A common response by legalists toward the message of God’s grace is “You have to balance grace with truth.” This response reveals legalists have no understanding of grace or Scripture itself. If they did, they would never make such an absurd statement.
Recently, I had a conversation with a legalist about grace. During the conversation he said, “You know Brad, you have to balance grace with truth. It can’t be just all grace.”
This person’s response to grace is the common response by many toward God’s grace, revealing their lack of understanding of Scripture.
The great fear that prompts this response from a legalist is that people will hear the good news of grace and then use it as a license to sin, unless it is immediately balanced with a message on morality. However, in the self-righteous mind of a legalist, he is confident he would never use grace as a license to sin, but others, who are not as moral as he, would.
Notice, the great expectation of a legalist is not that when people hear the good news of grace they will be changed, Rather, the expectation of a legalist is that when people hear about grace they will become corrupted by grace, using it as a license to sin. Therefore, the need arises, according to them, to balance grace with truth.
So where do legalists get the idea that grace must be balanced with truth? And if it is not balanced, then people will go sin. It comes from John 1:14 and 17 which say:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Legalists totally misunderstand these verses to mean that the teaching of grace must be balanced with teaching on morality so that people will not use grace as a license to sin. However, this is not what John is communicating in these verses. John is not saying that Jesus balanced the teaching about grace with teaching about morality.
So if this was not what John was communicating in John 1:14 and 17, then what was he communicating?
To understand these verses, we must carefully study them in the wider context of the book of John. Only by studying them in the wider context can we arrive at the correct interpretation of these verses and their proper application. Without studying these verses in their larger context, many will continue to misquote and misapply John 1:14 and 17.
So let’s take a look at John 1:14 and 17 in their wider context.
The book of John was written for the purpose of convincing the reader to believe that Jesus was the Messiah or Christ who the Old Testament Scriptures foretold would come. John 20:30-31 says,
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The reason John wrote was so the reader would be convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, and that by believing in Jesus as the Messiah, the reader would have life. So what does it mean that Jesus was the Messiah and that by belief in Jesus as the Messiah a person could have life in his name?
John knew the initial audience to whom he was writing understood the Old Testament Scriptures. He knew the people understood from the Old Testament Scriptures that God had promised an earthly kingdom to Israel and a king who would rule over that kingdom. The coming king was called the Messiah or Christ. They understood that when the king came, he would restore Israel to its greatness and peace would flow from Israel to the world. This was what John meant by having life in his name. Those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah would live eternally in this kingdom.
Let’s take a look at some of the verses that his first audience, consisting mostly of the people of Israel, would have been very familiar with, giving them the hope of a coming king and kingdom.
Jeremiah 23:6 says,
"The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.”
Isaiah 9:6-8 says,
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
In these verses, and many more, the Old Testament not only foretells the coming of a king and kingdom to Israel, but also reveals this king would be full of grace.
You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever. Isaiah 45:2
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor… Isaiah 61:1-2
Based upon these verses, and others like them, the people of Israel were looking for the Messiah, or the Christ, to come. The were expecting the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures...this coming king and kingdom of peace.
This is the background people studying the book of John need to understand if they are to properly interpret and apply the book of John. The original audience of John certainly understood this, as did those whom he writes about.
In John chapter 1:1-18, John provides the introduction of his book by describing who Jesus is (the light and life of the world), what he was like (full of grace and truth). Additionally, he reveals that his own rejected him as the Messiah, but for those who did believe, they became children of God.
Starting in verse 19 through the end of his book, John tells the story of Jesus and the response of the people of Israel to him as the Messiah. In the book, he demonstrates to the reader that Jesus was the Messiah. Over and over he shows the people of Israel’s response to Jesus concerning whether or not he was truly the Messiah. They debated his true identity constantly. In John 19, they concluded he was not the Messiah, the king of Israel as foretold in the Old Testament Scriptures. Consequently, they called for his crucifixion.
As we read through the book of John, we discover that Jesus was indeed full of grace and truth. Jesus was full of grace to those who were humbled and broken over their sin, admitting their need for grace. Yet, he was full of truth to those who were proud of their religious activity and morality, this being the Pharisees who denied their need for grace.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these, starting with Jesus being full of grace to those humbled and broken by their sin.
In John 3:16-17, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he did not come into the world to condemn the world but to save the world. He told him that God loved the people of the world so much that anyone who believed he was the Messiah would have eternal life in his kingdom.
This invitation of grace startled Nicodemus because Nicodemus, a Pharisee, thought the only ones who would have everlasting life in God’s kingdom would be those who behaved in accordance with the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments. He believed those who did not adhere to the Ten Commandments would be not allowed entrance into the kingdom. Yet he finds Jesus making an offer of grace for entrance into the kingdom to anyone who believes.
The revelation of God’s love for everyone and this offer of grace to everyone was shocking to a Pharisee like Nicodemus. The entire life of a Pharisee was motivated by his desire to enter the kingdom of God. Every day the Pharisees would wake up with one goal in mind...to obey the Law of Moses so they could have everlasting life in God’s kingdom. Now he is learning the truth from Jesus that it is by belief not behavior that a person enters the kingdom.
In John 4, we see this beautiful offer of grace being made by Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus, knowing everything about her, offered her salvation apart from her behavior. She believed and then went and told her friends.
Throughout Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we find it was the prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners who received Jesus’ offer of grace and responded to his offer by repentance (acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, admitting their sin and they were powerless to overcome it, accepting his forgiveness, and allowing him to change their lives). One example of this is Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (Luke 19). Another example is the immoral woman in Luke 7 who received the grace of Jesus after walking directly into a Pharisee's’ house where Jesus was having dinner.
As Jesus lavished grace upon grace on those who were humbled and broken from their sin, the Pharisees found this to be repulsive. Here they were working hard everyday to obey the Law of Moses, but being denied entrance into God’s kingdom by Jesus. Yet the ones Jesus were allowing entrance into the kingdom of God were believing prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners who acknowledge his as Messiah, admitted their sin and powerlessness to overcome it, accepted his forgiveness, and allowed him to change their lives.
This outpouring of grace by Jesus upon the prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners prompted the Pharisees to question if Jesus really was the Messiah. Soon, they went from questioning if he really was the Messiah to vicious opposition to him as the Messiah. Their opposition to Jesus as the Messiah is vividly described to us by John in nearly every chapter of his book, as well as in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Much of the book of John is dedicated to the opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus’ response to them. They believed Jesus was a liar...a blasphemer...a phony...a false Messiah. They constantly downplayed his miracles and his healings which validated his claim as the Messiah. They criticized him harshly. They slandered him consistently.
In his book, John provides us with a front row seat into the Pharisees’ treatment of Jesus. He also provides us a front row seat into Jesus’ response to them. Jesus, in his response to the Pharisees, tells them the truth about who he is, the Messiah, and who they are, hypocrites.
To understand what John 1:14 and 17 mean, we must understand that the truth spoken of in these verses have absolutely nothing to do with balancing grace with the teaching on morality so people will not use grace as a license to sin, but everything to do with Jesus confronting the false beliefs of the Pharisees by telling them the truth about who he is and the truth about who they are.
The word truth is used about 50 times in the book of John. Around 25 times in the book of John, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth…” About 26 times when Jesus uses the word truth he is speaking directly to the Pharisees concerning his identity as the Messiah or their hypocrisy concerning their rejection of him as the Messiah, their self-righteousness, and their false claims to know the truth. He tells the Pharisees that the truth is not in them. His other uses of the word truth is when he is teaching his disciples and when he told the Samaritan woman that the day would come when people would worship in spirit and truth.
Jesus referenced truth with sin when using the word truth in the book of John to tell the Pharisees that they were still in their sins (John 8). He also used the word sin as unbelief in him as the Messiah (John 16:9). Jesus acknowledge the sin of the Samaritan woman by telling her he knew everything about her, but then demonstrated to the Samaritan woman the depths of his love and grace.
The main use of the word truth by Jesus in the book of John is to communicate to the Pharisees their denial of him as the Messiah and their denial of their own sin, while claiming to be in the truth and to know God. One strong truthful statement he told them was that they were of their Father the devil (John 8:44), calling them liars and murders.
What we discover in the book of John is that Jesus never balanced grace with truth in the way modern day legalists proclaim he did. Grace was how Jesus treated people who were humbled and broken from their sins, such as the prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. They knew they had sinned so Jesus was full of grace to them. This grace changed their lives.
Truth was what Jesus taught concerning his identity as the Messiah and his exposure of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in denying him as the Messiah and denying they were sinners, yet claiming to be in the truth and to know God.
Side note: John, in 1 John, uses the word truth in the same way. In John’s letters (1, 2, 3) he is delighted that the believers, children as he calls them, are walking in the truth and have not been deceived by the religious spiritual liars seeking to lead them away from believing the truth that Jesus is Messiah.
When the word grace is used, it is important to draw a distinction between the grace Jesus demonstrated during his earthly ministry and the grace he appointed Paul to share following his ascension into heaven. Grace in the earthly ministry of Jesus was his kind and forgiving disposition toward those who were broken from their sins. Grace in the ascended ministry of Jesus was the doctrine of truths concerning all that he had freely, fully, and forever done for the people of the world through his death, burial, and resurrection. These truths of grace centered around that a person is justified by faith alone through grace alone. These truths of grace also included the creation of one new family of grace where people were no longer under the Mosaic Law. These truths were first revealed by Jesus to Paul following Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 20:24, Ephesians 1-3). Theses truths of grace are found in Paul’s letters to the churches (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians 1 and 2 Thessalonians) and to those who were pastors of churches (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon).
The doctrines of grace that Jesus revealed to Paul contained the truths of his shed blood on the cross for the sins of the world and his resurrection from the dead to bring eternal life to the people of the world. It was these truths of grace that changed the lives of the Colossians the first day they heard the good news of grace in all its truth (Colossians 1:3-8).
One thing we never find in the Bible, whether from Jesus or Paul, is the idea of balancing grace with truth, meaning teaching on morality, out of fear someone may hear about grace and use grace as a license to sin. Jesus and Paul both understood the transformative power of grace in the life of a person humbled and broken from their sin. They both understood the power of grace to free a person from sin. They both understood that the law, the moral teachings of the 10 Commandments, could never free a person from their sins, but instead, caused people to sin more.
One instance in Jesus’ life the legalists love to point to as an example of Jesus “balancing grace with truth” is when he told the woman caught in adultery to leave her life of sin. Jesus, in his words to the woman, was not balancing grace with truth so the woman would not use his grace to her as a license to sin, as modern day legalists would have us believe. This woman had not come on her own to Jesus in repentance, meaning in response to his gracious disposition toward those humbled and broken by sin. Rather, she was dragged to him by the religious Pharisees to see what Jesus would do...give her grace or stone her to death, as prescribed by the law of Moses. Because she did not come to him with a repentant heart, he told her to go and leave her life of sin. Her ability to leave her life of sin would come from the grace he lavished on her.
Remember when the immoral woman fell at the feet of Jesus, weeping from the pain of her guilt and shame. Jesus responded to her by saying, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace” (Luke 7). In that instance, Jesus did not “balance grace with truth” to keep her from sinning because of the grace he lavished on her. Grace totally changed her heart because she came to him in a spirit of repentance where she acknowledged her sin, admitted she was powerless over it, accepted his forgiveness, and allowed Jesus to change her life.
Paul, in his letters, would first establish believers in the truths of grace. After establishing believers in the truths of grace, he would then teach on living a life of love and morality which flowed from a healthy understanding of grace. But he did not teach on living a life of love and morality to balance his message of grace.
Was it true that some used grace as a license to sin? Yes...see Jude 4.
Did Paul address the issue of using grace as a license to sin? Yes...see Romans 6. But Paul' teaching in Roman's 6 was not for the purpose of "balancing grace with truth". He was simply teaching on why someone should not use grace as a license to sin.
The reason some may have been tempted to use grace as a license to sin was because Paul never balance grace and truth or watered down grace with works, meaning the need for religious activity and morality plus faith to be justified. Yet if he discovered people abusing grace, he would respond to it immediately and truthfully.
Grace does not need to be balanced. Legalists, who attempt to balance grace with truth, as they call it, are actually watering down the message of grace and limiting the power of grace in the life of a believer with their teachings. This is the exact issue that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Galatians. The religious legalists had infiltrated the churches of Galatia and were watering down the message of grace that the ascended Jesus had revealed to Paul with works of the law.
Today, modern day legalistic Pharisees are doing the same thing. They are so afraid people will use grace as a license to sin that they say the message of grace needs to be “balanced with truth.” In saying this, they have no understanding of grace. Whether it is the grace Jesus demonstrated in his earthly ministry or the doctrines of grace he revealed to Paul in his heavenly ministry.
Like the person who told me I needed to balance grace with truth, modern day legalists will continue to show their lack of understanding of grace. They will continue to criticize and slander those who teach the good news of God’s grace. However, as Jesus and Paul did, we must continue to share God’s grace with as many people as possible, without watering it down by “balancing grace with truth” because we know the truth of grace changes the lives of people.
So what does it really mean that Jesus was full of grace and truth?
In the context of John, the grace Jesus was full of was his kindness and forgiveness to those who were broken and humbled by their sin such as the tax collectors and prostitutes who realized their need for grace. The truth he was full of was the truth he spoke to the Pharisees concerning his identity as the Messiah and their hypocrisy in claiming to be in the truth and to know God, yet rejecting him as the Messiah and denying they were sinners in need of grace.