Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus+Nothing=Everything
January 15, 2012
Even before the book came out, Jesus + Nothing = Everything had the perfect formula for a popular book: a catchy title that "just sounds right" (p. 25), an author with an intriguingly unique name (Tullian Tchividjian, pronounced cha-vi-jin), his blog at The Gospel Coalition to prime interest for the book, and a fairly publicized history with the church where he is a pastor (Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida). In fact, the events surrounding the 2009 merger between his former church and Coral Ridge Presbyterian are partly responsible for much of the story behind what is written.
The book uses Tchividjian's very real trials in his pastoral transition as a springboard for the diagnosis and remedy that is proposed throughout the book. As he was settling into his new role as pastor of Coral Ridge, he describes his own heart and thought processes as he faced opposition from within his church. While working through his personal trials in balancing his vision for the church and his self-described need for human approval, he came to the book of Colossians one morning and was gripped: a heart-change in focus was needed, from seeking human approval to the liberating recognition that approval was already his in Jesus. Human approval had become a "something" that was added to Jesus and through that addition it had taken away the "everything" that he already had in Christ alone. As he later says, "All these somethings we look to immediately become our idols" (p. 90). That insight and formula function as an example and catalyst for the rest of the book.
Tchividjian diagnoses the foundational human condition as desiring "everything." Even if we claim we don't desire everything, deep down (p. 31) if we genuinely searched (p. 35) we would discover we really do have that desire. There are only two options for the object of that fundamental desire: Jesus, and everything else. But his diagnosis isn't just for unbelievers. He is keen to emphasize throughout the book that the gospel, understood by Tchividjian as our justification, is also crucial for the believer's sanctification, understood by Tchividjian as "the art of getting used to our justification" (a quote from Gerhard Forde). Tchividjian observes that in the life of the believer, we initially recognize we are saved by grace but then live legalistic, moralistic lives as if we are sanctified by works. This is how Tchividjian describes his own situation when he was seeking human approval. He was living as if grace was only for the time-point of conversion rather than living as if grace was the life-blood of daily Christian living.
Much of the book elaborates on these basic points and does so in a way that engages the reader. If most pastors had a fraction of the zeal and passion that is communicated on almost every page of this book, the church would greatly benefit. It is crystal clear that Tchividjian doesn't just think about these issues, he intensely desires to live them. I cannot overstate what a good thing it is to emphasize the depth of God's daily grace in our lives, coupled with the security of what Christ has accomplished for us through his death on the cross and resurrection. There will never come a time when enough is said about grace and what Christ has done for us. At least on this side of heaven, we will never be able to plum its depths.
The concerns I have are not whether it is good to talk about God's free grace and Christ's accomplishment for us. It is always good. The concern arises when that grace is discussed to the exclusion of the reality of Christian effort and obedience, the Christian walk, and in identifying sanctification as something that is at its core passive and dependent on our imputed legal status.
There are a number of places where the reader is given the impression that Christian living is a passive reflection, remembrance, recognition, understanding, etc., Yet this passivity is somehow simultaneously hard work. A few quotes must suffice:
"The hard work of Christian growth, therefore, is to think less of ourselves...Sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification." (p. 95, italics mine)
"Our hard work, therefore, means coming to a greater understanding of his work...When we succumb to temptation, we are failing to believe in that moment that everything we need, in Christ we already have."(p. 96, italics mine)
"What licentious people need is a greater understanding of grace..." (p. 100, italics mine)
We want to affirm what is right about this. Many of our daily struggles with sin would be greatly helped by properly focusing on Christ and what he has accomplished for us to make us who we are in him (the indicative), and that true reality may work itself out through sanctified living in what we're called to do in him (the imperative). But is that recognition to be identified with sanctification?
There are several biblical concepts and definitions mixed within the book as the basic formula is worked out. Remembering our free grace comes across as a catch-all diagnosis for Christian living, but that diagnosis seems to stem from the salvific structure of justification (gracious, imputed righteousness) as "the gospel", the alpha-point, and the cause for the benefits of Christian living. But this diagnosis and its solution is only partial. If we freeze-frame the point where an unbeliever is under God's wrath and dead in sin, we see that he is in Adam; that he is guilty, is polluted and corrupt, and is outside God's family. When God regenerates that person, making him alive and enabling him to have faith, we see that faith as the instrument for the transition to grace.
Now in Christ he is acquitted of his guilt on account of Christ's imputed righteousness, there is a definitive breach with the pollution and corruption of sin through sanctification, and he is adopted as a child of God in Christ. As we walk the Christian walk in this fallen world, whatever progressive sanctification occurs on a daily basis is in the context of that Christ-effected, robust solution to the former man's condition. Defining sanctification as "getting used to our justification" does not do justice to the full-orbed problem and the even fuller solution in the person of Christ.
We also see perpetuated the rhetoric of positioning "law/imperative" and "gospel/grace/justification" as antitheses. On the positive side, Tchividjian adds insight when he says "to reach people in our day, the gospel will have to be distinguished from moralism" (p. 53) and "behavior modification cannot change the human heart" (p. 55). But "the law" and "legalism/moralism" stand miles apart and are not identical. Under the construct of this law/gospel antithesis, the word "legalism" tends to lose all meaning, as displayed here: "what some call 'license' is just another form of legalism. People outside the church are typically guilty of break-the-rules legalism, while many inside the church are guilty of keep-the-rules legalism" (p. 51). It's not entirely clear how breaking rules can be legalistic, unless "legalism" is defined beyond its current meaning to be something like "exhibiting a standard pattern of behavior."
Lastly, I was left wondering what unintended counseling implications there are from the structure and content of the book. If we believe that "gospel-driven change is rooted in remembrance," what exactly does a pastor say to his counselees when discussing behavior? He or she needs to remember the gospel more? "Grace" does not mean that believers escape obligation, and even if "remembrance" was the only thing we needed to do there would still be times where we wouldn't live up to the expectation to "remember the gospel" every time we were tempted. When the question of what role God's commands should play in our lives (p. 187), the answer stays in the vague, non-specific realm: God's law "drives us to the gospel." Scripture seems to give much more nuanced and multi-faceted counseling for temptation than a silver-bullet, passive solution satisfied with a mere recognition, remembrance, or realization. "Grace" and God's work does not obliterate our individuality or effort, but instead makes it possible for us to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12) in our daily Christian living.
The counselee may also wonder why, given the reality of full acceptance in Christ, we should obey. "Because in Christ, God has done you right...It's always the gospel of God's free grace that should motivate our right doing" (153). Our motivation for doing right, according to this, should always be from our gratitude. Of course gratitude may be a prominent, even the prominent, motivation for some, but should it be the only motivation every time for every person? This doesn't seem to account for the complexities of human motivation and reduces sanctification to what no one wants: "Christ did this for you, so that should motivate you to do good for him."
Jesus + Nothing = Everything was written with admirable zeal and, I believe, the best of intentions to help the real presence of legalism within the Christian church. And there will come a time where we will be as worry-free and liberated as Tchividjian describes. But not yet. Although we do well to live as we are - eternally secure before God in Christ - we are currently still aliens here on earth, and we still have the hard work of obedience to do while we struggle with this world. That hard work requires much more than getting used to, remembering, recognizing, and realizing our justification. It requires the Spirit working through and within us daily to bring to completion his perfect plan of salvation in Christ.