A Review of Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels by Tullian Tchividjian (Mom’s Bookshelf)

Pastor Tullian Tchividian’s newest book, Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels, published by Crossway, is a unique, gospel-centered study of the book of Jonah. After encouraging us to set aside “the notion that Jonah is primarily a story about a man gulped down by a fish”, he takes us verse by verse through the book, showing us that the story of Jonah reveals both God’s heart and our own, explicitly contrasting them in a way no other story in the Bible does. A unique feature: through the use of literature and art, he illustrates different aspects of the story of Jonah in a very memorable way. All the works of art he refers to are included in color plates in the center of the book, and he uses each one to show graphically an aspect of the story that we can apply.

Pastor Tullian (who, incidentally, is the grandson of none other than Billy Graham) contends that there’s just as much confusion inside the church as there is outside regarding the true meaning of the gospel, and that perhaps what we most need to get a better grip on it is to be startled, surprised, even shocked by it!

“I once assumed the gospel was simply what non-Christians must believe in order to be saved, but after they believe it, they advance to deeper theological waters. Jonah helped me realize that the gospel isn’t the first step in a stairway of truths but more like the hub in a wheel of truth. As Tim Keller explains it, the gospel isn’t simply the ABCs of Christianity, but the A-through-Z. The gospel doesn’t just ignite the Christian life; it’s the fuel that keeps Christians going every day. Once God rescues sinners, his plan isn’t to steer them beyond the gospel but to move them more deeply into it.”

He goes on to skillfully show how Jonah illustrates the concept that Martin Luther called “simil justus et peccator“…that we are “simultaneously justified and sinful”.  Although we’ve already been saved from sin’s penalty, the gospel is vitally necessary each and every day to save us from sin’s power also. We clearly see this in Jonah’s actions.

Jonah tries to run from God…and quickly discovers that’s not possible. We tend to assume that the storm is God’s punishment for Jonah’s disobedience, but Pastor Tullian counters that it is, in fact, God’s intervention, brought about by his affection, not his anger. God could have easily left Jonah to his own devices and found someone else to do the job. Instead, in an act of mercy, he sends the storm to liberate Jonah-from himself. Running showed that Jonah was still relying on himself and his own strength and not submitting to God. We do the same thing. Some run by intentionally living by the world’s standards and rejecting God. Others run by being rule-keepers. Both ultimately show self reliance and are insufficient.

“Only the gospel can truly save you. The gospel doesn’t make bad people good; it makes dead people alive. That’s the difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ and every other world religion. All the others exhort their followers to save themselves by being good, conforming their lives to whatever their worshiped deity is. But the gospel is God’s acceptance of us based on what Christ has done, not on what we can do.”

God gives Jonah a second chance to get it right. It’s interesting that Jonah is grateful to be rescued, but there’s still no indication of repentance. But here we see three aspects of God’s amazing grace, according to Pastor Tullian:

  1. God doesn’t hold grudges. Our acceptance is not based on anything we do or don’t do. It’s based on what Christ has already done.
  2. No deals. God doesn’t lighten the load for Jonah. There are no negotiations. In the same way, God’s grace toward us is not a lessening of his demands…he still demands perfect obedience. Grace is experienced when we realize that these demands have already been met in Jesus. 
  3. God doesn’t give up. If getting the task accomplished was all God was worried about, he could have easily just let Jonah go his way and found someone else. Since he knew Jonah would run, why did God ask him in the first place? Not because he needed Jonah, but because Jonah needed God! In the same way, God doesn’t need any of us. The reason he seeks, saves, and sends sinners like us is because God loves sinners.
Later in the story, Pastor Tullian uses the rather abrupt ending to point out that redemption involves much more than simply “going to heaven”…it’s about Christ making everything sad come untrue, about restoring all that Adam’s disobedience ruined and correcting every injustice. 
He also uses Jonah’s negative response to God’s mercy to Ninevah to contrast the tribal versus missional mindset. A community with a tribal mindset values self-preservation above all. It exists solely for itself, always looking for ways to protect itself from those who are different. A missional-minded community, on the other hand, values self-sacrifice above all. It exists to serve others. Two guesses which mindset Jonah exhibits. By nature, we all tend to be tribal. But the gospel demands a missional, not tribal, mindset. 
Pastor Tullian closes with “The Gospel According to Jonah”. He points out that this is the only prophetic book in the Bible that focuses on the prophet himself rather than his message. This is because Jonah’s life IS the message! We’re all like Jonah. The story shows us the expansiveness of our sin, God’s grace, and God’s mission. We can never fully embrace God’s grace if we don’t realize how desperate our condition is. Yet God’s grace is even more expansive than our sin. And, God doesn’t simply rescue us from our sin, he rescues us to DO something. He expects us to develop the world around us to his glory. At the cross, we see the convergence of these three things.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the depths of the gospel that Pastor Tullian mines in this book. I have so many quotes highlighted there’s no way I can share them all! I loved this fresh perspective on a familiar story. He brought out details I’d never noticed (like the fact that Jonah was apparently a prominent national figure, based on the reference to him in 2 Kings 14:25) and presented the gospel in a wonderfully unique way. I loved his emphasis on the fact that the gospel is not just a set of truths non-Christians need to believe to be saved, but something that we need to embrace daily, and that we’re not simply saved from sin, but saved to bring him glory here and now!
Pastor Tullian writes in an easy to read, conversational style and still manages to impart deep theological truths in a fairly short book. This highly readable, devotionally rich look at Jonah and the gospel gets my highest recommendation! 

(My thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy of the book to me. I was not required to give a positive review, all the opinions I’ve expressed are my own.)

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  1. Thank you, and I love this challenge too!

  2. Good, thorough review. I've wanted to read this book.

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