What Is Truth?
Grace and Truth Confronts Postmodernism

John 1:16-18
By Greg Wright
Preached at Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville, Tennessee on February 3, 2008

I. Introduction


Good morning. Today will be the seventh sermon I have brought on the Gospel of John. As we have approached the end of John's prologue, I have thought deeply about the purpose of preaching, and this has resulted in me setting some goals. Every time I preach, whether it is just a written essay on the internet or an oral sermon presented here, I want to glorify God in at least one of five ways:

  1. By clarifying His word.
  2. By defending His character.
  3. By warning unbelievers to repent.
  4. By encouraging believers to stand firm in their faith.
  5. By equipping believers to withstand error.

My primary motivation for this sermon is the fifth goal -- equipping believers to withstand error. For something very precious is under attack. Truth is being assaulted. Truth is under siege. Someone might ask, "So what else is new? Hasn't this always been the case? Hasn't truth been continually under attack since the day the serpent in the Garden of Eden convinced Eve to distrust God?"


Yes, truth has continually been under attack, especially in terms of truth against error. But today truth is being attacked in a very different way. The attack today is no longer just falsehood claiming to be truth. Today's attackers say that there is no such thing as truth that applies to all people. Instead, they say that there is your truth and my truth, but there is no external standard by which we can judge between your truth and mine. When we speak of truth as an external standard it is called objective truth. It is said to be objective, because it exists outside of your personal preferences, feelings, and experiences. But now people are saying that there is no objective truth. There is only subjective truth. It is subjective, because it depends on your personal preferences, your feelings, and your experiences to exist. When Jesus stood before Pilate, Pilate asked, "What is truth?" I submit that if Jesus were to stand before Pilate today, Pilate would ask a different question. He would probably ask, "Whose truth is it?"


Somewhat might counter, "Okay, maybe you are right in saying that the concept of objective truth is being denied, but so what! After all, we are in a Reformed Baptist Church. People would not even be here voluntarily unless they believed in objective truth, would they? So why bother with this issue?"


One reason, truth is a central doctrine in the Gospel of John. If we do not understand the different ways the Bible speaks of truth, we will be confused by some of John's writings. Another reason, not only is the secular world confused about truth, but many Christians are confused as well. Therefore, we will be addressing truth from three perspectives:

  1. Truth according to the world.
  2. Truth according to the Bible.
  3. Truth according to John's prologue.


II. Truth According to the World


A. Modernism.


In discussing truth according to the world, we'll start with modernism, which began in the late nineteenth century. In modernism, truth was attacked by doing away with the authority of the Bible. People still believed in God, but they no longer believed that the Bible explained God. Instead, they sought to know God through religious experience and psychology.


B. Secular humanism.


Then came secular humanism. In secular humanism, truth was attacked by doing away with God altogether. For people soon discovered that mere religious experience and psychology could not bring back the traditional understanding of God. Consequently, they decided that there was no need to retain God as a concept. Human experience without regard to religion became the means for understanding truth.


C. Pragmatism.


Also emerging out of the late nineteenth century was pragmatism. Sproul refers to pragmatism as America's only homegrown philosophical movement. In pragmatism truth is whatever works. If it accomplishes the results you want, then it is truth.


D. Postmodernism.


Then came postmodernism. What is postmodernism? While it has some things in common with the movements I just mentioned, it especially stands out for its claim that truth is entirely subjective.


What are its beliefs?

Postmodernists claim that truth does not exist outside of the minds of people in a particular culture or community. Here is a summary of some of their beliefs. We will discuss these beliefs in detail, but I'll list them first.

How do its beliefs compare with scripture?

Is postmodernism compatible with Biblical Christianity? Let's examine what scripture has to say about each of its major beliefs.


Postmodernism says that truth is subjective. Compare this to Isaiah 40:8 which says, "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever." If God's word stands forever, it does not depend on anyone's opinion about it. It is not subjective; it is objective.


Postmodernism says that all truth claims are equally valid. Compare this to the Bible which speaks of false Gods, for example, Judges 10:6-7:

And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim, and Ashtaroth, and the gods of Syria, and the gods of Zidon, and the gods of Moab, and the gods of the children of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines, and forsook the LORD, and served not him. And the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel, and he sold them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the children of Ammon.

Postmodernism says that truth claims are the construction of a community. Compare this to the Bible where in Exodus 31:18 we read, "When He [God] had finished speaking with him [Moses] upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God." If the law was written by the finger of God it was not the construction of a community.


Postmodernism distrusts written documents, including the Bible. Compare this to the Bible where Christ appeals to the scriptures in order to validate His claims of deity. One example is Psalm 40:7-8, where Christ was predicted, "Then I said, "Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God; your Law is within my heart." So it was that Jesus said in John 5:39-40, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life." Bottom line: we should trust the scriptures, because Jesus did.


Postmodernism mistreats written documents, inserting whatever meaning they like. Compare this to the Bible where we read in Leviticus 18:4, "You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the LORD your God." Not only were people expected to obey God's statutes, they were expected to know what God meant when those statutes were given. They were not free to insert their own meaning into the text.


Postmodernism resents those who claim that the Bible is objective truth. That people would be like this was predicted in 2 Timothy 4:3 where we read, "The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths."


Postmodernism values community and relationships above truth. Scripture firmly condemns these priorities. One example is Luke 6:26, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way." Again, John 6:43, "Many even of the rulers believed in Him [that is Christ], but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God."


At this point it should be clear that the postmodern view of truth is unbiblical. Now we will more closely examine how the Bible speaks of truth.



III. Truth According to the Bible


The Bible speaks of truth in at least three ways:

  1. Truth as facts.
  2. Truth as fullness.
  3. Truth as faithfulness.

A. Truth as fact.


First we will consider truth as facts. Truth as facts deals with how our declarative statements correspond to reality. Of course, not all of our statements are declarative statements. If my boss asks me to update a spreadsheet by the end of the day, that is not a declarative statement; that's an order. If my wife asks me what I would like for dinner, that's not a declarative statement; that's a question. Similarly, if someone asks me where Hartsville, Tennessee is located, that is a question. But when I answer that Hartsville is located in Trousdale County, I have made a declarative statement, and because my statement corresponds to reality -- Hartsville really is in Trousdale County -- then what I said is true. What I said is a fact. This is the kind of truth that most people think about when you ask them "What is truth?" They think about declarative statements that correspond to reality.


We find truth as facts all over scripture:

B. Truth as fullness.


These are just a few examples of truth as facts. But we also have truth as fullness. This fullness takes a variety of forms. It can be truth as fullness with respect to types, genuineness, satisfaction, explanation, or compliance. Let's consider each of these:

C. Truth as faithfulness.


Those are some of the ways we see truth as fullness in the Bible. Next we come to truth as faithfulness. We use truth in this way in our common expressions. True love is a love that endures for a lifetime. A true friend is a friend who loves you no matter what.


The true love of God -- that longsuffering, covenant love that continues in spite of our wanderings, in spite our going astray -- is often conveyed through the Hebrew word chesed. Chesed means goodness or kindness. God is not only good and kind, but He is also faithful. The faithfulness of God is often conveyed through the Hebrew word emeth. Emeth means firmness or faithfulness or truth. In many cases, chesed and emeth occur together, and I want to note seven verses where that happens. For these particular verses I will use the English Standard Version. In that version, for these verses, chesed is translated as steadfast love, and emeth is translated as faithfulness. Thus we have:

Other translations of these verses follow different patterns regarding chesed and emeth. In the King James, Exodus 34:6 uses goodness and truth, and in the other verses I listed, the King James uses mercy and truth. Emeth is translated as truth. Similarly, although the NASB uses lovingkindness for chesed, emeth is translated as truth. Even the Holman Christian Standard, which uses faithful love for chesed in these verses, translates emeth as truth. In contrast, the NIV uses the more generic word love for chesed, but it follows the pattern of the ESV in using faithfulness for emeth. I believe that all of these translations are right. The translators differed merely in how precisely they decided to go into the meanings of these two words. The ESV translators, in the context of these verses, went deeper than the others, by translating chesed as steadfast love and by translating truth as faithfulness. By translating truth as faithfulness, they have shown that faithfulness is, indeed, one of the ways that the word truth is to be understood in the Bible.


So in summary, the Bible uses truth in at least three ways:

  1. Truth as facts.
  2. Truth as fullness.
  3. Truth as faithfulness.


IV. TruthAccording to John's Prologue


Now, at last, we are ready to examine the use of the word truth at the end of John's prologue. So please turn to the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Truth is a central concept in John's gospel. We will not see the word grace again after verse seventeen, but we will see the word truth many times in the following chapters, so we need to understand it. Looking now at John 1:16-18; we read:

For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

At least five questions come to mind as I consider this passage:

  1. In what sense is the law being compared to grace and truth?
  2. In what sense is the method for bringing the law being compared to the method for bringing grace and truth?
  3. In what sense is grace and truth connected to fullness?
  4. In what sense are Jesus' qualifications to explain God connected to grace and truth?
  5. In what sense do we find grace and truth in the person and work of Christ?

A. In what sense is the law being compared to grace and truth?


When we compare the law to grace and truth, let us be assured that it is not a comparison of opposites. The law was not without grace. For hundreds of years the nations that surrounded Israel served false Gods. Only Israel knew the true God. Only Israel knew how to please God. It was only by the grace of God that Israel had the law. Consider 2 Samuel 7:23-24:

And what one nation on the earth is like Your people Israel, whom God went to redeem for Himself as a people and to make a name for Himself, and to do a great thing for You and awesome things for Your land, before Your people whom You have redeemed for Yourself from Egypt, from nations and their gods? For You have established for Yourself Your people Israel as Your own people forever, and You, O LORD, have become their God.

Nor was the law false. For we read in Psalm 19:7-9, "The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether."


Nor was grace and truth missing in the Old Testament. The phrase grace and truth seems to point back to the lovingkindness and faithfulness that we find in Exodus 34:6 and several other places.


Nor does John seem to be taking on issues of continuity and discontinuity between law in the Old Testament and law in the church the way Paul does. John is probably aware of this issue, but he does not seem to deal with it in his gospel or his epistles. For example, he does not address the discontinuation of circumcision, sacrifices, and other aspects of the ceremonial law.


If it is not a comparison of opposites, then what kind of comparison is it? I believe that it is a comparison of stages where one stage builds upon another. Of course, people have always been saved by grace through faith, even under Moses. Their faithfulness demonstrated their faith. Nevertheless, the law, the preliminary stage, came to make people more aware of their sinfulness and their inability to be fully reconciled to God on their own. It came to prepare people for grace. Grace and truth, the following stage, does not mean very much to a person unless he knows he needs it. Paul speaks of the law as a tutor. In Galatians 3:24 he writes, "The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ." The law clarifies just how sinful we are. In Romans 7:7 Paul says, "I would not have come to know sin except through the Law." Even the ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, seems to have been designed to reawaken a consciousness of sin among people. The law as a tutor prepared people's hearts for the arrival of grace and truth. People in the Old Testament looked forward by faith to the ultimate realization of grace and truth that would come through the Messiah.


B. In what sense is the method for bringing the law being compared to the method for bringing grace and truth?


Note the difference between how the law came about and how grace and truth came about. The law was given through the mediator Moses. It was his job to teach the law and to enforce it. Part of the law was the religious ceremonies that required animal sacrifices. On the other hand, grace and truth came through Jesus. Jesus also taught, but note the difference. Moses taught people how to prepare sacrifices. Jesus had to be the sacrifice. He had to sacrifice Himself.


C. In what sense is grace and truth connected to fullness?


Last time, looking back at the sixteenth verse, we talked about fullness with respect to the deity of Christ and the abundance of grace. To this understanding of fullness, we must now add another sense of the word: fullness as an expression of truth. In the New Testament, we see a movement from types to fulfillment. A type prefigures something about the person and work of Christ. The practice of animal sacrifices in the Old Testament was a type that pointed to the ultimate and final sacrifice that Jesus would make on the cross. We see truth as fullness when we move from types to fulfillment. Hebrews 10:1 helps us here, but instead of the word type, it uses the word shadow. It says, "For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near." Colossians 2:17 refers to the Old Testament economy as "things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance [the fullness] belongs to Christ."


D. In what sense are Jesus' qualifications to explain God connected to grace and truth?


We note the comparison of Jesus to other men in verse eighteen. No one understands the Father like Jesus. No one can see the Father and live. Even Isaiah's vision was most likely a vision of Christ rather than a vision of the Father -- see John 12:41. But Jesus had been in the very bosom of the father. He had been intimately acquainted with the Father. We now understand how grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. Why do we understand? We understand, because Jesus has explained it. He has revealed the nature of God as it pertains to grace and truth, and He has revealed the plan of God as it pertains to our salvation.


E. In what sense do we find grace and truth in the person and work of Christ?


Jesus did not just teach grace and truth -- He lived it. With that in mind, what kind of truth are we finding in John 1:16-18? Is it truth as fact? Is it truth as fullness? Is it truth as faithfulness? Or is it all three? Consider our text again:

For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

I think we find all three in the person and work of Christ. In fact, I think we have to say that there is, in fact, a fourth way that truth is understood in scripture. Truth is sometimes understood as a person, just as we read in John 14:6, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me."


In the personhood of Jesus we find truth as fact, truth as fullness, and truth as fulfillment.


Truth as fact.

First, we find truth as fact in Jesus. It is one thing to wish grace upon someone -- to wish them well. But Jesus did much more. If Jesus had not lived a perfect life and become a perfect sacrifice, the grace that was promised would not have been true grace. It would not have been factual. It would have been merely unfulfilled promises. By fulfilling all that was required for us to receive saving grace, Jesus established saving grace as a historical fact.


Truth as fullness.

Second, we find truth as fullness in Jesus. We find this in many ways:

Truth as faithfulness.

Thirdly, we find truth as faithfulness in Jesus. The faithful love that was associated with chesed and emeth in the Old Testament is seen in Jesus when He says, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:7) This is all that goodness, mercy, and love were in the Old Testament. This is lovingkindness in its fullest expression. This is faithfulness to the bitter end, and what a bitter end the cross was for our blessed Savior. Verse seventeen says grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. They were realized when our faithful Savior faced the cross and triumphed over it.



V. Truth and Pilate's Question


But the grace and truth of Jesus did not end at the cross. That was only the beginning. Grace and truth continues its forward march as again and again, people find the truth in Jesus.


So where does that bring us? You have seen the world's current, prevailing views of truth -- that truth is subjective. Truth is whatever you want it to be. And there is no objective criteria for preferring one person's truth over another person's truth. Do you agree with the world's understanding of truth?


You have also seen what the Bible has to say about truth. Truth is objective. It is whatever God says is true. Truth is discussed in the Bible in at least three ways: truth as fact, truth as fullness, and truth as faithfulness.


Finally, you have seen the biblical understanding of truth applied in the Gospel of John with respect to grace and truth, where the grace that was promised is true grace because of the faithfulness of Jesus.


What, then, is truth? This is the question that Pilate asked in John 18:38 as Jesus stood before him. What is the answer to Pilate's question?


Postmodernists are inconsistent in how they answer this question. We have already noted that postmodernists especially value relationships and community. Just like us, they want to have stable marriages and faithful friends. Are you leaning towards postmodernism? If so, I would like to ask you some questions. How would you feel if your spouse betrayed you? What if your spouse were unfaithful in marriage? What if your spouse lied to you? What if your spouse stole from you and ran up your credit cards? Would you feel betrayed? Would you feel like you had been wronged? On what grounds? Maybe your spouse does not think you have been wrongfully treated? There is your spouse's truth and there is your truth. Where is the objective standard in postmodernism for deciding between the two?


Let's take this to the national level. Was it wrong to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and kill thousands of people. Why was it wrong? The terrorists had their truth -- they thought they were serving Allah. Where is the objective standard for deciding between their truth and your truth?


Jesus tells you where that objective standard is. Ultimately, the Bible is the objective standard. Nevertheless, even for people who do not believe the Bible, at least in part, there is an objective standard that is written on people's hearts. In your heart, you know it is wrong for your spouse to betray you, and in your heart, you know it is wrong to kill innocent people. Even as we read in Romans 2:15 people without the law "show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them."


Thus, you intuitively know that there is such a thing is objective truth, and if there is objective truth, then standing behind that truth there is an objective God to whom you are responsible. Today Jesus stands before you as grace and truth. Tomorrow He will stand before you as judgment and truth. Today He holds out light and life. Tomorrow He will hold out darkness and death. You can have grace today, or you can have judgment tomorrow. The choice is yours. You can go on asking what is truth the way Pilate did, or you can submit to the truth and come to Jesus.


Let us pray: Lord, mine is such a mere whimper of a voice to be taking on the heresy of postmodernism, a spiritual blindness that holds most of the civilized world in its grip. Yet, it is in your power to open the eyes of the blind. Help us to hold fast to objective truth, and give us wisdom as we interact with those who deny it. Amen.