Tullian Tchividjian and Rick Phillips have gone back and forth a few times about “total depravity,” justification, and sanctification. The back-and-forth is similar to that engaged in by Tullian and Kevin DeYoung some months back, except that the impetus for this one developed from a post by Tullian in which he tackled the question of whether or not Christians can be considered “totally depraved.” Below are links to all of the posts with a brief discussion and commentary on each.
Tullian’s answer to this question is twofold. In the sense of total inability to seek God, Tullian says no. But he affirms that there is a sense in which believers are totally depraved: in that sin reaches to the totality of our being. Put differently, he means that we are dependent on God’s grace in every aspect of our lives. He ends with this statement:
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.
When I first read this article, I couldn’t help but think that though his basic point is needed and important (i.e., that we still need God’s grace after regeneration), his statements could have used a clearer formulation.
Rick Phillips was concerned that in Tullian’s original post, he muddled the waters on the role of good works and sanctification after regeneration by the Holy Spirit. In particular, he was bothered by the quote above, in which Tullian seems to make too little of the radical change that happens in regeneration.
In particular, Phillips appeals to the historical and theological use of the term “total depravity,” arguing that it cannot be separated from the idea of “total inability.” I.e., though he certainly agrees that we have continuing corruption post regeneration, he disagrees that total depravity is an appropriate term to describe that ongoing corruption.
Phillips expands his concerns to Tullian’s words about the role of effort and transformation in sanctification. Summarizing how he understood Tullian’s post, he says,
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.
He rejects that characterization of the Christian life, saying instead that Tullian’s approach
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.”
As I’ve read through both Tullian’s post and Phillips’ response, I can’t but help think that the latter part of Phillips’ post is the better part. I too was bothered by how Tullian put some things and the use of total depravity to describe the believer at all. But I’m not sure that he was fair to Tullian at the beginning, when he said that Tullian “teaches that, apart from our change in legal status through justification, Christians are in the same spiritual condition after regeneration as before.” I don’t think Tullian went that far. He did note discontinuities between our spiritual state before and after faith.
But the later part of his post hits the crux of the matter: what total depravity actually means and the reality of transformation in the Christian life.
Tullian immediately hits on what I just noted, that Phillips perhaps didn’t treat him completely fairly by acknowledging the discontinuities that Tullian did acknowledge. To support his yes-and-no answer to the original question, he cites Ligon Duncan and several Reformed confessions and catechisms that discuss the reality of ongoing corruption in the nature of believers.
Additionally, Tullian suggests that the tone of Phillips response does not recognize the depths of depravity that are still present in the life of the believer. He also rejects that he downplayed the reality of ongoing change in the life of the believer. He expresses a bit of befuddlement at the reaction to what he sees as the pure and simple point of his original post: “that even after God saves us there is no part of us that is sin free.”
I thought this response from Tullian was helpful in the sense that he clarified that he was simply trying to express the reality of ongoing sin and need for God’s grace in the lives of believers. I wish, however, that he had addressed Phillips’ point about how total depravity has traditionally been used in Reformed theology. I.e., his quotes from the confessions are great, but conspicuously, none of them use the term “total depravity,” which is the very point under discussion.
In this post, Phillips attempts to clarify his original concerns with Tullian’s article. His first concern is the one I’ve already mentioned several times, the historical use of “total depravity.”
His second point is that by using “total depravity” to apply to the Christian in even a qualified way, Phillips believes that Tullian gives the impression that Christians and non-Christians “are in the same boat with respect to our spiritual condition.” He sees this as a great danger, because it downplays the glories of regeneration.
His third point gets to his underlying concerns with Tullian’s position on sanctification:
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.
I found this post to be clearer and more discussion-advancing than his original reply to Tullian. Tullian has yet to reply to this post, but I hope that he will, as I find the discussion helpful to me.
Phillips posted this further article not so much to respond to Tullian as to lay out some key issues that he sees as helpful in the discussion. The article is helpful, and below are the main points:
1. Total depravity is not proved by arguing for the on-going presence of sin in the believer.
2. Luther’s wonderful formula, simil justus et peccator (simultaneously just and a sinner), is the Reformation doctrine of justification, not sanctification.
3. A robust approach to sanctification will not cast formerly discouraged believers back into despair.
4. To express concern about a de-emphasis on sanctification is not to question justification.
5. Many comments suggest that to pursue sanctification seriously will undermine their assurance of salvation, since they are relying on justification through faith alone.
One final thought: TGC has had a number of roundtable video discussions on a variety of topics in the past. It would be wonderful to have Tullian and Rick (and maybe Kevin DeYoung and Mike Horton) get together to discuss these issues. I tend to think that a good verbal discussion would be beneficial to the church and clarifying to those of us watching.