Are Christians Totally Sanctified?

Like many of you, I’ve been watching Tullian Tchividjian and the various conversations he has had with critics online. In short, Tchividjian is part of a “movement” of reformed Christians advocating a particular view of sanctification in response to what they view as legalism. This “movement” argues that sanctification is not a matter of the Christian putting forth effort to overcome sin – that is, working – but instead sanctification is by faith alone (apart from works).

the new view (occasionally called the “Grace movement”) appears to allege that justification completes our sanctification; that is, the holiness of sanctification is that same righteousness that was already secured for believers via Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and is obtained by the same instrumental means of faith alone.

Timothy F. Kauffman Sanctification, Half Full: The Myopic Hermeneutic of the “Grace” Movement

At first I wasn’t very happy with either side of the debate, but as I have read more, I’ve begun to better understand the critics. The above quoted article from Kauffman is one of the better critiques I have read. In addition to Kauffman’s article, an exchange between Rick Phillips and Tullian Tchividjian has been very helpful:

  1. “Are Christians Totally Depraved?”
  2. Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved
  3. Sin Remains: My Response to Rick Phillips
  4. Oh to Grace How Great a Debtor — A Reply to Tullian Tchividjian
  5. Misconceptions about Justification and Sanctification (Phillips)

In sum (the two main points),

  1. Tchividjian argued that Christians are totally depraved, meaning “sin corrupts us in the ‘totality’ of our being [mind, heart, will, body]” (not meaning ‘total inability’ to believe).
    1. Phillips noted “The problem is that Tchividjian teaches that, apart from our change in legal status through justification, Christians are in the same spiritual condition after regeneration as before.” He concludes “Thank God that regeneration does not leave Christ’s people in the situation of those who reject him in unbelief. We are certainly still dealing with sin in the totality of our beings, but thank God that we are no longer totally depraved.”
      1. Tchividjian responded “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…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”
        1. Phillips “The doctrine of total depravity does not merely state that after the Fall all men and women are effected by sin in the totality of their beings. The doctrine also states that they have no disposition towards God but only hostility and spiritual inability (see Berkhof, p. 247 for this definition). I agree that Tullian specified the former and not the latter of these two components. The problem is that the term “total depravity” includes both.”
  2. Tchividjian lamented that “Many Christians think that becoming sanctified means that we become stronger and stronger, more and more competent… we Christian’s sometimes give the impression that sanctification is growth beyond our need for Jesus and his finished work for us”
    1. PhillipsNotice the [false] dichotomy. To believe that in sanctification we are becoming stronger and stronger, and more spiritually competent, must mean we think that we no longer need Jesus and his finished work. Conversely, those who rely on Jesus should not expect to grow stronger or more competent. This is contrary to the Bible’s approach to sanctification. Psalm 1
      1. Tchividjian “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.”
        1. Phillips concludes: “Because we are no longer totally depraved by virtue of the grace of regeneration, Christians can exert effort towards our sanctification and we are called to do so by the Bible

My thoughts:

Myopic Vision

First, in my opinion, Tchividjian doesn’t seem to fully grasp Phillips’ concerns (which is why he is “totally baffled” by them). As proof, notice that to defend his thesis that Christians are “totally depraved” he quotes Ligon Duncan and numerous confessions that say Christians are “depraved”. Noticeably absent from his list is any source that describes Christians as “totally depraved”, which was supposedly the point he was making. This “myopic” misreading of other sources is a concern Kauffman points out in his essay as well. I think part of the problem is that Tchividjian has setup a false dichotomy in his mind between the view he grew up with and his current view – you’re either in one camp or the other and there’s no alternative (when in reality there is). So when he reads a quote that refutes “the view he grew up with” he automatically assumes it teaches his view (when it doesn’t). (In addition to these references, and those discussed in Kauffma’s essay, note also Tchividjian’s repeated quotation of J.C. Ryle in this series when J.C. Ryle spoke very clearly against the sanctification by faith alone view)

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.

Two Natures

Second, Tchividjian defends himself by noting that he never addressed the new nature that marks a Christian. But how is this a defense? If his point was to define the Christian in the totality of our being, how could he exclude our new nature? Is not our new nature part of the totality of our being? I’ve been discussing this debate with my brother-in-law and he providentially was reading a tract from A.W. Pink on Romans 7 where he found the following quote:

In these days of Laodicean complacency and pride, there is considerable talk and much boasting about communion with Christ, but how little manifestation of it do we behold! Where there is no sense of our utter unworthiness, where there is no mourning over the total depravity of our nature, where there is no sorrowing over our lack of conformity to Christ, where there is no groaning over being brought into captivity to sin; in short, where there is no crying, “O wretched man that I am,” it is greatly to be feared that there is no fellowship with Christ at all.

But notice that Pink said the total depravity of our nature, not the total depravity of Christians. In the intro to his essay, Pink did what Tchividjian did not. He set the discussion of the depravity of Christians in it’s proper context:

The whole context is devoted to a description of the conflict between the two natures in the child of God. “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (verse 22), is true of none but born-again persons. But the one thus “delighting”, discovers “another law” in his members. This reference must not be limited to his physical members, but is to be understood as including all the various parts of his carnal personality. This “other law” is also at work in the memory, the imagination, the will, the heart, etc.

The Christian in Romans 7

So if the Christian has two natures that are constantly in conflict, one of which is totally depraved, the other not, and these two natures make up the totality of the Christian, then the Christian is not totally depraved (contrary to Tchividjian):

flesh (100% totally depraved) + Spirit (100% righteous) != 100% totally depraved

To discuss the Christian’s depravity without discussing this conflict in our being is to teach falsely, and Phillips was right to call him out on it.

Totally Sanctified

With this in mind, I’d like to make a small suggestion that might help relieve the concerns Tchividjian’s critics have. He should follow up his post “Are Christians Totally Depraved?” with “Are Christians Totally Sanctified?”. If his point is simply to show that sin continues to affect the “totality” of our being, then there should be no problem affirming that sanctification also affects the “totality” of our being.

LBCF 13.2._____This sanctification is throughout the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

Arden Hodgins notes:

Sanctification affects the whole person. Now, what this is saying is not that it brings us to a place of perfection. It’s not talking about sinless perfection when it says it is throughout in the whole man. Rather, it is to be understood as each and every aspect of our humanity is affected by it. Kind of like total depravity if you want to flip the coin and look at the other side of it… Sanctification reverses the curse in each and every aspect of our humanity, what sin has done. It will be fully reversed, of course, with the glorification of our bodies at the return of Christ. But in the meantime, there is this progressive reversing of the curse in each and every aspect of our humanity.

The Character of Sanctification (part of his lengthy series on the 1689 Confession, which I commend)

If Tchividjian would simply write a new post stating the quote above, then I think many would rejoice, including Phillips. But I have a hunch he won’t do that.

Confusing His Own Categories

Fourth, it seems to me that part of the confusion in the conversation stems from Tchividjian’s own confusion. He expresses great frustration that Phillips seems to respond to the (2) “total inability” aspect of total depravity, rather than to the (1) “totality of being” aspect, emphatically stating that our ability or inability was not the point of his post. But when Tchividjian laments that “Many Christians think that becoming sanctified means that we become stronger and stronger, more and more competent” is he making a statement about (1) or about (2)? Addressing the Christian’s growth and strength is clearly a statement about ability (2), not about the parts of our being (1). As the confession states,

“there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war… In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome.”

Becoming stronger as a Christian in our fight against sin and overcoming sin is not contrary to the reality that sin affects every part of our being (mind, will, emotions). Therefore Phillips was right to raise concern over ability, and Tchividjian has confused the categories he thought he carefully qualified. As further evidence that Tchividjian confused the issue, when my brother-in-law, who is very sympathetic to Tchividjian, read the post “Are Christians Totally Depraved?” the ensuing conversation we had was about monergistic vs synergistic sanctification* (that is, ability), not about whether or not remaining sin affects the total being. We would do well to learn from the careful wording of our confessions, rather than the attention grabbing headlines of bloggers.

A Recommendation

It is my opinion that Tchividjian is neither a good communicator nor a careful thinker. Because of this, I don’t think he’s the best teacher. The trouble, however, is that it appears he has taken the weight of the world on his shoulders and thrust himself into the limelight in order to correct the problems he sees in the church. He’s pumping out book after book, doing the associated book tours, blogging, starting his own website dedicated to this issue, which continues to pump out daily content to correct the erring church, has joined the faculty of Knox Seminary, and all this in addition to his regular duties as a pastor of a local church. As a result, he seems to have garnered a megaphone and a large audience, as well as an exhausting, burdened workload I imagine.

I have been in a spot in my life where I thought too much of my own importance, thought too highly of my benefit to the church and my half dozen blog followers (even as I wrote this I heard Satan whisper “This post could be the key to settling all the dispute over this issue. Make sure this is read far and wide. And make sure you nail him” – what foolishness). It made me defensive and reactionary, not careful and edifying.

My advice to those who lean towards Tchividjian’s views is to find someone else saying something similar and read them instead. If you can’t find anyone, then that’s probably a good sign you might not want to follow him. But I think you can find the helpful aspects of Tchividjian in someone like Jerry Bridges (or dare I say Rick Phillips), whose careful writings have stood the test of time (at least longer than Tchividjian). Secondly, don’t follow Tchividjian’s pattern and feel like every disagreement has the gospel at stake and requires you alone to defend it, and that every critic is just opposed to and “suspicious” of grace in their lives. Take a deep breath. Calm down. Speak less. Listen more (even to your critics). And do all of this knowing you can only do it as a fruit of the Holy Spirit within you.


It is my opinion, however, that his writing has suggested a different approach to sanctification, one that largely conflates it with justification, discourages Christians to believe that effort in sanctification is likely to succeed, and raises suspicions that such an approach lacks reliance on the grace of Christ.


Bringing this all home for me (and hopefully you) is the reality that in my past, I was affected in the way Phillips describes. I had a similar view of myself as that laid out in Tchividjian’s post. I thought I was exalting grace and justification. But in reality, I was deceived into doubting that any attempt to overcome longterm sin in my life would be successful, and therefore I made no concerted effort, and therefore sin remained. I erroneously assumed I was stuck with my sin until I died because, after all, the bible doesn’t teach Wesleyan perfectionism (see Beisner quote below).

But God graciously overcame my deception through a variety of means and, by the Holy Spirit, I have overcome my sin (at least for the time being – it is a constant war). One necessary part of that work of sanctification the Holy Spirit accomplished in my mind was correcting my false understanding of sanctification. “For if, by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live.” We must not be reluctant to state that, by God’s grace, we will grow stronger and more competent and we will overcome sin for fear that we run the risk of outgrowing our need for Christ – for sin sears the conscience, and when we, by the Holy Spirit, overcome sin in our life, we begin to see other sin we were previously blind to, and our effort is directed there. And this will continue until Christ returns. And until then we continue this fight and continue to thank God our salvation does not depend upon it, but upon the finished work of Christ outside of us.


Another issue that comes up when discussing these competing views of sanctification is the question of whether sanctification is monergistic or synergistic. Here are helpful explanations as to why it is synergistic:

Also, E. Calvin Beisner has penned perhaps the most irenic, carefully worded response to Sonship Theology (very related/similar to Tchividjian’s view). I highly recommend his essay The Roles of Faith in Justification and Sanctification: A Constructive Criticism of an Element of Sonship Theology

In short, justifying faith is resting faith; sanctifying faith is active faith. 33 One who has the one has the other–that is the point of James 2 and 1 John 3:3-9. This is not to say that, after conversion, at which point his faith was resting, the Christian’s faith no longer rests but becomes solely active. On the contrary, justifying faith continues to rest in Christ and His righteousness throughout life, even as sanctifying faith works throughout life. Consequently the Christian life is one of constant rest, and constant labor. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:1-11 concluded his warning against legalism by saying, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Thus he rejected self-effort and its legalism as the ground of assurance that God accepted him in Christ. But he also went on immediately to say, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way” (verses 12-15). Thus he asserted believing effort as an important means of progressive sanctification. In counting his own works rubbish in regard to justification, his faith rested; in pressing toward the goal, his faith acted–and he did both simultaneously, throughout his Christian life (cf. Galatians 2:19-21).

If we conflate these two aspects of faith in either direction, we risk becoming either legalists on the one hand or quietists on the other. The former is deadly, equating with the false gospel of Romanism. The latter is debilitating, leading to practical antinomianism and long-term immaturity in the Christian life. But recognizing and preserving the distinction enables us to rest completely in the saving work of Christ at the same time that we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

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