A Steadfast Lutheran Interview With Pastor Tullian Tchividjian (Combined for easier reading)
“He must be a Lutheran; he sure sounds like one.” These were some of the first words out of my mouth when I first read the writings of Pr. Tullian Tchividjian. However, upon further investigation I discovered that Pr. Tchividjian is not a Lutheran pastor, but the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the church founded by Dr. D. James Kennedy. Furthermore, I learned that Pr. Tchividjian is the grandson of the evangelist Billy Graham and the visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Even though I was able to put together a loose biography of Pr. Tchividjian, I still found myself wondering why a lot of his writings, sermons, and vocabulary sounded so much like my preaching/teaching, my colleagues preaching/teaching, and many of the Lutheran theologians that I had read.
To answer these questions and many more, I approached Pr. Tchividjian several weeks ago about doing an interview for Brothers of John the Steadfast. I have had the privilege of exchanging several emails with Pr. Tchividjian over the last several years, since I first was exposed to his writings. Furthermore, about a year ago I had a chance to visit with him briefly while I attended a Reformation Conference in Florida. However, I have never been able to ask him about this ‘Lutheran connection’ that I and so many others have recognized.
After receiving my request for an interview, Pr. Tchividjian graciously accepted and what follows is the hour long exchange that we had over the phone. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
Pr. Richard: Tullian, within Lutheran circles I have heard people refer to you as a ‘closet Lutheran.’ This is obviously a tremendous complement from my perspective. What are your thoughts about this and is it true?
Pr. Tchividjian: [Laughing] I’ve heard that too. People who know me, however, know that I’m not a closet anything. I’m pretty outspoken and unashamed about what I believe and why. I wish I had the kind of personality that was subtle, but I don’t. I have some theological differences with my Lutheran friends which is why I am a Presbyterian. But I will joyfully admit that few theologians have helped me more than Lutheran theologians. They tend to be much more down-to-earth and realistic, with little tolerance for theoretical descriptions of the human condition. They are existential realists, rather than idealists. They’ve helped me better understand my sin, God’s grace, and the distinction between the law and the gospel. They’ve guided me through deep and wide pastoral challenges and, I think, made me a better preacher, pastor, and counselor.
Pr. Richard: In what ways has Lutheranism and these Lutheran theologians helped you?
Pr. Tchividjian: I have found great benefit from the Lutheran writings on three primary distinctions: law and Gospel, active and passive righteousness, and the theology of cross vs. the theology of glory. Plus, as I mention above, they understand and diagnose the human condition realistically which makes their riffs on the gospel experientially real. Luther’s famous phrase simul iustus et peccator gave me language when I was a budding theology student which greatly helped me understand what I was feeling and experiencing as a young Christian. The personal and pastoral payoff here is that it enabled me to affirm (without crossing my fingers) that in Christ—at the level of identity—I was 100% righteous before God while at the same time recognizing the persistence of my sin. If we don’t speak in terms of two total states (100% righteous in Christ and 100% sinful in ourselves) corresponding to the co-existence of two times (the old age and the new creation) then the undeniable reality of ongoing sin leads to the qualification of our identity in Christ: the existence of some sin must mean that one is not totally righteous. This is acid at the very foundation of the peace we have with God on the other side of justification. To say simul iustus et peccator is therefore not to say that “sinner” is our identity; it is to say that while we remain sinful in ourselves we are, in Christ, totally righteous.
Pr. Richard: Where did you first discover these Lutheran writings?
Pr. Tchividjian: Believe it or not, I was first captivated by Luther himself by listening to a lecture by R.C. Sproul as a young Christian. But it was through conversations with Michael Horton, the host of The White Horse Inn, that I was introduced to the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Then through Horton I met a plethora of Lutheran individuals, individuals such as Dr. Rod Rosenbladt—who then introduced me to Harold Senkbeil, Robert Kolb, and others.
Pr. Richard: So, which Lutheran theologians have you delved into? Which Lutheran pastors and theologians have influenced your theology and practice the most?
Pr. Tchividjian: Well, obviously Martin Luther. Other than Luther though, probably the best book that I’ve ever read was a book written by Kolb…
Pr. Richard: Robert Kolb?
Pr. Tchividjian: Yes, ‘Robert’ Kolb. The title was The Genius of Luther’s Theology. I have also appreciated the writings of Harold Senkbeil, Gene Veith, Rod Rosenbladt, Oswald Bayer, and a Saskatchewan Lutheran named, William Hordern. Oh, I cannot forget the book by Bo Giertz titled The Hammer of God. I just love that book! Not only was the book by Giertz well written, the theology in it is most excellent. I promote Giertz’s book to everyone I can.
Pr. Richard: Let’s back things up a little, if you don’t mind. When did you first believe the freedom earned by Jesus, in your stead, is for the forgiveness of your sins, life, and salvation even though you don’t deserve it as a sinner?
Pr. Tchividjian: Hmm, that can be answered two ways. When did I become a Christian, or, when did I come to realize the awesome implications of God’s grace. Let me answer it both ways.
Pr. Richard: Yes, that is fine, please do.
Pr. Tchividjian: God saved me when I was 21 years old even though I had grown up in a Christian home, gone to church, etc… As a youth I rejected my family faith pretty explicitly. It was more of a functional rejection rather than an intellectual one. Christianity just wasn’t functionally real to me growing up. I dropped out of high school when I was 16 and was kicked out of my home and proceeded to lead a very debaucherous lifestyle. Through a variety of circumstances I came to a point of realizing that there has to be more to life than what I was experiencing. Therefore, I called up to God in my brokenness and He saved me.
Pr. Richard: What happened from this salvific event?
Pr. Tchividjian: I was absolutely captivated by grace for the first 8 months. I realized that I didn’t deserve grace and didn’t deserve salvation. I kept identifying myself as the prodigal in Jesus’ parable in Luke chapter 15. I couldn’t hear about grace without being overwhelmed by the kindness of the Lord that led me to repentance. The fact that God had been patient with me and pursued me in my rebellion swept me off my feet. I wept a lot in those early days—overcome by God’s amazing grace to me.
Pr. Richard: Is this when you first realized the implications of God’s grace?
Pr. Tchividjian: Yes and no. Let me explain. After 8 months I started to get better. I went to Bible studies. I started watching my mouth. I stopped having sex with my girlfriend. I started to improve morally speaking. As I improved, something subtly happened to me. The narrative in my life slowly changed and it became about ‘me’ and what ‘I’ was doing. It was a slow shift. As I improved morally speaking, it became less about what Jesus had done and more about what I was doing. It was like a trap; I improved yet I began to lose sight of God’s grace.
Pr. Richard: So, what happened?
Pr. Tchividjian: [Chuckling] Life happened! Life, suffering, and failure have a way of transforming you from an idealist to a realist—from thinking that you’re strong to reminding you that you’re weak.
When I was 25, I believed I could change the world. At 41, I have come to the realization that I cannot change my wife, my church, or my kids, to say nothing of the world. Try as I might, I have not been able to manufacture outcomes the way I thought I could, either in my own life or other people’s. Unfulfilled dreams, ongoing relational tension, the loss of friendships, a hard marriage, rebellious teenagers, the death of loved ones, remaining sinful patterns—whatever it is for you—live long enough, lose enough, suffer enough, and the idealism of youth fades, leaving behind the reality of life in a broken world as a broken person. Life has had a way of proving to me that I’m not on the constantly-moving-forward escalator of progress I thought I was on when I was twenty-five.
Instead, my life has looked more like this: Try and fail. Fail then try. Try and succeed. Succeed then fail. Two steps forward. One step back. One step forward. Three steps back. Every year, I get better at some things, worse at others. Some areas remain stubbornly static. To complicate matters even more, when I honestly acknowledge the ways I’ve gotten worse, it’s actually a sign that I may be getting better. And when I become proud of the ways I’ve gotten better, it’s actually a sign that I’ve gotten worse. And ’round and ’round we go.
If this sounds like a depressing sentiment, it isn’t meant to be one. Quite the opposite. If I am grateful for anything about these past 15 years, it’s for the way God has wrecked my idealism about myself and the world and replaced it with a realism about the extent of His grace and love, which is much bigger than I had ever imagined. Indeed, the smaller you get—the smaller life makes you—the easier it is to see the grandeur of grace. While I am far more incapable than I may have initially thought, God is infinitely more capable than I ever hoped.
Pr. Richard: Is this the second part of your answer, where you came to understand the implications of God’s grace, could I say, ‘functionally speaking?’
Pr. Tchividjian: Yes, it is. About 3 years into a church plant I came to realize that life was simply hard. Church work was hard, family was hard, marriage was hard, and so forth. I disappointed a lot of people; people disappointed me; life happened. Furthermore, I started to realize the fruits of ‘do more – try harder’ preaching. I was losing idealism and I began to see that a lot of the popular theologies in America were simply unrealistic. This was when I first encountered Lutheranism and began delving into various Lutheran theologians. As I mentioned above, I was captivated by just how realistic Lutheran theologians were.
Pr. Richard: Let us shift gears a bit. What is the difference between your Grandfather’s ministry and your ministry? In other words, what is the difference between Billy Graham’s pastoral focus and Tullian Tchividjian’s pastoral focus?
Pr. Tchividjian: “Daddy Bill” (that’s what we call him) was called to preach the Gospel to those primarily (though not exclusively) ‘outside’ the church. I see that I’ve been called to preach the Gospel to those primarily (though not exclusively) ‘inside’ the church. I didn’t grow up in the church hearing that the Gospel was for Christians. I understood that the Gospel was what Non-Christians needed to hear in order to be saved but that once God saved us he moved us beyond the gospel. But what I came to realize is that once God saves us he doesn’t then move us beyond the gospel, but rather more deeply into the gospel. The gospel, in other words, is just as necessary for me now as it was the day God saved me. So, in many ways I feel like an evangelist to those inside the church—helping the church rediscover what I call “the now power” of the gospel. Whenever the church rediscovers the gospel for Christians, it’s called a reformation. One could say that when masses of Non-Christians believe the gospel it’s called a revival. When masses of Christians believe the gospel it’s called a reformation. I’m primarily, though not exclusively, called to be a reformer.
Pr. Richard: So, do you think that there is a modern reformation happening among American Evangelicalism today? If so, where are they reforming to?
Pr. Tchividjian: Yeah, great question. It is like Charles Dickens once said, “It is the best of times and the worst of times.” On the one hand, I see a remarkable response to the Gospel from those in the church. There seems to be a real awakening taking place with regard to the gospel being necessary for Christians too. People are starting to hear that the gospel doesn’t just ignite the Christian life, it’s also the fuel that keeps Christians going. I believe that the idea that the Gospel is only for nonbelievers is dying. This is good.
Pr. Richard: Yes, it is good. I too believe that there is a reformation occurring in many Evangelical churches in North America. With that said, do you have any concerns regarding the current movement within Evangelicalism of “gospel-centeredness”?
Pr. Tchividjian: Well, like I said, it is the best of times and the worst of times. While the Gospel is being received among many in the church, I believe that many do not have a proper understanding of Law and Gospel which then doesn’t allow them to understand the Gospel properly.
Pr. Richard: What do you mean by that?
Pr. Tchividjian: As Gerhard Ebeling wrote, “The failure to distinguish the law and the gospel always means the abandonment of the gospel.” What he meant was that a confusion of law and gospel (trying to “balance” them) is the main contributor to moralism in the church because the law gets softened into “helpful tips for practical living” instead of God’s unwavering demand for absolute perfection, while the gospel gets hardened into a set of moral and social demands we “must live out” instead of God’s unconditional declaration that “God justifies the ungodly.” As my friend and New Testament scholar Jono Linebaugh,says, “God doesn’t serve mixed drinks. The divine cocktail is not law mixed with gospel. God serves two separate shots: law then gospel.” I think that there is a lot of mixed drinks being served in Evangelical and Reformed churches and if this is not corrected, it will usher in another generation of confusion as to what the gospel truly is.
Pr. Richard: As we conclude this interview, is there anything else that you would like to mention?
Pr. Tchividjian: Yeah, I would just like to express how much I appreciate the Lutheran tradition. I greatly appreciate the wise support that I receive from Confessional Lutherans. When I get criticized by individuals, it is typically the Lutherans who come to my defense. I am very grateful for the way that I have been treated, taught, and the friendship that I have with many Lutherans. As I have shared before, if we Reformed trace our heritage back to the reformation and not simply take all our cues from the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritans, we will find that we have a lot in common with Lutherans.
Pr. Richard: Thank you Pr. Tchividjian for your time and willingness to do this interview for Steadfast Lutherans. Grace and peace to you.
Pr. Tchividjian: No problem; blessings to you as well.
Some concluding thoughts.
I hope you enjoyed the previous conversation as much as I did; I rejoice hearing that Lutheranism is impacting people far and wide, especially its apparent reach into Evangelicalism. Indeed, it is encouraging to hear of American Evangelicals eagerly reading and encountering Lutheran tenets for the first time, especially when we have witnessed some within Lutheranism being ashamed of our theology and regrettably exchanging our tenets for Evangelical fads.
While we Lutherans certainly have our disagreements with Presbyterians, as well as many of those within American Evangelicalism, I am thoroughly convinced that the Lutheran’s Christo-centric, Sacramental, Law-Gospel message is exactly what is needed for American Evangelicalism, as well as for our own churches in this next generation. May we indeed, by God’s grace, hold steadfast to the precious truths that we have been given in the Word and articulated by our Lutheran forefathers.