I can’t stop thinking about a post several weeks ago by Tullian Tchividjian titled “Are Christians Totally Depraved?” Tchividjian, if you are not aware, is Billy Graham’s grandson and currently senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL., which was previously pastored by the late D. James Kennedy. The question, “Are Christians totally depraved?” piqued my interest because it is one that has often been asked of our students here at DBTS. We currently require our seniors to take a class we call the “Senior Doctrinal Seminar,” where they write out and review their own doctrinal statements. Previous to this class, we required them to write out their statements and face an oral exam before the faculty. Over the years, a number of common questions came to be asked by the faculty, and one of those was, “Are Christians totally depraved?”
The correct answer is “no.” But most students are unsure, and if they do give an answer, it is usually “yes.” This is somewhat understandable if one looks at how total depravity is sometimes defined. Depravity refers to the corruption of sin that is common to all human beings as a result of the Fall (Rom 3:9). Charles Ryrie, for instance, argues that depravity can rightly be called “total” in that the corruption extends to “every facet of man’s nature and faculties” (e.g., heart, mind, emotions, etc.) and that depravity affects all people (Basic Theology, 219). In this sense even regenerate believers are still “totally depraved.”
But there is more to total depravity than these two aspects. Total depravity also means that the unsaved are enslaved to sin, unable to please God, and thus incapable of doing the slightest thing to save themselves. Total depravity includes total inability (Rom 8:7–8; 1 Cor 2:14). But Christians do not suffer from total inability (Rom 8:9). They can please God and thus should not be considered totally depraved.
In his blog post, Tchividjian acknowledged that total depravity means “we are totally unable to go to God” and so in this sense “Christians are obviously not totally depraved.” But then he turns around, in the same post, and argues that “yes,” Christians really are totally depraved. Richard Phillips, senior minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC, answered Tchividjian in a post titled “Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved.” One might think that would be the end of the story, but Tchividjian doubled down on his original error in a post titled “Sin Remains: My Response to Rick Phillips.” Amazingly, Tchividjian thinks he is right to refer to Christians as being totally depraved and says Phillips should get over his hang-up about using the phrase in reference to Christians since numerous Reformed creeds and confessions, which Tchividjian quotes, agree with him in stating that Christians are in fact totally depraved. But, in truth, the creeds and confessions cited by Tchividjian do not speak of Christians as being “totally depraved.”
What seems to be eluding Tchividjian is the excluded middle between total depravity and no depravity, that is, simple “depravity.” In other words what Christian theologians (and creeds and confessions) from his own Reformed background consistently teach is that while only unbelievers are totally depraved, believers are still depraved, but it is incorrect to call believers totally depraved. Why is that? Because depravity is the opposite of sanctification. If someone is totally depraved they are in no sense sanctified. Progressive sanctification is the gradual removal of depravity. As believers increase in holiness they decrease in depravity. True, Christians will always be depraved before their final glorification, and this depravity means that every area of their immaterial being is affected by sin. But as believers are progressively sanctified, depravity diminishes. To be totally depraved is to be without any aspect of sanctification, which, of course, is not true of any believer. Believers are becoming holy (sanctified), and thus they are becoming less depraved.