September 12, 2012 by brianlhughes
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Risking ostracism and excommunication, and later narrowly avoiding execution as a heretic, Luther took a stand against the rampant abuses taking place at the hands of the church of his day; villainous actions based upon a vast departure from the unchanging truths of God’s written Word. At the time, Luther could have no indication of the world-changing implications his single act of public protest would have. The Ninety-five Theses were the spark that ignited the raging fire we now know as the Protestant Reformation; a fire that flowed like hot lava, eventually hardening into the bedrock of every Protestant church that exists today. Luther was gripped and compelled by the cry of Sola Scriptura, which is translated “the Bible alone.” After centuries of increasing corruption and abuse by the Catholic Church, having kept access to God’s Word out of reach for the common man, Luther refused to let one more day pass without someone taking a stand for all that Christ taught, lived and died for.
Fast forward 500 years, and many see a similar reformation mounting in the modern day. Just as in Luther’s time, there are those today who are leveraging religion and the name of Jesus to manipulate and control others for selfish gain. In other circles, Christianity has become little more than a feel good program of self-help and motivation, where the Bible is cherry-picked to support a view that God promises boundless financial prosperity and complete freedom from earthly suffering. Yet perhaps more prevalent than these blatantly flawed theologies is a more subtle departure in the modern evangelical church from biblical truths about law, grace and Christ’s finished work on the cross. Just as Luther, there are men today who are rallying around the cry of Sola Scriptura and calling followers of Jesus to return to the truth, doctrine and bedrock foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ found in the pages of God’s inerrant word. Some call it “The Resurgence”. Some have dubbed the movement “Young, Restless and Reformed.” Leaders such as John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller have surfaced. The theologically like-minded have rallied into conglomerates such as The Gospel Coalition. Countless websites and blogs have emerged around the movement. Twitter feeds are saturated daily with the very same biblical truths that Luther and his contemporaries espoused centuries ago. Ready or not, here the reformers come, and they are taking the American church by storm.
Here in South Florida, Pastor Tullian Tchvidjian, Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale and grandson of evangelist Billy Graham, is leading the charge. Tchvidjian sat down for a recent interview with the Good News to give his perspective on what God is doing through the resurgence of reformed theology taking place today.
To what do you attribute the resurgence of reformed theology in the American church in recent years?
By all accounts this is a movement that is happening primarily among young evangelicals. Many have grown up in theologically shallow churches that were primarily focused on the method and not the message. This has left people hungering for something more. Young people are dealing with real questions and real life issues. Many have grown up in broken homes are lacking the rootedness, stability and security that their heart longs for.
When we go back to the Protestant Reformation, we see a theology that was developed that highlights a very big God and His amazing grace in moving towards sinners, coupled with a pronounced description of the desperation of the human condition. This theology really resonates with sinners; with honest people who recognize their own desperation and their own limitations. People know themselves and know that, no matter how well they may act like they’re pulling it off, they’re really not pulling it off. They know that they’re not cutting it, no matter how good they are at convincing other people that they are.
Many malign reformed theology for emphasizing grace too heavily. What do you say to those who call you “one of those grace guys”?
One of the things that I try to be careful of is to articulate that God speaks two words, not one. The two words that God speaks are law and gospel. Both are good because both come from God, but both do very different things. When we read Romans chapter 7, we see that the law shows us what a sanctified life looks like, but it does not have the power to sanctify. Sanctification is the job of the gospel. The law crushes us, the gospel cures us. The law shows us our sin, but the law is powerless to remove our sin.
If I get the charge “you only talk about grace,” my immediate response is that, no, we talk about what the reformers talked about in terms of law and gospel. I think that confusing those two things, trusting the law to do what only the gospel can do and trusting in the gospel to do what only the law can do, is where so much confusion comes in from inside the church. I mean, it happens in our homes. For instance, if I make the mistake as a parent to believe that, if I just tell my kids what to do enough times, heart change will happen, I make a huge mistake. In that case, I’m trusting to law to do what only the gospel can do. I can say to my kids, “Don’t be rude to your mother.” While me telling them not to be rude to their mother sets a standard, it does not have the power to make them want to be kind to their mother.
So, I think there’s a lot of confusion. We’re not just “grace only.” It’s law and gospel. It’s law then gospel, not law or gospel. The people who typically respond most vehemently to the unconditionality of God’s amazing grace are, for whatever reason, those who conclude that grace leads to moral license. And, as I tell people all the time, I have never, ever, ever, met one person whose heart has been gripped by God’s one-way love, who then concludes, “This is great now I can go out and do whatever I want!”
If you think the doctrine of God’s free grace gives you the license to go out and do whatever you want, obviously you don’t grasp grace deep enough. A heart that is deeply gripped by God’s grace doesn’t ask those kinds of questions. A life, a heart that is deeply gripped by God’s grace says, “Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee. Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.” People will say, “Our concern is not that we’re failing to revel in God’s grace. It is that we aren’t focusing enough on obedience.” I say show me one person who revels in God’s grace who then cares not at all about following God’s lead. It’s impossible. If you’re not interested in following God’s lead, that’s the first demonstration that you’re not reveling in God’s grace.
In your book Jesus + Nothing = Everything you talk openly about the turmoil within your congregation a few years ago. What did that time of trial teach you personally about the grace and sufficiency of Christ?
2009 was the hardest year of my life. That year, the church that I planted in 2003, New City, merged with Coral Ridge, the church that I currently pastor. Soon after the merger there was a group who opposed just about everything I was trying to do, and who circulated a petition to have me removed. I had never been in a situation like that before in my life. By God’s grace, I had always been in positions where I was relatively well liked and approved, and now I found myself in a situation where people did not approve of me. People did not like me. People did not accept me and love me, and it felt like the flesh was being ripped off of my bones.
I remember crying out to God in the summer of 2009 and saying, “Just give me my old life back! You’ve really messed everything up. I was having a great time at New City and now you’ve called us to merge these two churches and everything is falling apart .Just give me my old life back!” It was through Colossians 1, specifically verses 12 through 14 that God made it very clear to me that it wasn’t actually my old life I wanted back. It was my old idols I wanted back and He loved me too much to give them to me.
It was then that I realized just how dependent I had become on human approval and acceptance to make me feel like I mattered and to validate my existence. That’s when I felt my chains fall off. It was a fresh realization that everything I need in Christ I already possess. All of the approval, acceptance, affection, justification, validation, worth, meaning and value that I need, Christ has already purchased for me and is already mine. That absolutely changed everything. It was the single biggest turning point in my life. It set me free to be bold, to be courageous, to be generous, to love my enemies, to be sacrificial and to fail. It set me free from pretending things were okay when in reality, they weren’t. When the gospel sets you free, so that you no longer having to pretend and wear masks, it changes everything. There’s no way my eyes would have been opened to that if God had not caused me to crash and burn. Desperation always precedes deliverance. The cross always precedes the resurrection.
What do you believe is the danger of moralism and legalism to the Christian individually and the body of Christ corporately?
Legalism is nothing more than embodied slavery. Legalism and moralism put the pressure on us to save ourselves. When a lot of people hear the word “legalism,” they think of people who believe that Jesus plus my works saves me. But I don’t find too many people inside the protestant evangelical church who believe that. However, I do meet people every day, and in fact I am one of these people, whose default mode is, “I don’t believe that my hard work and performance gains God’s favor, but I do believe that my hard work and performance maintain God’s favor.” That is a much more subtle form of legalism that absolutely plagues churches that would call the first form of legalism heresy. They would rightly say “That’s heretical! It is by God’s grace alone that we are saved and justified.” But the same people who affirm that very often fall into the trap of believing that the more I do, the harder I work and the better I perform, the more God loves me; that God’s love for me is ultimately dependent on my performance for Him.
It is a very freeing realization that God’s love for me is ultimately dependent on Christ’s performance for me, not my performance for Him. When that grips your heart, it actually makes you want to obey more. The Christian life is a love affair with an un-losable lover. The illustration that I’ve used before is this. When my wife Kim is kind and loving towards me, not only when I’m nice but especially when I’m being a jerk, that doesn’t make me want to be more of a jerk. It makes me feel sorry for being a jerk and makes me want to love her!
Paul tells us that it’s the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance. It is just so hard for many Christians to believe that it is God‘s amazing grace that changes us. Legalism and moralism say, “I obey therefore I’m accepted.” The gospel says, “I’m accepted, therefore I obey.” That’s a big, big difference. I meet so many Christians inside the church who really believe that God is angry with them; that He’s ready to throw lightning bolts down on any of us Christians who mess up to the left or to the right. The kindness and the sweetness of God is eliminated in a legalistic and moralistic scheme. It puts all the burden on us, which amounts to nothing more than total slavery. I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to pull it off. The whole thing is riding on me.
How does God’s grace have a practical impact on a Christian in times of personal failure?
I think it begins with the realization that my failure does not forfeit God’s love for me, because His love for me is not dependent on my success. When a person who has failed, in a big way or a small way, begins to really believe that, it breathes new life into them and they actually begin to run from the things that they used to run toward and run toward the things that they used to run from. When God’s grace is grasped in the context of failure, everything changes.
So much of our failure is owing to the fact that we don’t believe that everything we need in Christ we have. So, in the context of moral failure, for instance, I have simply gone outside of what I already possess in Christ to look for the satisfaction, meaning and value that I long for. So, as Martin Luther said, “The sin underneath every sin is unbelief.” In a moment when I give into temptation, I am failing to believe the gospel. So, it is our lack of belief in grace that oftentimes leads to our failure. It is only by believing in God’s grace that we can not only accept the fact that we have failed and be honest about the fact that we have failed, but receive new life and be changed from the inside out.
You have a new book coming out next month. Can you give our readers a sneak preview of the content?
Glorious Ruin is a book on suffering. The subtitle is “How suffering sets you free.” In my own life, I have found that suffering is God’s primary tool to set me free. Suffering helps us to see the idol structure of our hearts. So often, suffering is the result of God prying open our hands and taking away something that we’ve been holding onto more dearly than him. Suffering shows us what we’re depending on to make life worth living. So, even in 2009, when I look back and think about the cause of my suffering, initially I thought it had everything to do with my circumstances. But what I quickly discovered, when God opened my eyes afresh to the “now power” of the gospel, was that the source of my pain was not my difficult circumstances. The source of my pain was God taking things away from me that I had been depending on to save me on a daily basis: approval, acceptance, affection, opinions and accomplishments. It was God taking away those things that caused me to feel the pain that I felt.
You recently launched Liberate? What is Liberate and what do you hope to see God do through it?
I travel and speak quite a bit. Wherever I would go – to Baptists or Pentecostals, conferences or college campuses, Catalyst or the Gospel Coalition – whoever I would speak to, inevitably people would come up to me afterwards, many of them with tears in their eyes, and ask two questions. Number one, “Is what you just said true?” And, secondly, “If it is, why have I been in church my entire life and have never heard this? I’ve heard a lot of sermons about 10 ways to have a happy marriage, 6 ways to raise healthy kids, 5 ways to make sure you don’t look at internet pornography, 8 ways to maintain healthy relationships, but I haven’t heard the kind of good news that you’re sharing.”
One guy said it very well. He said, “I’ve spent my entire life in church and have heard sermon after sermon about the Christian and not the Christ.” Many are people are led to believe that the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian. It’s not! The Bible is not some divine self-help manual. It’s an infallible revelation of the One who came to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. The One who came to clean up the mess we made; He’s the hero of the story. Because I was getting this type of response wherever I went, my heart just became increasingly burdened to create some kind of platform where I could recruit people who were saying the same things that I was saying and we could start saying it together. So, earlier this year, we created Liberate. We launched last February simply as a conference. We had over 1,000 people from 31 states and 3 countries. It has since expanded to a very well-resourced website with videos, blogs, articles and testimonies, and we have a second conference planned for 2013.
Through Liberate, we talk a lot about law and gospel. Through the demand of the law God shows us our sin, through the comfort of the gospel He gives us the liberating love of Jesus. When most people think of what the gospel is and what the gospel does, they think mostly in terms of evangelism. The gospel is what people outside the church need. The assumption is that once God saves us, he then moves us beyond the gospel. But what the Bible actually teaches is that God doesn’t move us beyond the gospel, but actually more deeply into it. In other words, the gospel isn’t just God’s power to save us, it is God’s power to change us after we’re saved. We never, ever move beyond our need for Christ’s finished work. The gospel doesn’t just free us from the past and for the future, it also frees us in the present from being enslaved to things like fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement, insignificance and so on. We are on a mission to introduce this liberating word to both non-Christians and Christians, hoping that sinners will discover and rest in the scandalous freedom that Jesus suffered so dearly to secure for us.
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