Grace Even for Those Who Can’t Believe: A Conversation with Tullian Tchividjian

Tullian Tchividjian

Tullian Tchividjian’s One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World speaks a word of grace to a world of legalism and perfectionism. Tchividjian believes that in a world of self-justification and ever-increasing and impossible performance standards, grace abounds. God’s love for us comes without our having to earn anything, but out of God’s pure and unmerited good pleasure. Tchividjian asserts correctly that “it often seems that the Good News of God’s grace has been tragically hijacked by an oppressively religious moralism that is all about rules, rules, and more rules.” In the spirit of the Reformation, Tchividjian affirms that God saves us single-handedly. Grace alone saves us: in a world of perfectionism, grace is unmeasured, vast and free.

Tchividjian is onto something in his affirmation of the unmerited inexhaustibility of grace, but does he go far enough? The Reformed tradition often saw the effective power of God’s grace either in terms of 1) the unconditional salvation of the saints (the rest being overlooked or predestined to damnation) or 2) requiring some minimal level of belief to experience saving faith. In the first case, if we are among the elect, Tchividjian’s calculation works fine. Once graced by God, we are saved, even though we remain sinners. God’s predestination to salvation is irresistible and irrevocable. No worries!

On the other hand, many Reformed Christians assert while we could perform sinful actions and receive God’s grace, the one limit to grace involves our beliefs: unbelief is ultimately unpardonable. Outside of a personal and intellectually affirmative relationship with Jesus, at least among mature teens and adults, there is no salvation. Grace, ironically, then, becomes dependent on our ability to satisfy God’s intellectual or emotional righteousness. Unbelievers are lost regardless of their good heartedness or commitment to the well-being of their brothers and sisters.

I decided to consult the website of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where Tchividjian serves as Senior Pastor. According to the congregation’s statement of beliefs, squarely within the Reformed tradition, the following assertions characterize our saving relationship with God:

Being estranged from God and condemned by our sinfulness, our salvation is wholly dependent upon the work of God’s free grace. God credits His righteousness to those who put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation, thereby justifying them in His sight. Only such as are born of the Holy Spirit and receive Jesus Christ become children of God and heirs of eternal life. ..The true church is composed of all persons who through saving faith in Jesus Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit are united together in the body of Christ.

I was struck by the following:

• Yes, our salvation is wholly dependent on the work of God’s free grace,
• But, God credits His righteousness to those who put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation,
• And, only such as are born of the Holy Spirit and receive Jesus Christ become heirs of eternal life,
• And, the true church is composed of [those who have] saving faith in Christ.

As I was pondering these words, I wondered “what is it about ‘inexhaustible’ we don’t understand?” The word “inexhaustible” suggests that something can’t be used up or consumed; it is unwearied and tireless. This implies a tirelessness of grace that can never be impeded by human imperfection or, dare I say, unbelief. It seems that when we put a limit on grace, requiring even saving faith or belief in doctrinal assertions, we imply that grace can be exhausted. Big worries for agnostics, doubters, persons traumatized by evangelical or conservative churches, abused by spiritual leaders, or persons from the other world religions.

Tchividjian rightly notes that one of the problems of our time is “accomplishment precedes acceptance; achievement precedes approval.” But, wouldn’t belief or doctrinal certainty, saving faith, imply a type of achievement on our part? If we can’t say “yes” to God, will God eventually say “no” to us?

Tchividjian again notes that “grace makes no demands. It just gives.” He appreciatively quotes Paul Zahl who affirms that “Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything to do with the lover….it reflects a decision on the part of the giver.” Actually, I believe that if grace is to be personal, it has everything to do with the beloved. The intimacy of grace comes to us as we are, luring us toward wholeness, recognizing all the impediments that stand in the way of grace – many we have not chosen – and works within the impediments to bring healing, transformation, and joy.

Why is this inexhaustibility of grace important to me? Too often, in my conversations with those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” I hear them saying that the Christianity they’ve experienced is a deceptive “bait and switch” game. They have been told “God loves you” and then discover when they raise questions, express their doubts, or explore other religious movements, that God really doesn’t love them after all, that is, “God loves you only if….you follow the doctrines of the church, believe the scriptures are inspired, affirm the virgin birth and second coming, the sole salvation of Jesus Christ, and reject the insights of others faiths.”

I believe that God works in our lives just as we are, and that God’s love is unending, inexhaustible, and that the moment of our deaths is not an impediment to God’s grace. Grace has no limits, even the limits of unbelief, agnosticism, and other religious traditions. At the end of the day, the notion of grace as inexhaustible requires us to affirm some form of universalism, in which all are graced in space and time and beyond; in which the shepherd seeks out the lost sheep until it is found, regardless of how far or how long. Election embraces all of us: all of us are in God’s hands and the good news is that even when we don’t know it or run from it, grace still pursues and never gives up – yes, never gives up – even beyond the grave. Thanks be to God!

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About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


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