Is God’s Love For Me Dependent Upon My Obedience? My Amateur Answer to Pastor Tullian Tchividjian and His Critics

Photo Credit: Matt Turner

My short answer to those wrestling with that question is: Please read Gospel Amnesia. Not because I want to sell my book, but because one of my hopes and prayers for Gospel Amnesia (to be released Jan.15th) is that it would further this discussion along. The theology is by no means exhaustive, it is only the beginning of the discussions I hope we can all have.

I lived for many years believing that God will love me more if I did X, Y, and Z. I was theologically convinced that God’s love for me depended upon my obedience. When I obeyed him I expected he would be pleased with me and bless me and when I disobeyed I expected him to be angry, displeased and in judgment of me. But you can’t fight reality, and theology will always break down when it can’t be supported by reality.

I am a fallen woman. A sinner. And so invariably I would sin, sometimes it was little sins and sometimes it was big sins, but I didn’t stop sinning after I became a Christian. What happens logically if you live under the paradigm I held, but continued to sin and thus be displeasing to God? You live under a constant battle between finding things you can do so that you can please God, so that he will love you while constantly fighting despair because you know you are consistently falling short. It is a losing battle. Even given all my outward conformity and good works, I was hopeless because I could never do enough to earn constant love from him. It is hell.

There is an important distinction here. I am not talking about classic works–righteousness. I never believed that I could actually earn my salvation. As a Calvinist I firmly believed that God’s salvation was a gracious and unmerited gift by faith alone through the finished work of Christ alone. I’ve had many theological errors but one of them was believing that I can earn more love from God by being obedient to his commands.

We all have errors in our thinking. I understand that those in teaching positions have a greater burden. What I believe Pastor Tchividjian is trying to do is remedial help for Christians like me who have spent years raking our souls over coals. My husband and I have never walked away from listening to Tchividjian thinking: “Oh good, now I can just let it all go, I don’t need to love and obey God.” It’s more like: “Wow! Lord, you really love me?” with many tears flowing.

My heart is very burdened over this. Maybe Pastor Tchividjian needs more clarity and distinction. I hear what Dr. Murray is saying as well, and I’m thinking about it. I’m grateful for open debate, done with humility and the recognition that none of us are as precise as we think we are. One thing I see in this theological debate is a head collision between the heirs of Luther and the heirs of Calvin (more on this another time). I was greatly benefited just last night from Justin Taylor’s post on the distinction between our union in Christ and communion with Christ. Finally, one of the most eye-opening and balancing sermons on the relationship between loving God and obeying him is John Piper’s If Anyone Loves Me He Will Obey My Word on John 14:15–24. I discuss some of these issues in Gospel Amnesia.

The picture I have chosen for this post is one of the Reformers in Geneva. My sincere prayer is that we can talk about these very important issues that affect our every day Christian life, but without mockery, spiritual pride or a critical spirit—holding all things with grace and humility.


18 thoughts on “Is God’s Love For Me Dependent Upon My Obedience? My Amateur Answer to Pastor Tullian Tchividjian and His Critics

  1. Thanks for this perspective. I come from the same background and often wonder who are these people who are neglecting obedience because of this message of love and freedom. In my experience it only inspires true love and obedience, not antinomianism. But my experience is admittedly limited–I can speak only for myself and my close family members and friends. It’s like the prodigal son–the father loved him not because of what he had done, but because of who he was–his son. There isn’t a “next day” in the story, but I imagine the younger son would be working harder than ever because of the love he’d been shown, rather than just sitting around doing nothing.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m excited to read your book!

    • I feel I need to add this–I certainly don’t want to sound like I am always loving or obedient, because that is definitely far from the case. I just mean the more I know of God’s love, the more humbled I am and the greater the desire to love others. This desire cannot come from me, because I know myself :).

      • Catherine, I really appreciate your interaction with this post. This has been my experience also. Not that I do this perfectly but I can attest that I am qualitatively a better lover of Christ, woman, wife, mother, friend etc. because I am starting to internalize the fact that God really does love me.Me, Luma Simms. Not only does he love me, but his love is not conditioned on how I perform. Furthermore, he not only brings me to the state of “not guilty” but clothes me with the full active obedience of Christ. From there I step forward with amazement, and a desire to love back instead of to give “tribute.”

        So, because my personal experience as I came out of gospel amnesia testifies to the power of the Holy Spirit working in me real fruit as opposed to the good works I was doing before, I’m not getting the same red flags that others are getting. However, having said that, I am still cautious. I am cautious precisely because the last time I didn’t pay attention to warnings and red flags which good sound people were sending up about a particular theological movement (or two), I went down a very dark road. As I commented to someone else earlier today: I don’t ever want to walk in darkness again. My prayer daily is that the Lord will give me the wherewithal and desire to pursue him with true love and knowledge for the rest of my life. May Christ be glorified!

    • Oh Kristina, doesn’t it feel like 2006 was a lifetime ago? I shiver when I think of the angry, arrogant, self–righteous, know–it–all, gospel mocking me. But for the grace of God…. But for the grace of God… I still don’t know how I have received such mercy from the hand of Jesus.

  2. Appreciate your post today–I grew up in a legalistic background and the tension you describe in your post is exactly the one I remember feeling as a child and teenager. We would NEVER have believed that we were saved through our works, but there was always the nagging suspicion that God might just possibly not love us as much when we were sinning as when we were obedient. This paradigm also affected how we (I) viewed those who I believed where not in obedience–at some disturbing level, I really did believe that I was loved more than they were.

    On a tangential note, I’ve been wondering about the nature of love in respect to our capacity to experience it. Is it possible that our sin doesn’t alter God’s love toward us, but it does alter our ability to be loved by Him–meaning that while His love doesn’t change, the relationship does suffer because we are not in a position to accept or value the love and thus be transformed by it? I was thinking about this in respect to a couple I know that is struggling in their marriage. The wife is consistently lavishing love on her husband but because he has determined that he does not love her, he has actually convinced himself and behaves as if she does not love him. Her love has not altered, but his perception and ability to receive it has. (I suppose this is something of what Justin Taylor is getting at in his post.) For me, this understanding also helps explain some of the tension of a God who loves unbelievers but is not in relationship with them.

    • Hannah, good question, and it’s not tangential. Yes, it would seem that is what Taylor was getting at in his post last night. I don’t have an answer for you though. I’ve been thinking about it and will need to continue to think about it. I usually have to work things out for myself even if I agree with someone.

      For me it’s not so simple. For one, we need to contend with all the verses that talk about God chastening his children, that he disciplines us. But discipline is a form of love when it comes from a holy God. There is also John 15:9–10 which I want to work through, but not out of context.

      Really appreciated your comment!

      • Absolutely agree that God’s relationship with us cannot be reduced to one dimension–trying to contain a robust God in our systematics is often precisely what gets us into these messes in the first place! :-)

        In respect to discipline, I was thinking (like you mentioned) that ideally I should discipline my children in order to restore the relationship, to allow me to love them and for them to be rightly attuned to me. Now granted, my discipline is usually infected with a great deal of irritation and anger, but I’ve also watched the blossoming, the unfolding of my child’s spirit as he responds to the discipline correctly. When he accepts it, when he acknowledges his guilt, when he repents, suddenly he loves me again and doesn’t see me as an aggressor.

        I’ve even started appealing to my children’s love for me to help them choose obedience. Not in a manipulative, controlling way, but simply by calling them back to the relationship. Almost an “If you love me….” paradigm.

        For me, the greatest process of personal growth away form legalism has come by elevating the loving relationship and understanding that my obedience is a means to that goal, that my obedience does not create the love but it creates a context in which the relationship can flourish.

        Again thanks for the post.

    • Thank you. I lived too many years being an arrogant, strident, and mocking woman. I don’t want to be that woman ever again. So praise God for your comment. :-)

      • I am grateful for the link that brought me here. I identify completely with your quandry, Luma . I too was a long term legalist coming from a church rife with false and dangerous teachings, and benefited immeasurably from Tullian’s grace-filled ministry — and I hate to think I have to listen to him now with the same sort of filters I use for James MacDonald.

        I appreciate as well the wisdom and charity you demonstrate, and long for its expression in all of our responses to this controversy. I will try to trust God’s stewardship of this crisis– and attempt to just listen with a quiet spirit. But it is so hard. I am praying for everyone involved.

  3. The whole question is answered simply as we desire more of Jesus and less of *anything* else. Standing over my dying child, everything else cracked and faded into the background; I want Christ and only Christ.

    Trouble is, our pride and self-righteousness (essentially, “I’m closer to Christ than that guy”) doesn’t trust that anyone else is doing it right. And so we quibble and argue and posture.

    Let’s just love and serve Jesus and grant others the freedom to do the same.

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