Evangelism Theology

An Open Letter to Tullian Tchividjian (and Liberate)

An Open Letter to Tullian Tchividjian

This is a response to a response to my review of Tullians book – earlier on this blog .  You can get the original review here –   http://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/boring-grace-a-review-of-one-way-love-inexhaustible-grace-for-an-exhausted-world/

And the response from ‘Liberate’ here – http://liberate.org/2013/11/06/two-way-love/

Also don’t forget the original book – One Way Love, Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World. 

Dear Tullian,

Sorry for responding in this way but I feel that I first of all owe you an apology, and this is the only way I know how to do that and at the same time continue ‘the conversation’.  My apology is simple.  I did not mean to add to your woes or give your detractors another bullet!  I know what it’s like to get those!    I was just simply writing a review of your book with no personal or other agenda.  And I certainly have no desire to get involved in American Church politics – my head is done in with the Scottish version!

I am also grateful for the response from ‘Liberate’.  Forgive me but I had no idea who Liberate were, but clearly they are closely tied into your ministry and therefore I don’t think it is unfair of me to take their understanding as being yours – especially since you tweeted it to me!   I am actually grateful for the opportunity to continue the discussion and at least ensure that we are not, as some feared, talking past one another.  Please forgive me in advance if I get anything wrong here (as I am sure I will).  I am only engaging in the dangerous practice of thinking out loud and asking questions.  It’s the only way I can learn.

 Grace Demands?

So let me deal with a couple of the issues that Liberate responds to.  Firstly lets talk about your statement that Grace does not make demands, it just gives.   Liberate cites my response ‘  “This does not really make sense to me.  Is not ‘take up your cross and follow me’ a demand?  Go sell all that you have and give to the poor, is that not a demand?”  Liberates response?

“Well, yes. Of course those are demands. But why is Robertson so sure they are grace? God’s word, said the reformers, is law and gospel. Jesus, as the Word made flesh, speaks and embodies both. It is therefore right to say Jesus makes demands, but this is not the same thing as saying grace makes demands. To say that grace makes demands is to confuse the categories of law and gospel.”

I found that very confusing.  Because when I read the Bible I find that all Gods demands are gracious and grace.  I read that Jesus Christ is full of grace and truth – and I don’t regard him as having a split personality.  Is there any word or action of Christ which is not grace?   Not in a biblical sense.  In order to make the distinction you do, you have to redefine the word ‘grace’ to such an extent that it just does not fit the scriptural use.   It’s a bit like the old ‘false’ dichotomy that people made between the love of God and the justice of God.  I could never understand why it was considered unloving for God to be just!  Or unjust for God to be love!  And I just don’t buy into the law and the Gospel of God as being ‘job descriptions’.  Justice and Grace are not ‘jobs’; they are attributes of God, all the time.   I think the other danger here is that Liberate divorces ‘grace’ from God as though it was something that could exist without God.  I don’t accept that any more than I accept you can divorce love from God.

Liberate says the failure to distinguish the law and the gospel always means the abandonment of the gospel because the law gets softened into helpful tips for practical living whilst the gospel gets hardened into a set of moral and social demands we must live out.  I liked that.  But when I think about it, it kind of makes me wonder just how bad preaching must be in the US church!  Is that all there is – moralistic therapeutic deism or legalism?     And it’s too simplistic a formula.  It also all depends on what you mean by law, and gospel. Did Jesus fail to distinguish between law and gospel when he said; if you love me you will keep my commands?   Was the Sermon on the Mount, law or gospel?  Was it helpful tips for practical living or a set of social and moral demands we must live out?  I am not really sure that this hard and fast distinction between law and gospel actually works, because I am not sure it is absolutely biblical.  When you use the word ‘law’ are you referring to the law of Moses, the law as in the Word of God, or the law as indicating the justice and character of God There is no doubt that the term law is used in different ways in the Bible, but in the sense of the just and fair expression of the character of God, I think that this is as much part of the Good News as anything. I delight in the law of God. I rejoice, not only that it exists, but also that my Saviour has fulfilled every last drop of its requirement for me.

But to return to the idea that grace makes no demands.  That’s not the way the bible reads. Grace demands that those who are saved live a holy life (2 Timothy 1:9).  Grace makes the most incredible demands on me because Christ who is grace makes those demands – I am to repent, take up my cross and follow him.  I am to be prepared to lose my life for his sake.

One Way Love 

now we come on to the phrase that Liberate loves.  He (she?) says, “The first thing to say here is simply that the phrase “one way love” is not an attempt to describe the entirety of the divine-human relationship”.   You are using it as a definition of grace, following Paul Zahl.  Again I don’t accept that the divine human relationship is anything other than grace.  I don’t accept that there is or can be any true relationship without Gods grace.   And therefore I cannot accept this somewhat subtle distinction that One Way Love describes something that is grace and that there is something in the relationship other than grace.   Really?   Why is two way love not grace?  The grace that enables me to say yes to Jesus and no to ungodliness.   When the Bible says we love because he first loved us, it is describing two-way love. There really is no way round that.

I agree completely however with Liberates second point, the one that really matters.   Gods’ love is unconditional; it is the source, motive and action of our salvation.  We do not and cannot earn it.   He loves because He is Love.  And this is indeed what the Christian theological tradition has been saying for the past 2000 years.   But I don’t agree that ‘One Way Love’ is just another way of saying that.   I may be a bit old fashioned but I am always wary of people coming along and saying we have got a new way of teaching an old truth.  Why did Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon etc. not think of using the phrase ‘One Way Love?  Maybe because it is so open to confusion and because it is not biblical.

I did think it intriguing and telling that Derrida was used by Liberate to justify this strange use of the English language.  Derrida of course is the patron saint of post-modernism and especially deconstructionism. To cite his Given Time as somehow helpful in the debate about the definition of biblical grace is less than helpful.  I don’t think the Reformers were answering Derrida.  They actually believed that words had meaning. I don’t think at all that he is even a remote challenge to Christian conceptions of grace and I would certainly not redefine my definition of grace to answer Derrida.  Incidentally I think one of the problems here is the way that people even within the Church, have become very post-modern in their use of language.  We hear what we want to hear.  We take out our own meaning.  In my view that is something we should resist.  However hard it may be.

Take up your Cross.

I was really curious by Liberates footnote to his response.   “A saying like “take up your cross” can be a word of wrath to the Old Adam: “You must die!” The same saying, however, spoken by the crucified one who took up my cross, can be a word of life: “You are dead”—that is, crucified with Christ.”   That is an extraordinary case of eisegeis (reading into the Word) rather than exegesis (reading out of). Matthew 16: 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.   Using Liberate’s understanding this actually means, you have already denied yourself, you are dead and you are following.  To which any normal logical person would reply – that’s great.  If I have already done it, then I don’t need to do it.  This is classic neo-Barthianism as I have experienced it here in Scotland.  I remember Tom Torrance and Donald Macleod debating at Rutherford House, in what was a wonderful example of deep theological thinking combined with biblical practicality.  I will never forget asking Torrance (in my confusion about what he was saying) “Prof Torrance, see that gardener outside the window.  If I tell him the Gospel do I tell him you need to be saved, or you are saved?”  He responded “you are saved.”   So the Gospel is telling people they are saved?  Saying take up your cross is really saying you have already done so?    I like the old school of philosophy called Scottish common sense philosophy.  If it waddles like a duck, swims like a duck and quakes like a duck then I think it probably is a duck.  Likewise if Jesus says ‘take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me’, I think he means ‘take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me”.  I don’t think he means you have already done this!

But having said all that.  From Liberates response to my review, there really is not all that much we would disagree about.  I don’t like the attempt to find something new, radical etc. to bring about the new Reformation we both desire, and I don’t agree with the idea that grace and law are two different jobs of God.  But what intrigues me more is what Liberate does not answer in my original review.   And please remember this was not all about your book, but about the whole fashion just now within American evangelicalism for what I call ‘Grace-Lit’.    Lets leave aside the fact that is has become boring and that there are plenty people who talk about grace and then behave in a most ungracious manner (I do not include you in that group at all, though I do include some of those who wrote me saying how gracious you were!).

Here are the major issues that were left untouched by Liberate.

1)   The Grace Lit does seem to be all about us.  It allows us to do what we like, indulge what we want, and sin as we please, all in the name of grace.  The irony is in saying that grace is not about us; we seem to spend a large amount of time talking about us!

2)   Is it really the case that you often hear about too much grace and rarely about too many rules?   I don’t think you are speaking of your church or your circles – now having gone to your website and listened to some of the services that is not really a problem in your church.  So it seems to me that you are writing about a perceived problem with others.  I just question whether that is the best way to go and how true it actually is.  I don’t deny that there are many legalists, or that that is a tendency within each human heart, but I do deny that the problem within the Church is as overstated as you make it.   Are you really hearing there is too much grace and not enough rules?

3)   Likewise your statement that grace has nothing to do with the beloved, it is only to do with the lover.  That was a major concern for me.  Because it mangles the English language and makes it meaningless.  Its like my saying to my wife, my love for you has nothing to do with you, it has everything to do with me!

4)   Religion – The other big one, which Liberate ignores, is the whole question of religion and the Robert Capon quote.  I understand the temptation to speak like that.  I have done it often, and, with qualifications, will do so again.  But I think I was wrong and overstated the case, I suspect often for rhetorical effect.  James 1:27 tells us what true religion is.  The church is in the religion business.  We are not in the false religion business.  I know that being anti-religious plays well in our anti-authority, anti-institution culture, but we should not play along with that. The Bible does call us to a true religion.  Not least to be pure and to help the poor, the orphans and widows in their distress.

5)   Liberate does not deal with the question of balance.   This for me is vital.  I understand the temptation to say that you do not want to be balanced when discussing grace.  But you need to be so.   Otherwise it will lead to antinomianism – or it may lead to the New Perspective.  In fact it strikes me that NT Wrights New Perspective with its emphasis on covenant works and righteousness and rejection of by faith alone, is itself a reaction against the kind of unbalanced (and therefore unbiblical) Grace-Lit teaching that I was writing about.

6)    Likewise Liberate does not deal with my complaint that there are people who operate the “emperors new clothes’ methodology of theological discussion.  They just simply state that if you don’t agree with me, you just don’t get grace.  Like this comment from one personI think you need a much deeper understanding of the distinction between Law and Gospel and the ways in which the two are often mixed improperly before you could actually do an adequate job of reviewing this book.    That could be true.  I could just be naturally thick, or 27 years of ministry and theological reading could have addled my brain so that I just don’t really get this wonderful and subtle distinction.   God help my congregation if I can’t preach distinguish between Law and Gospel.  Maybe I should just give up?  Although I have to say it would have been a bit more gracious if the person who made the comment actually took the time to explain his ‘much deeper understanding’, rather than just make the assertion. 

7)   Liberate does not deal with the question of the commercialisation of grace.  Of course that is a hard one to deal with.  All of us have to make a living.  But do you not agree there is a real temptation for us to ‘sell’ our ministries by writing for particular markets in the dog eat dog world of modern Christianity?    But should we be a market?   Personally I am distinctly uncomfortable with this, even as someone who has used the ‘market’.   I would be interested in your thoughts on that.

8)   Another major point that Liberate missed is the notion that what is being taught in these grace lit books is somehow a radical challenge to our culture.  I really question that.  It seems as though our culture will love the idea of a God who is like a really generous Father who forgives you for your mistakes and who you can do nothing for.  Its great to believe in a God who does not really require repentance, mortification or indeed anything.  He just forgives us because as Rousseau said ‘c’est son metier’ – that’s his job!   I know you don’t believe that.  But believe me that is what a large number of people will be hearing.

9)   Grace without God?  When I hear of the doctrines of grace I always associate them with those of atonement, predestination, repentance, love, faith and regeneration.   The world loves to hear about a God who just forgives and yet the world hates Jesus.  Would Fox news and others invite us on to talk about the predestinating grace of God?   We are back here to the divorcing of Grace from God.  People want to hear about Gods grace to them – they don’t want to hear about Gods wrath against them.  Which brings me back to Steve Brown.

10)  Steve Brown I was surprised that Liberate did not pick up on the reference to Steve Brown and the superficiality.   I don’t really know Steve but that one meeting I mentioned was a real shock to me.  After I wrote the review I went to your website and saw that he is an honoured guest in your Church.  So having great respect for you I thought, ‘David, maybe you’ve got this wrong, maybe Steve is a great biblical teacher, maybe he just had a bad day and maybe you are a middle aged grumpy Scottish Presbyterian who still has to get rid of his inner legalist!’.  So I went to the first sermon on the website and watched Steve.   You can get it here – http://cpmassets.com/video.php?video=2651&site=32

I’m sorry but it was deeply disturbing and depressing.  Is this meant to be preaching grace?   Of course Steve is funny, a great storyteller with a deep rich voice.  I don’t doubt he is a Christian brother but what he is teaching is unbalanced.  For example,  “grace is not a doctrine to be expounded but a hug to be experienced……. Do you know what would be good for most Calvinists, to get drunk, speak in tongues and confess their sins in a very public forum…well maybe not”.    Is that really an example of grace?  Can you seriously imagine the apostle Paul saying that (apart from the speaking in tongues bit!)?  Or Jesus?  Or Calvin?  Or Luther?   Now I may not be getting the cultural context and perhaps I just don’t get Steve – but I am just being honest.  Maybe you can help me here?

But there is worse.  Perhaps the ‘lets get drunk’ shock jock preaching is just a case of bad taste rather than bad theology?  But there is bad theology in there too.   As I listen to it just now – I am hearing things like “at the very heart of this church is a God who is not angry”.  Really?  A God who is not angry at the cruelty, injustice and ugliness in the world?  A God who is not angry at sin?  A God who is not angry at my sin?  Grace is believing in a God who is not angry?  Then in that case I don’t get, or have grace.  I don’t believe that a gracious God is a God who has no wrath.  I believe in a God who is full of wrath against sin, but whose wrath is turned aside (propitiated) by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.  In fact to deny the anger of God is to my mind to deny the necessity of the atonement and to turn the cross into something very different.

Or how about ““He was big on being pro-life but his best friend was a doctor who performed abortions”.  I wonder if put it slightly differently what that would sound like – suppose he said, “He was big on being anti-racist but his best friend was a man who beat up African Americans? “In what world would that make sense?   As a Christian I could not be best friends with a man who beat up people because of their skin colour or who killed babies for a living!    I could love him as an enemy but not live with him as a friend.

Oh – its wonderful stuff to listen to…until you start to think about it.  And it is dangerous, not in the chic trendy ‘oh look how radical and dangerous I am,’ (and please can the church coming out of fundamentalism please hurry up and grow up, so that we don’t have to hear any more stories about how I can smoke, drink and cuss as well as the next man!   I speak as someone who enjoys a good malt but doesn’t really see that as something radical and dangerous!).   No it is dangerous in the same way that bad theology and preaching is to anyone.  It really hurts and harms.

So for example one person responded to my review in the following way: “A quick thought on living a life “acceptable” to a Holy God, if you think that is possible than you really have a low view of what God commands as a Holy life. We cannot do it, that is the reason we needed a savior.”  Again it just sounds so good.  Except it confuses justification and sanctification.  We cannot be justified by living a holy life, but we are justified so that we can live a holy life.  “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.  In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:4-6).  We are saved by grace in order to do good works which God has prepared for us to do.  This is the grace of God.  And if you go on to read the rest of Ephesians there are loads of imperatives (demands) as well as indicatives.  You can’t live the Christian life only with the indicatives.  You can’t live it only with the imperatives.  You need the balance of both.    I am to live a life worthy of the Lord.  I can only do so because of the grace of God.  But I can.  Why would God command me to live a holy life and then tell me that I cannot in Christ, live a life acceptable to him?   This week I was told to xxxx off by a ‘Christian’ who then went on to send me a reason why in the grace of God he was able to swear at me!    Does grace enable us to behave like that?  Surely the grace of God “teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 3:12-14).


Ok let me sum this up.  I would be more than happy for Liberate to respond if they so wish. As I said I don’t know you but now having listened to some more of your story I can understand that you have swung from rebellion to legalism and now ‘200% drunken grace’.  You are clearly very talented and gifted and have a lot to offer the Church.  And I love your love for the Lord.   I can identify with so much.  But perhaps there is room for another slight corrective- for both of us.

Instead of reacting to our past and our own faults, why do we not just teach the Word of God in all its beautiful and delicately poised balance?  I know that’s what you and I want to do and I know that preaching is ‘truth communicated through personality’, but we need to take care not to allow our personalities and stories to become the screen through which the Word of God is filtered.

Whimsical or Worshipful Preaching? 

I have just been reading Mike Reeves’s wonderful The Unquenchable Flame. In it he points out that the Reformers transformed society just by preaching the Word of God.  The people were used to ‘experts’ telling them, or medieval drama plays showing them, but the Reformers came and just taught the Word of God.   My fear is that the Protestant Church is in great danger of returning to the days of ‘experts’ and/or ‘entertainment’ to teach us the Bible.  Steve Brown (again!- you can tell he really got to me!) at the beginning of that sermon I referred to earlier said, “What I’m going to do this morning is less theology and exegesis, its more whimsy”.  I think he was right.  That’s exactly what he did – preach whimsy. And whimsy ain’t dangerous or radical…it is actually very comfortable in a pipe smoke and slippers kind of way.

I listen to a lot of sermons by many different preachers.  There are some who are excellent communicators but seem to have little to communicate, and others who have a lot to communicate but don’t really seem to know how to do it.  The saddest of all for me are those who have excellent theology and excellent communication skills, but spend far too much time talking about themselves and their families.  There is one excellent communicator who is doing a great job but I have had to stop listening to his podcasts, because I feel I know more about his family that I do my own!  On the other hand the last time I was in New York I listened to Tim Keller who, although the subject matter was ideal for personal anecdote and illustration, hardly referred to himself at all.  It was a sobering lesson for me.  I have the tendency to talk about myself far too much and to make the big mistake of thinking that the subject of conversation is as interesting for others as it is for me!

Forgive me for mentioning one other ‘model’ as a preacher.   We have just appointed a new ‘assistant’ preacher in St Peters.  I think he’ll do all right!  His name is Sinclair Ferguson.  Last Sunday I listened to him bring Gods Word.  You know it was wonderful.  Not a lot of stories.  Some suitable illustrations.  A dry humour and relaxed manner.  But above all it was a feast of biblical exegesis, bringing us Christ.  As we listened we forgot Sinclair, we forgot ourselves, (I even forgot wishing that I could preach like that!), we heard the Word and marvelled at the things we had not heard before.  And God spoke to us.  And the Word he spoke was the one who is Grace.  Jesus Christ.  The name above every name.  We bathed.  We luxuriated.  And we went away thankful, praising and determined to endeavour after new obedience.  That’s what I want to hear from a preacher (and that’s what I want to preach).   Somehow I dare to believe that as we teach the Word we will find that we teach the right balance and that it will have the desired effect of creating and renewing life.  It is after all the Word of Grace.

Your brother in Christ


PS.  If you are ever in Scotland you would be welcome to come and preach in McCheyne’s church!    And if you don’t mind I will ask my publisher to send you this – http://www.amazon.com/Magnificent-Obsession-Why-Jesus-Great/dp/1781912718/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1384463038&sr=8-13&keywords=magnificent+obsession

You can get a taster from an earlier blog – here – http://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/magnificent-obsession-why-jesus-is-great/

For a sad update : https://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/tullians-tragedy-how-the-megachurch-business-model-is-failing-everyone-including-pastors/


  1. Hi David

    I am taking time to digest this. In the meantime I thought I’d pick up on one point you make. You write, ‘I agree completely however with Liberates second point, the one that really matters. Gods’ love is unconditional; it is the source, motive and action of our salvation. We do not and cannot earn it. He loves because He is Love. Now in one sense this is correct. There is a sovereign love (and unnecessitated love although his character is love) but there is also a merited love, the love that flows from the pleasure of being obeyed. A father in one sense loves his child unconditionally but he also loves conditionally. He loves his child all the more when his child obeys and honours the family. This is worked out in the father’s love for Christ.

    John 10:17 (ESV2011)
    For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.

    The obedience of Christ to the Father’s command provokes/earns/gains the Father’s love. He delights in his obedient son who will lay down his life.

    This is a side issue, I know, in this conversation but I hear so often that God cannot love us more or love us less as his people. I don’t think this is biblical nor do I think it corresponds with the dynamics of love even as we experience them.

  2. Ephesians 1:4 According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:

    Ephesians 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

    WSC A.35 Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

    1. Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

    2. And from today’s M’Cheyne diary of readings (so caught my eye):

      Hebrews 12:14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain* the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;…..

      [* So ESV; Grk = ὑστερῶν; cf. LXX at Ps 23(22):1; Rom 3:23, etc., “lack, fall short of”.]

      See to it…”?

  3. Hi David,

    Firstly can I just say a general thank you for your website/blog. I have been greatly encouraged by reading some very thought-provoking articles on it. I’m glad there are evangelical leaders who are discussing current issues with thoughtfulness and sanity and a sense of reality.

    I don’t want to get too involved in the current debate over Tullian’s book as I think both sides probably believe the same thing anyway, and the confusion is perhaps more about our emphasis (and perhaps also what we mean by the words we use). I’m pretty sure both yourself and Tullian believe that every single blessing and every bit of our salvation is the result of unmerited, unearned and unconditional grace, and that you also both believe that a true understanding and experience of God’s grace will always lead to a transformed life of holiness. Having read stuff from you both I’m pretty confident this is the case.

    But may I just say something about the well-known “Take up your cross” statement from Matt 16:24 which you refer to. It strikes me that this statement is perhaps being misunderstood. Jesus explains what he means by it in the following verse (v25) – “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Jesus is talking about dying. That’s what carrying a cross meant. When a person had been sentenced to death by crucifixion, they carried their cross to the place where they would be executed. So if you saw a man carrying a cross on his back, you knew he would be dead within hours. It was the very last journey they ever made. It was the end of their life. I think the crowd listening to Jesus would have instinctively understood it like this, because the cross was a symbol of death to them. And that’s the point. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Jesus is using the picture of death as a contrast to self-salvation. We are saved by dying to self, dying to the idea that we can save our own lives. He’s basically talking about how we’re saved/justified. As he says in v25, this is about whether we have life or death. In context then, to “take up your cross” is emphasising that salvation comes by grace (through Christ), not by our own works (saving ourselves). I mention this because I’m not sure Matt 16:24 is talking about us living a life of holiness (though of course “losing [our] life for [Jesus]” will inevitably lead to holiness).

    You also mention your concern that ‘Grace Lit’ “allows us to do what we like, indulge what we want, and sin as we please, all in the name of grace.” Bear in mind that the Apostle Paul’s preaching seemed to attract this very same criticism (or he anticipated it would – Rom 6:1,15). So this misunderstanding about being free to sin may actually be an inevitable consequence of preaching the gospel of grace and therefore (in a strange way) it may be a healthy sign that we are preaching the gospel. Of course, we must also note that Paul went on in Rom 6 to explain how grace inevitably leads to holiness. He did not agree that grace allows us to sin and we too mustn’t fail to mention that grace leads to obedience. Perhaps this is largely your point? But we must also remember that it’s still grace that is the fuel and the foundation of this obedience (Rom 6:14; Rom 7:4-6). True heart-driven obedience can only come from the grace of the gospel. No-one really overcomes sin (at the heart level) unless grace has first captured their heart and Christ has therefore replaced their idols. This is why Christ says we will only obey him if we love him, and we will not obey him if we don’t (John 14:23-24).

    Finally, in regard to the word “religion” I think part of the problem is knowing what the English word “religion” means to the modern-day mind. The meaning of words is defined by their popular usage, and I think there is a strong case to be made that the English word “religion” now has strong associations with a system of self-salvation (of whatever flavour). To many (most?) people I think “religion” means trying to perform in a way that wins God over to us. If so then I think it’s right to set the gospel apart from it. The question of the English translation of James 1:27 is then another matter.

    I hope these thoughts are constructive. If I’m honest I tend to stay away from internet blog comments as they can be rather outlandish and unhelpful at times. I hope this one doesn’t come under that heading!

    Keep on serving the Lord and praising him for his grace. Glory to God.

    Thank you again.

  4. Matt – that is very helpful. Thanks. I basically agree with everything you say. Although I would stick with the view that ‘take up your cross, denying yourself etc is an imperative rather than an indicative.

  5. This comment (from the response to Liberate’s piece) sums up painfully why I don’t buy into the Liberate movement’s thesis:

    If Jesus paid it all, why would we owe Him? Think about it.
    Church, listen. You owe God nothing. Don’t believe the lies. The debt has been paid. Don’t ruin the gift. Drop the hymn or change the lyrics. It is for freedom you’ve been set free. You were once obliged to obedience. But the obligation has been lifted and the debt has been paid in full by the blood of a spotless Lamb.

    So God doesn’t care about my obedience? Really? Rom 6:1 anyone?

    I’ll stick to the Puritans as Biblical expositors on the Christian life and leave the pseudo-Lutheranism of Tullian Tchvidijian on the shelf

    1. A debt of gratitude (love and grace) is not confused with a debt of obligation (legal). “Listen church. You owe God nothing,” is a non-sequiter because the premise statement is false. Jesus paid the penalty for my sin and gave me the faith to trust in Christ alone for eternal life is the coherent biblical creedal statement. The statement “Jesus paid it all,” uses the secondary word meanings for paid and all which leads the hearer to intrepret it as they choose, ie a straw man statement is set up usuing secondary word meanings to attack the primary meaning that is fully descriptive of the bible’s position. People who attempt to explain scripture using such methods are either novices or they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Either way they should be removed from authoriative positions.

  6. The problem here is that you are concerned that the concept of good works which flow from salvation (following our justification) is minimized. While I appreciate your concern, I believe the Law/Gospel distinction needs to be considered more fully. We Reformed folk need to realize Law/Gospel is part of our theological tradition just as much as the Lutherans. After all, covenant of works and covenant of grace is the Reformed way of expressing Law/Gospel. To reply to one of the comments above, a simple quotation from the Westminster Standards which offers a definition of sanctification isn’t going to cut it.

  7. David,

    The TT blog post that really incensed me was one by Steve Brown a couple of years ago. I felt Tullian should repudiate it. Indeed I felt it was unworthy of a Gospel Coalition blog and expressed my dismay. You can read it for yourself here.


    Kevin De Young clearly is troubled by this quasi-lutheran emphasis and has often written (graciously) a balancing perspective. His book ‘A Hole in our Holiness’ seems to be written to counter this increasingly popular perspective.

  8. This is a good take on an issue that often concerns me when I listen to preaching. When “grace” takes on a life and meaning of its own, floating free from Biblical teaching, discipleship is compromised. And anyone who objects gets labelled a legalist. Legalism is an error to avoid, but Christian theology should not be about competing to see who can distance themselves furthest from it. Jesus came to save us from sin, not legalism – but I ‘ve heard preaching that makes it sound otherwise. I haven’t got time to comment more fully just now.

  9. Thanks David,

    It seems to me that often in these two posts you have made a distinction yourself between grace and law – that which is saving (and alone from God) and that which is a living out of the saved life and in no way meritorious of salvation. Such distinctions are crucial lest we lose the gospel of faith alone in Christ alone.

    In that light I think the language of ‘balance’ can be problematic. No-one should ever ‘balance’ faith and works or grace and holiness just as no-one should ‘balance’ tree and fruit. It’s possible to be 100% for both – but in order for that to be the case you’ll need to be sold out to a grace alone gospel and live with the potential misunderstandings of ‘one way love’ (which, as everyone in this discussion agrees, does produce two way love).

    Two other quick points: The Mike Reeves book you cite has a wonderful line in it about how the Reformers unleashed the Bible. It’s not to hand but from memory the line goes: “Luther opened the Bible to meet Christ, Zwingli just opened the Bible.” I think that’s an apt point in this discussion. It would be possible to simply take discrete promises and commands from the Scriptures as an uncoordinated mass. But Scriptures like John 5 would warn us that all must be read as witness to the eternal life in Christ. If we take that seriously we get something like a law/gospel distinction.

    Tim Keller, whom you also cite warmly, is a text-book law/gospel preacher (or a gospel/law/gospel preacher) He rarely, if ever, calls it that but I think that just shows that the terminology is nothing like as important as the substance. And the substance of the issue is how to open the Bible to meet *Jesus* and not simple how to open the Bible.

    I am very glad to say I’ve met Jesus in both your preaching and Tullian’s.

    God bless

  10. A response to your specific comments on Steve Brown:

    Just listened to Steve Brown’s sermon – I don’t think it’s whimsy at all, but rather good applied theology, and the fruit of proper exegesis.
    When he says “grace is a hug to be experienced” he is commenting on the sad irony that in some churches you might hear the gospel but not feel it. It’s proclaimed, and yet the church can feel far removed from the real laughter and joy of being loved. Surely we all know what that is like? – a church culture which feels uptight – the very last place you would want to confess your sins. Obviously grace is indeed a doctrine to be expounded, but we also want the outrageousness of God’s grace to be experienced, and the resulting laughter and joy to be tangible. Calvinists aren’t always known for that – but I think Steve Brown is. That’s one reason why I think his ministry is a fantastic gift to the church.
    When he says it would be good for us Calvinists “to get drunk” – he’s joking. He even adds, “maybe not” just so we don’t take him seriously. And yet in the joke he is making a serious and well-made point – that if we and our congregations actually saw ourselves as ‘big sinners’ and not just little ones, then maybe we’d not only proclaim the gospel but also exhibit much greater joy in doing so. If we got drunk it would obviously be wrong and grieve the heart of God – no child of God (SB included) wants to do that – but if we got drunk and then publicly repented – it would at least help our churches not merely to hear the doctrine of grace expounded but to see and feel it experienced. That’s the point. It’s a plea for us not just to proclaim the doctrine but to get real about sin and repentance in light of the outrageousness of God’s inexhaustible grace.
    Can I imagine Calvin or Paul saying it? If they were emerging from a context of American fundamentalism and knew how to crack a joke, then yes. Paul’s gospel sounded to many as if he was anti-law. (He wasn’t. And neither is SB.) Paul had to refute antinomianism precisely because he was being charged with it. (SB has had to do the same. His books make it clear that antinomianism is a heresy.)
    As for Luther – absolutely! – in his own words: “if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” Yes, SB sounds very much like Luther.
    As for Jesus, he’s in a league of his own. He was certainly accused of being anti-law and a drunkard, and he was loved by notorious sinners.
    And when SB says, “At the very heart of this church is a God who is not angry”, he is simply celebrating that Coral Ridge grasps the wonder of propitiation. As I know you do too. You both agree that in his love God still disciplines his children for their sin, but that his wrath for the elect is spent and no more. SB simply wants to get across (and I think he does so very powerfully) that when any sinner turns to God and goes to him just as they are, he doesn’t give them a lecture but rather throws a party. And that’s what actually makes us return to God again and again.
    As for the guy who was “big on being pro-life but his best friend was a doctor who performed abortions”, – just because it is hard to imagine this being a ‘best’ friend, isn’t it true that we all experience something of this on a very normal regular basis? I had dinner with neighbours over the weekend who made it clear they supported gay ‘marriage’. I made it clear I didn’t. Sure it’s a tension, but the friendship can still grow in a meaningful way. And it should. Last year I read ‘The Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert’ by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield – you’ve probably read it – sometimes the most unlikely friendships blossom! And if we really “smell like Jesus” (to quote SB), then surely we should expect it.
    So I beg to differ from your conclusion that SB’s teaching is “bad theology and preaching” that “really hurts and harms”. While your remarks surely come out of genuine zeal for the gospel and love for God, it’s hard to read them as anything other than slanderous. Of course we should express concern when we have it – the truth is always worth fighting for – but have you written to him privately about your concerns? Brotherly love is hard to express on a blog, and hard to experience too. (And yes maybe that means I should’ve written to you personally rather than post this response!)
    For what it’s worth I thank God for you both and would love to have you AND Steve Brown speak in our church any day of the week! …”you shine like stars in the universe, as you hold out the word of life.” May you BOTH keep going!

    1. Alastair,

      Thanks a lot for your response – it is very helpful to me to hear where others are coming from!

      A few points:

      1) Of course I agree completely that Gods grace is to be experienced and that joy and laughter are a good thing. I would not however want to reduce Gods grace to just that. I have a slight fear that far too many preachers today are modelling themselves on the secular prophets of our culture – stand-up comedians. Something by the way I have been accused of as well!

      2) The get drunk joke. Is this really meant to make us see ourselves as big sinners?! If so it shows a very weak doctrine of sin. But I guess the ‘joke’ wouldn’t work so well if it was “you know what some Calvinists really need – to go out and commit adultery or murder someone!’ Yes we really do need to face up to the sin in our congregations and ourselves. Getting drunk is the least of those and trivialises it. In fact that is my problem with this whole genre – the trivialisation of everything (and the commercialisation).

      3) You have a very vivid imagination – if you can imagine Paul, Luther, Calvin or Jesus saying such a thing!

      4) You however really get on to special pleading when you say that SB’s ‘God who is not angry’ is just the wonder of propitiation! If God is not angry then there is no need for propitiation (turning aside the wrath of God), because there is nothing to turn aside!

      5) As regards the best friends. Would you really be best friends with a racist who went out and kicked the heads in of African Americans regularly? Yes I read Rosarias book and loved it. But that does not teach endorsement or support of a sinful lifestyle that harms others.

      6) Because I believe his remarks are harmful you think that this is slanderous. But I do think they are harmful – therefore I have to speak. Do you think SB is slanderous for the many warnings he gives against legalism? I don’t know Steve personally and I would not even know how to write him. And why should he listen to me. I am no-one, a tiny speck with all that he has to deal with. By that somewhat strange standard we would never write anything about anyone – no matter what harm they were doing.

      I appreciate however, very much your comments, and the way you expressed your concerns. I will go and have another think – as if I have not agonised enough about this. However one thing is clear to me – my comments have kicked over a whole can of worms – and I’m not too sure they smell like Jesus!

      1. Thanks David. To respond to each point in turn:
        1. I agree, and think SB would too.
        2. “a very weak doctrine of sin”? No, just a joke that refers to a major taboo in his church culture (and of course a blatant sin). Why wouldn’t it work so well if it referred to adultery or murder? Any wickedness will do to play on Luther’s line (which is what he’s doing): “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” Trivialisation? Obviously that’s how it comes across to you but it’s certainly not intended. He intends to help us see the truth of Rom.5:20 “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” And one reason he labours on grace so hard is because of his conviction that nothing else sanctifies. I’ve listened to him and read him enough to be really helped by him in this regard. He has helped me to stop focusing so much on myself and how I’m doing, and to focus instead on Christ and what he’s done.
        3. Thank you for the compliment! However I don’t think it’s that imaginative to quote Luther’s own words.
        4. Do you think RTS would employ a professor who does not believe in the wrath of God? When he actually bothers to affirm the WCF at the start of his sermon, do you assume he doesn’t really believe 6.6 about the wrath of God? I’ve read 4 books by Steve Brown and in each one he talks frankly about the wrath of God. And in each one he celebrates that because of the cross, God is not angry/wrathful towards his people. It is his joy to preach it (as it is yours and mine).
        5. Best friends – no I wouldn’t be best friends with a racist who went out and kicked the heads in of African Americans regularly. But that’s your illustration, not Steve’s. Steve’s story was about a pro-lifer who was best friends with a doc who does abortions – granted I struggle too with the ‘best’ friends bit, and yet I think it’s unfair to take that as necessarily endorsing or supporting a sinful lifestyle. Apparently he was still a passionate pro-lifer. Hard to equate, maybe, but even if it is wrong to be ‘best’ friends in such a case, the story is told not to endorse or support a sinful lifestyle, but to simply tell of a surprising friendship marked by grace.
        6. You have to speak – fair enough – I accept that. But you don’t need to know Steve personally to write to him, and anyone could find out how to. You both spoke at the same conference – you’ve already got a link. And you’re not no-one. You’re a significant voice in evangelical circles on this side of the pond. You have over 750 followers on twitter and a blog which is obviously widely read. You’re a minister, conference speaker, the director of Solas, and you write important books. You’re not no-one. And I’d bet my house that Steve would listen to you. Isn’t it good practice that when we need to challenge a brother, we engage with them directly, not just talk about them? I take your point that sometimes hard things need to be said publicly, but how do we do that while heeding the repeated instruction in the NT to avoid slander? I don’t yet know how to answer that. As for whether SB is slanderous for the many warnings he gives against legalism, I have never once heard him name names, and I don’t know anyone who thinks that general warnings about no-one in particular are slanderous.
        Brother I’m not wanting to cause further agonising, I would just like to change your mind about a man who has had a godly influence in my life, and I think on many. And the reason I care to do so is that I look up to you both.

      2. I appreciate what you are saying but I still have concerns.

        ” I’ve listened to him and read him enough to be really helped by him in this regard. He has helped me to stop focusing so much on myself and how I’m doing, and to focus instead on Christ and what he’s done” – This might be a cultural thing but it works the opposite for me. When I listen to him I learn a great deal about SB and US Church culture and very little about Christ! Or it may just be the three talks I have heard.

        I don’t doubt that he believes in the wrath of God. I do think he is sloppy in his populist use of soundbite language – what do you expect people to hear when they hear ‘The God of this church is not an angry God”?

        `”Hard to equate, maybe, but even if it is wrong to be ‘best’ friends in such a case, the story is told not to endorse or support a sinful lifestyle, but to simply tell of a surprising friendship marked by grace.” – and thats what I mean about the trivilisation of grace. Why choose abortion and not racism? Because it is the ‘shock jock’ tactic. Because abortion is not as serious? It gives the impression that grace is about being friends with people who do bad things when it is a whole lot more.

        If I knew Steve I would speak to him. But having received plenty personal e-mails attacking me from people who know me I did not think it would do any good. And to be honest I am nobody – I am just a Scottish Presbyterian who writes for his own mental well being and to express and work out my own thoughts on things. In the same way I don’t mind that you publicly disagree with me on here. You may well be right and I’m sure many would agree with you. If so I spoke on public so I should be rebuked in public. Likewise for Steve. As for me I prefer to name names – because I am a ‘nobody’ who does not belong to any network and does not know the code or the in between the lines. I just write about what I see and hear.

        Finally I appreciate what you say about Steve having a godly influence on your life – I accept that and I am not calling into question his faith or his influence on you. I was just reflecting on the influence three of his sermons had on me (and on those sitting around me). I found them superficial, culturally bound and irreverent. Doubtless there are people who have heard me preach who have said the same thing as well. I would need to hear that.

        Anyway I really appreciate your input. It makes me think and I admit I might even be wrong (but don’t tell my wife I said that!)….

  11. David,
    Thanks for these interactions and the continuing discussion you have going with Scott at the Heidelblog, it’s interesting an informative. I echo a hearty “Amen” to your concerns with the Grace-Lit. It’s something some of us wee little local pastors who can’t afford (or desire) gospel-tours have to deal with in our congregations.
    Every Blessing in Christ,

  12. Hi David,

    Since Scott Clarke has removed my comment on his blog re lw/gospel distinction on the basis it contravenes his policy I thought I may share it with you on the hope that it furthers the search for clarity. I wrote,


    I like your distinction between ‘antecedent conditions and consequent conditions’. I think this is critical to the discussion both of ‘law’ and TT.

    Regarding TT, while I am sure he agrees with this distinction he tends to write as if ‘consequent conditions’ have the same status and intention as ‘antecedent conditions’. Further he rarely, on his blog at least, deals with the ‘consequent conditions’ and this leads to real fears of a biblical imbalance.

    To my mind, the cause for this confusion is the definition of ‘law’ that Tullian seems to adopt (indeed definitions would help to clarify the points of difference between DR and you). ‘Law’ for Tullian appears to equal ‘demand/obligation/command. Now while this is a definition that on one or two occasions may be employed in the NT it is not the most common one and certainly not the meaning that Paul has in mind when he contrasts law and gospel. In these critical (absolute) contrasts Paul is contrasting two covenants; the old Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. The old Covenant was a covenant of works. Although given by a gracious God it is not on principle a gracious covenant, rather it is a covenant of ‘this do and live’. In your language, it imposes antecendent conditions on life; it promises life upon obedience. I’m fairly sure you will agree with this.

    Thus ‘law’ for Paul, in the law/gospel dichotomy is first of all a redemptive-historical category referring to the old covenant which he sees as a covenant of works. It is not simply a synonym for demand/obligation/responsibility. Perhaps, by extension, we may say any attempt to earn/merit/gain life (salvation) by self-effort, we may correctly say is ‘law’ or ‘legal’ in spirit.

    However, as believers, we are not ‘under law’. Our relationship with God is not based on the old covenant. We are answerable to the old covenant in no way (and here I expect you to disagree). It is neither the basis of our life (justification) nor the rule of our sanctification; it is not our rule of life for as soon as we make something a rule of life we place ourselves under it, we see ourselves as obligated to it, it has authority over us. Let me immediately say we can learn from it and many of its commands have a bearing on new covenant life, however, the law is not a rule of life for the believer. It was for Israel before the arrival of the Kingdom in Christ but belongs rightly to immaturity and spiritual childhood (redemptive-historically considered). Law (this do and live, a covenant of works) and gospel are two different covenants; works and grace. The Law offered no enabling grace. It simply demanded and cursed when disobeyed. Its effect is seen in moralistic deism and such like.

    However, Paul would be dismayed if he realized that some were reading this sense of law (the old covenant and principle of works-righteousness) for every command and obligation. For example the Sermon on the Mount is not ‘law’ in the mosaic covenant sense. To begin with it assumes life in those to whom it is addressed; they address God as Father. The commands of Jesus to his own assume life and exhibit life. We love, and should love, because we are born of God. The disciples love because they know Christ’s love and abide in it and indeed they must love and keep his commandments if they are his. Here the commands are, in your category, ‘consequent conditions’. Here it is not ‘law’, this do and live, but gospel/grace ‘life and do’.

    Tullian emphasises ‘live’ but seems reluctant to stress ‘and do’. There may be cultural reasons for this but even if this is so he is in grave danger of pushing the pendulum in the opposite direction and feeding into the spirit of the age which wishes privilege without responsibility. Time and again, on his blog folks in the comments section refer to any suggestion of responsibility as ‘legalism, works-righteousness, law, performance…’ Tullian never counters or qualifies this. Surely this is dangerous.

    So yes (in my understanding) gospel and grace are opposites but grace and responsibility are not. In ‘law’ responsibility lies completely with the individual, unaided by God. It is man standing on his own strength, gaining his own life. In the gospel of the grace of God, life is given, the responsibilities of life exist but the desire and strength for these is also given. Thus, by God’s grace, we ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ confident that God is working in us ‘to will and to do for his own pleasure’.’

    I added, that I view myself as ‘reformed with a small r’ that is I am sympathetic to much reformed teaching though my own position is nearer New Covenant Theology. I cannot help but think Scott feels threatened by anything that is not kosher in strictly confessional terms and this creates a blindness to all true biblical thought and reflection. .

  13. I have wrestled with this and continue to do so but in my humble opinion the answer in this whole issue is bigger than the content, which in this case is “justification” and “sanctification”. We can inadvertently find ourselves if we are not careful in ministry of pursuing the grace of God and not the God of grace. When we do this we find ourselves focusing inordinately on justification or sanctification (as good as that is) and yet without this means an end we lose sight of the glory of God. We become reductionist when we lose sight of the person in whom all the fullness of God dwells in human form. Paul could speak of grace being free and unmerited and yet insofar as love was manifest there was no way he would think of doing something that would dishonor his Lord and that was his desire. So on one hand he could call himself the chief of sinners and on the other, one who was dying to himself for the glory and name of Christ in his suffering for the proclamation of the gospel. In other words his focus was on the work but also on the person of Christ. Holding these two things in tension solved many of the issues that led to the gospel being made reductionistic.

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