Tullian Tchividjian|8:56 am CT

The Pastoral Practicality Of Law-Gospel Theology

Our church was recently hit with a high-ranking moral tragedy. It was discovered that a staff member (and close friend) was engaging in marital infidelity. I was both shocked and saddened. I didn’t see it coming. None of us did. Of all the crises I’ve faced and had to deal with over the last 17 years of pastoral ministry, this was a first for me. I have dealt on numerous occasions with husbands and wives in the throes of an extramarital affair, but never a staff member. Never someone this close to me. It’ll take me a long time to get over this one.

On top of having to deal with this on a very personal level, I had the weighty responsibility of leading our church through this. How do you handle something like this? What do you tell people? I reached out to a small handful of older, wiser, more seasoned friends of mine who are pastors and counselors that have lived and led through situations like this. Their help and counsel and encouragement and insight were indispensable life savers for me. What would I do without these people in my life?

One week after we discovered the affair, I had to stand up on my first Sunday back from vacation and tell our church what happened. I, of course, did not share much. I steered clear of details. I simply told our church that this man had been engaged in marital infidelity and the situation was such that it required him to be removed from his position. I shared with our church the detailed ways that we were caring for the families involved and communicated our long-term commitment to continue caring for the families involved. It was a tough morning for me. It was a tough morning for everybody. The hurt, the anger, the sadness, the confusion.

I preached from Gal 5:13 that morning, and among the things I emphasized and explained to our church was that we are not a one word community (law or gospel) but a two word community (law then gospel). A law-only community responds to a situation like this by calling for the guy’s head (sadly, many churches are guilty of this). These churches lick their chops at the opportunity to excommunicate. A gospel-only community responds by saying, “We’re no better than he is so why does he have to lose his job? After all, don’t we believe in grace and forgiveness?” A one word community simply doesn’t possess the biblical wisdom or theological resources to know how to deal with sinners in an honest, loving, and appropriate way.

Explaining that we are a law-gospel community, I showed how pastorally this means we believe God uses his law to crush hard hearts and his gospel to cure broken hearts. The law is God’s first word; the gospel is God’s final word. And when we rush past God’s first word to get to God’s final word and the law has not yet had a chance to do its deep wrecking work, the gospel is not given a chance to do its deep restorative work. Sinners never experience the freedom that comes from crying “Abba” (gospel) until they first cry “Uncle” (law).

I illustrated this point by reminding our church that the Father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 did not fall to his knees and wrap his arms around his sons legs as the son was leaving, but as he was returning. He had been waiting, looking to the horizon in hope. When he saw his son coming home, crushed and humbled, he ran to him. But he didn’t stop him from leaving. He didn’t rescue his son from the pigsty. If we really love people and want to see them truly set free, we have to get out of God’s way and let the law do its crushing work so that the gospel can do its curing work. I’ve seen way too many lives ruined because parents, pastors, families, and friends have cushioned the fall of someone they love–robbing that person from ever experiencing true deliverance because they never experience true desperation. As John Zahl has said, “God’s office is at the end of our rope.” Grace always runs downhill–meeting us at the bottom, not the top.

With tears in my eyes and deep longing in my heart, I ache for the day when I can look out on the horizon and see my crushed friend walking toward me. On that day I’ll know that God’s law has done it’s work. And when that happens, I will run to meet him, fall on my knees, wrap my arms around his legs, and throw a party. No questions asked. Just a party.

I’m waiting for you, my brother!


  1. Thank you and amen John (above). Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, to everyone who believes! Thanks be to God!!!
    I probably should have written my thought differently about the Lord teaching us practicingnow,His eternal love principles. The inability to love even when He grows the desire drives one continually to repentance, thanksgiving, and for His mercy and power, doesn’t it? This is the love of God that we keep His commandments and His commandments are not burdensome. How blessed are those who practice righteousness at all times. Let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness. Behold, He is coming quickly, and His reward is with Him, to render to every man according to what he has done. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end!

  2. Susan,
    Yes, I agree with that totally though it sounds superficial only in the sence that that’s common knowledge and should be just plain common sence to all, But let me ask you this – Have you ever been fired from a job because your boss held you responsible for some one else’s actions that was of know connection or fault to you and not only that but kept the person at fault even after you was let go? How much more a person who IS responsible for other peoples actions when something does go wrong and that person fires that person (because) only to be found out and informed by another. The former was aware the later was not. For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind. For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun? I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.

  3. Praying for you all.

  4. That was beautifully written.. it brought tears to my eyes.

  5. [...] The Pastoral Practicality of Law-Gospel Theology by Tullian Tchividjian [...]

  6. “I illustrated this point by reminding our church that the Father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 did not fall to his knees and wrap his arms around his sons legs as the son was leaving, but as he was returning.”

    This says it all! Thanks for posting.

  7. Susanne Schuberth (Germany)

    IMHO, the Father of the prodigal son (God) merely respected the free will of His son, but did never stop loving (!) him. It would have made no sense to run after the son who didn’t want to return to Him yet. Sometimes we must lose everything we seem to possess in order to realize that in Christ all things are already ours.

    Looking at the “Law” produces legalism, religious slavery, or rebellion against it. Only God’s Love has the power to set us completely free.

  8. To Anonymous…..John Thomson gave a good response to your question. But allow me to add another aspect. This article is in a sense about a particular situation with real people and real collateral damage and I am confident the Lord will bring healing to many. But with that said:
    Law-Gospel is what I was addressing. They do not go together…period. To say otherwise is not Biblical. Yes, as Paul says, the law was his schoolmaster that lead him to Christ. But once one is a believer we are dead to the law. Thus Pastor Tchividjian, as good a believer as he might be, is wrong. If someone is a believer, God doesn’t return to the law to crush them when they sin. The law and believers are as far apart as the east from the west which I pointed out Romans chapters 1-7. So, yes I am sure that the Pastor can read and would actually agree with what I wrote; unfortunately his blog post is very wrong. As was his message if he said ‘law-Gospel’. The law has a place in leading men to Christ but it has no place in the life of the believer. Oh wait…doesn’t that mean that men may abuse grace? One can’t be scared of preaching grace the way Paul preaches it. Yet, he was also penned Rom 6:1 and was still accused of being radical in his freedom.

    A believer is dead to the law, even if he is a pastor whose sin is adultery. A true believer will end up repenting, either in humility or after loving discipline (Heb 12).

    Sorry Pastor…you got this one wrong.

  9. More food for thought at Athenians.

    I encourage people to use Athenians as it aggregates Christian blog posts from around the web, including The Gospel Coalition.

  10. Chris,
    Thank you for your thoughts on this. After my fall I have desperately tried to wrap my mind around the loop holes in my own theology and repentance. I was not a casual believer but had sweet communion with the Lord for years. I, at first, felt like the Lord was crushing me under the weight of my sin but it kept leading me to a despair beyond true repentance. God used my husband to help me dig deeper into the Word and see that I was not being crushed but disciplined. I did a word study on crushed and looked at some commentaries and it is true that the Lord only crushes those who He will punish for eternity. However, it felt like a crushing until I was able to receive the love and grace of God back into my life. The accusations of the enemy, other believers and my own self-talk was brutal. I have to keep my mind renewed daily on what it means that “Where sin abounds, grace all the more.” That does not make me want to go sin more but to receive His grace to walk in my identity as the rightousness of God in Christ all the more. In God’s mercy we receive grace when sin abounds but I desire to walk in the grace made available to overcome sin! With man, this is impossible, with God, all things are possible.

  11. Kandace,

    Amen my sister…it truly is grace to be able to feel no shame for ‘big’ sins. We tend to need to feel like we have done well for a long enough span of time before we can receive grace. But the reality is that there is never condemnation for the believer (Rom 8); we confess, repent and enjoy what was purchased for us at the cross…reconciliation with God. First there is peace with God and that brings the peace of God.
    Grace truly is amazing
    There is an accuser and he is good at it. I don’t need to help him out by accusing myself or agreeing with him. Especially when the one who could accuse me is actually interceding for me (once again, Rom 8).
    Pastor T needs to change his two word from law-gospel to grace-Gospel. But just like me, he only has what he has received…may the Lord open His eyes. Until then, I applaud my brother for his obedience in his ministry yet reprove his misunderstanding on this topic. May someone do the same for me in the areas I am ‘missing it’.

  12. One more thing…the law is never mentioned in (Luke 15)the story of the prodigal Father. In fact, it isn’t even hinted at….what you can see is that by God’s grace, the son realized he should return home not because the law crushed him. But even the way I mentioned I use the verse, the text is about the goodness of the father than it is the sins of the son; and that is what is to be preached. The law is for unbelievers not sons (believers).

    Don’t get me wrong, sin has it’s consequences but not because we impose the law but because it is unloving to not discipline the brother in sin. Removing from his job is grace not law. Grace because he deserves far worse for sinning against the all mighty God. Galatians 6 tells us to restore the brother in sin and in order to restore a pastor in such sin, we need to recognize that something is missing in his life and he is no longer qualified to be a pastor according to the scripture. The leadership’s job is to remove him in hopes of the Lord restoring/repairing what is missing. Church discipline is the work of a Dr. not a policeman.

    But I can’t say it enough – law-gospel is NO-Gospel

  13. Susanne Schuberth (Germany)

    How could we help someone who feels indeed like being crushed by God in the spirit, helpless, weak, down – even too weak to give his or her life a new (maybe less sinful) direction?

    Some thoughts on this…

    What would a mother or father do if their child committed a murder? Would this child stop being the child of those parents due to that criminal offense? I have heard parents say, “This is no longer our son!” after the son had run amok, and killed many people. Honestly, I thought I couldn’t trust my ears. How is it possible that parents seemingly don’t divide between the sin committed, and the sinner, that is at the same time their beloved child?

    But what about God being confronted with our sinful life? How will he act? Discipline, yes, but would he discipline someone who is already on the bottom? Would he forsake the lonely sheep that went astray in the dark? Won’t God run after his beloved – maybe black – sheep to rescue it, and wash its skin until it is as white as can be? Lost sheep are no prodigal sons. They have no power any more to return to the Shepherd because they have lost the way completely.

    What says Gods Word about it?

    “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk 15:4-7)

    Lost sheep have NO power to get up on their own in order to seek God resp. the flock they have belonged to. So, what about us as the Body of Christ being indwelt by His Spirit? Do we have the mind of Christ? Are we ready to leave the flock in order to seek one sheep that is lost? Are we ready to give our life for this special sheep?

    “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:16-18)

    I suppose that the spiritual needs of a brother or sister fit nicely under the same umbrella. The prophets of the Old Covenant were used to identify with the sinners resp. the sins committed by their brothers and sisters. [IMHO, that applies also for Paul, Rom 7:15-20]. If we are able to approach the throne of God, and are minded like Moses who said,
    “But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Ex 32:32), I think then, and only then, we have the mind of Christ.

    Let’s love each other always, let’s be the comforting ‘angel’ beside them, and bear the burdens of those who feel crushed by their sins in order to keep the New Covenantal Law, the spiritual law of Christ.

    “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Rom 13:8)

    “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Gal 6:1-3)

    Let’s think, “I feel your pain” instead of remembering what they did or might have done since our God who knows everything prefers love and forgiveness, and He will not look at any of our sins anymore.

    “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19)

  14. Chris, I’m not clear what you mean by saying we should say “grace-gospel” instead of “law-gospel.” Pastor Tullian is setting up law and gospel as a contrast, not as one describing the other. The law is what we should do (Rom 13:8 since love fulfills the law), and the gospel is good news for those who don’t do what they should do. What are you suggesting with “grace-gospel”? Are you setting up a dichotomy between grace and the gospel?

  15. thank you Chris (above). One last reply, I was just trying to say, isn’t the law now to inform and remind the hardening heart, not to be deceived, that the Lord’s desire for us is that we love one another as He loved us, and in this case, coveting and adultery is opposed to this according to Him. And when we see one fall, isn’t it good the Word is there to remind us to let him too who thinks he stands,take heed that he does not fall. The law of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces and from Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
    On this beautiful Friday start to a lovely weekend, we join together to say -Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!

  16. So why is it your job to be the law.? What an opportunity to live the gospel…remember by one offering He has put sin away for all time. What’s different about His sin than ours? Ours is willfull, ours hurts others. I see that He is staff….but even so..are we so afraid of the gospel that everyone will run willy hilly into sin?

    I know Paul did it…so what? I am aware I have just disqualified myself…I love Paul…but I think He was wrong.

    We never lean far enough into the good news…that’s why we are increasingly ignored by an already self condemning world. Ps..I opened your forum while googling Robert Farrar Capon. He would never agree with this..not that He is always correct .

  17. So sorry to hear this… our hearts are so easily led astray. And we are bombarded by this rampant sexuality both inside and outside the church. All this emphasis on Christians having ‘hot sex lives’ (thank you Mark Driscoll) is not helping at all. It only feeds the monster. It’s a “sexual theology of glory.”

    Just FYI — I had been wondering what all the cryptic mentions of sudden struggles were about. It is not hard to figure out that something is going on… and not hard to figure out who the staff member is based on comments in sermons over the last month or two. So if you’re going to mention it, just mention it as you have here, or limit any comments about it to something you announce separately in a part of the service which is not released to the public, rather than obliquely referencing it in the message.

  18. Dominique Gonzalez-Ushery

    It took a while for me to realize that the road one chooses to travel is not for me to decide. God has a plan for us and his grace is sufficient. The hardships we choose to endure are steps to lead us into a relationship with the Father. Oft times when you have hit your rock bottom you find the Lord waiting to embrace you and work with you to bring you home, all you have to do is accept and surrender. Until that time that we fully rely on him we are doomed to run into obstacles, bad choices , and undirected paths. What a joyous celebration when we do find our way back into his arms, to expierence his mercy and unfailing love, you realize you took the long way home when the answers for what you were seeking was there in his word all along.

  19. I’m a bit behind in reading your blog, so I just heard this news. I am truly sorry you had to deal with this situation, both professionally and personally. Perhaps one day you and the friend can be reconciled as you hope.

    However, you weren’t wrong to fire him. Even if he had repented and asked for forgiveness, his effectiveness as a ____ (whatever position he held at CR) was over.

  20. This message is biblically unsound for Law to rule. I wish you would take it down from the web. It creates confusion in those that don’t feel they can disagree with you.

  21. Darren,

    I am saying that Pastor Tullian has got it wrong for those that love Christ. The law is not a part of their life…using your own text (Rom 13:8) believers are to love not fulfill the law. To love is to fulfill the law but we are not bound to the law anymore. Pastor Tullian keeps bringing the law back into the life of the believer but remember that the law was only what showed my need for a savior. Now that I have him, who fulfilled the law, I am now free to fulfill the ‘law of love’.

  22. […] “Antinomianism“. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.↩ 12. Tullian Tchividjian, “The Pastoral Practicality of Law-Gospel Theology“, via The Gospel Coalition.↩ 13. Tchividjian, One Way Love, 152-153, ePub.↩ 14. Ibid., […]

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