Recently I was in a discussion with a pastor who presented the idea that there is a tension between grace and truth. Within the discussion there was a presentation that both him and I are similar in that we naturally bend towards truth in this tension and so we must lean hard towards grace in order to have the proper tension and have balance between the two. This is not the first time I have heard this theory in general, nor is it the first time I have had someone apply this idea to me personally.
Now, before I present where I believe there are problems with this theory in general, I want to be up front and honest. I am a blunt person in my communication, always have been and probably always will be. I also do not necessarily shy away from conflict. These characteristics are often discouraged in our society as our society has become more emotionally driven and leans towards accepting softer conversations and rejecting conversations that are on the harder side. With that being said, I would remind all of us that Biblical ethics is unconcerned about what society accepts or rejects when defining what is right and what is wrong. I believe this is important to understand as we consider where we should land as Christians and I think it is important to get it out of the way that I will not be trying to change the narrative of my personality or natural bend. I am very much aware of my bluntness and will not be attempting to convince anyone that I am not blunt or that I shy away from conflict.
The question I would like to present is very simple, is there a tension between grace and truth? The argumentation of the pastor I was in discussion with (and many others) rests solely on the premise that there is in fact tension between grace and truth.
The example of Christ
In John 1:14 it tells us a great truth and gives us a great insight into the question we will be examining. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. In this verse we find that the Word (Jesus) is full of grace and truth. Jesus did not have a lacking allotment of either but was full of both. What we must consider though is, was there a tension between the two attributes or were they actually fully in unity? Were they pitted against one another or did they work in harmony?
While we consider these questions, I think it is best to take a bird’s eye view of idea of tension and unity with concern towards God specifically in His nature. If we back up a few steps and look at God’s nature as a whole we understand the orthodox position is that God is triune, He is a three in one or a trinity. We also understand that within the Godhead there is unity, if there was not unity but tension, we would call that a heresy by means of a polytheistic belief. If we get a little closer to the issue at hand and look specifically at the nature of Christ, we see that Christ is 100% God and 100% man, we call this the hypostatic union of Christ. I want to specifically point out that it is a hypostatic union not a hypostatic tension. There are not two warring natures within Christ as that would be a heresy by means of schizophrenia. I bring this up to establish that there is unity within the nature of God and that unity naturally continues in the nature of Christ. It would be inconsistent of us to think that there would be perfect unity in the nature of Christ and conflicting attributes that would cause inward tension.
When we consider the moral attributes of Christ, we may immediately think there are some that contradict each other or cause a tension – like the subjects of this article, grace and truth— this is not case. Let’s quickly examine a set of moral attributes that would seem to cause the same tension as grace and truth – justice and mercy. How can someone bring justice and mercy at the same time without there being a conflict or great tension? Simply put, you cannot unless the demands of justice are met through a propitiation. This is what Christ did for us on the cross, He satisfied the Father’s wrath and became the propitiation for our sin – 1 John 2:2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. — This allows for God to be just and merciful without there being a contradiction or a tension between these two attributes. It is not that God finds a middle ground between justice and mercy and it is not that He works between the tension of two conflicting attributes, but it is that He is fully just and fully merciful with no conflict or tension because of the provisions He has made.
Grace and truth are closely related to justice and mercy and they nearly mirror each other in this regard. At first glance it might seem as though there is a contradiction or tension between grace and truth, but just like justice and mercy, they work fully in perfect unity because of the provisions that Christ gives. What are these provisions? They are the ability to repent and be forgiven of sin through confession (1 John 1:9). Telling the truth in a blunt or even harsh manner may seem graceless, but as long as it is Biblical truth and there is an opportunity for the offending party to confess their sin and repent, then we can only conclude it is full of grace. Simply put, we do not deserve to be told the truth and have a chance at repentance and forgiveness, what we deserve is swift, immediate, and eternal condemnation. Through the mercy of God (provided by the propitiation of Christ) we have the opportunity to experience the long-suffering of God as He calls us to repentance through the truth of His word.
Let’s for a moment accept the premise that there is a tension between grace and truth and let’s put Jesus to the test and examine some interactions when He bluntly told the truth.
John 8:44 “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.
Matthew 16:23 But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
Matthew 23:27-28 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. “Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Matthew 12:34 “Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
Here we see Jesus call out different men for their sin and called them harsh things like hypocrites, tombs, vipers, children of the devil, and even Satan. If the standard is to find a balance between the tension of grace and truth, there is only one honest conclusion and that is Christ does not always find the perfect balance. In these passages He is clearly leaning on the truth side if there is a tension.
We all know that Christ doesn’t fail in the standard because He is our standard. We know He is full of grace and truth, so He was either perfectly balanced in the tension or there is no tension between the two, but instead a unity. I would present that the above verses if approached with any honesty or integrity show that if there is tension instead of unity between grace and truth, Christ was clearly on the truth side of the tension and failed to keep a perfect balance.
But we are not Christ
Jesus is full of grace and truth He is not in a tension between the two, but I can already hear the arguments, “That, is fine and dandy, but I am not Christ!” It is true we are not Christ, but that is fairly irrelevant to point that I am making. You see, grace and truth are moral attributes of God, they are not natural attributes of God. A natural attribute (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc.) is an attribute that only God can have. His moral attributes on the other hand are attributes we are to emulate (For example 1 Pet. 1:16 because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.”). Will we ever perfectly emulate these attributes all the time? Probably not this side of glory, I know I don’t. There are times when I am not truthful and there are times when I am bitter and lacking grace by not wanting to allow for repentance by means of having no desire to forgive! Our imperfections and sin do not place a tension between two attributes we are to emulate, rather, it shows the tension between our sin nature and the nature of the new man we receive at salvation. Both grace and truth are on the same side and they work together in the life of the Christian.
If each Christian were to take his own salvation experience into remembrance, we would see the unity of grace and truth at work in our own lives. There has never been a person saved who has not had a confrontation with the cross. It is a cold harsh reality that we are sinners who have personally violated the character of a holy God and the fruit of our labor is an eternal death forever in Hell. The truth stings even more when we realize our salvation cannot come by our works of righteousness. Yet every Christian knows we are saved by grace! There is no tension, but a beautiful harmony of grace and truth. We must not forget that the same Christ that saves is the same Christ who sanctifies. From our own experience every Christian can affirm that there must be unity, not tension, between grace and truth.
The original idea presented – that there is a tension between grace and truth – came from a public rebuke of what I believe was a false doctrine being presented (situationism). Many believe that a public rebuke is lacking in grace simply because it is public. I won’t spend the time breaking down the principles of when a rebuke should be public and when it shouldn’t, but I will say that it is appropriate to publicly rebuke public false teaching. The grace that is given in a public rebuke is a public opportunity to defend what was done and there is an opportunity to repent from sin. I have spoken and written much on Situation Ethics (or situationism) and believe it is a rampant disease within American Christianity, there are few people who would be more joyful than me to hear of someone repenting from situationism! Was my rebuke blunt and perhaps a hard pill to swallow? Sure, but it was also full of grace and truth.
Excellent article brother.
Dr. Mike Spaulding Pastor, Calvary Chapel of Lima Host, Soaring Eagle Radio & DrMikeLive.com 2 Peter 1:2
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