Over the last few weeks, I noticed that a controversy had broken out on the web, which is nothing new. I regarded it as an unnecessary controversy, but I guess that is nothing new either. And this one has to do with my understanding of the boundaries between temptation and sin.
As this controversy included some responsible people who seemed to be asking genuine questions, to be distinguished from trolls, I engaged a few times on Twitter. But it rapidly became apparent to me that Twitter is an inadequate forum for a subject like this, and so I decided I needed to write a longer piece. And then I remembered that I have a blog.
What do I mean, a subject “like this?” The question concerns lust, desire, concupiscence, same sex attraction, and so on. Jared Moore appears to have put the ball in play with his appearance on Jon Harris’s platform (the section on me begins at the 41 minute mark), and the resultant questions this whole thing has raised with a number of folks appear to have feet. And what that means is a little bit more typing from me.
Elites Don’t Have to Answer
In his interview with Jon Harris, Jared Moore said that I was one of the “elites,” and that I thought myself above interacting with lowly types like him. What I have to say to him about this, I say to all. I also have to say this frequently to correspondents when I finally get around to answering them. My inbox looks like a back room closet at the crazy cat lady’s house. At this time of this writing, there are 247 emails in there, glaring at me malevolently with what some observers might call the evil eye, and you should see how many things are on the floor.
I think that the reason the Lord doesn’t let me get the number of unanswered emails below 100 is that I might become inordinately pleased with myself, and that could lead to a deadly form of spiritual pride.
Elite, forsooth! It is not elitism to have your canoe gunwales under and one nostril above the water. Whatever this is, it isn’t that.
In a Nutshell
This post is likely to turn into a beast, and so if you have somewhere you need to get to, you can just read this section. This section has the bottom line stuff.
What is alleged about my teaching is that I maintain that same sex attraction is not sinful, and thus I am compromising on a key issue in our current culture wars, and I am also out of conformity with our church’s confessional standard, the Westminster Confession, which says this:
This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.
Now I subscribe to the Westminster, and this statement is something I stoutly affirm. This is not one of the exceptions I have taken.
But this affirmation is alleged to contradict the statement I made in the Q&A at Bloomington, where I said that there are homosexuals who are members in good standing at our church, and also to conflict with an answer I gave in my letters section a few weeks ago, which ran like this:
Q: What are your beliefs on concupiscence, and specifically, as it pertains to homosexuality?
A: Noah, I believe that the stirrings of such desire are temptation, to be resisted but not confessed, and that indulgence and expression of such desire is to be confessed to God as sin. Under no circumstances should it be made an aspect of your identity.
Before getting to my “bottom line” statement, I should also mention that I affirm the next paragraph of the Westminster, which says this:
Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.
So with that as the backdrop, here is a summary of my views on the subject, easily located in one place. I will go on to give more detailed comments on those views in the subsequent sections.
Our corruption of nature is truly and properly sin—and this includes everyone, not just homosexuals. Apart from the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, this corruption alone would be sufficient grounds for damnation. When I say that a Christian ( a member, say, of Christ Church in good standing) has a homosexual orientation, I am not talking about his or her identity. No Christian’s identity is ever to be found in any sin or corrupt trait, but rather in Christ alone. I would call someone a homosexual if they have committed homosexual acts (or if they really wanted to) merely in the same way I would call a Christian a thief if he had shoplifted something. But thieving is not an identity—although it is part of the old man that must be mortified and put away. So the word orientation can legitimately be used simply to describe how a person is likely to be tempted this time tomorrow. The mere fact of this likely line of temptation is not sin, but the temptation does depend for some of its force on the corruption of nature, which is sin.
But we must be careful here. There is an important distinction to be made between the word sin and the phrase a sin. Say that a Christian with homosexual vulnerabilities sees a pop-up ad that would take him to a homosexual porn site, and the moment it hits him, it looks good to him. The reason it looks good to him is because of the particular kink in his corruption of nature, which is sin, but if he immediately rejects the invitation (within a second) and walks away from it, then he has navigated the situation correctly—without being guilty of a sin. He has gone through a temptation, but is not guilty of a sin. His corruption of nature is sin, but we do not have to confess our corruption of nature the same way we confess a particular sin. If we had to do that, every mother’s son of us would be confessing our remaining sin, our corruption of nature, all the time, every day. Our corruption of nature is addressed through our justification, wherein Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and it needs to be addressed that way, but it is not dealt with by us treating it as though it were a discrete sin.
Christ was tempted in all points as we are (Heb. 4:15), but with an important caveat. There are two things that we deal with that Christ did not have to deal with. We start with the corruption of our nature, which Christ did not have. This means, in this regard, He was in the same position that Adam was in when he first sinned. Secondly, there are certain sins that have prerequisites, meaning that you can’t be tempted by them without an antecedent trail of sinning. So Christ was tempted with every basic human temptation, but not by the temptations that can only arise after a life of decadence. He was never tempted to murder anyone for drug money. That said, He felt the full force of the temptations that were thrown at Him—they were in no way an academic or theoretical exercise.
A Blast from the Past
In the paragraphs following this one, the remainder of this section is a blog post from December 2015. I include it to show that these concerns that are being raised depend upon a certain reading of snippets, taken out of the context of my broader work on this subject—which has been extensive. The only thing I changed in what follows is some formatting, and I also put certain salient comments in bold. I am reprinting this to keep people from saying that I am merely engaging in some fancy footwork because Jared Moore caught me being compromised and called me out. So here it is . . .
The subject of temptation, same-sex attraction and sin is one that seems to call for ever more follow-ups.
First, let us consider some questions with regard to temptation. If the stirrings of sin are themselves sinful, as I have been arguing, then how did Adam first sin? He was created perfect. As I was telling my theology class yesterday, this is a subject that would provide someone with a fine thesis topic. The short answer is—whatever else it is—a different answer than it is with us.
We are up against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Adam did not have to contend with “the flesh,” but he was up against the devil, and a jury-rigged world. The world was not then fallen, but it could be presented as though it was. John tells us to “love not the world” (1 John 2:15-16), and the things he tells us to reject were all present in the garden—the lust of the flesh (good for food), the lust of the eyes (pleasant to the eyes), and the pride of life (desired to make one wise). So then Eve and Adam had the capacity to choose self over God, and the impetus for this were the external circumstances and an external tempter.
We also know that an external tempter is not absolutely necessary in order to sin because when the devil first sinned (if he was the first), then that was done without outside help. What is necessary, apparently, is a choosing self and an external set of circumstances in which a wrong choice can be made.
But for us, it is neither here nor there. Because we go into every temptation with some part of us already rooting for the other team, sin happens earlier. Compare when Adam reached for the forbidden fruit, and when we reach for it. It is safe to say that we are in a state of sin sooner than he would be. We are halfway there sooner than he would be.
“But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.”
James 1:14–15 (KJV)
The word rendered lust here is epithumia, strong desire. In Adam, that strong desire was not sinful in itself. In us, it is already compromised, given the nature of the case. When the desires involved have a creational center (as with sex, hunger, thirst), it is not sinful clean through, but our desires are nevertheless compromised. We find no fault with our created and material nature. But these created and material natures are fallen, and this affects how they operate. If God were to mark iniquities, who would stand (Ps. 130:3)?
And all this is why Christians have a responsibility in three kinds of mortification. The following is an excerpt from a sermon I preached in 2009.
In order to understand what Paul is teaching here, we have to sort something out first. He is describing a crucifixion, a death, a mortification. But this is not a concept that has only one application for the Christian life.
First is the death of the “old man,” the old way of being human. This is equated with the overthrow of the rule and reign of sin, the dominion of sin (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24; 6:14). The old man is dead—you don’t have to keep killing him. This is something that is equally true of all who are genuine Christians. The second kind of mortification occurs in the lives of Christians who have stumbled or fallen, and significant sin has grown up in their life. This is what Paul addresses in his letter to the Colossians. “Mortify your members which are on the earth” (Col. 3:5). These are not trifles, because he goes on to define them as “fornication, uncleanness, etc.” But he is talking to Christians, who should have their affections set above, and the action he calls them to is a decisive action at a point in time. The third kind of mortification is daily, for each of us. As John Owen once put it, a man should not think he makes any progress in godliness “who walks not daily over the bellies of his lusts.” We will see this just a few chapters from now—”if he through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13). The verb here refers to an action that is continuous and ongoing. This mortification you will never get to walk away from on this side of glory. If you do, then you will be confronted with the duty mentioned to the Colossians.
And I also said this:
Picture a weed patch, not cultivated at all. When the first mortification happens, God plows the weed patch under, and makes it a garden. It is now a garden, and not a weed patch. The old status is dead. The second mortification is what happens when that garden is untended for a week, and you come back to find weeds in it that are up to your thigh. Uproot them, pull them out. That is the second kind of mortification.
The third kind is what any good gardener will tell you about. Get out there every morning, and pull up the weeds that are the size of your thumbnail. They will always be there. That is the third kind of mortification.
So this should be our backdrop for all discussions of same-sex attraction. Where does this fit in? And what does it mean with regard to Christian leadership?
There are two layers here. The first has to do with the connection between the sin committed and the genesis of that same sin in the desire of the heart. The Lord teaches this explicitly with regard to adultery (Matt. 5:28). God sees a man doing something and a man internally wanting to do it, giving himself over to the sin in the chambers of his mind.
But that is not the only problem—and it is here that the evangelical world stumbles. We have the vice proper, and the vice treasured in the heart, and I think that if we were to discuss that long enough, we could hammer out an agreement. The problem is not confession of our vices, but rather confession of what we assumed were our virtues.
We have had this same problem for decades with regard to the ordination of women. Evangelicals are stuck with the texts that prohibit it, but have, over time, come to prize feminine characteristics in their leadership. This leaves us in the sorry position of having to exclude from leadership those who have the leadership qualities we most prize. The results have been pretty tragic—our own evangelical contribution to the long and sorry history of the third sex.
We do draw the line, and try to mortify certain things. But we are seeking to mortify the wrong things. Cutting to the chase, we mortify true masculinity in leadership. We reward softness. We are afraid of masculine leadership. For the time being, we insist on male leadership but recoil from masculine leadership.
One of the results is that our leadership ranks are starting to fill up with men who are attracted to men, but who promise not to do anything about it. So let me end with a thought experiment. Take one hundred evangelical ministers who struggle with same sex attraction. Let us suppose that we have a magic wand that would entirely remove every form of sexual immorality, and all secret inclinations to it, but everything else remained the same. All the ministerial “virtues” they seek to cultivate in themselves remain. Most of those one hundred ministries (not all of them, but most) would be spiritually intolerable.
The Temptation of Christ
Okay, back to the present day.
This discussion has naturally gravitated to interaction over the nature of Christ’s temptation. Obviously, since Christ was truly tempted, we cannot say that temptation simpliciter is sinful or a sin. But at the same time, we cannot say that the temptation of a sinless human being and a sinful one are identical—although we can say that there is significant overlap. We call them by the same name, for one thing, and the other is that Scripture tells us directly that this fact of shared temptation is something we have in common with the Lord Jesus.
“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
Hebrews 4:15 (KJV)
We are not just told that Jesus was tempted, we are told that He was tempted like as we are. The fact that the tempter makes his appeals to corrupted and fallen beings does not turn what Jesus went through into a different thing.
He was tempted, and He was tempted in such a way as to feel the force of it. We are all familiar with the temptation accounts in Matthew and Luke, and in the Luke account, we are told that the devil left Him “for a season” (Luke 4:13). It was not the case that Jesus was tempted one time at the beginning of His ministry, and then everything after that was plain sailing. Another time when He was clearly tempted and tested was in the battle at Gethsemane. That time was when He submitted His will to the will of the Father, despite enormous pressure (pressure that He felt) to not do so. “Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38).
To say that the Lord felt the temptation as a true temptation is to raise another question—which is whether or not Jesus could have sinned. The question is posed on the basis of thinking that since it was clearly impossible, we should not consider it a “true” temptation, which means that we might think of Him as just going through the motions.
But think of it this way. Were the Lord’s bones breakable? The answer is both yes and no. With regard to their nature, they certainly were. His body was like our bodies. But with regard to the plan and purpose of God, the answer is no.
The apostle John quotes Psalm 34 as referring to the crucifixion of Christ, and to the fact that Christ was dead already when they came to break His legs (John 19:36). Now, were Christ’s bones breakable? Yes and no. They were breakable in that they were made of the same substance as our bones are. They were not made out of some kind of steel alloy. So yes, they had a breakable nature. But no, in the sense that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), and this psalm had prophesied that not one bone would be broken.
This is obviously comparable to the question of whether Christ could have sinned. If He could not, then were the temptations He went through genuine temptations? If yes, then doesn’t that unsettle everything in the universe? It is the same kind of thing that we see with His bones. Christ’s human nature was such that sin was a possibility, and thus the temptations were genuine, and were felt as such. But God (whose Word cannot be broken) had promised through His prophets that Christ would resist all temptations perfectly (e.g. Is. 53: 11). And thus it was not possible that Christ would fall to His genuine temptations. Christ could have sinned the same way that His bones could have been broken.
Now what do I say to the rejoinder that same sex temptations are inherently disordered? I would agree, but that doesn’t keep them from being temptations. And if they are resisted temptations, the person concerned is doing well. If he is theologically informed, he also thanks God for the imputed righteousness of Christ, which directly addresses his corruption of nature which that kind of temptation possible.
For those who noticed that in my reply to Noah, I used the word stirrings in a sense different than I used it in the post from 2015, my reply would be “this is true.” Sometimes the meanings of words depends upon context.
Some individuals with same sex attraction are that way because some sex ed instructor messed them up in junior high. Human sexuality really is pretty plastic, as the recent epidemic of youth-trannies clearly indicates. But there are others who have the misfortune of having this attraction from a very young age, and it lies pretty close to the bone. That configuration of whatever it is in their nature is broken, busted, perverted, and truly and properly sinful. But if you tell them that they are defeated and already committing sin at the first sign of battle, you are giving them a counsel of black despair. There is an important difference between sinful and sinning.
Every mature Christian knows that we all have to deal with the fact of our remaining sinfulness, embedded in our flesh. But it is oxymoronic to say that mature Christians are the ones who are sinning all the time.
Suppose someone says that homosexual temptations are worse than heterosexual sins—because they are disordered in ways that heterosexual temptations are not—I would say that this is true in a lot of cases, but not all. Paul does describe homosexual behavior as the end of the line (Rom. 1:26-27), occurring as a result of God giving them over to a debased mind. But there are hetero-sins that could be indications of the same kind of debased mind—threesomes, rape, orgies, child porn, and so on. But if all such variables are removed, and someone asks, which is worse, a twenty-five-year-old man lusting after an attractive woman, and a twenty-five-year-old man lusting after an attractive man, clearly the latter is worse. But if both men are Christians, and they are both actively resisting the temptation to think like pig, then they should both lament the corruption of their nature—which is truly and properly sin, remember—and thank God for the righteousness of Christ. But they ought not to confess a sin until they commit one.
This is spiritual tennis. You don’t lose a point when the ball comes over onto your side of the net. You lose a point when it stays there. Or, as Martin Luther once put it, you can’t keep birds from flying over your house, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your chimney.
In Conclusion, Finally
The way Jared Moore framed all of this, it looked like various warriors in the fight against the Side B Revoice downgrade were surreptitiously Side B advocates themselves. This is just frankly absurd. I noticed on Facebook that Robert Gagnon—a stalwart leader in the fight against the homosexual jihad—was being chastised by Moore in a similar way, and on similar grounds. That is absurd also. To allege that Gagnon is soft on homosexual issues is like saying Patton was soft on Nazis. It is not compromise or heresy to have a more careful doctrine of sanctification than Moore has. He says that my hamartiology is deficient, but my doctrine of sin is fully confessional. It is not a sign of a deficient hamartiology to refuse to build your view of fallen human choices out of pressure-treated four by fours.
There is an entire episode of Man Rampant, the one with Sam Allberry, where these issues are discussed. That should have been noted. My review of Wesley Hill’s book should have been noted. The blog post I included above should have been noted. My commentary on the Westminster Confession should have been noted. My blog posts during the Revoice controversy should have been noted.
The Q&A session at Bloomington was made possible by the fact that there was a significant police presence there. That is why I got to deliver my lectures, and also why there was that epic Q&A. I was presenting the gospel of life to a room full of sexually broken people. I wanted them to know that if they repented of their sin, and refused to compromise with it, they would not be rejected by us simply because of the nature of their temptations. They would be welcome to join a church where that particular vice is regularly thundered against, but where they would be welcome in the spirit of “such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11).
As I remember it, when the Revoice Side B thing blew up, it was the Warhorn guys who were in the forefront of that battle. But there were a number of us who joined with them in that fray, and all of us were steadfast in our opposition to the normalization and mainstreaming of “being gay without acting on it.” That is not okay. And what we are talking about here is not the same thing. A man with homosexual temptations does not get to create an identity out of that any more than a man with polyamorous inclinations gets to create an identity that valorizes the concept of a harem full of blondes. But if both men reject an identity shaped and defined by sin, any sin, and resolve by grace to resist temptations from the old man as soon as those temptations arise, and they do so, then both men are living by faith in the same way, and both can expect to hear “well done, good and faithful servant.”
And if Christ can say that to a Christian with homosexual temptations, provided he has resisted them as the Word requires, then I think it should be fully appropriate for a Christian pastor to say the same thing to him.