Does behavior “A” always result in “B” – every time? Is Christianity just a cause and effect cycle? Does God keep the carrot of heaven’s hope or hell’s punishment out in front of our noses so that we behave properly? Does God say, “If you behave correctly, you’ll be safe and get what you want! So you better be a nice person, give money to the church, and not have sex before marriage!” Or is there something more?
To be honest, a lot of preaching in today’s culture resembles a man dangling a carrot in front of a donkey’s nose – “Just keep going – the carrot is your cause!” I hear many people say, “You want a nice life, with 2.1 kids, a boat in the dock, and a second home in the mountains? Okay, just keep looking at that carrot! Make the carrot your inspiration for being nice to your wife, loving your kids, working hard, staying away from alcohol and porn, etc…”
For teenagers, the “carrot” may sound like: “Okay, you want a nice life free from STDs? Well, then you better stay away from anything close to a physical relationship with a person of the opposite sex.” Or even closer to home, “You want your parents and God to be happy with you and love you? Well, then you better behave!”
It is so easy to start thinking that God operates through a mathematical equation that looks a lot more like Santa Claus than Jesus Christ. If you’ve been naughty, well, you can’t expect much. Perhaps you’ll just get a lump of coal. But if you’ve been nice, oh boy, it’s going to be a good Christmas.
Cause & Effect Crash
But here’s the deal: We cannot beat the cycle and we cannot win the equation. The people of Israel and all the great saints of old could never fully meet the demands of God’s perfect Law. So the renowned cause and effect sequences of Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 (the blessings and curses) always crashed upon Israel’s head. They knew their sin was sin because of the Law, but they were still bound under the curse of sin itself.
The great first-century religious zealot named Saul (later named Paul) was born and bred to meticulously follow the Law. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees, born from the respectable tribe of Benjamin (cf. Philippians 3:4-6). He memorized and followed every jot and tittle of the Law, yet even he failed the Law (Romans 7:7-11), because sin is ultimately a matter of the heart.
We are not better than they were. If great saints like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Peter, and Paul could not keep up the cause and effect cycle of the Law, then we won’t be able to either. So just like them, we need grace – full and free. I’m not a better man and neither are you. I’m certainly glad Jesus does not operate like Santa Claus or a donkey driver.
God. Not Carrots.
We can make the carrot of what we can get from God our cause… and we miss the whole point. We miss God. In all our desire to meet the needs of messed up people and motivate them toward behavioral change we have fed them a gospel that misses the entire point. The great end – the ultimate goal – of the Gospel in Christ is not that we escape hell, live a prosperous life, and strut around in heaven with as many as seven crowns propped on our heads. No. The great end of the Gospel of Christ is that we are brought to God.
The apostle Peter shouted out these triumphant words, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…” (1 Peter 3:18; italics added for emphasis)
We get God! Jesus brought an end to following the “carrot” or some vicious cause and effect cycle of endless religiosity. Through Christ’s death and resurrection we are brought into a relationship with God, a communion – even a friendship – that changes everything, because He is everything that we need and long for.
So instead of gazing at the carrot of a nice American life, or the carrot of fire insurance from hell, or the carrot of half a dozen crowns propped on your head in heaven, instead look at Jesus… everyday. Set your gaze upon His ineffable beauty and grace. Because He is all we need. He is all we hope for. He is our inspiration, our motivation, and power. He alone is enough.
Because Jesus was strong for me, I am free to be weak;
Because Jesus won for me, I am free to lose;
Because Jesus was someone, I am free to be no one;
Because Jesus was extraordinary, I am free to be ordinary;
Because Jesus succeeded for me, I am free to fail. – Pastor Tullian Tchividjian
Response to Questions:
Q: What about people who use grace as a crutch or “get out of jail free” card to sin?
A: Here’s the crux of the issue as I see it: If a person thinks grace is a license for them to keep on doing whatever they please then they probably don’t really understand or know God’s grace in the first place. Why? Because people in Jesus Christ have been re-made; they are a new creation with new desires, a new hope, and new life. We, as justified believers, are no longer under the law, but under the grace and truth offered through Jesus Christ (cf. John 1:14-18; Romans 6).
This amazing grace is something that is not contingent upon our actions, works, good behavior, or efforts – and this goes for justification (the point in time when we are made righteous in God’s sight through placing our faith in Christ), as well as sanctification (the process of becoming more like Jesus Christ). We don’t get more of God’s love and grace in increments based on our behavior (as Roman Catholics believe). God’s love and grace is absolutely and completely received in Jesus Christ. This is key. This turns the process of becoming more like Jesus into a love-relationship, instead of a cause and effect chart or merit badge system.
Q: Doesn’t God’s Word say to repent and repent often, to turn away from our sin, and we are promised treasure in heaven for our faithfulness and our actions as Christians?
A: Yes, God’s Word does teach that we are to confess our sins and live a repentant lifestyle; in fact, repentance is a gift of God’s saving grace (see 1 John 1:5-10; Acts 17:30, 26:20; 2 Cor. 7:10; Hebrew 6:1). And yes, there is treasure in heaven awaiting the righteous (Matthew 6:20), but if you look carefully at the passages on eternal rewards they are still ultimately because of God’s grace (unearned and unmerited kindness towards us) and a result of Christ’s faithfulness and our union with Him. We are adopted, chosen heirs of God’s kingdom who have been (past tense/passive) “blessed… with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3) Every blessing is given to us not because of what we have done but because of what Christ has done for us. This is the glory of the Gospel.
Ultimately, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: Who or what is our hope? If it’s anything other than God Himself, then we know we have our eyes off the real prize. This is what Peter was getting at in 1 Peter 3:18 – the real hope or even “carrot” per se, is God alone, not what we think we can get or earn from Him but Him alone. This is the heart of the Gospel. “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that [this is the key purpose of Christ’s work] He might bring us to God…” (1 Peter 3:18)
Q: What does Pastor Tullian Tchividjian mean when he says, “Because Jesus succeeded for me, I am free to fail?
A: I fully endorse what Tchividjian is saying. Here’s why: when he says, “Because Jesus succeeded for me, I am free to fail” he does not me “I am free to sin.” What this does mean (within the context of his book “Jesus + Nothing = Everything,” and “Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets Us Free”) is that we are free in Jesus Christ to actually abide joyfully in His grace. In other words, I might plan a major church event, and for reasons that I could not foresee, the whole point of the event goes awry. I can freely say, “Yes, I failed on that one… but my identity, joy, and peace is not found in what I do or what I know (or what people might say of me) but in WHO I know and WHO I belong to: Jesus.”
What he is ultimately driving at is not a license for antinomian living, but a life that is complete satisfied and identified in Jesus. Therefore, we can “fail” and humbly say we are not perfect, yet in turn, persistently look at Jesus in whom we are free and through whom we are actually changed more into His likeness by the power of the Spirit.
Just as a side note, Tchividjian is Billy Graham’s conservative Presbyterian grandson who took Dr. D. James Kennedy’s role as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, FL. He assumed his current role when the church he planted merged with Coral Ridge – and he quickly realized how imperfect he was and how perfect Jesus was, and how much he needed to rest in the grace of Christ. That story is the seedbed for the two books above (and the quote).