Saturday, December 01, 2012

Total Depravity and the Believer’s Sanctification

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.
Years ago, Tabletalk magazine asked me to write an article on this subject. I was interacting primarily with forms of Christian perfectionist teaching on the one hand and carnal Christian teaching on the other. But I think the article still speaks to issues that the Reformed and evangelical community is debating today. So, here it is.

Total depravity is a reality, both taught in Holy Scripture and experienced in life, with important implications not only for pagans but also for Christians. Very often we think of this Biblical doctrine in connection with those who are unregenerate, or with regard to Christians before their conversion, but 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.
There are many errors propagated in evangelical circles on this subject, the two main tendencies of which are: perfectionism and antinomianism. The former asserts that the Christian life is (or ought to be) characterized by complete victory over sin. Hence, Christian life as intended by God is “higher life” or the “victorious life.” Perfectionistic teachers not only distort the biblical teaching on holiness, but also dangerously underestimate the believer’s struggle with indwelling sin (setting up the tender-hearted Christian for a real struggle with depression and assurance).
On the other end of the spectrum, purveyors of antinomian dogma insist that true Christians may be no different in terms of vital godliness than pagans. They teach that the believer may be judicially free from sin, while “carnal” in the overall tendency of life. Oftentimes without realizing it, they teach that sin may still have dominion in the believer’s life (setting up many for tragic self-deception and encouraging spiritual lethargy in others).
In sum, the perfectionist tends to deny continuing depravity in the believer, while the antinomian implicitly denies the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification to be an essential component of our salvation. Of total depravity in the believer’s life, the perfectionist says (of the ‘victorious Christian’) “it no longer exists,” while the antinomian says (of the ‘carnal Christian’) “it doesn’t matter.” Over against both these mistakes, the Bible teaches that when a person becomes a Christian the dominion of sin is broken, but the presence of sin is never abolished in this life (see Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life [Banner of Truth, 1987], 125ff).
In sorting out this doctrine and its implications, there are several great principles to be kept in mind. Let me mention four of them here.
Believers are still sinners
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).
This is why Martin Luther could speak of believers as simul justus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and sinner”). He did not mean that Christians are no different after conversion than before, but he did mean to acknowledge that sin continues to be a constant reality in the believer’s experience (Romans 7:14-25). Even in the Christian, the residue of depravity is scattered throughout the whole man --mind, will, and affections-- and is in that sense still “total.”
So when certain religious teachers speak of “the higher life,” “perfection,” “entire sanctification,” “living without sin,” or “perfect love,” as the ideal for Christians in this life, they betray their contradiction of Scripture. This truth brings with it a two-edged sword of conviction and comfort. This truth moves us to grieve the way we continue to displease our loving Lord, but it also allows us to be realistic about our spiritual growth. When we see remaining sin in us, we are reminded that God has not yet completed his final domination of sin. Its bondage is broken, but its influence is still keenly felt. The lives of Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul all testify to the continuing influence of sin even in the lives of mature believers. It was not a backsliding believer, but the Apostle Paul who said: “the good that I wish, I do not do; but practice the very evil that I do not wish” (Romans 7:19).
Believers must, by the Spirit, strive against sin
This truth of the continuing influence of sin in believer means that there will be God-instigated internal spiritual warfare in the lives of all true Christians. The new principle of life and holiness implanted in us strives against the remains of depravity. This warfare is not only not the exception to the rule, it is the rule! Though sin’s dominion is ended by regeneration, its presence is not. In consequence, the Spirit wars against the remaining corruption that “grace might reign through righteousness” (Romans 5:21).
As J.C. Ryle reminds us “a holy violence, a conflict, a warfare, a fight, a soldier’s life, a wrestling, are spoken of [in Paul’s Epistles] as characteristic of the true Christian” (Holiness, xxvi). Christians are not to be passive in this warfare (a favorite “higher life” teaching), nor are we to become complacent about remaining corruption (a dangerous result of antinomian teaching).
Often, perfectionistic teachers assure us that victory over sin will be ours if we will only “let go and let God” or “be still and yield ourselves to God.” All we need do, they say, is believe and the conquest of depravity will be assured. These instructions are not only unintelligible, but also impractical. They don’t work! Though it is true that faith is instrumental in sanctification as well as justification, sanctification is not an instantaneous work and the Bible calls us to “watch, pray, and fight,” as well as “believe,” in the struggle for sanctification.
The vocabulary of the New Testament requires an active response, not merely a passive yielding, on the part of the believer in the fight against sin. Our efforts are empowered by the Spirit and done in a framework of grace, to be sure, but we ourselves are nevertheless called by God to fight.
Believers are no longer under the dominion of sin
Though sin still remains in true Christians, and we see in ourselves the evidence of a great struggle between flesh and Spirit, yet in Christ we have been “freed from sin” (Romans 6:7). This is not merely a freedom from judicial consequences, but a freedom unto holiness. Thus sanctification always accompanies justification: “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he frees him from his natural bondage under sin” (WCF 9.4). Where there is grace, there is righteousness. Where there is no righteousness, there is no real grace, because “grace reigns in righteousness” (Romans 5:21).
As a result of our liberation from sin’s dominion our affections are no longer enslaved to worldly desire. Our wills are enabled to prefer spiritual good. We are motivated to live in accord with the law of God and not the law of self. Those who would saddle us with the “carnal Christian” doctrine underestimate God’s works of regeneration and sanctification and thereby tempt some to apathy with regard to indwelling sin.
But as the Westminster divines reminded us long ago “the corruption of nature (which remains in the regenerate during this life) and all its tendencies are truly and properly sin” (WCF 6.5) and as such it is to be hated and mortified by the Christian. This means we will work and pray against the remaining sin in our experience, and never glibly excuse it by saying “well, I am already forgiven.” The doctrines of justification and adoption were never intended to produce presumptuous attitudes toward sin, nor to lead us to discount the doctrine of sanctification.
Christian life is characterized by growth and holiness, but not perfection
Finally, the Christian’s walk will neither be marked by complacency towards sin, nor spiritual perfection. “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he . . . enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet, because of the sinner’s remaining corruption, he does not perfectly or only desire that which is good, but does also desire that which is evil” (WCF 9.4).
When perfectionistic teachers assure us that we can come to a point when we no longer consciously sin and that the spiritual believer is one who is beyond the struggle against sin, they stumble at three points. (1) They underestimate sin (which is more than willful acts, but extends to thoughts and disposition). (2) They underestimate perfection (which involves more than a superficial outward conformity to the law, but requires whole-hearted obedience in behavior, pure motivation, dependence on God, and desire for his glory). (3) They evidence a longing for cessation of spiritual hostilities this side of glory (which the Bible does not promise!).
No, the true Christian will walk through this world in a fight against sin, not just in others but in himself. Sadly, depravity remains a reality for believers - all too real in our thoughts, words, and actions sometimes. But God has broken the dominion of sin by uniting us to Christ, given us the Spirit to empower our obedience, given us his word for an unchanging standard of righteousness, and filled our hearts with a desire for his glory and eternal fellowship with him as our goal. Sin will not have the last word.

Ligon Duncan  @LigonDuncan
Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, USA
John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary



Anonymous said...

Appreciate this clarification very much sir. I wonder if, going a step further, you could comment on how - after we have come to agree with Scripture about being "simul iustus et peccator" - we then keep ourselves from the Galatian problem of slipping back into a works-based rightousness.

Steve Cornell said...

I think more weight must be given to the implications of the Imago Dei as a continual primary ontological reality for human beings — even after sin entered the world (see: Genesis 9:6;James 3:9).

Most agree that human depravity does not mean that we are always acting as badly as possible. Instead, it means that we are always as bad off as we can be apart from God’s grace in Christ. Most also agree that the reach of human depravity extends to every person and every part of every person. Sin is a pervasive reality — without borders among us and within us. You don’t need a telescope to see it — a mirror will suffice. Yet as pervasive as sin is, it doesn’t eradicate God’s image in humanity and this carries significant implications.

This truth leads us to speak of the dignity and depravity of humanity and exposes a potential problem with using the word “total” when speaking about depravity. The reason acts of benevolence and heroism are found outside the boundaries of redemption is because of the Imago Dei in humanity. The same can be said of human skills and creativity one would never find in any other being on earth.

The Imago Dei is how we address the problem of goodness in the world. By explaining depravity and sin from the right starting point, we are able to understand the problem of goodness and evil. Some wish to talk about the problem of evil: Why do people do such wicked things? Yet the problem of goodness must also be answered. Why do people do good things and strive toward (for example) measures of justice?

Scott Leonard said...

Ligon, I would like to begin this discussion by asking you to explain, in solid exegetical style, why Paul says (count em!) twice within four verses (Romans 7:17-20) " is no longer I who sins, but sin that dwells in me." I think this will help many who struggle with the notion of depravity in the saint to understand how you see it. From there we can look at how someone who has literally been born a second time and placed in union with Christ can still be called "depraved." My suspicion is that it will begin to resolve in your definition of the flesh. A look at Paul's bold statement that we are no longer "IN the flesh, but IN the Spirit" will no doubt stimulate the discussion.

There's a lot more where this comes from, and I think a lot of light can be shed on a subject that has been long on tradition and lacking good wrestling with the nitty gritty of Romans 6-8, Colossians 1-3, etc. This is something I know you are prepared for.

Thanks, and God bless you, my brother!

LankRocks said...

Following Scott's comment above, is there good reason to believe that Romans 7:14-25 is speaking about followers of Christ? I am interested as to why (exegetically & interpretively) Romans 7:14-25 is Paul speaking about the Christian life, rather than the life of one who is trying to achieve righteousness by means of the Law. There seems a pivot from Romans 7:25 to Romans 8:1 between Law & Spirit in the text. This is an oft-quoted passage as to the battle of the Christian life, so your comments toward this are much appreciated.

justin the lesser said...

I think what is helpful is always to remind ourselves to the holiness of Christ. This guards us from thinking that we somehow have some post conversion holiness that is derived from anything else but the Spirit's work in our lives and yet at the same time encourages us to love Christ all the more and to strive to be like him in the same way we came to know Him; by grace alone.

justin the lesser said...

*remind ourselves to compare our progress to the holiness of Christ.

Anonymous said...

Lankrocks asked basically if Romans 7:14-25 is describing a Christian or a non-Christian.
I think the fact that the person is fighting against sin indicates that it is talking about a Christian. A person still dead in tresspasses and sins does not fight against sin.

Anonymous said...

Thanks you so much Dr. Duncan for the post. I fully agree that we have to keep away from those two errors. Believers are ransomed from sin yet still fight hard against it.

I have, although, moved away from saying that the believer is totally depraved for three main reasons:

1. The believer has been resurrected from the death of sin which he was once a part of. Eph 2:1-5 state it pretty clearly. In our union with Christ we were raised from the death of sin we were once in. If we continue say that believer's are totally depraved do we not lose this massive action in the believer's life?

2. Paul describes Christians in terms that are completely the opposite than totally depraved. "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved" (Col 3:12a). "So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus"(Romans 6:11). The main way that Paul and the rest of the NT writers talk about Christians is that they have new life in Christ. Speaking of Christians as totally depraved seems to go against the emphasis.

3. We have been born again by the Spirit. How are we totally depraved yet born again?

This may just be an issue with terms. The way you define total depravity it does make sense to attach it to the believer if it simply means that every aspect of the believer is affected by sin. I don't think we can locate one part of the believer and say that it is totally free from sin.

But I think there is a danger if we continue to use categorically same terms to speak of believers and unbelievers in regards to sin. If we look at unbelievers and believers and say they are both totally depraved do we not risk losing all that has become true of the Christian? That is why I have moved away from using the term to describe believers.

Do you, and anyone else out there, think this is a right concern? If it is right to say the Christian is totally depraved how do we keep from forgetting how we are unlike the unconverted in regards to sin?

Anonymous said...

@renewingthoughts. I share your concern. Richard Gaffin has also written some on what he considers to be an underemphasis on Christ's resurrection and session. Paul commonly admonishes believers to recognize who they are in Christ (indicative) therefore BE who they are in Christ; a new creation, spiritual, citizens of heaven, members of the age to come, etc. I don't think any of this is contra what Dr. Duncan said above and it is not inherently antinomian. Paul also reminds believers that they were once enemies of Christ. All benefits we have are not deserved or earned but all of grace through the person and objective work of Christ. We struggle with indwelling sin but by virtue of who we are in Christ we walk according to the spirit and not according to the flesh. We have been transferred by the HS from this present evil age into the kindom of Christ.

Scott Leonard said...

From John MacArthur, Dying to Live, part 2: (commenting on Romans 6:2-4)

"Now what is it saying? It's saying that...there's no old you around, there's no old nature around. Now I know some people can't quite understand that because they've been taught that all their life, that there's an old nature and a new nature and the old nature's a black dog, and the new nature's a white dog, and whichever one you say "Sic 'em" to is going to be the one that wins. Now maybe you heard that kind of theology, but the essence of what he is saying here is that there's no old you left. You were so dead you got...what? Buried. And what came out of that grave, "Nevertheless I live yet not I," what I? The old I? It's a new I, not the old I. What new I is it? "It is Christ in me." It's a new I."

So here's the rub: Underneath and foundational to the question of how sanctification happens is the organic question of where the location of sin is in the believer. The great thing is that Paul shows us throughout Romans 6-8. Here is just one of many. Notice carefully what he says in Romans 7:22-23:

"For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members."

He is fine in the inner man. The problem lies, where? Go ahead and say it, my brothers. It won't hurt too badly....the problem lies, "IN MY MEMBERS!" That is why he says "who will deliver me from this BODY of death." And that is why, when he says "nothing good dwells in me," he immediately, in the same verse (7:18), issues the caveat, "that is, in my FLESH!"

So then, at the very least, we must say that Paul says the "nothing good" is restricated to the location he calls "the flesh." The text demands this, and so the $64,000 question (the answer to which will shut many of us up) is, WHAT IS THE FLESH?!  I propose that if you will examine the relevant instances in Rom 6-8, you will see Paul use revealing language about his sin problem that answers the question. Look at 6:6,12,13,19; 7:5,18,23,24; 8:9,10,11,13,23. And 8:13 is an example of a passage where he uses "flesh" and "body" in apparent equivalency. (It is in fact the root idea of "sarx".)  So you can glance at the above verses and see Paul uses "body," "members," and "flesh" in striking equivalency.

There, I just helped you win $64,000. 

teresa bowen said...

Nice post! I agree that there are many errors propagated in evangelical circles on this subject, the two main tendencies of which are: perfectionism and antinomianism.

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