Oh to Grace How Great a Debtor -- A Reply to Tullian Tchividjian

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I was glad to see some some constructive dialogue in the comments section of Tullian Tchividjian's reply to my critique of his article on total depravity and Christians.  Let me say at this point (even though I look forward to the day when such statements are not necessary) that: 1) I bear no ill will to Tullian nor was I launching a personal attack against him; 2) I wrote an article expressing concern about something he had written, not heresy charges in a court of the church; and 3) it has been my impression that the whole point of blogging is to stimulate useful thinking among Christians.  This is why I engaged in a public response to a public article rather than private dialogue.  

Being something of an internet veteran, I was not surprised, however,  to see that it took only three comments to Tullian's reply for one of his supporters to accuse me of sin.  I hope in this response to allay such concerns and hopefully to advance constructive dialogue further.
My aim in this reply will therefore be simply to clarify my original concerns with Tullian's previous article.  They are these: 

1.  The doctrine of total depravity does not merely state that after the Fall all men and women are effected by sin in the totality of their beings.  The doctrine also states that they have no disposition towards God but only hostility and spiritual inability (see Berkhof, p. 247 for this definition).  I agree that Tullian specified the former and not the latter of these two components.  The problem is that the term "total depravity" includes both.  In his reply, Tullian gave numerous citations from Reformed confessions regarding the on-going depravity of Christians.  I would not quarrel with any of them, but would only note that none of these define Christians with the term "total depravity," nor with the definition of this specific doctrine.  So, in this respect, my critique of Tullian was saying, "Please don't use the term 'total depravity' for regenerate Christians, even while seeking to qualify the term, because it is not accurate."

2.  Now why would I write a critique just to point out problem in correctly using a theological term?  The answer is because of the implications.  Not only does the term "total depravity" not apply to Christians, but even the qualified use of it gives what I believe is a misleading impression that greatly downplays the glorious effects of God's grace in regeneration.  You see this in the parallel construction that I highlighted from Tullian's conclusion: "Because of total depravity, you and I were desperate for God's grace before we were saved.  Because of total depravity, you and I remain desperate for God's grace even after we're saved."  Notice that this is a positive comparison between Christians and non-Christians when it comes to our spiritual condition and our disposition towards sanctification. Here lies the heart of my concern.  Again, my problem is not only that the term "total depravity" is wrongly applied to believers, but that it is done in such a way as to give the impression that Christians and non-Christians are in the same boat with respect to our spiritual condition.  It may be that Tullian did not mean to give this impression, but in my opinion this impression is unavoidable given the things he wrote in that article.  In fact, Christians and non-Christians are so radically different (because of the grace of regeneration) that the emphasis should starkly contrast them, not positively compare them.  Christians and non-Christians are so different when it comes to their disposition towards God and their potential for positive effort in sanctification that Paul describes believers as "new creations."

3.  Tullian helpfully described my position on sanctification as an "over-realized eschatology." I really appreciate this statement because it helpfully points out the difference between what we have written on grace and sanctification.  His statement implies that I consider him to hold an "under-realized eschatology" on sanctification, and this is completely accurate.  
For clarity's sake (not to "win an argument" but constructively to advance one), let's consider the statements that I made which Tullian views as an over-realized eschatology.  I cited Psalm 1 as a paradigmatic statement of the Christian and sanctification (which I believe it is): The Christian "is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.  In all that he does, he prospers" (Ps. 1:3).  I asserted that this describes growth, strength, and competency, and I expressed concern that Tullian had highlighted these very descriptions as signs of a lack of reliance on Christ's grace.  Here is the sentence in his article to which I was reacting: "Many Christians think that becoming sanctified means that we become stronger and stronger, more and more competent."  I am one of these Christians.  The next sentence asserts that Christians who talk this way may really believe they no longer need Christ's grace.  My concern with this construction is as follows: to say that Christians are able (by God's grace in Christ) to exert effort towards sanctification, and to experience increased strength and competency in doing so, is not a sub-biblical approach to sanctification that should be suspected of self-reliance.  Rather, it is the essential biblical doctrine of sanctification.  

Here, then, is a summary which I would be glad to have quoted as representing my position: "Because we are no longer totally depraved by virtue of the grace of regeneration, Christians can exert effort towards our sanctification and we are called to do so by the Bible (note how often the apostles call for this very effort towards holiness -- Romans 12:1 and following; Galatians 5:16 and following; Ephesians 4:1 and following; 1 Thessalonians 4:1 and following, etc.).  Christians will fail in many ways and our efforts will be flawed and marred by sin, all of which is cleansed by Christ's blood.  Nonetheless, Christians should grow spiritually, should become stronger and more competent, and should bear testimony to their discipleship by bearing good fruit, which is only possible by God's grace in union with Christ through faith and is therefore to God's glory alone (Jn. 15:5-8).  As Paul put it, 'The grace of God has appeared... training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age' (Tit. 2:13)."

If Tullian replies that he embraces everything in my summary, I will be first among those who are happy.  It is my opinion, however, that his writing has suggested a different approach to sanctification, one that largely conflates it with justification, discourages Christians to believe that effort in sanctification is likely to succeed, and raises suspicions that such an approach lacks reliance on the grace of Christ.  It may be that Tullian and I will continue to disagree on this matter.  In that case, I will continue to wish him well and will likely present arguments for the position I consider most biblical and helpful to Christ's people.  Why?  Because these things matter.  Why publicly?  Because we are public teachers and just as our writings are public the critique should be public.  May the Lord bless both Tullian and those readers who care enough about this matter to read these materials.  May you be rewarded with a clearer view of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, which I believe both Tullian and I are committed to exalting.

Posted December 4, 2012 @ 10:23 AM by Rick Phillips

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