On the other end of the church spectrum are those who declare that the church is for everyone, regardless of belief or behavior. These are the churches that value openness, tolerance, and acceptance above what more conservative churches would consider orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Growing up, we called these liberal churches. The problem with this approach is similar to the problem with the more conservative view. You have to pick and choose which parts of the New Testament to embrace. The casualty in liberal churches is truth. Truth has such an absolute tone about it. Our culture has grown increasingly uneasy with the idea of absolute truth. If there is a right way of doing things, then there’s a wrong way as well. Nobody wants to be wrong. So along with truth, sin becomes a casualty as well. But the New Testament is clear. We are not mistakers in need of correction. We are sinners in need of a Savior. We need more than a second chance. We need a second birth.
Not surprisingly, Jesus modeled the way forward. He left us with a remarkable approach for navigating the aforementioned tension. As an eyewitness of all Jesus said and did, the apostle John summarized Jesus’ approach this way:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, emphasis added)
Three verses later he repeats this same idea.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17, emphasis added)
I love that. “Full of grace and truth.” Not the balance between, but the full embodiment of. Jesus did not come to strike a balance between grace and truth. He brought the full measure of both. John had seen this firsthand. He had watched Jesus apply the full measure of grace and truth to each individual they encountered. He was in the crowd when Jesus said to a woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you, now leave your life of sin.” Translated: “You’re a sinner. What you did is a sin. It was wrong. But I don’t condemn you. I’m not going to give you what you deserve. I’m extending to you exactly what you don’t deserve: grace.” Jesus didn’t try to balance grace and truth. He didn’t water down the law. He didn’t put a condition on grace. He gave her a full dose of both.
In Jesus, we get as clear and as close a look as we will ever get of what grace and truth look like in an otherwise graceless world that has turned its back on truth. In Jesus, there was no conflict between grace and truth. It’s that artificial conflict that sends churches toward unhealthy as well as unhelpful extremes. It is our misunderstanding of the grace Jesus modeled and taught that leaves us feeling as if grace allows people to “get by” with things. It is often our misapplication of truth that leaves people feeling condemned and isolated. But in Jesus, we discover that it doesn’t have to be that way. Grace doesn’t dumb down sin to make it more palatable. Grace doesn’t have to. The purpose of truth isn’t to isolate people from God or from his people. As we follow Jesus through the Gospels, we find him acknowledging the full implications of sin and yet not condemning sinners. The only group he consistently condemned were graceless religious people—those who misused truth to control through guilt, fear, and condemnation.
It’s easy to create an all-truth church model. It may be even easier to create an all-grace model. But Jesus didn’t leave either option on the table.
If his gathering was to reflect his approach to ministry, it would be characterized by a full dose of truth along with a full dose of grace. This is challenging for us. There is tension with law and grace, justice and grace, truth and grace.
Where they meet, it gets messy. Real messy. But to let go of either, to attempt to build a church model around either, is to abandon what Jesus had in mind when he announced the formation of his gathering. Policies and white papers don’t work well in a church that commits to embrace the mess created by grace and truth. It’s virtually impossible to be consistent or fair when grace and truth become driving forces in a local congregation.