The Grace and Truth Paradox: Responding with Christlike Balance. By Randy Alcorn. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003. 93 pp. Cloth. $9.99.
Popular author Randy Alcorn has tackled an important subject. In the prologue of John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
This book could easily be called a pamphlet or booklet. It is just 4.5 by 6.5 inches. The actual text is printed in 3.25 by 4.75 inches. Thus this book is not much bigger than a stack of 47 3”X5” cards.
In spite of its size, this book contains some worthwhile material. In the first chapter Alcorn argues that to be Christlike we must be full of both grace and truth. The second chapter essentially covers the same ground with different illustrations. However, the title of second chapter is confusing: “Essential and Inseparable.” The title says they are inseparable. Yet in the chapter, and in the whole book, Alcorn shows that one can have either one separately. What he seems to mean is that they can not be separated in order for one to be pleasing to God. For example, in the conclusion to chapter 2 he writes, “So we have to make a choice. Are we going to spend our lives trying to please the grace-haters or the truth-haters? Or are we going to seek to please the only One whose judgment seat we’ll stand before: Jesus, who is full of grace and truth” (p. 26).
Alcorn has separate chapters on “What Is Grace?” and on “What Is Truth?” Unfortunately, both are short on biblical support.
The author doesn’t discuss the field of meaning of charis, the Greek word translated “grace” in the NT. Its major meanings are “favor,” “gift,” and “thanks.” We aren’t told that. Instead we find anecdotes about people like Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame. Indeed, I couldn’t find a definition of grace in the chapter or book. This is about as close as he gets to a definition: “What relief [it is] to realize that my salvation cannot be earned by good works—and therefore can’t be lost by bad ones” (p. 32).
The same can be said concerning his explanation of truth. We find no definition, just illustrations and a few verses that have the word truth in them. Of course, truth is reality. It is the opposite of falsehood and unreality. Truth is what actually is.
Evidently recognizing the need for more explanation of what these terms mean, the chapters explaining the nature of grace and truth are followed by chapters entitled, “A Closer Look at Grace,” and “A Closer Look at Truth.” While there still isn’t much help on what grace is, the closer look at truth suggests that lying is a big problem in America today and that lying is the opposite of telling the truth. He also discusses the postmodern understanding of truth that is prevalent on college campuses today: “What’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me” (p. 57, italics his). He then says, “Such silly statements are routine on some campuses. What’s even sillier is that parents and students invest vast amounts of tuition money for the privilege of hearing them” (p. 57). This is helpful.
JOTGES readers will search in vain for clarity on the gospel. He does say that our salvation (he means justification) cannot be earned or lost by works, as I indicated above. In a few places he mentions faith as the condition of salvation. However, he never defines faith and never states precisely what must be believed. Worse still, in a few places he seems to throw in other conditions besides faith in Christ.
For example, he discusses a man who has trouble believing “that someone could live a selfish, no-good life, then repent on his deathbed and go to heaven. It just sounds too cheap” (p. 81). We would expect to find a discussion of faith as the only condition of eternal life at this point. Clearly the man speaking understood repentance as turning from sins. Yet we don’t find this. Instead, after explaining that salvation is undeserved, Alcorn goes on to say that “any concept of grace that makes us feel more comfortable about sinning is not biblical grace. God’s grace can never encourage us to live in sin; on the contrary, it empowers us to say no to sin and yes to truth. It’s the polar opposite of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’” (p. 82; see also pp. 66-67). Note this similar statement: “Grace raises the bar, but it also enables us to joyfully jump over that bar” (p. 67). While I certainly agree that grace doesn’t encourage sin, Alcorn goes over to the commitment-salvation camp when he favorably cites Bonhoeffer concerning cheap grace and when he speaks of grace raising the bar.
Alcorn gives the story of him leading his own Dad to faith in Christ (pp. 58-60). The account is revealing. He indicated he prayed that his Dad would “turn to Christ.” He read from Romans 3 and 6 and showed him that we all are sinners and then asked his dad, “Have you ever confessed your sins and asked Jesus Christ to forgive you?” We aren’t told this is required for everyone, but that seems to be the point. Then Alcorn says, “My father prayed aloud, confessed his sins, and placed his faith in Christ.” While we can rejoice that Alcorn speaks of placing one’s faith in Christ, it is unfortunate that it is linked with confession of sins and that there is no explanation of what he believed about Jesus.
One other bit of confusion about faith in Christ came out when he implied that Pro-Life people are believers and Pro-Choice people are unbelievers! People in Alcorn’s church regularly picketed abortion clinics. One Sunday a few years ago “three proabortion groups decided to join forces and give our church ‘a taste of our own medicine’” (p. 24). Alcorn, the Pastor at the time, got donuts and coffee and spent an hour and half giving out food and drink and talking with protestors. Then some street preachers “with signs shouting hell and damnation showed up to take on the abortion activists. Their message contained truth, but their approach lacked grace.” Alcorn calls these street preachers “Christian brothers” (p. 25). And he calls the Pro-Choice picketers “radically liberal nonbelievers” (p. 25). Are we to understand that all Pro-Choice people are unregenerate and going to hell? Are those who say that those who favor abortion are damned to hell really giving a message that contains truth? Is that not a false gospel? While I am Pro-Life, I feel we must take great care not to even hint that one cannot be Pro-Choice and regenerate.
The relationship between grace and truth in justification and sanctification are important topics. While I wish for a better treatment of the subject, I recommend this book for the discerning reader. Possibly it will spur pastors and Sunday school teachers and Bible study leaders to prepare and present messages that do a better job of explaining grace and truth.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society