Are Good Works More Than Fruit?

D. Patrick Ramsey regularly writes the most direct and helpful summaries of a view I disagree with. While most discussions on the role of good works quickly devolve into confusion and endless circles and talking past one another, Ramsey’s posts cut to the chase – which makes dialogue much more meaningful.

In a post over at Meet the Puritans, he explains that when he and others (like Mark Jones) argue against “Antinomianism,” what they are arguing against is the idea that our good works are only a fruit of our faith. The role of the law as a guide in the believer’s life is not the issue. Both sides agree on that. Rather, Ramsey argues “We don’t engage in good works merely because we live or are saved, we are to do them in order to live or to salvation.”

The “narrow way” is not Christ, but your good works (which they would say is Christ’s work in us).

Another common way the puritans articulated this same point was by covenant conditions. Sincere obedience is a consequent condition of justification and an antecedent condition of glorification… Good works, therefore, are more than fruit in that they are necessary for salvation as the way to eternal life and as an antecedent condition of glorification.

You will not merely have fruit when you are glorified, your fruit is a condition of whether or not you will be glorified. He says Tobias Crisp was wrong when he said that true Christians ought and will produce good works, but they are not required to and indeed they shouldn’t pursue holiness in order to avoid damnation and to possess heaven.

I don’t think it can be stated any clearer. Now go study Leviticus 18:5 and decide what you believe. Here are two posts that explain why I agree with Crisp and the “Antinomians”

A Quest for More: Living for Something Bigger Than You

I actually finished a book. I have a terrible track record of reading several books at a time and never finishing any of them. I just read Paul Tripp’s “A Quest for More” and wanted to share a few quotes.

The book is an explanation of what it means to seek first the kingdom of God. Tripp explains this seeking in terms of a constant battle between seeking the expansive, transcendant kingdom of God and the constricting, deadly kingdom of self. It’s a heart issue, which means you can be outwardly seeking the kingdom of God (studying the bible, serving others in the church, evangelism, etc) while inwardly seeking the kingdom of self (doing all those things to glorify and please yourself, not God).

I won’t provide a full review, just some good quotes. I recommend the book.

The problem is that most of us don’t think in kingdom terms. You know, you just rather thoughtlessly get up in the morning and go to work, or get the kids ready for school, or take the dog for a walk, or read the morning paper. You and I don’t live with a ready sense of our intentions or allegiances. And this is precisely how we get ourselves into trouble. Without knowing it, we can reduce the promises of Scripture down to a hope that God’s grace will ensure the success of our little kingdoms.

Every day is shaped by the blueprints, laws, policies, structures, plans, politics, relationships, goals, purposes, and actions of some kind of civilization. If you are a human being you cannot escape this work…No one ever says, “I have decided to forsake the glories of the kingdom of God to pursue the self-oriented glories of my own kingdom.” Instead, because of the blindness of sin and the fact that we exist in little moments, so much of our kingdom building takes place without conscious intentionality. And because we have defined biblical morality as the keeping of a set of rules, rather than the ownership of our hearts by the Lord, much of the conflict of kingdoms goes unnoticed. As a result, our lives end up being shaped by a confusing mix of big kingdom rules (the kingdom of God) and little kingdom rules (the kingdom of self). In the home, dad doesn’t only get angry when God’s law is broken, but when his law is broken as well. Mom isn’t only dedicated to seeing her children internalize God’s standards; she wants them to internalize the rules of her civilization as well. The child’s experience is that breaking the little kingdom rules get as much attention as breaking the big kingdom rules, and sometimes even more. In the blender of the frenetic schedule of the average modern Christian family, these two systems of law get so mixed up it becomes hard to separate one from the other. We say we are serving God, but there is another civilization that is shaping every intention, decision, and action. When it comes to which kingdom we are building, it is very easy to be blind and confused. We say we embrace the transcendent, but where the rubber meets the road in our daily lives, our living shrinks to the field of our personal concerns. We don’t forsake the faith, but the real kingdom we are building, where we live and work each day, is a kingdom of one.

You cannot be Christ-centered without becoming cross-centered.

Sam was a Christian, but his faith lacked zeal and direction. He did all the right things, but they seemed empty and without energy. At work, however, he took on a completely different personality. He was positive, driven, interactive, and zealous. He arrived early to get a jump on his day, not because he was forced to but because he wanted to. Often he was the last person to head for home. In his walk with the Lord and his life with his church, he appeared neither excited nor engaged. Yet at work he was alive, every pore opened. Why the contrast? What was missing?

Here’s what happens. When Christ isn’t central in the life of a Christian, his Christianity will always get reduced to theology and rules. It will cease to be the central organizing principle of his life. It will give way to other powerful motivations and move to the fringes of his life. I think this is the experience of many Christians. Their Christianity is missing Christ! It then becomes little more than an ideology with an accompanying set of ethics. What is incredibly dangerous about this is that if Christ isn’t central in our hearts, something else will be. Christianity as theology and rules will allow self to be at the center. It is only Christ who can free you and me from bondage to the little kingdom. Functionally, Sam’s faith had been reduced to beliefs and commands. But Christianity gutted of Christ is devoid of both its beauty and its power. Only love for Christ has the power to incapacitate the sturdy love for self that is the bane of every sinner, and only the grace of Christ has the power to produce that love.

…There really is no place for Christ in many people’s Christianity. Their faith is not actually in Christ; it is in Christianity and their own ability to live it out. This kind of “Christianity” is really about the shadow glories of human knowledge and performance. It does not require the death of self that must always happen if love for Christ is going to reign in our hearts.

…What does it mean to live a Christ-centered existence? It means that the fear of the Lord, more than fear of anything else, sets the agenda for our actions, reactions, and responses. This is the essence of big kingdom living. The kingdom of self is driven by all kinds of other fears: fear of man, fear of discomfort or difficulty, fear of failure, fear of not getting my own way, etc. The principle here is that if God doesn’t own the fear of our hearts, he will not own our lives. You and I are always living to avoid what we dread. If we dread displeasing God more than anything else, because our hearts have been captured by a deep, worshipful and loving awe of him, we will live in new ways.

…When I live this lifestyle I find joy in telling Jesus, day after day, that I need what he did in his life, death, and resurrection. This lifestyle is about growing to acknowledge that in some way, every day, I give evidence to the fact that the cross was necessary. And this lifestyle of forgiveness makes my daily attitude one of heartfelt gratitude and joy.

Our thoughts can be so dominated by the necessary tasks of the day, by the difficulties we face, or by the people around us, that we lose our consciousness of the Lord of Glory who has drawn us into his transcendent purposes for the universe. Or our day can be kidnapped by anxious cravings and all the “what ifs” that worry is able to generate. Big kingdom living really does start with remembering the King. This isn’t some mystical spiritual exercise for the super spiritual. It is street-level worship.

Once again, the problem is not that Kat is dissatisfied with her relationships. In fact, she is way too easily satisfied. Kat has woven a fabric of little kingdom relationships around her. These relationships have little or nothing to do with God, his will for Kat, and his plan on earth. They are part of a quest for an unencumbered, low-demand, entertaining, happy life. Kat seems utterly blind to the transcendent glories that could be hers as she experiences the travails of pursuing relationships that are driven more by the purposes of God’s kingdom than by little kingdom desires. Kat’s short-sighted satisfaction is exposed by the fact that when she looks at her relationships, she does not groan. If you pursue God’s plan for your relationships, you will groan, because you will be confronted with how far you and others are from what God says is good and best. Pursuit of big kingdom relationships will bring you to the end of yourself and make you cry out for the help that only God can provide. Like Kat, you are too easily satisfied by fun and casual relationships.

Relationships take commitment. Relationships demand time. Relationships require perseverance. Relationships call us to sacrifice. At its core, biblical faith is not a commitment to an ideology; it is an undeserved welcome into a relationship. It is Christ making us the “apple of his eye” and calling us to love him more than anything or anyone else in our lives. Can you imagine a man declaring his love for a woman, telling her that she is more important than anything else in his life, and yet finding little time to deepen their communion and love? It is possible for us to declare ourselves to be Christians, to say that we love the Lord more than we love anything else, and yet to have no time for Christ!

…It is frighteningly easy to find so much satisfaction in the things we are doing that we have little time or energy to find satisfaction in Jesus. The problem is that few of the things we are pursuing are harmful in themselves. We can give ourselves valid reasons for being involved in all of them. And so the distractions in our lives don’t trouble us. They occupy our schedules with logic and plausibility, even though they prevent us from pursuing this one central romance that is meant to be the unchallenged source of our meaning, identity, purpose, and hope…

…When we examine our lives closely, it becomes clear that our problem is not our schedules. It is not that God has put more on our plates than we can possibly accomplish in seven, twenty-four-hour days. Our problem is our fickle hearts that wander away from this one central romance and so easily give our affection to another. The Bible calls this “love of the world.” And the Bible tells us that if we love the world, the love of the father is not in us. (See 1 John 2:15—17.)

…Our problem is not that we fail to be satisfied. Our problem is that we are too quickly satisfied. When we are not lonely, it is because present lovers have stolen our affection away, and for the moment, we are satisfied.

He also has a great chapter on anger that very helpfully distills the issue into kingdom anger: anger about disruptions to our kingdom of self or to the kingdom of God. It’s not about being quiet and passive and free of anger. It is about being angry at the right things:

This new anger is an unquenchable zeal for God’s cause and an uncompromising distaste for sin. It is the anger of compassion that cannot help but seek to relieve people who are suffering from sin’s damage. It is the anger of mercy that responds to the foolishness of sin with understanding and grace. It is the anger of restoration that refuses to condemn, but believes that lost rebels can be rebuilt into the likeness of Jesus. It is the anger of service that finds delight in helping burdened pilgrims bear their load. It is the anger of peace that hates the division that sin has birthed in our world and does everything that can be done to restore harmony. It is the anger of forgiveness that hates sin’s guilt and despises its shame.

The problem is that when you elevate your little kingdom desires to “needs,” you no longer live with guarantees. But God has not promised to deliver all the things you have hoped, desired, and convinced yourself that you cannot live without… when these things control your heart and command your hopes, you will tend to judge God’s faithfulness, not by whether he has been true to his promises, but by whether he has given you the things that you have set your heart on. But this is right where the redemptive quandary lies. If God gives you the things that are playing a role in your life that only he is supposed to play, wouldn’t he be encouraging in you the very addictions from which his grace is meant to free you?

so there you go

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).

Cure of Souls (and Modern Psychotherapies)

I recently received a copy of Westminster Today that focuses on biblical counseling and CCEF. The main article in the magazine is written by David Powlison, a faculty member of the Christian Counseling  & Educational Foundation (CCEF), and can be found in an extended format on the CCEF website. (Though Powlison’s arguments would be strengthened by a Scripturalist approach) I think he has done an excellent job of outlining the division between biblical counseling and secular integrated “Christian” counseling. I might normally just link to the article, but because it is rather lengthy and some of it gets a little technical, I will try to summarize it here.

Fifty years ago there was no comprehensive model of counseling within believing Protestantism. How things have changed! Yet this counseling revolution has raised many questions that are still being debated concerning epistemology, human motivation and how counseling should be “delivered” to those who need it.

I will speak of two fundamentally different tendencies, two incompatible organizing centers, using the acronyms VITEX and COMPIN…

VITEX believes that secular psychologies must make a VITal EXternal contribution in the construction of a Christian model of personality, change, and counseling. While biblical faith gives us certain controls to evaluate outside input, it does not give enough detail to enable us to constitute and develop a model. The operating premise of VITEX, whether explicit or implicit, is that Christian truths must be “integrated” with the observations, personality theories, psychotherapies, and professional roles of the mental health world. Modern psychologies are the engine producing insights, theories, and practices. In an essential way, the counseling that Christians do will orient to and take its cues from outside sources. The fascinating, exciting, relevant, and important developments are taking place external to Christian faith and practice. Biblical truth is static in comparison.

In contrast, COMPIN believes that the Christian faith contains COMPrehensive INternal resources to enable us to construct a Christian model of personality, change, and counseling. While the modern psychologies will stimulate and inform, they do not play a constitutive role in building a robust model. The operating premise of COMPIN is that the Faith’s psychology offers a take on the human condition essentially different from any of the other contemporary psychologies. The living Christ working in his people through his Word is the engine producing depth of insight, accurate theory, and effective practice. The counseling that Christians do must orient to and take its cues from our own source. Practical theological development is the cutting edge. The modern psychologies and psychotherapies are relatively dull, shallow, and misleading in comparison.

Powlison spends the rest of the essay defending COMPIN (biblical counseling) and critiquing VITEX (integrated counseling). He notes:

both sides tend to talk past each other. VITEX discredits itself to COMPIN ears by sounding epistemologically naïve and syncretistic. “All truth is God’s truth” is an epistemological truism, without bottom-line value, exactly like “All lies are the devil’s lies.” The real question is how you tell the difference, which throws us back into the crucible: we need to define the sources and criteria of significant and reliable knowledge.

This is the issue that I addressed several years ago in a post called The Cure of the Psyche.

Biblical Priorities

To answer the question of how do we determine what is true in psychology, Powlison offers a hierarchy of priorities:

  1. articulating biblical truth and developing our systematic theology of care for the soul
  2. exposing, debunking, and reinterpreting alternative models
  3. learning what we can from other models
His concern is that VITEX (secular integrated) inverts these priorities, causing great harm to “Christian” counseling:
what happens when our priorities get tangled? “The dialogue of Christians with psychology has been less than full because we have been held captive by the alien spirits. . . . As a result, we have not had much of our own to contribute to the conversation with non-Christian psychologists.”20 Those who elevate the tertiary priority—learning from defective models—to the first priority, find themselves subtly or overtly psychologized. Those who overweigh the significance of secular psychology “learn” more than they bargained for. They tend to undergo a wrong-way conversion, becoming anesthetized to the God-centered realities actually playing out in the human psyche. They begin to reason godlessly about behavior, mood, relationships, motives, cognition, and so on. They promulgate faulty reasoning and practice through the body of Christ.
In response to this inverted approach, Powlison demonstrates that the Bible rejects the idea that we must learn from unbelieving mental health professionals in order to care for souls, and instead teaches we must look to Scripture to understand how to care for souls:
Biblical confirmation of this first priority is unmistakable… From the outset, Scripture redefines how we tend to define “counseling.” Counseling is not fundamentally a professional helping activity, where an identifiably competent party intentionally offers aid to an identifiably distressed party in a formalized structure (such as weekly one-hour sessions on a fee-for-service basis). Given the culture’s professionalized definition, the Bible seems relatively insufficient—even utterly silent—on the subject of counseling. But if counseling is about the tongue, and wise or foolish companions, and master-disciple relationships, and one-anothering influences for good or bad, and the truth or lie that speaks in the heart, and ministry of the Word of life… then the Bible brims. Relatively formal, private counseling ought only to apply and extend the practical truth and knowledgeable love that ought to characterize both informal relationships and public ministry. Counseling, whatever its formal or informal status, is either foolish (reorienting us away from God and toward our own self-trust) or wise (reorienting us to God). We need, first and foremost, to learn our own paradigm for understanding and transforming human nature, and that is exactly the Bible’s major focus in revealing God on the stage of human life.
Sin exerts a systematic distorting effect on thought and practice. The Bible teaches us how to see and expose sin and error. Most ungodliness is not unusually vile. It is so utterly commonplace that we miss it. In our day, it includes the deep assumptions every secular psychology makes about what transpires in the human heart. Secular psychologists can’t help the godlessness of their view of the psyche and relationships. A secular psychology is the cultural product of a God-less person and will reflect and express that. Theories systematize and rationalize the unbelief of those who create and embrace those theories. Because the wisdom of the world has always been foolishness with God, the Bible always conducts a secondary polemic in order to defend and clarify the truth and to protect people from plausible falsehoods. This running argument arises from redemptive intention, not paranoid irascibility. The Redeemer is conducting an invasion, and he critiques other theories in order to convert people to his indestructible truth. The Bible’s demonstrated second priority, criticizing untruths, is one logical implication of the demonstrated first priority, revealing truth.
Many “VITEX” (secular integrated) advocates commonly point to parts of the Bible where secular writings are favorably quoted, suggesting that it is biblical to pursue truth outside of Scripture using unbelieving systems of thought. This was Greg Koukl’s reasoning in my old post The Cure of the Psyche. Powlison offers an excellent critique of this flawed reasoning:

This is God’s world, so everything, even if it intends to efface God, bears witness to God— understood and reinterpreted through biblical eyeglasses. The Bible freely traffics in the extra- biblical, in the creation, in fallen cultural products, in the terminology of the very contemporary falsehoods that God is attacking. But God always interprets or reinterprets. He is imperial. Biblical truth is a corrective gaze. For example, the formal structure of Deuteronomy was modeled on ancient Near Eastern political treaties, but what God appropriates he radically reworks. Some proverbs are formally identical to older Egyptian sayings. But they mean something fundamentally different when embedded in the context of Yahweh-fearing proverbs from what they meant when embedded in a context of superstition, animism, idolatry, and self-trust.

The Bible never fears secular education. Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22); God gave Daniel and his friends knowledge and intelligence in every branch of Chaldean literature and wisdom (Dan. 1:17); Paul was a man of great learning (Acts 22:3; 26:24). But Moses, Daniel, and Paul interpreted life through God’s redemptive grid. Paul could quote with favor an “anthropologist” who studied life in Crete (Titus 1:12), and he could weave the words of Greek literati into his argument in Athens (Acts 17:28). Where the living, speaking, seeing, acting God rules, his servants move freely into the culture of their time and place. The Bible gives no warrant for Christians to be intellectual isolationists, to be biblicistic, cut off from culture, speaking a private language to our own kind.

Fallen though it is, this world is God’s stage of redemption. But notice how the appropriation of culture is always subordinated, first to a clear-eyed grasp of God’s truth, and second to keen-eyed skepticism about fallen alternatives. Paul had obviously learned a great deal from his culture. But he did not learn the living, systematic truth he proclaimed from those sterile and deviant substitutes. And the truth he proclaimed radically reworked those substitutes.

Powlison’s concern is that VITEX psychologists fail to interpret secular psychology through God’s redemptive grid. Instead, they wholly adopt deviant substitutes and then merely sprinkle the Bible into a sub-section of their psychological categories called “spiritual”. Thus only a small minority of our problems are really “spiritual” and only a small minority can be addressed by the Bible. The rest must be addressed by “professionals”.

An example of this kind of thinking is found in the book New Light on Depression. The book is endorsed by the Christian Medical Association and boasts that it is “Medically Reliable” and “Biblically Sound”. The authors explain that

There are four basic types of depression: situational depression, developmental depression, spiritual depression, and biological depression. [21]

They then severely limit what may be considered “spiritual”.

Spiritual depression is an uncommon diagnosis, at least in most medical settings, but we believe that depression can originate with spiritual causes and have spiritual effects… Spiritual depression is the primary classification when the main issues are those for which faith, reconciliation with God, and the experience of his grace and forgiveness are the most effective treatments. [22]

The problem is that the VITEX definition of “spiritual” is much narrower than what the Bible considers to be spiritual. The Bible views man in two parts: physical and spiritual – not 4, 8, or 17 parts. Everything about our thoughts and actions is considered spiritual. Rather than reinterpret the secular categories of situational, developmental, etc to fit into the Biblical system underneath the overarching category “spiritual”, these VITEX psychologists simply adopt the “deviant substitutes” as-is and add a “spiritual” category alongside and separate from them. Powlison comments:

One sees in the Bible the normatively wise human psychology; it is so radically God-centered that we can barely see it as a psychology and as the true psychology. It sounds like theology, not psychology. But the Bible portrays the nitty-gritty of human psychology as pervasively theological… There is no “religious” sector of life. Such sectoring is one of the commonplace machinations of sin’s logic that flies in the face of reality… Some still attempt to sector off “spiritual” problems from “psychological, emotional, relational, mental” problems, attempting to validate their professional existence and activity as something qualitatively different from cure of souls. But many at the leading edge of the profession see that the divide between “spiritual” and “psychological” problems is artificial and problematic. Advocates have been won to John Calvin’s foundational insight that true self-knowledge and knowledge of the true God are interchangeable perspectives.

Powlison’s point is that when you have a proper understanding of the Bible, you will recognize that no one can truly understand themselves apart from understanding and knowing God. Because unbelievers do not know God, they cannot know themselves (Jer 17:9-10). Therefore any psychological system they develop is foolishness. “The wisdom of the world has always been foolishness with God”.

What the Bible communicates to us about God’s gaze on the psyche and relationships is so “odd” that even to glimpse it turns our whole notion of psychology and counseling inside out, upside down, and backward. God gives a radically “other” explanation and agenda. Contemporary counseling models—including “Christianized” models—do an extremely poor job of reflecting and communicating what life is really about. They are weakest where they claim to be strongest. We are immersed in decidedly bad psychologies, in gross misinterpretations of human existence.

Rather than than narrowly limiting the scope of “spiritual”, Powlison asks

So what is the problem [we all face and that psychologists want to solve]? The three-word description that Christians have harvested from the Bible is “sin and misery.” The remedy for our disorientation and suffering? The two-word solution that Scripture sows into our lives is “Jesus Christ.” The seven-word version of the solution, encompassing our response, is “Christ’s grace enabling repentance, faith, and obedience.” God is in the business of turning folly and misery into wisdom and felicity. How is such theological shorthand relevant to the problems that counselors of all stripes address daily? How do basic Christian diagnostic categories map onto the details of such things as interpersonal conflicts, unpleasant emotions, misdirected lives, twisted cognitions, chaotic cravings, compulsively escapist behaviors, sufferings at the hands of others, somatic afflictions, devilish temptations, sociocultural lies? That last sentence simply offers a twenty-five-word elaboration of “sin and misery.” One could further elaborate any topic or subtopic into book length without ever needing to slip into another set of categories. Similarly, the wise felicity of grace—God’s solution—can, must, and will be elaborated, tailored, and nuanced as it is worked into our lives.


This line of thinking may sound foreign to those unfamiliar with reformed Christianity. Many are not used to seeing sin as all-pervasive and have a knee-jerk reaction against the idea that sin could be playing a role in their problems because they fail to see the cognitive (thinking) effects of sin in our lives – they see sin merely as immoral actions. Powlison explains:

Sin is the problem, but people find it difficult to make the core of Jesus’ gaze useful in developing a counseling model. Several common distortions in the working definition of sin make us unable to trace the psychological logic of sin.

First, people tend to think of sins in the plural as consciously willed acts where one was aware of and chose not to do the righteous alternative. Sin, in this popular understanding, refers to matters of conscious volitional awareness of wrongdoing and the ability to do otherwise. This instinctive view of sin infects many Christians and almost all non-Christians. It has a long legacy in the church under the label Pelagianism, one of the oldest and most instinctive heresies. The Bible’s view of sin certainly includes the high-handed sins where evil approaches full volitional awareness. But sin also includes what we simply are and the perverse ways we think, want, remember, and react.

Most sin is invisible to the sinner because it is simply how the sinner works, how the sinner perceives, wants, and interprets things. Once we see sin for what it really is—madness and evil intentions in our hearts, absence of any fear of God, slavery to various passions (Gen. 6:5; Ps. 36:1; Eccles. 9:3; Titus 3:3)—then it becomes easier to see how sin is the immediate and specific problem all counseling deals with at every moment, not a general and remote problem. The core insanity of the human heart is that we violate the first great commandment. We will love anything, except God, unless our madness is checked by grace.

The tendency to only see sin as behavioral and fully volitional carries enormous implications for counseling. When people see sin only as willed actions, then they must invent other categories to cover the blind chaos, insanity, confusion, compulsion, impulsivity, bondage, and fog that beset the struggling human soul. A few people, the consciously bad people, can then be usefully described as sinners. Everybody else might commit a few sins: “Of course, we’re all sinners.” But that is a weightless comment. The weighty action typically occurs elsewhere in the person, going on beneath or beside those occasional, undefined, generic sins. If sin is only conscious badness, then the person grappling with the chaos of the human condition must suffer something else: emotional or psychological problems, demons, mental illness, addiction, inner wounding, unmet needs and longings, adjustment reactions, or some other DSM-IV syndrome.

If a certain problem happens on occasion, and presumably under conscious control, then it might be sin. But if the problem happens a lot, and is driven by blind compulsion, then it is presumably something else and only remotely sin. When the deacon gets drunk and sleeps with his secretary, he sins. But when the drunkard and pornography habitué succumbs, he suffers alcoholism and sexual addiction. When a normal mother feels some anxiety about her children and pressures them, she ought to repent of her worry and domineering and learn to trust God. But when someone is a walking nervous breakdown, feels wracking anxiety about everything and manipulates everyone, then she suffers neurosis or codependency or border line personality or an adjustment reaction. Such thinking swings a wrecking ball into the church’s ability to think about counseling the way Jesus thinks about it. A psychologically astute gaze will discern how sin plays out in people’s problems— and in the things they do not think are problems. False psychologies obscure what the true psychology sees.

The Bible is crystal clear about all these things. This is Theology 101 applied remedially to contemporary bad psychologies in the interests of forming a sound psychology. These are the ABCs of a biblical theory of why we do what we do and what we should do about it. These concepts appear nowhere in any secular model and rarely with any profundity in Christian counseling models. Instead, one finds counterfeits, abstractions of human existence ripped out of their true theistic context.

Secular Psychology Professionals

Powlison provides a helpful analogy as to why the concept of sin, which is central to all our problems, is found nowhere in any secular psychology:

As far as secular psychologists know themselves, they want to understand and help people. But they are committed to defining the core, causal problem as anything except sin. Imagine a group of detectives examining a murder scene. The criminal has left countless clues. An hour before the crime he had been heard in a restaurant making loud threats. He dropped his business card at the scene of the crime. He stood in front of a surveillance camera that took pictures every three seconds. He left fingerprints everywhere, including the gun, which lay beside the body and which he had purchased three days earlier. He made a credit card call on the victim’s telephone moments after the crime. He was collared running away from the scene wearing blood-spattered clothes. Under questioning he is extremely agitated, alternating between contradictory excuses and sharp cries of remorse. But imagine further that the detectives are committed to find some other culprit, any other culprit, because they themselves are accomplices. All the evidence will be processed through a grid of intentions that forbids the truth. Secularity cannot help noticing the clues screaming out “sin,” even as it cannot help rationalizing away the true interpretation.

State-Licensed Professionals or Elders Called by God?

Does the Holy Spirit intend that we develop a normative social institution for curing souls? The answer is yes. The church—as the Bible defines it—contains an exquisite blending of leadership roles and mutuality, of specialized roles and the general calling. It is the ideal and desirable institution to fix what ails us…  In the pages of the Bible we have a social model the secular world can only dream about… To orient face-to-face cure of souls toward the mental health professions is fundamentally, even disastrously, wrong-headed.

The church is in trouble when its designated experts in the cure of souls are mental health professionals who owe their legitimacy to the state. Cure of souls is a decidedly pastoral function, in the broadest and deepest sense of the word. It is deeply problematic to operate as if the Word of God is useful, necessary, and sufficient for public ministry—preaching, teaching, worship, sacraments—but that training and credentialing in secular psychology are necessary for private ministry. In the Bible, the same truths that address crowds address individuals. A preacher no more needs a PhD in public speaking than a counselor needs a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology. Graduates of psychology programs should not have rights and honors to teach the church about the human condition. Fee-for-service psychotherapeutic professions should not have the rights and honors to practice the cure of souls. They have the wrong knowledge base, the wrong credentials, the wrong financial and professional structure.

Psychotherapists are “ordained” by the state, not by the church. From the church’s standpoint, they are laypersons, not professionals. They attempt exceedingly significant and delicate work in people’s lives in a dangerously autonomous way, without guidance or checks from the church that has responsibility for those people’s lives. If the books and articles are any guide to what is actually done in counseling, then they often mediate falsehoods. But however sincere the beliefs and intentions of individual practitioners and however close particular individuals may be to biblical thinking, the problem is structural. A hugely influential profession is operating by claiming title to the most personally intimate and weighty aspects of the cure of souls: addressing identity confusion, disordered motivation, distortions of functional beliefs, broken relationships, responses to suffering, compulsive sins, and the like. In effect, functional authority over the souls of Christ’s sheep is being granted to a semisecular, unaccountable parapastorate. This invites trouble.

In conclusion, Powlison notes:

Our doctrine must control our study, and our study must flesh out our doctrine. Careful “psychological” study is one direct implication of the sufficiency of Scripture and of getting our first priority straight. We best study human psychology not by submitting ourselves to the world’s deviant psychologies but by looking at the world through the gaze of our own systematic biblical understanding.


Here are some related videos:

How Does Biblical Counseling View Psychiatric Drugs (Powlison)

What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Biblical Counseling (Powlison)

Help! I’m Always Sad (Powlison)

Can My Body Make Me Sin? (Welch)

A young man explains how reading “Christian” psychology (VITEX) paved the way for his “deconversion” to agnosticism.

Psychology and the Church
(from Berean Call / Dave Hunt, so take the video with a grain of salt)