I had a conversation with a friend the other day about Christianity and gay marriage. I held a more liberal position, and my friend held a more conservative position. He was wrestling with the issue, and was interested in reading more and trying to understand the other perspective.
As we went our separate ways, one of the things he said stayed in my mind. He wanted to seek out the truth, and he said, Truth and grace do not and should not be at the expense of each other.
I think the concern about balancing truth and grace is common for Christians (including myself), so I think it is worth unpacking. The idea behind balancing truth and grace is that both are important. The Bible says that Jesus came full of both grace and truth (John 1:14). The thinking goes, if you stray too much on the side of truth, you can’t help people understand God’s love and mercy for them. But if you stray too much on the side of grace, you might just let people stay stuck in a pattern of sinful behavior, free to do whatever they want.
This struggle is very real for Christians who have difficulty supporting gay marriage. Most Christians agree that we shouldn’t be mean and exclude people who are gay—that would be a failure of grace. But for some Christians who believe that the Bible teaches that gay sex is a sin, saying gay marriage is acceptable to God would be a failure of truth.
I started to think about the balance between truth and grace. I thought about truth and grace like a seesaw, with truth on one side and grace on the other. It seemed as if Christians were often trying to balance the seesaw perfectly. Sometimes we would move too far to one side, and sometimes we would move too far to the other side. It always seemed to be a struggle to balance the seesaw.
Then I thought about Jesus. Jesus was full of grace and truth, but when I read the Gospels, his life doesn’t feel like a seesaw, bouncing back and forth between truth and grace. Instead, what strikes me most about Jesus is how integrated he was. Truth and grace merged seamlessly together in the person of Jesus.
One of the most interesting ways that Jesus integrated truth and grace had to do with how Jesus engaged with the law. The law was very important for the Jewish people. The law was a set of guidelines that set apart the Jews as the chosen people of God. The Jewish people followed the law religiously.
When you look back on how the Jewish people engaged with the law, however, you see the seesaw between truth and grace I talked about earlier. The commandments were important to follow. But people couldn’t follow them perfectly, so grace was important as well. There was a complex system that outlined the sacrifices that needed to be made for individual and collective sins. The focus would be on truth and following the law, interspersed with a change in focus to grace through the sacrificial system. Once the sacrifice had been made and the sins had been forgiven, the focus changed back again to truth and following the commandments.
Jesus offered a different, more integrated relationship between truth and grace. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
Jesus then goes on to give several examples of how his teachings go beyond the letter of the law. For example, the law says not to murder, but according to Jesus, the root issue is anger in one’s heart. The law says not to commit adultery, but according to Jesus, the root issue is lust in one’s heart. The law says to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but according to Jesus, you must love even your enemy. According the Jesus, the law should be merged with the principle of love.
Jesus offers a similar principle when one of the Pharisees asks him about the Greatest Commandment. Jesus replied, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
In an intriguing turn, Jesus connects the law and love. We obey the commandments by loving God and loving our neighbor. Jesus merges truth and grace. The truth is grace—we are completely loved and accepted by God, so we should love our neighbor as ourselves.
I’m not sure we will ever be able to fully integrate truth and grace in our own lives. But if you find yourself struggling in your life on a seesaw between truth and grace, it might be worth thinking about whether there is a way to merge or connect truth and grace in your life.
Discussion: How integrated are truth and grace in your life? What is one step you could take toward connecting the two? How do the life and teachings of Jesus on truth and grace impact your struggles with controversial issues such as gay marriage?