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Grace and Truth?

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It was one of the most memorable meetings of my life, hastily called without a clear reason why. When I entered the room I could tell things were very somber. It quickly became apparent that one of my colleagues, a fellow pastor, had been caught in what we in the business call “a moral failing.” Four of us sat in the room, everyone subdued.

It was this time of year. I remember because the chair of the committee began by reading from the opening chapter of the Gospel of John. When he was done reading, he looked at the wayward minister and said, “We heard how Christ came full of grace and truth. Now give us the truth, and we will give you grace.”

Although the colleague confessed to some things that day, he did not tell us everything. I’ve since learned that this isn’t unusual for people who are suddenly caught. It isn’t that they are lying, or trying to pull some grand ruse, as much as they are in shock, disoriented, not even sure themselves what has or hasn’t happened.

I do not want to be critical or over-analyze the words of the committee chair. We often hear and use the phrase—“full of grace and truth”—that way. We hear them almost as opposites, or if not as opposites as balancing each other. (grace truth b 12. 14Look at the images I found!) Grace is accepting and loving. Truth is accusatory and exposing. Grace is soft and warm. Truth is pointed and cold. Grace needs the truth. And truth needs grace. Seems to make perfect sense.

But that isn’t what the passage is saying. It isn’t what John was writing, and most importantly, it isn’t a good understanding of Jesus.

When the committee was talking to our errant colleague, it sounded like we were offering a deal. “If you do this, then we’ll do that.” Give us truth and then you’ll get grace. We live so much of life that way—making deals and trades. It isn’t surprising that we are preconditioned to think about God the same way.

But this is not grace. Grace is a gift, free and undeserved. Never a deal, never an if/then transaction.

With our modern ears, we hear “truth” and think Jesus comes to bring us accurate information, correctness, facts. But truth is somewhat different for the writer of the fourth gospel. Working from more of a Hebrew-Middle Eastern framework, truth connotes reliability and loyalty. Truth is more is relational than informational. To be true is to be faithful, not necessarily correct.

This is why Raymond Brown, in his magisterial Anchor Bible commentary on the Gospel of John, uses “filled with enduring love” rather than “full of grace and truth.” The somewhat-less-magisterial New Living Bible puts it “full of unfailing love and faithfulness.”

For some embarrassing reason, when I hear that Jesus comes with “truth,” the image that comes to mind is from when we were housebreaking a puppy. Of course, the little pup got grace: love, food, a warm home. But when the puppy had an accident, we would grab him and stick his nose in it. I can still visualize the little pooch flailing and wriggling, trying to avoid this humiliation. We would speak in a deep, frightening voice, “Baaaad dog!” as we tossed him outside.

I’ve been told that this is not a good way to house train dogs, so I’m pretty sure it isn’t the way God deals with us. Why then do I still have this vision of God sticking my nose in the “truth” while bellowing “Baaaad Steve!”?

It’s because most of us can’t get the notion out of our head that somewhere, deep in the mysterious inner reaches of God, there is another side to God—a dark side, a mean streak, a hot temper.

I hear this when people say things like, “Well, God is both love and holiness. God loves us, but God’s holiness is utterly repulsed by our sin.” Or “Yes, God is merciful, but God also demands righteousness and justice. God has standards to uphold.” It sounds as if God is persnickety and prissy, as if it is our duty to keep this thin-skinned deity from being offended.

Jesus is the fullest and best revelation of God. Jesus was born in a barn, touched diseased people, and ate with utensils deemed unclean. He doesn’t give the impression of being put off by a little filth and mess.

I know you’re thinking, does God just ignore sin, blithely sweeping ugly truths under the rug? Is God a pushover, a softy, the kind of parent who spoils their kid? Of course not. But I don’t have an easy answer or snappy comeback for you.

The best I can do is to remind us that the Hebrew notion of truth has a lot in it about endurance and constancy—which is to say, “time is on God’s side.” God is in no rush to squeeze truth out of us, or stick our nose in it.

The “truth” is that when God looks at us, God sees us wrapped in a dazzling robe, made clean in the blood of Jesus. When we come to rest in God’s grace, perhaps then we can begin to face our sin, knowing that it is covered and negligible compared to the unfailing love of God for us in Christ Jesus.

I invite you to begin to let this roll around in your head, let nestle in your heart. What changes if you begin to trust that God is love all the way through? Front to back. Top to bottom. No if/then. No mean streak. No darkness.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of unfailing love and faithfulness.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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