Over the past two days, I’ve expressed some concerns about three confusions in Tullian Tchividjian’s book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything.
We looked at the confusion of justification with sanctification. We also considered the confusion that may result when we make our own experience the norm for everyone else.
Today I’d like to examine the way the book confuses (i) our standing with God with (ii) our experience and enjoyment of God.
(i) I agree with Tullian 100% that our standing with God cannot be changed. Once I am justified, I will never be any less or more justified. My legal relationship to God cannot get better or worse. My status as an adopted son of God can never be revoked. As Tullian expertly explains, that’s an incredibly empowering truth and must be the root of all sanctification.
(ii) However, Tullian does not clearly distinguish between a believer’s standing with God and his experience of God. Let me put it this way, God’s love for the believer never changes, but the believer’s experience of that love can change. God may withdraw the assurance and the daily experience of His Fatherly love because of my disobedience. He loves me no less, but I don’t have his love shed abroad in my heart to the same extent or degree.
Let me illustrate: my wife and I are very happily married. Our status, our legal relationship has not changed since the day we married over 20 years ago. We are no less or more married now than then. However, our experience of one another’s love has changed over the years. I can’t say we’ve ever had downs. But our ups have varied between above average to very high. Our marital status does not depend on our conduct, but our experience and enjoyment of marital love does.
As I’ve said above, I fear that when it comes to the believer’s relationship with God, that Tullian confuses (i) the believer’s unchangeable and unconditional status as God’s adopted son and (ii) the believer’s conditional and therefore changeable experience and enjoyment of God’s fatherly love.
God’s love changeable and conditional?
Before demonstrating this from Tullian’s book, I’m aware that some might question the validity of this distinction; some may especially dislike the idea that a believer’s experience of God’s love is conditional and changeable. So let me just briefly support that with Scripture. The key verses here are John 14:21&23. I’ve looked at a range of older and modern commentaries on this text and their unanimous voice is well summarized by John Piper:
Verse 21: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” So Jesus says that he and his Father in heaven will love us in response to our obedience.
Similarly, in verse 23 Jesus answers a question, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Again Jesus promises that he and his Father will respond to our obedience with love.
So the least we can say is that there is a love from God the Father and a love from God the Son that is a response to our keeping the word of Jesus.
Now let me show you how Tullian blurs this important teaching in the following quotations:
Progress in obedience happens only when our hearts realize that God’s love for us does not depend on our progress in obedience. (51, Kindle Edition)
This may be another way of stating (i), but it is so important to also state: (ii) God’s love for us does not depend on our obedience, but if we want believers to enter into the deepest experience and enjoyment of God’s love, then we must encourage them that that is at least partly determined by our progress in loving obedience.
But when it comes to our sanctification, suddenly we become legalists. In the matter of maturing in Christlikeness—and in continuing to please God and find favor with God and acceptance with God—we suppose it’s all about what we have to accomplish ourselves and all the rules and standards and values we need to adhere to. 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)
I admit that the way Tullian describes the connection between our loving obedience and God responding with loving communion makes it seem very robotic and unattractive. I would certainly not describe it as he does in his decrying of it, and I don’t think his caricature of it fits Jesus’ warm and inviting description of the connection in John 14. However, as we’ve seen, the Bible does link the health and vigor of our relationship with God to our loving obedience.
Legalism insists that my ongoing relationship with God is based on my ability to do good. That approach is always inconsistent with the gospel, and Paul shoots it down in every letter he writes—both through the way he structures those letters and in their content. (101)
Legalism may insist that. But as we’ve seen, so does Christ in certain ways. Again, not as Tullian portrays it here – mechanical, legalistic, cold, self-powered obedience – but rather as Christ commends it in John 14 – a loving (enabled) doing, that God responds to with loving indwelling.
Perhaps it’s in this next paragraph that the slide from standing with God to enjoyment of God is most obvious. He starts of by speaking of standing, but goes on to speak of our day-by-day relationship with God.
It means that our standing with God does not depend on our obedience but on Christ’s obedience for us. That’s the good news; the gospel says it’s not what you must do, but what Jesus already did on behalf of sinners. Our standing with God is not based on our ongoing struggle for Jesus but on Jesus’s finished struggle for us. The gospel is good news—wonderful, positive, invigorating, wholesome, nurturing news—precisely because our relationship to God does not depend on our zeal, our efforts, and our generosity, but on Christ’s. That’s what makes the gospel such good news. And it’s not just good news about how we “get in” initially; it’s good news that we go back to every day because we are prone to wander into narcissism (how am I doing? what else do I need to do?). The gospel keeps us fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. So, the gospel doesn’t just justify us; the truth of the gospel sanctifies us and develops us and matures us. (140)
Jesus fulfilled all of God’s conditions on our behalf so that our relationship with God could be unconditional. Christianity is the only faith system where God both makes the demands and meets them. (142-143)
A paragraph like this really needs to be followed up with an explanation of how our ongoing enjoyment and experience of God’s love is most certainly conditional. Because as it is, it again implies that the health of our ongoing relationship with God has absolutely no connection with our obedience or disobedience.
Mono- or multi-dimensional Christian experience?
I know Tullian’s trying to get away from the cold mechanical obedience of the legalist trying to earn God’s favor – I’m with him all the way on that one. And I know he’s also anxious to ground the true Christian’s daily walk in the Gospel. However, in the process, I fear he is closing down the huge potential of the warm-hearted and loving Christian’s diligence being graciously rewarded with newer and deeper experiences of God’s love. There’s so much more to Christian experience than the rather one-dimensional presentation of it in Tullian’s book. For example, he says:
The Spirit’s continuing subjective work in me consists of his constant, daily driving me back to Christ’s completed objective work for me. (137)
That’s one element of the Spirit’s work in us – and it is a wonderful experience, no question – but the Psalms, John 14:21&23, Revelation 3:20, and many other places, invite us to a far wider, deeper, richer, and more soul-satisfying experience of communion with God through His Spirit. There’s a vast amount of Christian literature, not least among the Puritans, that widens the vista of the life of God in the soul of man way beyond this limited view of the Spirit’s subjective work.
As in so many places in this book, remarkably astute and beautifully expressed observations are marred by the omission of tiny words of qualification. For example, in this case, why not write: “Part of the Spirit’s continuing subjective work in me consists of his constant, daily driving me back to Christ’s completed objective work for me.” Without these little, though vital, words, I’d be reluctant to recommend the book to any but mature Christians who have the discernment to insert these qualifying words themselves. And that’s a huge pity, because the book’s core message so needs to be heard, and heard with the passion and energy that Tullian brings to everything he does.
In summary, does Jesus respond to our obedience with love? Two “No’s” and a “Yes.” No, not in the sense of our love coming first: we love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). No, not in the sense of cold, mechanical, legalistic obedience on our part: we love him, then keep his commandments (John 14:15, 21, 23). But yes, in the sense that Christ responds to the Christian’s loving obedience with loving indwelling, divine communion, and Trinitarian manifestation. What a powerful motivation to sanctification!
All page numbers are from the Kindle Edition of the book.