Getting Grace Backwards

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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.

You’re free!

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).

This infuriating bumper sticker perfectly summarizes a modern anti-gospel

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!


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32 Comments. Leave new

  • Is it possible that this kind of theology is a reaction to non-Christians hurling accusations of hypocrisy at the church, pointing out that those who claim the mantle of re-birth continue in all the same foibles and “sins” as the oft-cited unfaithful?

    I was always been taken aback by the popular bumper sticker “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” My response was always, “Then what’s the point?” Not that perfection is expected but some outward sign of grace, peace or righteousness should be apparent. Otherwise a Christian may as well be claiming to be a tree for all the difference it makes in their lives.

    • Scott, I think you’re onto some of it, but I think it has more to do with Christians explaining their own failings to themselves more than as a defense against any criticism from outside. (Thanks, by the way, for your reminder of that bumper sticker, which I added to the post as a graphic. I’ve always hated that bumper sticker.) Essentially, I think this theology is about being able to establish with certainty that “I’m/we’re okay, even though we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing.” It’s a way around the imperatives of the gospel in the face of the absence of transformation while trying to retain the gospel’s guarantees.

      • David Ridgeway
        August 29, 2014 7:07 am

        Hi. The article on perfectionism confuses the gift of righteousness with the mandate for sanctification. The book of Titus reveals that the grace of God teaches us to deny ungodly behavior. Grace is misrepresented on both sides of the debate. There’s nothing sloppy about grace.

        • Hi David, this is basically right, though your terms are somewhat backward from a New Testament perspective (a terminological mistake with a long and distinguished history, however.) Sanctification refers to the set-apart-ness of the people of God (Israel) from the nations, something Paul explains is a part of coming into Christ. This separation carries with it a requirement of obedience and maintenance of that separation, but it’s not exactly the same thing as the mandate for obedience. Righteousness, by contrast, involves actually being just, doing the right thing.

          You’re absolutely right that Titus 2:11–12 explains that the grace of God teaches to deny ungodly behavior—this is fully in keeping with the New Testament concept of grace as providing the will and the power to obey. This is precisely the thing Tchividjian and those preaching similarly are missing. Grace is inextricably bound with obedience, which is both mandated and provided for through the gift of grace itself. Grace is given to make a person righteous—and it comes with the expectation and empowerment to live out that righteousness through right and just action. That transformation is exactly what the concept of grace is about in the NT.

          • Thankyou for responding to my comment. That means a lot to me. I find in the concept of sanctification two different aspects, positional and conditional. Rom 8:1 ” There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ’-our position-‘who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.’-our condition. 2 Thes. 5:23 teaches that we are spirit, soul, and body. Our spirit in Christ is redeemed, but our soul and our body are waiting for 1Co 15:51-54 to take place. 1 Jn 5:16 gives instruction on how we should respond to a brother involved in sin, yet in 1 Jn 3:9 it says that he who is born of God cannot sin(NASB). How would you connect these scriptures in the context of our present life experience in a way that preserves the integrity of seemingly contradictory thoughts. I consider it a privilege to discuss these matters with you. Thankyou, sir.

          • Your spirit cannot sin but the mind and body combined are what is known as the flesh. They can sin plenty.

          • First of all, it appears that you are mixing up “sanctification,” which is being set apart as a member of God’s special people, with justification, which is being made righteous, or someone who does what is right.

            In terms of the seemingly contradictory thoughts, Christ is the one who was “born of God,” and 1 John is addressing participation/unification with Christ through the Spirit. Those who walk by the Spirit therefore do not sin, because the Spirit of Christ cannot sin. But as long as one is in the flesh, it is still possible to turn from the Spirit and follow the desires of the flesh into committing sin. In such cases, repentance and reconciliation is needed to restore participation in the Spirit. That’s how I understand those passages.

  • Reply
    • Thanks. Not much of an advertisement for Christ’s ability when the best He has to offer is to be a losing, weak, failing nobody in the faith. Paul offers the succinct plan in Rom. 12:1,2 where the mercies of God, render a transformed mind, that yields a reasonable service of sacrificial living.

  • jason

    I agree with you totally here. The problem is many sided. There is a reaction to what they see as a works-based element in FedVis folks. There is also what is to my mind a false understanding of gospel and law; Gospel they say is always indicatives while any imperative is law, and law always condemns. The view is lutheran and flows from WestminsterCal (past and present). Its end (already only too visible in some) is a sneering at any who actively pursue personal sanctification and ultimately a dead orthodoxy where dogma exists without devotion and confessions are confessed divorced from commitment to godliness.

  • “I do the things that I hate and I hate the things that I do; oh wretched man that I am…..” You left that one out. (Conveniently) Must be nice to be perfect.

    • I’m not sure what you mean by “left that one out,” as that verse provides a speech-in-character example of the first half of the equation finished in Romans 8, where Paul says that those who have the Spirit are no longer bound to the law of the flesh that he so poignantly illustrated in Romans 7 (that statement). So even if I did bring that verse into the discussion, I would be obligated to finish it with what Paul says Grace produces: “For the law of the Spirit of Life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:3).

      Paul is by no means speaking of his own current experience in Romans 7; he says exactly otherwise in the following chapter, where he explains the victory of the spirit over the pre-Christ situation of Romans 7.

      You’re right that I could have included this verse and its context to strengthen the basic point that the Grace of the New Testament looks nothing like the empty and powerless forgiveness Tchividjian’s post advocated. But I didn’t see a specific reason to include it, since the basics were already there and the post was long enough as it was. Thanks for the comment!

      • David Ridgeway
        August 29, 2014 7:28 am

        In 1Cor 9, Paul declares that he subdues his flesh, so as to not be disqualified -after doing the work of the ministry. There was never a time when his carnal nature did not need to be addressed. He tells Timothy to flee youthful lusts.
        . In my experience, with regards to the flesh , youthful lusts are the only thing that don’t grow old! I don’t want to fail but when I do, I remind myself that my righteousness is a gift that cannot be earned. Christianity is first and foremost an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. To lose sight of this is to miss the whole point of being saved.

        • David Ridgeway
          August 29, 2014 7:29 am

          I would appreciate any responses

        • Absolutely right that Paul says there was never a time in which his flesh did not need to be addressed. Were that true, he would have been beyond Jesus himself. But that’s the entire point of Romans 7–8; whereas before grace, a person “does what he does not want” and vice-versa, the Spirit empowers those in Christ to put the flesh to death, no longer being bound to youthful lusts but having power to reckon them as dead and do the right thing. The powerlessness of the command absent grace is superseded by the power of the Spirit to fulfill the command. That is Paul’s gospel in a nutshell.

          • People mistakingly assume that when saint Paul used the word “disqualified” what he meant to say was “condemned”….. But off the topic: How long has Jason been a christian. I suspect a lack of heart knowledge . Respectfully.

  • Daniel Cartwright
    September 17, 2014 4:09 pm

    I think there’s two extremes being presented here. On the one hand, we aren’t perfect, and we are forgiven so I would say the bumper sticker is true. On the other hand, we’re being made like Him from glory to glory. One extreme says that man is utterly sinful even after coming to Christ, and there will always be some indwelling sin in the life of a believer (a very baptist theology.) The other extreme says that man ought to be utterly holy after coming to Christ (when, if we’re honest, we know we all still struggle with things post-conversion) which I would say is a more charismatic theology.

    One extreme says “I know that I sin every day” while the other extreme says “I know that I don’t sin anymore.” Can anyone say they’re above sin? Sin doesn’t just include the big stuff, sin includes unbelief, worry, fear (the fearful and the unbelieving are the first to be cast into hell), and anything that is not of faith. Is everything we do done in faith? Are we anxious in nothing? I know I still get anxious at work when I feel that the pressures being put on me are more than I can perform; when I feel that I might disappoint the customers, or my co-workers, or my boss, but I know that God still accepts me in Christ.

    I guess I’m trying to say that I believe both to an extent. I believe that we need a gospel of pure grace. We need to know that even in our worst moment we are still accepted before the father and beloved in Christ, but knowing that should give us strength and motivation to come out of those things, not stay in them.

    Jason, what do you believe about Justification? What do you believe Romans 4 means when it says “blessed is the man who does not work, but believes God who justifies the ungodly”? Do you believe that we can lose our justification via our disobedience, and if we can then what was the basis for receiving it in the first place?

    • Good stuff Daniel… How about we get real about it huh? When people say: ” So that means I can just do whatever I want?”. My response is always: “What is it exactly that you want to do?”.

    • I think it’s important to understand what “a gospel of pure grace” looks like. The word “grace” (χάρις) is always a term of reciprocity in Greek, so it is by no means one-sided. Rather, it requires a faithful response from the recipient as well. Unfaithfulness breaks a χάρις relationship. So the idea that a person can receive χάρις and then live unfaithfully and still be “accepted” would be entirely foreign to Paul or any early Christian.

      With respect to justification, the word denotes “being made righteous,” or in everyday language, “being made into a person who does what is right.” The point of Rom 4 is to highlight that no one can become righteous by any ritual, initiation, or outward action. Rather, the only way a person can become righteous is through an inward transformation that comes by the Spirit. That is, righteous people do righteous things and are thereby judged as righteous. The question for Paul is how one becomes a righteous person, and he explains it can only come from inside out. He’s leaning on the prophets, particularly Jer 31 and Ezek 34–36 here.

      When you ask whether I believe a person can lose his justification via disobedience, it’s a bit of a non-sequitur. For Paul, a person is justified in order to live in obedience. But if one persists in disobedience, one is not righteous and is therefore not “made righteous”/justified. Paul says the basis for justification/being made righteous is allegiance to Christ and reception of the Spirit; such a pledge of faithfulness to Christ requires the same level of obedience and faithfulness as any similar pledge to a king or feudal lord. Disobedience is a breach of the very covenantal arrangement that provided for justification in the first place, and Paul is very clear (cf. Gal 5-6) what results follow from it.

  • Thank you for the response. My next question is: how do you define “persisting” in disobedience?

    We all still fail to meet God’s standards (when we worry, when we doubt, when we lose our temper, etc.) It would seem that the Corinthians (a 5 year old church who Paul referred to as carnal) was “persisting” in disobedience, yet Paul addressed them as believers (except the man who had his father’s wife, who he called a “so called” believer.) The Ephesians were also addressed as believers, but apparently some among them were stealing because he gave instruction that “the one who steals must no longer steal.”

    Also, when Jesus found his disciples hiding for fear of the Jews (and the fear of man is a sin) He didn’t rebuke them, but said “peace be with you” (John 20:19-26)

    These scriptures, combined with Jesus’ grace and love for sinners (such as the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacheus, etc.) seem to tell me that God’s grip on us goes well beyond our performance (or lack of it.)

    It also seems that your view is kind of a circular statement “people are judged as righteous, when they do righteous things, but they cannot do righteous things until they have been made righteous.” The bottom line is that even with your theology, there still has to be a point, where a person is initially ungodly, yet God in His grace, chooses to indwell and transform that person. So then I would ask: is the person saved at the start of the transformation, or only at the completion of it?

  • Gregory Buchanan
    January 4, 2016 8:00 pm

    Thank you, Jason, for the most culturally relevant Christian article I’ve read this year. May God show His church the importance of the faithfulness by which it stands. God bless you!

  • Jason –
    How do you come to your conclusion that Paul is speaking in pre-conversion language in Romans 7? The unregenerate is far from “delighting in” (vs. 22) or desiring any part of God’s law as the Psalmist(s) also express on multiple occasions. Thanks…

    “14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
    21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!”

    • 1) Everything Paul says in that section of Rom 7 is systematically undone in Rom 8. E.g., “I am unspiritual” vs. “have the spirit of Christ.” That’s the first indication.
      2) You should be more careful with what you mean by “unregenerate,” as that is precisely what is at issue in Rom 7. Paul distinguishes between the “mind” of the unregenerate person, which can recognize and desire what is good, and the unregenerate flesh, which incapacitates that person who wishes to do what is good but (not having the spirit) is captive to the flesh. Then in Rom 8, Paul discusses the process of regeneration through the Spirit of Christ, which enables the person to do what pleases God.

  • I can’t assume you are implying in your article that believers (or justified people) live perfect lives post justification, rather, they would sin less than before justification. Certainly you would concede that 1 John 1:10 is true of a justified person. Are you intending those who live in habitual sin aren’t justified and/or those who sin occasionally aren’t justified either? I would agree with the former

    • I am saying that according to Paul, those who have been justified are capable of living completely obedient lives, though they are still also capable of disobedience. The primary difference is that those who have been justified are no longer enslaved to sin, meaning they are no longer bound to commit sin.

  • Lindsey Bossert
    October 24, 2018 1:17 pm

    Please use Romans 4:1-8 as background for my post.

    Are you saying that our right standing with God is based on our works? Or are you saying that righteousness is a gift from God, so that no man can boast? I’m sorry, but your posts are very confusing for the lay Christian to understand.

    When you make the point that grace enables us to live righteously, please don’t sacrifice the fact that grace is a free gift, not given to us because of our righteousness. You don’t need to be afraid to quote Ephesians 2:8 when you understand that Ephesians 2:9 is the natural outcome of it!

    God bless you!

    • No, I am not saying that right standing with God is based upon works. I am pointing out that both Jesus and Paul repeatedly state that ultimately salvation depends upon works. Right standing and salvation are not the same thing.

      Secondly, grace is not a “free gift.” Grace (χάρις) is always a strings-attached term of reciprocity, which is precisely why Paul uses that term and not terms that refer to no-strings-attached concepts. Yes, God’s grace is given freely on the front end and not as a result of any obligation placed upon God by the recipient of Grace, but receiving grace requires faithfulness, and maintenance of the χάρις relationship must be sustained through faithfulness—which involves doing the will of God through the power of God (precisely the grace of God given in the first place). That is, God’s grace is the spirit, which enables and motivates the fulfillment of the just requirements of the law (see Rom 2), enabling a person ultimately to be justly judged as righteous.

      According to Paul, God’s grace does not merely cause God to see an unrighteous person as righteous (which would be an unjust lie). Instead, God’s grace actually makes a person righteous, meaning that person will do the righteous things that please God and will therefore be rightly judged as such in the final judgment.

      Thus Paul is able to say, “Accomplish your salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who works in you both to will and to work in keeping with his good purpose” (Phil 2:12–13).

  • Thank you ❤ sincerely

  • Hello, Jason!

    I am curious about the word “unfaithfulness” used in Rom 11:17–23. Some translations (NIV, ESV off the top of my head) use the word, “unbelief”. Is this the same meaning as “unfaithfulness” in this passage?

    • The Greek word apistia can mean either (or both) concepts, though in Paul’s letters the “unfaithfulness” or “infidelity” meaning tends to be more in focus than “unbelief.”


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