Last week Tullian Tchividjian, a pastor from Florida and frequent contributor to The Gospel Coalition and other publications wrote a piece in the Washington Post declaring that the missing message in the American Church is a grace without constraints and an understanding of the one sided love of God.  He has been championing this message in various forms in many blogs as well as his last few books, and there is much about it that rings true and is helpful.  I commented on his WaPo piece however to say that I disagreed that this was the “missing” message in the church as I believe that the idea of free grace and the one sided love of God has become the predominant message in a very large number of Evangelical churches over the past few years, thanks largely to “Gospel-centered” and “Christ-centered” movements in various corners of the Evangelical tradition.  I made mention that the pendulum has swung in favor of that message, and ethics is now in the homiletical back seat and that we need balance where both messages, grace and obedience, are taken up in the church side by side.  (He seems to have grossly misunderstood what I, and potentially many others have meant by balance because of what some have meant by balance, and therefore responded to something I never said.)  

Pastor Tullian then wrote a follow up piece for the Gospel Coalition, quoting my comment in the opening lines, and then very seriously taking me out of context and attributing thoughts to me that cannot be found in my original comment to him, nor anywhere in my thinking.  In doing so he then wrote an article unrelated to anything I said, defending his view of grace, which also has some serious problems.   He seems to have grossly misunderstood what I, and potentially many others have meant by balance because of what some have meant by balance, and therefore responded to something I never said.  I wrote a charitable, thoughtful response, but was blocked by The Gospel Coalition.  I wrote the site to ask for clarity, and was not given a response, so I decided to leave my response here in the blog as many friends of mine have contacted me about being quoted and subsequently called “simple” minded and a legalist, the first of which I may be, the second most certainly not.  

The characterizations of me based on my comment are not a concern.  It honestly doesn’t bother me what others think of me.  There are, however, serious issues with some of what Pastor Tullian has written about grace, so I am posting my response to illustrate what I believe those are.  First, the links to the two pieces he wrote:

Dear Tullian,

Two separate friends emailed after noticing that you quoted my comment from your WaPo piece. Normally, if you had responded to what I was trying to get across and simply disagreed, I would not feel the need to post again as disagreements are normal and I’m sure few care what I think, however, I thought I should clarify as, one, I seem to have not made my concern clear in what I wrote previously, and 2, this current post still posits a position of some concern, which I tried to address and of which attempt you have quoted here.  

It seems that my comment was construed as another “Too much grace leads to licentiousness” post. This in no way was what I was saying, and the second quote in your first paragraph here isn’t even mine but you seem to be attributing it to my thinking, or people like me. This couldn’t be farther from what I was trying to say and isn’t to be found in my post in either words or content, although I could see how you might think I was going there if my language was similar to those who have licentiousness as their concern. I was a pastor for 8 years before recently coming to the University of Edinburgh for post-grad work, and it was the driving force of my preaching, that popular mantra of the gospel-centered movement that “Preaching that doesn’t center on the free grace of God isn’t really preaching.” In no way would I ever put, for even a second, “brakes” on grace. My concern is not that we need to put brakes on grace and “balance” it with law, my concern is that we misunderstand grace by juxtaposing it with law too much.

Remember, my post had nothing to do with a fear of licentiousness, it was simply to disagree with your assertion that the “missing” element in churches was the completely free gift of grace. It seems the dominant trend in churches today to state explicitly that Christianity is not about rules or obedience, but about the finished work of Jesus.  I constantly hear the mantra “Christianity is not do, it is done” in preaching across the land, which is great when put in context, but untrue as a blanket statement.  The “pendulum swing” I was referring to was not to pull back on the reigns of grace and reassert law, it was to say that either side, preaching the gospel as grace apart from works or in a way that wrongly minimizes works, and the side of moralism, are both misplaced. The “balance” is not a little of both, it’s a complete and full picture of both, without applying “brakes” to either side.  It seems from much of your writing that you believe that the brakes must be applied to either grace or obedience, so you’ve chosen one to the detriment of the other.  This is unnecessary. 

A few clarifying issues: There are some category problems here.

1) We often make the mistake that because Paul juxtaposed grace and law in a certain way, that he juxtaposed them in every way. This is not the case, as we will see.

2) We often make the category mistake that law and obedience are the same thing. In Scripture, this clearly isn’t the case.

3) We often make the category mistake that law and Kingdom ethics are the same thing. They are not, in a strict sense, although they are clearly related.  In your post you use terms like “law” and “ethics” interchangeably, and this creates a problem.

With these category issues in view, here is what I would propose and what my real concerns are:

1) Grace is not to be seen as one side, and obedience as another, rather obedience is apart of a fuller and more fruitful presentation of grace. Grace is a free gift, not to be earned, and everything you said in your article here about legalism is true and has nothing to do with my earlier concern. However, my concern is that we are now presenting a gospel of grace that tries to strip obedience down as something other than that which extends from and is apart of the story of grace. In other words, a presentation that discusses grace as one thing, and obedience as another, is not biblical grace. Grace is free, is motivated the cross and displays God’s glory, we can’t earn it and need to tear down legalism in all forms as you suggest, but grace also enables and motivates obedience. The old dominant message of the American church was obedience by “bahaviorism” and legalism, the new message is grace as the key and obedience as fairly important but not to be confused with grace (which you think is missing, and my original contention is that it’s not, it’s the new dominant message in a large number of churches). I’m saying both are off, and the fullest message is grace that is free, grace that saves and justifies, grace that lifts up and glorifies Jesus, AND grace that enables and motivates us to obey.

One of the friends that emailed to tell me you quoted my post even said it before I could. His comment was “Tullian seems to think that all preaching about ethics is equated with legalism.” That’s how I feel when I read your work. There is a faithful, fruitful, and fuller way to preach ethics as a PART of the fuller message of grace. The two in balance in this way is what I was getting at.

2) You are right, we can NEVER put the brakes on grace. We don’t have to. But we ARE putting the brakes on the ethics of the Kingdom, and we shouldn’t do that either. Earlier you referred to thinking similar to what you thought I was implying as “simple”. I think the truest simple thinking is trying to box grace and obedience apart from each other rather than seeing the latter as extending from and being apart of the story of the former. Yes, it’s true you often affirm that works matter, but it’s always with an immediate “but” as is the case in this article. Soon it seems they’ll run together, “Obedience is goo…butt!!!!”. It’s akin to telling the story of my life but downplaying the role of my third child so as not to displace the significance of the other two, as if one may threaten the beauty of the others. But then, you have a small version of me because all three kids matter a great deal. Discussions of grace juxtaposed from obedience is a smaller picture of grace than the biblical one.

A few brief Scripture observations.

1) Contrary to what you said, I’ve considered Genesis 3 a great deal. I’ve considered in a full context to the book of Genesis, the rest of the OT, and the NT as well. In Genesis, God illustrates our need through Cain, the Flood, and other stories. Of course, as you state, he gives the law to show us our need and point to Christ, and he also gives the law for many other reasons. The Psalmists knew the grace of God, called for it often, and also rejoiced in the law and in the joy that comes with obedience, seeing God’s grace as a motivator to obey not as moralism, or to earn something, or out of fear (although this would be a reasonable response), they rejoiced in the law because it’s very giving was an act of grace and they obeyed in joy and gratitude. Psalm 119 is of course a great example.

2) When Jesus preached the gospel, it wasn’t the truncated gospel of justification alone (although that was centrally important), it was jubilee (Luke 4:16-30), it was setting what has been made wrong and making it right through the fullness of of the extent of sins not just for justification, but for the whole of renewal of people and creation. This includes ethics and obedience. We need to wonder, why was it so often that, as in the case of Matthew 4:23, Jesus followed up mentions of the gospel by immediately discussing ethics (the sermon on the mount begins just two verses later). I think it’s because Jesus was concerned that ethics and responsibilities in his Kingdom be seen as apart of his work of grace.

3) Of course, Paul’s passage in Ephesians 2 is a beautiful declaration of his grace, and illustrates this in two ways. His explanation of grace is famously concluded in 2:10 with a reminder to works, extending from and apart of the story of grace, but the whole book of Ephesians illustrates this as well. As is well known, the first three chapters of Ephesians display the glory and work of God, highlighting his grace, but 4:1 starts the second half by “Therefore…walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

It’s not that God does one, and we do the other, it’s that God does one through grace (choosing, saving, sealing, etc.) AND God does the other through grace as well (enabling and motivating us to obey, through grace and as apart of the fullest form of the message of grace). Paul nowhere in Ephesians distinguishes one as “The real thing we need” and the other as “The thing that’s important but may lead to legalism if we’re not careful.” Nor does he say one is greater than the other. The entire book is a full picture, and none of it can be minimized, we can’t apply the brakes to any of it.

4) You said that preaching obedience never changes anyone or helps them obey. This isn’t true. Preaching obedience apart from grace will never do those things, but preaching ethics and obedience as a part of the picture of grace gives legs to the story in the lives of believers, not to make believers the point of the story (to the point of another good caution in your article) but to do justice to Jesus who is the point of the story.

5) In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus explicitly commands his followers to teach people to obey his commandments.  This seems that, as Jesus was delivering his final charge, obedience was of great concern. 

Finally, I hesitate with this one but feel it worth mentioning. In regards to historical Jesus studies Donald Hagner recently said that it was more of a “Quest for the hypothetical Jesus.” He said this because modern portraits of Jesus are mostly attempts to see him though the lens of our own stories, sufferings, and experiences of abuse in the church. I wonder if your view of grace has something very much to do not with biblical portraits of obedience and ethics, but with the ways you experienced abuse in the church as these things are concerned? Forgive me if this last point is out of line.

Again, my point was never licentiousness, lawlessness, or legalism.  My concern is that we not preach a small view of grace. It’s a small view of grace that saves but leaves transformation and ethics as a “sub-topic.” This is the real way we put “brakes” on grace.