Yesterday, while expressing admiration and appreciation for many parts of Tullian Tchividjian’s recent book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, I highlighted a number of places in which I felt that he had confused justification and sanctification (please see Tullian’s helpful comments at the end of that post).
I ended by expressing the concern that perhaps he had ended up doing this by confusing his own personal experience with everyone else’s experience. In other words, I’m afraid that he may have erred by making his own experience a norm for every Christian, something that we’re all liable to do at times.
I’m not engaging in psycho-analysis here, as Tullian puts a lot of personal biography into this book; in some ways it’s what gives the book so much of its energy and appeal. But, it does lead him, I fear, into the trap of mistakenly extrapolating certain general truths from his own personal experience.
Addiction to human praise
Tullian is crystal clear about his besetting sin – the idolatrous desire for human approval and acceptance, his addiction to being liked and praised by men (e.g. pp. 22, 26, 41, 73, 74, etc.). It’s a sin many pastors can identify with, myself included. It’s in this area that the book helped me most, and continues to help me on a daily basis.
If that is our particular besetting sin, then our primary area of sanctification, of Christian growth and maturity, is going to be understanding our identity in Christ and putting our trust in Christ, rather than finding our identity in human praise and acceptance.
That’s not going to be just our way of being justified, or just the beginning of our sanctification; it’s also going to be a very large part of our ongoing day-by-day sanctification. Our days will be marked by a massive and constant internal battle: to die to the sins of pleasing man and of striving for human praise on the one hand, and to rest in our Christ-bought identity and live for the glory of God alone on the other hand. But just because the primary spiritual battle for people like Tullian and I may be internal, and focused on our identity in Christ, does not mean that it’s going to be the same for other Christians.
For example, if one of my besetting sins is laziness (no ifs about it), then yes, I will need to begin with faith in Christ, union with Christ, and my identity as justified in Christ. But I also need to get off the couch, put on my boots, pick up the shovel, and start moving the snow. It’s going to involve effort, movement, and pain. There’s some doing and not doing to be done. There’s an external, physical, and muscular dimension to my sanctification. And if I can consciously hold on to my justification as I break my back, then that’s a bonus.
For Tullian, sanctification will usually look more like the invisible internal struggle that he describes on pages 168-169:
I’m not saying the Christian life is effortless; the real question is where are we focusing our efforts? Are we working hard to perform? Or are we working hard to rest in Christ’s performance for us? (168-169, Kindle Edition)
Or, if my besetting sin is an addiction to work (yes, guilty of that too – I’m complicated), of course a large part of my sanctification is going to be finding rest in Christ, locating my identity in Him, not in my work, etc. But I also have to turn off the computer at 5pm, leave the office, get in the car, go home, leave my phone in my coat, refuse to turn on my computer again, get out the basketball, sweat it on the driveway with my sons, sit down on the sofa with my wife, and open my ears and mouth, etc. There’s a lot of doing and not doing to be done for sanctification to take place. The hard work involves more than resting in Christ’s performance for me. Again, there is a significant physical effort and struggle involved in my choices.
For Tullian, his sanctification will usually look more like the inner soul-struggle of pages 171-172:
… I now understand that Christian growth does not happen by working hard to get something we don’t have. Rather, Christian growth happens by working hard to daily swim in the reality of what we do have. Believing again and again the gospel of God’s free justifying grace every day—and resting in his verdict—is the hard work we’re called to…I think of it this way: the hard work of Christian growth consists primarily in being daily grasped by the fact that God’s love for us isn’t conditioned by anything we do or don’t do. Sanctification is the hard work of giving up our efforts at self-justification. (171-172)
This paragraph also illustrates what I hinted at yesterday – the rather passive view that sanctification somehow automatically flows from apprehending our justification. In a number of places Tullian seems to suggest that as we grasp justification, we will somehow instantaneously and automatically get holy.
When we stop narcissistically focusing on our need to get better, that is what it means to get better! When we stop obsessing over our need to improve, that is what it means to improve!….Christian growth is forgetting about yourself! (174-175)
That “spontaneous” and “involuntary” view of sanctification is actually even more explicit in this paragraph:
So, by all means work! But the hard work is not what you think it is—your personal improvement and moral progress. The hard work is washing your hands of you and resting in Christ’s finished work for you, which will inevitably produce personal improvement and moral progress. (175)
Inevitably? Well it might be if my main problem is thinking too little of Christ and too much of self; any reversal of that is progress. But what if my main problem is being over-critical, or being bad-tempered, or being addicted to pornography? Is there not more hard work there than turning from self and resting in Christ?
The same “passivity” seems to be encouraged in the following quotes:
Lasting behavioral change happens as you grow in your understanding of the gospel, and then as you learn to receive and rest in—at your point of deepest need—everything Jesus secured for you. (179)
It takes the loving act of our Christian brothers and sisters to remind us every day of the gospel—that everything we need, and everything we look for in things smaller than Jesus, is already ours “in Christ.” When we do this, the “good stuff” rises to the top. (182)
Does behavioral just “happen” as you believe more? Does the “good stuff” just “rise to the top” as we look to Christ?
Relax and rejoice?
Maybe we should just relax and rejoice and wait until we get better then. Is that going too far? Not according to Tullian:
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.” (120)
The bottom line is this, Christian: because of Christ’s work on your behalf, God doesn’t dwell on your sin the way you do. So, relax, and rejoice, and you’ll actually start to get better. The irony, of course, is that it’s only when we stop obsessing over our own need to be holy and focus instead on the beauty of Christ’s holiness that we actually become more holy! (184)
At times Tullian seems to realize that he’s gone too far and rows back with some qualifying statements:
To be sure, we’re called to “mortify the flesh,” “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” “cut off our hand,” and “gouge out our eye” if they cause us to sin—and we need the help of other people to get this done. Sanctification is a community project. (181)
But then after this brief concession, which seems more like an afterthought or a “by the way,” the confusing conflation of sanctification and justification returns again.
We’re justified—and sanctified—by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. (181)
I rejoice in Tullian’s wonderful testimony as to how a new grasp of the doctrine of justification helped him through a terrible crisis in his life, and massively advanced his sanctification. His transparent sharing of that experience has helped my own sanctification as well. However, I do think he errs by implying that his very special personal experience of sanctification is the sum and substance of everybody else’s experience.
Tomorrow I will look at the third confusion in the book, that of equating standing with God and enjoyment of God.
All page numbers are from the Kindle Edition of the book.
Part 3: Does Jesus respond to our obedience with his love?