Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

28 May 2014

A Century-Old Answer to Tchividjianism: Studies in Perfection by B. B. Warfield


Normally when book reviews appear on this website, they’re for new books: cutting edge books that add some new piece of information or fresh analysis to our ever-growing bank of theological information. But we also need to reflect on historical gems—classic treatments that inform the present far more thoroughly and penetratingly than any one week’s worth of web chatter can possibly hope to do.

So for my contribution to the Tchividjian controversy, rather than manufacture some spectacular new twist, I’d instead like to commend to our readers B. B. Warfield’s out-of-print work Studies in Perfectionism, a condensation of his larger block of material on sanctification that appears as vols. 7 & 8 of his Collected Works (still available for sale today). Those familiar with this work will recognize it as perhaps the most devastating critique of Keswick theology ever written. But it is more than that. It is a critique of a recurring error that has erupted perhaps dozens of times in the history of the church—an error that stands opposite that of Legalism/Pharisaism and has earned labels like “Antinomianism,” “Libertinism,” or in Warfield’s tome, “Perfectionism.”

If legalism errs by leaking a deadly sort of synergism back into the doctrine of justification, granting works an inordinate role in earning divine favor and assaulting the doctrine of solus Christus, perfectionism errs by projecting a deadly form of monergism forward so as to subsume sanctification in its scope. Frustrated by dead orthodoxies where individuals work very hard to earn favor with God, perfectionists seek ways to grow in grace authentically, without expending any effort at all, relying wholly upon Christ to unilaterally accomplish for me the Christian growth that I once thought was accomplished through obedience (or to use a more sinister word, “law-keeping”). This all-I-have-is-Christ approach to sanctification occurs almost magically: all I need to do is to “reckon” on my standing in Christ (that’s the Keswick version) or preach the Gospel to myself (that’s the Tchividjian version), and I will grow—almost without even trying and free from the frustrations experienced by those wicked folks who are “striving” to be more like Christ.

To be fair, many perfectionists defy their own theology and actively live holy lives, so we must be careful not to overstate the perfectionist error. But it is an error, and it is not new. Just as Romanism (the premier expression of legalism) found its pendular opposite in Lutheranism, Scholasticism in Holiness Theology, and Modernism in Keswick Theology, so also the excesses of Fundamentalism have produced Tchividjianism. I can only wish that Warfield were here today to write an appendix to his most excellent book.

Tolle Lege.

10 Responses

  1. Jay Searcy

    Please help me to understand the issue better. I have only read one of Tchividjian’s writings and I did not sense that he was confusing justification and present sanctification. My take was, in probably a too simplistic nutshell, that Tullian wanted his readers to remember that the business, treadmill, autosynthetic (my word)Christianity that so many Christians are living, especially man-pleasing pastors (sadly I include myself in this group too often) has nothing to do with our standing before God POSITIONALLY. Yes, we need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling and we need to make it our ambition always to figure out what pleases the Lord, because in some form or fashion He is pleased with our obedience. Yet, at the end of the day, we are at best unworthy servants whose works are so inter-mingled with self that our only hope, and the only reason we can sleep at night with any peace, is that we are robed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

    That being said. What exactly is the noose around Tullian’s neck. Is he really an antinomian? I am not being smart or sarcastic. I don’t have time to read everything he has written and for my own sake and perhaps for the sake of any error-unaware in my teaching I need to know.

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    Jay, if I can summarize TT’s theology in two sentences (always dangerous), his central message is that (1) The enemies of sanctification are “striving” and “law-keeping” and (2) Sanctification advances best when I stop thinking about what I must “do” (law) and instead fixate on what Christ has “done” (gospel). Both of these points sound good at first blush. But when we strip away the inflammatory verbiage, what he’s really saying is this:

    (1) The enemies of sanctification are discipline (striving) and obedience (law-keeping). Put this way, TT is teaching an error of prodigious proportions. While discipline and obedience contribute nothing to my justification, the NT is plumb full of commands to strive mightily in our pursuit of austerity, discipline, and obedience (1 Cor 6:18; 9:27; 2 Cor 7:1; Eph 4:22-32; Phil 2:12-13; 3:13-14; Col 3:5-17; 1 Thess 4:3; 2 Tim 2:22; Titus 2:12; 1 John 3:3), and even calls it slavery to a new law (Rom 6:18, 22; 1 Cor 7:19; 9:19-21; Gal 5:13; 6:2; Jas 1:25; 2:12).

    (2) Sanctification takes place when I stop obeying (doing) and continue in sin that grace may abound (because Christ does it all). If I can say it bluntly, TT has exemplified precisely Paul’s concern when he wrote Romans 6. And Paul’s solution is not to let go and let Christ. His solution is to “live a new life,” “don’t let sin reign,” “don’t be an instrument of sin,” “obey the ‘form of teaching'” as “slaves to righteousness.”

    So, is it fair to accuse TT of antinomian? Absolutely. But let me explain what I mean by that. To accuse someone of antinomianism is not to accuse them of licentiousness or of taking a shrugging view of sin. So far as I know, TT is not guilty of this. But he believes that spiritual growth flourishes best when we fixate on the Gospel and and forget about the rules. And THAT is very essence of Antinomianism. In brief, Antinomianism is the idea that “law” (whether The Law or laws/rules generally) has as its primary (or only) purpose to condemn, and that the believer, now justified from the law, must set aside “law” when he embraces “gospel.” For a really, really good treatment of this see Mark Jones’s book, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest, (P&R, 2013).

    1. Jay Searcy

      Thank you for the reply Mark. I read, in full, Phillips response to TT, including the links to TT’s blog posts, and I was appalled, especially with the ridiculous frog illustration. My first thought, as you pointed out, it that someone must have ripped Romans 6 out of TT’s Good News Bible. Judging from what I just read guys like TT are exactly why John wrote his first epistle. I never imagined someone could believe as he does, not even TT’s grandfather!

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    That is a very carefully conceived set of affirmations/denials, Ryan. I was not previously aware of this web page.

  4. Don Johnson

    Mark, does Piper teach something similar to TT? I have thought so, but I wonder if I am reading it right.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Mark Snoeberger

    Don, I think there’s a general tendency within today’s conservative evangelicalism to emphasize justification to the neglect of other aspects of the Gospel: “Gospel-centered” and “Christ-centered” too often mean something akin to “Christ’s-work-in-justification-only.” Specific to this discussion, we’re seeing the experimental basis for sanctification (i.e., regeneration) squeezed out by a strictly forensic basis for sanctification (i.e., justification). And that’s a serious problem.

    If evangelicalism hopes to regain its balance, it really needs to give more attention to the experimental features of the gospel without neglecting the forensic.

    1. Don Johnson

      Thanks for that. I’ve been noticing this in many places, wondering about its source.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Josh Peglow

    Mark, thanks for the article. I appreciated it except for one thing. Heartily recommending an out of print is just bad form.