Friday, August 31, 2007

An Interview with Tullian Tchividjian

Here is an interview with Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of New City Presbyterian Church and the author of the new book, Do I Know God?

What are some memories you have of spending time with your grandparents, Billy and Ruth Bell Graham?

All of my memories (and I have a lot) are wonderful. People ask me all the time, “What was it like growing up as the grandson of someone so famous, so well-known?” My answer is simply: I never knew any different. I don’t have anything to compare it to. In fact, it wasn’t until I got older that I began to realize that my grandfather was a pretty important person. This is mainly due to the fact that he (and my grandmother) never, ever, projected themselves to be any more or less important than anyone else. They have always been genuinely approachable, humble, ordinary, and normal. They’ve always had a great sense of humor and loved to laugh (especially at themselves). Most captivating, of course, has been their own sense of sin and their obvious love for their Savior. They have always exemplified the sweet reality that you can never know Christ as a Great Savior until you first know yourself to be a great sinner. Growing up, my family spent every summer, all summer, in North Carolina with my grandparents (summer’s were particularly slow for my granddad so we had him all to ourselves). But probably the sweetest memories I have are of their visits to our home in South Florida every year for Thanksgiving. They would both come down and spend a few weeks in our home, getting out of the cold and into the tropical warmth of South Florida. Playing in the pool, going on walks, having dinner almost every night at Morrison’s Cafeteria (my granddad’s favorite restaurant), watching movies, having my granddad lead in family devotions, etc. Those were sweet, sweet, times. They have always been family oriented, first and foremost.

You rebelled against the Lord during your teenage years. Can you tell us about that time?

I share my testimony in more detail in the book so I’ll be brief here. As I’ve already noted, I grew up in an amazing Christian home. The flavor of Christianity that was expressed by my family was not legalistic or oppressive. It was joyful, warm, inviting, hospitable, and real. I am, however, the middle of seven children and to be honest, that wasn’t easy. There’s a large age gap between my three older siblings and my three younger siblings. And I couldn’t figure out if I was the youngest of my older siblings or the oldest of my younger siblings. I was in the unique, unenviable position of being both the youngest and the oldest. Anyway, I couldn’t figure out where I fit inside the home and so I set out trying to determine where I fit outside the home. And when you are young, immature, sinfully self-centered, and desperate for belonging, you make some pretty unwise choices—which I did. The people that I started running around with and the things I started to do began to get me in a lot of trouble. To make a long story short, at the ripe young age of 16, I dropped out of high school, got kicked out of my home (actually escorted off my parent’s property by the police) and started pursuing worldly pleasure with all of my might. At the time, of course, I was very pleased with my achievements. Freed from the constraints of teachers and parents, I chased worldly bliss harder than most my age, trying desperately to “find myself” through promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol. My fun quickly came to an end, however, at the age of 21 when God sobered me up to the realization that my so-called freedoms had made me a slave to habits and desires that were shrinking my soul. The more I tried to find my place in the world, the more displaced I felt. God graciously brought me to the end of myself. I knew there had to be more to life than what the world was offering, more to who I was than what I was experiencing. I remember coming home early one morning after a night out feeling emptier than I ever have. I cried out to God for help. I said something like this: “God, it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to you. As you know I’ve been trying to do things on my own for many years now and I simply can’t do it anymore. I need you. I desperately need you to rescue me. Amen.” That was it. I didn’t hear any angelic choirs; I didn’t see any bright lights. Slowly but surely, though, everything about me started to change from the inside out. I started to love the things I used to hate and hate the things I used to love. I started running away from the things I used to run toward and running toward the things I used to run away from. God came to me and God conquered me. In the words of Cornelius Plantinga, I experienced “a magnificent defeat” at the hand of God and I’ve never been the same. See, I told you I’d be brief (ha).

I’m curious—your grandfather, Billy Graham, is one of the most famous evangelists in history. And your uncle, Franklin, is not only a well-known Christian leader, but also went through a season of deep rebellion? Do you recall anything in particular that they said to you during your time away from the Lord?

Interestingly, because my grandparents knew that my parents had laid such a solid foundation, teaching me the Gospel from the time I was born, they never preached to me during my wilderness wanderings; they never sat me down and gave me a lecture. They always told me they were praying for me, that they believed God had his hand on me, and that if I ever needed anything, not to hesitate to let them know. Their unconditional love for me during that time was stunning. In fact, from a human perspective, one of the tools God used to bring me to himself was the attractiveness of my grandparents (and parents) unconditional love. Because of my upbringing, I had always known the content of the Gospel but it was the “preaching of the Gospel without words” through my parents and grandparents which helped me to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

When your prodigal journey ended and the Lord brought you to himself, do you consider that your conversion or had you just been in a period of backsliding, having been converted before your rebellion?

I actually address this issue in the book because for so long it bothered me. I grew up in a church that pressured people to identify a particular time and place when they became Christians. In fact, I grew up believing that if I could not recall the moment God saved me, then I was at best a second-class Christian or at worst not a Christian at all. I really wrestled with this about seven years ago. My mom told me that I prayed and asked Jesus to come into my life when I was five years old, but I don’t remember anything about it. What I do remember is how drastically my life changed when I was twenty-one. It frustrated me not knowing for sure whether my relationship with God began when I was five and “prayed the prayer” or when I was twenty-one and my life clearly changed. Did I become a Christian when I was five and then simply rebelled until I was twenty-one, at which point I “rededicated” my life to God? Or did I become a Christian for the first time at twenty-one? I didn’t know, and it really bothered me. I wanted to pinpoint the time and place. My spiritual life depended on it, or so I thought. About that time I had lunch with Arnie, one of my wisest, most godly friends. As I shared my struggle with him, he looked at me and said, “Tullian, does it really matter? The Bible has a lot more to say about how the Christian life ends than how it begins.” I dropped my fork. He was right. I thought about all those places in the Bible that speak about finishing the race, obtaining the prize, pressing on, and straining forward. I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. Pinpointing the time and place I became a Christian didn’t matter, ultimately. What did matter was my daily pursuit of God. What did matter was my need to continue in the faith from that day forward. John Stott said, “He who stands firm in the faith to the end will be saved, not because salvation is the reward of endurance, but because endurance is the hallmark of the saved.” Arnie helped me see that my ongoing endurance, not my ability to isolate a moment when my relationship with God began, is what helps me be certain about my relationship with God today.

You did your MDiv work at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. Which happened first—you became Reformed, then went to RTS, or the other way around?

Soon after God saved me (if indeed I was saved at 21 instead of 5), God gave me an overwhelming hunger and thirst to study, to read, to learn. I wanted to go to college but with only a GED and no SAT scores, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this. So at first, I simply began reading books that my pastor (we were attending a PCA church at the time) encouraged me to read (this included books by Packer, Sproul, Lloyd-Jones, the Puritans, etc.). I really wrestled with the doctrine of election. But after a long hard struggle with the Bible I came to the realization that I could choose not to believe this doctrine but I could not in good conscience say that the Bible doesn’t teach it. It was clear to me that from cover to cover Scripture highlights God’s sovereignty in salvation. After I was convinced of the Doctrines of Grace, however, I became a real pain in the neck. Every non-Calvinist was an idiot, so I thought, and I made sure to tell them. Thankfully, God quickly tempered my zeal and I came to realize that an arrogant Calvinist is an oxymoron. If we truly believe we’ve been given it all and deserve only death, then we should be the most humble people on the face of this earth. Eventually I was accepted to a Christian University in South Carolina (Columbia International University) where I studied philosophy and then made my way to RTS/Orlando. Because I was a convinced Calvinist long before I went to seminary I only looked at Westminster Theological Seminary and RTS. God led us to RTS and I’m thankful he did. My wife and kids agree that the years I was in seminary were some of the best years of our lives.

A few years ago Jon Meacham profiled Billy Graham for a cover story for Newsweek. One thing that stood out to me was this line: “If he had his life to live over again, Graham says he would spend more time immersed in Scripture and theology. He never went to seminary, and his lack of a graduate education is something that still gives him a twinge. ‘The greatest regret that I have is that I didn't study more and read more,’” In a sense, you’ve been able to walk down a path that your grandfather was never able to travel. What has that education meant for your preaching and writing and counseling ministry?

Due in part to my granddad’s regret for not going to seminary, not only has he helped to start a seminary (Gordon-Conwell) but he fully funded my seminary education. He’s the one who really encouraged me early on to go to seminary, saying, “If you are going to properly preach the Scriptures you need to be properly trained.” Therefore, contrary to what some may think, my granddad has a high regard for theological education in general and theologians in particular. His close friendships with Carl Henry, Harold Lindsell, Kenneth Kantzer, John Stott, and J.I. Packer testify to this. In my humble opinion (and there are always wonderful exceptions—Charles Spurgeon, C.J. Mahaney, etc.) seminary is a non-negotiable for anyone who has been called by God to preach. There is no way I could be doing what I do now if I hadn’t gone to seminary. I was an avid reader before I went to seminary and when I got to RTS I was sure I wasn’t going to learn anything new. Boy, I was wrong. In fact, it didn’t take me long to begin blushing as I thought about the sermons I had preached and the classes I had taught prior to seminary. The great thing about RTS was that even though it was a highly academic setting, it was place where my mind was stretched and my heart was enlarged. F. W. Faber wrote, “Deep theology is the best fuel of devotion; it readily catches fire and once kindled it burns long.” This is what RTS did for me and it has helped me develop the culture at New City Church where I serve. Believing that God has equipped Christian’s with both a head and a heart, intellectual capacities along with emotional capacities, we understand that no one can feel rightly about God without thinking rightly about God. On the other hand, we also believe no one can think rightly about God without feeling rightly about God. Therefore, we are seeking, in everything we do, to combine gravity and gladness, depth and delight, doctrine and devotion, precept and passion, truth and love (Matt. 22:37; John 4:23-24; 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 4:15). We want to be a community that glorifies God in the way that we think and the way that we feel. We desire to be a church that thinks and feels theologically while seeking to avoid both intellectualism and emotionalism. My theological education has helped to make this a reality at New City.

When and how did you start the church you now serve, New City Presbyterian Church?

Wow! Where do I begin? When I left seminary I went to serve a large church in Tennessee (Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church) as pastor to young adults (20’s and 30’s) and as the Sunday evening preacher. I loved it, but I always knew it was a temporary stop. I thought I’d be there for 5 years or so and then leave to pastor my own church. Well, less than two years into my time there, I received a call from a group of people in South Florida who had started to pray about beginning a new church in the greater Ft. Lauderdale area. They had been given my name by a few people and they called to see if I would be willing to talk with them. I agreed to talk to them but assured them I had no interest. The one thing I swore I would never do is plant a church. Not because I didn’t believe in church planting but because I didn’t think I had the gifts to do it. I was a preacher, a teacher, a people person, but I didn’t think of myself as an administrator. And I knew enough about church planting to know that starting something from scratch took a lot of administrative skill. They were persistent, though. At one point after listening to my protests, they said, “Tullian, administrators are easy to find, preachers are hard to find, would you please consider it?” Apparently, without my knowing, they had obtained numerous copies of my sermons and started passing them around. To make a long story short, we moved back home in August of 2003 and started worshipping together on Sunday mornings immediately. The initial group had about 75 people. The church is now 4 years old and it has grown wildly in every sense. There are now 10 on staff and because we have outgrown our current facility (we worship in a large High School auditorium) we are moving to two services. God is on the move in South Florida and we are excited to be a part of it. I’m humbled and pleasantly surprised at the hunger and thirst for God’s truth in the bustling, very strategic area of South Florida. Please pray for us!

Your book, Do I Know God? Finding Certainty in Life’s Most Important Relationship, was just published by Multnomah. How did the book come about?

The book started off as a sermon that I preached at Cedar Springs on Matthew 7:21-23. If you recall, in that passage, Jesus says, essentially, that there are multitudes of people who go through life thinking they know God when in fact they don’t. So I started thinking about why false assurance is such an epidemic in our time as well and whether or not I could be doing more to prevent it. Believe it or not, one of the most strategic mission fields in North America today is the church! So I set out to write a book that would answer two basic questions: is God knowable, and if he is, how can I know that I know God? In the book I say that if you don’t know God, he wants you to know it. If you do know God, he wants you to know it. The two things God does not want is for you to think you know God if you don’t and for you to think you don’t know God if you do. So I identify 6 ways that someone might be deceived into thinking they have a relationship with God when in fact they don’t. And then I move into three ways one can know that they know God: believing God’s promises, loving God’s presence, and obeying God’s precepts. Or, to put it another way, knowing that you know God involves what you believe (this is the intellectual dimension), what you love (this is the emotional dimension), and how you behave (this is the volitional dimension). Knowing that you belong to God, having a deep sense of your eternal security, not only provides a sure and steadfast anchoring for your soul, but it radically changes the way you live here and now. There’s nothing more vital, nothing more satisfying, than knowing God and knowing that you know God.

It seems to me that one of the audiences for the book is surely people who do not know whether they are saved. But who else is the book written for?

I also wrote this book for pastors. If a pastor would ask me, “Why should I read this book”, I would say, “This book will help you present the Gospel in such a way that those listening won’t be confused about whether or not they know God.” I give some real practical pointers regarding ways in which we as pastors tend to confuse people with some of the things we say and don’t say. It’s imperative, in my opinion, that pastors understand the need to help people rightly identify their spiritual condition. I think this book will help them do that.

But because there is so much confusion regarding how we understand a relationship to God, I address issues like the distinction between eternal security and assurance of salvation; the proper relationship between saving faith and good works, etc. In other words, even for those one who know that they know God, I hope this book serves to clear up some misconceptions. The last chapter is on heaven: what is the promised future for those who know God? It’s my favorite chapter because, again, there’s so much confusion regarding our ultimate destination. Every time I say this people raise their eyebrows but its true: the ultimate destination for the Christian is not heaven. The ultimate destination for those who truly know God is a new heaven and a new earth where we will enjoy new sinless, disease-free, incorruptible bodies. Our future, in other words, is physical! I go into much more detail about this in the book.

Any future books from you on the horizon?

Yes. I’m under contract with Multnomah to keep writing! I think I’ve almost settled on a book entitled Unfashionable. The working subtitle is Following Jesus in the 21st Century. If I were to identify one trend in the church today that concerns me, it would be our fascination with “fitting in.” The sad fact is, we’ve come to believe that the best way to reach the world is to become just like the world. When in reality, we make a difference by being different. We don’t make a difference by being the same. We need to remember that it is the calling and the privilege of Christians to be against the world for the world. In fact, it is, in the words of theologian David Wells, “those who are cognitively and morally dislocated from worldly culture that alone carry the power to change it.” Christians should be encouraged and challenged by the historical reminder that the Church has always served the world best when it has been most counter cultural, most distinctively different from the world. I would love to see a radical commitment to being unfashionable.