I wrote last time about how I sometimes forget even the most basic things—like God being the Father of Compassion and the God of all Comfort—and need to go back and dig through Scripture again to be reminded of the truth. I’m so grateful God knew we’d need not just his presence within us (as central a gift as that is), but also his written word. I absolutely need the comfort and conviction and empowering of the Holy Spirit. And I also need something concrete, something written, words I can pore over and sit with and pray. Words that tell me who this God is who now lives within me, what he wants for me and what he asks from me.
“Full of Grace and Truth”
Little phrases in Scripture often catch my attention and turn me again to marvel at this God who (incredibly!) loves us. Recently it has been the little phrase indicating that Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” I love that phrase! Full of grace—kind, gentle, humble. The sort of person who won’t break a bruised reed, who stoops to where I am and lifts me up to share the tender intimacy of his relationship with his own Father.
And full of truth, too. The kind of person who doesn’t look away from bruises and wounds—the ones I carry and the ones I inflict. Yes, he chooses to forget the wounds I inflict—but not until he has fully seen them, spoken with me about them, and helped me grow. He doesn’t ignore them; he sees, addresses, and then helps me move on with him.
This matters so much to me! If someone simply ignores what I’ve done wrong, it’s easy for me to slip into fear that someday they’ll bring it up. (Maybe they haven’t noticed yet? Maybe it’s so terrible they can’t talk about it? What if the next time I do that thing is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and then I’ll face the consequences?) But if we’ve talked about it and I know he has seen and I’ve felt his loving gaze right in the middle of all that? Then I know he sees me as I am and loves me in it. This is the kind of person with whom I can dare to be myself, with whom I can truly rest: one who knows me inside and out, and still loves me.
The Thrill of Orthodoxy
I’ve just finished reading Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith.
When a friend saw the book on my shelf, she laughed, “The Thrill of Orthodoxy—those are two words you don’t often see together!” It’s true. We don’t. Not often enough if Wax is right in the book’s opening statement, “The church faces her biggest challenge not when new errors start to win but when old truths no longer wow.”
What drew me to the book? Partly, perhaps, the good news I experience in the phrase, “full of grace AND truth.” I want—I need—truth as well as grace.
I was drawn to the book, too, because I’ve noticed parts of the larger church veering away from the word “sin” in favor of terms like “woundedness”—or avoiding the topic altogether. It’s a reaction, in many cases, to damage that has been done by an over-focus on sin, a focus which has equated sinfulness with worthlessness. (Think old hymns using words like “wretch,” “worthless,” and “a worm.”) When a pendulum returns to center from one end of its swing, it swings the other direction. That’s all part of the process. So maybe this swing from a “worm theology” to the other extreme is all part of us trying to find a healthier understanding of our beauty as persons made in the image of God and our concurrent need for him to meet us in our nonetheless present sinfulness.
But when the pendulum doesn’t swing back to center again, that, theologically speaking, is where we leave orthodoxy behind and enter heresy. As Wax says, “Error creeps in when people attempt to simplify Christianity by picking up one truth—a vital truth that makes up part of the Christian faith—and holding tightly to it while letting go of other important truths” (p. 85).
Why mention sin?
Anyone who’s been around here for long knows that it’s most often God’s tender love and compassion that I hear as I listen to his heartbeat. God’s love is the truth that rings out from the first words of Scripture to the last as he keeps calling us to come, to return, to make our home in his love (c.f. John 15:9). The calling I’ve sensed for this website—and for my life—is to hold gentle and gracious space where we can listen together for God’s heartbeat and make our home in Christ’s love. So why mention sin? Partly to make sure the pendulum doesn’t get stuck at one end of its swing. Or, to say it another way, to help ensure that our trust is in God, not just in one isolated aspect of his character. But here are three other reasons (and I’m sure there are more):
1. When we try to eliminate mention of sin, we also have to eliminate large parts of Scripture (like the more than nine hundred times the Bible uses the word “sinner” or “sin,” dozens of which come from the mouth of Jesus).
2. The removal of our sin is a key part of Jesus’ own identity and calling, and even his name.
- As the angel told Joseph when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
- Before the birth of Jesus and his cousin, John, Zechariah sang that John would “go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77-78).
- That same John, introducing Jesus at the start of his ministry, said “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
- And Jesus himself saw this as a key part of who he was and what he had come to do. In his last words to his disciples before ascending to heaven, he said, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations. . .” (Luke 24:46-47).
We can’t eliminate the mention of sin without having to also redefine the identity and calling of Jesus himself. And it’s grace that we can’t leave out this part of the story, because. . .
3. The mention of sin doesn’t minimize God’s love and grace, it magnifies it.
When we eliminate the word “sin” in an attempt to make others (or ourselves?) more comfortable, we rob ourselves and others of the security of knowing ourselves deeply and passionately loved—even in all the places we have failed. I for one need a love large enough to embrace me not just in my God-created, image-bearing beauty, but also in those places I don’t yet mirror the love and patience, grace and forgiveness of the God in whose image I am made. It takes courage, yes, to let ourselves be seen and welcomed in all the rawness and vulnerability of our brokenness and sin. But it’s a courage that is worth it, because here alone can we discover how deeply we are loved.
God doesn’t name our sin to rub our noses in it, but to love us in it and heal and free us from it. Perhaps this is why, when Zechariah sang of John going before Jesus “to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,” he said this knowledge of salvation and forgiveness of sins came “because of the tender mercy of God” (Luke 1:77-78)! God’s intent in naming our sin has never been to make us fear punishment or wallow in shame, but “to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79).
And If We’ve Gotten This Wrong?
Where is the hope when we discover, in this area or another, that we’ve swung too far to one end of the pendulum’s path and need to come back to center?
One of the most freeing things I discovered during my theological studies was that not even the greatest theologian got every detail right. (Or at least if someone did, we don’t know, because there aren’t two who agree on every single detail!)
There is Scripture to dig into, there are the creeds that the church throughout the ages has affirmed as articulating the core doctrines of our shared faith, and there is the Holy Spirit to guide us.
But we’re human. We see, as Paul said, “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). We all make mistakes. And we’re all somewhere on that pendulum swing as, shaped by our past experiences, we seek to faithfully follow our God who is too magnificent for our little minds to fully grasp.
The beautiful news? Our mistakes can become yet another place to experience the wonder of God’s love as he gently leads us deeper into both his grace and his truth. And when we live for a while in not being sure what is true, we have the comfort offered in the last words of The Thrill of Orthodoxy:
“And what will that future look like? A throng of once-sinners now-saints gathered around a throne, lifting our voices in perfect pitch to praise the One who is both Lion and Lamb, joining the endless song of all the angels and powers of heaven. ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,’ we will sing, ‘heaven and earth are full of your glory.’ . . .
All our paltry attempts to express the inexpressible, all the foolishness of humanity’s errors and heresies, will crumple before the solid reality of the Triune God who saves and sanctifies.
Even now, Sunday after Sunday, we gather in churches all over the earth, and for a moment we get a glimpse of what’s coming. In fitful steps and starts, sometimes singing off-key or fumbling the words, we get a foretaste of the future, and we thrill to join the eternal song. As above, so below.” (p. 194)