Book Review of “Jesus + Nothing = Everything”

This book by Tullian Tchividjian (senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church) is a book about justification and sanctification, at least as I read it. The book had its genesis in his extremely difficult experiences during the first year or so after he became the senior minister of CRPC (I am not going to get into that here, and I would appreciate it if commenters did not discuss it either, since it is quite tangential to this book review). In that time of soul-searching, Tchividjian came to certain conclusions about what was important when it comes to the gospel, and these are his thoughts, very much influenced by his experiences. For instance, he realized that he had become very dependent on human approval (always a temptation for pastors!), and that this wasn’t what the gospel was (p. 22). The way he puts it, “I was realizing in a fresh way the now-power of the gospel-that the gospel doesn’t simply rescue us from the past and rescue us for the future; it also rescues us in the present from being enslaved to things like fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement, and insignificance” (p. 23). There are pluses and minuses of making our own experiences such an integral part of such a book. On the plus side (and it is a significant plus), the descriptions of what Tchividjian went through can make the gospel real to us by showing us what it did in his life. On the other hand, one minus is that there is always the temptation to generalize our experience beyond ourselves. As I read through the book, I found the plus a real plus (though not without qualification), and the minus I found not a huge minus, but there was some of it there. My overall assessment of the book is that it has many valuable things in it (more valuable than not), as well as a few things that were not qualified enough, and one thing I found was potentially dangerous.

Now, I do have a slight quibble about the title. I understand and agree with the main point he is getting at, which is that we need to have all our idols stripped away from us, but what about the Father and the Holy Spirit? I would have felt much safer with the title “God + Nothing = Everything.” Now, I feel quite certain that Tchividjian is a firm believer in the Trinity. And I also understand that there would be a trade-off in using the term “God” instead of “Jesus,” namely, that the title I recommended could easily be understood as too broad (Jews wouldn’t have a problem with it, would they?). However, I think the Bible would be just fine with this kind of generalized statement, as long as the substance of the book would remind people of the true definition of “God” as Triune.

Tchividjian views the greatest threat to the gospel as what he calls “performancism,” what we would call “legalism.” He argues that the Bible views this as the greatest threat to the gospel (p. 45). Now, it would appear to me that a great deal of the Bible is definitely concerned about this problem. Galatians and Romans come to mind. The Bible, however, does spend a great deal of time dealing with the problem of remaining sin in the believer, too. The prophets are constantly harping on this theme, as are many places even in Romans and Galatians. So, in our laudable efforts to avoid legalism, we must stay balanced. I’m sure Tchividjian would not disagree with this assessment.

I would have to demur, however, when Tchividjian argues that antinomianism and legalism are simply two forms of the same problem: legalism (pp. 50-51). I do not believe this is true: one of them overvalues the law, and the other undervalues the law. They seem more like mirror image errors to me, not two forms of the same error. Now, I agree with his conclusion: “The truth is, disobedience happens not when we think too much of grace, but when we think too little of it” (p. 50). However, the difficulty I face in his formulation is that I believe his definition of grace might be too narrow. I was at the Gospel Reformation Network conference in February, and Rev. Harry Reeder gave us a formulation I found extremely helpful. When asked if he was saved, he typically replies, “I was saved; I am being saved, and I will be saved.” In other words, grace has a past, present, and future. The grace of God doesn’t just save us from the guilt of sin, but it also saves us from sin’s pollution. If you asked Tchividjian whether he agreed with that, he might very well say yes. My only issue is that I would not be sure of that answer from the contents of the book. Would he agree that urging people to keep the law is not necessarily legalism? By the way, I have no idea whether Rev. Harry Reeder had Tchividjian’s book in mind during the conference. All the speakers were studiously avoiding naming names as their “sparring partners.” Their target was the “contemporary grace movement,” otherwise known as the Sonship movement. Also, let it be known here that I am not slinging arrows at Tchividjian. He may very well not like being lumped in with a “movement” so-called. My criticisms of the book are centered on what I believe to be lack of clarity and qualification. I can readily believe that some of that lack of clarity might stem from the way he experienced the gospel truths of justification.

Where I net out on this book is that I would agree with him whenever he is talking about justification. He rightly and firmly rejects any kind of works and performancism when it comes to how we are declared righteous before God. Amen, and I second and third all those affirmations. Where I am not clear is what happens in sanctification. Take statements like this: “God said, ‘Tullian, in my beloved Son, you stand before me this very moment as cleansed, forgiven, purified. Therefore, I will never, ever deal with you on the basis of your cleanliness or dirtiness-your goodness or badness- but on the basis of my Son’s finished work on your behalf'” (p. 76). I ask the question: is this talking about judgment only, or is he talking about any and all kinds of dealings God has with us? If he is only talking about judgment, I would say a hearty amen to this. But would our Heavenly Father never get upset about our sin and discipline those He loves? The Bible tells us clearly that God our Father often disciplines those He loves. Oftentimes, it is because of indwelling sin, which would then in fact be God dealing with us on the basis of our badness. Now, He never deals with His children as judge on the basis of our obedience or lack thereof. Condemnation is completely out of the question for the true believer, as Paul tells us in Romans 8:1. But what about discipline? Does God only ever deal with us in a disciplinary manner without any eye whatsoever to what we have done or not done? If so, why would discipline be necessary at all, then?

Let me get to a very important point of agreement here. We don’t keep our salvation by works any more than we get our salvation by works. He says this on page 102. I heartily agree. However, that is not quite the same thing as saying that, for instance, “What licentious people need is a greater understanding of grace, not a governor on grace” (p. 100). Part of this statement is true. Licentious people definitely need a greater understanding of grace. But that understanding of grace brings with it an understanding of grace as enabling our works, and bringing us back to the standard of the law, and working holiness in us. You see, the law only condemns us before we are justified. It is not really our friend before we are justified. However, after justification, the law becomes our friend and guide (the third use of the law). Our situation with regard to the law changes completely, once there is no condemnation. The essence of the law is love, says Jesus. The law is a description of the character of God, the law-giver. So, we must love the law as Christians. We do not do the works of the law either to obtain or retain salvation in any sense. But to say we must obey the law is not legalism, in and of itself, when one has put the above qualifying statements on it. I am not convinced that Tchividjian understands this, because on page 116, he says, “We tend to think of the gospel as God’s program to make bad people good, not dead people alive.” Why this dichotomy? Are we God’s workmanship (notice the work of God there), created for good works, which He prepared beforehand for us to do? Is it good news that God will save me, and then leave me in a perpetual state of badness? Now, that isn’t entirely what Tchividjian is saying. I am just not convinced that God’s program will leave me bad, or that God’s program isn’t concerned to make bad people good. Isn’t sanctification the process of becoming more holy? Why can’t we call that part of the good news? Yes, it is fueled entirely by grace! But it results in our being made more holy. And it is certainly good news that God will change us to be more like His Son.

Tchividjian says some excellent things on the relationship of grace and law towards the end of the book, more balanced things. For instance, he says, “Finally, one of the indicators that we’re firmly on the path of Christian growth-one of the marks of a truly maturing Christian-is that we begin to love the things God loves, and to want the things God wants, and to hate the things God hates. In this regard, the law guides us as well, and it guides wisely. It tells us what God wants and who God is. Yes, the law is good” (p. 188). The illustration he gives on page 192 is, in my opinion, worth the price of admission: “A friend of mine recently put it to me this way: the law is like a set of railroad tracks. The tracks provide no power for the train but the train must stay on the tracks in order to function. The law never gives any power to do what it commands. Only the gospel has power, as it were, to move the train.” To my mind, this is more balanced and helpful. So why, then does he say (in quoting Dane Ortlund) that we should not balance gospel with exhortations to holiness? Isn’t Paul and the entire New Testament, not to mention the Old Testament, chock full of exhortations to holiness? Why should we be afraid of exhortations to holiness? All exhortations to holiness (imperatives) are firmly based on the indicatives of what Jesus came to do. But the indicatives include what God is doing now as well in sanctification. God is at work in our sanctification. It is His grace that fuels the train. But our faith is active in sanctification, whereas it was passive in justification. So, shouldn’t we preach both the firm indicatives of the gospel AND the imperatives of God’s commands? How will people know what right behavior is if we do not let them know?

One final point. I disagree partially with his assessment of sanctification on page 95: “Think of it this way: sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification. it’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day.” Now, I agree heartily that justification plays a significant role in our sanctification. But this statement, unqualified as it is, would seem to collapse sanctification into justification. Sanctification involves imparted grace, renewal grace, grace of which regeneration is the start. It happens inside us. Yes, it is never to be separated from our justification, but it is distinct from it. Justification happens outside of us. Sanctification happens inside of us. Justification happens as a declaration, and is therefore instantaneous. Sanctification is a process that happens all through the Christian life. Justification is based on the finished work of Christ. Sanctification is not just based on the finished work of Christ, but also includes the Holy Spirit’s work inside of us. Of course, that is Christ formed in us. But this is the continuing work of Christ, not just the finished work of Christ. This makes the statement, “The gospel, in fact, transforms us precisely because it’s not itself a message about our internal transformation but about Christ’s external substitution” (p. 94) unclear at best, and dangerous at worst. The gospel is not just about the finished work of Christ. It is also about the continuing work of Christ through the Spirit.

I know this is a lengthy review. I value Tchividjian’s work, and he has given us many excellent things in this book. However, there are a number of things that I did not find clear. I hope that Tchividjian will see this review as iron sharpening iron. I respect him, and merely want to see him become ever clearer in his formulations.