One of the most important dynamics to get right is the dynamic between grace and truth. Not only is it the heart of the gospel, but at the heart of many of the most regrettable caricatures and stereotypes abounding about Christians and Christianity in our world today.
At the most basic level, the goal is to hold both together. As Henry Cloud has written, truth without grace is just judgment. Conversely, grace without truth is license.
Only authentic Christianity brings together both truth and grace. Which isn’t surprising, considering that this is precisely what Jesus brought when He came. In John’s gospel, a theological bombshell was offered almost as an offhand comment: “[Jesus] came...full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NIV).
Jesus accepted the woman at the well in what can only be deemed by any careful reader in (then) culturally scandalous ways, but followed the acceptance by challenging her directly about her serial promiscuity. He also stopped the stoning of a woman caught in adultery, made it clear He was not going to condemn her, but then pointedly admonished her to turn from her adulterous ways.
Grace and truth flowed from Jesus in a way that can only be deemed inextricably intertwined. But that’s not all. It flowed from Him in a way that was winsome. The very people He challenged about the state of their lives would then want Him to come to their parties and meet their friends...and have Him challenge them!
This is precisely what must be recaptured if we are to reach this generation of “nones.”
Jesus offered neither a feel-good theology that airbrushed out any real talk of sin, nor legalistic attitudes of harsh condemnation and judgment. He came bringing grace and truth at their best and most compelling.
But let’s take the truth dynamic further, because it would be tempting to perceive that the principle problem for Christianity has been truth without grace, and then go heavy on grace at the expense of truth.
When you drill deeper into the research surrounding the rise of the “nones,” you find two interesting dynamics:
First, the negative numbers are coming largely from the falling away of hundreds of thousands of Catholics. Mainline Protestants aren’t doing well, either. In other words, there’s a big loss in the religious “middle” of things.
Second, the faith groups that did see growth were at the “poles,” meaning the far ends of the religious spectrum. The ones with fire in their belly. At one end are the aforementioned “nones,” and on the other, the largely conservative and mostly evangelical non-denominational groups. In other words, the ones who were adamant about believing in nothing particular, or adamant about believing in something specific, were the only ones attracting converts. Both ends grew to represent about 16%, respectively, of the population.
It is precisely these “deeper” findings that betray the actual headline regarding the importance of truth accompanying grace. The real headline is that lukewarm religion holds little value in the midst of a settling secularism. What grips a conscience is anything gripping. If a worldview or faith lacks conviction, passion, or life change, then it seems both privately and socially irrelevant.
This means that the only kind of voice that will arrest the attention of the world will be convictional in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content, and bold in its challenge. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the brashness of the “new” atheists like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, or the unashamed fervor of those embracing Christianity in the global South.
So while those around us may be losing their religion, the good news is that it may remind us to find something we’ve lost as well.
Our prophetic voice.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.