When D. James Kennedy fell asleep in Jesus, Coral Ridge Presbyterian found itself in a bind. A church with a massive building (dedicated by Billy Graham), Kennedy was their founding pastor and an icon of American Christianity. A leader like that is impossible to replace, but the longer Coral Ridge went without a pastor, the more their attendance dropped, and the more pressure there was to find someone who could follow Kennedy.
Meanwhile, only a few miles away, one of Billy Graham’s grandsons was pastoring a church plant with swelling numbers, and no building. In a match straight out of E-harmony, the elders from both churches realized that each congregation was incomplete. One had a building, the other had none. One was growing, the other not so much. One was famous, the other unknown. One had a pastor, the other was on the hunt. One was dedicated in the 1970’s by Graham, the other was pastored by his grandson. You don’t have to be a Calvinist to see how God was setting this up.
Eventually, Coral Ridge called Tullian Tchividjian to be their pastor, and the two churches merged. What happened next though, is not the stuff of fairy tales. To make a long story short, Coral Ridge seemed to revolt, and after a while the elders called a congregational vote to consider removing Tchividjian as their pastor. Before the vote, Tchividjian went away on vacation, and spent his vacation studying Colossians.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything is the story of Tchividjian and Coral Ridge, interwoven around a commentary of Colossians. At the center is the spiritual epiphany he experienced through his study of that book.
Before I explain my concerns with J+N=E, let me say this: I wish more Christian books were like it. Tullian takes a theological concept (J+N=E) that he derived directly out of a passage of scripture, and then shows how that concept affected his life while he was going through a severe trial. This is not simply a theology book, it is not just a commentary, and is not merely a book on pastoral ministry. Rather, he combines all three, and he does so in a way that does not water down his theological point. This is a book that pushes the reader deeper into a refined point of theology, and applies that point to sanctification in a real world example.
The thesis of J+N=E is that the only thing required for your sanctification is to think more about what Jesus has done. That’s it. Jesus, plus Nothing, equals Everything for your sanctification.
But I don’t buy that approach to sanctification. I appreciate that Tchividjian clearly described what train he was on, and shows how it gets to his destination, but at the end of the day, I did not buy the ticket, and I’m not taking the ride. I believe that in Christ we are supposed to fight, labor, battle, walk, and work—and that all these efforts are more than looking back to Christ, but they are the active obedience to the commands of Scripture. I believe salvation is monergistic (it is only God’s work), but that sanctification is synergistic, and that God will reward me for how I do my work. This is an actual theological disagreement with J+N=E, and it affects the core message of the book, so in that respect I read the book entirely though that lens.
Law/Gospel and sanctification:
This book represents some of my objections to the way the Law/Gospel hermeneutic is often used. When Tchividjian wrote things like: “The law shows us what to do, the gospel announces what has been done” (188), I read into that the Law/Gospel distinction (see also 49, 154, 187, 192). When he explained why the Ten Commandments are different than the rest of the Mosaic Law because they are God’s moral law, which is the same law seen in Col 3:17-ff, I noted my objection. But then he went on to explain that the commands in Colossians 3-4 lack the power to sanctify your life because they are Law (188, 192), and I freaked out. When he said basically that it’s ok that those commands can’t sanctify, because sanctification-wise there is “nothing left to do” anyway (137), I threw the book at my cat.
I have read J+N=E twice now, and I still can’t get my mind around how the Law/Gospel distinction affects how believers are supposed to apply God’s commands. Tchividjian states over and over that Colossians (like Ephesians and Romans) is split between Gospel/Law, or indicatives/imperatives. For this reason, they all begin with what Christ has done for us, and only then do they tell us what we are to do in response. I completely agree with that, and wholeheartedly embrace this truth. Knowing what Jesus did for us is the fuel of our sanctification.
But then the N comes in (J+N=E). What he means by nothing is that the sum total of our sanctification has already been accomplished in Jesus. Thus the key for sanctification is to focus on the gospel (or the indicatives), and the more you focus there, the more sanctified you will be. You do Nothing except remember the first half of Colossians (or Ephesians or Romans), which is all about Jesus. That gives you Everything. Thus: Jesus (the first half of Col) plus Nothing (don’t do anything except remember the truths in 1:1-3:16) gives you Everything in terms of sanctification.
This leads to Tchividjian’s definition of sanctification: “sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification” (95). He says that we grow in our practical sanctification only by growing to a “deeper understanding” of our positional sanctification (94). Or this: “Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died, and in Christ we have been raised” (117). So when he finally wrote, “Sanctification is the hard work of giving up our efforts at self-justification” (172), I understood him to mean that fighting battles against sin are tantamount to trying to earn your own justification—as if we should give up repenting to focus on remembering (179). But the problem with that is a logical one: how do you tell some one to repent of repenting?
The whole time I’m reading the book—and I got to this point pretty early on—I was asking myself, “ok, so what is he going to do with Col 3:17-4:6? I mean there is more to Colossians than the first half. What’s going to happen when he gets to the places where Paul tells us to be sanctified by actually fighting sin?” And wouldn’t you know it: other than explaining why those passages are powerless to sanctify you, he doesn’t deal with them. You really do need to look at his Scripture index to believe me: he deals with almost every single verse in Colossians, except the ones that have imperatives in them.
I’m not implying that Tchividjian is antinomian; he does say we have to obey (152-53), but I was left asking “how? How are children supposed to honor their parents? By thinking more about the gospel? Is that what Paul meant?” I felt like the main equation he was working with was J+N=The Commands Of Colossians Don’t Matter, and I think this shows a real weakness of the Law/Gospel hermeneutic (which I brought up yesterday).
Not to be overshadowed
I want to make it clear that while I have reservations about sections of this book, there was much of it that is extremely helpful. Like I wrote above, Colossians 3:18-4:7 does flow out of what Jesus has already done. Because of the truth of the gospel, we are freed to obey. At the heart of biblical obedience is a love for the Lord and a love for his law. Both of those are given to us by the Spirit at salvation, and as we grow in our understanding of the word, we can’t help but grow in our love for it.
Earlier I said that the main point of J+N=E was an approach to sanctification that I do not completely agree with. But if I can zoom out a little further, I think there is a main point that Tchividjian and I do agree on. Your sanctification cannot surpass your theology. Both of us would agree that if you want to grow more like Jesus, you need to grow in your knowledge of his word.
And this book does that. By drawing out the connection between the imperatives and the indicatives in Colossians, Tchividjian makes it clear that if you want to obey Christ, you need to love him, and the only way to love him is to find him in his word.