Don’t Look At Me!

Alright, this is my last post reflecting on Tullian Tchividjian’s book Jesus+Nothing=Everything. I thoroughly enjoyed this book as evidenced by the four posts dedicated to it. It was neat to read how a popular Evangelical pastor rediscovered the true Gospel message and how it has changed his life and his ministry. Many of the people who influenced him in his journey were Lutheran theologians, and as I read his book, I could see the Lutheran influence in his discoveries. (The only thing he is missing is Lutheran sacramental theology, but I can’t ask for everything.)

Tchividjian’s main purpose in this book is to recover the true message of God’s Word from a person-focused center to a Jesus-focused center. He recognized that much of popular evangelical theology focuses on what Christians must do and how they can improve instead of focusing on God and what He has already done through Jesus. Tchividjian refers to this teaching as “performancism” which is just another word for “legalism.” Legalism has been present in the church ever since Bible times. One of the temptations in legalism is to read yourself into all the Bible stories and make them about you.

For example, in the story of David and Goliath, a “me-focused” interpretation would be to place myself in David’s shoes and talk about how I can defeat my giant enemies with God’s help. To take it even further, the five stones all represent some sort of spiritual attribute that I can use to knock down giants. A proper, Jesus-focused interpretation of this story recognizes that David defeating Goliath points forward to Jesus’ battle with sin, death and Satan. Like David, Jesus stands in the place of His people and takes on the enemy that we could never defeat by ourselves. David caught off the head of Goliath. Jesus crushed the head of Satan. Just as David was chosen and anointed by God to be the leader and king of his people, Jesus was chosen and anointed by God to be our Savior and King.

A proper understanding of Scripture means that we will come to realize that the Bible is not primarily about me and what I must do, but rather it is about God and what He has done and continues to do for me. That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn anything about ourselves and the Christian life through stories like David and Goliath. But these stories are first and foremost about God, specifically God the Son, Jesus Christ. Tchividjian gets at this in his book:

The gospel doesn’t take you deeper into yourself; the gospel takes you away from yourself. That’s why Paul reminds the Colossians (and us), ‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). The gospel frees us to realize that, while we matter, we’re not the point…The gospel causes us to look up and out, away from ourselves. It turns our gaze upward to God and outward to others, both to those inside the church and to those outside it. The gospel causes us to love God and to love others, which of course is how Jesus summed up the entirety of the law.

And some more from Tchividjian:

Reminded of the gospel, we’re reminded that sin enslaves by making us big; the gospel frees by making us small. Our self-esteem culture would have us believe that the bigger we become, the freer we’ll be. But the gospel turns that on its head- the smaller we become, the freer we will be. We begin to decrease; Christ begins to increase. The world says the more independent you become, the freer and stronger you’ll be; the gospel says the more dependent on God you become, the freer and stronger you’ll be.

This is true freedom. A proper understanding of the Gospel means that we do not have to be plagued by guilt as we look inside ourselves and see, not moral improvement, but sin. The gospel points us away from ourselves and toward Jesus. Legalism and “performancism” leaves us open to accusations of hypocrisy because we point to ourselves and pat ourselves on the back at the improvement we have made. When we grasp the true Gospel message, we can take comfort in the fact that it isn’t up to my performance. We can tell Satan who wants to accuse us in our sin through other people “Don’t look at me! I am not the standard. Look at Jesus! I am perfect because of Him only.” And when God looks at you, He sees you through the lens of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t see your works or your lack thereof; He sees Christ’s works, his life, death, and resurrection, for you.

What a great promise! I encourage all of you to read Tchividjian’s book and rediscover the Gospel message for yourself. I will leave you with one last quote.

Now you can spend your life giving up your place for others instead of guarding it from others, because your identity is in Christ, not in your place. Now you can spend your energy going to the back instead of getting to the front, because your identity is in Christ, not in your position. You can also spend your life giving, not taking, because your identity is in Christ, not in your possessions. All this is our new identity- all because of Christ’s finished work to us in the gospel.

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Grow Up!

I used to think that growing as a Christian meant I had to somehow go out and obtain the qualities and attitudes I was lacking. To really mature, I needed to find a way to get more joy, more patience, more faithfulness, and so on…What the Bible teaches is that we mature as we come to a greater realization of what we already have in Christ. The gospel, in fact, transforms us precisely because it’s not itself a message about our internal transformation but about Christ’s external substitution. From Jesus+Nothing=Everything by Tullian Tchividjian

What is the life of sanctification all about? How do Christians mature in their faith? How exactly do you measure spiritual growth? These are important questions because there are so many wrong answers out there. Actually, there is probably only one wrong answer, but it takes many different forms. The wrong answer is legalism or to borrow from Tchividjian again, “performancism.” The idea is that justification is all about what God does and sanctification or spiritual growth is all about what I must now do.

Sanctification according to legalism focuses on my actions, on my need or desire to get better. Legalism ignores the cross and what Christ has done. It pushes the cross into the past and focuses on the present and what you are doing to stay in God’s good favor.We get fooled into thinking that we have to earn our keep in God’s good graces. Remember how Tchividjian  puts it: I have to get more joy, more patience, more faithfulness, more sincerity, more love, more (insert Christan attribute here) in order to prove that I am a Christian and that I am growing.

Now don’t get me wrong. Having more joy, more patience, and more faithfulness are all good things. But these are natural fruits that are produced from a life connected to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are not some measuring stick in order to keep your room  in heaven. You aren’t gaining any favor with God by gaining new abilities. Actually when we think this way we are putting all the attention on ourselves. We are putting ourselves back under the law of Moses from which Jesus died to free us! As Tchividjian puts its,

Ironically, when we focus mostly on our need to get better, we actually get worse. We become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our effort instead of with God’s effort for us makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective.

So what is the life of sanctification really about? It’s about Jesus’ death and resurrection. How do Christians truly mature in their faith? By relying on Jesus.

Think of it this way: sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification. It’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day. Or, as Martin Luther so aptly put it in his Lectures on Romans, ‘To progress is always to begin again.’ Real spiritual progress, in other words, requires a daily going backwards. Tchividjian

God's grace is a vast, endless ocean

Sanctification is still about Jesus’ work! Jesus has set you free from the Law! Yet we constantly try to get back under it because we are so trained in the mindset that we have to do something, we have to earn our keep, we have to make the grade. Real Christian maturity and spiritual growth comes with a deeper realization that we by cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him or get any better. Real Christian maturity and spiritual growth comes with a greater understanding that we must decrease, and Jesus must increase. The truly mature Christian plunges into the deep ocean of God’s grace. Spiritual growth occurs when we stop trying to please God by our efforts and realize that God has already given us his approval through Jesus. Once we’re already approved and accepted by God in Christ, we can freely follow God’s lead and grow in doing his will out of genuine gratitude for his amazing grace and without any fear of judgment or condemnation when we fail. And you will fail. Over and over again. Every day of your life. But your failures have been overcome by Christ’s death! “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” 1 Corinthians 15:57

It is finished! For real…I’m not making this up

“A Christian may not struggle with believing that our good behavior is required to initially earn God’s favor; but I haven’t met one Christian who doesn’t struggle daily with believing- somehow, someway- that our good behavior is required to keep God’s favor.”

From Jesus+Nothing=Everything by Tullian Tchividjian

This is most certainly true! I have fallen into this thinking. You have fallen into this thinking. Entire church bodies are trapped in this kind of thinking. This kind of thinking, once again, is called legalism. It is the belief that after a person has been justified by God’s work and grace alone, the process of sanctification is their work. It is something that they must do in order to insure that they stay in God’s good graces. However, legalism places a Christian under the burden of the Law once again, the very Law which Christ set us free from in his death and resurrection.

“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.” (Tchividjian) It is finished. You do not have to seek God’s approval over and over again. Jesus won it for you once and for all time.”

This is a difficult concept for us to understand. As I mentioned in my last post “Making the Grade,” we are used to performing in order to gain a reward or earn someone’s favor. It is easy to transfer that “performancism” over to our faith. However, living the life under the banner which reads “It is finished” is so much more freeing! Tchividjian accurately and wonderfully points out, “Once we’re already approved and already accepted by God in Christ, we can freely follow God’s lead and grow in doing his will out of genuine gratitude for his amazing grace and without any fear of judgment or condemnation when we fail.”

In my next post, as I continue to reflect on Tchividjian’s book, we will take a closer look at what sanctification really looks like. Here’s a hint: It’s still about grace alone and not anything that you must do! Check back soon!

Making the Grade

We live in a performance based society. Work hard in school, and your efforts will pay off. Go the extra mile at your job, and people will notice. Do something extra nice for your spouse, and you will be shown appreciation and love in return. We are driven by the motivation to get better and to perform well in every situation.

This is not a bad thing. How else will a school know that you are learning the material unless you perform well on all the assignments and tests? How else should your boss reward (or discipline) you other than basing it off your performance? While love for a spouse may not be primarily based upon performance, how else will your spouse know you love and care for them unless you tell them or show them?

The trouble with our emphasis on performance is when we transfer it over to our relationship with God. Your good standing before God is not based on your performance. It never has been. It never will be.

You are probably nodding your head in agreement. Most of you (my readers) are good Lutherans. It is by grace you have been saved, and this is not of yourself. It is a gift of God so that no one can boast. Jesus earned your good standing with God the Father through His sacrificial death and resurrection. We know this quite well. We coined the terms “Grace alone. Faith alone. Scripture alone.”

However, that does not mean that we do not get sucked into the same trap that, I would say, sucks in a majority of Christians. We believe that Jesus died for our sins and gave us new life. For us Lutherans, this new life was given to us at our baptism. We have been saved. Now what? Now we must obey. Now it is up to me. Now the Christian life is about a bunch of “do’s” and “don’ts” in order to lead a God-pleasing life. Isn’t that what sanctification is all about? Isn’t it about my performance? Isn’t my obedience the proof that I am a child of God?

It comes so naturally to us. Deep down, we have trouble with the concept of grace. We struggle with this idea that everything has already been completed for us. We don’t have to do a thing in order to earn a good standing with God or in order to keep our good standing with God. We always try to add something to grace.

In his book Jesus+Nothing=Everything, author and pastor Tullian Tchividjian (Yeah, I have no idea how to pronounce it either) tells his story about struggling with grace and with the trap of legalism. Legalism is performance based Christianity. Legalism sneaks into the church on the coattails of good intentions. Shouldn’t a Christian do good works? Shouldn’t we be learning about all the things we need to be doing? Shouldn’t we following the commandments: love God and love your neighbor? Pretty soon though, the Christian life becomes less about Jesus and his performance and more about me and my performance. Suddenly, I’m judging my worth before God in terms of my obedience.

As I said, legalism is tricky. We often fall right into it without realizing it. As Tchividjian  says, “Typically, it’s not that Christians seek to blatantly replace the gospel. What we try to do is simply add to it.” He adds,

The Bible makes it clear that the gospel’s premier enemy is the one we often call ‘legalism.’ I like to call it performancism. Still another way of viewing it, especially in its most common manifestation in Christians, is moralism… Legalism happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game… We know it’s wrong to worship immorality, like everybody out in the world seems to be doing; we find it harder to see that it’s just as wrong to worship morality, like everybody in the church seems to be doing…In fact, the most dangerous thing that can happen to you is that you become proud of your obedience.

In my next few posts, I want to explore this book a little further. Tchividjian has rediscovered the gospel and has also discovered Lutheran theology. He is not a Lutheran pastor but cites several Lutheran theologians as influential people for him in the writing of this book. He also quotes Martin Luther several times which makes sense because there is no greater champion of the gospel than Luther. (OK, maybe Paul) As I said, he is writing this book as a response to his own personal struggle and has seen the need to attack legalism which is resting comfortably in our churches right now. It is dangerous and needs to be opposed. The only way to do that is through the gospel. I hope you will join in this exploration of the gospel in these next couple of weeks because this is an issue that every single one of us needs to hear because I believe we all struggle with “performancism.” To quote Tchividjian again:

A Christian may not struggle with believing that our good behavior is required to initially earn God’s favor; but I haven’t met on Christian who doesn’t struggle daily with believing- somehow, someway- that our good behavior is required to keep God’s favor.

Remember: Jesus has made the grade for you!