09 Jun Getting Grace Backwards
I stumbled across a post on TheGospelCoalition site the other day that left me shaking my head at how modern theological perspectives are capable of completely inverting the New Testament message they’re ostensibly based upon. The post is “The Pitfall of Perfectionism,” by Tullan Tchividjian, in which he begins with several poignant anecdotes borrowed from Steve Brown, in which we are told of people who had reached the end of their endurance, who had “come to the end of themselves.” Amazingly, Brown’s response was the following:
Perfectionism (or performancism) is a horrible disease. It comes from the pit of hell, smelling like rotting flesh. Someone convinced these folks that they were called to measure up to an unattainable standard. They couldn’t do it and each in his or her own way simply quit trying.
Nobody told them that Jesus was perfect for them, and because of that they didn’t have to be perfect for themselves. They didn’t understand that if Jesus makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Tchividjian then adds:
Christian, please remember that Jesus plus nothing equals everything. That,
Because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak;
Because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose;
Because Jesus was Someone, you’re free to be no one;
Because Jesus was extraordinary, you’re free to be ordinary;
Because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.
Preaching the gospel is the only thing that helps us take our eyes off ourselves and how we’re doing and fix our eyes on Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. Jesus fulfilled all of God’s perfect conditions so that our relationship to God could be perfectly unconditional.
Incredible. It is hard to imagine how the gospel of the New Testament can be so inverted, how the triumphant grace preached by Jesus and Paul can be utterly reversed. And yet this message is being proclaimed as if it were what Paul preached rather than the opposite. Contrast Tchividjian’s post with the questions posted by David Miller, a New Testament scholar honest enough to recognize that the “grace” he’d like to see in Paul often seems lacking:
Why is it that when I ‘get’ the need for grace, I struggle to grasp conversion? Paul never says, “Sorry, churches, I goofed.” His conversion, like Augustine’s, seems complete and total. To be sure, Paul insists that our whole life is to be lived through God’s grace, not our own effort, but he assumes radical transformation. When he addresses failure, he exhorts people to become what they are, and to repent. He doesn’t admit to being a continuing failure himself. (I assume that Paul is not talking autobiographically about his experience as a Christian in Romans 7.) Paul doesn’t emphasize God’s grace to forgive, he stresses grace to live. In short, Paul is not one to sympathize with moral weakness. His life and letters give little comfort to those who, like me, sometimes feel stalled, who need to start over again, and again, and again. Paul left his σκύβαλα (Phil 3:8) when he met the Messiah; what about those of us who sometimes look inside and σκύβαλα is all we see? [my emphasis]
This is the Paul represented on the pages of scripture, not the one who comforts people with the notion that Jesus died for them so that they no longer had to worry about their failures. Much the opposite! Returning to Tchividjian’s pithy statements, this is more like what the New Testament actually proclaims:
Because Jesus became weak for you (2 Cor 13:4), you’re empowered to be strong (Eph 6:10–11);
Because Jesus lost for you, you’re able to win (Rom 8:37);
Because Jesus became no one (Phil 2:7–8), you’re empowered to be someone (Jn 1:12);
Because Jesus became ordinary (Phil 2:7–8), you’re empowered to be extraordinary (John 14:12–13; Acts 4:33; Eph 3:20; Col 1:29);
Because Jesus died for and as you, you’re free to live for him (Rom 6:8; Rom 8:13; 2 Cor 5:15).
Brown proclaims, “Nobody told them that Jesus was perfect for them, and because of that they didn’t have to be perfect for themselves.” But Jesus himself proclaimed, “Therefore be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). But never mind that—Jesus didn’t really mean this stuff when he said it, he just wanted us to try it before we realized we couldn’t do it. Then we’d realize that we could be set free from guilt so we could fail without feeling bad about it. Right? Right???
Brown continues, “They didn’t understand that if Jesus makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Of course, this ignores that the “real freedom” Jesus was talking about was freedom from sin:
“Truly truly I say to you, everyone who is committing sin is a slave to sin. But the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains in the house forever. Therefore, if the son set you free, you are really free.” (John 8:34–36)
Talk about reversing the message! We’ve somehow gone from Jesus promising that people can truly be set free from sin to proclaiming that Jesus came so that people can be set free from the crushing expectations of living righteously. Amazing.
Finally, Tchividjian explains: “Jesus fulfilled all of God’s perfect conditions so that our relationship to God could be perfectly unconditional.” Where, I ask, did he get this notion of an unconditional relationship with God as a part of the gospel? It certainly isn’t in the New Testament. This is a total reversal of that wonderful term of reciprocity so often used in the New Testament: χάρις (“grace”). On the contrary, Paul warns repeatedly in his letters to Christians that their standing is indeed conditional. For example:
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted into them and you became a partaker/fellow of the root of fatness of the olive tree, don’t boast against the branches! If you boast, you do not sustain the root, but the root sustains you. Therefore you say, “Branches were broken off in order that I should be grafted in.” Good! They were cut off for unfaithfulness, and you stand by faithfulness. Do not think highly of yourself but fear, for if God did not spare the according to nature branches, he will not spare you. And so see the kindness and severity of God, severity towards those having fallen, but kindness from God to you, if you remain in his kindness, otherwise also you will be cut off. And yet, if they do not remain in unfaithfulness, they will be grafted in, for God is able to engraft them again. (Rom 11:17–23)
Does that look “unconditional” to you? Why then the “if” statements and the warnings? Oh, Paul must not have meant this stuff, either. He must have been borrowing a page from Jesus’ playbook and bluffing to get them to try to be better so they would realize they didn’t have to live righteously. Or, more likely, Jesus and Paul meant what they said.
The gospel presented in the New Testament centers on the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, who enables the faithful to do what s/he could not do on his/her own, to live in obedience and righteousness. But much modern preaching (and theology) leaves out this transformation and empowerment by the Holy Spirit and instead focuses on the “what s/he could not do on his/her own” part, with nothing but a reassurance that God will forgive. What a difference between the “grace to live” (as Miller calls it) proclaimed in the New Testament and the powerless “don’t worry, you’ll never be righteous and that’s okay” message proclaimed so often today! Talk about getting grace backwards!