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Billy Graham’s grandson takes Christians to task: An interview with Tullian Tchividjian

Author and grandson of Billy Graham's Christians need to stop focusing on performance and get "drunk on grace."
Author and grandson of Billy Graham's Christians need to  stop focusing on performance and get "drunk on grace."

Author and grandson of Billy Graham’s Christians need to stop focusing on performance and get “drunk on grace.”

William Graham Tullian Tchividjian is the grandson of the iconic American evangelist, Billy Graham. But he’s also much more than that. Tchividjian is senior pastor of Ft. Lauderdale’s Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church–formerly the congregation of the late D. James Kennedy–as well as a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, a contributing editor for Leadership Journal, and the author of several bestselling books including Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

In his most recent book, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted WorldTchividjian takes Christians to task for their legalistic focus on performance. But he also casts a vision for a more grace-filled future. Here, we talk about what he thinks is wrong with the Christian church today and what he believes the answer is.

JM: One criticism that has been leveled against the church is that we’ve been more concerned with behavior modification than with grace. Am I correct in saying that you believe this is a valid criticism?

There’s no question that for far too long the church has been primarily concerned with external change. Preachers are afraid of grace because they think it undercuts obedience and encourages apathy. If Jesus paid it all and it is finished, if the judgment against us has been fully and finally taken care of, aren’t we opening the door to lawlessness? This is what Judaizers were afraid of: they didn’t like Gospel of free grace because they thought people would get out of control. If God is not mad at me and if he will never love me more than he does right now, then why can’t I party my way through life? The underlying fear is that unconditional grace leads to licentiousness.

While attacks on morality will always come from outside the church, attacks on grace will always come from inside the church because somewhere along the way we’ve come to believe that this whole thing is about behavioral modification and personal moral improvement. We’ve concluded that grace just doesn’t possess the teeth to scare us into changing. As a result we get a steady diet of “do more, try harder” sermons; we get a “to do list” version of Christianity that causes us to believe the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian. So we end up hearing more about “Christian living” than the Christ.

We think this will be what gets people to clean up their act, to fix themselves, to volunteer in the nursery, to obey, to read their Bibles, to change the world–but it actually has the opposite effect. A steady diet of “do more, try harder” sermons doesn’t cause people to do more or try harder…it makes them give up. Legalism produces lawlessness 10 times out of 10.

The fact is, that the solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God. Only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The route by which the New Testament exhorts sacrificial love and obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home. Charles Spurgeon nailed it when he said, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I beat my breast to think I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good.”

JM: Where do you think Christianity has missed the mark of offering living water? How did we get where we are today?

Book cover courtesy of David C. Cook

Book cover courtesy of David C. Cook

TT: The Christian church has sadly not proven to be immune to performancism. Far from it. In recent years, a handful of books have been published urging a more robust, radical, and sacrificial expression of the Christian faith. I even wrote one of them—Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by being Different. I heartily “amen” the desire to take one’s faith seriously and demonstrate before the watching world a willingness to be more than just Sunday churchgoers.

The unintended consequence of this push, however, is that if we’re not careful we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifice we make for Jesus rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us; our performance for him rather than his performance for us; our obedience for him rather than his obedience for us. The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” I fear that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard this plea for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is our love for God instead of God’s love for us.

Furthermore, it seems that the good news of God’s grace has been tragically hijacked by an oppressive religious moralism that is all about rules, rules, and more rules; doing more, trying harder, self-help, getting better, and fixing, fixing, fixing–—ourselves, our kids, our spouse, our friends, our enemies, our culture, our world. Christianity is perceived as being a vehicle for good behavior and clean living and the judgments that result from them rather than the only recourse for those who have failed over and over again.

Sadly, too many churches have helped to perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with legislating morality. Believe it or not, Christianity is not about good people getting better. If anything, it is good news for bad people coping with their failure to be good. Too many people have walked away from the church not because they’re walking away from Jesus, but because the church has walked away from Jesus. Ask any of the so-called “religious nones” who’ve answered their census questions differently in past years, and I guarantee you will hear a story about either spiritual burn-out or heavy-handed condemnation from fellow believers.

“Works righteousness” is the word that the Protestant Reformation used to describe spiritual performancism, and it has plagued the church—and the world—since the Garden of Eden. It might not be too much of an overstatement to say that if Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom for the oppressed, sight to the blind, then Christianity has come to stand for, and in practice promulgate, the exact opposite of what its founder intended (Luke 4:18–19).

JM: I’m with you, but you’re a pastor yourself. What are the ways in which you–yes you, as a clergy person–have been complicit in perpetuating this system?

TT: I’m so embarrassed by many of the sermons I preached early on. I wish I could go back and apologize to all the people who heard them. My primary concern at that time was to get people to do more, try harder, and change. The end result was stunted spiritual growth for our people because I was causing them to fix their eyes on themselves rather than on Christ.

Eugene Peterson has wisely said that “discipleship is a process of paying more and more attention to God’s righteousness and less and less attention to our own.” The way many of us think about sanctification is, well, not very sanctified. In fact, it’s terribly narcissistic. We spend too much time thinking about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We spend too much time pondering our spiritual failures and brooding over our spiritual successes.

Ironically, I’ve discovered that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get—I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our performance over Christ’s performance for us actually hinders spiritual growth because it makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective—the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about yourself. As J. C. Kromsigt said, “The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth.”

In those early early days, I was treating the Bible like it was a heaven-sent self-help manual. The fact is, that unless we go to the Bible to see Jesus and his work for us, even our devout Bible reading can become fuel for our own self-improvement plans, the place we go for the help we need to “conquer today’s challenges and take control of our lives.”

What I’ve learned since those days is that the Bible is not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. The Bible is not a witness to the best people making it up to God; it’s a witness to God making it down to the worst people. The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with his rescue; our sin with his salvation; our failure with his favor; our guilt with his grace; our badness with his goodness.

So, if we read (or preach) the Bible asking first, “What would Jesus do?” instead of asking “What has Jesus done” we’ll miss the good news that alone can set us free. Evangelicals desperately need to recover the truth that the overwhelming focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. This means that the Bible is not first a recipe book for Christian living, but a revelation book of Jesus who is the answer to our unchristian living.

JM: What was it that triggered this grace-awakening in you?

TT: Life, suffering, and failure have a way of transforming you from an idealist to a realist—from thinking that you’re strong to reminding you that you’re weak.

When I was 25, I believed I could change the world. At 40, I have come to the realization that I cannot change my wife, my church, or my kids, to say nothing of the world. Try as I might, I have not been able to manufacture outcomes the way I thought I could, either in my own life or other people’s. Unfulfilled dreams, ongoing relational tension, the loss of friendships, a hard marriage, rebellious teenagers, the death of loved ones, remaining sinful patterns—whatever it is for you—live long enough, lose enough, suffer enough, and the idealism of youth fades, leaving behind the reality of life in a broken world as a broken person. Life has had a way of proving to me that I’m not on the constantly-moving-forward escalator of progress I thought I was on when I was twenty-five.

Instead, my life has looked more like this: Try and fail. Fail then try. Try and succeed. Succeed then fail. Two steps forward. One step back. One step forward. Three steps back. Every year, I get better at some things, worse at others. Some areas remain stubbornly static. To complicate matters even more, when I honestly acknowledge the ways I’ve gotten worse, it’s actually a sign that I may be getting better. And when I become proud of the ways I’ve gotten better, it’s actually a sign that I’ve gotten worse. And ’round and ’round we go.

If this sounds like a depressing sentiment, it isn’t meant to be one. Quite the opposite. If I am grateful for anything about these past 15 years, it’s for the way God has wrecked my idealism about myself and the world and replaced it with a realism about the extent of His grace and love, which is much bigger than I had ever imagined. Indeed, the smaller you get—the smaller life makes you—the easier it is to see the grandeur of grace. While I am far more incapable than I may have initially thought, God is infinitely more capable than I ever hoped.

JM: The kind of grace you describe in One-Way Love sounds scandalous, and if I know my fellow Christians like I think I do, you’ll get a little blowback from this message. What do you anticipate will be most surprising?

TT: I’m sure it will get mixed reactions. This isn’t the kind of book that people can feel neutral about. People who are aware of their weakness, failure, smallness, and incompetancy will love it. Those who are aware of their desperation love grace and they will find new life and breath in One Way Love. But those who want to believe that they’re strong and competant, capable and sturdy, will be offended. That’s fine.

I’ll never forget hearing Dr. Doug Kelly (one of my theology professors in seminary) saying in class, “If you want to make people mad, preach law. If you want to make them really, really mad preach grace.” I didn’t know what he meant then. But I do now. The law offends us because it tells us what to do–and we hate anyone telling us what to do, most of the time. But, ironically, grace offends us even more because it tells us that there’s nothing we can do, that everything has already been done. And if there’s something we hate more than being told what to do, it’s being told that we can’t do anything, that we can’t earn anything–that we’re helpless, weak, and needy.

The law, at least, assures us that we determine our own destiny—we get to maintain control, the outcome of our life remains in our hands. Give me three steps to a happy marriage and I can guarantee myself a happy marriage if I follow the three steps. If we can do certain things, meet certain standards (whether God’s, my own, my parents, my spouse’s, society’s, whatever) and become a certain way, we’ll make it. Law seems safe because it breeds a sense of manageability. It keeps life formulaic and predictable. It keeps earning-power in our camp. The logic of law makes sense. The logic of grace doesn’t.

Grace is thickly counter-intuitive. It feels risky and unfair. It turns everything that makes sense to us upside-down. It’s not rational. It offends our deepest sense of justice and rightness. It wrestles control out of our hands and destroys our safe, conditional world.

So, it doesn’t surprise me at all when I hear people react to grace with suspicion and doubt. It doesn’t surprise me that when people talk about grace, I hear lots of “buts and brakes”, conditions and qualifications. That’s just the flesh fighting for its life, after all. As Walter Marshall says, “By nature, you are completely addicted to a legal method of salvation. Even after you become a Christian by believing the Gospel, your heart is still addicted to salvation by works…You find it hard to believe that you should get any blessing before you work for it.”

But while I’m not surprised when I hear venomous rejoinders to grace (the flesh is always resistant to “It is finished”), I am saddened when the very pack of people that God has unconditionally saved and continues to sustain by his free grace are the very ones who push back most violently against it.

It is high time for the church to honor its Founder by embracing sola gratia anew, to reignite the beacon of hope for the hopeless and point all of us bedraggled performancists back to the freedom and rest of the Cross. To leave our “if’s,” “and’s,” or “but’s” behind and get back to proclaiming the only message that matters—and the only message we have—the Word about God’s one-way love for sinners. It is time for us to abandon once and for all our play-it-safe religion, and, as Robert Farrar Capon so memorably put it, get drunk on grace. Two- hundred-proof, unflinching grace. It’s shocking and scary, unnatural and undomesticated…but it is also the only thing that can set us free and light the church, and the world, on fire.

*RELATED: RNS reports on Tullian’s brother, Boz: “Billy Graham’s grandson: evangelicals ‘worse’ than Catholics on sex abuse”*

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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