Reader’s Digest Christianity

For a while, my parents were getting Reader’s Digest every month while I was growing up. Because they were stored in the bathrooms, they were widely read. In each and every issue there was an interview with some celebrity, usually an actor or an athlete.

Reader’s Digest’s favorite kind of celebrity was the “self-made” variety: someone who had come from nothing, preferably a broken home in which the single mother had to work multiple jobs to afford the windows that protected the family from the ceaseless gunfire outside. The interviewers inevitably ended their pieces by asking the celebrity something like, “If you could offer one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?” (In fact, this makes up the bulk of Reader’s Digest…the part that isn’t ads. It’s full of pithy little pieces of advice for an improved life: “For a fun afternoon with the kids, try making caramel apples! To sleep better, try eating more blueberries! For a more fulfilling marriage, try going camping together!”) The celebrity would always say something like, “The one thing I would like to tell your readers is that you can’t let anyone tell you that you can’t accomplish your dreams. I’m walking evidence of that. If you want something badly enough, and work at it hard enough, you can accomplish anything at all.”

So much Christianity has become Reader’s Digest Christianity: “Jesus can help you achieve your dreams. He’ll go ninety-nine yards if you just go one. Do a little and he’ll do a lot. God helps those who help themselves.”

The Kingston Trio has a great song called “Desert Pete” about a man crawling through the desert, dying of thirst, who comes upon a decrepit old water pump. Next to the pump he finds a bottle of water. There’s a note, too. The note next to the bottle says that he has to use the water to prime the pump before he can drink any. Here’s part of the chorus:

You’ve got to prime the pump. You must have faith and believe.
You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive.
You’ve got to give before you get.

That sounds like a lot of preaching these days. “Do for God and then he’ll do for you”, “Do your best and then God will do the rest.” It’s Reader’s Digest Christianity.

I’ve said before that for every good story in the Old Testament, there is a bad children’s song. Perhaps one of the most well-known is “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” You know the one:

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho;
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, And the walls came tumbling down!
You may talk about your men of Gideon,
You may talk about your men of Saul;
But there’s none like good old Joshua and the battle of Jericho.

I know what you’re thinking: “C’mon, Tullian. Don’t be such a cynic. It’s just a cute, harmless way of helping children remember the story.” Ok, ok. I’m not saying that knowing, liking, or even singing that song is bad. But the song doesn’t really tell the story. Or, more accurately, it leaves out the most important part of the story.

But it’s not only the children’s song that leaves out the most important part of the story. More concerning to me is the fact that most sermons and Sunday School lessons do too.

You remember the story, don’t you? Joshua comes up against the city of Jericho. The people of Jericho built huge walls around their city because they wanted to protect themselves from this “God” they had heard so much about—a God who split the Red Sea in half for his people. Verse 1 says that the inhabitants of Jericho hid behind those walls, “not going out and not coming in.” And God’s big plan was to have Joshua’s army walk around the city for six days and then on the seventh day, walk around the city seven times concluding with a huge shout from God’s people. When the walls of Jericho “come tumbling down,” it seems as though Joshua’s faithfulness (and willingness to follow through on this ridiculous plan) is being rewarded. So this Joshua-at-Jericho story seems, at first glance, to fit perfectly with Reader’s Digest Christianity.

We read the story (or hear the sermons) and sing the song and make this whole account about Joshua and how he bravely fought the battle of Jericho and how as a result of his great faith, the walls came tumbling down and he led his people into the Promised Land. And then we turn it into nothing more than a moral lesson: “If we, like Joshua, have great faith and bravely fight the battles in our lives, we will see our personal walls of sin come tumbling down and enter into the Promised Land of spiritual maturity.”

When we read the story of Joshua this way, we demonstrate that we’ve completely missed the hinge on which this story turns. This whole story hinges on the placement of one verse: “See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers” (Joshua 6:2). The key point is that God hands Jericho over to Joshua BEFORE Joshua does what God wants! We expect God to say something more like, “If you do this crazy thing—if you prove your faith to me—I’ll reward your faithfulness by being faithful in return.” But in God’s economy, his promise precedes our faith! In fact, his promise CAUSES our faith. So, as it turns out, this story completely breaks down Reader’s Digest Christianity. It’s like a wrecking ball. God’s economy is the opposite of Desert Pete’s: you get before you give!

God’s word is creative (his words “let there be light” actually create light): when he calls someone “faithful” they become so. When he declares someone “righteous,” they are righteous. God makes his pronouncements at the BEGINNING, before any improvement or qualification occurs—before any conditions are met. God decides the outcome of Joshua’s battle before anyone straps on a shield or picks up a sword. And he not only decides to deliver unconditionally; he does so single-handedly. No one lifts a finger to dismantle the wall—the promised victory is received, not achieved. So, in the end, the seemingly harmless song is wrong and misleading because Joshua did NOT fight the Battle of Jericho. God did. Joshua and the Israelites simply received the victory that God secured.

Of course, this battle points us to another battle that God unconditionally and singlehandedly fought for us. It points us to another victory that God achieves and that we receive. We are the ones trapped inside the fortified walls of sin and death—of fear and anxiety and insecurity and self-salvation—and Jesus’ “It is finished” shout from the cross alone causes the walls of our self-induced slavery to come tumbling down. Real freedom, in other words, comes as a result of his performance, not yours; his accomplishment, not yours; his strength, not yours; his victory, not yours.

That’s good news!

By instinct I feel I must do something in order to be accepted. Grace sounds a startling note of contradiction, of liberation, and every day I must pray anew for the ability to hear its message.

Eugene Peterson draws a contrast between Augustine and Pelagius, two fourth-century theological opponents. Pelagius was urbane, courteous, convincing, and liked by everyone. Augustine squandered away his youth in immorality, had a strange relationship with his mother, and made many enemies. Yet Augustine started from God’s grace and got it right, whereas Pelagius started from human effort and got it wrong. Augustine passionately pursued God; Pelagius methodically worked to please God. Peterson goes on to say that Christians tend to be Augustinian in theory but Pelagian in practice. They work obsessively to please other people and even God.

Each year in spring, I fall victim to what the sports announcers diagnose as “March Madness.” I cannot resist the temptation to tune in to the final basketball game, in which the sole survivors of a sixty-four-team tournament meet for the NCAA championship. That most important game always seems to come down to one eighteen-year-old kid standing on a freethrow line with one second left on the clock. He dribbles nervously. If he misses these two foul shots, he knows, he will be the goat of his campus, the goat of his state. Twenty years from now he’ll be in counseling, reliving this moment. If he makes these shots, he’ll be a hero. His picture will be on the front page. He could probably run for governor. He takes another dribble and the other team calls time, to rattle him. He stands on the sideline, weighing his entire future. Everything depends on him. His teammates pat him encouragingly, but say nothing.

One year, I remember, I left the room to answer a phone call just as the kid was setting himself to shoot. Worry lines creased his forehead. He was biting his lower lip. His left leg quivered at the knee. Twenty thousand fans were yelling, waving banners and handkerchiefs to distract him. The phone call took longer than expected, and when I returned I saw a new sight. This same kid, his hair drenched with Gatorade, was now riding atop the shoulders of his teammates, cutting the cords of a basketball net. He had not a care in the world. His grin filled the entire screen.

Those two freeze-frames—the same kid crouching at the free throw line and then celebrating on his friends’ shoulders—came to symbolize for me the difference between ungrace and grace.

The world runs by ungrace. Everything depends on what I do. I have to make the shot.

Jesus calls us to another way, one that depends not on our performance but his own. We do not have to achieve but merely receive. He has already earned for us the costly victory of God’s acceptance.


William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. You can visit his website at www.liberatenet.org and find him on Twitter @PastorTullian

When God Threw Your Judgment Stone

God speaks two words to the world. People have called them many things: Law and Gospel, Judgment and Love, Critique and Grace, and so on. In essence, though, it’s pretty simple: first God gives us bad news (about us) and then He gives us Good News (about Jesus).

This is perhaps most clearly seen in an incredibly well-known (and incredibly misunderstood) passage of Scripture: Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in the act of adultery.

The scribes and Pharisees catch a woman in the act of adultery, and drag her before Jesus. Can you imagine a woman who ever felt more shame than this one? Literally caught in the act of adultery? Unfathomable. They tell Jesus of her infraction, and remind him that the law of Moses says such women should be stoned. Then they issue a challenge: “What do you say?” They’re trying to trick Jesus into admitting what they suspect: that he’s “soft” on the Law.

Boy, were they wrong.

Confronted by this test, Jesus bends down and writes in the sand with his finger. Now, we aren’t told what he writes, but I think it’s instructive to look at the only other instances in the Bible where God writes with his finger. The first is obvious: The inscription of the 10 Commandments on the stone tablets. The second, though, is less well-known.

In Daniel 5, King Belshazzar is having a huge party, at which “they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (v. 4). Suddenly, a hand appears and begins writing on the wall. When Daniel is called in to translate the writing, this is what it is revealed to say: “Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” There can be no doubt that these are three words of judgment—i.e. Law. “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” Has a more chilling word of judgment ever been uttered?

So the two other times God wrote with his finger, he wrote law. I don’t think, therefore, it’s a stretch to think that when Jesus writes in the sand with his finger, he’s writing law. I like to think that perhaps Jesus wrote, “Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

Far from being “soft” on the Law, Jesus shows just how high the bar of the law is. How do we know? Because the scribes and Pharisees respond the same way that all of us respond when we are confronted with depth of God’s inflexible demands—they scattered. Beginning with the oldest ones, they all, like the rich young ruler, walked away defeated.

When Jesus and the woman are left alone, and she acknowledges that no one remains to condemn her, Jesus speaks his final word to her: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). This is where the story gets misunderstood.

“Aha!” we cry. “See! Jesus tells her to shape up! He leaves her with an exhortation!” But look at the order of Jesus’ words: First, he tells the woman that he does not condemn her. Only then does he instruct her to sin no more. This is enormous. He does not make his love conditional on her behavior. He does not say, “Go, sin no more, and check back with me in six months. If you’ve been good, I won’t condemn you.”

No. Our Savior does so much better than that.

Jesus creates new life in the woman by loving her unconditionally, with no-strings-attached. By forgiving her profound shame, he impacts her profoundly. Now free from condemnation, she walks away determined to leave her old life behind. As this account demonstrates, redeeming unconditional love alone (not law, not fear, not punishment, not guilt, not shame) carries the power to compel heart-felt loyalty to the One who gave us (and continues to give us) what we don’t deserve (2 Corinthians 5:14).

Like the adulterous woman, we are all caught in the act—discovered in a shameful breach of God’s law. Though no one on earth can throw the first stone, God can. And he did. The wonder of all wonders is that the rock of condemnation that we justly deserved was hurled by the Father onto the Son. The law-maker became the law-keeper and died for us, the law-breakers. “In my place condemned He stood; and sealed my pardon with His blood. Hallelujah, what a Savior.”
 

William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. You can visit his website at www.liberatenet.org and find him on Twitter @PastorTullian

There is some talk these days regarding big terms like antinomianism (a word coined by Martin Luther which simply means “anti-law”) and legalism. I’ve written about that here and address it at length in Chapter 9 of One Way Love. But, at the center of any discussion regarding antinomianism and legalism is how one understands the Biblical distinction between God’s law and God’s gospel. I hope the following thoughts are helpful and further this important conversation. The theological lifting here is a bit heavy, but I think it’s worth your time and effort to think on these things.

One of the problems in the current conversation regarding the relationship between law and gospel is that the term “law” is not always used to mean the same thing. This is understandable since in the Bible “law” does not always mean the same thing.

For example, in Psalm 40:8 we read: “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” Here the law is synonymous with God’s revealed will. A Christian seeking to express their love for God and neighbor delights in those passages that declare what God’s will is. When, however, Paul tells Christians that they are no longer under the law (Rom. 6:14) he obviously means more by law than the revealed will of God. He’s talking there about Christians being free from the curse of the law-not needing to depend on adherence to the law to establish our relationship to God: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).

So, it’s not as simple as you might think. For short hand, I think it’s helpful to say that law is anything in the Bible that says “do”, while gospel is anything in the Bible that says “done”; law equals imperative and gospel equals indicative. However, when you begin to parse things out more precisely, you discover some important nuances that should significantly help the conversation forward so that people who are basically saying the same thing aren’t speaking different languages and talking right past one another.

Discussion of the law and it’s three uses (1) usus theologicus (drives us to Christ), (2) usus politicus (the civil use), and (3) usus practicus (revealing of God’s will for living) are helpful. But I’ve discovered that this outline all by itself raises just as many questions to those I talk to as it does provide answers.

Dr. Jono Linebaugh makes the point that when, for instance, “the Apostle Paul speaks about the law he routinely speaks of it as a command attached to a condition. In other words, law is a demand within a conditional framework. This is why he selects Leviticus 18:5b (both in Gal. 3 and Rom. 10) as a summary of the salvation-structure of the law: ‘if you keep the commandments, then you will live.’ Here, there is a promise of life linked to the condition of doing the commandments and a corresponding threat for not doing them: “cursed is everyone who does not abide in all the things written in the Book of the Law, to do them” (Gal 3.10 citing Deut 27.26). When this conditional word encounters the sinful human, the outcome is inevitable: ‘the whole world is guilty before God’ (Rom 3.19). It is the condition that does the work of condemnation. “Ifs” kill!”

Jono goes on to say, “Compare this to a couple examples of New Testament imperatives. First, consider Galatians 5.1. After four chapters of passionate insistence that justification is by faith apart from works of the law, Paul issues a couple of strong imperatives: ‘It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore stand firm (imperative) and do not be subject (imperative) again to the yoke of slavery.’ Are these commandments with conditions? No! Are these imperatives equal to Paul’s description of the law? No! The command here is precisely to not return to the law; it is an imperative to stand firm in freedom from the law.”

Let’s say you’re a pastor and a college student comes to you for advice. He’s worn out because of the amount of things he’s involved in. He’s in a fraternity, playing basketball, running track, waiting tables, and taking 16 hours of credit. The pressure he feels from his family to “do it all” and “make something of himself” is making him crazy and wearing him down. After explaining his situation to you, you look at him and explain the gospel-that because Jesus paid it all we are free from the need to do it all. Our identity, worth, and value is not anchored in what we can accomplish but in what Jesus accomplished for us. Then you issue an imperative: “Now, quit track and drop one class.” Does he hear this as bad news or good news? Good news, of course. The very idea of knowing he can let something go brings him much needed relief-he can smell freedom. Like Galatians 5:1, the directive you issue to the student is a directive to not submit to the slavery of a command with a condition (law): “if you do more and try harder, you will make something of yourself and therefore find life.” It’s not an imperative of conditional command; it is an invitation to freedom and fullness. This is good news!

Jono gives another example of this from John 8.11: “Once the accusers of the adulterous women left, Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Depart. From now on, sin no more.’ Does this final imperative disqualify the words of mercy? Is this a commandment with a condition? No! Otherwise Jesus would have instead said, ‘If you go and sin no more, then neither will I condemn you.’ But Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.’ The command is not a condition. ‘Neither do I condemn you’ is categorical and unconditional, it comes with no strings attached. ‘Neither do I condemn you’ creates an unconditional context within which ‘go and sin no more’ is not an if. The only if the gospel knows is this: ‘if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous’ (1 John 2.1).”

The reason Paul says that Christ is the end of this law is that in the gospel God unconditionally gives the righteousness that the law demands conditionally. So Christ kicks the law out of the conscience by overcoming the voice of condemnation produced by the condition of the law. The conditional voice that says “Do this and live” gets out-volumed by the unconditional voice that says “It is finished.”

When this happens, we are freed from the condemnation of the law’s conditionality (the “law” loses its teeth) and therefore free to hear the law’s content as a description of what a free life looks like. In other words, the gospel ends the law’s role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship and limits the law to being a blueprint for the free life–with parental consequences from our unconditionally loving father when we “submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Fatherly discipline from God when we stray off course always comes for one reason: to set us free.

So, the law serves Christians by showing us what freedom on the ground looks like. But everyday in various ways we disobey and stubbornly ignore the call to be free, “submitting ourselves once again to a yoke of slavery.” And when we do, it is the gospel which brings comfort by reminding us that God’s love for us doesn’t depend on what we do (or fail to do) but on what Christ has done for us. Jesus fulfilled all of God’s holy conditions so that our relationship to God could be wholly unconditional. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The gospel, therefore, always has the last word over a believer. Always!

For Martin Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel-the reality he called “living by faith”-that the law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Wilfried Joest sums this up beautifully:

The end of the law for faith does not mean the denial of a Christian ethic…. Luther knows a commandment that gives concrete instruction and an obedience of faith that is consistent with the freedom of faith…. This commandment, however, is no longer the lex implenda [the law that must be fulfilled], but rather comes to us as the lex impleta [the law that is already fulfilled]. It does not speak to salvation-less people saying: ‘You must, in order that…’ It speaks to those who have been given the salvation-gift and say, “You may, because…”

Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to “imperatives”, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to love God and others. The law, in other words, shows us how to love. Once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that keeping the rules makes us right with God, and in faith believes the counter-intuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces loving action, then the justified person is unlocked to love-which is the fulfillment of the law.

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