|The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist|
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c1550
John, of course, did not know that this Messiah, this Christ, would be Jesus. Christ is not Jesus' last name; it is a title that means Anointed One, and is used in Scripture to designate His claim to be Israel's messiah. As John preaches, and masses of people respond, he discovers in his baptism line one day his first cousin once removed, a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus. The succeeding brief interaction between John and Jesus, and God's actions from Heaven revealed to John that Jesus was the messiah he had been preaching was about to come.
Immediately after His baptism, Jesus heads into the wilderness for a six week season of fasting and prayer. Meanwhile, John begins preaching more specifically, pointing people not just toward a coming messiah, but toward Jesus particularly as that messiah.
14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
15 John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.
16 And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.
17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
In those four verses there is one phrase used twice. Once it is used to describe our Saviour and the other time it is used to describe what He brings – grace and truth. He is full of grace and truth. Grace and truth come by Him. These two things – grace and truth – so marked the life of our Lord that after only one meeting with Him their presence made a deep impression on John the Baptist. So deep that John could not but tell people about them as he preached Jesus.
What is truth? Truth, loosely defined, is what is true. Truth is real, actual, correct, and factual. It is also dependable because it is unchangeable. This is implied in the phrase "facts are stubborn things." Facts and truth are not interchangeable but they are similar. Truth is unchanging. Truth is true regardless of whether it is popularly accepted or popularly denigrated. Truth is true whether it is in fashion or out of style. Truth is true even when it is represented as being mistaken or false.
What is grace? Grace, loosely defined, is unmerited favor. It is goodness poured out on those who do not deserve it. Its clearest use in Scripture is in relation to salvation but it is found in a remarkable variety of spiritual contexts. For the purposes of this particular post I am going to define it with another scriptural term, loving-kindness. Grace is the kindness done to me by God out of His great love for me. Turned the other way, grace is the kindness done by me toward others out of my genuine love for them – whether in my estimation they deserve it or not.
Understanding this, let me give you two applications. First, grace and truth marked the life of our Lord and they ought to mark ours too. Personally, I ought to hold an allegiance to the unchanging truth, come what may. At the same time, my life ought to be marked by loving-kindness in my treatment of those around me.
This is true of you and me, individually, but it is also true of churches corporately. I am to be like Christ; that is the aim of my Christianity. But one of the three definitions given in Scripture for the church is the body of Christ. My church, Maplewood Bible Baptist Church, is to be the visible/physical extension of Jesus Christ in this corner of Chicago. As such, it too, corporately, ought to be marked by grace and truth. My church should hold an allegiance to the unchanging truth, come what may. And our ministry in this neighborhood ought to be marked by loving-kindness in our treatment of all those within our embrace.
Second, in so saying, I am asserting that both of these should be present.
Some people, some churches, some ministries are all truth. They are hard, unbending, impossible to be swayed. Such people, such ministries become marked by a my-way-or-the-highway kind of mentality. They breed a refusal to listen to any other perspective, no matter how slightly it may differ from their own. In them, loyalty to the truth is the highest compliment, and they are marked by a willingness to lead an all-out charge against anyone thought to be compromising the truth.
I can hear you from here… "Tom, you sound like you are describing the classic fundamentalist. You're a fundamentalist. What's the problem?" I am describing a fundamentalist, and I am one. The problem lies in the fact that all too often that is all we are identified with – truth. We are full of the truth – but that is all. We are loyal to the truth – but that is all. We are willing to fight over the truth – but that is all. We are inclined to drop the hat ourselves so we can fight – but that is all. Our theme phrase is "contend for the faith" with an emphasis upon the contention.
By the same token, there are other people and other ministries that are all grace. They are kind, sweet, loving. Such people and such ministries become marked by an attitude of whatever-you're-doing-is-ok. They refuse to take a stand on anything. In them, niceness is the ultimate virtue, and they are identified by a willingness to overlook practically everything in the name of grace. They are full of grace – but that is all. They are nice, the nicest people to ever grace the planet – but that is all. They are sweet, kind, forgiving, charitable, patient – but that is all. They are always wiling to see something from the other person's perspective – but that is all. Their theme phrase is "judge not" with an emphasis on the not.
I can hear you from here… "Pastor Brennan, you make it sound like these two things are irreconcilable. How then can you expect me to include them both?" They are not irreconcilable. They only seem that way when you choose one of the two to have. But you are not supposed to choose just one of the two to have. You are supposed to have both.
You are supposed to have an unalterable allegiance to the unchanging truth and to hold that truth in a spirit of loving-kindness. You are to refuse to compromise but to do so with a loving, gracious, sweet spirit. You are to cling like a bulldog to what is right but give other people the benefit of the doubt as long as possible. You are to stand up straight and tall while the rest of the world bows down, but you are to do so with a tender spirit, and a heart of love for the brethren.
In other words, you are to be just like Jesus. He went about doing good. His life was marked by compassion. But He had a backbone of steel, and on one anywhere at any time was going to push Him off the hill of truth even if He had to die on it. He was full of grace and truth. And so should we be.
I am unashamedly independent Baptist. I suspect ninety percent or more of my readers are as well. Although our movement has thousands and thousands of churches we are certainly in the minority when it comes to American Christianity. This American Christianity has been pushing leftward at an increasingly rapid clip in my lifetime. I am not talking about the Mormons and the Catholics; I am talking about our brethren in Christ, God's people. I am talking about evangelical Protestantism, non-denominationalism, the large conventions and associations that preach the Gospel but have ministries marked by compromise, pragmatism, and worldliness. And they are not just heading left; they are actively seeking to drag as many independent Baptists with them as they can.
We live in an age of compromise, of a weak, spineless Christianity that is seeking to pull us along with it. We absolutely must develop the capacity to resist such a pull – no matter who else goes with them, no matter how isolated we get, no matter how tired we get of taking such a stand. But we just as absolutely must do this with a spirit of grace, cultivating a heart of love for those with whom we disagree.
Beloved, let us be full of grace and truth. Both.
It is the only way to be like Jesus.