Sin Remains: My Response to Rick Phillips
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.”
But I had to tease out my answer a bit because for centuries theologians have acknowledged that “total depravity” means more than one thing. I wrote:
On the one hand, total depravity means that we are all born “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 2:13; Romans 3:10-12;Romans 8:7-8), with no spiritual capacity to incline ourselves Godward. We do not come into this world spiritually neutral; we come into this world spiritually dead…In this sense, total depravity means we are “totally unable” to go to God. We will not because we cannot, and we cannot because we’re dead.
So, in the sense above, Christians are obviously not totally depraved. We who were dead have been made alive.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…(Ephesians 2:4-6)
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?
Theologians speak of total depravity, not only in terms of “total inability” to come to God on our own because we’re spiritually dead, but also in terms of sin’s effect: sin corrupts us in the “totality” of our being. Our minds are affected by sin. Our hearts are affected by sin. Our wills are affected by sin. Our bodies are affected by sin.
The point is that even after God saves us there is no part of us that becomes sin free-we remain imperfect in all of our capacities, in the “totality” of our being. 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.”
This is nothing more and nothing less than classic Reformed theology, which is why I was surprised that Rick Phillips wrote a critique of my post.
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.
First of all, I clearly answered “yes” and “no”, not just “yes.” To say that I answered only “yes” is either a misunderstanding at best or a misrepresentation at worst.
Second of all, I never said total depravity describes believers and unbelievers with respect to our inability to please God. Never. In fact, nothing I wrote could even be interpreted that way.
For whatever reason, Rick is uncomfortable with the phrase “total depravity” being applied to Christians even though I specified what I did and did not mean by it. However, there have been a great number of Reformed theologians who do not have a problem with the phrase “total depravity” being applied to Christians as a way to describe sin continuing to plague us in the “totality” of our being even after God saves us.
As Ligon Duncan rightly points out in his post on this subject:
We reflect less frequently on the depravity which still infects those who have been saved by grace and reborn of the Spirit. This is a serious omission, for misunderstanding or underestimating the continuing corruption in the believer leaves the Christian unprepared for the warfare of sanctification and leads to a variety of spiritual problems…Depravity is still part of the believer’s reality. We not only fall victim to the depravity of others in this life, we continue to see the fruits of depravity in our own character and conduct. As the Westminster Confession puts it: “The corruption of nature remains in the regenerate during this life, and although it has been pardoned and mortified through Christ, yet both itself and all its tendencies are truly and properly sin” (WCF 6.5).
Identifying this problem was the simple goal of my short post. Nothing more, nothing less.
Reformed creeds, confessions, and catechisms have explicitly made the point I was making. Here’s just a small sampling:
The Heidelberg Catechism #62:
But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God? Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment-seat of God must be perfect throughout and wholly conformable to the divine law; whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
The Heidelberg Catechism #114:
Even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience….
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion IX:
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated.
Belgic Confession Article 24:
…we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them.
Westminster Confession of Faith 6:5:
The corruption of nature remains in the regenerate during this life, and although it has been pardoned and mortified through Christ, yet both itself and all its tendencies are truly and properly sin.
Westminster Confession of Faith 13:2:
This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still remnants of corruption in every part….
Westminster Confession of Faith 16:5:
…and as good works are wrought by us [Christians], they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.
Westminster Larger Catechism #78:
…their [believers'] best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.
Even though Rick gives some theological lip service to the sin that continues to plague the redeemed, his tenor and tone downplay the seriousness of our ongoing corruption and the Christians desperate need of God’s grace. He seems to suffer from an over-realized eschatology when it comes to the the doctrine of sanctification. This is extremely dangerous for the reason that Ligon Duncan points out above: “Misunderstanding or underestimating the continuing corruption in the believer leaves the Christian unprepared for the warfare of sanctification and leads to a variety of spiritual problems.” Missing from Rick’s perspective is the unique dynamic explained here.
Furthermore, Rick levels this speculative charge:
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?…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.
No where in my post did I deny the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit or the good works that necessarily flow from saving faith. To insinuate that I did is, again, a misunderstanding at best or a misrepresentation at worst. How Rick concludes that a blog post on remaining sin in Christians leads to “a virtual denial of the transforming effects of regeneration” is baffling. No where in my post did I downplay (or even address) the new nature that marks a Christian and the vitally important ways that Christian’s differ from non-Christians by virtue of their union with Christ–the fact that the Holy Spirit creates a love for the things God loves and a hatred for things God hates; the fact that the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit sets us free from sin and death and sets us free to love God and neighbor. The truth is, as my friend John Dink has said, “Regeneration is not a move away from our total need for grace. It is a rescue from our natural aversion to grace.”
If Rick takes issue with something else I’ve said or written, well, I’m happy to engage with him privately. But as it concerns the particular post I wrote, I’m scratching my head wondering why he (as a Reformed pastor) would write a critique of a blog post where the only point made was that even after God saves us there is no part of us that is sin free.