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Tullian Tchividjian and the sanctification debate among evangelicals

If you were surprised at last month’s news that Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was kicked out of the Gospel Coalition, you’re probably not alone. For those who may not know, The Gospel Coalition is described as a "broadly Reformed network of churches", and there are currently about three dozen Mississippi churches--both Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist--that are affiliated with TGC.

Tchividjian’s 2012 book, Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything, was selected as Christianity Today’s Book of the Year. If that weren’t enough as far as evangelical ministry credentials are concerned, Tchividjian is also the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham. What would lead such a pastor to be kicked out of TGC—what’s more, kicked out by ministers who pastor within the same denomination (notably, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York)?

1. What Tchividjian’s opponents have against him

To sum up the facts, last month Jen Wilken posted an article on The Gospel Coalition web site, "Failure is not a Virtue", which argues against Christians having a defeatist mentality when it comes to sanctification. Tchividjian posted a rebuttal, "Acknowledging failure is a virtue", wherein he criticized Wilken for confusing Law and Gospel, accusing her of "theological muddiness". Dr. Michael Kruger, president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, wrote a defense of Wilken's article, saying Tchividjian's criticisms were unfair. Kruger implied that it might be Tchividjian himself who is muddying the theological waters by not properly expounding the Law.

Though siding somewhat against Tchividjian, Kevin DeYoung tried to mediate between the opposing sides in his article, "What we all agree on and what we probably don't in the sanctification debate". Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, who seemed to side slightly more with Tchividjian, published a well reasoned response of his own to the debate titled "Real transformation happens when?".

If one had to sum up the complaints of Tchividjian's opponents, it basically boils down to the fact that he has been accused of preaching an antinomian form of Christianity, accused of confusing justification and sanctification, and accused of preaching a view of the Law that is more distinctively Lutheran than Reformed. For his own part, Tchividjian claims that he is merely trying to combat the rampant legalism that he sees existing within the evangelical church today. His opponents say that, in an effort to state that the Law cannot justify us, he has portrayed the Law as having little to no function in the life of a Christian.

2. Is there really that much of a disagreement?

What seems to be lost in so much of the debate is an acknowledgement that everyone involved essentially agrees with each other. What is being represented as a doctrinal clash is really more a difference in explanation or difference in tone. Tim Keller and Tullian Tchividjian are both members of the Presbyterian Church in America, both subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

What does everyone involved agree upon? 1. That justification is only by faith (that God accepts us as his children, not because of anything we have done, but simply by trusting in Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection saves us from our sins), 2. That believers are to attempt to please God and conform their lives to God’s will to the best of their ability, remembering that the ability to become holy is something God works in us, not something we do by our own will power, 3. That the Law tells us what God demands us of (what we are to do), while the Gospel tells us what God has done for us, and that preaching both is necessary for the health of a church.

Some outsiders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a denomination even more stringently conservative than the PCA, have alleged that the falling out illustrates the fact that the PCA has no “theological center”, implying that ministers within the denomination are permitted to hold widely divergent views on various issues. The tragedy of it all, though, is that Keller and Tchividjian don’t really even hold to views that are all that different, as Keller himself stated in the official explanation of why Tchividjian was leaving TGC.

3. What we can all learn from the discussion

Let us go back to the Lutheran accusation. Some have said that Tchividjian’s teaching on sanctification sounds more Lutheran than Reformed. Are there, though, any real, substantial differences between the two traditions? Personally, it seems that it’s more a matter of emphasis than an actual theological difference. Lutheranism tends to be especially preoccupied with warding off legalism. Sermons that are full of imperatives (“Do this” or “Do that”), and light on gospel proclamation (“Christ has done this for you”), are suspect.

I still recall reading a Lutheran critique of Promise Keepers several years ago. This men’s ministry was widely hailed across the evangelical church as a fabulous thing for men to plug into, but a Lutheran Church complained that the “7 Promises of a Promise Keeper” basically boil down to Law—people promising to do better, overlooking the fact that as fallen sinners, we can’t just promise our way to holiness; we need something from the outside to come and change us. Issues Etc., a Lutheran magazine representing the most conservative wing of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, regularly prints articles that allege that practically no church under the sun (except the Lutheran) is properly preaching the gospel of justification by faith alone.

The Gospel should never be regarded as a bludgeoning tool to be used to beat people into doctrinal uniformity. Issues Etc., in its zeal to ward off any and all traces of legalism, can come across as grouchy, for lack of a better word. Tchividjian’s complaints about rampant legalism within evangelicalism--particularly his rebuttal to Jen Wilken's article--appear to have offended people as well, coming across as overly harsh.

4. Conclusion

The Gospel needs to be front and center at church every Sunday, and if all we hear at church, even on one particular Sunday, is what God expects of us, then that church is not proclaiming the “full counsel” of God. It is certainly okay, though, for churches to remind people what God expects of them. People must clearly understand that the obedience required of them flows from and is a result of their having been redeemed by God’s love, not their do-it-yourself attempt to win God’s love.

Proper preaching of both the Law and the Gospel is crucial to any church’s health—something Lutherans and Presbyterians agree on. The Gospel needs to be proclaimed to remind people that God has done what needs doing for our redemption—we, in no sense at all, pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. The Law needs to be proclaimed to remind people that God really does hate sin and really does expect obedience—being Christians in no sense at all entitles us to do what we want under the guise of sinning so that grace may abound.

It’s sad to see a public “falling out” between two ministers within the same denomination. Thankfully, reconciliation appears be occuring, if not for everyone involved in the debate, at least between Keller and Tchividjian. Last week on his personal blog, Tchividjian expressed regret over the public conflict with Tim Keller, saying, "Tim and I are both committed to one another and the friendship we’ve enjoyed for many years. There are few people on this planet that I hold in higher esteem than Tim. He knows that. I love him. He has been a mentor and older brother to me for a long time."

Let us hope that what the watching world takes away from this conflict is not one more barrier to believing the gospel--"Those Christians can't even agree with each other, so why should I believe what they say?" Let us hope, instead, that they take away an example of how two men who may not entirely agree with each other are able, through Christ, to remain friends and continue loving each other. Brotherly love in spite of disagreement--that's something the world desperately needs to see more of.