Chapter ? — Grace and Truth

'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth'

(John 1:14)

One of my prayers for this book (and in my life) is that I would be true to what the Bible teaches. I remember in my early days of being a Christian that I’d often get an idea for something to talk about at a Bible study or in a small group I was leading, and then try and find verses and Bible stories which would back up my point of view. Very annoyingly there were many occasions when I found the Bible didn’t say what I wanted it to!

Leading a small group wasn’t too much of a problem, as there were lots of more experienced Christians around to put me right. Leading a church is far more crucial, as the potential is there to lead a whole community down a blind alley, or even into heresy.

So is the concept of God wanting us to be a peach like community really Biblical? It might be a nice concept, but that’s not enough if we want to build our community and our culture around this idea.

I realise that if you do a Bible word search for the word 'peach' you won't find it anywhere (you won’t find coconut either - I just tried). But the concept of being peachy, soft on the outside but solid at the core, is one which is rooted in the very character of God. John tells us that Jesus was “full of grace and truth” which fully encompasses all the ideas wrapped up in us longing to be a peach community.

Truth

We live in an age which would like to believe that everyone can have their own version of truth, and that as long as you sincerely believe whatever it is you believe then that is truth for you, even if it makes no sense to anyone else. We’re encouraged to acknowledge that all religions lead to God, that there are no moral absolutes, and that anyone who says anything different is narrow and intolerant, bigoted and arrogant.

Yet Jesus, who many would see as a great moral teacher, took a very different approach to truth. Consider these words:

"I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Go back and read that again. Let the full impact of Jesus’ clarity speak to you. There’s nothing vague or fuzzy about a statement like that, or any sense that you can define your own version of truth.  Jesus was very clear that He’s the only way to get to God the Father - no “all ways lead to God” there. Jesus was never fuzzy about truth. At the beginning of Poverbs, wisdom is personifed.  So also, here Jesus says he is the very personification of truth. Seventy eight times in the gospels Jesus is recording using the phrase “I tell you the truth” when talking to the disciples or the crowds, it seemed to be one of his catch phrases. He was never vague or apologetic about truth.

If we are to be the body of Christ on the earth today then we must have the same confidence in truth. In the truth of the gospel, the truth that Jesus is the only way to God, the truths the Bible speaks about sin and the way to be set free.

But truth on it’s own can be a hideous thing. Some people use truth like one of those wrecking balls used to demolish buildings. Truth on it’s own can be used to destroy and knock people down. That was how the pharisees used truth against the woman caught in the act of adultery. They were absolutely correct in their analysis of the punishment due for her sinful lifestyle, but being full of truth lead to them wanting to stone her to death.

Grace

Truth on it’s own can be an ugly thing. Knowing you are right and others are wrong can result in an arrogant, critical, condemnatory, judgemental and superior spirit. Yet Jesus, who was full of truth, never once acted in any of those ways towards the people He met. I’ve always been haunted by a story Philip Yancey tells at the start of his outstanding book “What’s so Amazing about Grace”:

A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter - two years old! - to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story…

At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

Why is it that women like this prostitute rushed towards Jesus, yet would never dream of going anywhere near church? It wasn’t that Jesus was afraid to declare truth, as we’ve already seen He was full of truth. But with Jesus truth was always wrapped up with grace, what Paul writing to the church in Ephesus calls “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Whether it was dealing with Zacchaeus, with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery he never ducked issues of truth, but his desire with truth was to restore and redeem people, rather than knock them down and destroy them.

Grace literally means an undeserved gift. Philip Yancey  describes grace as meaning “there’s nothing you can do which can make God love you any more, and there’s nothing you can do which can make God love you any less”. Salvation, receiving God’s mercy, forgiveness and restoration, is something we receive as a gift from God, not something we earn as a result of how we good we are or what we do or don’t do for God. The apostle Paul expresses it this way:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

God’s heart has never been to destroy, that’s what truth on its own can do, but to restore. That gets expressed when Jesus tells us “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). And all of that flows out of God’s love for us.

Grace and Truth in Action

Many of the examples we’ve looked at of peach behaviour relate to how we treat people outside the community. For instance, the woman caught in adultery first experiences grace when Jesus says to her "Then neither do I condemn you", then hears truth as He says "Go now and leave your life of sin". That combination of grace and truth is really what lies at the heart of building a peach community.

But how does the idea of the peach, this combination of grace and truth, apply when it comes to people within our community, and particularly those who fail? Being a peach community doesn’t just affect how we treat outsiders. It should also have a huge impact on how we treat people within our community when they mess up. Yet so often that doesn’t seem to happen in church life. I’ve seen too many situations where Christians who have undeniably messed up, get rejected and condemned by people within their church, their denomination or their movement. It sometimes seems easier to express grace to people outside the community than within it.

One of the most remarkable grace stories is that of David when he committed adultery with Bathsheba. Let’s review the story (you can read it in full in2 Samuel 11 and 12).

David was the king of Israel. One day, when he should have been at war with the rest of his army, he saw a woman having a bath on roof of the building opposite his home and he desired her. Having slept with her, and got her pregnant, he tries to get her husband back from the battle so that he will sleep with her and think the child is his own. This doesn’t work and so instead he has the husband killed. He then takes Bathsheba as his wife and carries on as though nothing has happened.

Let’s stop it there. David had replaced Saul, who lost the kingship because he didn’t lead in the way God wanted him to. Surely this is going to be the end of the road for David, God is going to choose a new king. But what we discover is that God is a God of the second chance. He faces David up with the truth by sending a man called Nathan to speak to him. But not just to bluntly face him up with the facts, but to present those facts in such a compelling way that David is able to grasp the seriousness of what he has done. Nathan isn’t there as just a purveyor of truth, some sort of moral arbiter to pronounce God’s judgement over David and his sin. Instead God’s heart, expressed through Nathan, is to restore David and give him that second chance.

Psalm 51 records David’s response. We see his recognition of his sinfulness, his prayer for forgiveness and desire for cleansing. There is a clear recognition of his own brokenness, asking God to give him a new heart and to use him to continue to turn others back to God. Nathan’s presentation of the truth achieves what it was intended to do.

Let’s not miss the fact that there were consequences to David’s sin. The child born from the affair dies, and David is told there will continue to be conflict in his family as a result of his affair. We are told one of his son’s rapes his sister and destroys her life and he is murdered by another son. There will always be consequences to sin; people may live the rest of their lives dealing with the fall out from what they have done. But there is a huge difference between living with that fall out forgiven and accepted back into a community willing to give you a second chance, and living with the consequences of sin far from God and cut off by the community you were once part of.

We see that again in the Peter’s denial of Jesus. Peter was the one over who Jesus had declared “on this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). But then he fails spectacularly when he denies Jesus three times. Yet when Jesus meets again with Peter after his resurrection, his whole heart is to restore Peter, not just in terms of their relationship but also Peter’s key role within the fledgling church (John 21:15-19).

People will mess up and fail within the community of the peach. We must never expect sinless perfection from one another, if we do then we’re just fooling ourselves and probably wearing a whole series of masks. When people fail truth means that we have to face them up with their failure - we can’t just sweep it under the carpet. But grace means that our aim is always to restore people, to bring them back to the place where they were before they messed up.

I wish I’d written this

Dick Staub in his book “The Culturally Savvy Christian” writes 'We tend to err on the side of grace or truth. We either love people unconditionally, not delivering the truth about their need to change, or we deliver the truth without showing them unconditional love. Jesus' approach can be summarised as follows. Truth without grace is legalism. Grace without truth is romanticism. Truth with grace is dynamism. Jesus demonstrated that loving a person does not require us to abandon the truth, nor does truth demand that we neglect love. Jesus was full of both grace and truth, and when Jesus is at work within us, our lives will display the same exquisite fullness'. 

A peach community is fundamentally a community which is full of grace and truth, expressed to those outside the community, and grace and truth expressed to those within. Let's aim for that same 'exquisite fullness' in our church and in our lives.

Recommended Reading

What's So Amazing About Grace — Philip Yancey. If there's one book I would encourage everyone in our community to read at least once in their life (other than then Bible of course) it would be this one. It transformed my understanding of grace, what it means and what a beautiful concept it is when worked out in practice.