If you can read this book and it does not lead you to repentance, then you have not actually read it.
Tullian from the outset is transparently honest. He begins his book by drawing the reader into his own story when in 2009 he recalls, “Never had I experienced anything so tough.” Throughout the book he gradually unpacks more and more of the difficulty during that year. It was during this time of immense difficulty that Tullian found solace and soul relief in the pages of Colossians. God spoke through Paul’s words and reminded Tullian of his new identity he has in Christ. In effect, he rediscovered the gospel. And that is, boiled down, the whole point of his book: a call to rediscover the gospel.
The book is structured around the equation Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Armed with a pastor’s heart, a theologians mind, and deeply rooted in Scripture, Tullian unpacks each segment of the equation and shows how we, in actuality, disbelieve the gospel. He starts with moving from the end of the equation to the beginning and then moves from the beginning to the end, explaining every detail and exalting Christ through it all.
There has been some debate over the central assertion in this book. Tullian makes the case that sanctification is the daily returning back to the reality of our justification. The reason we do not progress in Christian growth is because we have forgotten that we are justified. All too often what is caught and taught is that we are brought into eternal life by grace but then we remain and grow by our own effort and grit. So, subtly the verse is changed “for it is by grace you have been saved and you are sanctified as a result of works.” Therefore Tullian pleads for the Christian to ground all progression first upon our identity.
Tullian sees that the enemy to Christian growth is legalism because it diminishes what Christ has already accomplished.
But when it comes to our sanctification, suddenly we become legalists…We get the Christian life all backwards. It subtly becomes all about us and what we do (which leads to slavery) instead of being all about Jesus and what’s he’s done (which leads to freedom). (98)
So the hard work of the Christian life is the daily remembering and revisiting back to the reality of our justification. This is much more than simple mental assent but whole soul believing belief. This work is difficult.
Some have criticized, in many reviews, that Tullian allows the imperatives in Scripture to slide and by speaking too much of the indicatives. However, this is not the case. Because Tullian detests legalism (just acting because of the law) he deeply values the imperatives. BUT in order for the imperatives to be properly understood and applied we must marinate in the indicatives, the statement or assertion acting as the backdrop for the imperative. In short: Tullian does not make light of the work we are called to do. Instead he shows that the hard work is daily believing in the indicatives (who God has declared us to be/our foundational identity) and out of that will necessarily flow conformity to Christ. (For an example, see Colossians 3:1. Paul grounds the following imperatives on the indicative of “those who are in Christ.”)
I was quite pleased that Tullian devoted some time to the believer’s union with Christ. He rightly observed that we receive ALL of our benefits because we are united to Christ. We have been taken up in Christ and as a result receive everything Christ received. However, and herein lies my only criticism, I would rather say that the hard work of the Christian is to daily remember our union rather than our justification alone. I simply see our union with Christ to be more foundational than our justification as it is our union that precedes our justification.
Im sum: Tullian’s book is a necessary reminder and call for the church to recalibrate its teaching, preaching, and daily life to focus on the indicatives rather than on the law. It is well written and with each page the believer is presented with gospel truth that gives life and truly makes much of Jesus. Upon finishing I was confronted with many of the ways I allow idols dictate my identity rather than letting Jesus tell me who I am in Him. The Spirit used this book to lead me to repentance and faith to re-cement and further forge the gospel of Jesus Christ in me.
I conclude how I began: If you can read this book and it does not lead you to repentance, then you have not actually read it.
(To listen to his sermon on Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything visit the Village Church website here.)
Have you read it? What did you think?
UPDATE: I tweeted at Tullian and he responded with “It was really good, Chris. Thanks. On union, this is what I say in the book: “While justification is not the only thing, it is the first thing–the judicial ground of our union with Christ and all of the renewing benefits that yields.” I hope that makes sense. Peace!”