There is no easy way to combine two separate organizations. Tullian Tchividjian, the new pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, learned this very difficult lesson first hand during the summer and fall of 2009. As he stepped into the pulpit of the late Dr. D. James Kennedy, founder of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Tchividjian preached a sermon series through the book of Jonah. His latest book, Surprised by Grace; God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels, due out in May, is a product of this extremely trying time. This book is the fruit of his personal trial.
During the flow of my conversation with Pastor Tchividjian, it was obvious that he is not only a gifted writer, but a brilliant thinker and natural orator.
Q: I am enjoying your treatment of Jonah in your book Surprised by Grace. You tackle the text from a different approach. You mention in your introduction that the book came out of an extremely trying season. How is this book personal?
Pastor Tullian: I’ve been preaching for about twelve years, and I will now forever mark my preaching Life regarding every sermon I preached before the Jonah series and every sermon I preached after the Jonah series. It was that instrumental in my own life. In that sense, it’s incredibly personal. I feel that, during the course of preparing and preaching those sermons, I rediscovered the Gospel. What I mean by that is, like most Christians, I believed that the gospel is what God uses to ignite the Christian life. But I was having a hard time understanding how the gospel is the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing every day. I had heard people say that sort of thing; I had heard people say that the gospel is for Christians as much as it is for non-Christians and I affirm that theologically and intellectually, but I was really having a hard time understanding at a heart level what that really looked like. Tim Keller says well that the gospel is not just the A, B, C’s of Christianity but the A through Z of Christianity. It’s not just one spoke of the wheel; it’s really the hub in the middle. It was through preparing and preaching Jonah that I came to much bigger, better, deeper, brighter understanding of what the gospel really means for Christians.
The star of the show is Jonah. He’s one of the good guys. He’s a religious guy. He’s a prophet; God’s spokesman. By all accounts, Jonah was a Christian. Yet his self-righteousness, and his idolatry and his nationalism and his moralism were getting in the way of him understanding God’s grace. So, God, in his grace and by his mercy, pursued him.
God doesn’t go after Jonah because God needs Jonah. God goes after Jonah because Jonah needs God.
After God saves us, after God regenerates us and rescues us and raises us from death to life, he continues to pursue us. We need his grace after we’re saved just like we need his grace before we’re saved.
I preached through that series twice. The first time was at New City Church in Coconut Creek, Florida, a church that I had planted in 2003 and that was doing remarkably well. We were all excited about what God was doing. Then, God, through a series of events over the course of a year, made it very clear to both New City and Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, that he wanted the two churches to come together. So, I re-preached the Jonah sermons in the spring and summer of 2009.
As a result of the merger, things were very difficult at the church for awhile. I felt like the father of a blended family. It was very difficult on me. It was difficult on the church. It was a painful season for us as we made our way through the process.
I was actually preaching through Jonah a second time. During that painful season, I felt absolutely, remarkably sustained. There were days when I wanted to quit and give up. It was God enabling me to rediscover his amazing grace and rediscover his sustaining grace and rediscover his surprising grace and come to greater terms with the resources I have in the gospel because of what Christ has done for me that really saw me through. Preaching through it the first time marked my preaching Life forever. Preaching through it the second time saved my life.
Q: As we all know, Jonah is running from God. Preaching through this book during this season had a profound effect on you. Were you in any way running from God?
Pastor Tullian: Not in any way explicitly. God wasn’t saying, “Go do this,” with me answering, “I’m out of here.”
But I would make the point, as I do in the book, that sin is flight from God, whether in thought, word, or deed. In that sense, Christian people are running from God every day in ways they are conscious of and in ways they are not conscious of. For years and years, Christians have been singing about their wandering hearts. Our hearts need to be recalibrated, realigned, and reoriented by God.
There is no doubt that my struggle through this period had me thinking of ways out. I actually found some internal solace dreaming about how I could get out of this. There were times when it would help me sleep at night to fall asleep thinking I could get out of this. In that sense, of course, I think I was running from God.
God had so clearly brought me there; it was so obvious that this is what God wanted. And it was so obvious to those involved that this was God’s move and we were following his lead, but in the heat of the moment you begin to question. I had to keep reminding myself, don’t question in the dark what God has made clear in the light. God has done this. Even preaching that sermon to myself every day I still fantasized about escaping somehow, some way because it was just so painful and grueling.
Q: Pastor Tullian, I pulled the following quote about Jonah from your book: “He sounds like a lot of people in the church despite his pedigree and profile, Jonah’s still running from God. His morality and correct religion have brought him no closer to God ” Does this mean that when it comes to a choice between the pagan path and the religious path, the pagan is better?
Pastor Tullian: Both are equally bad. One of the things I say in the book is that there are two ways to run from God, not just one. Both ways are illustrated well in the story of Jonah. On the one hand, you have the irreligious, pagan rule breakers, who are illustrated by both the sailors and the Ninevites. These were people who did not know God. They were not part of God’s covenant community, the nation of Israel. They didn’t care about God’s laws. They lived their lives like non-Christians today live their lives. They were the “captains of their own ships” and “the masters of their own fates,” doing whatever they wanted to do however they wanted to do it. That is clearly one way of running from God.
The more subtle way of running from God is the Jonah way. That’s really the way that most people inside the church are guilty of. If most people outside the church are guilty of running from God by breaking the rules, most people inside the church are guilty by keeping all the rules. It’s not that keeping the rules is a bad thing, but both can be self-salvation projects. Both can be ways of trying to rescue yourself apart from simply surrendering your life to Jesus and acknowledging that he alone is the one that can rescue us from our sins.
Unfortunately, inside the church today, we are predominately guilty of the second part; rescuing ourselves by keeping all the rules.
Q: I’ve read through Jonah several times, but had never noticed, nor ever had it pointed out, as you do in your book, the abrupt ending to Jonah’s story. Do you think Jonah ever learned the lesson God was teaching him?
Pastor Tullian: Yes. Most Bible scholars agree that Jonah wrote the book of Jonah. If that’s true–and I think that it is because there are parts of the story that could not have been told if Jonah had not told the story or written it himself–it’s the greatest demonstration that Jonah finally gets it because he goes before us, tells us his story, while sharing all of the things he tells about himself. He really is the goat of the story. From top to bottom, everything we learn about Jonah in the story we learn by way of negative example. Even as he prays in the belly of the fish, Jonah showcases his moral record. He’s essentially saying to God, “You owe me salvation; you owe me a rescue.”
By writing the story, he embarrasses himself. He humiliates himself. There’s absolutely no way that you can feel the freedom to embarrass and humiliate yourself unless you have finally recognized that your identity is in someone other than yourself.