Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved
November 29, 2012
One of the most pressing concerns in Reformed churches today is the importance of getting the gospel right. Recently, Reformed churches have had to oppose the Federal Vision theology, which compromises justification by inserting good works into the definition of faith. Unfortunately, Christians tend to defend doctrines by erring in the opposite direction. So it is that Reformed churches are presently facing a corruption of the gospel by the virtual denial of sanctification and good works.
In the context of this situation, Tullian Tchividjian has written a blog post addressing the first of the five points of Calvinism, total depravity, which defines the full extent of man's problem in sin. Tchividjian asks, "Are Christians Totally Depraved?" and answers, Yes. Regenerate believers in Christ are, he says, totally depraved. It is true, he admits, that Christians differ from unbelievers in that God's grace has enabled us to believe the gospel, yet total depravity describes both believers and unbelievers with respect to our inability to live so as to please God. He concludes his post with a punchy summary: "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."
What's wrong with a statement like this, the point of which is to exalt God's grace? The problem is that Tchividjian teaches that, apart from our change in legal status through justification, Christians are in the same spiritual condition after regeneration as before. Unbelievers are totally depraved and Christians are totally depraved; the same condition describes them both. When it comes to sanctification, then, the logical implication of Tchividjian's reasoning is this: why should I exert any effort towards holiness since I am still totally depraved? For this reason, Tchividjian's formula, commendably designed to exalt God's grace, actually denigrates the grace of God in regeneration by leaving sinners in their totally depraved condition.
Tchividjian argues his case by observing that believers in Christ remain affected by sin "in the 'totality' of our being," with our minds, hearts, wills, and bodies still facing sin's corrupting effects. This is undoubtedly true. But this is not to say that Christians remain totally depraved. Louis Berkhof defined total depravity in two respects. Berkhof observes that in the totally depraved man 1) "the inherent corruption extends to every part of man's nature;" and 2) "that there is no spiritual good, that is good in relation to God, in the sinner at all, but only perversion."(1) It is especially with respect to the second of these items that total depravity describes not regenerate Christians but unregenerate non-Christians. Consider Robert Reymond's description of the totally depraved person: "His understanding is darkened, his mind is at enmity with God, his will to act is slave to his darkened understanding and rebellious mind, his heart is corrupt, his emotions are perverted, his affections naturally gravitate to that which is evil and ungodly, his conscience is untrustworthy, and his body is subject to mortality." It is obvious that this is not a description of a Christian, even though there remain traces of this depravity in a believer's character. This is why Reymond, like Berkhof, applies the concept of total depravity to "man in his raw, natural state as he comes from the womb,"(2) and not to the Christian.
There is no question as to the cause Tchividjian is seeking to serve. The point of his post is to bring forth the refrain that because of "the totality of sin's effect, therefore, we never outgrow our need for Christ's finished work on our behalf." Amen to that. Nevertheless, one must ask if, under Tchividjian's scheme, the Christian's regeneration has any effect other than justification. When a Christian was born again, was this merely a judicial event? Was he changed so that in vitally important ways he is no longer the person he was before? Is there any meaningful transformation of the sinner by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit? In short, if unbeliever and believer are alike totally depraved, what has union with Christ achieved other than justification?
Tchividjian might answer these criticisms by pointing out a statement in his article that for the Christian "there is nowhere where Christ has not arrived by his Spirit." Amen, again. The problem is that this statement is lodged within a sentence that urges not the Spirit's enlivening presence and power but the Christian's enduring bondage in sin. He thus immediately adds that "it is equally true that there is no part of any Christian in this life that is free of sin." Here we must particularly quarrel. It is true that Christians must continually contend with sin, but are we not substantially freed, and increasingly being freed, from the power of sin? If not, then what did Jesus mean by saying, "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (Jn. 8:36)? While there is truth behind Tchividjian's statements, his emphasis seems to be at odds with the Bible's emphasis on the transformation begun in regeneration and continuing throughout a believer's life.
Concerns that Tchividjian downplays the reality of a Christian's sanctification are heightened when he pits Christian growth against reliance on God's grace. Consider his statement:
Many Christians think that becoming sanctified means that we become stronger and stronger, more and more competent. And although we would never say it this way, we Christian's (sic) sometimes give the impression that sanctification is growth beyond our need for Jesus and his finished work for us: we needed Jesus a lot for justification; we need him less for sanctification.
Notice the dichotomy. To believe that in sanctification we are becoming stronger and stronger, and more spiritually competent, must mean we think that we no longer need Jesus and his finished work. Conversely, those who rely on Jesus should not expect to grow stronger or more competent.
This is contrary to the Bible's approach to sanctification. Psalm 1 says that when a believer devotes himself to Scripture, "He 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). Here is a picture of growth, strength, and spiritual competency. Yet it would be utterly wrong to say that this means such a person has become self-reliant at the expense of Christ-reliance. Rather, Christ-reliance will have the effect of strengthening his disciples so that, as Paul put in 2 Timothy 3:17, "the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."
I sincerely appreciate Tchividjian's ceaseless labors to ensure that Christians live in exultant dependence on the glorious person and finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet this noble project does not require sanctification to be subsumed into the doctrine of justification (a problem noted in David Murray's review of Tchvidjian's book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything). When it comes to Tchividjian's application of total depravity to the Christian, the effect is the virtual denial of the transforming effects of regeneration.
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).
Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of the historic Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, South Carolina. He is the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.
1 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 247.
2 Robert Reymond, Systematic Theology, 450.