Tom Gilson

Heat to Light 2: Grace and Truth

(This post accompanies my latest podcast, Episode 2-2, Grace and Truth in Heat-to-Light Conversations.)

I’m continuing today with my extended series on “Heat to Light: From Cultural Conflict to Spiritual Transformation.” (That title is still a bit in flux, but it’ll settle in soon enough.) Here’s where we’re heading with this. I see three principles that must be included in any heat-to-light conversation, preaching, or teaching:

  1. Christ at the center
  2. Relating with others through grace and truth
  3. Knowing what we’re talking about, which includes 4 parts in turn:
    1. Understanding the issue at hand
    2. Understanding God’s truth
    3. Being able to explain clearly why you know it’s true
    4. Being able to explain clearly why it’s good that it’s true

The world may change around us, it may even turn upside down, but the right thing, the only sensible thing to do is to keep following Jesus no matter what. Today I’m introducing the second core principle, grace and truth. These first two are foundational for everything you’ll hear me share throughout this season. I may spend mulch more time working through the third principle, but as I do that I think you’ll see it’s all built on a framework of keeping Christ at the center, and practicing a solid blend of grace and truth.

Chances are you agree that Christ must remain at the center. That’s settled for you. It doesn’t make everything easy afterwards, though, which is especially true when so many things are turning contentious on us, from science to gender to care for the poor and hurting. These questions are open to all kinds of biblical, philosophical, and practical analysis, all of which is important, and I’ll be doing much of that as this season progresses.

It’s About Restoring People, Not Resolving Issues

But that’s not the hardest part. The hardest thing is what happens when people we love disagree with us. I know of people leaving churches over COVID mask policies, which is one of the lightest disagreements in our culture today. I also know of families torn virtually to shreds over beliefs about sex and gender. Denominations, too. But let’s not go there right now. Let’s think first about what happens when the conflict is with people we love.

Heat means disagreement, and not just theoretically. We’re talking about people. People we care about. People we love. People we want to rescue, even.

I’ve been there. As a major missions agency HR director, by God’s grace, I was able to encourage some people back from the brink of failure. That’s always the first goal, isn’t it? What we want most when there’s conflict is always reconciliation, recovery, restoration, and where necessary, repentance. Check out three major passages on sin and failure and see for yourself:

  • In Matthew 18:15-17, where your brother has sinned against you, the goal is to “have gained your brother.”
  • In Matthew 5:23-24, where you are the one who’s committed offense, the goal is to be reconciled.
  • In Galatians 6:1, where you have only observed the sin, your goal is to restore the person

When Restoration Happens, and When It Doesn’t

That’s always God’s first desire, and more than once I’m seen him use truth in people’s lives to bring them back into full fellowship with him and with the body.

I’ve also seen it go the other way, too, though. A friend at church I used to attend came forward asking for help and accountability with his pornography problem. We met regularly, and he told me how he was doing, and he seemed to be on a good track. I didn’t know the extent of his lies until word came out that the sheriff had picked him up for child pornography. We can only pray and help; we can’t control outcomes.

That stands in sharp contrast to the other one, a young man who’d applied to join our mission agency’s staff, but we’d turned down because of his own pornography problem. He got in touch with us months later, and I spoke with him as he gave a huge and heartfelt thanks for putting a warning sign in his path. He’d tossed out all his porn material (this was before the Internet came along), he’d confessed to his pastor, he’d started seeing a counselor for it, and he had a local accountability partner. I’m pretty sure he was telling the truth.

Jesus’ Example of Grace and Truth

With both these men, what I was offering, or at least trying to offer, was grace combined with truth. It was Dr. Henry Cloud’s Changes that Heal that cued me in for the first time to the way the apostle John described Jesus in the first chapter of his Gospel. Not just once, but twice, he said Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” Not half-and-half; not evenly balanced; but full. He always delivered his message of truth with complete grace, and he offered his grace in total truth.

You might view it this way for us as Christ-followers. Truth is about how God created the world, and how he means us to live in it. That truth flows straight from his own holy character, and by the way, it includes infinite love. That’s truth. Grace is the loving way we treat each other, as humble and flawed fellow-pursuers of truth, who also want to help others know that truth.

Truth

Truth includes a clear standard of right and wrong, but not just that; it’s also about the very nature of reality. Our most pressing cultural disputes are based in differences of opinion on just about everything there: who God is, what it means to be human, what our most basic problems are, and the right ways to solve them. There are right and wrong answers to those questions. There are right and wrong ways to live.

The heat of cultural conflict, often includes true/false, right/wrong assessments, such as, “This person whom I love thinks she is doing the right thing, and she also thinks I’m hateful for not agreeing. In Christ, though, I cannot agree. I wish it didn’t have to be hard this way, but it is, and I must stick with what is true.”

Grace

What about grace, though? Grace is many things, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is looking past others’ errors, especially for the sake of holding onto our relationship with them. Can we do that? Certainly there are times when relationships matter more than opinions, but is there a limit to that? I live in Ohio, where one of our senators, Rob Portman, changed his mind on gay marriage, deciding to support it reportedly because his own son was gay. The popular gay “Christian” author Matthew Vines says his parents changed their minds for the same reason.

We don’t want to be haters, do we? So maybe we should let grace take the lead, and not lean so heavily on truth? Who are we to judge, anyway? Don’t we have our own sin problems?

Truth Plus Grace

We could go there, but it’s fraught with risk. Truth without grace may be cold, hard, and judgmental, but grace without truth is flabby, flimsy, and floppy. Jesus made neither error. For those who were willing to follow him, who stood ready to repent, he offered all kinds of grace, and he taught them truths that lead to life. That looks a lot like grace, and it was, but it was completely consistent with his truth.

For those who were determined to resist him, on the other hand, he emphasized the true risk of their impending doom. Here’s what we must realize here, though: This, too, was extending them grace. He gave them a chance to change. He even encouraged it by making it hard for them to remain comfortable as they were; for comfortable people rarely make important life changes

Grace and Truth in Real Life

So how does that work out in actual Heat to Light encounters, in church, at home, at the family reunion, or at work or school?

I like to think of it this way; Truth without grace shuts the door on “sinners.” Grace without truth says, “All are welcome, no exceptions.” Grace plus truth extends a warm welcome, but it knows it’s not an invitation to join our family but God’s, so it is he who sets the terms.

So we must hold on to biblically-based convictions regarding truth, not because it’s cold hard reality, but because it’s our loving God’s loving reality. That’s the truth aspect. The grace aspect is about looking for the best way at all times to move a person toward a life of truth. We look for teachable moments. We pray for the right time to say what needs saying.

With grace in mind we remember that our own lives in Christ are an undeserved gift of love from God, for we, too are sinners, so we avoid at all costs the cold Pharisaical attitude that I call smug religionism. At the same time, though, we steer far away from the opposite mistake, equally smug in its own way, the one that says we need not pay attention to what God himself is true of life and reality.

More to Come

There is much more to say about all this, but I’m running out of space to say it. This is just introductory, anyway. There’s no good way to make it completely clear without stories and illustrations, which will come, God permitting, as we move through this year of Heat to Light. So I’ll leave it at that.

Just remember: Our first goal with any person, as far as possible, is to lead them toward repentance, restoration, redemption, reconciliation. The way we approach it, following Jesus’ example is through grace and truth. Not half and half, but as much grace as we can offer along with all the truth we know to share. That’s how Jesus lived, and it’s how he wants to work through us.

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