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.

  • http://slaveofchrist.wordpress.com/ Venkatesh

    Prof. Murray,

    This is Venkatesh from India. I’ve been following the justification/sanctification debate quite closely over the past few months (over at Ref 21 blog, TGC and now here). I haven’t read Tullian’s books but have a fair idea of what he is saying from his blogs. I lean very much towards your understanding on the doctrine of sanctification.

    I have a few observations
    1)It seems to me that what lies at the heart of the debate is a difference in understanding the law of God (by which I mean imperative statements like Ten commandments and everything in the ambit of what Jesus meant by “commandments” in John 14:15). Tullian, Horton et al look at the law of God as basically rules with no sanctifying power in them. Tullian once wrote – “Law has no sanctifying power”. This is why, I think, Tullian would want to emphasize on grace and project the law as a basically something which condemns. My understanding is that the law should be obeyed on its own terms without requiring us to remember our justification experience actively. This is because the law is a reflection of the God’s character and hence when we want to follow the law we really want to reflect God’s character. Of course, we should understand that this desire is an outcome of our justification. But requiring one to remember justification actively, before fulfilling any and every commandment of God, seems to be quite skewed.( I was reading the book of proverbs today morning and wondered how it would look like if I were to remember my justification experience every time I read a verse or wanted to obey it. This, to me, seems legalistic)
    2) I also think that this sharp focus on justification is an outcome of their Law/Gospel distinction. Anything imperative in the Bible = Law and anything indicative = Gospel. I don’t think the Reformed Confessions were as sharp on this disctinction as Tullian et al claim it. I like what John Frame says here http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2002Law.htm
    3) Thirdly, I like the way you finished your post. Jesus’ responding to my obedience is a wonderful motivation for me to follow his commandments. Amen. Sometimes, I also ponder about heaven and glorification and this motivates me to follow his commandments. At other times, its the sheer beauty of God’s wisdom exhibited in the Law that makes me want to follow it (like the book of proverbs). Tullian’s theology doesn’t quite capture these aspects very well.
    4) The term Gospel-centredness is often used by Tullian, Keller etc. I wonder whether this means being justification-centered. Would “Christ-centered” be a better term since it puts the focus on the person of Christ from whom the “twin benefits” of justification and sanctification follow, rather than the “Gospel-centered” which can just focus our attention to justification alone?

    Let me know your thoughts.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Venkatesh: Thanks for this valuable contribution.
      #1 I agree with what you say on the whole. I would summarize it like this: It’s neither the Gospel not the law that sanctifies. It’s the Holy Spirit who sanctifies and He may use both law and Gospel to do this great work.
      #2 Thanks for the Frame link. I’ll have a look at that.
      #3 Thanks for these further motivations.
      #4 I much prefer Christ-centered, but over the past couple of years, I’ve come gradually to understand the American context better, and why so many prefer to use Gospel-centered as a way of distinguishing a particular emphasis.

  • http://all-grace.blogspot.com Penn

    We are responsible to obey God, whether believer or unbeliever. It is just that the obedience must flow from a heart of love toward God (otherwise it is not true obedience), which only God can give to us.

    I suppose the problem stems from trying not to unintentionally promote legalism on the one hand, and to sound thoroughly calvinistic on the other. But the safest road is to stay as close as possible to what Scripture itself explicitly teaches about our sanctification, obedience to God, and His love and pleasure in our status as justified saints and saints who joyfully obey His commands.

    Thanks for the articles on this topic. They are worth the effort.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Thanks Penn. You’re right, it’s a narrow path between two errors that we are all trying to navigate.

  • http://johnbotkin.net John

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection on this book, brother. It stimulates my thinking and sharpens my preaching!

  • Pingback: What I Read Online – 12/15/2011 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  • MarkO

    Interesting analysis you offer. My thought is that I am surprised with this since my frequent reading of Tullian’s writings have not left me with any of your concerns.

    If I may – my analysis of your analysis is that perhaps you are addressing not Tullian’s work, but those who might misunderstand Tullian. Certainly in a proposition there are those who may or will misunderstand. But I think it best to study Tullian’s flowers as they appear in his garden not how they might appear in another not so well tended garden.

    Again, when taken as a whole piece I don’t see any major concerns in his approach to Gospel grace.

    I can bear witness to this. Though I do not know Tullian personally I have sensed his shepherding voice in my life as I have listened to his sermons and read his writings. I have been a Christian for a long, long time and have been perplexed for too long. Finally, as I have listened and read Tullian the dam burst. The dam of God’s grace has been flooding my life as I have been dwelling in God’s justifying grace which overwhelms me so that I am positively and spiritually driven to do what I ought. God has graciously given me victories and patterns of obedience that have long eluded me till this bright light of what God has done (in justifying me and you) widens my eyes such that my former drudgery kind of obedience is turning into a deeply pleasurable obedience.

    That’s because I have decided to become an occupier.
    - not on Wall Street, but in the avenues of the Gospel.

    • Kristen

      Thanks for your reply. It really resonates with me as I have had a similar experience since I’ve read some of Elyse Fitzpatrick’s books and also am a regular reader of Tullian’s blog and listen quite regularly to his sermon podcasts. I’ve lived much of my Christian life in a “performance relationship” with the Lord and greatly identify with legalism. I knew the right things to do and did them most often begrudgingly, thinking God’s ways were exacting and He was a hard taskmaster. I regularly read my Bible, read many Christian books, but still felt like I had no joy and no love for God and began questioning my salvation. Since reading Elyse and Tullian, the Holy Spirit helped me to see that I had things backwards-I was basing God’s love for me on my performance (mostly my lack of performance). Somehow I had gotten the idea that I can please God and increase my favor with God when I obey. When I realized that my standing with God wasn’t based on my obedience-there was a new song in my heart, newfound joy and a new love for the Savior. When it really set in that even when I don’t obey, he loves me the same-it made me want to obey more because it made me love Him more. I love this quote from Spurgeon and it pretty much encapsulates so eloquently what I am trying to say: “While I regarded God as a tyrant I thought my sin a trifle; But when I knew Him to be my Father, then I mourned that I could ever have kicked against Him. When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.” C. H. Spurgeon

      God is not concerned with any kind of obedience-he wants a certain kind of obedience-the obedience that flows from love of Him. The best way I have found to achieve this is to meditate on the Gospel, it brings me to my knees, it reminds me of my sin and His love in spite of my sin. How could I not want to love and obey when I am reminded of His display of love in the Gospel!

      • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

        Kristen: I can see how Tullian’s writings helped you get beyond your own early and somewhat “faulty” Christian experience.

        • Kristen

          Interestingly enough, I’ve been a Christian for 22 years, it’s just been in the past 3-4 that God has really helped me to see my error. I’ve always been in very well taught churches that emphasize good doctrine and obedience to the word. In the 3 churches I have been members of over the past 20 some years, they have all been pastored by Master’s Sem. grads. My guess, looking back, is when I heard things like “you need to please God” or “you need to bring God glory” my sinful self saw it as a way of earning favor. I actually think it’s human tendency to do this, therefore I believe in a strong emphasis on the Gospel in the ministry of the Word. Yes, we need to please God and glorify Him, but it needs to be emphasized that our efforts bring no merit and our failures don’t change our standing before Him. Happy New Year! May we all grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ in 2012!

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Mark: Thanks for this beautiful testimony to God’s grace in your life. I believe you when you tell me how Tullian’s writings and sermons have been blessed to you. When I was writing my review, I deliberately avoided reading other people’s reviews/comments on Tullian’s writing and genuinely tried to take what he was writing as a fresh reader.

  • Pingback: Bethlehem Chapel » Book Review: Jesus plus Nothing equals Everything

  • Freddy

    I just want to say here that the analogy of your marriage was the game-winner. (Not that you’re out to “beat” Tullian in any way.) Well said.

  • Pingback: Healthy Pursuit of Holiness « Geoff Chapman

  • Pingback: Tullian keeps digging

  • Lisa

    Thank you, Dr. Murray, for all the clarification of Mr. Tchividjian’s writings. I am one of the ‘confused’ by him. As I read “Surprised by Grace” I was refreshed by his style and take on issues, but confused by a few paragraphs here and there and wondered where exactly he was coming from. Then I read “Glorious Ruin” in order to decide if it was a book I should purchase for our church library. I had a question mark floating above my head for a good deal of my reading of the book. I very much appreciate your intelligent deciphering of the theology in these books. I can tell by his manner of writing that Mr. Tchividjian’s writing is most extremely heartfelt, but I’m glad he has true friends who will gently correct him, and I’m also glad that so many people are willing to discuss these things on your blog with care and conviction. It’s all been very helpful. Thank you.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Glad to have been of some help Lisa.

  • Valerie

    Thank you for your blogs. I have been a believer for just over 8 years and just recently our church has been picking up this teaching. I have been touched by God’s grce through this teaching, but have also experienced many a flaming arrow. God has been faithful with me and His Spirit has been very active in my life – teaching, convicting, loving… and I have experienced the work of the Spirit and at times I have grieved His Spirit. I thank you for clearly supporting the whole of Scripture on sanctification and the work of the Spirit. I think this is a scary path for many luke-warm believers and leads to an unrealistic relationship with our maker. Your comments have been an encouragement to me.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Thanks Valerie. May God continue to lead us into His truth.

  • Pingback: Brief Book Notes: How Jesus Runs the Church and Jesus + Nothing = Everything - Joelws.com | Joelws.com

  • James

    Pastor Murray,

    I’ve recently come across your writings on this particular subject, and I very much appreciate your contributions here. I find both Tullian’s work and your commentary interesting as this is something I’ve been struggling to grasp as of late.

    There’s something that you wrote in the article above that I’m hoping you might be able to shed some more insight on. You mention, “God may withdraw the assurance and the daily experience of His Fatherly love because of my disobedience”.

    My question in response to that is, if I didn’t earn the experience of God’s love through my obedience, why would my disobedience cause God to withdraw my experience of it?

    If my obedience stems from my desire to keep the assurance and daily experience of God’s love and not from God Himself, what does that say about my motivation to obey?

    There are times when God disciplines us because of our lack of obedience (aka when we trust in anything other than Christ to provide for us), but that discipline itself is an expression of God’s Fatherly love, not His withdraw of our experience of it.

    Did God withdraw the experience of His love from the Exodus generation, when in their disobedience they failed to trust God to provide for them manna daily? No… He lovingly disciplined them for their disobedience.

    Regarding the commingling of justification and sanctification, what does Paul mean in Galatians 3:1-3, which states,”O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the flesh?”

    What Paul is stating here is that the grace that saved you
    is the same grace that sanctifies you.

    Finally, I don’t think that we can conclude that Tullian’s assertions lead us to abandon any physical effort on our part. On the contrary, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me”.

    I think that what Paul is communicating there is the notion that it’s God’s grace, working in and through him that caused him to “work harder than any of them.” God, through His indwelling Holy Spirit, produces and continues to produce obedience in and ‘good works’ through us.

    This is evidenced in Proverbs 3:5-6 which states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”

    I think that Tullian is asserting the same idea, here. Only when we fully submit to the Lordship of Christ and the promptings of His Holy Spirit (i.e. trust) will we fully experience the rest that is made available to us through the gospel. Only then will we truly desire work because our love for God compels us to, not because we want to earn the experience and assurance of His love.

    I apologize in advance for the lengthy comment; I would certainty appreciate your thoughts as this is something I’m obviously trying to work out.

    Again, Pastor Murray, I sincerely appreciate your contributions as they have been most helpful!

    God Bless!


    • David Murray

      James, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m just coming off the PRTS conference and starting a new semester next week. I will however try to reply within the next 7-10 days.