Friday, March 21, 2014

Tullian Tchividjian's "Jesus + Nothing = Everything": Review

I have not read much by Tullian Tchividjian but every time I do read him something doesn't seem quite right.  There are phrases and thoughts that seem half-right but there is usually a nagging feeling that something is being missed.  I recently came across a review of Tchividjian's book Jesus + Nothing = Everything that helpfully articulated some of the weaknesses of Tchividjian's theology.  Mark Jones' analysis (found HERE) points to a number of weaknesses in Tchividjian's book from a Reformed perspective.  Here are a few selected segments from Jones' review:
In the first place, the rhetoric of the book warrants discussion. In Tullian’s view, “a lot of preaching these days has been unwittingly, unconsciously seduced by moralism” (49). He adds that “So many contemporary sermons strengthen this slavery to self. ‘Do more, try harder’ is the constant refrain.” In fact, “Many sermons today provide nothing more than a ‘to do’ list” … “It’s all law (what we must do) and no gospel (what Jesus has done)” (49). These are, of course, strong accusations and perhaps they are true, but they seem to me to be comments that are easily made, but not quite so easily proved. As a minister, I spend the vast majority of my Sundays in my own pulpit and would be unable to make such a comment even about the city of Vancouver, much less the North American context. This brings me to a further concern about the general tone of the book, namely, that if ministers are not preaching the type of theology prescribed in this book they are inevitably legalistic to some degree. Indeed, the threat of legalism surfaces again and again throughout the book, so much so that it is the one primary threat to true gospel-centered Christianity: “I believe it’s more theologically accurate to say that there is one primary enemy of the gospel – legalism – but it comes in two forms” (50). Of course, one could easily respond and say that “Antinomianism” is the only threat to the gospel because all sin – whether refusing to believe the gospel or murdering someone – is against God’s law. Why are preachers legalistic? Because “moralistic preaching is stimulated by a fear of the scandalous freedom that gospel grace promotes and promises” (50, emphasis mine). Tullian argues that preachers fear that focusing on grace will cause people to abuse it, so instead they feel the need to “throw some law in there, to help make sure Christian people walk the straight and narrow” (50, emphasis mine). So throwing in “some law” is a bad thing in preaching? What are we to make of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation or the Sermon on the Mount?
In reacting to perceived deficiencies in present-day preaching and theologizing, Tullian has placed himself in a position where it appears to be “either/or” instead of “both/and”. In his online interview with Ed Stetzer (part 2) he makes the argument, advanced by the Lutheran theologian, Gerhard O. Forde, “that sanctification is simply getting used to your justification–it’s receiving Christ’s words ‘It is finished’ into our rebellious regions of unbelief.” This theme recurs throughout the book. Thus “sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification” (95). This seems to impact his exegesis of Philippians 2:12-13. Verse 12 tells us that “We’ve got work to do – but what exactly is it? Get better? Try harder? Pray more? Get more involved in church? Read the Bible longer? What precisely is Paul exhorting us to do?” According to Tullian, “God works his work in you, which is the work already accomplished by Christ. Our hard work, therefore, means coming to a greater understanding of his work” (96). I fail to see how Philippians 2:12-13 can be interpreted in that light, particularly since Paul exhorts believers to work out their salvation with “fear and trembling”. In Tullian’s manner of speaking, quietism (or, interior passivity) seems to be the chief characteristic of the Christian life whereby believers engage in mental appropriation of Christ’s finished work. But Reformed theology has never painted the Christian life in quite that way. Sanctification is not “simply” getting used to our justification. It certainly involves that, but the Scriptures are clear that there are other motives for holiness. Gratitude is not the only motivator; rather, for important ontological reasons, we must obey because of who we are and who God is (e.g., 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Peter 1:15, 17; 1 Jn. 3:3). Here is where Reformed theology has stressed the “both/and” to the Christian life when it comes to sanctification. John Owen’s exposition of Romans 8:13, for example, paints a very different picture of the sanctified life than the one found in Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Other examples of the “either/or” fallacy come up when he argues that “It is always the gospel of God’s free grace that should motivate our right doing; otherwise we are nothing better than Pharisees” (153). But this is wrong. The Antinomians argued that a man is under law, and not under grace, when he obeys the law as law, and obeys in light of not only its promises but also its threats. But the divines disagreed with this view (see WCF 19.6).
Later Jones' writes:
I recognize that the book is not a formal theological treatise, but when dealing with such sensitive topics it seems to me that one needs to be careful with the rhetoric that is used, especially when certain Reformed truths are denied. One area where I think a good theological distinction would have helped, if not changed his view, is Tullian’s belief that “We seem to inherently assume that our performance is what will finally determine whether our relationship with God is good or bad: so much good behavior from us generates so much affection from God; or so much bad behavior from us generates so much anger from God” (98). The distinction between amor benevolenti√¶ and amor complacenti√¶, used by almost all of the Reformed orthodox, explains how God loves us unconditionally in Christ, apart from works, and conditionally in Christ, in light of our obedience or lack thereof (see Jn. 14:21). In other words, God loves us, despite our unworthiness with the love of benevolence; but he also loves us because of our close communion and obedience with him with the love of complacency. He delights in certain graces (e.g., acts of faith). Tullian speaks of God’s love of benevolence to his creatures as if that were the only love and so our growth in grace has no bearing on God’s love for us. The love of benevolence is certainly primary or antecedent to the love of complacency (and inviolable), but our obedience or disobedience will result in a different type of complacent love between God and the saint. The English Antinomian, John Saltmarsh, denied this distinction and affirmed, in similar manner to Tullian, that God’s love for us does not change in relation to our good behavior.
This distinction between amor benevolentiae and amor complacentiae is something the modern writer, D. A. Carson had attempted to get at in his work The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God when, in the course of outlining five distinctive aspects of God's love, he distinguishes between:
1.  God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect.

2.  God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way—conditioned, that is, on obedience. 
Tchividjian's failure to recognize this distinction and let it play a role in his presentations is a shortcoming.  This shortcoming also affects the way he understands the text of Scripture.  I have noted this in his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount:  Tullian Tchividjian on the Sermon on the Mount.

NOTE:  Be sure to read Paul Helm's review of Mark Jones' new book on Antinomianism which handles some of the issues above.  Another good resource is Wayne Grudem's essay "Pleasing God by our Obedience: A Neglected New Testament Teaching" in which he amasses the New Testament evidence for how Christians can please God by our obedience to him.