Boring Grace?

A review of Tullian Tchividjian’s One Way Love- Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World

There are doubtless those who live by the law and don’t quite get grace, but is that the world most of the readers of this book inhabit?   Maybe it is, but maybe it has just become the accepted norm to repeat that there are lots of people out there drowning in legalism endorsed by the church and that there is too little teaching about grace.   Maybe its just been repeated so much that people accept that it must be true and any book about grace is therefore a necessary corrective of this problem.

The reviews I read about Tullian Tchividjian’s One Way Love were so enthusiastic that I immediately shelved out the £7.99 for the Kindle version, stopped reading the latest Keller book and jumped in, looking forward to a stimulating and encouraging account of Gods grace in my exhausted world.   After all when The Gospel Coalition website carries several articles on the book, and when people as diverse as Billy Graham, Eric Metaxas, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Lee Strobel, Paul Tripp, Dr Iain Duguid, Max Lucardo, Sheila Walsh and Rick Warren so wholeheartedly endorse this book as life changing and like drinking from a fire hydrant, expectations are well and truly raised.   Were they met?

I loved the sub-title.   I don’t know Tullian, but what I have read of him, and by him, is excellent.  There is much to encourage.  In ten short chapters he brings a mix of biblical exegesis, personal stories, good quotes and relevant cultural examples to magnify and tell the wondrous story of Gods grace in Christ.  He points out the errors of performancism, warns of the dangers of spiritual burn out, and suggests that the church in the 21st Century needs another Reformation as radical as the 15th Century one.   He discusses the differences between justification and sanctification, and between law and grace, in a helpful way.  And yet…when I finished it last night I could only give it three stars and to be honest was even reluctant to do that.   I guess ultimately I was disappointed. Why?

Writing this review has actually been really difficult for lots of reasons – I am a bit of a coward and so many people who I admire and respect are raving about this book that I don’t want to upset any of them if they read it; I don’t want it to be used by the very legalists Tullian rightly warns about and, knowing what it is like to write a book, I feel for any author whose book is not loved by everyone!  I don’t know Tullian; other than by his excellent reputation (which I have no reason to doubt), so I hope that no one will see this as personal.

Grace-Lit – My problem is not with him, but with what I call the current trend for Grace-Lit that is coming almost entirely out of American evangelicalism.  For some reason as I reflected on this particular genre of Christian literature the Monty Python sketch, Four Yorkshiremen, came to mind! (You can see the full sketch here –  The men are sitting reminiscing about how tough they had life.  “We used to live in a tiny house.” “You were lucky we used to live in a room”, “you were lucky to have a room we used to live in a corridor”, “luxury, we used to live in a hole in the middle of the road”….etc ending up with,  “we lived for three months in a rolled up in a newspaper in a sceptic tank!”   The current trend for Grace-Lit seems to operate that way – each new book on grace promises to be the most life-changing, radical book which will lead to a new Reformation if only we grasp its insights.  Each one offers ever more extreme examples of how radical grace is.  This one tells us that the Gospel is two hundred proof grace which drives men blind staggeringly drunk.  I just wonder what image in the next grace-lit book will use to show us how shocking, disturbing, radical, uncomfortable grace is.

Here is my dreadful confession.  I have read so much of this stuff that I am bored and tired of grace.   No, that’s wrong.  How can I get tired or bored of grace?  In reality I am tired and bored with books about grace.   That’s what happened with this book – by the time I got to the third chapter I was bored, with only the occasional quote or personal story keeping my attention.  Talk about grace has become so commonplace that it no longer seems amazing –even, or especially, when people keep telling how amazing the latest insight into amazing grace is.  It’s a bit like the word ‘awesome’, which is now no longer ‘awesome’.

Maybe I am just getting old and weary in well doing?!    I have reached a stage in life where I am as suspicious of Christians who keep going on about how they used to be legalists but now they are living in grace, as I am of those who want to give me their latest revelation about Christian Zionism (or anti-Zionism) as the key to the kingdom!

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying this about Tullian.  He has walked the well-trodden path of rebellion against a Christian upbringing, followed by conversion and a zeal that flirted with legalism, to a deeper understanding of the freedom that comes through the grace of Christ. It is wonderful and helpful to read about it.  I think I have just become tired of the whole grace-lit genre.  And I am tired of meeting people who talk so much about grace and yet seem to exhibit so little of it in their own lifes.  People who think that Gods grace gives them freedom from religion, freedom to love themselves and freedom to just keep getting things wrong (which is kind of true) and yet who can’t seem to grant that freedom to anyone else.  They are incredibly sensitive, get easily hurt and are all to ready to complain about the lack of grace in others.

Grace Talk – I have noticed how some who talk a lot about the grace of God, and ‘living in grace’ are the first to ignore or even despise the means of grace.  Like the man who declared “when I get up in the morning, I can’t be bothered speaking to God.  I know he is a gracious Father so I just say to him, ‘I’m too tired to speak to you today’ and I know my heavenly dad understands”.  Or the increasing tendency in the UK (something which I think is largely imported from the US) to think that going to church once on the Lord’s Day is more than enough and any encouragement to spend more time with the Lord’s people in public worship and listening to His Word, is somehow a form of legalism.   Is it any surprise that when people neglect the means of grace, they find that when real trouble comes their way their trust in ‘super abundant fire hydrant’ grace seems to evaporate very quickly?

Grace-less?   The other problem is that any critique of this ‘living in grace’ is automatically discounted because clearly if you don’t see it, you ain’t got it.  You are not living in the glorious, fantastic, life affirming, liberating, 200 per cent drunken filled with the Spirit, grace effect!  Once you convince yourself this is what you have, then it has a built in self-defence mechanism that will never allow any doubt in.  You can sin boldly, live freely and talk about yourself a lot

Grace -Full? The above is written more about the whole grace-lit genre in general rather than this book in particular – which is probably the best of the ones I have read.   But I think that Tullian has so bought into this that he has allowed some obvious errors to creep in. For example he writes,   “It amazes me that you will hear great concern from inside the church about too much grace, but rarely will you ever hear about too many rules.”  Really?  Tullian must move in very different circles to the ones I move in – and I am in the Free Church!  Is it really any different in the PCA?    I constantly hear the opposite – about how there are far too many rules and I rarely hear anyone complain about too much grace – that would be the great heresy in today’s Christian circles!  I speak at conferences, listen to lots of sermons and podcasts from both sides of the Pond, and have yet to hear people complaining about too much grace – in fact this review would be the first I have read which might suggest that!   I accept that in the world of Southern US fundamentalism (as in the caricatured version of Scottish Calvinist legalism – which like all caricatures has an element of truth), there are doubtless those who live by the law and don’t quite get grace, but is that the world most of the readers of this book inhabit?   Maybe it is, but maybe it has just become the accepted norm to repeat that there are lots of people out there drowning in legalism endorsed by the church and that there is too little teaching about grace.   Maybe its just been repeated so much that people accept that it must be true and any book about grace is therefore a necessary corrective of this problem.

One Way Love?  But it’s not just a problem of perception.  It’s also a problem of theology and emphasis.  I like reading the early Church Fathers, the Reformers, the Puritans and 19th Century Scottish theologians.  Maybe I am not reading them right, but I don’t see any of them writing in the general and sweeping terms that the grace-lit books do.  Maybe I need the second blessing before I get really grasp what they are saying!   But some of the statements just don’t make biblical sense to me.  For example:

“Grace is love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved.  It has everything and only to do with the lover.”  Try as I might I just don’t get that.  Of course Gods love for me has something to do with me!  Of course Gods love for me is not only to do with him.  The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me!  I know I don’t deserve it, but there is no need to mangle the English language and render it meaningless.  Whilst such sound bites might sound as though they magnify grace, I think they are superficial, trite and ultimately undermine the whole teaching about grace.

Grace -Complaints? “Grace doesn’t make demands. It just gives.  And from our vantage point it always gives to the wrong person.”  Again 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?  If you love me you will keep my commands?    And is it always the case that grace gives to the wrong person?  I honestly don’t think that God giving grace to so many of the people in St Peters is giving to the wrong person; except insofar as I am an old fashioned Scottish Calvinist who believes in total depravity and that no-one is the ‘right’ person for grace.  That’s kind of the point.  There is none righteous, no not one.  If I believe that, why would I ever look and say “Lord, you are giving grace to the wrong person”?!

Graceless Religion?   “Religion consists of all the things (believing, behaving, worshipping, sacrificing) the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God…..Everything religion tried to do (and failed) to do has been perfectly done, once and for all, by Jesus in his death and resurrection.  For Christians, therefore, the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up and forgotten.  The church is not in the religion business”.    (Robert Capon).   Again I struggle with this scripturally.   I sympathise with the desire to be free of the religion tag.  I understand that in the bible false religion (legalism, idolatry and liberalism) are perceived as, as great, if not greater, dangers than atheism.  And I can see the attraction and truth of the neat wee formula, Christ comes to save us from religion, indeed I have used it myself.  And yet the statement is biblical nonsense – “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).   We need to be saved from worthless religion.  But there is a pure and faultless religion that we are saved for.  I am not prepared to remove that verse from the Bible, nor to explain it away.

Sometimes I fear we are trying to be too smart for our own good.  We need to learn to take the bible as it is, with all its complexities and apparent contradictions and not reduce everything to a formula or a one-line mantra, which seems to suit the current zeitgeist of our culture.

Two-Way Love – Which brings me to the title of the book, One Way Love.  It just ain’t so.  God loves us – but he does so in order that there may be two-way love.  We don’t earn Gods love, but we surely must reciprocate it.  Are we not to love the Lord our God, with all our heart and soul and mind?  Sure he first loved us, but precisely because he did, we love him.  It is not one way.  It is very much two way.  It’s a neat phrase designed to teach the wonderful truth that we did not initiate nor can we ever earn the love of God, but it is just simply not the truth that Gods love is one-way love.   In fact if you don’t love God, you should not sit at the Lords table and there is no way you are going to heaven to be with the One you do not love.  By definition the love of God is two way.

Let me go further – it is not even the case that Gods love is unconditional whereas ours is conditional.  God’s love is unconditional.  He does not love us because we please him or earn it.  And our love for him should also be unconditional.  But equally we don’t love God because he pleases us or he earns it!  Our love for God is not cupboard love, it is love with our whole heart, soul and mind.  We love him for what he is in himself, not because he gives us a new car, a passed exam, a healthy body or a nice church.  We love God only in response to his love for us.  I even wonder if that indeed is the whole purpose of the whole creation/fall/redemption narrative. Anyway before I wonder too deep into speculation let me bring this back to earth.

Graceless Writing?  Why even bother writing this? I really did not want to.  Insofar as I am allowed to belong to any tribe, I belong to Tullians!  It’s so much easier to go against the heretics and bampots in other tribes, but to write a critique of one of your own, is really hard.  I would just have left it at a short Amazon review but I was persuaded that this was the right thing to do because of three things.

Firstly – Balance.  Grace lit folks don’t want balance….that is to them to demean grace.  Grace is unbalanced, dangerous etc.  But I think there is a biblical balance.  Theology is the art of the precise.  The devil is always seeking to knock us off balance, as CS Lewis so wonderfully describes in The Screwtape Letters.  The conflict here is not, as it is often portrayed, between legalism and liberalism.  The conflict is between grace and libertarianism.  Christ has indeed set us free, but we are set free to serve, not free to sin. I think the hyperbolic language of the grace-lit is in danger of demeaning grace by making it meaningless, or making it mean something far less than it really does. In seeking to magnify grace, it is in danger of cheapening it.

Secondly I am concerned about the commercialisation of the Gospel.  The US Church has many strengths which we in the UK can learn from.  But one of its greatest weaknesses is the way that almost everything gets turned into a product to be marketed and sold.  I remember attending a meeting at the PCA General Assembly because I was really interested in the title ‘ Sonship’.  I had benefited greatly from Jack Miller’s book of the same title and wondered what this sonship course was about.  As I sat down at a table and began to read the material I was astonished to see that every time the word Sonship was used there was a © sign beside it.  At first I thought it was a joke so I asked one of the leaders – have you copyrighted ‘sonship’?  He said yes and was surprised at my surprise!  You can’t copyright ‘sonship’!  What’s next?  Copyrighting adoption, grace etc.?   It seems to me as though every now and then someone rediscovers a biblical doctrine and turns it into a programme/course/movement that then has to be marketed and sold.   Are we going to sell grace?!

Again I may be wrong but I fear that ‘grace’ is the latest fad.  Look at the advertising blurb for One Way Love.  “In this ”manifesto,” Tchividjian calls the church back to the heart of the Christian faith—grace. It is time for us to abandon our play-it-safe religion, and to 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.”  Personally I fear that the grace-lit books are actually very natural, play-it-safe and domesticated for the American evangelical market.  As the evangelical church has to face up to its disastrous flirtation with politics, its abdication to the materialism of the culture and its inability to handle the new atheism/spirituality, then where better to retreat too, than a place of ‘grace’ where whatever you do is wonderful!

Superficiality – Which brings me on to the third reason for writing.  The tipping point for me was Steve Brown’s endorsement.   On the surface it seems fair enough.  He says he is tired of those who manipulate and manage in the name of Jesus.  Amen to that.  However it really stuck in my throat.  Because I once was a minor speaker at a conference at which Steve Brown was the main speaker.   It was a ‘millionaires’ conference, held in a luxury hotel, designed to encourage those who had considerable disposable income to dispose some of it, in generally very worthy missions projects.   Steve was the star speaker and the main entertainment. I heard him only once and it really depressed and sickened me.  To this day I regret my lack of courage and faithfulness in not standing up in public and challenging what he was saying.  He was humorous and had some good biblical things to say.  But it was the stage show, the manipulation, the management, and the irreverence that really got to me (and to my discerning wife, Annabel).  I have no problem with humour but he was way beyond appropriate.

At one point he declared that if he knew Jesus was coming back the next week he would go out and get drunk, because he had never been drunk.  Everyone seemed to be laughing at this.  I am not sure why.  Was it because he was so ‘daring and radical’?  Was it because he was showing what it was like to live in the free grace of God and all the audience wanted to show that they were no longer legalists either?  Was it that I was just a dumb European who did not get American irony?!  If this is where the ‘drunk on grace’ teaching leads us, then I don’t want to go there.  It is trivial, superficial and makes a mockery both of God and humanity.  It is self-absorbed and to my mind completely foreign to the mind of Christ.  If I knew Jesus was coming back next week, I would be contacting as many people as I knew to tell them.  Not getting drunk so that I could have one more experience of showing how ‘grace’ enables me to sin freely!

True Religion?  This morning I read the following in The Valley of Vision  – “I adore thee and abase myself.  I approach thee mindful that I am less than nothing, a creature worse than nothing…….Give me an increasing conviction of my tendency to err, and of my exposure to sin.  Help me to feel more of the purifying, softening influence of religion, its compassion, love, pity, courtesy, and employ me as thy instrument in blessing others.  Give me to distinguish between the mere form of godliness and its power, between live and a name to live, between guile and truth, between hypocrisy and a religion that will not bear thy eye.  If I am not right, set me right, keep me right;  And may I at last come to thy house in peace.”  That seems to me a much deeper and more biblical view of ‘religion’.  Tullian’s book is not a bad book, but it is not a balanced book and as such it is in danger of feeding the current fad, (or causing a legalistic reaction against it), rather than challenging and encouraging us to take up our cross and follow Christ.

Rev. David Robertson is director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee. This article first appeared on his blog, The Wee Flea, and is used with permission.