Evangelical Misuse of “Grace” and “Truth”

Listen to the post (9 minutes, 45 seconds), recorded Sept. 30, 2023

Certain evangelicals contrast grace and truth because they think grace is only mercy and truth is an updated version of the law.
The apostles John and Paul, however, teach that Grace is Jesus living through us, and Truth is the revelation of Jesus living through us.

Life and death distinctions for the follower of Jesus:

  1. The fundamental definition for this post (and for life): the law makes us conscious of sin, while grace makes us conscious of the gift of Jesus’ redemption (forgiveness and deliverance… both being free gifts received by faith)
  2. The Gospel of John clearly and happily differentiates between “law” and “truth”
    • When John writes, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” John makes it explicit: the law shows us we need grace because we always eventually fail to keep the law, and truth reveals to us that Jesus is the giver of grace
  3. Christians, and perhaps especially evangelicals, being nervous about “cheap grace” (i.e. license to sin), redefine truth as the law (i.e. a moral standard)—and this redefinition essentially ends the truth about Jesus
  4. This dilution of truth as merely a moral standard undermines the gospel badly
  5. Truth reveals the complete redemption Jesus gives us through himself, forever freeing us from the law, which, by comparison, is just a shadow of the reality of trusting in Christ
  6. Truth shifts all the emphasis toward the success and sufficiency of Jesus and away from our futile efforts at self-improvement

I do not know how widespread the grace-truth misunderstanding is among evangelicals.[1] I do know two of the largest and, for many good reasons, most popular, evangelical churches in the Denver area have propagated a serious misreading of the Gospel of John’s “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1).

Little is more beautiful to me than that scripture. It replaces the bad news (the law) with the good news (grace and truth).

Before contrasting the bad news with the good, I present an example of the muddled version that some evangelicals circulate. If it doesn’t seem muddled at first, it might appear so when we look at the way the Gospel of John uses the word “truth.”

From the Aug 13, 2023 Red Rocks sermon, we hear the highly articulate Doug Wekenman:

And this is the question we are asking in this series: is it this or is it that?

For instance, when we hear two words like grace and truth, we cannot help but place them on a pendulum: is God more about grace or more about truth? But of course the answer to that question is “yes,” and as Christians we’re called to a double major. In other words, you don’t just get to swing the pendulum to the side of grace, because then you lower the standard of truth. And in the same way, you don’t get to swing the pendulum to the side of truth because then you crush people in the process by refusing to give them the same grace that you’re also going to need.

Similarly, we hear the following from Ben Foote (perhaps my favorite speaker at Flatirons Community Church) in an otherwise engaging sermon on May 1, 2022:

You’re trying to earn, earn, earn a passing grade from Principal Jesus. There are a ton of us, myself included, who we were sold the Principal Jesus in our churches growing up. He is all truth and he is no grace.
….
So yes, Jesus is grace. But when he is all grace and no truth, you get another cheap, superstore version of Jesus. This one is called “get-out-of-jail-free Jesus.[2]

Both quotations rely on a false dichotomy between grace and truth, a cardinal error. And then they inadvertently suggest believers need their version of truth, which has been reduced to a moral standard (another name for the law). And this conflation is the very thing that outraged the apostle Paul, who said of those who muddle grace and law: “I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”

From other sermons, I know Doug and Ben understand grace better than their false dichotomy between grace and truth suggests…so let’s put the castration tools away. But language is important, so I must persist in the analysis.

From Doug we hear that grace is balanced by truth. This reduces grace to mercy (i.e. forgiveness) and reduces truth to the law (i.e. rigor). From Ben we hear that truth makes us perform harder, which is exactly what the law does, and if you don’t believe me, read Romans 7, the apostolic statement on the law. Far from making us work harder, the truth sets us free because the truth is the truth of redemption. Ben also refers to getting a Jesus who is all grace but no truth, which is impossible if we are referring to divine grace. As with Doug, the false dichotomy reduces grace to mercy (get out of jail free), and truth to law (don’t abuse mercy).

Beneath the false dichotomy of grace or truth lurks the pernicious and perpetual bad news that humans need to try to be better. This emphasis on human effort is something the apostle Paul never recommends. In addition to distorting the meaning of “truth,” this line of thinking ignores the power of grace to fulfill the moral law in us, and this ignorance has kept Christians both unhappy and powerless for millennia.

The bad news: the law (the moral demands that Paul calls “the strength of sin”) rightly shows humans how they should live, even demands it, but in no way assists. The result? Sin increases. The more the person tries, the more the person relies on his or her self—the very self that was never intended to operate in isolation and independence from the loving provision of God.

Religion, including much of Christianity, groans beneath the joyless weight of the law. To the moral (and sometimes immoral) demands of religion, the person seems to rise to the occasion only to be blindsided by pride, or the person sinks to failure only to be depressed by guilt. Pride in one’s success, of course, leads to judging others. Failure, of course, makes one resolve to try harder next time, putting the person on a treadmill of anxiety, fear, and disappointment.

The good news: grace and truth. They are a pair not a polarity. They are two sides of the same coin, not two coins one must flip, as if to say, “Today do I follow grace or do I follow truth?” They are an and, not a but, a true identity not a false dichotomy.

“Grace” refers to the divine aid to do and be what we in our own strength and moral makeup could never achieve. By grace, we are healed, delivered, adopted, and righteous. Grace is divine life assisting us and can never “lower the standard of truth” as was suggested in the Red Rocks sermon.

“Truth,” as in Jesus’ “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14), is a revelation of Jesus, of his descent into hell and his exaltation at God’s right hand. Truth leads to revelations about our being in Christ, seated in Christ, animated by Christ. It’s the truth that provides the grace.

This truth that is infinitely superior to the law occurs again when Jesus says we must “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4). He is juxtaposing “truth” with “the law”—one law says worship in Jerusalem, another law says worship on the mountain, but truth says worship in the spirit.

Truth, then, is the means to grace and the way to spirit. The more of Jesus’ truth we receive, the more grace we receive. The more of Jesus’ truth we receive, the more our worship is spiritual, not forced and fleshly. And it is faith, as always, that makes these things real to us.

So where do certain evangelicals go wrong? First they define grace as mercy (i.e. forgiveness). Then they worry that people will use forgiveness as a kind of fire insurance that gives them license to sin. To correct that, they redefine truth as… yes, you may have guessed it, the law. The license provided by grace-misunderstood-as-mercy is held in check by truth-redefined-as-law, browbeating us to behave correctly.

It’s amazing how historically the church in general and also in this case in particular resists full-fledged grace, which by definition includes freedom from the law. It’s amazing how the law keeps getting invited to enter through the back door. We simply cannot trust Jesus but instead want to replace him with our efforts and obedience.

Grace understood through the truth in Jesus establishes us in a new life. We are dead to sin (crucified with Christ), dead to the law (crucified with Christ), and alive to righteousness (risen, with Christ, and sitting in him in heavenly places). We are new people—new creations—and are motivated by the love of God working in our hearts, comforted by our Father in heaven. Sin, Paul says, will not be our master, because we are not under law but under grace. Note that Paul does not say the law will keep us from sin. On the contrary, whether we call it the law or truth, if it demands our compliance instead of promising our deliverance, it is the law and it will never give us the life that the grace and truth that comes through Jesus will give us.

How do we know we’ve moved away from the law and into grace and truth? We know it from the road signs that say we are on the right path: peace, love, and joy. I see the signs increasingly. When I used to confuse truth with law, I used to see only my struggling self.

 

____Footnotes for “Grace and Truth”____

[1] Apparently, one the sources of this evangelical confusion is this book: The Grace and Truth Paradox: Responding with Christlike Balance (2003). When one reads “balance” one is close to hearing that we have two elements that, if not kept in check, will tip the scale unfairly to one side or the other. Thus people think they must balance grace and the law (or truth, the new Evangelical name for the law), while in reality, they must die to the law altogether in order to walk in truth. The good news offers no balance, but instead promises a new identity that leaves behind the fallen, old, natural humanity and its insufficient remedies.

The description of the book, at it appears on amazon.com, reads: “Grace without truth deceives people, and ceases to be grace. Truth without grace crushes people, and ceases to be truth. Alcorn shows the reader how to show the world Jesus — offering grace instead of the world’s apathy and tolerance, offering truth instead of the world’s relativism and deception.” The “crush” of course echoes the sermon from Red Rocks that I cite. And the statement that truth counters “relativism” strongly insists that the author is using grace as a moral standard (i.e. as the law). If this second distinction isn’t clear to a reader, I strongly suggest reading the Book of Romans, particularly chapters 6 and 7.

[2] There’s a bit of irony in Ben’s sermon. He is earnestly railing against the abuse of mercy (which he calls grace) and legalism (which he calls truth), yet earlier in the sermon he makes a strong pitch against being against things (“Because it’s easy to be against something” [28:30]). If he followed his own good advice, he’d stop focusing on the downside of bad-faith Christianity and focus instead on the gospel of grace: we have been crucified with Christ, buried with Christ, and risen with Christ, seated in heavenly places. Perhaps this gospel is not practical enough to be appreciated by the majority of the members—but how will they ever appreciate it if they don’t see it elevated to its proper place?

 

Publishing Info
First published Sept. 30, 2023. Last revision: June. 10, 2024.

Jesus Redefines Sin, Righteousness and Judgment

Listen to the post (3 minutes)

Let me start by characterizing how people often define sin, righteousness, and judgment:

  • Sin: Anything that is imperfect—and that’s a truckload of activities and attitudes,
  • Righteousness: The opposite of the above, (i.e. everything that’s perfect)—another truckload of things to do and be concerned about, and,
  • Judgment: The consequence of yielding to sin or slacking off on righteousness.

Don’t misunderstand me: those are justifiable definitions, both from Biblical usage and from our daily experiences. Note two things. First, the definitions make us and our failures the centerpiece—we are the agents of sin and righteousness, just as we are the recipients of justice. Second, they are not how Jesus defined the terms. As always, his definitions deserve the final say.

His definitions, though, should confuse us the first time we think about them. If we are not taken aback, we are not awake:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [i.e. Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. (John 16:7-11)

Notice the departure from our habitual self-oriented thinking—no moral bookkeeping, finger pointing, and punishment for us. Instead, we see Jesus giving complete attention his identity as the true savior and to the “ruler of the world” as the ultimate foe. Here’s the definitions Jesus provides:

  • Sin: Disbelief in Jesus—the one sin that rules them all,
  • Righteousness: To see Jesus is to see true righteousness, and now that he is no longer visible, only the Spirit can reveal that righteousness to us, and,
  • Judgment: Not against us, but against the “ruler of this world” (i.e. Satan)—who stands condemned.

How should we respond to this? Many ways, no doubt, but the obvious is to admit any disbelief, admire his righteousness (which he offers to give us by faith), and rejoice that the truly sinister force behind our wayward actions stands condemned.

 

Publishing Info
This post was first published on: Feb 12, 2024 at 12:01. If this article is significantly updated, the publication date beneath the title may change in order to bring current posts to the top of the directory.