How Surprising is Grace?

A simple glace at the cover of Tullian Tchividjian’s latest book, Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels, will clue you in that at least one surprise is awaiting inside its pages.  However, once you’re in, the book is filled with more surprises than the title would have you think…

With cordial urgency and pastoral compassion, Tchividjian brilliantly navigates the waters of the book of Jonah, retelling this familiar Old Testament story in a way that will have the reader surprised at how deep the waters of God’s grace truly are.  Tchividjian’s aim in the book is to help the reader “grow more confident than ever about what the gospel is and how it works” (p. 22).

The ‘Introduction’ sets the sail by focusing on whom the message of the gospel is for.  Here, many will find their first surprise…  The gospel, Tchividjian says, is for both non-believers and believers.  While many Christians think that the gospel is only the good news that a person embraces by faith in order to be saved, Tullian writes, “Once God rescues sinners, his plan isn’t to steer them beyond the gospel, but move them more deeply into it” (p. 16).  Identifying the Jonah narrative as a “storied presentation of the gospel” Tchividjian sets out to help both believers and non-believers see the depth of gospel riches that may be found in the story of this Old Testament minor prophet (maybe yet another surprise…the gospel in the OT!).  Divided into three parts, the book serves to develop, in the reader, the understanding that though the natural inclination of the human heart is to run from God, God’s heart is to relentlessly pursue rebels like you and me in order to “affectionately strip away our slavery [to sin and self] so we might be truly free” (pp. 18-19).

“Part One” expounds Jonah 1:1 – 2:10, and begins by setting the Jonah story within its historical context, then moving to Jonah’s flight toward Tarshish, and his encounter with the great God-ordained fish.  As he follows Jonah’s journey, Tchividjian identifies the depth of our own sin and rebellion, and discusses how God’s dealings with us in times of rebellion can be turbulently merciful and gracious.  He writes, “The storm tells us that God spares no expense in going after those who run away” (p. 51).  Tchividjian notes that our rebellion and running from God can take on many different forms, which he discusses by noting several themes during the flight and fish sequence. These include, but are not limited to, our tendency to act as our own little gods, trust in our own efforts, and be our own saviors through legalism or lawlessness.  He writes, “Self-reliance is the natural tendency of every human heart, and it festers in the heart of the Christian as much as in the heart of the non-Christian–just in a different way” (p. 56).  Then, with great pastoral precision, Tchividjian demonstrates how the gospel is truly the answer to whatever facet or form our sin and rebellion may take.

“Part Two” picks up in the first verse of chapter 3 where we find the once fleeing Jonah fresh out of the fish’s stomach, and graciously given a fresh start to his life and calling.  Expounding upon 3:1 – 4:11, we see Jonah given a surprising second chance to fulfill God’s purpose for him.  Surprisingly different than the way we tend to respond when someone commits an offense against us, Tchividjian reminds us “God responds to great sin with great mercy” (p. 84)!  As Tchividjian takes us through the second half of this brief Old Testament narrative, we journey with Jonah to the great city of Nineveh, witness the response and transformation of its people through the preaching of God’s word, hear Jonah’s rage-filled perspective on it all, and end with him alone and outside the city in conversation with God.  Touching on themes of second chances, God’s wrath, humility, repentance, idolatry, worship, and anger, again Tullian points us back to the gospel where we’re met with the surprising depth of God’s healing grace found there.

“Part Three,” the concluding section to the book, provides an overarching (and even at points, a further-reaching) summary to God’s surprising grace seen in the story of this man on the run.  Tchividjian identifies “our sin, God’s grace, and God’s mission” as the three expansive realities displayed in the book of Jonah, and he says, “our every tendency to ignore God is always a result of our downplaying the size and significance” (p. 144) of these three things.  Again, noting the gospel’s ability to keep us from minimizing any or all of the aforementioned, he says, “There’s one place in human history where our sin, God’s grace, and God’s mission all converge.  That place is the cross” (p. 153).  Finally, Tchividjian ends the book by looking at what happens with Jonah and Nineveh, as presented in the rest of the Scriptures, after 4:11.

Summing it up…

  • The book, though very personal in tone, is also exegetically watchful, blending sound exegesis with practical application.
  • Tchividjian’s application within the book isn’t put forth as ‘follow these 5 steps,’ but rather by noting, “real spiritual growth happens only as we continually rediscover the gospel” (p. 18).  Thus, Tchividjian steers away from moralism straight toward deep gospel apprehension and directed application.
  • Tchividjian includes the text of Jonah throughout the book and then comments on the text.  This provides a good model to help people better understand how to study an Old Testament narrative, reflect upon it, and then draw out biblical principles for personal application.
  • The book makes a careful effort in helping people see how Jesus relates to the story of Jonah, successfully showing how “in the Old Testament God reveals his Messiah in promises, in prophecies, and in shadows.  In the New Testament we discover that Jesus is the fulfillment of every promise and prophesy, and the substance behind every shadow” (pp. 34-35).
  • Tchividjian utilizes artwork painted throughout history, as well as examples from classical literature, to display how many have interpreted the significance of the Jonah story over the centuries.
  • As a caution, the book doesn’t provide much in the way of interaction with other scholarly, interpretive viewpoints.  If you’re looking for that, this is not the place.  Though there are some commentary-like features to the book, it ultimately reads like a sermon (which is what it is, a collection of sermons).  That is not necessarily a bad thing though, as I believe that Tchividjian accomplishes his initial purpose well in helping the reader “grow more confident than ever about what the gospel is and how it works” (p. 22).

Overall, I highly recommend spending time with Tchividjian in the book of Jonah!  You will undoubtedly leave not only surprised by how amazing and far-reaching God’s grace really is, but also refreshed by a plunge into the deep waters of the gospel and its massive implications for our lives, as taught (maybe to you, surprisingly!) in this short, Old Testament book.

Surprised by Grace is published by Crossway Books.


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