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?

  • Foppe VanderZwaag

    Dear David, I haven’t read the book, and I agree with your evaluation, but I do have a question. Is perhaps Tullian emphasizing justification as our motivation for holy living? The more I truly believe I am justified (my sins forgiven), the more I am inspired and enabled to joyously and zealously to be sanctified (willing to die to self). I often feel so paralyzed when I don’t have (feel) that assurance. I realize it can be interpreted wrongfully to say as he does, “The gospel liberates us to be okay with not being okay.” And, “Christian growth is forgetting about yourself!” On the other hand I know that I do best in ministry at those moments when I don’t think about myself but about Christ and the person I minister to. Because often when I think about myself when it goes well, pride comes in; when it doesn’t, despair is close. I know I should not sin, and desire not to. It’s my ideal but not (yet) my real life. That’s why I behold the Lamb of God not only to receive grace to be forgiven but also continue to do so to both motivated and enabled to forsake sin. Is there such a thing as holy ‘self-forgetfulness’?

    • David Murray

      Thanks Foppe: if all Tullian was doing was emphasizing justification as a motivation for holy living, then I’d be fine with that (although I think there are many more biblical motivations than just that).
      My concern is that he seems to make (and I believe it is unintentional) a greater grasping of our justification the sum total of sanctification, or at least the “automatic” cause of our sanctification. The quotes, I believe, demonstrate that he does not see much more involved in everybody’s sanctification than returning to our justification. However, and I want to keep emphasizing this, I 100% agree with his passionate desire to re-connect sanctification with justification. That’s been a huge help to me since I read the book, and hardly a day now goes by without me being blessed by that message. I just don’t think we need to overstate the case to make the case.

      • Foppe VanderZwaag

        Thank you for your reply, David. I will have to read the book myself. When I mentioned going back to our justification for motivation in sanctification I actually meant going back to Christ Himself being all and in all. I still wonder about holy self-forgetfulness and the blog Tullian wrote about this (see the link to it in his reply to you). Didn’t see it till after I wrote to you. Had been thinking about that for quite a while already. Particularly in the context of Matthew 25:34-40. “Lord, when saw we thee hungry and fed thee…?” Etc.

  • Jason Van Bemmel

    You sound sadly too much like me- idolatrouly seeking the praise of men, prone to laziness and yet addicted to work and finding identity and worth in it rather than in Christ. I thought I was the only one who had that messed-up combination of sins. I’ll pray for you!

    • David Murray

      Thanks for your prayers, Jason. I need them!

  • Daniel

    Thank you for the helpful post concerning this subject. From only reading these blogpost, It seems to me that Tullians emphasis to rest in Christ finished work with all our heart and soul (which is the essential fuel for sanctification) lacks the imperative to love God with all our might or strength. He zooms in, rightly, on that which is the foundation for our good works, yet there seems to be more pieces of the puzzle when viewing the whole of our sanctification, i.e. our working it out with all our might. The “relax, it’s all been finished,” attitude, is what it means to be justified as Paul says in Romans 4:5, but if we impute this same definition to sanctification (in it’s entirety), we misrepresent what Paul says in Phillipians 2:13-14.

    I am very grateful for Tullians ministry, and I read almost every blog he post on the gospel coalition! His enthusiasm and passion for the gospel has awakened me greatly in my affections for Christ. I will continue to pray and consider these very important matters.


  • Les

    This is why I prefer Puritan authors over modern authors. They remain anonymous when they write about weighty, relevant spiritual matters like justification and struggling with sanctification. Today’s authors always seem to share much I guess so they can relate to modern readers but the overall effect is to turn a book into an autobiography of sorts. I never knew that John Owen lost all eleven of his children because he never mentions it in his writings as far as I know but I do know from reading his work that he has suffered greatly because his counsel is marked by it.

    • David Murray

      Interesting point about the Puritans, Les. I never thought about that before. However, I think there can be a place for introducing some of our spiritual biography into our teaching, as long as we don’t do too much of it and as long as we make clear that we are not making ourselves the norm. I actually felt that some of the biographical elements in Tullian’s book gave what he was teaching extra power and force. I like to see someone trying to relate the Gospel to their lives.

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  • Warren

    Dr. Murray,

    Do you see the fear of actually not being justified as an impetus to the effort required in sanctification?

    Perhaps, what Tullian is suggesting is that the gratitude that is produced by constantly having before us the reality of our justification is the “drive train” of the work that is involved in sanctification.

    Is the fear of not being justified a valid motivator to holiness? I remember reading a blog by Dr. William Evans which might have suggested such.

    • David Murray

      Warren: I agree with the idea of justification being the drive train of our sanctification. But there are also other “models” of salvation that are equally motivational (e.g. bought with a price, therefore glorify God with your body…).

      I’ve never thought of the fear of not being justified being an impetus to the effort required in sanctification. I think I’d be hesitant to go down that route. It seems to get things the wrong way round and opens the door wide to legalism. But I’d need to read Evans on it before dismissing it.

      • Warren

        Dr. Murray,

        Allow me to direct you to the blog post:

        Coincidentally, Tullian was also the topic of the discussion.

        Dr. Evans states:

        “Furthermore, it is unconvincing to suggest that Paul does not use the expectations and sanctions of the law as a motive for sanctification. More than once the Apostle provides extensive vice lists of behavior forbidden by the law of God, adding that those who behave thus “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-5). That sounds like motivation to me! Furthermore, even in that most “gospelish” of epistles, the letter to the Galatians, Paul underscores the obligation of the believer to fulfill the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2), and later in the same chapter he speaks of God punishing the wicked and rewarding those who walk according to the Spirit (Galatians 6:6-10). Again, this sounds like motivation to me! And even though Tchividjian affirms the “third use of the law” (the law of God as a guide for the life of the Christian), we may legitimately ask whether there is any real room in his thinking for it.”

        Here, unlike your emphasis on the motivation to obedience as predicated upon the maintenance of the subjective enjoyment of God’s fellowship, Evans seems to be saying that one must obey the Law because, in the end, you might not inherit the Kingdom of God after all if you don’t.

        Your thoughts are coveted.

  • Wayne

    David, I am enjoying your blog. It is down-to-earth and easy to follow, but could you clarify what you mean by “And if I can hold on to my justification as I break my back, then that’s a bonus”? I think I understand, but I want to be sure.

    • David Murray

      Sorry, Wayne, that was a bit obscure wasn’t it. What I was trying to say was: “If I can keeping thinking on and delighting in my justification while I exert myself in snow-clearing, then that would be the best of all worlds.” Unfortunately, as I’m not great at multi-tasking or multi-thinking, I will probably be thinking mainly about getting the path cleared! Hope that helps.

  • Brent

    David, great post. I am greatly burdened by the fact the nobody seems to care about personal holiness.

    There is definitely a link between justification and sanctification:

    If I truly understood my justification, I would wholly commit myself to my sanctification.

    Knowing what Christ did for me, how can I live a life where I tolerate my sin? It’s like having diplomatic immunity and exploiting it instead of bringing honor to my home country by my conduct.

    • David Murray

      Thanks Brent. In Tullian’s defense, I believe he would say that he does care about personal holiness. However, we seem to differ on the route to it, and I believe that will impact the attainment of it. I like your illustration!

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  • Mike

    Well I would have to disagree on one main point here, namely that doing things produces sanctification. Doing things is the result of sanctification. We always ought to look at whether people are doing those things that heart change produces as a barometer because it’s all we can see and it’s very diagnostic in a Luke 6:43-45 kind of way.

    “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. ”

    IMHO this paragraph is quite misguided. First of all, this person’s besetting sin is not laziness. Laziness is a product of his besetting sin which is self love. He is lazy because he loves himself too much to expose himself to the cold and sweat of shoveling the snow. The problem is not with his inertia but his affections.

    All real change in behavior begins with and is fueled by a change of affections. This is why Psalm 16:11 is so helpful in counseling. If the church really believed this one verse it would spur more change than all the moralistic “snow shoveling because I know I should even though I don’t want to because I love myself more than I love God or my family” that a behavioristic view of sanctification can produce.

    • David Murray

      Some good points, Mike. But I think by overstating your case, you make yourself wiser than the book of Proverbs take on laziness.

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