Here are a few excerpts from Tullian Tchividjian’s new book Jesus + Nothing = Everything.
The Problem of Legalism vs. License
It’s part of a common misunderstanding in today’s church, which says there are two equal dangers Christians must avoid. On one side of the road is a ditch called “legalism”; on the other is a ditch called “license” or “lawlessness.” Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law, on rules. Lawlessness, they say, happens when you focus too much on grace. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to balance law and grace. If you start getting too much law, you need to balance it with grace. If you start getting too much grace, you need to balance it with law. This dichotomy exposes our failure to understand gospel grace as it really is; it betrays our blindness to all the radical depth and beauty of grace.
I believe it’s more theologically accurate to say that there is one primary enemy of the gospel—legalism—but it comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (I’ll call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (“back-door legalism”).
In other words, there are two “laws” we can choose to live by apart from Christ: the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules,” and the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules.” Either way, you’re trying to “save” yourself, which means both are legalistic because both are self-salvation projects.
So what some call “license” is just another form of legalism. People outside the church are typically guilty of break-the-rules legalism, while many inside the church are guilty of keep-the-rules legalism.
The biggest lie about grace that Satan wants the church to buy is the idea that it’s dangerous and therefore needs to be kept in check.
By believing that lie, we not only prove we don’t understand grace, but we violate gospel advancement in our lives and in the church by perpetuating our own slavery. The truth is, disobedience happens not when we think too much of grace, but when we think too little of it.
The Solution of Grace
As a pastor, one of my responsibilities is to disciple people into a deeper understanding of obedience–teaching them to say no to the things God hates and yes to the things God loves. All too often I’ve wrongly concluded that the only way to keep licentious people in line is to give them more rules–to lay down the law. The fact is, however, the only way to licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God’s radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners.
Grace alone melts hearts and changes us from the inside out. Progress in obedience happens only when our hearts realize that God’s love for us does not depend on our progress in obedience.
A “yes, grace–but” disposition is the kind of fearful posture that keeps moralism swirling around in our hearts and in the church. Subtly, the force of that falsehood gets transferred into sermons in which the driving dynamic is to get Christians behaving properly. Those messages appeal to our self-centered hearts, which are proudly please to latch onto such teaching.
Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is a Florida native, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Tullian is the author of Do I Know God? Finding Certainty in Life’s Most Important Relationship (Multnomah) and Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (Crossway).