Jesus + Nothing = Everything?
At the heart of the Antinomian crisis in the seventeenth century was the debate over the terms, and relationship between, the law and the gospel. Affirming a law-gospel contrast does not make one orthodox any more than affirming grace in salvation makes one Reformed. Arminians, Roman Catholics, and Reformed theologians all insist that we are saved by grace. It is what you do with those categories and how you relate them to each other, as well as how you define each category, that makes you Reformed or something else. In the seventeenth century the Antinomians had a powerful weapon in their arsenal, which has great rhetorical force even in today’s climate, namely, the idea of positioning oneself as a defender of “free grace.” The debate was not so much about the necessity of grace for holiness, but the fact that certain orthodox truths were either softened or outright denied. Moreover, the indicative-imperative model was generally agreed upon, but what was not so obvious to some was the force or necessity of the imperatives. So, for example, are good works the way of life or also the way to life? Tobias Crisp affirmed the former but denied the latter whereas the Westminster divines and Reformed orthodoxy in general held to the view that good works were both the way of life and the way to life (see WLC 32). In other words, good works are necessary for salvation, but not for justification.
In England there were theologians who constantly sounded the drum of “grace, grace, grace”, but they were nonetheless viewed as either suspicious or downright in serious error according to a number of Reformed theologians. In fact, a close reading of the Westminster documents shows that the Antinomian threat was viewed with as much, if not more, seriousness by the divines than Arminianism and Roman Catholicism. Unsurprisingly, Antinomian theologians accused their critics of Arminian, neonomian, or popish tendencies (i.e., legalism).
Even today similar rhetoric abounds; not only the strong language used to denounce others, but the types of theologies that were advanced during the seventeenth century. One present-day example that highlights the issue well is Tullian Tchividjian’s book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, which is a sort of spiritual biography that relates a massive shift in his thinking that took place as his church merged with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida in 2009. The change in his thinking has led him to formulate a theology that in my view has affinities with Lutheranism and the seventeenth-century English Antinomians.
Grace + Anything = Legalism
In the first place, the rhetoric of the book warrants discussion. In Tullian’s view, “a lot of preaching these days has been unwittingly, unconsciously seduced by moralism” (49). He adds that “So many contemporary sermons strengthen this slavery to self. ‘Do more, try harder’ is the constant refrain.” In fact, “Many sermons today provide nothing more than a ‘to do’ list” … “It’s all law (what we must do) and no gospel (what Jesus has done)” (49). These are, of course, strong accusations and perhaps they are true, but they seem to me to be comments that are easily made, but not quite so easily proved. As a minister, I spend the vast majority of my Sundays in my own pulpit and would be unable to make such a comment even about the city of Vancouver, much less the North American context. This brings me to a further concern about the general tone of the book, namely, that if ministers are not preaching the type of theology prescribed in this book they are inevitably legalistic to some degree. Indeed, the threat of legalism surfaces again and again throughout the book, so much so that it is the one primary threat to true gospel-centered Christianity: “I believe it’s more theologically accurate to say that there is one primary enemy of the gospel – legalism – but it comes in two forms” (50). Of course, one could easily respond and say that “Antinomianism” is the only threat to the gospel because all sin – whether refusing to believe the gospel or murdering someone – is against God’s law. Why are preachers legalistic? Because “moralistic preaching is stimulated by a fear of the scandalous freedom that gospel grace promotes and promises” (50, emphasis mine). Tullian argues that preachers fear that focusing on grace will cause people to abuse it, so instead they feel the need to “throw some law in there, to help make sure Christian people walk the straight and narrow” (50, emphasis mine). So throwing in “some law” is a bad thing in preaching? What are we to make of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation or the Sermon on the Mount?
+ > /
In reacting to perceived deficiencies in present-day preaching and theologizing, Tullian has placed himself in a position where it appears to be “either/or” instead of “both/and”. In his online interview with Ed Stetzer (part 2) he makes the argument, advanced by the Lutheran theologian, Gerhard O. Forde, “that sanctification is simply getting used to your justification–it’s receiving Christ’s words ‘It is finished’ into our rebellious regions of unbelief.” This theme recurs throughout the book. Thus “sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification” (95). This seems to impact his exegesis of Philippians 2:12-13. Verse 12 tells us that “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?” According to Tullian, “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” (96). I fail to see how Philippians 2:12-13 can be interpreted in that light, particularly since Paul exhorts believers to work out their salvation with “fear and trembling”. In Tullian’s manner of speaking, quietism (or, interior passivity) seems to be the chief characteristic of the Christian life whereby believers engage in mental appropriation of Christ’s finished work. But Reformed theology has never painted the Christian life in quite that way. Sanctification is not “simply” getting used to our justification. It certainly involves that, but the Scriptures are clear that there are other motives for holiness. Gratitude is not the only motivator; rather, for important ontological reasons, we must obey because of who we are and who God is (e.g., 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Peter 1:15, 17; 1 Jn. 3:3). Here is where Reformed theology has stressed the “both/and” to the Christian life when it comes to sanctification. John Owen’s exposition of Romans 8:13, for example, paints a very different picture of the sanctified life than the one found in Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Other examples of the “either/or” fallacy come up when he argues that “It is always the gospel of God’s free grace that should motivate our right doing; otherwise we are nothing better than Pharisees” (153). But this is wrong. The Antinomians argued that a man is under law, and not under grace, when he obeys the law as law, and obeys in light of not only its promises but also its threats. But the divines disagreed with this view (see WCF 19.6).
Justification + Nothing = Gospel?
In the book Tullian makes the point frequently that he came to understand that the gospel is not just for unbelievers but also for believers. If we make the gospel essentially synonymous with justification then I can see why this was such a breakthrough for Tullian. But this leads to a great deal of confusion, particularly since he seems to understand “Christ for us” as essentially synonymous with justification. For example, in referring to the “glorious exchange” (2 Cor. 5:21), he writes: “That’s the gospel” (84-85). And later he posits that “The gospel, in fact, transforms us precisely because it’s not itself a message about our internal transformation but about Christ’s external substitution” (94). What concerns me in the debate over the relationship between justification and sanctification is not so much the logical or temporal priority given to justification, but the view, espoused by Tullian, whereby sanctification is essentially swallowed up by justification because, to repeat, “sanctification is simply the art of getting used to justification” (see also p. 172). In my view, the gospel is not synonymous with justification. Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures, which includes the guilt (Rom. 5; justification) and power (Rom. 6; sanctification) of sin. It seems that many associate “for our sins” exclusively with the guilt of our sin; but the Scriptures are clear that “for our sins” cannot be reduced to simply the guilt of our sin; the good news is that not only the guilt, but the enslaving power of my sin has been dealt with by Christ and the Spirit. Therefore, the gospel is not simply Christ for us, but also Christ in us. Redemption (the gospel) must have application or it is not redemption. While a major part of our sanctification includes looking to Christ for us, an equally important aspect of our sanctification involves Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). Tullian exhorts us to look outside of ourselves to Christ’s finished work, but we also need to know that Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:16-17), which necessarily means that our identity shapes us in our sanctification. Indeed, contrary to Tullian’s view that sanctification feeds off justification and not vice versa, there are theologically and pastorally sensitive ways to explain how our assurance of justification may feed on sanctification. His view of sanctification – looking to justification – won’t allow for that, however.
Law ≠ Gospel & Gospel = Law
The section on the law and the gospel in the book evinces a problem with certain versions of the law-gospel antithesis, especially when this antithesis is read into the Christian life and not just simply justification. Tullian notes that the law is good, but we are not. Therefore, “Paul, as a believer in Christ, has allowed the law to continue driving him to the gospel. And that’s what we’re to do as well” (188). In my view, Paul sometimes speaks negatively of the Torah; he shows its impotence apart from the Spirit to give the life it promises. Some versions of the law-gospel antithesis seem make a mess of Paul’s own antitheses. For example, in Romans 7 the law is placed on the “Spirit” (not the “flesh”) side of the Spirit-flesh antithesis. Sin leads to condemnation because the law exposes us as sinners. But in chapter 8 the law becomes a liberating, not condemning, power because of the Spirit. I would also note that Paul often does not place “law” on the expected side of the antithesis. It is interesting that in 1 Corinthians 7:19 Paul does not say, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but believing the gospel.” Rather, what counts, in that particular context, is “keeping God’s commandments”. The law in the New Covenant becomes a quickening power that, by the Spirit, sets us free from sin and death (Rom. 8:1-4). The Puritan, Anthony Burgess, noted that the law acts as means of grace, not simply to drive us to Christ for justification, but to make us like Christ in sanctification. Therefore, the antithesis between the law and the gospel is not an end in itself; it only entered because of sin. Instead, the gospel has in view removing the absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer because in Christ the law is my friend because God is my friend (Ps. 119). In essence, my concern has to do with the fact that a number of biblical passages are read in a manner where people automatically assume that the text is driving us to Christ for justification when in fact the text is saying nothing of the sort (e.g., Matt. 5:20, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”).
Historically speaking, the difference between the law and the gospel is not a distinction between demanding and forbidding, which was an Antinomian position, but rather a difference between the kinds of acts that are demanded. The law demands perfect works whereas the gospel demands faith, repentance and sincere – albeit imperfect – obedience. Faith is an antecedent condition whereas gospel obedience is a consequent condition. Samuel Rutherford, likewise, argued against the Antinomians, who posited that the gospel only persuades, by insisting that the gospel persuades and commands, and with a stronger force than the law does! In the law and the gospel there is not an oppositio contradictionis (the Antinomian view) but an oppositio contrareitatis. In fact, as Reformed divines noted, in sanctification the law and the gospel “sweetly comply” (WCF 19.7).
Love + Love = Love
I recognize that the book is not a formal theological treatise, but when dealing with such sensitive topics it seems to me that one needs to be careful with the rhetoric that is used, especially when certain Reformed truths are denied. One area where I think a good theological distinction would have helped, if not changed his view, is Tullian’s belief that “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). The distinction between amor benevolentiæ and amor complacentiæ, used by almost all of the Reformed orthodox, explains how God loves us unconditionally in Christ, apart from works, and conditionally in Christ, in light of our obedience or lack thereof (see Jn. 14:21). In other words, God loves us, despite our unworthiness with the love of benevolence; but he also loves us because of our close communion and obedience with him with the love of complacency. He delights in certain graces (e.g., acts of faith). Tullian speaks of God’s love of benevolence to his creatures as if that were the only love and so our growth in grace has no bearing on God’s love for us. The love of benevolence is certainly primary or antecedent to the love of complacency (and inviolable), but our obedience or disobedience will result in a different type of complacent love between God and the saint. The English Antinomian, John Saltmarsh, denied this distinction and affirmed, in similar manner to Tullian, that God’s love for us does not change in relation to our good behavior.
Faith = Justification + Obedience
It is not that there are no good points made in the book. I acknowledge that. But I’ve read enough from John Saltmarsh and Tobias Crisp, as well as authors from Arminian and Catholic traditions, to know that even those who depart from Reformed orthodoxy can and often do say helpful things. Yet in Jesus + Nothing … there are too many statements that are either inaccurate or confusing. And the book is also highly repetitive (note, for example, the same quote from Berkouwer on pp. 173, 190). The fact is, books on this topic have been written before, but without the aforementioned shortcomings. Moreover, I can’t help but get the feeling that a number of Reformed ministers, both in the past and in the present, would be viewed as legalistic in their preaching if judged by the theology of this book. But this book does not set forth classical Reformed theology. We do have work to do. And that work involves trusting in Christ’s finished work. But we also need to “Pray more, Get more involved in church, [and] Read the Bible longer.” These are necessary components to our sanctification. Nonetheless, God’s graciousness in his Son and by the Spirit assures us that he gives what he commands.
In the end, the issue is not so much about the necessity of preaching salvation by grace. Rather, sometimes error comes in the form not by what people do say, but by what they fail to say. And, as J I Packer has so eloquently reminded us, “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”
- Mark Jones