and probably among most of the Jewish people. The truth was she was guilty. 

Jesus turned the tables on her accusers, putting the burden of execution on their own consciences.  He told them to think about their own sin in general, possibly referring to their current sin of conspiracy to do evil and use this woman.  One by one the Pharisees aborted their plan, presumably because being shamed themselves, and left Jesus alone with the woman.

Now, what would Jesus do?  John tells us that Jesus assured the woman that she would not be executed.  According to the Law she deserved to die, but he showed her grace.  But he didn't let her off the hook in regards to the truth about her behavior.  He kindly, but uncompromisingly told her, "go, and from now on sin no more."  Even in the act of grace; there is the truth of the situation.

Grace and truth had set her free.  She didn't get an exemption from God's moral standard, but she was the recipient of grace.  Now, just in case you think Jesus is soft with the truth, just keep reading on in John 8.  He continues to clash with religious leaders concerning the truth of his identity and their evil intentions.  Jesus insisted that it was the truth they needed to embrace, if they truly wanted to be free.  However, they couldn't see their need of the truth.  They denied the truth.  As a result Jesus called them children of the devil.  Now, that just doesn't seem very nice!  But it was the truth.

Every Christian has a duty to both grace and truth.  Depending on your influences and your personality it is really, really easy to drift toward one at the sacrifice of the other.  To err on the side of grace can lead to a permissiveness that contradicts truth, which is truly a perverted grace.  To err on the side of truth can lead to an arrogant and unloving behavior filled with self-righteousness, forgetting the humility that the experience of grace should always produce. 

The church's commitment to grace is evidenced in how it truly loves people and its spirit of generosity, which are simply by-products of being a people who have experienced grace themselves.  The church's commitment to truth is evidenced in its commitment to God's revelation.  This revelation has been handed down to us in the Bible.  We don't worship the Bible, but we wouldn't know truth without it.  Grace is something we experience personally and show to others.  Truth is what has been revealed and we discover.  The former is subjective and the latter is objective. 

Church, we need more grace and truth.  I'm tired of seeing, listening and reading those saturated with truth, yet angry with those who reject it.  You can't brow beat people into the truth.  Yes, Jesus had some strong words for people at times, but it was typically for people who were short on grace and humility!  A stronger commitment to grace will remind us of the all-important and obvious fact that we are not Jesus.  He made a whip and turned over the tables of the exploiters, accused religious leaders of self-righteousness and evil intentions, and said lots of hard things to people.  However, we do not have his authority or sinless nature.  I'm not being heroically righteous when I express anger and intolerance toward others.  I don't trust myself as far as I could throw myself when my anger starts boiling.  You can go ahead and say it's "righteous indignation", but for me I know that is just an excuse for my lack of self control.  I'll just end up being a jerk, not like Jesus.

But church, we must have a great commitment to truth.  But here is the sticky point.  Whose truth?  Well, obviously it must be God's truth.  But who gets to say what God's truth is on any particular subject?  Church, here is where we have the biggest problem. We can't agree on our source of truth.  And it shouldn't come as a surprise that this has been a problem for a long time.  But for the sake of simplicity and brevity, let's just go with the historical evangelical commitment to sola scriptura.  Going all the way back to the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestants of all flavors have shared a commitment to the Bible as the source of truth for Christian belief and practice.  Liberal scholarship since the late 18th century and the development of higher criticism of the Bible has left streams of skepticism toward the Bible within some denominations.  The Bible is used in some places more as a garnish to a more existential faith rather than the foundation for doctrine and practice.  From my observation point, this is where we are mostly running into strong disagreements among the churches and with fellow Christians.

Pastor, your calling is to shepherd the flock that God has entrusted to you.  They are not your sheep, but you are responsible to God for them.  You are to feed and comfort them.  You are to lead and protect them.  On the one hand, you are to lead them with a gentle, patient hand and model graciousness for them.  This can be hard, because sometimes you just want to hit the rock like Moses.  At these times, take a deep breath and sprint back to grace at those moments and keep yourself from dishonoring your calling and God. 

On the other hand, you are to always be pointing the church to God's truth.  And the only place you can point them to is God's Word.  And you must work hard at rightly understanding, interpreting, and applying the Word as you serve it up to them.  What a responsibility!  But that's why its a calling!  You must feed, comfort, lead and protect God's sheep with the Bible, not your opinions or with the latest trends.  This can be hard sometimes because poplar opinion or culture shifts will oppose the truth that you have to deliver.  At these times you may be tempted to soften the truth or find a way to explain it away for the sake of peace.  At these times, take a deep breath and stand your ground to the honor and glory of God.   

Church, how we need a firm and clear commitment to both grace and truth.  These must be the two rails that the church moves on as it worships, evangelizes and does its ministry.  To remove either is disastrous! A commitment to grace is all about our attitude.  A commitment to truth is all about our responsibility.  It's time to be full of both.       

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