Sacred Space: The Church and Sexual Sin

Every Friday in Sacred Space, Brad Williams explores the place of popular culture in the local church.

Would you be comfortable with the knowledge that a pedophile visited your church this Sunday? Would it rattle you to know that a homosexual couple had been slipping into the back of the sanctuary to listen to sermons? Would it bother you less to realize that the only sexual deviant in the congregation on Sunday morning was you?

It seems to me that the church is losing the battle for the hearts of sexual sinners. Sadly, many believe that it is the right application of the law of God and the gospel call to repentance that is doing this. I do not think this is the case. I believe it is our own self-righteousness and the elevating the sin of the “other” very high, while down-playing our own besetting sins as minor, that is keeping us from gaining an audience.

Jesus was pretty specific on how easily we can become adulterers: “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). If we take seriously this teaching of Jesus, then we all walk away as sexually deviant. Every last one of us has had, and will have, unlawful sexual desires. The reason we are not satisfied by our current spouse or our singleness is because we are fallen sinners. It feels normal to indulge in our particular transgressions because sin is the new “normal” ever since Adam and Eve transgressed the law of God. Our culture is correct about the impulse to lust being inborn and pervasive, but it is wrong in teaching that these impulses are okay.

So take heed, Christian. Your heart is as wicked as anyone else’s. You have had many, many trysts unseen. Even at church, our hearts and minds have wandered to fantasies that are unlawful and wicked in the sight of God. Instead of reveling in grace, we have indulged in mental escapades such that if they were broadcast on the Power Point at the gathering of the saints, we would run back to our own houses ashamed to be seen in decent company.

Do these impulses manifest naturally? Do these scenes of your fantastic sexual escapades arise unbidden? If they do, welcome to the sinful human being club. I’m not talking only to the guy who finds the body of another man sexually provocative, or to the woman who enjoys the looks of another woman, or of the pedophile who wretchedly desires the bodies of young children. I’m talking to the teenager who makes advances on his girlfriend, to the husband who clicks on porn in the dead of night, and to the woman who fantasizes about the handsome but gentle cowboy from the Hallmark Channel.

Every time you walk into an assembly of the saints, you are surrounded by perverts. You may count yourself as the chief. Only you and God know how often your mind has wandered to places you should not go, to people you should not be with, to scenes too racy to show in any theater in America. For all you know, your mind is the most smut-ridden of them all.

How can we sneer at any couple, any person, who comes to our fellowship with the slightest inkling that they need grace? We ought to be thankful that they came at all! Does this realization mean that we should be lax in security in the nursery? Or naive about sexual predators in general? God forbid! What it means is that we ought to let the Scriptures take us down a notch or two and realize that we “straight” folk are as lustful as “gay” folk — and equally broken.

That’s why we love the gospel: It can save us all from all of our sins. It can even save Jerry Sandusky. I hope he goes to a church this Sunday who believes in that kind of good news.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    So if you can reason against your thoughts, and not act upon them, they are still wrong?

    That’s fucked up.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport
  • Brad Williams

    Stephen,

    Yes, the impulse is wrong. If you were perfect, you would have no sinful impulses to reason against.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    Brad,

    “Impulses” are by definition involuntary. The subconscious of our minds are scientifically uncontrollable. A majority of the thoughts we have were not decided into existence, they spawned out of a chain of neural impulses triggered by sensation. There can be nothing inherently “wrong” or “sinful” about them.

    There can be no value judgement when there is one or no choice. It’s like saying it was wrong for somebody to run into a car that pulled in front of them last minute. Yes, it might have resulted in bad consequences, but it is not the drivers fault.

    And the argument that bad actions result from bad thoughts is flawed as well, correlation is not causation. Bad actions result from bad *choices*, not thoughts.

    Having bad impulses to reason against allow us to *understand* the choices we make.
    For that reason, I say three cheers for bad impulses!

  • Adam

    Hi Stephen,

    I think what Brad might be trying to say is that because our involuntary thoughts are immoral, it makes us immoral. We have a bias in our hearts and minds towards immorality which makes our attempts to do good actions inadequate to make us good people. Good actions do not make us good people. A car with a left bias can still turn right, but doesn’t change the fact that it’s steering is broken.

    This is why we need God, and is the foundation of the Christian message.

    Adam

  • Jay

    Brad,

    I do think Stephen raises a good point. I suspect you and I agree on this one, but it’s not clear from your article what the difference is between temptation and sin. I usually associate the word “desire” with temptation, which I understand as not sinful unless acted upon. Thus homosexual, heterosexual, or any other form of sexual temptation is not itself lust, but compels and encourages one to lust. Here the grace of God acts to keep us from actions we would otherwise tend to commit. On the other hand, I do agree that we can sin in a way that seems involuntary but is actually not. We are capable of making a sinful habit so ingrained that it no longer seems like a sin or that we have any choice in the matter. In these cases we need the grace of God to enlighten us as to our sin and then help us to get free of it. Does that help clear up the disconnect, Stephen?

  • Stephen Newport

    So, what you all are saying is that god created us with the capacity to choose between two options and claimed we were good. Supposedly we were still “good” up to the point the “fruit” was eaten. What about our “good” nature caused us to eat if temptation is *not* good?

    I believe you would all claim jesus to be perfect, yet the bible mentions multiple instances of him being tempted.

    Please clarify if you don’t mind.

  • Stephen Newport

    Adam, another interesting point: you insist good actions does not make a good person, but apparently bad actions make us bad, as we were not condemned until the *action* of eating…

  • Adam

    Hi Stephen,

    Its a good question, ive never heard it before. I don’t know to be honest but would guess that as we had no concept of what was good and what was evil, we relied on God to be told what was good and what wasn’t. God said that everything was good for us, bar the two trees in the garden, which we inevitably chose to eat from because of external prompting, not internal.

    As we are from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we gained our own ability to discern. I would say that is where we gained a conscience.

    Can anyone answer this question better?

  • Jay

    Stephen,

    I think it’s important to distinguish between “good” and “perfect”. As I understand it, we were good in the Garden of Eden but untested, hence imperfect. It was our imperfection that allowed the fall. Our nature now is inclined towards sin and so we are unable to act righteously all the time as Adam and Eve were. Their ability to sin doesn’t deny their goodness. Christ was tempted as well, as you pointed out, and, because he passed the test where we failed, he was the perfect sacrifice we could never be.

  • Stephen Newport

    So we were made imperfect, then punished for not being perfect?

  • Jay

    We were made imperfect in the sense of being incomplete. Imperfection isn’t a bad thing in itself. It just means that we were potentially both good and bad, and it was up to us to decide which one to give actuality. I think God intended that how we ended up being complete or finished would be up to us. Otherwise, there would be no real freedom in our relationship with Him. We were punished, to over simplify, for choosing poorly.

    Good questions! You should take all this with a grain of salt, by the way, as I’m still working through a lot of it myself, but this is at least my best guess at the moment.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    To all,

    I was busy/away from the computer this weekend, and I hate it that I didn’t get back in time to get in on this conversation. I’ll do the best I can with some very good and difficult questions here.

    First to Stephen,

    Christian theology has always been very careful to distinguish between the spiritual natures of pre-fall Adam and post-fall Adam/mankind. (You may already know this, but since I don’t know you I’m being as basic as I can.) Let me deal with the post-fall mankind first, as it is most important to what I said above, and then I’ll deal a little with Adam’s pre-fall nature.

    First, post-fall man is depraved. The London Baptist Confession of 1689, which is very similar to the Westminster Confession of 1646, says this regarding our natures now:

    Our first parents, by this sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them whereby death came upon all: all becoming dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.

    (Adam and Eve) being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free.

    The error that I believe you are making is the idea that sin and goodness are only a matter of choices we make or things we do. The problem is far worse than the that. The problem isn’t simply that we make sinful choices, but that we are sinful beings. Our very nature is sinfully disposed. So the reason that we struggle with sin, and only a Christian can really struggle against sin because an unregenerate person can only struggle against which kind of sin they are going to commit, is because it arises from our own corruption on the inside as well as from pressures to sin in a sinful world that come from the outside.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Adam and Jay,

    Hey guys. The questions that Stephen asked are very difficult. The nature of the fall itself, human nature, and the incarnation of Christ are doozies indeed. What, I wonder, are your church backgrounds? I have found that many times, especially evangelicals, go into these questions to answer them as if we have to re-invent the wheel. Your particular confessions have asked and answered these questions, I’d wager. So a helpful resource would be to study those and compare them to the Scripture and see if you agree. Your confessions are a veritable treasure-trove of deep thought, and they can help you very much as a guide.

    Please don’t take this as me being condescending! I only discovered “confessions of faith” after years of being a Christian. I wish someone had pointed those out to me earlier. It would have saved me a lot of time and difficulty.

  • Adam

    Hi Brad, I’ve read a few confessions but only as an interested observer of history and never for answers. I’ll try that thanks. I do enjoy approaching questions without an answer however, it makes me think…

    And I meant to apologise for speaking on your behalf… As soon as I commented I realised my error. Sorry.

    Blessings

    Adam

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    Brad,

    So, while having no choice in being corrupt, we are still punished for being corrupt?

    What a depressing and useless life-view to believe that there is nothing we can work towards by our own volition and actions that can change our plight.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Adam,

    You didn’t bother me at all. I think you summarized what I was trying to say rather well.

    I would suggest again digging in to a good confession. I’m biased, but the London Baptist Confession of 1689 is a good place to start. You will not agree with all of it, I’m sure. I don’t, and I am a Baptist. But I think that you will find both the questions and the answers stimulating for further thought. Besides that, even when you disagree, it is refreshing to see how people have wrestled with the exact questions we are still asking. We are not alone in this struggle.

    Stephen,

    Go ahead and try to stop being corrupt. God is not causing you to sin. Yet, you do it anyway. There is no excuse for the sin we commit. None.

    Your life-view offers no explanation for why people do wicked things other than “they chose to do them.” But why did they choose to do them, Stephen? Bad education? Poor self-esteem? Some other outward pressure or lack or nurture? I have to ask, are you unaware of the Christian doctrines of sin and human sinfulness, or are you aware and have simply rejected it? If it is the latter, I wonder why you are acting so surprised?

    What is depressing is telling someone who is corrupt that they can overcome their foulness by trying harder. It’s like the old “bleeding” technique where we made people well by bleeding them.

    Grace, on the other hand, offers people a real opportunity for change. And I’m not saying that ‘there is nothing we can do’ to change our plight. Here’s what you can do, what I have done, and what anyone else can do: Repent from your sin, apologize to God for it, and trust the risen Christ to deliver you from your wickedness by his death on the cross. Then, follow Jesus as your Master.

    That’s a better option than fixing yourself because Jesus can actually fix you.;

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    “Your life-view offers no explanation for why people do wicked things”

    Not everything is/can be known. Simply because someone proposes an answer does not mean A) That it is truth B) That it is better than saying “I don’t know.” So your implication here, that “offering “a” solution” is the main goal, is a moot point.

    That said, there are many theories much better than “we are inherently and irrecoverably corrupt.” One of which is the following:

    Living depends on decision making, often times having to choose one of many options; sometimes having to choose one of only a couple with very similar consequences. You’re “wicked things” that you speak of are often the result of making bad choices because they have never had any first-hand experiences of the consequences of such decisions. We are creatures of trial and error. The difference between people of your PoV and mine are we look at errors as learning experiences, not to be condemned. To us they are the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, to you they are the end-product of evil.
    With my life view, your “sins” can be used to grow, with your life view, nothing of value can come from it.

    Simply look at the life of a child. Do they really seem evil to you? I look at children and see young minds lacking wisdom and knowledge of how the world works. They lack the understanding that all actions have reactions, either beneficial or harmful to their lives. As children grow, they mature and make better decisions. If our “evil” nature were constant and unchangable, we would see no growth as humans. As our brains are finite and only capable of a limited (albeit large) amount of information, mistakes will always be made. Mistakes are not evil, they are just wrong choices towards the value of living that can be learned from.

    “What is depressing is telling someone who is corrupt that they can overcome their foulness by trying harder.”

    I fail to see this as depressing! It is wonderful and beautiful we can learn from our mistakes and grow past our past ignorances!

    “Grace, on the other hand, offers people a real opportunity for change.”

    How, exactly does grace directly lead to change?

    “Repent from your sin”

    Why would I apologize for being corrupt to the person who supposedly made me that way in the first place?

    **A Challenge**

    I want to challenge you to name a “sin” that would be completely and utterly impossible to resist by a human, christian or not.
    If we are truly corrupt and incapable of personally changing our plight, this challenge should be easy.

    Respond to the rest of my statements if you care, but this is the challenge I would like any of you to address.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Stephen,

    I would love to respond to all that you have said here, because there is much to discuss in all that. But right now, it is impossible for me. I’m going on vacation tomorrow, and I’m trying to keep from being a bad employee today by getting stuff done around here. I’d be glad to exchange emails with you if you’d like to address more after what I say here.

    As for the challenge, I already offered it to you: Repent from your sins and turn to Christ. Really, this is the only challenge that counts. See, I’m not concerned so much with “irresistible sinning.” I keep trying to hammer this point, and I will keep on hammering it until you say uncle, the problem with our nature lies not in what we do. What we do is symptomatic of who we are. So rather than listing sins you cannot resist, like the temptation to self-righteousness and your/my endemic covetousness, I want to challenge you to do a positive thing that overthrows those things: Repent and believe.

    Here’s one thing I noticed, when you ask, “Why would I apologize for being corrupt to the person who supposedly made me that way in the first place?” God is not to blame for your sin; you are. I already said this. Do you believe that you are responsible for your sin? Do you think you have sinned against God? Do you believe in God at all? How can we begin talking about moral choices and depravity/non-depravity if we haven’t settled who or what we are accountable to? I am willing to concede that if there is no God, at least if the God of the Bible is not real, then I don’t really care what you do or anyone does to make themselves feel better about themselves. If Jesus isn’t Lord, and if he hasn’t risen from the dead, then I am a miserable man. I have sincerely placed all of my hopes in this life and the life to come on the teaching of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Another thing I will briefly address here is: How does grace lead to change? Two ways: One, in order to understand that we need grace, we have to see that our attempts at justifying ourselves are futile. Our sinful choices are not the root problem. Our root problem is that we like to sin and are sinfully selfish by nature. This taints every decision we make, even ones that appear altruistic. Why do people do things to justify themselves? Who are they attempting to justify themselves to? Secondly, grace leads to change because it changes me by teaching us to love. Once we realize that we are depraved, and that Christ gave himself ‘for a wretch like me’, his life, teaching, and companionship by the Holy Spirit makes us able to live and love. And that’s a change for the better. Have you seen, “How the Grinch stole Christmas?” Why did the Grinch’s heart grow five times its size in one day? He didn’t get better by trying, but by observing the goodwill of the townsfolk he plundered. That’s how grace changes us, dude.

    So, that’s my quick broadside before I go. I hope it is food for thought.

  • Adam

    Perhaps the importance of grace is easier to understand by looking at what no grace looks like.

    I’ve found Christianity that over-emphasises the decisions I make, when determining my individual righteousness, makes me very arrogant and very depressed alternately. When I make a good choice; “I’m the man” and when I fail; “I’m such an idiot”. This is grace-less morality.

    The result of a grace-less morality is pride. Your own choices becomes the measure for others morality: because morality boils down to the individual. Your successes (and failures) are down to no one else but yourself.

    That is why atheism is so powerless over morality. It deals with actions, but leaves the heart arrogant and unrepentant. Psychology, education, accountability, although useful do not deal with the root of our immorality: our heart. Christ is the only answer.

    Blessings

    Adam

  • Jay

    Brad,

    Now I’m regretting being away for a few days! I appreciate your comments. I’m an Anglican, by the way, but I could definitely stand to go back to the 39 Articles. My education in them has been somewhat lacking, I’m afraid.

    Stephen,

    While I agree with what Adam and Brad have posted, I’d like to ask some different questions of you. A couple of days ago you mentioned the concept of punishment for sins. I’m curious as to what you think happens when one is punished? Do you believe in hell, for instance?

    I would also like to suggest that our capacity to choose freely is not so powerful a factor in making us who we are as it might seem. It may even be the sort of thing that only we Westerners could ever come up with because of our unique heritage. I’ve read Greek Orthodox scholars who suggest that our capacity for choice is a curse, not a blessing. I don’t know if I’d go that far (I’m a Westerner), but I would suggest that a great deal of who we are is not up to us. We didn’t choose to be born in the first place. We didn’t choose our parents or how they raised us. We didn’t choose our genetic makeup or the predispositions that come along with it. The list goes on. Who you and I are is more than just the sum of our choices. If you believe there is no God, then much of who you are is just biologically determined. If you believe there is a God, then there is room for some intelligence to order and direct the forces that act on you as an individual. The same is true for the choices you do actually make. They might be biologically determined, or they might be based on a faculty outside of the material world that is to some extent free from its influence (in other words, a God-given ability or a part of the image of God in us).


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