In his forthcoming book One Way Love, Tullian Tchividjian calls the church back to the heart of Christian faith—grace. Although the Bible teaches that we are saved by grace and not by works, Christians can get caught up in trying to earn God’s favor by doing good things. Tchividjian writes: “The hub of Christianity is not ‘do something for Jesus.’ The hub of Christianity is ‘Jesus has done everything for you.’” He adds: “Our dire need for God’s grace doesn’t get smaller after God saves us. In one sense, it actually gets bigger. Christian growth, says the Apostle Peter, is always growth into grace, not away from it.” In this article, Tchividjian explains how God’s grace is an example of one-way love.
Hollywood is not known as a culture of grace. Dog-eat-dog is more like it. People love you one day and hate you the next. Personal value is very much attached to box office revenues and the unpredictable and often cruel winds of fashion. It was doubly shocking, therefore, when one-way love—and its fruit—made a powerful appearance on the big stage in 2011.
The occasion was Robert Downey Jr. receiving the American Cinematheque Award, a prize given to “an extraordinary artist in the entertainment industry who is fully engaged in his or her work and is committed to making a significant contribution to the art of the motion pictures.” Downey was allowed to choose who would present him with the award, and he made a bold decision: He selected his one-time co-star Mel Gibson to do the honors.
To say that Gibson’s reputation had taken a serious nosedive would be an understatement. An arrest for drunk driving in 2006, racist and anti-Semitic epithets, public infidelity and a high profile divorce all culminated in 2010, when tapes were released of a drunken Gibson berating his then-girlfriend in the most foul manner imaginable. Reprehensible does not even begin to describe it. Downey’s ceremony took place a little more than a year after that final incident.
Of course, Downey himself was no stranger to ostracism. In the 1990s, he became something of a punch line as someone notoriously unable to kick an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Arrest after arrest, relapse after relapse. People began to think of him less as an actor and more as a junkie. Even those who wanted to work with him couldn’t, because insurance companies wouldn’t underwrite a film if he was part of the cast.
Bit by bit, and with the help of some good friends, Downey eventually got sober, and his career slowly got back on track. In 2008 he was cast as Iron Man, and today he is one of the most respected actors in the business. The Cinematheque Award coincided with the height of his popularity and the nadir of Gibson’s.
Downey explained that the reason he asked Gibson to present the award was that Gibson had helped him when he was without hope. “He kept a roof over my head, and he kept food on the table,” Downey said.
Downey asked the Hollywood crowd to join him in offering Gibson a clean slate to continue his career, even as they had embraced Downey after his years of addiction and failure.
At his lowest point, Downey had been shown love, and he responded by showing love.
Of course, as powerful as this story is, it is not a one-to-one analogy for the Gospel—no story could be. But it is a very public example of grace in an environment where grace is rarely seen.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). There are no strings attached. God’s grace doesn’t make demands. It just gives.
And from our vantage point, it always gives to the wrong person. We see this over and over again in the Gospels: Jesus is always giving grace to the “wrong” people—prostitutes, tax collectors, half-breeds. The most extravagant sinners of Jesus’ day receive His most compassionate welcome. Grace stands caution on its head. It refuses to play it safe and lay it up. Grace is generous. As Robert Capon puts it, “Grace works without requiring anything on our part. It’s not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.”
Christians often speak about grace with a thousand qualifications. They add all sorts of buts and brakes. Listen for them! Our greatest concern, it seems, is that people will take advantage of grace and use it as a justification to live licentiously. Sadly, while attacks on morality typically come from outside the church, attacks on grace typically come from inside the church. The reason is because somewhere along the way, we’ve come to believe that this whole enterprise is about behavioral modification, and grace just doesn’t possess the teeth to scare us into changing, so we end up hearing more about what grace isn’t than we do about what grace is.
Where disobedience flourishes, it is not the fault of too much grace but rather of our failure to grasp the depth of God’s one-way love for us in the midst of our transgressions.
Grace refuses to be controlled by our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity and evenhandedness. It defies logic. It has nothing to do with earning, merit or deservedness. Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. It is one-way love.
But while grace does not demand payment in return, it does something fantastic: it inspires the very things that the law demands. The law prescribes good works, but only grace can produce them. It’s only grace that can change a heart and produce law-fulfilling works of mercy and selfless acts of service to our neighbor.
You see, the thing that prevents us from taking great risks is the fear that if we don’t succeed, we’ll lose out on something we need in order to be happy. And so we live life playing our cards close to the chest, relationally, vocationally and spiritually.
But the Gospel of grace announces that we already possess everything we need in Christ. The Bible says, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3). Because of this, we can spend ourselves with bold abandon since we don’t need to ensure a return of success, love, meaning, validation or approval. We can invest freely and forcefully because we’ve been freely and forcefully invested in. We are free to sacrificially love others horizontally because God has sacrificially loved us vertically.
In Christ I already possess everything I need, so I’m now free to do everything for you, without needing you to do anything for me. I can now spend my life giving instead of taking, going to the back instead of getting to the front, sacrificing myself for others instead of sacrificing others for myself. The Gospel of grace alone liberates us to live a life of breathtaking generosity, unrestrained sacrifice, uncommon valor and unbounded courage. ©2013 Tullian Tchividjian
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version.
Tullian Tchividjian is the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and a grandson of Billy Graham. His latest book is One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World. He will be leading a seminar on that topic Nov. 4-6 at The Cove. For more information or to register, go to TheCove.org or call 800-950-2092.