Between mid-November and mid-December, PCA teaching elders Tullian Tchividian and Rick Phillips engaged in an exchange of blog posts debating the nature of sanctification, centering on the question “Are Christians Totally Depraved?” We have provided portions of their posts below with links to the entire post, along with a portion of and link to a post written by teaching elder Ligon Duncan in response to their exchange. As will always be the case, any comments are invited and encouraged (so long as they meet our guidelines), but in addition to your opinions concerning the subject under debate, we’d be interested in your response to these questions: (1) Did this public interaction bring greater clarity about the topic under debate? (2) Are online exchanges like this a useful forum for theological reflection?    

 Are Christians Totally Depraved? by Tullian Tchivjian

Believe it or not, this is an important question. It’s not simply a theological question. It’s a theological question that has profound practical implications. Our answer will inevitably reveal our understanding of the gospel and reflect our understanding of sin and grace.

First things first: what total depravity isn’t.

Total depravity does not mean “utter depravity.” Utter depravity means that someone is as bad as he/she can possibly be. Thankfully, God’s restraining grace keeps even the worst of us from being utterly depraved. The worst people who have ever lived could’ve been worse. So, don’t read “utter depravity” into “total depravity.”

Well, if total depravity isn’t utter depravity, then what is it? As understood and articulated by theologians for centuries, the idea of “total depravity” means more than one thing.

On the one hand, total depravity affirms that we are all born “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 2:13), with no spiritual capacity to incline ourselves Godward. We do not come into this world spiritually neutral; we come into this world spiritually dead.  . . . Salvation only happens when God comes to us. . .

So, in the sense above, Christians are obviously not totally depraved. We who were dead have been made alive. . .

But once God regenerates us by his Spirit, draws us to himself, unites us to Christ, raises us from the dead, and grants us status as adopted sons and daughters, is there any sense in which we can speak of Christian’s being totally depraved?

Yes.

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Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved by Rick Phillips

 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.  . .

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.

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 Sin Remains: My Response to Rick Phillips by Tullian Tchividjian

A couple weeks ago I posted a blog asking the question “Are Christians totally depraved?” The point I wanted to make was simple: “Because Christian’s never leave off sinning, they can never leave the Gospel” (Spurgeon).

The reason this is so important is because we will always be suspicious of grace (“yes grace, but…”) until we realize our desperate need for it. Our dire need for God’s grace doesn’t get smaller after God saves us. We never outgrow our need for Christ’s finished work on our behalf-we never graduate beyond our desperate need for Christ’s righteousness and his strong and perfect blood-soaked plea “before the throne of God above.”

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Oh to Grace How Great a Debtor — A Reply to Tullian Tchividjian by Rick Phillips

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.

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God Doesn’t Need Your Good Works…But Your Neighbor Does by Tullian Tchividjian

Pertinent to any discussion regarding justification and sanctification is the question of effort. In my recent back and forth with Rick Phillips on the nature of sin and its ongoing effect on the Christian, some have assumed that when I say there is no part of Christians that are sin free, I’m also endorsing a “why-even-try”, effortless approach to the Christian life–that I’m overlooking or understating the importance of “sanctification.” I suspect that one of the reasons for this is owing to my passion to help people understand the inseparable relationship between justification and sanctification.

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Misconceptions About Justification and Sanctification by Rick Phillips

I have benefited from reading the comments on the wide variety of blogs that have picked up the discussion between Tullian Tchividjian and me on the subject of total depravity, the Christian, and the doctrine of sanctification.  In some respects, these conversations are most valuable in terms of the interplay that takes place in the comments.  I have been helped by reading what people are thinking and want to thank those who have commented, whether positively or negatively about me.  I have found, however, a number of misconceptions that it may help to have cleared up.  Here are five points that I hope will clarify this discussion:

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Total Depravity and the Believer’s Sanctification by Ligon Duncan

Tullian Tchividjian of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Ft Lauderdale, FL and Rick Phillips of Second Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC have recently engaged with the doctrine of total depravity in its relation to Christians. That is, they are discussing not whether or not people in their natural state are totally depraved, but whether and in what sense believers may be spoken of as “totally depraved.” This is a very important issue, so I am glad to have it put on the front burner.

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