Review from the White Horse Inn
Occasionally, we pull our pastor friends away from their ecclesiastic duties, and through our cunning wiles and irresistible charm manage to wheedle them into writing for us. Today, we have our buddy Brian Thomas, the Vicar of Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, California, reviewing Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything. (If this whets your appetite, check out the Rev. Tchividjian’s latest MR article here.)
Math has never been my strong suit, but Tullian Tchividjian’s latest book, Jesus+ Nothing=Everything, presents a liberating equation for troubled sinners. Written in a down-to-earth style, Tchividjian offers a very pastoral confession of how a renewed understanding of the gospel brought him through a time of professional and personal crisis.
Building upon the work of St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and C.S. Lewis, the book begins by painting a picture of the restless heart longing for everything. Rather than to turning to Jesus, who alone can fill the void, we often turn elsewhere because ultimately we have misunderstood the gospel. Trouble arises when Christians think of the gospel as merely an entry ticket to heaven, the thing that gets us in, while the thing that keeps us in (we assume) is our own effort and performance. In other words, Tchividjian notes “we recognize that the gospel ignites the Christian life, but we often fail to see that it’s also the fuel to keep us going and growing as Christians” (37).
The real issue is not that we blatantly seek to replace Jesus with something else, we simply add this something else to him: Jesus plus self-affirmation, personal approval, social justice, success, power, etc. As the Galatians learned from St. Paul, when we add anything to Jesus, even a good thing, we end up with a sum that is no longer the Gospel (Gal 1:6–10). If Jesus plus nothing is not the ultimate equation in the life of a believer, Tchividjian argues that we have become idolaters, which he defines as building our identity on something besides God (40).
The greatest enemy of the Gospel, as the author contends in chapter four, is legalism, or what the he calls “performancism.” Performancism is what happens when we fail to believe the gospel; it happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game (46). Legalism, as Pastor Tullian confesses, preserves the illusion that we can do this. Unfortunately, as the author laments, so much of what passes for contemporary preaching fuels this legalistic fire by piling law upon law (what we do) without the gospel (what Jesus has done). Tullian writes, “Many sermons today provide nothing more than a ‘to do’ list, strengthening our bondage to a performance-driven approach” (49).
I found the next couple of chapters to be the strongest in the book as they offer a devotional commentary on how Jesus plus nothing equals everything through the lens of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Tracing Paul’s argument, Tchividjian here presents an exegetical and theological presentation of the person and work of Christ. In one of the most simple and yet profound gospel statements I have ever read, the author concludes:
In his law-fulfilling life, curse-bearing death, and death-defeating resurrection, Jesus has entirely accomplished for sinners what sinners could never in the least do for themselves. The banner under which the Christian lives reads, “It is finished” (84).
I must confess that as much as I enjoyed this book, the latter chapters tended to feel a bit redundant as he retraces the problems with idolatry and finding our identity apart from Jesus. It is not that what he writes isn’t excellent—it is—it is just that he’s already said it; and while repetition is often helpful it felt like listening to a forty minute sermon when the preacher has said everything he is going to say in the first twenty. This is likely due to the fact these chapters were built from a sermon series where a level of repetition is necessary from week to week when preaching lectio continua.
In today’s culture, it is rare to find a popular evangelical pastor admit weakness and confess his sins, not to mention write a book about it. Martin Luther described faith as a beggar’s hand receiving a gift. In this book, Pastor Tullian is a beggar pointing the reader to the Bread of Life who alone can satisfy a hungry soul. Here you will enjoy the freedom of the life-giving gospel equation: “Jesus plus nothing equals everything; everything minus Jesus equals nothing” (206).