Tullian and The Gospel Coalition


I hope this isn’t just linkbait. I do want to take a minute and throw out some thoughts about recent events involving grace preacher Tullian Tchividjian being asked to remove his blog from The Gospel Coalition’s web site. There has been a lot of heated rhetoric on all sides in the blogosphere about this. I don’t pretend to be above the fray; I have often been the most incendiary blogger I know. I do actually have a few thoughts.

  • Tullian probably was somewhat to blame for some of this. I love the guy a lot. He is really preaching the gospel and that is rare. But he is not Jesus, which means he is not perfect. I’m sure he can be loud-mouthed, brash, and abrasive. God forbid a popular preacher should prove to be actually imperfect. That means we should not be shocked that in some way he really was divisive and difficult in a sinful way. Why in the world would we expect perfection from anyone except Jesus? Tullian preaches grace because he knows how much he needs it. There is no reason to saddle him with such unreasonable expectations. Jesus is our savior, and the rest of us are just passing on the good news. If you hear some news that Tullian really did have some blame in this, just say, “you’re kidding! TULLIAN isn’t perfect? But — he is Billy Graham’s grandson!”
  • The Gospel Coalition is an easy target right now. All of that C.J. Mahaney business with the word “pedophile” and “coverup” being tossed around is very serious and I’m not going to get into it. However, I think we need to understand that these are difficult waters indeed for TGC members, and we need to give some members space to make mistakes. I am sure that even with the Mahaney business the path of truth and justice has remained unclear. There are still some gospel advocates at the site, for instance Tim Keller. We don’t need to quarantine everyone who remains part of the organization or demand or expect that they should take some dramatic action that we would approve of. I am still going to quote Tim Keller and read his books. I hope Scotty Smith still speaks at liberate even if he hangs on at TGC. We do not need to hold their feet to the fire; that would be ungracious. They are in a difficult place and we need to give them space to ride this out. Grace doesn’t demand blood or justice; Jesus took care of that.
  • There was a reason for Tullian’s divisiveness. There really are people on the site, perhaps even a preponderance of people, who advocate for what has been called a “mixed-grace” message. Mixed grace means no grace. As my pastor Dax Swanson says, there needs to be unity on essentials, if not unanimity on peripherals. I think many of us would agree that this is a division on essentials. I’m glad he was divisive. I think he was trying to be gracious without compromising the message, and some people can’t hear that as anything but divisiveness. Let’s also be clear, many people on the site really are divisive and can tend to be mean-spirited. When accusations of “celebratory failurism” are being thrown around with little thought to the real message being asserted, the site is tending towards a toxic environment. It is difficult to understand how a person could respond to that without being divisive; one begins to wonder what exactly TGC represents at all. If both of these camps represent a unifying theological distinctive, what distinctive could embrace both of these perspectives? There comes a time to throw out the scoffer so contention will go out. From my perspective, TGC is being thrown out. I would imagine that it will coast along for a while, but as it becomes a more and more bland and unchallenged instrument of mixed-grace “try-harder” sanctification messages, many people really will look afield.
  • The real fallout will be with local churches that are part of TGC. The local churches fall along these same lines, and are aligned along these same divisions. It is likely that more grace-oriented churches will ousted from the coalition at the local level. This is not necessarily bad. There will no longer be as much confusion about what membership in TGC actually means. It will mean it is a mixed-grace church. Churches which are not mixed grace might want to consider proactively leaving the coalition on account of this action by the mother ship, to give them the freedom to pursue their mixed-grace agenda unhindered.
  • This begs the question: if someone in Pennsylvania or St. Louis or Dallas or Seattle or anywhere wants to find a real “gospel of grace” church, where do they turn? How do they find it? I get emails all the time asking for this information, and frankly I usually have no idea. Obviously they can’t turn to TGC. We need a coalition of truly gospel-centered churches, with a clearly defined and simple outline of what that entails. What do we call these churches? “New reformation”? “Hyper-grace”? “Actually Gospel Centered”? “Liberated Churches”? This really is a world-wide movement of the Holy Spirit that is being done by various people who don’t even know each other but are saying very similar things about the power of radical grace to inform our Christian experience. I would like to know where these churches are, and keep in closer fellowship with them.
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  1. Hi Jim,
    Like you, I’m also thankful for pastors like Tullian who are preaching grace. He always seems to be the first to speak of his need for grace. We need more pastors like that.

    I have also benefited from Tim Keller’s books and teaching, and Scotty Smith is a friend. But I haven’t heard the phrase “mixed grace” and I don’t know who is preaching it. Could you point me to some articles or sermons where I can find that message?

    Thank you

  2. Great! I read Paul’s article. I think it’s a good term too. I kinda wish we didn’t have to say “hyper grace” though. It reminds me of the term “hyper Calvinism.” Oh well.

    It seems like from your perspective that Tim Keller is in the clear, but I do read TGC articles periodically and I’m a little concerned now because of what you have written here: “Let’s also be clear, many people on the site really are divisive, and can tend to be mean-spirited.” That’s a big statement! Do you have any one in particular, or any articles/writings in particular, that you are speaking of? I definitely don’t want to be regularly taking in the teachings of an online group who has many mean-spirited, divisive people preaching mixed grace.

    • Great. I’ve put my foot in my mouth again. You’re right, that is a big statement. I really did feel that Jen Wilkin’s article was over the top, talking about Tullian’s message as “celebratory failurism.” But I’m no one to throw stones; I did a 20 part post eviscerating MacArthur’s lordship salvation document. It needed it, with all the scriptures they listed, but I can’t guarantee that I was never mean-spirited.

      I seem to remember that Kevin DeYoung has accused Tullian of being a bad exegete on TGC. I’m not saying that all the posts on TGC are divisive and mean-spirited. It does happen though. I think the main thing is that Keller is trying to paint this as a difference about sanctification, and I’m not convinced that something deeper and more important is at stake. I think there are members who would definitely border on saying that if you are not so successful at your sanctification, you are not saved. I think this nullifies grace and the power of the blood of Christ, and this is a BIG DEAL. To me that is the important issue.

      I agree that the “hyper-grace” term is not necessarily best. It is either normal Bb vanilla grace or it isn’t grace. We do need some kind of qualifier unfortunately, because the word “grace” has been co-opted to mean almost anything. For instance, the main proponents of lordship salvation call their ministry “grace to you”. We need a better term. Real grace, or actual grace, or one-way grace, or something.

      • Hi Jim,

        I know I’m late into this conversation but as for terms I think saying “unmerited favor” is pretty clear since grace has to come to mean almost anything as you mentioned. At least for me knowing that definition was huge and really helped me to see where I was trying to earn blessings when I should have relied on His love for me like all those who came to Him and received freely.

  3. I have seen two places that look like”grace”…Celebrate Recovery, and Gateway’s Freedom Ministry. Neither is a church, but are programs within (generally) pretty grace -filled congregations. I wish grace was more common. How sad to have to say that.

  4. You and me both then. I still say mean spirited things sometimes, but not as much as I used to by the grace of God.

    I read Jen’s article too and I genuinely thought it was good. I didn’t realize until later that there was something else going on there that involved Tullian. I’m sad about how that has gone down. I agree that local churches affiliated with TGC will be affected.

    I’ve talked with Kevin DeYoung on several occasions and I have benefited from his teaching as well. I’m sad that he would say something like that about Tullian in a public space, even if it was true. I would love to see them talk face to face. There’s something about talking in person that helps me see others as real people to love and not arguments to win.

    I don’t know about Keller, but you’re right, it does appear to be about something deeper doesn’t it? I’ll stay tuned for more information and hopefully we can grow from all of this somehow.

    You might think this is silly but I would love to hear what you have to say on lordship salvation! Have you posted anything that I could read?

    Thanks for putting up with me:)

  5. Thanks for this Jim. I love to jump on the attack the neo cal bandwagon but, your first two statements are true and need to be posted. I need to repent of my own anger toward these men. Lord have mercy! I recently read Prodigal God by Tim Keller and found it to be quite similar to Tullian’s message. So, I was really shocked when Keller posted what he posted about Tullian’s different views of sanctification. I thought the two were on par with each other. I think there is much more to all of this.

  6. Jim – thank you for this post. Always refreshingly honest. I love what you said about our human expectations of leaders (Tullian, etc…) to be perfect. In the past, those kind of expectations have led me to frustration and bitterness.

    A few weeks ago I was reading Scotty Smith’s commentary on The High Preistly Prayer in John 17 from the Gospel Transformation Bible (which I love). I think this is relevant to the discussion.

    Scotty says: “our fallen instincts encourage us to build our identity on what distinguishes us even from other believers, but Jesus exposes the self-centerdness of such a mind-set. Our UNION WITH Christ brings a UNITY IN Christ that transcends all secondary disagreements.”

    Lord help me see my pride, my wanting to be right, my loyalty to the guys I think are “preaching it right”. Those are secondary to my union with Christ.

    Jim – what do you think? I get angry when I hear or read pastors/authors putting people to work through law/guilt/etc….Does this (what Scotty wrote) apply to the folks that preach “yes grace, but…”?

    • Thanks Bryan. I love that quote from Scotty Smith. One of my driving major ideas is that grace builds community. If standards and expectations of excellence stand at the center of our relationships, judgment rules us and those standards really exist as a means to exit the community, not persist in love in the community. If belief in Christ stands at the center of our relationships, then we all believe that not only did Christ die for me, but He died for each other. When we inevitably offend one another and sin against one another, we believe in the power of propitiation for one another. So in Christ we see each other not just as an irritant and a failure and a disappointment — we see each other as people that God Himself deemed worthy to die for. We can see that Jesus deems all of us as so beloved that He would persist in love to the point of death. This persistence is not just a good sentiment; He loves with power through the resurrection. He could not speak the idea of “assurance” more powerfully. This is what communion really shows us when we eat the bread and drink the cup together.

      So, yes, when preachers try to put law and guilt on people, they grandly miss the point, and destroy their own community. The point of grace is love. Grace basically is, persistent love. We love one another when we believe in Christ for one another. When we believe in Christ for one another, we love one another.

  7. I won’t claim to understand all the nuances of all going on between Tullian & TGC, or within the ranks of TGC. However, it is beyond frustrating to me to see all this supposed nodding to grace, but then, the “yeah, grace, but….” I am so thankful for your site, Jim, and for Liberate & Tullian. Why do people (even I myself sometimes, internally at least) feel such a compelling “need” to immediately “qualify” grace? And all of this arguing back and forth, some of it noticeably mean-spirited and judgmental, is accomplishing…. what? Do you understand my frustration? Am I the only one noticing this?

    • Thanks Frank! You’re right, of course, there is a lot of energy out there spent qualifying grace. I don’t think we should be shocked. The gospel goes against what is normal, against the flesh, and only creates virtue through supernatural manifestation of the Spirit of God. People want a more natural pressure to do right. We’re saying you walk as a Christian by miracles. Christian virtue cannot be stripped of the supernatural (Romans 8). As John says, we should not be shocked (1 John 3:12-13) if we are hated for our belief. Is it really a surprise that the hatred would come from a religious perspective?

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