What is grace? Along with “Who is Jesus?” this is perhaps the most important question a person could ever ask. And yet, according to Tullian Tchividjian, grace is one reality our world, including Christians, has tragically misunderstood.
In his latest book One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World, Tchividjian seeks to ask and answer this very question.
Tullian begins the book by introducing a problem he calls performancism, which is the impulse to equate our identity or value with our performance. Though this equation plays out horizontally in our everyday relationships, performancism finds it’s ultimate source in an effort to justify ourselves before God. And the only antidote to the futile and exhausting attempts to justify ourselves before God is to reclaim a biblical understanding of God’s grace and the doctrine of justification by faith.
Tullian’s definition of grace, borrowed from Paul Zahl, is one-way love. It’s the idea that God’s love for us has nothing to do with our performance and everything to do with God’s generosity. It has nothing to do with our works and everything to do with his work in Christ. Tullian says, “Grace doesn’t make demands. It just gives” (35). That’s what makes it grace. It comes to those who deserve the opposite. And doesn’t come with any conditions or demands.
This kind of definition is bound to make some uncomfortable. We wonder if this grace is too wild or too free. If it makes no conditions or demands, it is argued, won’t it be abused? Won’t people live however they want? But according to Tullian, this line of reasoning turns grace into Law, and robs grace of its transforming power. He argues throughout the book that the Law never inspires or empowers what it demands. In fact, quite the opposite.
Instead Tullian notes, “When the chain of quid prop quo is broken, all sorts of wonderful things can happen. One-way love has the unique power to inspire generosity, kindness, loyalty, and more love, precisely because it removes any and all requirements to change or produce” (36). In other words, until we have a doctrine of grace that can be abused by sinners, we don’t have a doctrine of grace that can transform sinners. This is the main point of the book.
In the remainder of the book, Tullian addresses the nature and function of the Law (3-4), how grace works out in scripture and life (5-8), objections to this view of grace (9), and Luther’s notion of saint and sinner (10).
In the remainder of my review, I want to address the strengths and weakness of this book.
1. The writing. The chief strength or weakness of any book ought to be the writing. And Tullian is a joy to read. His writing is very human, funny, and edgy. I enjoyed every page!
2. The psychology of law and grace. Tullian, more than most in the “gospel-centered” movement, understands the psychology of law and grace. In other words, Tullian understands that our old self is entirely works oriented. It is bent on justifying itself before God. This is the state of all humanity, whether they are conscious of it or not. It is what drives our perfectionism, anxiety, self-righteousness, and even our lawlessness. It is what makes us both over-bearing parents or push-over parents.
The old self is works oriented. And he’s lurking beneath the surface of our Christian lives, ready for any opportunity to rear his ugly head. And that is why the radical message of grace is so vital. Grace is the antithesis of the old self. Grace kills the old self with his works orientation.
And yet so often we think about the Christian life as a list of “Spirit-empowered” to-dos. We began by radical grace (justification), but then we think it’s time to get busy. And we don’t see that this is just the opportunity the old self has waiting for. Because he loves to-dos. Even righteous to-dos. As long as he can earn his own way. The reason this book is so important is because, as Christians, we are far too ignorant of the ways our old self is operating within us, and in the name of righteousness and goodness, keeping us from the very grace of God that saved us.
I could list so many more strengths, like his understanding of grace in everyday relationships, his articulation of Luther’s doctrine of saint/sinner, and his understanding of the proper functions of the Law. Simply put, I loved this book. But now onto some weaknesses.
1. What about the Holy Spirit and the New Heart of the Christian? One of the chief objection non-Lutheran thinkers raise against the Lutheran scheme is that the Bible clearly says the Holy Spirit dwells in believers, gives them a new heart that loves the Law, and a new power to obey the Law. I think many will concede that Tullian made some great points about grace in this book, but will ultimately conclude that the book is too extreme and doesn’t account for the radical newness of the believer. I wish Tullian would have addressed this issue, especially in his section on saint/sinner.
2. Highly anecdotal. On a related note, the book seemed highly anecdotal to me. Most of the scripture Tullian cited taught his view of law/grace more implicitly than explicitly. And this is the problem many outside the Lutheran tradition find with this view. The Law/Gospel scheme seems to make a ton of sense experientially and is a very clean theological system. But there is so much scriptural data that seems to be ignored or unaccounted for. For example: (1) How do we explain the many warning passage in the new testament that essentially say, if you live like xyz, then you’ll go to hell? (2) How do we explain the fact that NT authors use various motivations for holiness, not just justification by faith?
I’m not saying Lutheran thinkers don’t have an answer. I just think they need to work much harder to address the “difficult passages” that keep many from embracing their system. In fact, this is such a problem for Lutheran thinkers that Paul Zahl, in his book Grace in Practice, very honestly appealed to a canon within a canon. That is, some biblical writers and portions of scripture got closer to the “real gospel” than others. I appreciate Zahl for his honestly with this issue. But I’d love to hear what Tullian thinks about that.
I think this was the most important book I’ve read this year. Tullian so clearly expressed the many pieces I’ve been trying to put together over the last few years. My only complaints about the book had to do with what wasn’t there. But as for what was there, I loved it. I would heartily recommend this book to the members of the church I pastor. I hope the evangelical community will read this book patiently and carefully.
Tullian is the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. If you’re interest in finding out more about Tullian, check out his website. You can follow Tullian on Twitter. And by all means, go buy One Way Love.