As most of you who follow the blogosphere probably know, a few weeks ago, Andy Stanley, pastor of Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta, lobbed a bombshell into the evangelical community in Part 5 of his series Christian: It’s Not What You Think. Most of the focus of the debate about this message has been centered around a lengthy illustration Stanley gives in the closing 15 minutes or so of his message where the listener comes away feeling that Stanley was very ambiguous on his position on homosexuality. Albert Mohler has written an article on this that is worth reading, and it has also been covered in Christianity Today.
Since that aspect of the message has been covered elsewhere, I actually want to focus on some of the less talked about, but ultimately foundational, issues that were raised in the first half of his sermon where he contrasts Grace and Truth. (The title of Part 5 is “When Gracie Met Truthy.”) I’ll come straight to the point: I believe that there is a fundamental flaw in Stanley’s articulation of biblical Grace which then necessarily compromises biblical Truth which necessarily leads to error.
At the starting point, I had no real disagreement. Stanley says we should love as Jesus loves. True. Jesus’ love, he refers to John 1:14, was full of grace and truth. There is a tension between grace and truth and some of us tend to be more strong on one than the other. However, Jesus was the fullness of grace and the fullness of truth. No problem thus far. But as he begins to expound on these, he makes some troubling statements (I have attempted to get the wording as close as possible although at times I have combined a couple of similar statements together):
- Jesus was inconsistent (conflicted) in his application of grace and truth. Sometimes he approached a situation with grace, other times truth. Sometimes he is “harsh and condemning,” other times he ignores sin altogether.
- As Christ-followers, we have to keep this same tension between grace and truth, because the second that we try to resolve the tension between them “[we] lose, [we] give up something very, very, very important.”
- “Grace says you’re forgiven. Truth says you’re accountable. Grace says you’re fine. Truth says you’re broken. Grace says it’s going to be OK. Truth says, no, you need to work on that. Grace says no matter what you do I love you. Truth says you’re accountable.”
I would like to challenge these statements along two lines: (1) I believe that the Scriptures teach that while there is indeed a strong tension (even a seeming contradiction) between Grace and Truth, they can be reconciled and must be reconciled if God is both holy and the savior of sinners, and (2) biblical Grace is not what Stanley has stated above.
Now, let me pause and say right here that it is not my intention to cast stones at Andy Stanley. Rather, I would like to lovingly plead with him, for the sake of the Gospel, to reconsider his articulation of biblical Grace and the consequential philosophical implications. As his message is in an open forum, I believe truth invites a public response.
In listening to the sermon, what I came away with was the impression that grace fundamentally means forgiving sin because it is simply overlooked. (For example, to the thief on the cross Jesus simply gave him free ride into heaven despite his wicked life just because he asked.) According to Stanley, truth is when sin is addressed and confronted; grace is when it is ignored.
If that is our understanding of these two concepts, then I would agree that they cannot be reconciled. And if this was Jesus understanding of these two concepts, then he would indeed be “conflicted” and “inconsistent”. But that is not biblical Grace.
The missing ingredient in Stanley’s articulation of Grace is the Cross of Christ. I don’t mean the story of the cross, because he does refer to Jesus being crucified between two thieves, etc. I mean that the message and the power of the cross are missing. Grace doesn’t ignore sin. Grace looks full on at sin and says, your sin is forgiven, not because it is overlooked but because (and only because) it has been atoned for at the cross by the shed blood of Christ. Here is the key point: Grace and truth are reconciled at the cross! It is the only way a God of infinite love and a God of ultimate holiness can save sinners: by becoming the perfect sacrifice and taking their place on that cross.
As we read through the book of Romans we see that Grace also transforms us and compels us to leave our life of sin. If Grace just means overlooking sin, then that’s what we will do when sin is in our lives (or in our churches). Toward the end of the message Stanley refers to those believers who “cannot leave their sin.” This again flies in the face of the teaching of the epistles (see for example Romans 6-8 and Galatians 5). But if we don’t truly understand Grace then we shouldn’t be surprised if we experience no victory over sin. If Stanley has come to the conclusion that some believers “cannot” leave their sin, then again, I would challenge him to reconsider his understanding of Grace.
There has been a movement in our modern, seeker-sensitive churches to move away from concepts like atonement, propitiation, redemption, the wrath of God,etc. because they don’t tend to bring in big crowds. They are difficult concepts, or too boring. Some of our looser Bible translations omit these words altogether to make the New Testament “easier to understand.” But the consequences of this way of thinking and our lack of understanding are becoming more and more evident in our churches.
To summarize: far from losing something when we reconcile Grace and Truth, we gain a way of salvation through the cross. When we leave Grace and Truth misunderstood and unreconciled, we lose something very, very, very important; we lose the Gospel itself.