Social media and news headlines bombard us with the truth that we already know: we live in a fallen world. While the culture at large resists using the label “sin” to describe all that is broke around us, the concept is unavoidable. Sin is a reality in this age, as it is in every age. But Jesus Christ entered real time and space to offer a foretaste of a future age that will no longer be tainted by the presence of sin. John writes the following of that entrance: “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” (Jn. 1:14).
Grace and Truth
Jesus embodied truth. He did not claim to know the truth, or the way to the truth, but to actually be the truth (Jn. 14:6). And he tells us the truth about ourselves.
After instructing his disciples how to pray by modeling what is now called the Lord’s Prayer, he says the following:
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13, emphasis mine)
We can almost become numb to the sting of the words. He doesn’t offer the issue up for debate but matter of factly tells those in his presence they are evil. To be sure even an evil person does some things that aren’t bad—like buy his son an xBox—but that doesn’t make him good in the eyes of God. He reminds his audience of their inherent sinfulness in matter of fact style.
Another encounter highlights Jesus’ radical commitment to the truth: his interaction with the woman at the well. The dialogue recorded by John (4:1-30) contains some seemingly stinging remarks by Jesus. He brings up her colorful love life (vv. 17-18), her improper worship (v. 22), and even confesses to her that he is the Messiah (v. 26).
Yet, even while broaching taboo topics even for today, Jesus never does so flippantly. While being full of truth, he is also full of grace. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it (Jn. 3:17). As such, while never compromising truth, his demeanor was always full of compassion. We see this in his contribution to the “trial” of the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:1-11). While he was the only one fit to condemn her, he instead sends her on her way with the single charge to repent of her sins (Jn. 8:11). We see his grace at the restoration of Peter who had denied him three times (Jn. 21:15-19). Even those who abandon Jesus are welcomed back to the fold in Jesus’ economy of grace.
While we as humans oscillate imperfectly between these two characteristics—and often even view them in opposition to one another—Jesus displayed them perfectly at all times in his life. Grace and truth are not mutually exclusive, despite our failings to get the recipe right. However, Jesus’ embodiment of these characteristics has one more important quality that we do well to take note of. Jesus was present among them.
It’s possible to exhibit the qualities of grace and truth in our human attempts to follow Jesus and yet still be ineffective in our ministry. This possibility exists when we neglect a meaningful presence with those we are ministering to. Presence is the platform from which grace and truth are to be proclaimed.
Jesus’ presence changes everything about his mission. As the creator of the world he is the author of truth. From a distance, he could call out from the heavens commands for obedience and consequences for disobedience, yet he gets his hands dirty. A king doesn't need to "earn" a platform with his subjects to issue a decree. Yet, Jesus, as king of the universe, chooses to enter into loving relationship with his subjects when he speaks truth into their lives. While no platform has to be “earned” for the one in authority to dictate decrees, Jesus condescends to enter into relationship with us. Our God is a good God and a relational one. In him we see the wisdom of Solomon who wrote: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pr. 27:6).
How stinging Jesus’ wounds must have been for the woman at the well, for Peter when hearing he would deny Jesus, and for the disciples being told they were evil. Yet, Jesus was not malicious when speaking these truths. He loved them enough to share with them who they really were. He revealed the things that enslaved them, as painful as they were and gave them himself. He called them to follow him, the only master who would liberate them and truly fulfill them, and he would be faithful to go to the cross for them.
God’s primary motive for dwelling among us in the person of Jesus Christ was to save us from sin and its consequences. The means of rescuing us that were chosen by the all-powerful creator were personal in nature. He dwelt among us. He is calling us to dwell among sinners as well.
The Formula for His Bride
God bought his church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). It was no small sacrifice on his part. His bride does well to follow him in this incarnational and costly ministry.Visit a few churches to see the various ways Christians get the trifecta of presence, grace, and truth wrong. If we put only two of the three into practice a lopsided church body emerges.
Take truth and grace divorced from presence and a bombastic fundamentalism emerges. In this formula the gospel is proclaimed, but only to those who already believe it. The surrounding culture is rejected wholesale instead of being engaged with discerningly. If an outsider were to stumble into this kind of church service, she’d be a fish out of water as the church attempts to “contextualize” the gospel to look more Leave it to Beaver than Modern Family. This brand of Christianity is content with a holy huddle inside a church as bomb shelter. Its members only occasionally emerge to throw “grace” grenades at unsuspecting strangers before quickly ducking back into safety. The approach to discipleship of those outside the walls is essentially the equivalent of evangelical “stranger danger” and as such less than effective.
On the other end of the spectrum, some have embraced a model of ministry in which grace and presence are married while being devoid of truth. This marriage seems appealing on the surface as there is little within it to offend the surrounding culture. However, as many of the mainline protestant denominations have found, this is no surefire way to growth. When the truth and offense (1 Pt. 2:8) of the gospel are removed in an attempt to “love” everyone the church has little to offer those outside of its walls. In fact, it becomes indistinguishable from the culture at large and has nothing to offer it that the culture can’t already provide itself (and usually at a better quality level).
Jesus calls his bride to a better way. He said the gates of Hell would not withstand his church (Mt. 16:18). Our call is not to remain stationary and hope the lost world will come to us, but to charge into the dark with the light of Christ. While it is not the easiest way, it is the way he embodied. Again, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6).
He didn’t claim to know the way, but to be the way. His way was marked by grace and truth and fueled by his presence. He went where sinners were.
Are you a part of his bride, the Church? Do you desire to obey his commission to make disciples? Do you, being evil, know how to give your children good gifts? Pray to your heavenly Father who is perfect that his Holy Spirit would spur you on to walk in his ways. Pray God would give you the gifts of presence, grace, and truth that you would gain a platform of presence in the lives of unbelievers and would be used to make disciples among them, that you would be bold in speaking truth to them and that they would mature, and that God’s grace would be displayed through you and be multiplied.
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at a church plant in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He blogs at Hardcore Grace and the recently started Family Life Pastor.