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The danger of making our experience the norm for others

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)

Inevitable sanctification?
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?

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The Cutest Deadliest Fight in All of History
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Does Jesus + Nothing = Everything?

Great title (wish I’d thought of it).

Great writer (wish I had Tullian’s talent).

Great quotables (wish I could remember them all).

But also great confusion (and I really wish I didn’t have to say that).

I benefitted from reading Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Tullian Tchividjian writes beautifully about Christ’s sufficiency, and is especially skillful at exposing legalism and explaining justification. Each time I read the book, I was brought to a new love for Christ and a new appropriation of and appreciation for justification.

Tullian also models how to apply the Gospel to very painful life situations, not just to the beginning of spiritual life but to all of life. He’s amazingly honest about his own character flaws and personal failings, but that does allow him to demonstrate the way the Gospel relates to his life and transforms it. I hope I can model that transparency a bit better in my own life and ministry. It probably comes easier to a surfer than a Scot!

I also benefitted from Tullian’s emphasis on the need to found sanctification on justification, the need to base daily growth on the daily preaching of the Gospel to oneself. Too often we separate these, and I’ve been guilty of this at times as well.

So, thank you Tullian. These are not small achievements. You’ve done the church a great service.

And let me say that I also love Tullian’s enthusiasm for Christ. Although I will express some concerns about this book, I do believe that most people who read the book will catch Tullian’s infectious Gospel enthusiasm and be the better for it. I know I did and am.

However, I’m concerned about three confusions at the heart of Tullian’s book.

  • The confusion between justification and sanctification
  • The confusion between personal experience and universal experience
  • The confusion between standing with God and enjoyment of God

I’ll deal with the first confusion today and the others in the next couple of days.

I do believe there is a fundamental confusion in this book between justification and sanctification. More specifically, the confusion is between justification and the outworkings of sanctification (not the basis or beginnings of it).

I doubt anyone could do a better job of explaining justification and its benefits as Tullian. Also, as I’ve said above, Tullian is very clear on the need to found or base sanctification on justification. Instead of beginning with “I resolve…” we must begin by igniting the rocket fuel of justification.

However, it’s when Tullian lifts off the rocket launcher and into the realm of what sanctification looks like in ordinary everyday life that confusion begins to arise.

Maybe I can sum up my concerns by highlighting a phrase in the Shorter Catechism’s unrivalled definition of sanctification (which I would imagine Tullian’s church also adheres to).

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man, after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

The work of God’s free grace in us enables us to die to sin and live to righteousness. In contrast to justification, which is accomplished for us with no reference to what we’ve done or not done, sanctification involves our not doing certain things and doing certain things, all by God’s enabling grace.

The problem in Tullian’s book is that he keeps sliding from sanctification to justification. For example, here he is writing about a wrong view of sanctification, but ends up saying things that are only true about justification.

I used to think that growing as a Christian meant I had to somehow go out and obtain the qualities and attitudes I was lacking. To really mature, I needed to find a way to get more joy, more patience, more faithfulness, and so on. Then I came to the shattering realization that this isn’t what the Bible teaches, and it isn’t the gospel. What the Bible teaches is that we mature as we come to a greater realization of what we already have in Christ. The gospel, in fact, transforms us precisely because it’s not itself a message about our internal transformation but about Christ’s external substitution. We desperately need an advocate, mediator, and friend. But what we need most is a substitute—someone who has done for us and secured for us what we could never do and secure for ourselves. (94, Kindle Edition)

I agree that the Gospel is certainly a message about Christ’s external substitution. But it does not stop there. The Gospel is also a message about internal transformation (a major part of sanctification). Christ saves us from our sins objectively and subjectively, from the penalty of sin and the presence of sin.

In this next excerpt, Tullian says that Christian growth (sanctification) is looking away from self and looking to Jesus and His performance for us. But is that the whole of sanctification? It’s certainly the essence of justifying faith, and the beginning of sanctifying growth. But it’s not the whole of growth, it’s not the sum of sanctification.

The hard work of Christian growth, therefore, is to think less of ourselves and our performance and more of Jesus and his performance for us. Ironically, when we focus mostly on our need to get better, we actually get worse. We become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our effort instead of with God’s effort for us makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective. (95)

In this next paragraph, the confusing overlapping is even more obvious:

Again, think of it this way: sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification. It’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day. (95)

If all he is saying is that sanctification begins with our appropriating justification, and is fueled by it, then yes, I agree. But I think he’s going further than that, by suggesting that the totality of sanctification involves going back to our justification. This seems to be confirmed by what he writes in the same context:

Think of what Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” 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? He goes on to explain: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13). 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. And so it is that we move further into the gospel, into a deeper, bigger, brighter understanding of all that God has already achieved for us in Christ. (95-96)

Is it correct to say that the “work” that we are called to, and that results from God’s work in us, is simply understanding more, believing more, trusting more? Sure, this is the core of justification, and the foundation and cement of sanctification. But it’s not the whole of sanctification. It’s not every brick of it.

Here are some further quotes that only heightened my anxiety about Tullian’s emphasis:

Growth in the Christian life is the process of receiving Christ’s “It is finished” into new and deeper parts of our being every day, and it happens as the Holy Spirit daily carries God’s good word of justification into our regions of unbelief—what one writer calls our “unevangelized territories.” (78)

In this definition of growth (sanctification), where is the “being enabled to die to sin, and live to righteousness” as described by the Westminster Catechism? Where is the doing and not doing?

I like to remind myself and others that the only thing you contribute to your salvation and to your sanctification is the sin that makes them necessary. (104)

Contribution to salvation = nil! Yes. Contribution to sanctification = nil! No. We are enabled to die to sin and live to righteousness. We are enabled to do and not do. Our (enabled) doing and not doing is part of our sanctification. For example, when Peter protested his love to Jesus, Jesus told him to start feeding his lambs, which involved stopping doing one thing and starting to do another (John 21).

He urgently wants them to see that we’re justified by grace alone, we’re sanctified by grace alone, and we’re glorified by grace alone. (104)

Again, there is a failure to distinguish what “by grace alone” means in each of these doctrinal categories. In justification, by grace alone means we do nothing. In sanctification, it means we are enabled to do/not do many things.

As G. C. Berkouwer wisely remarked, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.” (190)

Yes, the heart of sanctification, but not the whole body of it. In this next quote the heart of sanctification, a good grasp of justification, is again made to stand for the whole of it:

Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died and in Christ we have been raised. Life change happens as the heart daily grasps death and life. Daily reformation is the fruit of daily resurrection. (117)

This quote begins to highlight why my concerns are not merely theoretical. Tomorrow I hope to show that this view of sanctification results in an unusual mix of internal activity and external passivity. There’s huge internal activity involving more understanding and more faith, but virtually nothing about dying to sin and living to righteousness outwardly. Tullian seems to assume that if you put the fuel of justification in the tank, outward sanctification takes place automatically (e.g. “Life change happens as the heart daily grasps death and life.”) However, as I hope to show tomorrow, you still have to put your foot on the pedal, your hand on the wheel, and begin to expend some energy to make any spiritual progress.

There are other places in the book where Tullian is much clearer and much more consistent with historic Christian definitions of sanctification. Chapter 10 is probably the best chapter in this regard. But I don’t think you can make up for confusion in such important matters in the majority of the book, by returning to a more accurate explanation in one chapter of it, and in a few other places scattered here and there.

I fear Tullian’s commendable desire to re-connect sanctification with justification (a very necessary message) has led him to conflate them, and identify the one with the other. But maybe he’s also fallen into this mistake by making his own experience a rule for others, something we’ll consider tomorrow.

In summary, though, does Jesus + Nothing = Everything? Yes and no. In justification, yes. In sanctification, no. And if you want to say “yes” to both, you’re going to have to go to great lengths to successfully explain why the sanctification “yes” is not identical to the justification “yes.”

I know Tullian’s worthy aim is to exalt justification by making it a vital part of daily sanctification. But by confusing justification with sanctification, we not only risk losing the fulness of sanctification, in the long run I’m afraid that we we may lose the doctrine of justification too.

In the meantime, if you want some clarity on the relationship between justification and sanctification, may I recommend J C Ryle’s opening chapters in Holiness (see especially numbers 1 & 2 in Ryle’s Introduction and the differences between justification and sanctification in Chapter 2).  You may also want to read Tim Challies’ summaries of John Owen’s teaching on the Mortification of sin.

All page numbers are from the Kindle Edition of the book.

Part 2: The danger of making our experience the norm for others
Part 3: Does Jesus respond to our obedience with love

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Children’s Bible Reading Plan (58)

This week’s morning and evening reading plan in Word and pdf.

This week’s single reading plan for morning or evening in Word and pdf.

The first 12 months of the children’s Morning and Evening Bible reading plan in Word and pdf.

The first 6 months of the Morning or Evening Bible reading plan in pdf.

And here’s an explanation of the plan.