Christians often spend a great deal of time talking about the doctrine of the total depravity of man. That is a good thing because human beings are totally depraved. Apart from Christ, there truly is no one who is righteous (Rom 3:10).
But the first three words of that last sentence turn out to be of crucial importance. Apart from Christ human beings are totally depraved, but there is more to say about Christians who, by definition, are seated with Christ. The Bible speaks clearly to this issue, and yet it is an area where Christians have—at times—struggled to articulate the biblical view.
Downplaying the Newness of the Christian
On one extreme, there is the perspective that seems to downplay the newness of Christians. This view is often articulated by the Puritans. Many examples could be cited, but I’ll cite a very personal one. I love the Puritans, and have very many Puritan Paperbacks on my shelf that have helped me immensely in my walk with Christ. One of the most well-worn books in that section of my shelf is The Valley of Vision. The opening line of “Yet I Sin,” the prayer I have prayed the most frequently, begins like this:
Thou art good beyond all thought,
But I am vile, wretched, miserable, blind . . .
Another prayer, “Heart Corruptions,” leads Christians to pray,
I am full of infirmities, wants, sin; thou art full of grace.
I confess my sin, my frequent sin, my willful sin;
All of my powers of body and soul are defiled:
A fountain of pollution is deep within my nature.
I prayed prayers from this book almost every day when I was in college. This glorious book gave voice to my desire to be more like Christ, and helped me articulate my brokenness over sin. I experience blessings today I would not know but for God’s answers to many prayers from this book that became my own.
Having said that, when I prayed words like the ones above I was praying things that were inaccurate. These words are written out of a well-intentioned brokenness over indwelling sin, but they express words that are not true of believers. Of believers the Bible says, We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin (Romans 6:6), and If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17)—among many others.
Christians are not vile, wretched, miserable, and blind. Though we do sin frequently, it cannot be said of believers in Christ that “all of their powers of body and soul are defiled.” Christians are new. If we deny this reality, we deny biblical truth, as well as the work Jesus has done to purify us from sin. It is harmful to believe doctrines, pray prayers, or live lives that minimize that truth.
The Extreme of Glorification Now
There is another extreme. This extreme is articulated by Charles Leiter in his book Justification and Regeneration. Leiter’s book has been critiqued for many things. He has been falsely accused of Gnosticism and Christian perfectionism, and appropriately critiqued for simplistic views of “the flesh” in Paul’s writings. His central argument, however, is that Christians are truly new creations. Leiter does not make the error mentioned above of believing that Christians are not new.
Leiter runs so far in the other way, however, that his book feels like a scene from the movie Forrest Gump. One place where we see how far Leiter goes is when he writes, The deepest and ultimate truth about the Christian is that he is a new man. This is his essential identity. The new man represents who he “really” is at the present time and who he will be a thousand years from now (173).
Really? The Christian is as new now as he will ever be?
This teaching is just as harmful as the former one, but in the opposite direction. It forgets that, in this life as we await the fullness of our redemption, Christians are being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). Christians are new, but are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Biblical Reality and Balanced Truth
Sometimes biblical truth is found in the extremes. Not on this issue. Here the biblical reality is found in the balanced truth that Christians are new people who have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator (Colossians 3:10).
The implications of this for life and counseling are astronomical. You could write a medium-sized book unpacking all that is at stake. Let me just mention two things by way of conclusion.
If you go with many of the Puritans on the issue it will harm your Christian life because you will not be believing the truth about yourself on the issue. This is far more significant than misstating an area of confessional orthodoxy. On the contrary, the Apostle Paul uses our essential newness as the foundation for his call for us to fight sin (Romans 6:12; Ephesians 4:21-32; Colossians 3:1-17). If you would conquer sin by the power of Christ you must believe the truth that Christ makes you new and breaks the power of sin your in your life.
If you go with Leiter on this issue it will harm your Christian life by undercutting your efforts at a process of being renewed that the Bible summons believers to on every page. We are new, but this newness is progressive, not punctiliar.
The former position is a harmful underrealization of who we are in Christ. The latter is a harmful overrealization of who we are in Christ.
Biblical counselors should opt for neither. Instead we should call ourselves and those the Lord gives us to counsel to believe the truth about our newness in Christ and then fight to be renewed increasingly into the image of Jesus until we see him face to face (1 John 3:2).
Join the Conversation
How do you nuance the balance between our regeneration (newness in Christ) with the realization that we are not yet glorified (made perfect)?