Inexhaustible Grace

Geoff ChapmanTheology, Thinking Out Loud0 Comments

“Think about it: beneath your happiest moments and closest relationships inevitably lies some instance of being loved in weakness or deserved judgment. Someone let you off hook when you least deserved it. A friend suspended judgment at a key moment. Your father was lenient when you wrecked his car. Your teacher gave you an extension, even though she knew you’d been procrastinating. You said something insensitive to your spouse, but instead of retaliating, she kept quiet and didn’t hold it against you the next day. One-way love is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience—a person loved in weakness blossoms.”

I feel like saying to Tullian Tchvidjian “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech!” (John 16:29)  I said in the past that in his fight against a spiritually narcissistic form of sanctification he left the question of how a person grows unanswered .  From this interview with Matt Smethurst over at The Gospel Coalition it seems like his thinking has either matured or is simply expressed more clearly in his new book One-Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World.  

He now makes clear that one key purpose of grace is to free us to obey fearlessly Christ’s command to love others.  So, he states “…that love is absent to the degree that faith is missing. If I’m not trusting that everything I need in Christ I already possess (lack of faith), then I will be looking to take from you rather than give to you (lack of love).  I’ll be concentrating on what I need, not what you need. I’ll be looking out for me, not you.”

I love this development in his thought.  The obvious questions from his previous books (and blog posts) were: “How does grace lead to obedience?”, and “How does a Christian grow?”.  Here, I feel, these questions begin to be answered in ways that can be put into practice.

Nevertheless, his method drives a certain conclusion that I am still uncomfortable with:  that the chief need of God’s people is preaching of Law vs Grace in the Gospel.   So he states: “The command shows us our sin and drives us to cry out for a Savior. God, through this Savior, so overwhelms us with his one-way love (love for the unlovable and undeserving) that we’re inspired to love God and others. “ (Emphasis mine)

I suspect that this leads to a key pneumatological weakness.  It seems (and I want to use that word advisedly) that Tchvidjian still conceives of obedience as psychologically motivated, but not Spirit-empowered.   If we cannot actually obey the law in any sense at all then all we can do is run from it, doing what we can in our own strength out of thankfulness.   However, if this is true, then an unscriptural wedge is driven between the Law and the person who desires to act righteously.  That is, the Christian should be able to delight in God’s law as much as David does in his Psalms, not seeing them only as a terrifying standard but also as joyful hope and a God’s-grace-granted gift; that somehow, God might enable me to begin to obey his law, not just externally but in my heart.  Obedience to the Law that I delight in might actually be my destiny and that I might receive a down-payment of that as the Holy Spirit pours His love into my heart.  Kung’s critique of the Protestant understanding of Justification still stands over Tchividjian’s system; that, while Catholics may underestimate the power of sin in the life of the believer,  we underestimate God’s ability to actually transform us into the likeness of his Son.

In one sense it makes little-difference, Tchvidjian’s method will lead himself and those who follow his line of thinking to obedience and the Spirit, I am certain, will empower them.   His goal is to bring peace, both to Christians and in preaching of the Gospel to non-Christians,  and that is laudable.  However, if my description of his pneumatological weakness is correct then as we receive peace from one hand we have our joy taken by the other.  The mark of the children of God as described in Romans 8 is peace at our reconciliation with the Father, hope for our future glory and joy in the Holy Spirit.  We receive in part a guarantee of what we will receive in full on the glorious day of the Lord’s return.

I think there is a further weakness in Tchvidjian’s system in that it leads to an unintegrated approach to sanctification.  God wants us to get on with obeying him without complication. Tchvidjian’s approach means that Christian obedience becomes almost like a game in which one must continually adopt just the right posture towards law and grace, like a surfer keeping their balance on a surfboard.  It seems arbitrary that God requires this very particular type of faith especially as it not explicitly found in so many praise-worthy biblical figures nor is it found in any notable way in the history of the Church up until the 16th Century.  Tchvidjian’s desire that we “trust God and get going” is just right, but it is hard when you are constantly watching your heart for a particular type of attitude to law and grace.  What God is looking for is child-like faith, not Luther-like faith.

If we can do this then we can preach Scripture on it’s own terms instead of constantly having to look for a revisionist law/grace distinctive in every passage.  This allows for a far richer reading of Scripture and a far richer understanding of the life of the Christian disciple.

One final thought. I agree with Tchvidjian that we need a constant reminder of the Lord’s command to love, and of God’s love and grace to us in Christ, and that this is vital precisely because it is the only way to uphold a “high view of the Law”.  To this I would add that we need to be constantly reminded of the promise of the Holy Spirit who imparts to us the resurrection life of Christ that we might live even now, while we await our glorification.  These three things are essential; the pillars of the Christian life.  But where are we to find this constant reminder of these things? Is it possible that they are to be found in the Lord’s supper, which has been the heartbeat of the body of Christ since Acts Chapter 2?  That is my suspicion.

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