Grace vs. Justice?
I have always been fascinated watching world class athletes perform on the balance beam. Watching them rise high off the beam and land with grace and pose, all the while realizing that I hadn’t let go of my last breath in anticipation of what would happen.
I remember playing gladiator as a child on a similar balance beam. However the beam we played on was situated over a foam filled pit. Two “gladiators” would hobble up into position onto the beam to see who could knock the other one off first. After a few awkward swings, all the while trying not to fall myself, one of the two would be thrown off by the blow of the padded stick.
Maybe those experiences created within me a fascination for the balance beam and those moments of jaw dropping excitement by the athletes on television. What am amazing level of precision they display.
Once down from the pulpit on a Sabbath, after preaching a sermon on the topic of grace, many individuals approached me and asked questions similar to the following; “We get grace, but what about calling sin by its rightful name?” “How do I hold people accountable to their displayed sin, if you are just telling me to treat them with grace?”
As I reflected on those conversations a question kept playing in my mind, “Are we people of balance?” I'll ask you, the reader, why do people always feel the need to take one extreme or the other on topics like this?
To navigate the balance beam successfully it takes years and years of practice and discipline to make it look even remotely natural. And even then, sometime those athletes come crashing down.
While I absolutely understood the questions those individuals were asking, I wonder, does it really have to be grace vs. justice? Do we need to set those two practices up in opposition to one another? As with many tough theological concepts, we tend to pit one against the other. We tend to encamp then on the side of the one we better grasp or the one that we have fonder experiences with.
To help navigate these questions, I had to ask myself a few more;
1. Was Jesus filled with Grace? Yes. The Bible tells us in John 1:14 that he was, “...full of grace.”
However as some might be tempted to point out, the same verse also says that He was, 'full of truth." As if meaning to say that grace is in opposition to truth. That only justice could equal truth.
But Jesus being fully filled with both always treated people in the right way.
2. Did Jesus emphasize truth when dealing with people? Always.
3. Did Jesus display justice? Yes. Many times He addressed right and wrong. (i.e. Matthew 21:12)
In reflecting on these questions it lead me to the most important one of them all;
When Jesus was extending grace, did He neglect justice?
I’d like to focus on John chapter 8 for just a moment with you.
The chapter begins in verse 1 by saying, "But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives." The religious leaders had just been trying to entrap Jesus, but they failed and the Bible says that each of them went to their own home. They gave up for the day. But then the next morning they were right back at it. I can imagine that they went back home and tried to figure out another way to trap Jesus with their "religious" wisdom. But while they are plotting and scheming, the Bible said that Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. In many places we know that Jesus would go there to connect with His Father. To spend time in prayer.
The chapter continues;
2 Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. 3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
12 Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”
John 8:1-12 (NKJV)
What a beautiful story.
Jesus knowing the hearts of those involved, knowing the motives of what they were trying to accomplish, allows individual convictions to outweigh the sin in the woman's life.
Was He ignoring her sin? No. He even tells her to "go and sin no more."
Maybe we land more on the side of grace or on the side of justice based on what part of this story we tend to focus most on.
Do you focus on, "neither do I condemn you," - grace or "go and sin no more," justice?
Do you focus more on the action she was caught in and subsequent punishment or on the fact that the only person who was in that company who had the right to throw a stone doesn't do so?
Do you wrestle with Jesus not saying more to the woman? Does that mean He didn't act justly in allowing conviction to set in for her? Did He miss His moment?
Reflecting on these things really causes us to search our own stories. To reflect on how grace and justice have been delivered to us.
Maybe the action filled with the highest justice is to extend grace when no one else is.
"But what if I don't say something?" "What if they think by my silence I am condoning their actions?"
Maybe the challenge we have with grace vs. justice centers around the fact we feel the need that our word is the only one that will bring about true conviction and subsequent lasting change.
Maybe we have a hard time balancing the fact that conviction doesn’t come from us, doesn’t depend on our timing and doesn’t always work the way we think it should.
Maybe this entire topic revolves around the fact at we simply trust God too little to believe He will bring conviction and He will supply the grace needed to act on that conviction.
Just because I embrace someone doesn’t mean that I condone what they are doing or how they are acting. Maybe they are not defined by what decisions they are making at that moment in time, but by the fact that they are a precious son or daughter of God, purchased with the blood of Jesus.
Could it be that the truest form of justice is wrapped up at the center of showing the level of grace that Jesus does to this woman caught in the very act of adultery?
"The woman had stood before Jesus, cowering with fear. His words, 'He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first,' had come to her as a death sentence. She dared not lift her eyes to the Savior’s face, but silently awaited her doom. In astonishment she saw her accusers depart speechless and confounded; then those words of hope fell upon her ear, 'Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.' Her heart was melted, and, bowing at the feet of Jesus, she sobbed out her grateful love, and with bitter tears confessed her sins.
This was to her the beginning of a new life, a life of purity and peace, devoted to God. In the uplifting of this fallen soul, Jesus performed a greater miracle than in healing the most grievous physical disease; He cured the spiritual malady that leads to eternal death. This penitent woman became one of His most steadfast followers. With self-sacrificing love and devotion she showed her gratitude for His forgiving mercy. The world had only contempt and scorn for this erring woman, but the Sinless One pitied her weakness and reached to her a helping hand. While the hypocritical Pharisees condemned, Jesus urged her, 'Go and sin no more.'
Jesus knows the circumstances of every soul. The greater the sinner’s guilt, the more he or she needs the Savior. His heart of divine love and sympathy is drawn out most of all for the one who is most hopelessly entangled in the snares of the enemy. With His own blood He has signed the emancipation papers of the race."
(The Ministry of Health and Healing. 40.5-7)
Today spend time in prayer, asking God to give you wisdom as you deal with people, administering both grace and justice.