Tullian Tchividjian has been the recognized leader within the liberate theology movement which places strong emphasis on grace and the finished work of Christ in the sanctification process. More of that in a moment, but for now it is important to note that the particular volume under review is seen as one of the most important books supporting this view of sanctification.
Written in 2011, in the wake of deep struggles involving Tchividjian’s ministry in 2009, this 30-something pastor was looking for answers in the midst of the greatest crisis of his life. In an ill-fated attempt to merge a new and trendy church plant with an older and formal church, none other than Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Tchividjian found himself almost immediately engulfed in a battle for survival. Of a positive nature, he discovered that he lived far too much for the approval of others (pp. 22-23). Through a study of Colossians, he began to focus on Christ and His finished work, rather than on himself and his need for affirmation (chapter five, probably the best chapter in the book). As a result, he now sees himself as addicted to the gospel (p. 11), a global revolution which he believes is just getting started (p. 12). The gospel is defined and which is now described in various ways throughout as: “Jesus plus nothing equals everything” (p. 24), as “not how to make bad people good, but dead people alive” (p. 16), as “that which rescues us from being enslaved to things in life such as fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement, and insignificance” (p. 23). In other words, the gospel is therapeutic in nature, saving us from our hurts, phobias and psychological inadequacies, as well as from sin.
True to form, in books claiming to be revealing “the secret” in the Christian life supposedly missed by most, the first chapter attempts to immerse the reader into a sea of misery. Once convinced that their life is a total mess, a mess that nothing they have tried before has been able to resolve, readers are now introduced to the solution that has been recently discovered by the author.
The first step in understanding Tchividjian’s revelations is to move beyond the mind into the soul. He writes, “It will take a deeper engagement than that with our intellect alone. We’ll need to delve into secret shadowy regions of the heart. We’ll have to risk a plunge into soul depths” (p. 35). This plunge will lead Tchividjian and his followers astray in several important areas, but he accurately guides at times. For example, he exposes our idol worshipping natures, showing that whatever we depend upon is our idol (pp. 40, 66), that Christ Himself is the center of the gospel (p. 144), and explaining the danger of legalism, which is defined as imperatives disconnected from gospel indicatives—depending on our actions rather than Christ (p. 46). Tchividjian is rightly concerned that many Christians think that God’s acceptance, love and approval is based upon our behavior (pp. 34, 97, 142-143, 156, 182-183). He writes, “Moralism beats this drum: If I improve, then I’ll be accepted—by God, by others, even by myself. But the gospel says something radically different. The gospel announces that everyone ‘in Christ’ is already accepted by God because of Jesus‘s work for them” (p. 62). This is a healthy reminder and a game-changer for those who grasp it. Our behavior does not alter God’s love for us; behavioral modification cannot change our heart (p. 55); we are accepted and loved by the Lord because of Christ’s finished work. We are now free to abandon moralism and legalism and obey and follow the Lord out of gratitude for what He has done for us.
However, it is at this point that Tchividjian goes astray. Rightly reasoning that, since there is nothing we need do to gain more approval from God, he next moves to the idea that spiritual progress is neither our goal (which he would see as legalism) nor likely. This is the essence of his unique and errant view of sanctification. He sees preaching, for example, which encourages spiritual growth, as moralistic—all law and no gospel, which keeps people trapped in attempts to impress God (pp. 49-50). And while this is a true danger, Tchividjian has fallen off the other side of the ledge. Seeing legalism as the one primary enemy of the gospel (p. 50), he has crafted a doctrine of sanctification that ignores most clear biblical teaching on growth and maturity and twisted much other Scripture to fit his paradigm. Tchividjian believes that just as justification is monergistic, wholly a work of God, so too is sanctification. He expands (i.e. mutilates) a famous William Temple quote in support, “The only thing you contribute to your salvation [and to your sanctification] is the sin that makes it necessary” (p. 103 – bracketed portion is not original with Temple). Similarly the author claims that as we are saved by faith alone, so “by faith alone we’re sanctified” (p. 102). Tchividjian’s view of sanctification is the old “let God, let God” of the Higher Life movement with a couple of interesting twists.
First, the author is deeply conflicted. At times he makes claims that Christian growth is neither possible nor necessary: “The gospel liberates us to be okay with not being okay. We know we’re not—though we try very hard to convince other people we are. But the gospel tells us, ‘relax, it is finished’” (p. 120). Quoting Gerhard Forde positively reinforces the concept that spiritual progress is not likely for the believer and we should accept this: “Am I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous. As I get older and death draws nearer, I don’t seem to be getting better…the grace of God should lead us to see the truth about ourselves, and to gain a certain lucidity, a certain humor, a certain down-to-earthness” (pp. 173-174). Tchividjian comments, “When we stop obsessing over our need to improve that is what it means to improve” (p. 174). Whereas the Higher Life teachers taught that by letting go, and letting God, one would grow in holiness, Tchividjian and friends tell us that we probably are not going to grow at all, but when we recognize this we can relax, stop trying so hard, rest in Christ, and accept who we are. This, according to the author, is the essence of growing in spiritual maturity but, strangely, he reverses himself at times claiming that personal improvement and moral progress are possible for those who comprehend his sanctification theology.
This leads directly to the second uniqueness of Tchividjian’s system: it is when we wash our hands of ourselves and rest in Christ’s finished work that progress will be made (p. 175). Whereas the Higher Life generation agreed that looking to our standing in Christ is the source of spiritual development, they also emphasized the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Not so Tchividjian, who seldom mentioned the Spirit’s role, but instead consistently points to the completed work of Christ. He is half-right when he states, “What the Bible teaches is that we mature as we come to a greater realization of what we already have in Christ… The hard work of Christian growth, therefore, is to think less of ourselves and our performance and more of Jesus and His performance for us” (pp. 95-96). The gospel, the author writes, “accentuates what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do; it assuredly does not lay emphasis on anything we must do” (p. 105). While true in relationship to justification, Tchividjian is applying monergism to sanctification as well. He is not anti-obedience (pp. 152-153) but he sees it as a secondary thing: “Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died and in Christ we have been raised. Life change happens as the heart daily grasps death and life. Daily reformation is the fruit of daily resurrection…Behavior (good or bad) is a second thing and when we make it a first thing, we resort to the type of rules and regulations that Paul warns about” (p. 117). While Tchividjian is rightly trying to distinguish the gospel from moralism and performance, he tips too far. Our behavior is indeed secondary to the gospel, but it is not disconnected or unimportant. The gospel truly embraced will inevitably lead to moral change and spiritual maturity. But the author is not only confused at this point, he also sees no need for any cooperation on the believer’s part in the sanctification process. Except for recalling the finished work of Christ and expressing faith, the Christian is passive: “If the focus is on what you must do instead of what Jesus has already done, it’s anti-gospel” (p. 119). This quote is in the context of man-made rules; however, the author does not distinguish legalistic, extra-biblical regulations from biblical commands and directives. Little discussion is offered concerning the many New Testament moral and spiritual instructions, instead we are told, “The new self Paul speaks of will emerge more and more as we allow the gospel to removed idolatry’s shackles” (p. 120). Any effort we make to obey the put on/put off commands of the epistles quickly deteriorates into legalism; under Tchividjian’s system, instead we must passively “allow” the gospel to do its work. If we desire to obey these commandments we are not to take a direct approach but rather return to the gospel (p. 171). He is correct in that what we are, and all we should do, is based solidly on what Christ has done for us. But he is wrong when he thinks that as we passively rest on the gospel Christ does everything for us. Tchividjian writes, “This means that real change happens only as we continuously rediscover the gospel. The progress of the Christian life is not our movement toward the goal; it’s the movement of the goal on us…It happens as we daily receive and rest in our unconditional justification” (p. 173). Yet Paul said, “I press on toward the goal” (Phil 3:14); and we are called to “work out our salvation” (Phil 2:12). When quoting this verse Tchividjian has removed the command from his system and retained only, “For it is God who is at work in you…” (v. 13). We are assured, however, that “God doesn’t dwell on your sin the way you do. So relax, and rejoice and you’ll actually start to get better” (p. 184).
The book’s thesis is stated on page 184, “The gospel’s secret of maturity is this: we become more spiritually mature when we focus less on what we need to do for God and focus more on all that God has already done for us.” Kept in balance this would be a helpful thesis but he consistently goes too far. On the next page he clarifies, “Gospel-driven change is rooted in remembrance. The way God grows us, develops us, and matures us is by reminding us of what he has already done for us in Christ.”
Tchividjian’s sanctification process lacks balance—something that he has been made aware of and rejects (p. 190). In a worthy effort to expose and reject moralism and performancism he has minimized or completely eliminated the hundreds of instructions, commandments, examples and directives given in the New Testament. Efforts to appropriate any of the time-honored and accepted means of grace are turned into forms of legalism and moralism. Spiritual progress (if it exists at all) comes about passively as we contemplate the gospel. Christian maturity is found in comprehending our justification alone, not any active participation on the part of the believer. As with most theological errors, the problem lies in an over emphasis on one biblical truth to the exclusion of other biblical truths. Tchividjian has stepped into this trap.
Tchividjian recommends Jerry Bridges prescription of “preaching the gospel to yourself everyday” (pp. 94, 129). But Bridges rejected Tchividjian’s understanding of sanctification and wrote more than one book correcting similar views.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything by Tullian Tchividjian (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 220 pp., paper $7.06 Amazon used
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel