Beliefs Culture Ethics Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Pastor Matt Chandler talks redemption–from substance abuse to serial failures

Many believers get burnt out on faith, exhausted by efforts to "work harder" to be holy. But mega-church pastor Matt Chandler says this is neither necessary nor possible.
Many believers get burnt out on faith, exhausted by efforts to "work harder" to be holy. But mega-church pastor Matt Chandler says this is neither necessary nor possible.

Many believers get burnt out on faith, exhausted by efforts to “work harder” to be holy. But mega-church pastor Matt Chandler says this is neither necessary nor possible.

Pastor Matt Chandler wants Christians to take a breather. Many believers get burnt out on faith, exhausted by efforts to “work harder” to be holy. But Chandler says this is neither necessary nor possible. Instead of straining towards holiness, he encourages the faithful to simply fix their eyes on Jesus.

Chandler has been leading The Village Church in Dallas/Fort Worth since 2002, during which time the congregation grew from 160 people to over 11,000 with campuses across the city. He also serves as president of Acts 29, a church planting network with more than 500 congregations around the world. Here, we discuss his view of redemption and how it applies to contemporary issues such as substance abuse and serial failure.

RNS: In my experience, redemption for evangelicals means “work harder,” do more good stuff, and stave off bad behavior. But this isn’t your message, is it?

MC: No, because redemption isn’t you working harder. Redemption is you having been saved from your error by someone else. In fact, you don’t possess the ability to redeem yourself in any way. This is the great lie of moralistic deism, that you can be good enough. Men from the Bible–from the prophet Isaiah to Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount–teach that you cannot be righteous enough to save yourself. One of the more terrifying verses in the Bible is when Jesus said to a crowd, “Unless your righteousness supersedes the Pharisees, you have no part of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The Pharisees were tithing their mint and dill and were more righteous, externally speaking, than anyone reading this has even tried to be. Jesus is exposing the truth that you and I will never be good enough, that all of our righteous deeds are worthless. So, this can’t be the message of redemption because the Scriptures are clear that redemption doesn’t work that way.

Image courtesy of Broadman and Holman

Image courtesy of Broadman and Holman

RNS: Your book is built on the idea that the gospel is the great “unless” of life. What do you mean by this?

MC: All of us by design and default are pursuing meaning and depth in life. But our pursuits almost always lead to a type of slavery “unless” the gospel invades and straightens those pursuits. For example, if I believe the lie that a better version of me will solve all of my problems, I become a slave to trying to be more disciplined, harder working, better looking, more charismatic. The gospel grants us rest in our identity as justified, adopted children of God. Transformation then proceeds from our new found identity and rest.

RNS: How has the church lost the beauty of redemption?

MC: I think the church loses the beauty of redemption the moment we think there is no more sin, no more error, to be redeemed from. I think Christian history will show that, the moment we remove the atoning work of Jesus Christ from the equation, the moment preachers are motivational or inspirational speakers, rather than the heralders of the good news of Jesus Christ, you lose redemption all together . . . because there’s nothing to be redeemed from.

RNS: A lot of churches have difficulty helping people with substance abuse. How can the ideas of your book help them do a better job?

MC: When it comes to substance abuse, there are two core things we want to encourage churches and Christians to do. First, create space where people can be honest about their addictions. Second, create space where we can dig around in the heart to see what led to it. Ultimately, what we’re wanting to see is Christ work in their hearts and become most valuable in their eyes and minds so the craving is not for the abuse or the substance, but for Christ Himself. This usually takes a while, although we’ve seen it be miraculous. Christians should faithfully walk with people in strong community while encouraging toward godliness. We want them to get their eyes on Jesus.

RNS: What do you do with serial failures–those people who want to be better and do better, who commit and submit to the gospel over and over, but keep falling off the horse? How do you respond to those who crave and even chase after redemption, but never seem to change?

MC: I do think Christians get stuck in their walks with God. I think this is because somewhere along the way they take their eye off of the ball, the ball being the personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and instead begin to focus on something else. Colossians 3 says that we first fix our eyes on Jesus; we fix our eyes where He’s seated in the heavenly. We fix our eyes and our minds on where He is, then we put to death what is earthly in us. Then we’ve got that long list of what the earthly things are in us starting in verse 5. I think the way Christians get stuck is somewhere along the way we no longer fix our eyes on Jesus, but instead say, “Let me put to death this thing.” At that moment, you’ve taken your eyes off of where the power and ability to put things to death actually comes from.

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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  • I don’t know Jonathan. I think Evangelical preachers have been banging this drum hard for a long time. If Evangelicals haven’t gotten the message its not for lack of trying. I have seen piles of books, pamphlets, blog posts, online sermons, etc, on this subject. The Evangelical battle against the ever invading horde of works righteousness is well documented and disseminated. I haven’t read Matt’s book, but I’d be willing to place a hefty wager that it is largely redundant.

    I’ve personally struggled with addiction in my life, and I hope that Matt’s advice to addicts is more comprehensive in his book than it seems in summary in your interview. My experience is that people who haven’t experienced addiction first hand often have a woefully inadequate view of what addicts need. 12-step groups do a pretty dang good job of practically addressing the needs of an addict for surrender to God, honest self-evaluation, seeking forgiveness and forgiving, communal support, taking responsibility for living in a way that is healthy for themselves, and sharing real life and love with others.

    This is not a motivational process, but one that speaks to our basic human needs and failings. These are things we *do* and yet they are also God working through us. Christians stress too much on trying to determine when they are falling into works righteousness when salvation is really transformation through a life lived with God. Working in your walk with God is not bad. The life with God is not passive, but active and alive. Working doesn’t inherently mean trying to earn your righteousness or take over, as much as it is a recognition that God has made us for a certain life, that he has provided us with a way to live with him in Christ, and that he has blessed us with an abundance of grace to walk and work with him. The Church has been teaching this for two thousand years and numerous Church fathers have written deeply and extensively on this subject. Although Matt is a wonderful communicator and is super charismatic (11,000 church-goers testify to that) I would urge people to dive into the historic teachings of the Church instead. Salvation isn’t a moment in time born of a mental assent, it is being a partaker of the living, plentiful life of God.

  • That last statement is poignant. The adversary is crafty at leading us astray into trying to follow Christ under the power of human will. The signal we’re doing this is that we focus on the thing we’re trying to defeat or surrender to Christ. Pushing ourselves or allowing Christian leaders to push us puts us on a fleshly and selfish track as we try to prove something, be good, be acceptable, a good Christian, holy or whatever. It’s of the devil because our eyes are on ourselves.

    The good news is we get to be motivated by God’s love for the sake of God’s love. Being compelled by love will bear fruit that an exaggerated sense of duty will never produce.

  • Ditto EVERYTHING Chris said in the comment above. I like Matt a ton and his message of true redemption is right, BUT I hope the book is a lot more practical and comprehensive in it’s discussion of addictions than this quick summary. The paragraph here leads me to believe he knows absolutely nothing of addiction and how to address Christian addicts. And I agree that working out our faith in relationship with Christ is not a bad thing either when we have a real and bigger understanding of grace and life transformation. I’d rather not see the pendulum swing back towards “do nothing” in an effort to avoid works righteousness.

  • Perhaps the balance between lazy permissiveness and exaggerated self-discipline (works-righteousness) is less about what we do or how much we do as it is about why we do it. Perhaps that balance is struck – at all stages in our relationship with God – if we abide in God’s love, being compelled from within as our souls “stand up and say Yes!” to grace. May we be motivated by God’s love for the sake of God’s love. That is the best way I know to weed out all that is Pharisaical.

  • In my capacity as a recovery group leader at The Village Church, and as one that has gone through the Steps process, I would like to comment. When I say addiction, I don’t just mean substances. As sinners, understanding that this side of glory we will always struggle with sin, we understand that we are all “recovering” sinners.

    What I have discovered, walking along side men who have struggled with a myriad of addictions (and a recovering addict myself), the only lasting remedy I have witnessed is the freedom that comes through Jesus Christ. When we as leaders are talking to someone, we are not trying to point them to sobriety, but trying to help them come to realize (even believe) that through Jesus they have been set free. And falling back into addiction is submitting themselves to a slavery that Jesus has freed them from. I have witnessed, addicts desperate for sobriety, try to white knuckle themselves to into sobriety, or they end up simply replacing one addiction for another. Therefore, they find themselves endlessly going through what we call “the insanity cycle of sin.” Through our Steps process we are trying to get to what we say is “the sin beneath the sin.” Any addiction is a symptom of a deeper heart issue, so it by addressing the heart issue (whatever that might be) we then treat the addiction. The gospel is the only remedy for those underlying heart issues. So all that to say, we treat ourselves, and our sin sick fellow Christians with the remedy that God has graciously given us, the gospel. So if you were to sit in on a Village Church recovery group, you would hear leaders and attendants encouraging, comforting, and reminding each other of the gospel. The beautiful thing about that, I have witnessed men saved from religion, I have seen marriages reconciled, I have seen hostile men have their hearts softened and changed. The gospels saves us, it’s through the good news of Jesus Christ that God sanctifies us, and it’s through the gospel that God will bring us into glory. As Tim Keller says “Everything we ever needed, in Jesus we already have”

  • Thank you Chris
    I especially liked your words concerning 12 step groups: 12-step groups do a pretty dang good job. Your words that follow also do a good quick of what 12 step groups do.
    My concern is in how many religious and church groups have “highjack” the AA 12 step program. AA has never copied righted the steps. Saddle Back Church has developed a expensive program really based on the steps. I have taught it. Found the anti AA 12 step attitude of the program hard to take.
    While the 12 steps which they change a little of the wording to suit them are not copied righted Saddle Back makes sure all their material is copied righted.
    The so called “Christian” 12 step groups only set themselves up for many of the group members to fail. Faith just doesn’t work that way for every alcoholic or drug addict. Forget the anonymity when it comes to 12 step programs such as Saddle Back. They use videos “testimonies” which puts the persons in recovery on the spot. What do they do with the videos if a person in them relapses?

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