Preaching God’s Grace: An Interview with Tullian Tchividjian

Tullian Tchividjian is the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is the author of a new book published by Crossway titled Jesus + Nothing = Everything, as well as the grandson of Billy Graham and a popular preacher and conference speaker across the nation. He recently visited with Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.

Preaching: Jesus + Nothing = Everything expresses a discovery that you made in your own life and ministry. How did you discover the truth of this equation in your own life?

Tchividjian: 2009 was by far the most painful year of my life to date. It was a year when the church I had planted five years earlier merged with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, which was much more well known and much more established in the fort Lauderdale area.

Dr. D. James Kennedy had planted Coral Ridge in 1959, and he died in 2007. The church came to me and asked if I would consider becoming the pastor. I said I was honored and humbled, but I wasn't interested. They came back about two months later. Again I said I'm honored, I'm humbled; but I'm uninterested. Then about four months later they came back, and that's when we talked about the possibility of merging the two churches.

It was intriguing, but it scared me to death because merging anything—families, businesses, certainly churches—creates all kinds of problems. You have one group that wants things done a certain way and another group that wants things done another way, and it creates all kinds of tension. So I wasn't initially excited about this idea, but we did put a team together—three guys from Coral Ridge and three guys from the church I planted along with me—and we met every single week for four months. We went through a meticulous due diligence process, really evaluating whether this merger could actually take place. At the end of that time, God made it very, very clear this was what He wanted us to do.

So both elder boards signed off on it. The churches voted to go ahead and do it, and on Easter Sunday 2009, the two churches became one new church. It was exciting, and it was a remarkable time of celebration; but it didn't last long. It lasted about 10 days and then all of the fireworks that we had anticipated started to go off. There was a small group of long-time Coral Ridge people who opposed the merger before it happened. When they failed to derail it before it happened, they started vigorously to oppose my leadership and the leaders around me after the merger.

It was a terrible time in the life of our church. About a month and a half after I got there, they started a petition drive to get me removed. They were sending out anonymous letters all over the country, doing everything they could to get me out. There were all sorts of things that happened that made that time in my life absolutely miserable. I wasn't eating, I wasn't sleeping—I describe all of this in the book just what I was going through in that time. I was afraid, I was angry, I was insecure. I never had been attacked this way, and because my family is well known and the church is well known, the fight became public—not just in our local papers but in national papers. I was afraid about what other people might think of me. It was just a terrible, terrible time.

The end of June 2009, my family and I got away to the southwest coast of Florida, and the first day of our vacation I got up in the morning before everybody else. I grabbed a cup of coffee and my Bible. I went out to the balcony, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, and I just absolutely had it out with God. I was at the end of myself.

I basically said, "I've done exactly what You said for me to do, and this is what I get in return? You've ruined my life." Life was great six months ago, and now it's terrible. I'm angry, I'm bitter, I'm afraid. People are coming after me; they're lying about me; they're telling other people things about me that aren't true. Rumors are racing. I'm just being voraciously attacked, and I don't want my kids growing up thinking that Christians are all a bunch of hypocrites. I don't want them growing up hating the church."

It was causing tension in my home. I wanted to quit. I wanted to give up, and I let God have it. I basically said, "Give me my old life back."
It was through Colossians 1, which was the passage I was reading that morning, that I came to the fresh realization that it wasn't my old life that I wanted back, but my old idols I wanted back; and God loved me too much to give them to me. It was during that moment that "Jesus plus nothing equals everything" became more to me than just a preachable tagline. It became a functional lifeline.

I never before had realized just how dependent I had become on human approval and human acceptance before God took it away. I was depending so much on what other people thought of me to make me feel important, to make me feel as if I matter. To invest my life with words, value and significance…Often we don't know what our idols are until God takes them away; until we realize, "I feel like I don't even want to live anymore if I can't have this in my life." So that's when it all became real to me. I had been preaching the gospel with great passion and conviction for many years, but it became functional for me in a way that it had never been functional before, as God was taking me through the crucible of pain and suffering.

Preaching: Obviously this book emerged from congregational crisis. The idea of church conflict is something many pastors can understand. What are some of the key lessons you learned from this? Is there some counsel you'd offer to another pastor who is experiencing conflict in his or her church right now?

Tchividjian: Well the thing I think I always go back to when I reflect on that season is how I rediscovered the now power of the gospel, how the gospel alone invests our lives with the kind of worth, value, meaning and purpose we as pastors often look to our ministries to provide for us. For instance, I never would have lasted through that if I did not come to the realization that everything I need and everything I long for I already possess in Christ. In Christ, I already possess all of God's approval, all of God's acceptance and all of God's affection.

I don't need the approval and acceptance of other people in order to press on and strain forward. I mean, human approval and acceptance are not bad things in and of themselves—they [can be] gifts from God—but when they become the thing I'm leaning on most to make me feel as if I matter, to give me life significance, then they become idols to me. Unless the gospel gives you a sharp mind, a soft heart and a steel spine, there is no way a pastor can courageously, sacrificially and generously lead.

The only way Paul was able to say, "To live is Christ and to die is gain," was because he understood at such a deep heart level that because Jesus was strong for him, he's free to be weak. Because Jesus won for me, I'm free to lose. Because Jesus was extraordinary, I'm free to be ordinary. Because Jesus succeeded for me, I'm free to fail. I'll tell you what, there's nothing and no one in this world who can beat a man who isn't afraid to lose. That's why Paul was able to say the crazy, counter-intuitive "to live is Christ, and to die is gain." There's nothing anyone in this world can take away from me that I need more than Jesus. Because I already have everything I need in Jesus, I'm free to lose.

Preaching: Obviously this book is rooted in the Book of Colossians. After going through this experience, did you come back and preach through the Book of Colossians? How much of this material have you worked through in your own preaching?

Tchividjian: Yes, after that experience in the summer of 2009, I had an awakening to the power of Paul's letter to the Colossians; and I really studied it in depth. I didn't preach through Colossians during the fall of 2009, but I started preaching a series of sermons through Colossians in January 2010, a series titled "Jesus + Nothing = Everything." A lot of the material in the book comes from the sermons, but these aren't transcribed sermons; there's a lot of material in the book that didn't happen in the sermons, things I learned after I finished preaching the sermons. So there's a lot more in there, but a lot of the material that ends up in the book is material that God taught me as I was preaching through Colossians and really wrestling with the relevancy of the gospel in my life today.

I realized that if you've been a Christian for 50 years, you need the gospel just as much today as the moment you were saved. When God saves us, He doesn't just move us beyond the gospel; He moves us more deeply into the gospel, which is why I go back again and again in the book about the gospel's now power. I think we have a pretty good idea about how the gospel got us in, but it's also the gospel that keeps us in; and it's the power of the gospel that ensures that we'll make it to the end.

We're justified by grace alone, sanctified by grace alone or glorified by grace alone. It's all of God's work, and it's tapping into that power every day by faith that gives us the strength we need to press on and strain forward.

Preaching: Tell us about your own approach to preaching. If we were to visit Coral Ridge one Sunday morning, what would we expect to hear?

Tchividjian: I typically go through books of the Bible. I typically do an Old Testament book in the fall and a New Testament book in the spring. In between those, I have a couple of other series I do. For instance, at the end of last spring after I finished preaching through the Book of James, I preached a series of sermons that I titled "Pictures of Grace" in which I went back to the gospels and isolated certain events in the life and ministry of Jesus that highlight the radicalism of God's unconditional grace. So it's not that I only preach through books of the Bible, but that's typical.

What I seek to do is rather simple; it's sort of an old-fashioned way of preaching along the gospel. Most of what I'm trying to do at the front is show Christians and non-Christians their dire need for Jesus. In a thousand ways, we're trying to do it on our own. Christian people are trying to make it on our own. We've concluded since Genesis 3 that we could do it better; even after we're saved, we drift into performance and self-sufficiency mode.
So, the first part of my sermons basically always are saying, "You're a lot worse than you think you are"; but I don't end there. I'm then able to come back and say, "but in the person of Jesus, it is finished." You're a lot worse off than you think you are, but God's grace is so much bigger, better and brighter than you could have hoped and imagined.

So it's what the Puritans used to do pretty regularly—preaching the law, showing Christians and non-Christians their sin and their need for a Savior, and then coming in with the gospel. I take Luke 24 as the way I read Scripture: Jesus is walking on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples and showing them the entire Old Testament spoke about Him. So the entire Bible tells one story and points to one figure: Christ. I make it a point to show Christ from every text in the Bible.

There's a big difference between preaching the gospel and preaching moralism. Moralism is looking at a passage in the Bible and saying this is simply giving us guidelines about how to live our lives, while preaching the gospel shows us how whatever is being talked about in that text is a picture of Jesus. I show how unable we are to meet God's requirements and how able Jesus is to meet God's requirements for us. When we exercise faith in Him everyday and when we are united to Him, then we experience the joy of our salvation.

My goal when I'm done preaching is to say in one way, shape or form: "It is finished." I often tell preachers that if that lasting impression people have when they leave a worship service is a checklist of things they have to do instead of a declaration of what Christ has done, the gospel hasn't been preached.

Preaching: Is there a typical length of a series for you?

Tchividjian: It varies. I'm preaching through Ecclesiastes right now, and when it's all said and done it will be a total of 15 sermons. When I preached through Colossians back in the winter and spring of 2010, it was 22 sermons. I mentioned the pictures of grace series that I did at the beginning of last summer—that was six sermons.

I used to take a lot more time going through books of the Bible. I was reminded the other day by a friend that back in 2006 when I preached through Ephesians, I preached it in 56 sermons. Now I'm thinking to myself, "I'm embarrassed!" I felt sorry for the people who had to sit through it. I was faithful to the text and all of that stuff, but my guess is that if you're going to spend 56 weeks preaching through six chapters of the Bible you're probably not covering it the way Paul intended for his readers to understand it.

I'm not trying to brush over things; but at the same time, I'm trying to condense the primary purpose of the book into manageable chunks of weeks. So unless I was preaching through something such as one of the major prophets or Romans or Hebrews, I can't imagine spending any more than 12 to 15 weeks on any given book of the Bible.

Preaching: If you knew this Sunday was going to be your last sermon, what do you think you'd preach?

Tchividjian: That's like when Martin Luther was asked: If you knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow, what would you do today? He said, "I'd go plant a tree." I think his point was: "I hope to be carrying out faithfully my daily duties and enjoying what God has given me."

If I were to preach one final sermon, I would somehow, some way preach Jesus + Nothing = Everything in the hope that it would set people free and show them the fresh now power of the gospel. The passage I go back to—the one that really exploded in my heart and mind—is Colossians 1:9-14 and specifically the last part of verses 12, 13 and 14 where Paul said, "Where you have already been transferred, qualified, redeemed, forgiven, this has already happened to you. This alone will give you the power to say no to smaller things, to say no to lesser things. It will empower you to live your life freely for Jesus under the umbrella that reads, ‘it is finished.'"

Tullian on Using a Research Assistant
I have a research assistant; and I sit down with my team of guys on staff here, and we think through where our church is and what we think it needs. I get their feedback. I think and I pray as I'm doing right now. I'm finishing up Ecclesiastes and starting to think through what I'm going to start preaching next. I'm pretty much settled on Galatians.

Once I make that decision, I sit down with my assistant and say, "I want to preach a series of sermons on the Book of Galatians, and this is the one thing I want to get across each and every week. This is what I want the entire series to be about based on what the texts say." Then I'll say, "Here are 10 or 12 books I basically want you to master, and then I want you to come back in a couple of weeks and provide your recommended outline—not an outline of each sermon—but your recommendation that on week one we'll do this, on week two we'll do this." He'll divide up the book for me. Then I'll go back and tweak it. I never take what he gives and just say, "OK, this is it." I always tweak it and outline what I'm going to do week by week.
Then he helps me during the week that I'm going to preach a particular sermon. We'll talk it through for a long time, then he'll prepare a brief for me in which he compiles the best of what the commentaries have said, some illustrations and stuff such as that. Sometimes the briefs are really helpful; other times they're helpful, but I want to go in a completely different direction. So the material is there to help me.

The research group I use is unbelievable, and they are there for all pastors. Docent Research Group is headed by a friend and is a group of about 15 to 20 Ph.D.s who are there to serve pastors—to provide research for pastors —and it's cheap. It's so much cheaper than having to hire your own research assistant to be on staff.

So Docent Research (DocentGroup.com) is a big help to me. I never preach something that's not mine. The research guy is not providing me with sermons; he's providing me with a compilation of information. Some stuff I use and some stuff I don't, but I'm coming up with my own sermon outlines and illustrations and all that stuff. They cater to whatever your needs are. I think it's less than $15,000 per year to have a research assistant who helps you do all the research necessary, and that's a lot cheaper than if you were to hire a research assistant.