I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22b).
A few weeks ago I was wrestling with 1 Corinthians 9, admiring how Paul could craft practical wisdom in concise ways. I was writing a sermon series on simplicity and trying to grasp the deeper truths present, but elusive to my limited mind. It is ironic that simplicity can be so complicated.
My focus was 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where Paul discusses a very practical issue for his time regarding food offered to idols. However, this practical discussion was immediately followed by a discourse on personal rights, priorities, attitudes, and purposes. The contextual flow of the passage was nagging at me. Something important was trying to reveal itself.
Paul had "become all things to all people so that by all possible means [he] might save some." Why couldn't he just make a ruling on what should be done? The Christians in Corinth wanted a simple yes or no about the issues up for debate, but he refused to offer a mandate. Rather, Paul suggested that questions of should we or shouldn't we be considered in a greater context of the tension between grace and truth.
As a Christian and pastor, I want simplicity. I live in a complex culture that pressures me to have answers and expects me to have clear, culturally sensitive, and biblically accurate declarations about a myriad of life's issues. Faced with a similar expectation, however, Paul takes a position that is not simple, but very enlightening.
Paul's "all things to all people" is a declaration of grace and truth.
On one end of the continuum is the incredible beauty of God's grace. He loves me and while I was still a sinner He died for me. As much as I often feel that God likes me better on my good days than on my bad days, I choose to believe that God just loves me—so much, in fact, that He sent His Son to die for me at my worst. That's grace.
The fact that He meets my failures, stubbornness, and chronic shortcomings with compassion and forgiveness is a truth I find hard to receive. I am His beloved in the good times and the bad. He invites me to new life, fresh starts, breaks with the past, and a life free of guilt and self-loathing. That's grace.
On the other end of the continuum is truth. God's Word is life-giving, powerful, and true. His Word, according to Proverbs chapter three, is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path, guiding me through this pilgrimage called life. If I listen and obey, He promises to lead me. More than that, His Word is life! No wonder Jesus reminded us that if we love Him we will obey His commands.
So how did Paul become all things to all people? He lived in the tension between grace and truth. Trying to answer the complex questions of life pulls us back and forth between grace and truth.
Sometimes the answers to the questions confronting us and society pull us toward grace, leaning on God's understanding, patience, and unending willingness to forgive. Yet, at other times, the answers pull us toward truth, seeking biblical answers with irrefutable arguments.
If I am not careful, my desire for simplicity can push me to live exclusively in either grace or truth.
- Living exclusively on the grace side offers an impression of a loving and tolerant God, who even indulges disobedience.
- Living exclusively on the truth side offers an impression of a stoic, legalistic God, who is more interested in rules than relationship.
Neither is biblically accurate.
My discomfort in grinding through Paul's work was a reminder that living in truth without grace, or grace without truth, distorts the very image of God. Only God can hold grace and truth in perfect balance.
God must be at the center of the tension.
God's balance of grace and truth in perfect tension is the heart of biblical transformation and the core of hopeful redemption. When grace and truth are held in this godly balance, there is real hope for change. The law, with all of its attempts to leave nothing to interpretation, could never accurately portray the beauty of a God full of grace and truth.
For me this is not a theoretical discussion. Every meaningful conversation is really a balance of truth and grace. Every healthy relationship experiences a fair share of each. Every healthy church and follower of Christ lives in the tension.
We have been entrusted with a staggering responsibility. Paul sums it up with these words, "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us" (2 Corinthians 5:20a).
Letting God make His appeal through me means living in the tension between grace and truth. God is neither indulgent nor harsh, but I am not God. To live life in that tension, I must keep my focus on Christ, who lived every day in both grace and truth and then said, "In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
Consider these thoughts:
It is ironic that simplicity can be so complicated.
- Paul suggested that questions of should we or shouldn't we be considered in a greater context of the tension between grace and truth.
- When grace and truth are held in this godly balance, there is real hope for change.
- God is neither indulgent nor harsh, but I am not God. To live life in that tension, I must keep my focus on Christ.
Dave Roberts is senior pastor of Montrose, California, Church of the Nazarene. He and his wife, Cyndi, and their four daughters live in Glendale, California.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2011