In 2009, the Rev. Tullian Tchividjian transitioned from pastor of a church plant in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian, a church whose only other pastor had been Dr . D. James Kennedy. The task proved challenging. Not long after his arrival, Tchividjian encountered opposition. After a petition for his removal gathered enough signatures, Tchividjian and the church’s session were forced to hold a congregational meeting to vote on whether or not to keep him as pastor.
Ultimately the church upheld his call, but the months of strife exhausted Tchividjian. In his new book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tchividjian shares how God used the conflicts at Coral Ridge to expose his heart’s idols and rekindle his understanding of the gospel.
You speak candidly in this book of the conflict and ministry discouragement you experienced in your first year at the church you currently serve, with the summer of 2009 being the lowest point. Did you find it hard to write about and publish such experiences?
It was easy only because God taught me so much during that time, and I emerged from that very painful, trying season of life a different person, a different preacher. For years I had always preached the gospel with great passion and with theological capability, but it wasn’t until God brought me through the crucible of pain that everything I had been preaching years earlier became functional for me. It’s one thing to stand up when things are going well and tell a large congregation that Jesus plus nothing equals everything. It’s another thing when you come to a point in your own life when everything seems to have been completely stripped away, and you’re really faced with the fact that, wow, it’s true. Jesus plus nothing really does equal everything.
I say throughout the book that God helped me to see during that time that I had become very dependent on human approval and human acceptance to make me feel like I was important. God showed me, when human approval and human acceptance were stripped away for a season, how dependent I had become on them. So as painful and as difficult a season of life as that was, God used it to expose my own idols and set me free from them.
Since the summer of 2009, things have been much better. It was the reality of the gospel that gave me a sharp mind, soft heart, and steel spine to make it through that season. This was not me conjuring up some internal power. This was God, by His grace, because of what Jesus has already secured for me, just emboldening me. It changed me as a leader. It made me fearless because there’s nothing anyone in this world could take way from me that really mattered.
I did fear that if I go through with this and take a strong stand, I could lose my job, and how would I support my wife and kids? But there again I had to go back and realize God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He loves my children and my wife more than I do, and He’s going to take care of me and take care of them. So it makes you fearless to whatever financial setbacks you might have. It makes you fearless to whether you should compromise your beliefs because you don’t have the support to do what you believe. It makes you able to say crazy, counterintuitive things like, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” It changed me forever.
What can this book offer to other pastors dealing with conflict and discouragement?
The book was born out of my own struggle and pain, and I am hoping it will be a great service to pastors. One of the great blessings that came out of all of this has been the number of pastors who have come to me and not only shared their own war stories, but thanked me for sticking it out and being a light to those who are in the trenches. I come from a well-known family at a well-known church, but there are a ton of guys from all denominations going through this very thing. I came to the realization that this is so common. There are so many men who have struggled, and I think about their wives and think about their children.
The only antidote to that kind of pain and fear is the freeing reality of the gospel. That’s not just some theological maxim or some lofty spiritual catchphrase. If Jesus plus nothing—and I mean nothing—really grips your heart and sets you free, you can walk into a difficult meeting and be bold, humble, and courageous because even if they pick you up and throw you out, ultimately you’ve lost nothing. Your worth, value, significance, and security are not at stake. All of that has already been secured by Jesus, and there’s nothing you can do to lose it. And there’s nothing anyone else can do to take it away.
You also have some strong words about how pastors offer Christians a faulty view of the gospel by emphasizing what you call “performancism” over the finished work of Christ. Why are pastors prone to performancism?
I think the first answer is that we are probably all prone to legalism by nature. The Bible makes it pretty clear that we are all born legalists, wanting to maintain control in various ways, trying to save ourselves. Sometimes legalism is narrowly defined as someone who works for their salvation in Christian terms. While that is true, if we define it that way we miss the subtle, poisonous effect of legalism. Legalism is anything we do to try to secure for ourselves what only Jesus promises to secure for us. We are naturally prone to it, and the gospel is the only solution to it.
Second, we are all control freaks. So if a pastor’s desire is to see his congregation become more obedient to God’s will, then what we typically do is simply give the congregation a to-do list. We tell them, “This is what you do.” I see this underlying so many sermons that we hear, specifically in America, regardless of what the text is or who the preacher is. The theme is always the same. “Do more; try harder.” I’ve seen that in my own sermons, too, and it ends up being a tremendous burden you put on people’s shoulders.
The contrast is that Jesus says Himself, “Come to me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. My burden is light; my yoke is easy.” And so I think my whole goal in ministry, and preaching in particular, is to lift high the finished work of Christ, realizing it is only when a heart is radically gripped by God’s untamable grace that we change.
I think there’s a radical misunderstanding in the church today, and you see it in the pulpits—that you get people to follow God by giving them a list of rules. That doesn’t work. Anyone with teenagers knows that doesn’t work. Enough fear and guilt will get my children to obey externally for a week, but fear and guilt will not get my children to obey internally for the rest of their lives. My goal is for their obedience to be internal for the rest of their lives. If that’s the goal, what’s the tool God has prescribed to get them there? It’s not more rules. It’s God’s amazing grace coming our way through the person and work of Jesus. That alone can transform us.
The Bible makes it very clear the law has the power to show us what godliness looks like, but it doesn’t have the power to make us godly. Romans 7 makes that very clear. The law has the power to show what a sanctified life looks like, but it doesn’t have the power to sanctify. That’s the job of the gospel.
You suggest that legalism and license aren’t opposite extremes but rather two problems with the same root cause—a limited understanding of grace. Please explain.
My point is basically that both are legalistic. The primary problem today in the church is legalism, but it comes in two forms. What I call “front-door legalism” says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules, do what I am told, and maintain the standard.” “Back-door legalism” is this idea that I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules and do whatever I want.
And yet, ironically, if you begin to parse that out more carefully, you find that both are legalistic because both are self-salvation projects. One group of people is trying to save themselves by keeping the rules, and another group is trying to save themselves by breaking the rules.
So that is a very, very important point that I make in the book, something I spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about. We conclude that there are two sides to the road that we need to avoid: the ditch of legalism and the ditch of license. The way we end up in the ditch of legalism is that we get too much law; the way we end up in the ditch of license is we get too much grace, and healthy Christianity is a balance between law and grace. And I think that’s a terrible way to phrase it because it puts the brakes on grace. It nurtures a “yes grace, but” posture, which says, “50 percent grace plus 50 percent law equals balanced Christianity.” And I want to say that according to the Bible, 100 percent grace equals balanced Christianity.
“Identity in Christ” is a phrase you use often in your writing. What do you mean by this, and how is one’s identity impacted by the work of Christ?
When we think about identity, it is basically a self-appraisal of who we are. Most of us locate our identity in what we can accomplish, who our family is, the way that we look, how well-behaved our children are, what other people think of us. All of those things combined, and a thousand more, end up becoming what we think about ourselves.
Once we do an evaluation of that magnitude, if we are successful, then we have a good sense of self-worth; and if we are unsuccessful, however we define that, then we have a terrible sense of self-worth. If you have a good sense of self-worth, you become proud. When you have a bad sense of self-worth, you despair.
When I talk about freedom being found in locating our identity in Christ, I am really discussing the whole idea of imputation and union with Christ. Everything I need, I now possess in Christ. I am forever clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and my fundamental sense of worth and value are now no longer located in something finite, but in the infinite, accomplished worth of Christ.
So now when I evaluate myself, and I say this often at Coral Ridge, it is under a banner that reads, “It is finished.” I am no longer enslaved to trying to locate my identity on how my kids turn out, if I am a good husband, whether I make enough money, if people buy my books, whether people like me, if I am a good preacher.
My goal is to get people thinking in terms of what is your fundamental, core identity. How can your identity being located in the finished work of Christ change you? One of the remarkably freeing things about your identity now being located firmly in the finished work of Christ is this idea that who you really are has nothing to do with you.
And this is the good news for Christians. If you’re a Christian, your identity is firmly anchored now in Christ’s accomplishment, not yours. The gospel frees us from this obsessive pressure to “become.” The gospel declares that in Christ you already are. It liberates us by revealing that our identity is locked in Christ, and our connection in and with Christ and His finished work for us is the truest definition of who we are.
You offer a diagnostic tool for finding idolatry in our hearts by asking the reader to honestly assess any restlessness or impatience in his or her life. The root of that restlessness, you assert, is probably something the reader is looking to for significance other than Christ. Is this always the case? Is there ever such a thing as righteous restlessness?
Well, I think it’s not so much an either-or as a both-and. There is a righteous restlessness simply because we live in what theologians refer to as the already and not yet. We live in between the times of Christ’s first coming and His second coming. We have been rescued from slavery but we haven’t yet entered the Promised Land, so to speak. We are making our way through the wilderness of this life with God as our guide, but we’re not home yet.
Because of that reality and that tension, there is a restlessness. You see it at the end of Revelation. You see it in Romans 8 when creation itself is groaning for renewal. Creation itself is crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.” So certainly there is a sense in which there is a righteous restlessness if the root of our restlessness is a longing to be home, a longing for Christ to return.
The restlessness I am talking about is when I find myself staying awake at night because I am afraid of how my kids are going to turn out. I have to ask myself, what is the root cause of that fear? What’s the root cause of that restlessness? Well, there are probably 20 causes, but they all revolve around a fundamental disbelief in the power of the gospel.
In other words, part of the reason I want my kids to turn out okay is because if they don’t, I am going to feel like a failure. And so now I am depending on my kids to make me feel good about myself. That’s the kind of restlessness that only the gospel can address because my core identity is not located in how my kids turn out. My sense of worth is so tied up in wanting to be successful in that regard that I become restless. Restlessness and suffering reveal our idols.
God used suffering to reveal my own idols. I didn’t believe in that moment that everything I needed in Christ I already had. It’s like walking around the house and barking at my wife and kids because I can’t find my sunglasses, and then realizing they’re on top of my head. I’ve done that—and we laugh at that—but we do it every day. Every time we sin, what we’re doing in that moment is refusing to believe that everything we need, we already have in Christ. Since I don’t believe that, I need to get something in addition to Jesus to make me happy in that moment.
Sometimes it’s hard to discern if my restlessness is a righteous restlessness that isn’t about my identity or value or worth. Sometimes it’s just that life is hard in a broken world as a fallen person, and I just can’t wait until Jesus comes back and makes all things new. But I realize, more often than not, that is not the primary root of my restlessness. I just think we’re a lot worse than that most of the time.
How do obedience to the Bible’s commands and the finished work of Christ go together?
I think we can often simply conclude that God cares about any kind of obedience. I don’t think that’s true. God’s not concerned with any obedience; He’s concerned with a certain kind of obedience. That’s why Paul is so careful to make sure that he grounds everything he tells us to do in what Christ has already done. He wants to warm our hearts with the finished work of Christ so that when we obey we’re obeying out of gratitude and not guilt—faith and not fear.
We have two great examples in Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, Paul spends the first three chapters speaking of Christ’s finished work on behalf of sinners like me. And that’s basically all he talks about. He marinates our hearts and minds in the triumphant indicatives of the gospel, and it’s not until he gets to chapter four of Ephesians that he says, “Therefore, in light of what God in Christ has done for you, therefore do this.”
In Colossians, he does the same thing. In the first two chapters, he speaks glowingly about what Christ has done for us, and it’s only when he gets to chapters three and four that he says, “Therefore, this is what a grace-fueled life looks like.” If you get chapters one and two, then chapters three and four will become almost instinctive.
The problem with a lot of preaching today is that imperatives minus indicatives equals impossibilities. Let’s say I want to preach on giving. I could look out on our large congregation and give them a terrible guilt trip that would be temporarily successful. I could lay on the guilt, and if I do it persuasively, I could get two or three big checks from rich people. But they will never write 100 checks unless their hearts are gripped by something deeper than fear and guilt.
Paul does that in 2 Corinthians 8. He gives this great example of generosity and tells the Corinthian church to be generous. And then in verses 8 and 9, he says, “Consider Christ, who, though he was rich, for your sake became poor.” What he does there is ground the imperative to give in the indicative of what Christ has done. Motivation becomes a really important thing. It will never be fully right; it will always be a mixed bag. But the goal is to give out of gratitude and not guilt.
Megan Fowler is a freelance writer in St. Louis, Mo. She loves to tell the simple stories of faithful believers using their God-given talents for building the kingdom. Megan and her husband have a two-year-old son and a second child due to arrive at any moment.