When asked what he had learned from his years of studying the Bible, the great Swiss Reformed theologian of grace Karl Barth responded, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The title of Tullian Tchividjian’s award-winning book, Jesus+Nothing=Everything, offers in similar Barthian fashion a reminder that the Christian faith is not a worldview, political philosophy, social program, or a family values agenda. It is belief in the promises of God fulfilled in the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Tullian is the grandson of Billy Graham and Senior Pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (founded by Dr. D. James Kennedy). He also happens to be my boss.
Jesus+Nothing=Everything (JNE) is based on Tullian’s sermon series on Colossians, in which Paul affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, the creator of the cosmos and creator of new life. JNE offers no privatized, reductive, fundamentalist approach to the Christian faith that shrinks from social participation and cultural engagement while obsessing about personal moral renovation offered by a Jesus that lives in the heart and guides moral actions. Rather, it offers a robust Nicene and Reformational Christianity wrought from the conviction that Jesus is our redeemer because he is our creator. “For by him all things were created…all things were created through and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1: 16-17). This is the Christ of the creeds, the Christ that is, as St. Maximus the Confessor called him, “the cosmic mystery.”
As the Redeemer, Jesus is also, as Martin Luther discovered, the Justifier. But justification is not merely a doctrine. It is, as Luther came to understand, a basic existential and ontological reality. In fact, in his “Disputation Concerning Man” (1536), Luther argued that Paul’s statement in Romans that we are “justified by faith” (Rom 3: 28) defines the human being. Human beings crave justification, and as forgetful and idolatrous creatures, we look everywhere but to Christ for that justification. As Oswald Bayer argues, “The theme of justification is not one special theme, such that there might be other themes alongside it. It embraces the totality. All reality is involved in the justification debate” (Living by Faith, 9).
JNE reaffirms the robust Reformational understanding of Jesus as the Righteousness of God for us, the fulfillment of the promises of God to be with us and to make us his people. Contra medieval church teaching, these are promises God makes and promises he fulfills outside us (extra nos). The only thing we contribute to the situation is our sinful unrighteousness. An important part of this Reformational understanding is that God speaks to us in two words, law and gospel. The former reveals our unrighteousness and the latter, which is God’s ever last word, pronounces us righteous through the righteousness of God, which is Jesus. Tullian follows Luther when he observed, “when I discovered the law was one thing and the gospel another, then I broke through.”Because the human person’s incapability to contribute anything to salvation (even our faith is a gift, generated by God’s grace), JNE follows the Reformational teaching that it opens up social participation and cultural engagement in unexpected ways. This is the “Everything” that JNE celebrates. Released from the burden to justify ourselves in the face of God, we are free to love our neighbor, free to use our talents, gifts, and resources in the social, cultural, and political realms.
A theology of culture emerges, therefore, in the space opened up by Christ’s work for us, not through the law, but through freedom, through grace, where work can occur for the other, for the common good, and for cultural renewal for their own sakes. The law kills, but the spirit gives life. Tullian follows Luther’s insight that the presence of law in the world is written on our hearts, and so it is always our default position. It is grace that is counter-intuitive, disruptive, distinctively uncommon and alien. Grace also undermines all systems of metaphysics, philosophies, and worldviews, especially so-called “Christian” ones. JNE tears open a space for a cultural theology that is sensitive to how grace wrecks havoc in the world of art, culture, and society. A JNE theology of culture revitalizes and deepens involvement in culture as freedom and gift, not as duty or obligation.
Most evangelical Christian worldview thinking is dominated by law, not gospel, by God’s first not his last word. It sets up philosophical, aesthetic, social, and political parameters to guard the Christian or offers a way for a Christian to “engage” (re: defend himself against) culture. But JNE reminds evangelicals that grace cannot be controlled and it cannot be cooperated with. It can only be responded to, and it produces freedom. It is grace, not law, that is remaking the world. It is, as Aslan calls it, a “deeper magic,” even if that magic is not immediately obvious to us.
JNE affirms, following Luther, that because our justification is in Christ, not in our work, we are free, free to see Christ everywhere and in everything, for he is in, as Paul writes in Colossians, “all things.” And that opens up the world to the Christian as pure gift, especially the world of art, literature, and music—those endeavors with no “practical” use and “pragmatic” outcomes that have long troubled evangelicals. It also releases the Christian of the burden of protecting, guarding, and defending the Kingdom of God through law and the devices of the old Adam, through political action, presuming it to be the only legitimate form of Christian cultural participation. JNE creates space for Christian cultural life to be something other and more than defensive. It becomes grace-filled and grace-sensitive. It also creates space for a church, like Coral Ridge, to hire an art historian.
And so I am pleased to pursue my vocation as a Jesus+Nothing=Everything cultural theologian.