New Testament Theology Embodied in Jesus and Carried Out in Cultural Chaos
By Mark E. Moore
Please don’t judge me . . . it was the 1980s and it was at my wedding (not a time of complete sanity for most of us). What I did has become one of my greatest regrets as a Christian. I asked my older brother to remove his earring because we didn’t want it in our family wedding photos. He was not a Christ follower and, as you can imagine, I gave him all the ammunition he needed to judge me for being judgmental. (He wasn’t wrong.)
As I write this nearly 40 years later, for the life of me, I don’t know what I was thinking. I prioritized a nonbiblical value at the expense of sharing the love of Jesus with my own flesh and blood. I’m ashamed of that moment. But I’m most ashamed that it was hardly a solitary moment. In my zeal for moral value, in my stance for the truth, I have too often neglected grace.
Today, I am much older and I hope a bit wiser. And the pendulum of our Christian culture has swung substantially the other way. Today churches tend to be much stronger on grace than 40 years ago, which is a good thing. However, it begs a question: Has the pendulum swung so far that 40 years from now we will apologize for neglecting truth? Since I don’t have the personal gravitas for such a weighty discussion, I’ll simply share, as best I can, what the Bible says about grace and truth.
GRACE AND TRUTH IN JOHN
Do you know how many times the Greek words for grace and truth are found together in the New Testament? Just four times: John 1:14, 17; Colossians 1:6; and 1 Peter 5:12. By looking at those verses, we can gain insight into how we hold truth and grace in tandem without tension. We will start with John, since he has half the uses and they occur in the very same paragraph:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:14, 16-17, emphasis mine).
Through the Law of Moses, humanity was gifted the truth of God. The Jewish nation was blessed because of the godly guidelines in the Law of Moses. The Jewish people to this day have benefitted by observing the law of God. Their cultural contributions to humanity are disproportionately larger than their population. Over time, however, grace was often glaringly absent from the law. This actually is true for any law at any time among any group of people. Those who prioritize the law take a hard stand on what is right, often to the neglect of compassion (Matthew 23:23).
Grace, on the other hand, was introduced with the incarnation when God showed up in Jesus to be the very penalty the law demanded. Here is where it gets interesting. John used the word grace only twice in his Gospel, and he paired it with truth both times. (That’s something worth pondering). One would think that the apostle whom Jesus loved would be all about grace. Turns out, he was far more attuned to truth.
In his Gospel, John mentioned truth more than a dozen times. In fact, one could almost always capitalize Truth in John’s Gospel because he almost always used it to refer to Jesus—what the Lord said or what he did. (So, I’ll capitalize such instances in this article.) For John, Truth was a person, not a proposition. At least up to chapter 14. Then Truth became an eponym for the Holy Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). It was still personified, but by the Spirit rather than by Jesus.
In other words, in John’s theology, just as Grace was embodied in Jesus, so too Truth can be embraced and experienced only in the person of Jesus (or his ongoing incarnation of the Spirit). For a Christ follower, Truth must be relational, not merely propositional. It is not a fact or formula one can read from a book or even hear from a sermon. It is a person with whom we have a relationship. We don’t stand for the truth; we stand with the Truth. That’s why I so regret the earring incident. I was standing for a (misguided) moral precept rather than standing up for, or with, Jesus in my concern for my brother.
When we care more about religious morality than someone’s spiritual mortality, we are in danger of going backward to Mosaic legislation and missing Jesus’ reconciliation. At such a point, we focus on excluding outsiders over including those Jesus came to seek and to save.
GRACE AND TRUTH IN THE EPISTLES
This Johannine theology of grace and truth bleeds over into Pauline Epistles.
We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit (Colossians 1:4-8, emphasis mine).
This “true message” was delivered through Epaphras, a living representative of Jesus. He not only shared the true message with the Colossians, but he also shared the love of the Colossians with Paul. Hence, we see the same elements as in the Gospel of John: Grace and Truth through Jesus and the Spirit resulted in loving relationships in the church. These core elements of Grace and Truth made it universally applicable, going “throughout the whole world.”
In the same vein, Peter wrote,
With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it. She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ (1 Peter 5:12-14, emphasis mine).
Notice again, that Grace and Truth are delivered in person by Silas—a representative of Jesus. It is expressed through love, which in this case is ritualized by a kiss of greeting in the church. And again, because of these core elements, it has a universal application, extended all the way to the capital city of Rome (aka Babylon).
There are two major implications of this New Testament theology of Grace and Truth. First, Truth is embodied in Jesus. Just as there is no Grace without the sacrifice of Jesus, so too, there is no Truth without the sacrificial incarnation of Jesus by his followers. How he lived and how he loved is the Truth we embrace.
To embrace Grace and Truth in tandem without tension, the church must focus more on living the Truth of Jesus than defending the propositions of Christian theology. Our Truth is a person with whom we have a relationship. More than that, we embody Jesus as his ambassadors in this world. The Truth is not defended with an argument, a sermon, or a diatribe. Christian Truth is truly Christian when it is demonstrated in sacrificial love. To that extent, the church—the body of Christ—is the embodied Truth of Jesus as we live out his love for one lost sheep.
The second major implication of this theology of Grace and Truth is that it lives in the midst of cultural chaos. Peter described this embodied Truth through the church in Rome. Paul expounded it amid the church of Colossae. We embody it in a similarly pagan and chaotic culture. Political tensions, racial divides, and gender confusion are just a few of the conversations complicating the Christian message. At the propositional level, any of these could (and have) derailed the church from her mission. If our goal is to “tell the truth,” all these issues can easily make us appear judgmental, fundamentalist, even hypocritical. If, however, our biblical theology is a lived Truth—loving the least and lost as Jesus did—then each of these issues is a massive opportunity to demonstrate the grace of Jesus in love, which leads to a Truth of Jesus that liberates.
One might fairly ask, “So, we just love people as they are without speaking scriptural truth to their situation?” No. Absolutely not. Some might think it compassionate, but ultimately it is cruel. That is the error of liberalism that has proven ineffective, even counterproductive to mental health, unity, and charity. So no, we don’t just “love people as they are” without speaking Truth. Rather, we love people as they are before speaking scriptural Truth to their situation. Perhaps this is a poor way to put it, but we earn the right to speak Truth by embodying Truth through love. Ultimately, we will win the cultural argument by being loving people better than anyone else.
Too often the Western church has prioritized the principles of truth over the Person of Truth. Such has been the legacy of rationalism since the Renaissance. Culturally, we have now thoroughly embraced existentialism and individualism. We can stand in our cloister of Evangelical Rationalism and bemoan the cultural demise, or we can take advantage of the cultural moment and engage a culture steeped in individual existentialism by loving better than any other tribe or organization. Truth be told, that has been our strong suit for 2,000 years.
Historically, the church of Jesus Christ has been on the cutting edge of medical care, benevolence, women’s rights, liberation of slavery, education, housing, prison reform, adoption, and defending human rights. This makes sense, since only with a biblical theology can people be authentically viewed as special creations rather than random evolutionary by-products. The reality is that communities that are “affirming” do not come close to the enduring and sustaining support of the church from cradle to grave. Because of the Truth of Jesus, Christians can and should view all people as valued since they bear the image of God and all people have the potential for improvement through the transforming power of the Spirit. These are not just philosophic fineries. They have real world consequences.
As individual Christians, we live this out by investing time, talent, and treasure to others in our orbit who need care and compassion. As an organization, the church can shift our order of inclusion from Believe, Behave, Belong . . . to Belong, Believe, Behave. Our practical steps for discipleship in the local church must allow people access to groups and inclusion before they ever come to similar theological conclusions. That is now easier than ever through small groups.
Twenty years ago, church leaders encouraged others to invite a friend to church, then to a group, and finally to participate in a mission trip. Today, the order is reversed. Our best first invite is often to a community service project that connects a prebeliever to a group of Christians, which will open them to the possibility to coming to a large gathering at church. Though this may feel backwards, a glimpse of the first three centuries of the church make this real and ancient pattern applicable to modern times.
Mark E. Moore serves as teaching pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, and is author of Core52: A Fifteen-Minute Daily Guide to Build Your Bible IQ in a Year.