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.
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.
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 person: I 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/