From time to time I’ll be writing book responses, like this one – shorter than my formal reviews, and more a quick snapshot of my thoughts in response to the book than a careful dissection of the work.
Tullian Tchividjian’s1 Jesus + Nothing = Everything was, in one sense, a great book. In another, it was just okay.
It was a great book in its glorious exposition of what Matt Chandler might call the on-the-ground view of the gospel: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, applied to the individual’s life. Tchividjian, like many others who have written in this gospel-centered movement over the last few years, said little about the cosmic kingdom aspects of the gospel. But that’s okay: Tchividjian’s target is not a definition of the gospel, but to ask how sanctification happens.
Taking his cues from Colossians, Tchividjian traces out how Jesus’ work on our behalf is all-sufficient for our spiritual needs and the soul source of power for our spiritual lives. I enjoyed his clear passion for the gospel and his constant return to the glory of not only the cross, but also Jesus’ life and his resurrection. These parts of the books – including the forward-looking conclusion, a meditation on the final fulfillment of all Christ’s work in us in the new heavens and the new earth – were a good reminder. Best of all, they made me want to go reread Colossians; it’s hard to pay a book a higher compliment than to say that it made you want to read the word of God yourself all the more.
However, throughout the book I had a constant niggling sense of mild disagreement. Tchividjian argues in what seems, after a while, almost Higher Life-style in its approach to sanctification. I say almost: at no point did I think, “That’s just wrong!” Tchividjian never quite embraces the Higher Life “Let go and let God” idea. But he’s close, often enough, and it niggled at me. He argues throughout the book that the enemy of the gospel is always legalism, and that what we call “license” is really just another form of legalism. This definition doesn’t seem to add up to me, and it also doesn’t quite seem to do justice to Paul’s argument in Romans especially.
Where Tchividjian has a tendency to set work and gospel in opposition to each other – constantly emphasizing that sanctification is a result of growing in the knowledge of God, not of our efforts – I would say that the two are so tightly entangled in sanctification that we cannot separate them. Peter and Paul and John all make a point to found every imperative on the gospel; this far Tchividjian is exactly on target. But the books are full of imperatives, and these are imperatives that Christians are to actively pursue. The pursuit is never for its own sake, and never without grounding in the gospel, and never apart from the power of Christ dwelling in us. Yet we are called to work in precisely the same passages that the apostles clearly say that it is God who works in us. This is no place, in other words for negation.
Similarly, Paul’s answer to license is, “Stop! Don’t you see that the gospel orients you in another direction?” The gospel is there, and it’s central, and it’s absolutely necessary – but there’s also the command to stop! Christians are called to be active participants in our sanctification.
Tchividjian gets this, and he notes as much at a couple points – but I wish he didn’t so often set gospel and effort as opposed to each other. Christians are called to effort, but effort empowered by, buttressed by, saturated by, and in every way shaped and informed by the gospel. There is no antithesis.
I’m hardly the first to bring up this line of disagreement. Tchividjian and Kevin DeYoung have carried on a spirited, irenic, iron-sharpening-iron discussion over at The Gospel Coalition over the last year, and just a couple days ago, D. A. Carson weighed in with what I thought were some helpful pastoral words on the subject:
So in a church that has lots and lots and lots of moralism in it, you need to see the comprehensiveness of the gospel. That’s what needs to be applied to the church. But once you start getting a whole lot of people who really do understand something of grace, but they’re beginning to sink in lethargy, into a comfortable acceptance of grace without understanding that grace has entailments in terms of obedience and striving, then it becomes urgent to pass on those sorts of emphases too, while still avoiding the do, do, do of just mere moralism.
Read all of those posts; they’re worth your time. And also, read Jesus + Nothing = Everything. It’s a good book, and worth your time for the gospel meditations alone. Go buy a copy and read it; even if you disagree with a few of Tchividjian’s particulars, you won’t be able to avoid being blessed by the whole. We can all of us always use more gospel, more whole-hearted and full-throated exultation in the glory of what Christ has done for us.
Buy it (price at time of publication):
1 It’s pronounced “chuh-vih-jee-uhn.”