John 1:17 “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
The first chapter of the Gospel of John is an ontological passage of scripture, meaning it deals directly with the nature of being and reality. Verses 1 – 4 sum up the entire worldview of Christianity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of mankind.” This is the essential nature of reality for the Christian. It is the premise from which we reason about and communicate our faith. God is the center of not just our reality, but all reality, and thus, the only good and right way in which to exist is to be in right relationship to God.
The history of Judaism, and later Christianity, is the story of humanity being restored to right relationship with God. This is why John 1:17 makes this statement: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The obvious contrast to focus on in this verse is the contrast between law and grace. Paul gives us dozens of references to the functions of the law and grace in the old and new covenants, saying things like “you are no longer under the law, but under grace.” But to read John 1:17 in this light leaves an incomplete understanding of the given contrast. John does not simply contrast the law to grace; he contrasts the law to grace and truth. What does that mean? It means that the law cannot show you the truth, but grace can.
Grace has the ability to point humanity to truth. Not religious truth, but existential truth. Reality. The big picture. The final and ultimate absolute. Rules have no such ability because rules are finite. They leave the existential questions open ended. With nothing but rules to guide them, people fill in the answers to existential questions themselves. We create little microcosms of reality by extrapolating patterns from the laws provided, both religiously and practically. In these microcosms we audition different virtues as the truth of that version of reality. Personal gain, ambition, and dozens of other equally limited concepts begin to motivate people in the absence of access to an existential truth to act as a compass. “Without a vision, the people perish,” Proverbs 29:18 says. The vision is truth. Without it, humanity flounders until it drowns in false realities. The law is a life-preserver, but grace is the boat and truth is the destination.
The saddest thing about this is that this isn’t just an explanation of the history of philosophy; this is the history of Christian religion. When Christianity is reduced to a list of rules for behavior, it forgets that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” and returns to the inferior structure, the law, for support and identity. Christianity in the West today often looks like it has no clue that the absolute meaning of life has been revealed, gift wrapped, and handed to us.
Grace and truth, then, are the two most important terms in Christianity. The conscientious Christian, then, should be ravenous for understanding in these areas. What is Grace? How does it relate to Truth? How are they embodied in the person of Jesus Christ?