Is Tullian Tchividjian an Antinomian?

The theologically minded folk out there probably remember the brouhaha that took place over at The Gospel Coalition regarding Tullian Tchividjian. He was asked to move his blog over to his own website because apparently his views on sanctification were stirring up quite a bit of controversy. When it all happened, I refrained from weighing in on the matter because I knew I needed to do my homework first. I was aware that people found some of the things he said provocative, but I wasn’t aware that people were throwing around the epithet “antinomian.”

To help get my mind around the issue I read some articles by reputable scholars as well as a book, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? The author is Mark Jones. Jones is Pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. In addition, he’s also a research associate at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and a lecturer in theology at John Wycliffe Theological College in Potchefstroom, South Africa. He earned his Ph.D in theology at Leiden Universiteit, and his dissertation was entitled, “Why Heaven Kissed Earth: The Christology of the Puritan Reformed Orthodox Theologian, Thomas Goodwin (1600–1680).” I reference his dissertation because it is clear as one reads this book that Jones’s area of expertise is in Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. Before publishing this present work, he edited Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism, along with Michael Haykin, and he co-authored the massive A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life with fellow Puritan scholar Joel Beeke. This background helps readers realize that Jones has done the requisite research to be able to speak on this subject.

To make this as simple as possible, here’s Jones’s main burden in Antinomianism: he wants readers to see that the etymology of the word doesn’t help us understand what antinomianism is and what antinomians believe. So often in this discussion, we hear people say, “An antinomian is one who’s against the law. Tullian’s not against the law; he’s an ordained Presbyterian minister. He has to affirm the third use of the law.” Jones would have us realize that that doesn’t answer all our questions. The reason we have a hard time determining whether or not Tullian (or anyone else for that matter) is an antinomian is because we’re asking the wrong questions. The issue isn’t so much what one does say but what one fails to say.

Sanctification

One of the big issues in this debate is over sanctification: What is it? What role, if any, does the law of God play? In his book Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian says that “sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification.”[1] In addition, in his blogs, books, and sermons Tullian will often cite Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde. Forde is the one who said “Sanctification is thus simply the art of getting used to justification.”[2] Does this make Tullian an antinomian? Well, in his historical analysis Jones points out that one of the characteristics of the antinomians was that they would “essentially ‘confound’ justification and sanctification and insist that true sanctification is nothing but believing the gospel more and more” (27). In listening to some of Tullian’s sermons, I can see how someone might come away thinking that all one has to do to grow is believe the gospel more; to simply meditate on the fact that because I’m in Christ, God loves me and is not mad at me. Although in one sense that’s true, on the other hand it fails to do justice to all of Scripture.

For one, although justification leads to sanctification; justification doesn’t cause sanctification.[3] As David Garner, professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary writes, “Surely justification motivates obedience, but obedience is not just a human-driven response to God. It is a God-enabled response to God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit in us.”[4] In other words, Scripture doesn’t teach that one is progressively sanctified solely by remembering that one is justified.

This is where Tullian gets into problems. His interpretation of Phil. 2:12-13 is problematic. Paul, in part, says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Tullian says these verses teach us that “God works his work in you, which is the work already accomplished by Christ. Our hard work, therefore, means coming to a greater understanding of his work.”[5] This is just bad exegesis. I don’t know how else to put it. As Jones writes, “Paul surely did not reduce Christian living to contemplating Christ—after all, in 1 Thessalonians 5 . . . Paul lists fifteen imperatives” (116).

Secondly, the gospel doesn’t equal justification. Perhaps this comes as a surprise to some. The question is: When we say, “Jesus died for my sins,” what are we saying? Are we simply saying that Jesus’ death took away the guilt of my sin? That’s certainly true. But that’s not all. Jesus’ death didn’t only take away the guilt of my sin, Jesus’ death also takes away the enslaving power of sin. Isn’t this Paul’s point in Romans 6? He asks, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (vv. 1-2). Later on in the same chapter, Paul says, “now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (V. 22, emphasis mine). Jones puts it this way: “God justifies the wicked. That is good news. But so, too, is the idea that the wicked are ‘being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).’” All the blessings of the gospel come to us by virtue of our union with Christ.[6]

The Role of the Law in Sanctification

Another important matter in this debate has to do with the role of the law in sanctification. In fact, Jones notes that this was “the preeminent issue during the crisis in England from the 1620s to the 1640s” (37). Once again, a lot of the time questions arose due to the fact that the antinomians weren’t clear. They left too much unsaid (34). Or they would frequently speak about the law in negative ways and fail to clarify their remarks. Reformed theologians felt the antinomians didn’t take the totality of Scripture into account when formulating their views.

On this particular point, Jones simply wants to draw attention to the fact that with respect to our justification, the law points out our sin, and we are led to Christ for our righteousness. We do not contribute to our right-standing with God at all. Period. End of discussion. However, with respect to our sanctification, the law functions as a guide to life. For this reason, chapter 16 of the Westminster Confession of faith, “Of Good Works,” says, “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word . . .” (section 1). Chapter 19, “Of the Law of God,” section 5 states, “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well as justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof” (section 5).

I realize this may seem a bit tedious, but the point in all of this is that Tullian, as a PCA minister, has promised to believe all of this, and if his views have changed then he is required to let his presbytery know.

Is Tullian an antinomian in regard to his view of the law in sanctification? I don’t know. It’s not fair for me to judge him by listening to one sermon. I’d have to look at the body of his work.

Does God see sin in me?

According to Jones, “Tullian repeatedly argues that our obedience or lack thereof, does not affect our with relationship God” (91). In support of this, he cites pages 98, 140, and 142-143 of Jesus + Nothing = Everything. When I read those words by Tullian, my mind immediately went to Hebrews 12:5-11 where the writer says God disciplines his children when they are disobedient. How could anyone say that our obedience, or lack thereof doesn’t affect our relationship with God? How do they get around Hebrews 12? Well, according to Jones, antinomians say Hebrews 12 was addressed to unbelievers and not Christians. Once again, all I can say is that’s bad exegesis.

So, does God see sin in me? Answer: with respect to our justification, no he does not. I’m accounted righteous in his sight because of the work of Christ. However, with respect to sanctification, yes. God’s not pleased when I sin. However, because of his great love for me, he doesn’t kick me out of his family (John 10:27-30). Yet that doesn’t mean that my obedience doesn’t matter. As Jones says, “Giving a cup of water to someone (Mk. 9:41)—or acting in a self-indulgent manner—does indeed make a difference” (76).

Conclusion

So, is Tullian an antinomian? If you use Jones’s categories, it’s hard to see how he’s not. But it’s hard for me to say because Tullian’s never answered these questions directly—at least not that I know of. That’s why I wish he would have debated Jones. That said, here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Lack of precision can get us into trouble.
  2. It’s not only what we say that matters, it’s also what we fail to say.
  3. We must remember to properly distinguish between justification and sanctification. (Doing theology requires proper distinctions!)

[1] Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 95.

[2] Gerhard O. Forde, “The Lutheran View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988), 13.

[3] For more on this point, see David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 15ff.

[4] This comes from Garner’s review of Jones’s book. You can find it here: http://www.reformation21.org/shelf-life/antinomianism-reformed-theologys-unwelcome-guest.php

[5] Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing, 96.

[6] See Lane G. Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphant (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 25.

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