Two nights ago I started reading a new book which so enthralled me that I read all 209 pages of it that night. It’s not that it was necessarily anything new. In fact, what it says is really quite ancient. However, it was who was saying it and how he was saying it that absolutely captivated me.
The book was titled Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton: Crossways, 2011) and was written by Tullian Tchividjan (cha-vi-jin), the grandson of Billy Graham, and also the Senior Pastor of the renowned Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
The book has been garnering some significant attention. It was forged out of his tumultuous reception as the new Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge in 2009, (following in the very big footsteps of the late Dr. D. James Kennedy) and offers an absolutely refreshing message about the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one that is particularly helpful amid all of the recent missional madness that has been receiving so much attention by the North American Church.
What makes the book even more fascinating is the list of names who Tchividjan notes to have so heavily influenced him during this difficult time. In the acknowledgements he writes:
To my Gospel mentors: there are far too many to name them all. But ten in particular have sharpened my understanding of the Gospel significantly over the last two years: Mike Horton, Steve Brown, Rod Rosenbladt, Gerhard Forde, Tim Keller, Paul Tripp, elyse Fitzpatrick, Scotty Smith, Jerry Bridges, and Harold Senkbeil. I am so grateful to God for all of you and the way you have challenged and encouraged me through either your writing or your friendship or, in most cases both (p.12).
There are some notable Lutherans in the bunch, especially in LCMS Lutherans Rod Rosenbladt and Harold Senkbeil. Rosenbladt is said to be a personal friend, while Senkbeil’s work Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness (St. Louis: Concordia, 1994) is quoted at length, as is, according to Tchividjin, Senkbeil’s “excellent article in Justified: Modern Reformation Essays on the Doctrine of Justification.”
However, there is one more absolutely fascinating Lutheran book whose influence becomes readily noticeable in Tchividjan’s writing. Perhaps you will pick up hints of it in this excerpt from his final remarks:
As I have said before, I once assumed (along with the vast majority of professing Christians) that the Gospel was simply what non-Christians must believe in order to be saved, while afterward we advance to deeper theological waters. But I’ve come to realize that once God rescues sinners, his plan isn’t to steer them beyond the gospel but to move them more deeply into it. The Gospel, in other words, isn’t just the power of God to save you; it’s the power of God to grow you once you’re saved.
This idea that the gospel is just as much for Christians as it is for non-Christians may seem like a new idea to many, but in fact, it is really a very old idea.
There are many books (beneath the Bible, of course) that have helped me as I’ve wrestled with how God intends the reality of the gospel to shape and liberate us at every point and in every way. The following list of books is not exhaustive, but if you read them, you will be moving in the right direction toward a better, more biblical understanding of the Gospel and how to preach it to yourself every day (p. 207).
He then provides a list of what he calls Twenty-Six Books on the Gospel. It includes Senkbeil’s above mentioned Dying to Live, but it also includes, and I find this utterly fascinating, C.F.W. Walther’s God’s No and God’s Yes: The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1973).
The fingerprints of these Lutheran treasures can be seen throughout Tchividjan’s writing. Consider the following excerpts:
Absorbing this narcissistic assumption, the modern church is all too often guilty of producing worship services that are little more than motivational, self-help seminars filled with “you can do it” songs and sermons. But what we find in the gospel is just the opposite. The Gospel is good news for losers, not winners. It’s for those who long to be freed from the slavery of believing that all of their significance, meaning, purpose, and security depend on their ability to “become a better you.”
Moralistic preaching is stimulated by a fear of the scandalous freedom that gospel grace promotes and promises. The perceived fear is this: if we think too much and talk too much about grace and the radical freedom it brings, we’ll go off the deep end with it (p.50).
Preachers these days are expected to major in “Christian moral renovation.” They are expected to provide a practical to-do list, rather than announce, “It is finished.” They are expected to do something other than, more than, placarding before their congregation’s eyes Christ’s finished work, preaching a full absolution solely on the basis of the complete righteousness of Another. The irony is, of course, that when preachers cave in to this pressure, moral renovation does not happen. To focus on how I’m doing, more than on what Christ has done, is Christian narcissim (an oxymoron if I ever heard one)… (p.117).
[W]hile the law guides, it does not give. It has the power to reveal sin but not the power to remove sin. It simply cannot engender what it commands. The law shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly like the gospel can. The law shows us what a sanctified life looks like, but it does not have sanctifying power as the gospel does. So, apart from the Gospel, the law crushes. The law shows us what to do. The Gospel announces what God has done. The law directs us, but only the gospel can drive us. It’s very important to keep these distinctions in mind (p. 188).
When a Reformed Presbyterian grandson of a Southern Baptist evangelist offers a corrective for the church in the way of Lutheran gospel clarity, (sorry, I know that is a mouthful) perhaps there is reason for Lutherans tempted to adopt the ways of evangelicalism to sit up and listen.
As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.