About a year and a half ago, I came across an interview about a book called Surprised by Grace that stopped me in my tracks. In my limited and admittedly cynical experience, “grace” in the title of a book/church tends to signal its opposite, so I was primed to roll my eyes – to be ungracious, in other words. Shame on me! I read it once, and then I read it again. Sure enough, here was a new voice articulating much of the same liberating message that had inspired the founding of Mockingbird: the understanding that the “basic” Gospel message is for Christians as well as non-Christians, that we never move beyond our need to hear it. It was exciting! The writer being interviewed spoke about the distinction between the Law and the Gospel; indeed, he seemed totally fixated on the radicality of a grace that eschews balance, that doesn’t hedge its bets or blink when it comes to the “It is finished” portion of Christ’s dying words. Christian freedom, plain and simple, the sort that you almost never hear from the Right (or Left), expressed with the unmistakable passion of a man freshly possessed – indeed, a man for whom this message, far from being mere theological window dressing, had clearly made the difference between life and death. The author in question was Tullian Tchividjian.
Here we are 18 months later, he’s become a virtual friend and co-conspirator (not to mention Mbird cheerleader numero uno – we are grateful), and his passion for grace has only intensified, praise God. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that his conviction isn’t superficial, that he has already suffered the slings and arrows that inevitably accompany the fearless proclamation of fearlessness, especially in the circles in which he is operating: accusations of lawlessness, antinomnianism, cheap grace, etc. Earlier this month, he delivered the follow-up to the book that initially caught our attention, the arithmetically titled Jesus + Nothing = Everything. It is the story of Tullian’s conversion, a story of life and death. Or, I should say, of death and life, his second conversion – his continual conversion. And it’s delivered with the breathless joy of a man who has rediscovered what was there all along, and can hardly believe his good fortune. It’s inspiring, to say the least.
I was flattered to be asked to contribute a blurb, and upon reading the manuscript, was relieved (moved!) that I could be 100% sincere. Here’s what I came up with:
Brace yourself for a Gospel tornado! Tullian speaks from the heart to the heart, reclaiming the ‘good’ part of the good news in bold and liberating fashion. To those suffering under the gravitational pull of (internal as well as external) legalism, AKA everyone, Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything represents the only lifeline there is, the mind-blowing, present-tense freedom of God’s justifying grace. No ‘if’s, ‘and’s or ‘but’s here, thank God, just the enlivening and relieving Word in all its profundity, with powerful illustrations to spare – a matter of survival for all of us neurotic, heavy-laden men and women. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll read it over and over and over again. Of course, you don’t have to…!”
In other words, what we have here is precisely what we need more of: a highly accessible, exciting, compassionate, full-tilt introduction to the Gospel of Grace that avoids the head-trip abstractions and dry impersonality of most such attempts, without blunting its polemical edge. And most remarkably, he doesn’t pull back, not even in the final chapter! This is because Tullian, like the pastor that he is, is concerned with reality. He refuses to whitewash the human condition (or himself!), or entertain wishful notions of spiritual progress, which makes the grace in question that much more profound. Instead, he comes clean about the betrayals and loneliness and self-importance that led him to where he is; in fact, you might even say that he understands the persisting urgency of the Gospel in the life of Christians because he has suffered the persisting cruelty of his fellow believers, the stuff that brought him to his knees, essentially killing him – as he deftly demonstrates in the (obligatory) expository sections, it’s the same stuff that the Colossians were dealing with, a fear- and sin-induced failure to believe the goodness of the Gospel.
While Tullian’s crisis rings true, this is not a downbeat read – not remotely. It’s a breath of fresh air and honesty, especially for Christians who have been burned by conservative legalism/Pharisaism and are trying to make sense of a religious landscape that devours its own, wondering if there’s any genuine comfort to be had. That Tullian draws on a number of our favorites – Martin Luther, Gerhard Forde, Michael Horton, and yes, PFMZ himself – is just an added bonus. And rest assured, we’ll be adding it, double pun intended, to the next Mockingbird book table, right next to The Ragamuffin Gospel. I’ve reproduced a bunch of choice excerpts, some of which may have you doing a double-take, as the familiarity and sympathy is more than uncanny, it’s a testament to the sustaining potency of the message and the sovereignty of the Messenger. In fact, as Tullian so powerfully reminds us, familiarity is the whole point. Wash, rinse, repeat, chirp chirp chirp:
It’s almost as if, for me, the gospel changed from something hazy and monochromatic to some- thing richly multicolored, vivid, and vibrant. I was realizing in a fresh way the now-power of the gospel—that the gospel doesn’t simply rescue us from the past and rescue us for the future; it also rescues us in the present from being enslaved to things like fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement, and insignificance (more on all this later). Through my pain, I was being convinced all over again that the power of the gospel is just as necessary and relevant after you become a Christian as it is before.
The Bible makes it clear that the gospel’s premier enemy is the one we often call “legalism.” I like to call it performancism. Still another way of viewing it, especially in its most common manifestation in Christians, is moralism. Strictly speaking, those three terms—legalism, performancism, and moralism—aren’t precisely identical in what they refer to. But there’s so much overlap and interconnection between them that we’ll basically look at them here as one thing… It shows up when behavioral obligations are divorced from gospel declarations, when imperatives are disconnected from gospel indicatives. Legalism happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game.
Our performancism leads to pride when we succeed and to despair when we fail. But ultimately it leads to slavery either way, because it becomes all about us and what we must do to establish our own identity instead of resting in Jesus and what he accomplished to establish it for us. In all its forms, this wrong focus is anti-gospel and therefore enslaving.
Moralistic preaching is stimulated by a fear of the scandalous freedom that gospel grace promotes and promises. The perceived fear is this: if we think too much and talk too much about grace and the radical freedom it brings, we’ll go off the deep end with it. We’ll abuse it. So to balance things out, we need to throw some law in there, to help make sure Christian people walk the straight and narrow.
It’s part of a common misunderstanding in today’s church, which says there are two equal dangers Christians must avoid. On one side of the road is a ditch called “legalism”; on the other is a ditch called “license” or “lawlessness.” Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law, on rules. Lawlessness, they say, happens when you focus too much on grace… This dichotomy exposes our failure to understand gospel grace as it really is; it betrays our blindness to all the radical depth and beauty of grace.
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. Some people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (I call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (“back-door legalism”)… Either way, you’re trying to “save” yourself, which means both are legalistic because both are self-salvation projects.
When we believe, deep down, that God’s blessing depends on how well we’re behaving, we wither and groan under the heavy burden of self-reliance. In this performancism, we eventually figure out that being the star of our own show actually makes life a tragedy. When life is all about us—what we can do, how we perform—our world becomes small and smothering; we shrink. To have everything riding on ourselves leads to despair not deliverance.
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. 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. Or, as Martin Luther so aptly put it in his Lectures on Romans, “To progress is always to begin again.”
When it comes to our sanctification, suddenly we become legalists… Sanctification is the hard work of giving up our efforts at self- justification… Sanctification involves God’s daily attack on our unbelief—our self-centered refusal to believe that God’s approval of us in Christ is full and final. It happens as we daily receive and rest in our unconditional justification.
I’m realizing that the sin I need removed daily is precisely my narcissistic understanding of spiritual progress. I think too much about how I’m doing, if I’m growing, whether I’m doing it right or not. I spend too much time pondering my failure, hovering over my spiritual successes, and wondering why, when it’s all said and done, I don’t seem to be getting that much better... The real question, then, is: What are you going to do now that you don’t have to do anything? What will your life look like lived under the banner which reads, “It is finished?”
While the law guides, it does not give. It has the power to reveal sin but not the power to remove sin. It simply cannot engender what it commands. The law shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly like the gospel can. The law shows us what a sanctified life looks like, but it does not have sanctifying power as the gospel does. So, apart from the gospel, the law crushes. The law shows us what to do. The Gospel announces what God has done. The law directs us, but only the gospel can drive us. It’s very important to keep these distinctions in mind.
The operative power that makes you a Christian is the same operative power that keeps you a Christian: the unconditional, unqualified, undeserved, unrestrained grace of God in the completed work of Christ. As I said, the banner under which Christian’s live reads, “It is finished.” So relax, and rejoice… You’re free!
p.s. You have to pick up the book, if only to read his wonderful extended riff on accountability groups, not to mention the incredible closing illustration.