Are You Afraid of the Gospel?
By Tullian Tchividjian
(This article is adapted from Tchividjian’s recent book Surprised by Grace:
God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (http://www.amazon.com/Surprised-GraceRelentless-Pursuit-Rebels/dp/1433507757) )
I’m ecstatic about the resurgence of gospel centrality taking place in the evangelical church. The
idea that the gospel is not only for those outside the church but also for those inside the church;
that it not only ignites the Christian life but is the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing every
day, may seem like a new idea, but it’s really old. I’m glad it’s re-gaining traction, but as far as
we’ve come, we need to go further.
For all the talk of gospel-centeredness, there’s still some fear and trepidation fueled by a common
misunderstanding regarding the radical nature of grace. Even amongst the proponents of gospelcentrality, I still hear talk about there being two equal dangers that Christians must avoid: legalism
The False Balance of “Legalism vs. Lawlessness”
Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law, or 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. Sometimes, legalism and lawlessness are presented as two
ditches on either side of the gospel that we must avoid. 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. But
I’ve come to believe that this “balanced” way of framing the issue can unwittingly keep us from
really understanding the gospel of grace in all of its radical depth and beauty.
The Primary Enemy of the Gospel
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 (you could call this
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 (you could call this “back-door
In other words, there are two “laws” we can choose to live by other than Christ: the law which says
“I can ﬁnd freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules” or the law which says “I can ﬁnd freedom
and fullness of life if I break the rules.” Either way you’re still trying to “save” yourself-which means
both are legalistic because both are self–salvation projects.
So, it’s a mistake to identify the “two cliffs” as being legalism and lawlessness. The one “cliff” is
legalism but it comes in two forms – what some call license is just another form of legalism. And if
people outside the church are guilty of “break the rules” legalism, many people inside the church
are still guilty of “keep the rules” legalism.
Why We’re Afraid of Grace
This is super important because the biggest lie about grace that Satan wants the church to buy is
the idea that grace is dangerous and therefore needs to be “kept it in check.” By believing this we
not only prove we don’t understand grace, but we violate gospel advancement in our lives and in
the church. A “yes, grace…but” disposition is the kind of fearful posture that keeps moralism
swirling around in our hearts and in the church.
I understand the fear 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. But all too often I have (wrongly) concluded that the only way to keep
licentious people in line is to give them more rules. The fact is, however, that the only waylicentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God’s radical unconditional acceptance
The irony of gospel-based sanctiﬁcation is that those who end up obeying more are those who
increasingly realize that their standing with God is not based on their obedience, but Christ’s.
The people who actually end up performing better are those who understand that their relationship
with God doesn’t depend on their performance for Jesus, but Jesus’ performance for us.
Imperatives Minus Indicatives Equal Impossibilities
People need to hear less about what we need to do for God and more about all that God has
already done for us, because imperatives minus indicatives equal impossibilities. If you’re a
preacher and you’re assuming that people understand the radical nature of gospel indicatives, so
your ministry is focused primarily on gospel imperatives, you’re making a huge mistake. A huge
Long-term, sustained, gospel-motivated obedience can only come from faith in what Jesus has
already done, not fear of what we must do. To paraphrase Ray Ortlund, any obedience not
grounded in or motivated by the gospel is unsustainable. No matter how hard you try, how “radical”
you get, any engine smaller than the gospel that you’re depending on for power to obey will conk
out in due time.
So let’s take it up a notch. Don’t be afraid to preach the radical nature of the gospel of grace. For,
as the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “If your preaching of the gospel doesn’t provoke the
charge from some of antinomianism, you’re not preaching the gospel.”
Tullian Tchividjian is the Senior Pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL
& is a visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary.
Printed from the Catalyst website (www.catalystspace.com).
The online version of this article can be found at