Jesus + Nothing = Everything, by Tullian Tchividjian. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 220 pages.
Tullian Tchividjian (cha-vi-jin) is the senior pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he followed long-time senior pastor D. James Kennedy. He is a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, which is where he earned his MDiv in 2001. He is also a grandson of Billy Graham.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything is simply a book about the gospel. That title equation is the central theme—an understanding of the gospel message that came out of Tchividjian’s own personal experience. At one time he saw the gospel as something only for evangelism, to be used to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ. Then in 2009, he faced a difficult time in his ministry. He was pastor at New City Church, a congregation north of Ft. Lauderdale. When Coral Ridge Presbyterian was looking for a new pastor they looked to Tchividjian and a plan was worked out to merge the two congregations into one. After initial acceptance, Tchividjian faced resistance from a group of members who wanted him removed. It was on his summer vacation that year that he happened to read Paul’s letter to the Colossians and saw the gospel in a new light. The gospel was a source of power not just for bringing in converts, but for all Christians as they lived their lives. For Tchividjian personally, who at the time felt crushed by those who opposed him, the gospel meant that everything he needed was in Christ and not in human approval.
The book follows a five-part outline centered on that gospel equation. Part One defines “everything”—how human beings have an insatiable need for more, not less. They long for security, happiness, relief, rescue, affirmation, meaning and purpose (26-27) and in seeking to fill those needs look to the things of this world which come up short. Such a need for everything can only be filled by God who is so much greater.
Part Two turns to the “nothing” part of the equation and examines the ways that human beings try to fill their need for everything. Here Tchividjian discusses the idols that people look to from family and wealth to success and acceptance. Tchividjian notes that the greatest threat to the gospel is legalism/moralism/“performancism” (45). He points out that it comes naturally to human nature to think of what one can do to contribute to this equation, an idea that conflicts with the “nothing” message of the gospel.
In Part Three, the focus turns to Jesus and his role in the equation. Here Tchividjian begins his discussion of Colossians, focusing especially on the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ in chapters 1 and 2 and how he is more than anything anyone could ever need. One of his main points centers on the past tenses of verbs, how everything has been completed in Christ, and that no one can add anything more (74-77). In “the glorious exchange”, Christ took our sin, our nothingness and gave us his righteousness, his “everythingness” (84).
In Part Four, Tchividjian returns to “nothing” and makes sanctification applications based on what Jesus has done. The gospel needs to be preached to one’s self every day (94) as a reminder against legalism. Because of Jesus, Christians have freedom from earning God’s acceptance by obeying his law and instead simply have the freedom to obey him out of gratitude for his grace (97). Tchividjian turns to Paul’s message in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians to emphasize this message. He continues his in-depth look at Colossians, focusing on chapters 2 and 3. He makes the point that the problem is not reforming sinful behavior, but instead the problem is death (115). “Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died and in Christ we have been raised. … Daily reformation is the fruit of daily resurrection” (117).
The final part goes back to “everything” and what that means in view of Christ. Tchividjian compares the gospel to the hub of a wheel, the center from which everything else radiates (129). To summarize what “everything” means for a Christian, he examines the meaning of seven important words: justification, freedom, grace, peace, hope, joy and love (138-149). The Christian’s response to Jesus again is not moralism, but a response born of the gospel. “Christless Christianity [happens] because we look at the Bible and we see all the imperatives without first being washed by the indicatives” (154). Having everything in Christ may mean suffering. “To suffer well might be the most important sermon we ever preach” (162). So in the present the Christian will continues to struggle with sin and suffering, strengthened by the gospel until the human longing for something more is realized with the “everything” that comes in the joy and glory of heaven.
Not being familiar with the author or where his background would take him, I was unsure where this book would go. I was pleasantly surprised, however, at his clear gospel proclamation. The equation of Jesus + nothing = everything summarizes well the Bible’s basic teachings on justification and sanctification. Tchividjian’s target audience seems to be churches where gospel is not clearly proclaimed, but instead is mixed with varying levels of legalism. With him having Billy Graham as a grandfather, I was waiting for some inclusion of decision theology, but it was not there, keeping true to the equation. Tchividjian even came across as sounding Lutheran at times – with one section using the phrases by faith alone and by grace alone repeatedly (102-3). (One of Tchividjian’s more quoted authors in the book is Martin Luther, quoting him at least five times.) There was nothing included that would show a specifically Presbyterian or Calvinist background, but perhaps that was limited by the focus of the book and what topics were not covered, for example there was little to no mention of the important role that the sacraments play in relation to the gospel.
When it comes to Tchividjian’s use of Scripture, overall there was little with which we would disagree. With a few minor exceptions, the applications would be the same that we as Lutheran pastors would make from our pulpits. There was one notable difference in language/terminology when it came to his discussion on legalism and license or lawlessness (50-51). He sees it as a common misunderstanding in today’s church that there are two dangers to avoid: too much focus on law (legalism) and too much focus on gospel (license) and as a result there should be a balance between the two. In his mind that makes the gospel out as something bad. He prefers to see it as one danger—legalism—with two different forms—saving yourself by keeping the law or saving yourself by breaking the law and keeping your own standards. We would however use legalism and license not so much as a dichotomy between too much law or too much gospel, but rather a difference between too much law or too little law. In the end both views come out to essentially the same place, just through different methods and terminology.
Tchividjian’s intended audience probably did not include Lutheran pastors who have been well-trained in the proper distinction of law and gospel. This book, however, still has value for the preacher as an exercise to examine his own regular proclamation of law and gospel and avoid the pitfalls that can happen when the two are mixed. The book’s title equation provides a useful illustration of what the gospel means in the life of a Christian, no matter how it is rearranged: Jesus plus nothing equals everything; everything minus Jesus equals nothing, and as a result giving up everything for Jesus means nothing (161). May the Holy Spirit continue to use men like Tullian Tchividjian to proclaim the clear message of the gospel to a dying