The Contemporary Grace Movement
I was only exposed to the contemporary grace movement a few years ago as I obtained my doctor of ministry from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. I kept hearing about a man with a radio show named Steve Brown, and began reading his and a few others’ books on grace from sympathetic viewpoints. Not being in the PCA, I had never heard of Tullian Tchividjian until last year, and when I listened to some of his sermons on-line. I appreciated the clear distinctions between the law and the gospel, and the insistence that sanctification is dependent on justification. But every time I read a book or listened to a sermon from these men I was left wanting. Something was wrong.
The difficulty I had in evaluating the teaching as I read the books and listened to the sermons was that I did not usually disagree with the points being made. I found nothing heretical in the teachings. But it was not what they were saying that bothered me as much as what they were not saying. All their warnings against legalism were suitable warnings, and their belief in faith alone that justifies, their insistence that God loves us unconditionally in Christ, and that his love is not based on our performance, who could argue with that?
But I noticed there were aspects of both justification and sanctification that I wasn’t hearing at all, which in my mind resulted in a skewered picture of the gospel and the Christian life. It is often said by critics of this movement that while they get justification right, they do not stress the importance of sanctification enough. While there may be truth to this, (though they did affirm sanctification), I was even having problems with their explanation of justification. I will briefly sum up three areas that stood out to me as presenting only half the picture, those areas being the law of God, repentance, and the love of God.
The Law of God – While criticisms here usually focus on the lack of stress on the third use of the law (a guide for the Christian life), it is actually their teaching on the first use of the law I found troublesome. While it is true that the law of God reveals to us that we cannot keep it for a right standing with God, and all that these men write on this is commendable, that is not all the law says in its first use. The Law also condemns our specific sins. The breaking of the law brings God’s wrath.
Salvation was most often presented in these writings as an accepting of God’s unconditional love through Christ’s work, a love that knows we cannot keep his law, but loves anyway. But that is only part of the picture. We not only need to be saved from our inabilities to keep the whole law, we need to be saved from God’s wrath against sin that the law reveals. In his book, “A Scandalous Freedom,” Brown writes concerning the law, “In this chapter I want to share something about the law of God…the reason you winced when I mentioned the law of God is because you (and I) have misused it, have felt driven by it, and have been condemned by it. But that isn’t the purpose of the Law” (pg. 222)…“we have come to see the law of God as a negative thing given by a negative God to a negative people who will never get it right (pg. 225).” The focus in the rest of the chapter is on the law as good news to reveal to those trying to be good enough that they do not need to strive anymore, God accepts you in Christ, as well as the law as a guide.
However, the law of God does more than condemn our foolish attempts at being good, it condemns us for sinning. (Romans 2) We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things… He will render to each one according to his works…There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek…For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
One gets the sense reading the contemporary grace men that the law’s only purpose is positive; to show us that God loves us knowing we can never live up to his demands. Again, while there is truth to this, that is not the full picture. The breaking of the law brings God’s wrath and anger; it is what will cause God to judge unbelievers on the Last Day. The law is a negative thing properly understood. It is the purpose of the law to condemn. Now Brown could mean the law for the Christian can no longer condemn, which is true, but what was lacking was the understanding that the law does condemn the unbeliever as a sinner and places him under judgment for sinning.
This is important in understanding the gospel. When presenting the gospel we must present the full picture. Telling unbelievers that God is for them even while seeing their inability to keep the Law is only partially true, properly understood. But it is also true that one must accept the gospel because he is under God’s wrath for being a law-breaker inside and out. If there is a low view of sin in this movement it is first and foremost because the seriousness of sin is even downplayed in justification. Only emphasizing the compassion of God that loves in spite of our law breaking does not reveal to the sinner how desperate his condition really is. Justification is not only realizing one is never good enough to please God and thus accepting his free and unconditional love, it is realizing one is bad enough to deserve his wrath, and are under his wrath even now. While the contemporary grace men hopefully do not deny this, I rarely saw this aspect presented in their writings and sermons.
Repentance – In the same way, I kept looking and listening for a discussion on repentance, and rarely even saw or heard the word mentioned. While we must repent of our failed attempts to be good and right with God through our works, and the men were clear on this (though rarely using the word repentance), they were less clear on the need to repent of our actual sins we have committed.
There seemed to be a psychologizing approach to salvation, that one will feel much better if he simply gave up trying to be good and accepted God’s unconditional love through Christ. Then he will be good out of love for God and his grace. What was minimized was the legal aspect of salvation. As a result there seem to be little room for repentance for actual sins committed, and with no repentance there is no salvation (Luke 13:3). Let’s face it; the problem with most unbelievers is not that they are trying their best to be righteous yet failing, but that they are living in sin and loving it.
If the old adage is true, that there is no good news without the bad news, and it is, then the gospel is weakened without a clear presentation of the bad news, that we are under judgment for our actual sins, which for the elect would naturally lead to a desire to repent of actual sins. Repentance, in theological terms, is not only for sins of omission, but commission (not that we remember every sin we committed and repent of them, but we repent for our sins). In the same way there was no mention in my readings of the idea of counting the cost, that the goal of salvation is living a holy life empowered by the Spirit, a life devoted to God, and if one has no interest in such a life he is not ready to follow the Lord, he is not understanding the gospel.
There are other consequences for focusing too much on the psychological/subjective results of the gospel over the objective results of the gospel, a problem I noted repeatedly in these writings. First, while false guilt is unhealthy, guilt is often good for Christians to feel; guilt leads us to repentance. Feeling guilty does not necessarily reveal a lack of understanding of the gospel, feeling guilty is a work of the Spirit to bring us to repentance as Christians, repentance for specific things we have thought, said or done displeasing to the Lord. Guilt for the Christian was almost always something presented as a consequence of a performance-based religion, instead of seeing the proper place for guilt in the Christian life.
Secondly, and ironically, an overemphasis on the subjective benefits of salvation (feeling truly forgiven, loved, at peace with God, etc.) can end up producing a subtle form of legalism. For if I am supposed to feel free, not condemned, fully loved, etc., as a result of the gospel, what happens when I do not? Do I determine my spiritual condition based on my emotions? Better to know that even when I lack full assurance of God’s love, when I lack peace in my soul, etc., the objective realities of the gospel are just as true and effective for me. I do not have to be so preoccupied with how the gospel makes me feel today.
Love of God – The contemporary grace presentation of God’s unconditional love is helpful and true as it stands, but again, too one-sided. I got the impression as I read and listened that God’s unconditional love for his people rules out any other possible disposition in God toward us. The idea that God is always pleased with us in spite of our works, in spite of our sins, has a measure of truth to it from an eternal perspective. But the Scripture presents a broader picture of God’s love for his people. God can also be displeased with us because of certain sinful attitudes and actions. Concerning David’s sin of pride, which compelled him to take a census, the Scripture records, But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. (I Chron. 21:7). And concerning Solomon, And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice (I Kings 11:9). Now from one perspective we can say God never stopped loving David and Solomon, they were his elect, yet we cannot deny what these Scriptures teach, that God can be displeased with his children whom he loves unconditionally.
The Apostle Paul expresses both his love for the Corinthian Christians as well as his displeasure for their schismatic behavior, among other things. The point is, and parents know this, one can be displeased with his children for something they did without that displeasure compromising his unconditional love for his children. That God loves us in spite of our behavior is true in one sense, but without the full picture, that the Lord can be displeased with us, that he can discipline us for our sins as Christians, there will be a low view of sin in the church, and thus a low view of God’s holiness.
And while it is true God takes pleasure in us because we belong to him through Christ, and that is an unconditional pleasure, the Bible tells us more; it tells us what attitudes and behaviors do please him, that we should strive to do these things that please him, even if we cannot do them perfectly; Hebrews 13:16: Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
So in summary, while I do not find anything in the books I read or sermons I listened to in this grace movement that I would label heresy, and much of their insights into legalism were very helpful and eye-opening, I was continually finding myself concerned at what was being left out, both in their explanations of justification and sanctification.