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).