The Elusive Balance of Grace & Truth in Gospel Ministry

Reaching back in time, we observe the wreckage of hasty choices strewn along the corridors of history. Beginning with Eden’s forbidden fruit, examples include Moses hitting the rock, David and Bathsheba, Napoleon invading Russia, and overzealous parents assaulting Little League coaches. Such behavior occurs when we act before we think. Perhaps you can relate.

One reason for confusing the thinking/action sequence is our tendency to see only a piece of a situation to the exclusion of the whole. As with all choices, we respond to what appears reasonable and worthwhile, but in retrospect we recognize that the picture before us was deficient, like the view of a mountain range seen through the narrow opening of a key hole. The object of our sight was real, but separated from the larger context it was distorted and incomplete. In like manner, Christians often view situations with an eye upon divine grace or divine truth—God’s love or God’s law—without seeing how these elements fit together.

John says in his Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). With a balance that can only be described as perfect, Jesus embodied these virtues in full measure. In every conversation and situation our Lord responded with complete grace and truth, refusing to allow a humanly engineered wedge to be driven between them. As men and women whose identities are founded in Jesus Christ, we now pursue this same balance as a central part of our calling.

In what follows, we will consider how the grace and truth principle applies to gospel witness.

1. Communicating truth is grace.

Truth sets us free, which is a grace. The New Testament demonstrates the seriousness of this liberation. When Paul the apostle stood in the midst of the Areopagus, he “perceived” and then he “spoke” gospel truth (Acts 17:22). Having received such grace, it was natural for Paul to then share it with those in need. Such a liberating message is itself a grace.

2. Communicate the truth with grace.

How can we preach the message of grace in a graceless voice? Not only does such communication ring hollow, it is, according to Paul, like “a noisy gong and clanging symbol”—dissonant, distracting, and irritating. Is it any wonder that people hide from us when we attempt to tell them the “good news?” To their ears, the news doesn’t sound very good.

Perhaps the problem is our motivation. Instead of seeking to help others move closer to Jesus, we endeavor to conquer them with truth, as in the following:

An apologist strode forth one day,

In search of dragons for to slay

His sword like diamond hard and clear;

Thus armed with truth he had no fear.

Semi-Pelagians he did find

And left a bloody trail behind

And those who died not by his blade

Soon cursed the day it had been made [1]

To be sure, the Old and New Testaments have quite a lot to say about how the holy war motif applies to gospel ministry. From the chaotic waters of Genesis to the apostles driving out demons in the name of Jesus, we observe how the kingdom of God forcefully advances into the world. However, we must never forget that the manner of this action should reflect the gospel itself—a humble descent into weakness before God extends his power to conquer human idols.

3. Communicating truth stimulates grace.

Truth probes into the mind of a person to simultaneously rebuke and enrich it. It confronts irrational spirituality that masquerades as truth and prepares the soil of one’s soul to receive grace. It pushes one to the logical conclusion of belief to expose the tensions and inconsistencies of his presuppositions, unsettling him to realize his error. And it provides the mental categories and affective dispositions for discovering and embracing redemptive grace.

4. Communicate the truth because of grace.

There is a surpassing beauty and worth of grace. If you’re a Christian, you’ll never get over it. It’s like walking from pitch darkness into a room that is flooded by the most brilliant light imaginable. The contrast causes your eyes to blink incessantly. As years go by, your eyes begin to adjust, but you never get accustomed to it, you never fully adjust. You continue to blink with wonder, amazed that we who were formerly in darkness are now light in the Lord.

When we approach someone with the gospel, we present the same light of truth that caused us to awake from the dead, and, when we do so, we realize that our primary impetus is grace. Compelled by the love of Christ, we go forth as God’s ambassadors. The same wonder of grace that we ourselves received now motivates us to tell others.

Let me close with an illustration from my old bathroom sink. Some sinks have two faucets. On the far left is cold and on the right is hot, and the two never meet. My first apartment had such a sink. Shaving was a travesty. After partially filling one hand with cold, I somehow reached to the other side to get a bit of hot and then attempted to splash the combination onto my face. Shaving cream, a razor, and the need for more water made me a veritable Mr. Bean: ridiculous and ineffective.

God, in his grace, doesn’t leave us stuck between two faucets. The Holy Spirit pours forth a mixture of grace and truth in a single stream, one that we receive and then channel into the dry and weary world in which we live. It is the greatest privilege imaginable to be used of God in this way, and it’s a privilege that we enjoy each and every day.

Grace and truth. What God has brought together, let no man tear asunder.

 

Footnotes:

1. Poem by Rich Carl with a slight tweak, quoted in John G. Stackhouse Jr., Humble Apologetics

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