Balancing Grace and Truth

By Gwen Sellers

Sometimes I find myself baffled by God. Isaiah 55:8-9 sums it up well. God's ways are not my ways, nor are His thoughts my thoughts. And praise Him for it! We cannot box God in. One of the great things about God is He able to hold what we see as opposites in complete and perfect tension. To Him, they are not opposite—the two belong together. It is not an either/or situation, but both/and. The biggest paradox for me right now is grace and truth. Our God is amazing in the way He demonstrates both.

I can understand grace. I've watched more than my fair share of Hallmark movies. I know grandfathers who spoil kids just for the delight of it. I get what it means to love someone who is undeserving. I can also understand truth. Rules, laws, facts—these make sense in my mind. But grace and truth at the same time?

Somehow God's love of and grace toward me is in complete balance. His grace does not mean He is a weak pushover or that I am singularly amazing or endearing. God's love is not Hallmark love or grandfather love. It's true love, tough love, enduring love. There is justice and truth in His love. He doesn't wash over the truth that I am a sinner; He deals with realities, but He does so with grace.

Randy Alcorn, in The Grace and Truth Paradox: Responding with Christlike Balance, talks about the Christian life as being characterized by both grace and truth. Christians are in the process of becoming like Christ. Christ is full of grace and truth (John 1:14); we should be too. But what does that look like practically?

Some lean so heavily toward grace that they become tolerant of everything. They're "nice" people who allow others to remain dead in their sins for fear of offending them. Some lean so heavily toward truth that they either self-righteously judge others or piteously condemn themselves in an attempt to earn God's pleasure. Grace without truth is cheap. Truth without grace is harsh. Both extremes are ineffectual.

I understand grace and truth intellectually in terms of salvation. The truth is that we are sinners who are utterly dead and helpless. We alienated ourselves from God and can never do anything to get ourselves back on good terms with Him. Our only option is eternal death unless a perfect person dies in our place. That is where God's balance of grace steps in. Jesus—the entirely innocent, sinless Son of God—paid the penalty for our sins. God, in His justice, knew a just price must be paid for our offenses, and He paid it with the life of His Son. Then He welcomed us into His family.

After we've accepted Jesus as our Savior, is love and justice, grace and truth still available to us? Must I live a good life all on my own? Surely God expects me to shape up and be a steward of the forgiveness He's granted. Is there a penalty if I don't live a reformed life, if I offend God again? No! If I was helpless to work my way to God in the first place, how could I possibly earn His favor now? "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Why aren't we amazed by this? Do we get just how big a gift it is? Do we understand that we deserve Hell? Even if God rescued us, how can we ask to be blessed beyond that? To become a child of God—I don't deserve that!

In our culture of entitlement, I find myself ceasing to be amazed. I have come to believe these "grace lies":
  • I'm not so bad compared to most; it was incumbent upon God grant me eternal life.
  • My days should be roses, replete with blessings that make me feel comfortable and happy.
  • I have no need to be grateful because I do deserve this.
But those lies leave me disappointed and complaining. Deep down, I know I don't deserve it. That leads me to swing to the other side of the pendulum. The terrible "truth lies" slap me full in the face:
  • I am a dirty, rotten sinner.
  • God's grace isn't enough to cover my sins.
  • He may have saved me from ultimate destruction, but I do not deserve blessing. I must earn it.
I then find myself wanting to ease the debt God paid for me, to make it up to Him. Don't I owe Him that much? Shouldn't I make Him glad that He saved me? I try to redeem myself, to do something that will make me feel worthy, but I always fall short.

Either extreme concept—entitlement or shame-based work—stinks of pride. Yes, there is the truth of my sin. Yes, there is the grace of God's love for me. Each one exists in tandem with the other. Without the truth of my sin, God would not show His grace.

In Larry Crabb's Shattered Dreams, Crabb proposes that God allows our earthly dreams to shatter so that we will draw closer to Him. When our lives don't look like the story book we had planned, we finally get in touch with our deepest longing and come to understand that only God fills it. When we find ourselves ready to give up on God that is when we truly begin to know Him. We still live in the shards of broken dreams , but we are able to find joy in despair because our joy flows from God Himself. We are not enveloped in circumstance, but instead wrapped in the arms of God, fully connected to the Vine (John 15:5). My church has been doing a series on longing and emphasizes the importance of our amazement at God's grace. Think God is trying to teach me something?

Grace isn't just about salvation. Truth isn't just about following the rules. These two aspects must permeate a Christian's life in perfect balance. I am all too eager to make a checklist and be a good girl for God. I want to know what I can and cannot do and then live up to the expectations. I want God to give me a plan and then be impressed with the way I achieve it. Working at Got Questions Ministries, I see that I am not alone. Many of the questions we receive center on whether a certain activity is a sin or what Christians "should" be doing. Don't hear me wrong. Those things are important. Truth does matter. Our actions matter. But they don't matter in the way we often think they do.

Quite a few years ago God allowed my own depravity to come to light. I had been self-righteous and enjoyed living the Christian life by checking the appropriate to-do's off my list, always careful to avoid the do-not's. But it didn't work; I failed. When I came face-to-face with my need for God, realizing I was broken, I gained compassion for others. I was no longer in a place to judge the sinful lives of others; I knew I was a sinner too. But I also knew I had already been saved by grace. Obviously my brokenness wouldn't be solved by trying harder.

I've heard it said that the extent to which we are able to receive God's love is the extent to which we will love Him in return. When you look at the Scriptural progression of things, it goes like this:
  1. God first loved us.
  2. We loved God in return.
  3. Out of that love, we are compelled to obey God (1 John 4:19; John 14:15).
Too often, I fall into the trap of thinking my obedience comes first—not my love of Christ. I miss the fact that I will only obey to the extent that I love Him, and I will only love Him to the extent that I receive His love. Did you catch that?

God isn't as interested in our obedience as He is in our receiving His gift.

The act of obedience is the natural response—not the goal. Through obedience, I experience the fullness of God's love. He knows how He created me and what I need. When I obey, I will receive His good gifts, not because He is rewarding me, but because I am choosing to trust Him, which naturally results in His glorification and my good.

That's it. There's no report card. There's nothing we can do to impress God. There is only receiving God's love, accepting His grace, and responding in kind.

It is when I am truly amazed by God's grace that I can fully live in His truth. As Alcorn puts it, "People need the directions of truth to know where to go. Then they need the empowerment of grace to help them get there." [1] I need God's truth, but then I need Him to empower me to live in it.

1. The Grace and Truth Paradox: Responding with Christlike Balance by Randy Alcorn, Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2003, p. 92.

Image Credit: Kacper Gunia; "Cairn"; Creative Commons

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Published 12-30-12