Balancing Grace and Truth

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John 1:14, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Scriptures tell of a woman who had a transformative encounter with Jesus. Her story is found at the beginning of John 8. We don’t even know her name. She is simply known to us as “the woman caught in adultery.”


That’s the word that jumps out at me. “This woman has been caught.” The scribes and Pharisees keep saying this: “She’s been caught. What to do with this woman who has been caught?” She had violated the law and participated in breaking at least one set of covenant vows. Was she married? Was her partner married? Did both of them commit adultery? Where is he, by the way? How did they catch her and not her lover? There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered.

But it is undeniable that this woman has been caught in an act of sin and rebellion. Even the heading in my Bible tells me that this section is all about The Woman Caught in Adultery in big, bold font.

Wyatt is a middle-school student at our church. Not long ago, I caught Wyatt playing on his phone instead of listening to the speaker at our youth retreat. When I confronted him, Wyatt said, “I wasn’t playing on my phone. I was reading my Bible app.”

“No, you weren’t,” I said.

When he insisted that he had been reading his Bible, I said, “Okay, then show me what you were just doing on your phone.” A serious expression came across his face as he handed me his phone and I saw that he had been playing Angry Birds instead of listening to the Bible lesson. Wyatt had been caught.

And I much prefer to tell you that story — the story of someone else being caught — rather than confess the times I’ve been the one who was caught. That’s why I have sympathy for our sister here. Rather than referring to her as “the woman caught in adultery,” I want to suggest that instead we refer to her as “the woman caught in the grace and truth of Jesus.” I know that I don’t want to be remembered for the times I’ve been caught. I much prefer to be remembered for the way Jesus worked in my life.

In Jesus we see a perfect balance of grace and truth. He truthfully acknowledges this woman’s sin; indeed, it is on full display here. Yet, Jesus also graciously refuses to condemn her. And thankfully, He extends this same balance of grace and truth to us whenever we’re caught.

Truth without grace quickly becomes narrow legalism. Jesus indicts the Pharisees for making the Law burdensome to the people while neglecting the weightier matters of the law. Rule-keeping and being right had taken precedent over people. In their emphasis on the “letter of the law,” the Pharisees had not maintained “the spirit of the law.” Paul goes on to talk about this in 2 Corinthians. Speaking of the law, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Alternately, grace apart from truth can easily become soft permissiveness. Anything goes when we refuse to speak prophetically against sin for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. We expend a great deal of energy to avoid saying or doing anything that could be construed as offensive or insensitive. I have been guilty of this. But when “loving others” is reduced to simply being inoffensive, we’ve lost our prophetic witness. I guess we just think that people will be so bowled over by our sweetness and our niceness that they’ll eventually decide to follow Jesus.

But that approach doesn’t seem to be working. People need to hear the truth — truth spoken in love, yes; but truth spoken nonetheless. Jesus affirms the immorality of this woman’s lifestyle but He does so in grace.

I’m struck by the detail here that has captivated commentators for centuries: the fact that Jesus stoops down to write in the dirt. What did He write? Much ink has been spilled in response to this question. The reality is nobody knows and I don’t think it’s all that important. I find it much more fascinating that Jesus focused his attention down on the ground rather than upon the woman in front of Him. I don’t know this to be true, but I think there is a good chance that this woman was barely dressed or not dressed at all. We know that she has been “caught” in the act of adultery, so I doubt she had much time to put her clothes back on. It could be that Jesus averts His eyes away from her nakedness so as not to subject her to further shame. Jesus will not do anything that further diminishes the image of God in another person. In my opinion, that is why He looks down and starts writing in the dirt.

Whether that’s true or not, when Jesus makes the conditions of her punishment contingent upon the sinlessness of the accuser, the angry mob breaks up. Then Jesus asks her, “Has no one condemned you?” And she replies, “No one, sir.” Jesus says to her, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” The truth of the matter is that she was living in sin. But Jesus offers her the grace to go forward in new life.

In this exchange, you find that beautiful balance between truth and grace that we have come to know as the Good News of Jesus. Jesus never loses sight of the human being right in front of Him. There is much more at stake here than a discussion about the “issue” of adultery and the legality of punishment. A woman’s fate hangs in the balance — a woman caught in sin, yes; but at the same time, a woman created in the image of God.

Jesus extends both truth and grace to this woman. And it makes all the difference in her life.

And it makes all the difference in our lives as well.

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