Tullian, Byron, and the need for repentance

Back in 2011, Tullian Tchividjian—Billy Graham’s son-in-law and at the time pastor of D. James Kennedy’s former church in Florida—released a book as influential as it was terrible: Jesus + Nothing = Everything. What the so-called “no-Lordship” view of salvation was to dispensationalism, this book was to covenantalism. In other words, it gave a theological justification to the erroneous notion that our sanctification actually isn’t that important.

J + N =E became a somewhat popular book. And why wouldn’t it? It was an argument that the best way to increase your sanctification was to stop trying to increase your sanctification. Imagine being a guy tempted to adultery; it is hard work to say “no,” and the temptation doesn’t go away. You love Jesus, of course, so you are saying no, but honestly it is challenging sometimes. Shouldn’t being a Christian be easier?

Then along comes J + N = E, which basically tells you that you are thinking about sanctification all wrong. “It’s not about you committing adultery or not committing adultery—it’s all about Jesus!” Of course the book makes a more substantial theological argument than that (here is my review of J + N = E from 2013), but that is the main point. Underneath it all is a justification for sin. Again, don’t get me wrong: at no point does Tullian come out and say “so therefore, sin away!” But what he does is almost more dangerous. He goes to war against the standard biblical appeals for sanctification, and tears down the Bible’s teaching on the mandates and motives for holiness.

All of this was clear at the time, back in 2011 when the book was first released. But this is the kind of book that prayed on the weak-willed and the undiscerning. Some, like John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, and even here at The Cripplegate, warned people loudly about J + N = E. But this was during the same time period as The Gospel Coalition’s embrace of Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald, and so many people excused criticism of J + N = E as the Grace Church world being overly critical of yet another Gospel Coalition pastor. That’s why I was so thankful for Kevin DeYoung’s book arguing against Tullian’s approach to sanctification, The Hole in our Holiness. It seemed to finally bring the needed attention to the evilness of Tullian’s book.

And if MacArthur’s warnings and DeYoung’s response didn’t wake you up to what was really going on in J + N = E, then certainly Tullian’s affair(s) should have.

I mention all this because this week it came out that a former pastor in Nashville, Byron Yawn, had been having an affair with someone in his congregation. Long time readers of The Cripplegate will remember that Byron helped start this blog, and wrote regularly here for a few years. Back then, he was a supporter of Master’s and an ally in the ministry. But around 2012 or so his theology started to drift. He began to embrace Tullian’s arguments against sanctification. Several people made appeals directly to him to reject Tullian’s teachings, but he didn’t, so he stopped blogging here.

Over the years I’ve received questions from people about why we and Byron parted ways, and I have usually answered them by pointing people to that review I wrote of J + N = E. It appears, based upon the timelines that have been released in lawsuits that Byron’s affair happened after his embrace of Tullian’s views. That should be very sobering—ideas have consequences, and in the case of bad theology, those consequences can be damning.

Of course in hindsight it seems so obvious. A pastor embraces a view of sanctification that undercuts personal holiness, then a few years later it turns out he was having an affair. Did he embrace the theology of the thing to justify his own desires, or did his embrace of the theology lead to the erosion of his desires? It’s hard to say, but either way, this is your reminder that antinomian theology destroys pastors, it destroys marriages, it destroys souls, and it destroys congregations.

Since the news of Byron’s affair has gone public, people have asked me if he has repented. While I haven’t talked to him since we parted ways in 2012, I can say this: I don’t know if the antinomian/Tullian/ J + N = E approach to sanctification even has a category for repentance. It is more along the lines of “repent by not repenting.” I’d tell anyone who is trapped in that system to understand that it is a whole world view that has to be repented of. Give up on the system Tullian presented, repent of it, and instead embrace the Bible’s mandate for holiness, apart from which nobody will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). No matter how much you have sinned, repentance is always one step away. But in the case of those whose sins are theological, such as the embrace of this form of Christian living, repentance must include a repudiation of that antinomian teaching.  

I wish I could say that Byron is the only person I know that has read Tullian, believed it, and then fallen into disqualifying sin. But alas, he is not. I’m thankful for the faithful men who have influenced my life (like MacArthur), who have seen the danger in the teaching of men like Driscoll, MacDonald, and Tchividjian.  This week has reminded me that even though those men have publically disqualified themselves from ministry, the lingering effects of their ministries are still being felt in the lives of those that followed their teaching.

If that is you, I appeal to you leave it behind, and embrace what the Bible teaches about sanctification. Repentance is always only one step away, and let the ruined lives of those that refused to repent be a warning to you.

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