Tullian Tchividjian|11:48 am CT

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.

I continued:

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.

Rick writes:

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 and we therefore remain desperately dependent on God’s grace.


  1. When I said, above, “instead of creating a phrase,” I was referring to the phrase, “self-forgetfulness.”

  2. Lastly, guys, remember that both Peter and Paul make it clear that all of this happens when we learn, day by day, to really LIVE through Christ, and not in OUR eforts:

    “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I NOW LIVE in the flesh I LIVE BY FAITH in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”-Gal 2:20

    In Gal 5, he says it is a conscious (not forgetful) “walk”:

    Galatians 5:16

    “But I say, WALK BY THE SPIRIT and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

    So this is what happens when we allow the words of scripture to inform us in the relevant passages. The word is so alive and complete!

  3. Thanks to those who commented about my question about “self-forgetfulness.”

    theoldadam (if you’re still reading) – Your first comment was quite helpful. I know from experience that, yes, there are times (not often, unfortunately) when I simply do something that probably qualifies as “good” (though still corrupted with sin) without considering it. “Self-forgetfulness,” though, still seems like one of those words or phrases, like “victorious Christian life,” which is more hurtful than helpful, and can lead to legalism (“Have I forgotten myself enough?”) just as much as a misuse of God’s commands can.

    On the other subject: You are critical of the words “if you,” as in Rom. 13. But if Scripture sometimes uses those words in the context of, as Scott Leonard says, “our daily walk,” meaning our sanctification (well-explained, I think, by jeremiah), why do you place them in the context of justification and say that they lead to damnation?

    Scott Leonard – I agree, let’s go to Scripture instead of creating a phrase, partly for the reason I give above. Your quotation from 2 Peter is particularly apt.

  4. Well, I thought I posted a comment; instead, it disappeared. A shortened version:

    theoldadam – Your first comment was quite helpful. There are times when I do something “good” without first considering it. But I think “self-forgetfulness” can lead to legalism (“Have I forgotten myself enough?”) as surely as misusing God’s commands can.

    On the other subject: When “if you” is used (as in Rom 8:13) in the context of, as Scott said, “our daily walk,” meaning sanctification (as, I think, jeremiah explained well), why do you put it in the context of justification and say that it leads to damnation?

    Scott – I agree that we should go to Scripture instead of inventing phrases. Your quotation from 2 Pet is particularly apt.

  5. Tullian continues to make a great argument for the Christian’s remaining struggle with the flesh. But to call this “total depravity” is to take a phrase that describes the unbelievers total inability to please God in every part of his being and apply it to the believer who now by God’s grace and indwelling Holy Spirit has the ability to please the Lord. Not perfectly to be sure. But none the less the ability is there whereas it was not before. I AM a new creation in Christ. I AM NOT a slave to sin but a slave to righteousness (Ro.6). I remain unconvinced that the creeds and some of our Reformed forefathers used “total depravity” to describe the remaining sin in believers. For them it described only the unbeliever.

  6. William (Bill) Phillips,

    “I remain unconvinced that the creeds and some of our Reformed forefathers used “total depravity” to describe the remaining sin in believers. For them it described only the unbeliever.”

    Exactly- and I think this usage adds to confusion rather than bringing clarity.

  7. Agree. And I think it adds to discouragement as well. Especially when wielded by those who use it to manipulate. (And I am NOT referring to Mr. Tchividjian.)

  8. Bill, Here’s part of the problem: Some people think the following verses are only Eschatalogically true, that they are only “positionally” true. If that were the case, vs1 would not say “HOW can…?” It would say, “Why should…..? It’s possible that they think “in Christ” is just religious talk, a nice category, rather than a description of our DNA and our location! Here’s the passage, and it seems to describe a far more monumental identity change for those in Christ than some wish to embrace!

    Romans 6:1-2, 4-6…..

    “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! HOW CAN WE who died to sin still live in it? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, JUST AS Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, WE TOO might WALK in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we SHALL CERTAINLY (now) be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the BODY of sin might be brought to nothing (made powerless), so that we would NO LONGER be enslaved to sin.”

    The rest of the chapter builds from there!

  9. [...] post, “Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved.” Tullian responded with a post which was largely an exercise in missing the point, quoting extensively from various Reformed [...]

  10. The confusion I perceive in some of the answers simply comes from the fact that we (me too) do not realize that in the new birth, the old Adam in us didn’t not get improved. We get something completely new. But as Christ (who is “the way”) had to die to rise with the new life, so do we. All the advices in the New Testament remind us to give up the old Adam, to consider it dead in Christ. The old Adam will remain the same until our death. There is no hope for him, no sanctification, no own efforts and mainly no help of God himself will improve him. Sanctification is just realizing that I have been given something totally new in the new birth. I have to realize this every morning in my life. Now I can live in this new life and I am no more bound to save my old Adam. On the contrary, I am so glad that he died in Christ. If it would not be the case, I still would have to die at judgment. In that sense, getting better is increasingly realize the position of my old Adam. There the word depravity hits me 100%, I have no choice. But I need grace a lot to too see this fact. The reason is that as long as I am in control to save my old Adam, I am fighting for my meaningfulness. Giving the old Adam up is dropping in the meaninglessness (that is what death is) and coming into the total dependence on God; fortunately this God’s design. Then my new life will be flying in Him. This is a process going on daily, it is the “good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6.12).

  11. Amen, Sandro. God meant it in Jeremiah when He said He was going to give us a new heart! This one has NO depravity. The depravity is in the flesh. And when Paul wants to motivate and equip the Romans to walk in progressive freedom from experiential sin, he doesn’t point them to their justification primarily, but to their death and resurrection completed in Christ at the cross. Justification is what we need to be reminded of when we fail at following in the Spirit! (Every day, in my case!)

  12. Thank you Scott for your answer, I appreciate. Well, for me simply said, justification is the mega present God gave me in Jesus, he made me alive from dead I was. He saved a wretch like me. As you mention God made me alive through the Spirit and gives me the grace to renounce to the corrupted old Adam through the Spirit. So sanctification is living my justification by letting the new life in me be my life. Justification is the wonder on which all is based in my life.

    I should not forget by whom I was saved. If I forget it, everything becomes theoretical. The one who saved me loves me and is God my creator himself. The whole relationship is one of love. So our justification is God’s love declaration to us. Sanctification is our love declaration, it is embracing God for what he did in Jesus. In this relationship of love, I encounter him, I see him. At the same time I see myself like in a mirror, I see how I am. Then I realize that I am always by far worse than I thought. But at the same time God shows me that he loves me far more than I thought.

  13. This will be my final post on this blog. It is my hope that everyone who has contributed thus far, as well as any others, reads this also.

    If we want to get into the Greek intricacies of Romans, we should look at Romans 7:17, 20. In v.17, we see the simple declaration of, “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (by the way, “No more” or “No longer” means that it was one way and now it’s another). But if we look closely at v.20, we see something interesting. He says, “Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” Paul says, “Now if I DO that I would not” (i.e. “I’m doing what I wish I wouldn’t do–I’m sinning!”), but notice something very important: he says something that is astounding: not only does he repeat, “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me”, the Greek states it as, “It is no more YET I that do it” (i.e. “Even so, STILL, it is no more I”, or, “Despite this being the case, it is no more I”). He lands on his position as a recourse right in the midst of the activity of sinful flesh.

    Now, it is assumed by many that what Scott and I are declaring here is that this somehow affects our lifestyle, and that we somehow see no more traces of sin in our life. As we have affirmed continually, however, we are making this one thing clear: who we are in Christ is NOT seen, but our flesh is openly seen, and sin within it is evident. Therefore, when we discuss this new identity we’ve been given in Christ, we’re speaking of the life that is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). It is hidden from the view of carnal existence, eyes of flesh, but perfectly visible through this one means: FAITH. For faith is “The substance of things hoped for” as well as “the evidence of things not seen.”

    There is no requirement of a change of life for salvation to be valid as many purport. The wonder of our salvation, however, is that in separating us from the flesh, God has given us in Christ the ability to yield our dead, unredeemed bodies as living sacrifices to God! That is the ability of a “slave of righteousness” which we are. But we cannot emphasize enough, with Paul, that the sin in the flesh is not us. We died to sin and are alive to God in Christ. Our flesh is the only visible part of who we are. But God did a magnificent thing when he saved us. He operated invisibly (so that it would be only by faith that we could see), and joined us to his Son. We’re told to reckon this unseen reality as certain. In so doing, we are taught of God how to live.

    Dear Sandro, remember this also: you mentioned looking in a mirror and seeing “how you are”. However, if you are in Christ, when you look in the mirror by faith, you see Christ, not you (consider 2 Corinthians 3:18 very carefully).

    Do we think it blasphemous to take “in Christ” to its only logical and biblical end? In Ephesians 5, we see that the man that loves his wife loves himself. His point is to expose the mystery: that as the wife’s identity disappears into her husband and they become one flesh, so it is with the church and Christ. Christ is not ashamed to call us, “members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones”. This is a position he GAVE us. Remember, the Satanic ploy is to make yourself like God by your own imagination or effort. But God’s way is to do it for you as a gift, something he had it in mind to do before he even made us. And he has accomplished it already by placing us into the body of Christ. Armed with this knowledge, it’s God’s will for us to take hold of our bodies and yield them to God as holy and acceptable. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. We have eternal life in union with God’s Spirit, why not, in our brief life in the flesh, walk in union with him? Nevertheless, each one must find out who he is in order to find out how to walk. But finding out who we are destroys any notion of having to somehow, through confession or repentance or some other means, “come back into fellowship with God”. Our fellowship is never broken in the slightest.

    I hope all of you understand who we, collectively, have become and stand on it by faith. Don’t be afraid to agree with the position you’ve been given at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20, 2:6).

  14. What he just said! (With tiny caveat: I believe if we don’t see any desire for righteousness and NO change, that person should eventually be very concerned that they never exercised true saving faith. O think Tyler probably agrees with this at some level.)

  15. Tyler,
    I agree with you on the point about being a new creation. However:

    “His point is to expose the mystery: that as the wife’s identity disappears into her husband and they become one flesh, so it is with the church and Christ.”

    I disagree in the strongest terms with any theology that tells us our “identity disappears” is goal and a good thing. That sounds more like eastern mysticism than Biblical Christianity. We look at scripture and see Jesus empathizing and knowing people. He changes them, heals them, renews them, but he does not remove their identity. The scripture is full of stories of individuals with their own identities that are acknowledged and loved (or hated), not wiped away.

    I have been down the road of thinking that the goal of my Christian life is to remove my identity and replace it with Christ- to seek for there to be nothing left of “me”. I’ve also tried that in a marriage (the experiences were linked). This is destructive and in no way can be seen as “new life”. It is agonizing death.

    I will submit my life to my Lord Jesus and seek to give all that I have received in service; however, I will remain me and I will know that God made me to be who I am as an individual on purpose at His pleasure.

  16. JeffS: Amen re not losing identity. So destructive (and Eastern pantheistic) to go down that path. It’s fatal to think that all unity implies the collapse of any distinctions. The Trinity is just such a case in point.

    An interesting corollary in Scripture is the New Testament ‘mystery’ that the gentiles are able to retain their cultural identity as gentiles within the kingdom rather than needing to lose their identity and become Jews in order to be God’s person.

    Ok, probably not entirely the same point. But it was interesting. In my head. *runs*

  17. Pastor T. I remember having lunch with your dad Dr. T years ago and one of his favorite favorite sayings was” the more he tried to read and understand something the less he knew with his infectious smile.

    If you were not related to Billy Graham would Rick Phillips spend as much time trying to openly ‘CORRECT a brother in Christ” as have others from something else that wrote about?

    Seem like a case of Christian being the only species that kills its wounded. I understand there are these deep theological topics. I am simply glad I am saved through the grace of Christ period.

    Keep on keeping on! Remember no matter what you do and I have real experience from this from turning around churches with financial difficulties and ” can feel your pain –no matter what you say , do , or write about there will be resistance /criticism even in your own church at times.

    Pastors are an endangered species as it is without another Pastor in public trying to chastise a fellow Pastor.

    Hang in there and consider your calling above what others may say!!!!!

  18. [...] 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 [...]

  19. [...] Sin Remains: My Response to Rick Phillips by Tullian Tchividjian [...]

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