Issues of same-sex attraction, the Christian identity, and sexual orientation have once more made it to the fore, and a growing contingent of believers are wondering if the whole thing is a matter of semantics.
Terms like “gay” and “orientation” used in the context of professing Christians have drawn much ire from various discernment voices. Is this a mere squabble over words to no avail—the sort of thing condemned in 2 Timothy 2:14 (“[C]harge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers”)?
This question has been stirred by the continued ripple effects of the Revoice conference. Regarding Revoice itself, Albert Mohler and Kevin DeYoung have written convincingly concerning its dangers. Christian author, pastor’s wife, and former lesbian Rosaria Butterfield, in a conversation addressing similar issues, said, “Souls are at stake. And I think that’s where we have to recognize that the gay Christian movement, including the celibate gay Christian movement, is a different religion. … I’m not standing in the same forest with Greg Johnson and Wes Hill and Nate Collins looking at different angles of the trees. I’m in a different forest altogether.”
But one needn’t compose an entire blog post to simply cite to the thought leaders and add, “All that goes for me double.” So rather than flesh out all the arguments others have already made, I would simply like to make a point that has somehow gone unnoticed in much of the current discourse.
Concupiscence is still a sin.
Now, on first glance, it may seem as though the sin of concupiscence is the sin of using such a pretentious word in the first place. Concupiscence is, after all, a bit of a holdover from the king’s English. (True story: to this day, my parents castigate me for having asked in seventh grade if forsooth was too archaic to use in my composition assignment. And no, I didn’t know what it meant.) But its meaning appears as we see it used throughout the New Testament:
“But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence.” (Romans 7:8 KJV)
“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5)
“For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God[.]” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)
Modern translations render this word along the lines of lusts, passionate urges, and inordinate longings. What we are dealing with is the Greek word epithumia. Henry Jacobs (1844-1932) defined it in this way:
The Greek noun, like the verb from which it comes, meaning ‘to yearn,” “to long,” “to have the heart set upon a thing,” is determined in its moral quality by the source whence it springs or the object toward which it is directed.… As a rule, when the object is not expressed, it refers to longing for that which God has forbidden, namely, lust. It is not limited to sexual desire, but includes all going forth of heart and will toward what God would not have us to have or be, as its use in the Septuagint of the Ten Commandments clearly shows, for “Thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20:17).
The fact is that, biblically, desiring to sin is sin. Now, that is not to say that to merely be tempted is morally equivalent to succumbing to said temptation; Jesus was tempted but never sinned (Matthew 4:1ff, Hebrews 4:15). But for us fallen beings, to the degree that these desires arise from within us, they reflect our depravity and are thus culpable before we even act upon them. “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15).
Separating Ethics From Orientation
There is a strange history in the church of claiming that such lusts are actually not culpable. I would submit that there is a reason that at the Council of Trent, the same Roman Catholic body which anathematized those who hold the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone (see Session 6), also excused concupiscence (5.1.5). The reason is simple: a man-centered, works-based gospel cannot truly contend with the reality of indwelling sin. A Roman Catholic system of self-salvation involving meritorious works simply must pronounce some sinful desire okay, or else the system falls apart. Only the one-way grace of God—demonstrated in Christ doing for us what we could decidedly never do for ourselves—can redeem us out of the sin that “clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1). It takes the unilateral intervention of a sovereign God to bring to life dead, sin-inclined hearts (Ezekiel 36:26), and this intervention is exactly what Christ procured with his blood.
On the issue of so-called sexual orientation, it seems as though many Christians want to hedge their bets, buying into Freudian categories of sexuality while superimposing a biblical ethic of sexual behavior. This is understandable. Every day we inhale gulps of cultural air convincing us that being gay is a fundamental fact of personhood comparable to eye color or left-handedness. And we should be grateful that many believers within the orbit of Revoice still hold that homosexual activity is contrary to the law of God. But the effort to separate so-called orientation from ethics, while driven out of compassion for those who experience same-sex attraction, is fundamentally misguided. And we can see this through a simple thought experiment, replacing sexual immorality with any other sin.
Imagine explaining to your wife or husband: “Sweetheart, I want to obey the Lord Jesus, and he commands me not to run you through with this steak knife. But I confess that as long as I live in this fallen frame, I will face the constant temptation to run you through anyway. But I won’t, because I am committed to pro-life ethic in our marriage.” In this case, a healthy marriage cannot coexist with an orientation towards violence. We cannot separate Christian ethics from the life of the mind and the internal drives of the professing Christ-follower. It is for this reason that Jesus runs his own reductio ad absurdum in the Sermon on the Mount, equating lust with adultery and hatred with murder (Matthew 5:21ff). To put it plainly: wanting to sin but refraining from the external act is no triumph of the will.
Resisting But Wishing We Weren’t
As I recount my own youth and my battles with sexual lust, I am grateful for the truly miraculous way in which the Lord graciously delivered me from the snares of pornography. But I also recall a period of heavy conviction marking the period after I was “clean” from such external sources of temptation. Though I was externally steering clear of vile and sexually explicit media, my internal monologue droned, Ah, Lord, but if only pornography weren’t sinful. I still longed for it. I was “obeying” externally but not hating the sin simply because it grieved my Savior. I was, at that point, still waging war in the power of the flesh. Only when the Lord persuaded me that my daydreaming and desires themselves were damnable was I more fully enabled to by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). And here the real renewal began.
The Apostle Paul writes: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do to be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). As a fallen follower of Christ, I can joyfully join in the “such were some of you” chorus. The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus died for bad people. Christ suffered for both sins and the guilty desires that beget them. In his power we are now transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:1).
And this is what gives the gospel its power to redeem the same-sex attracted believer too. Before Christ, every single one of us was “oriented” wholly towards sin. Jesus died not merely for sinful acts but also for our desires to sin. But in Christ, we are made new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Though we may wrestle with our fallenness for a lifetime, our natural selves are crucified with Christ and raised to newness of life. And having been thus regenerated, believers “repent” (metanoéō)—they turn from sin. One might even say they reorient from sin.
If any of this sounds to you like a condemnation of believers who sincerely struggle to resist same-sex lust, I encourage you to reread everything above. Believers who faithfully mortify and resist same-sex lust are doing what all believers are called to do: mortify and resist sin in any and all of its insidious manifestations. To walk with Christ is to constantly battle to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Rather, you should see in this post a sober warning to those who stop fighting—who reclassify their temptations as a part of their identity on par their ethnicity, nationality, or gender. (An example of this can be found in Revoice’s “Statement of Sexual Ethics and Christian Obedience” under the section “Christian Obedience and Sanctification.”) To follow Christ is to fight. To stop fighting is to stop following.
To posit sexual orientation as an immutable identity category is to say that there’s a part of our human nature Jesus didn’t truly die to redeem. As Butterfield also noted: “There is simply no way, biblically speaking, that you can bypass repentance to get to grace. And if you believe that your homosexual orientation is not an indwelling sin, then what you are telling me is that you are righteous, and there is no gospel for the righteous.”
This isn’t a matter of semantics. Concupiscence always leads to death—ours or Christ’s. Let us pray, plead, and preach the gospel of grace and the biblical doctrine of sexuality as matters of life and death, because they are.