A while ago I posted an article entitled, “Is Anyone More Holy Than Anyone Else? The Missing Category of the ‘Righteous Man”. In that article I discussed the downplaying of sanctification and holiness in some Reformed circles today. For whatever set of reasons, certain pastors and theologians are convinced that in order to preserve the doctrine of justification we cannot emphasize that real progress is possible in our sanctification. If we are really about ‘grace’, we are told, then we must focus predominantly on our depravity.
In my prior post, I argued that one of the motivations for this entire approach is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of total depravity:
Reformed believers love the doctrine of total depravity. And rightly so. It is core biblical teaching that the natural man is fallen in every part of his being: morally, intellectually, emotionally, volitionally. The natural man does not love God, desire God, or seek God. Thus, it is only by God’s wonderful grace that we come to a saving knowledge of him. But, the problem is that we don’t talk as much about how a person’s dark heart is changed after regeneration. We don’t talk as much about the new man. Thus, we can begin to believe that no one really changes. No one can really be holy. Totally depravity becomes the unfortunate justification for declaring everyone is equally as sinful as everyone else.
Given the ongoing misunderstanding of total depravity, even within (or especially within!) Reformed circles, I am appreciative of the recent article by Rick Phillips, “Thank God Christians are Not Totally Depraved.” Rick is responding to a prior post by Tullian Tchividjian entitled, “Are Christians Totally Depraved?” where Tullian, in effect, answers yes. Rick provides a helpful and balanced response, reminding us that we need not pit justification and sanctification against one another. Here’s his conclusion:
To be sure, Christians remain dependent on Christ’s grace for sanctification, just as we have for justification. Yet it is because Christians are no longer totally depraved but born again in union with Christ that the apostle urges, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (Phil. 2:12-13). Thank God that regeneration does not leave Christ’s people in the situation of those who reject him in unbelief. We are certainly still dealing with sin in the totality of our beings, but thank God that we are no longer totally depraved. Praise God that, as Paul wrote, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Primarily the five points were a response to the differences between two Christian denominations & they are good for drawing attention to them. Total depravity sounds terrible & is not a flattering term, but in truth, regarding the fall/corruption of humanity it is apt. As much as the world is fallen in sin it still shares in the goodness of God, so we get glimpses of both…evil & good in varying measures.
How good it is that there is more than one point though (total depravity). Being set free (from sin) & the tyranny of the devil in order to walk with God, whatever our calling through the power of the gospel is something the Heidelberg Catechism makes abundantly clear. I recall Martyn Lloyd Jones once describing in a book, a set of teachings like peaks that belong to the one mountain…
One side would have us believe that Jesus has fished us out of the waters of unbelief and depravity only to let us dangle on the hook, writhing for oxygen. And with each gasping breath, praising God that by His grace we have been “hooked”. And with each desperate breath, longing for glorification.
But, rightly, the other side (Phillips) has a better story. Jesus has fished us out of the waters of unbelief and depravity and done a remarkable thing. He has set us free into a new water; a living water. A water in which we can swim in freedom as a new creation no longer a slave to our sin and depravity. A water in which with each swimming stroke we renew our minds and grow in the knowledge and grace of the God who “hooked” us. And as we live and breath this living water it sanctifies us. We breath it; we drink it; we swim; but it is it that sanctifies us.
A careful reading of what I actually said in that article reveals that Christians are not totally depraved in one sense and they are in another. I made it very clear that, as understood and articulated by theologians for centuries, the idea of “total depravity” means more than one thing.
In the sense that the phrase “total depravity” pertains to Christians, I make it clear that what I mean specifically is even after God saves us, there is no part of us that becomes sin free–we remain sinful and imperfect in all of our capacities, in the “totality” of our being. Even after God saves us, our thoughts, words, motives, deeds, and affections need the constant cleansing of Christ’s blood and the forgiveness that comes our way for free. This is what J.C. Ryle was getting at when he wrote, “Even the best things we do have something in them to be pardoned.”
I’m surprised that you or Rick would argue with that. This wasn’t an article about the new birth. This was a blog post on how remaining sin means we never outgrow our need for God’s grace. That’s it.
Rick (especially) seems to be arguing for and against points that I didn’t even make or intend to address in this short blog post.
Hope you’re well!
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Tullian. Great to hear from you. And I appreciate your comments and clarifications. Thanks for explaining your original article more clearly. I agree that there are different senses in which total depravity applies to Christians. I trust that these exchanges can help bring fuller clarity and precision about these things.
“…even after God saves us, there is no part of us that becomes sin free–we remain sinful and imperfect in all of our capacities….” That may be what your theology teaches, but it COMPLETELY contradicts what Scripture plainly and repeatedly says.
Richard Klaus says
As I read the full exchanges I think that Rick Phillips has some good points that Tullian needs to interact with in more detail. Tullian wants to argue regarding his blog post: “This was a blog post on how remaining sin means we never outgrow our need for God’s grace. That’s it.” Maybe that was Tullian’s narrow intention but Phillips puts that narrow truth into a wider framework. He talks of how traditional Reformed theology has understood total depravity (e.g., Berkhof) and then mentions Tullian’s larger tendency to collapse sanctification into justification. It would helpful to see Tullian interact with these points. Let’s agree that Tullian’s narrow point is acceptable the question is still one of emphasis. Does the NT portrait of life in Christ lead one to emphasize a perspective of total depravity or newness of life? Sure, both elements may be present but where is the emphasis, and does that emphasis find its proper emphasis in Tullian’s teaching?
Thanks Mike! By the way, here’s my response to Rick: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2012/12/03/sin-remains-my-response-to-rick-phillips/
All of God’s blessings, brother!
Carlton Wynne says
Tullian has, understandably, defended himself here and elsewhere that his primary aim was to highlight the Christian’s constant need for the imputed righteousness of Christ rather than explore the implications of regeneration for Christian living. But, perhaps because the ensuing discussion has often veered into the meaning of “total depravity” (an important issue), it appears Tullian has failed to see how his subsequent comments provide fodder (!) for those who believe he has not adequately recognized the character and necessity of progressive sanctification.
For example, Tullian writes, “Spiritual maturity is not marked by our growing, independent fitness. Rather, it’s marked by our growing dependence on Christ’s fitness for us.” The word “independent” here subtly but strongly implies that any other kind of “growth” or “fitness” is not of concern to Tullian, and/or may even evidence diminishing reliance on Christ. That is, at a minimum, the impression too often received by his “fans and foes” alike.
Similarly, he writes, “Christian growth involves believing and embracing the fact that, even as a Christian, you’re worse than you think you are but that God’s grace toward you in Christ is much bigger than you could ever imagine.” Christian growth certainly “involves” this, but it also “involves” much more, particularly actual Spiritual growth in holiness.
Tullian has argued that he does not neglect such balancing truths. But the ways he phrases his dichotomies and alternatives often communicate that he does. Sometimes consistently emphasizing a true aspect of the gospel gives birth to a counterbalancing silence. For many of Tullian’s critics, that silence has become destructively deafening, and his critics are attempting to fill the void.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks for this, Carlton. A very helpful analysis of how silence on certain theological truths can create an imbalance, even if a person still believes them. Great to hear from you!