The recent advent of “gay Christianity” (and see also this) has prompted some profitable discussion online. This conversation prompted a common question: “What about Jesus?” In other words, if he “was tempted in every way, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15), and if this experience forms a bridge with our human experience, then how can we rightly call homosexual desire–and thus homosexual orientation, which is a pattern of desire–sinful?
This is an important question, and I’m thankful that some friends have asked it. It needs a thorough answer, or least a more thorough (and yet imperfect) one. I should say up front that I’m deeply thankful that fellow believers want to fight sin, be like Jesus, and deny the flesh. That’s a beautiful, Spirit-wrought thing. All who embrace a “celibate gay” life are turning away from the practices that the world urges upon them. That owes only to grace. Now, four thoughts.
First, Jesus was tempted as we are. Think of Matthew 4, where Satan plies him in three separate ways. First, Satan engages the potentiality of Jesus’ power–“command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3). Satan seeks to entice the Son of God to use his heavenly power for earthly means, as a show of personal force. Jesus refuses. Next, Satan wishes for Christ to “throw himself down” off a high peak in order to demonstrate that his angels will save him (4:5-6). It’s remarkable that Satan tempts Jesus with death, for it is exactly this foe–death–that Jesus has come to earth to face down and overcome.
But the hour is not right. Jesus will indeed give himself up, but Satan wants him to rush ahead. Jesus refuses. Satan makes one more try, offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (4:8). The only requirement? That Jesus fall down and worship Satan. The true king of glory refuses (4:10). How foolish and deceived Satan is. He thinks that the world is ultimately his, when it is in truth Christ’s (John 1:3).
It’s striking to note where these temptations clearly come from: Satan. They do not owe to any inborn impulse in Jesus. They are external to him. Jesus is regularly tempted in this way, and he experiences the full spectrum of temptation. He saw all the world, and he was faced with its depravity in its totality. Yet there was never any point in the life of Christ at which he gave into sinful desires. He was fully a man, yet he was the Son of God. Here the hypostatic union is so clarifying; here high-level theology is so intensely practical. Christ was the Son of God in human flesh. He faced all that we face as a resident of a sin-cursed world.
But there is one crucial distinction between us and the Son of God: his divinity, which yielded an unbroken cooperation with the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was divine; as the divine one, he had no inborn susceptibility to sinful desire. He perfectly obeyed the Lord, and never grieved the Spirit, but always cooperated with the third person of the Godhead to the cosmic honor of the first person. This is awesome stuff that shows us the uniqueness of the Son of Man, even as it forms the ground for our hope. More on this in a moment.
We must lay hold of Hebrews 4:15. But we must handle it according to the whole counsel of the Word, letting Scripture interpret Scripture and thus form our theology and practice. If we collapse the way in which Christ is like us but distinct from us, then we do violence–perhaps unwittingly–to his very identity. That is an error we cannot afford.
Second, things are worse for us in Adam than we know. Ever since Pelagius in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians have been drawn to a hamartiology, a doctrine of sin, that locates evil only in our conscious acts and choices. This is why Pelagianism and its doctrinal family sometimes falls prey over the centuries to perfectionism, the belief that we can live without sin and even, for some of this tradition, become sinless.
But this was not Augustine’s view. Channeling Paul (and, it must be said, all the Scripture), Augustine lighted on the crucial theological realization that mankind not only prepossesses the ability to sin, but is comprehensively sinful. We are corrupt in Adam; we are shot through with iniquity; we are depraved (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10-18). Even our righteous works, Isaiah memorably says, are like soiled toilet paper. The picture couldn’t be much worse, in other words. We are sinful in desire and act, broken in every way because of the fall.
Here is how Augustine understood this sad state (book IX of his Confessions): Who am I? What kind of man am I? What evil have I not done? Or if there is evil that I have not done, what evil is there that I have not spoken? If there is any that I have not spoken, what evil is there that I have not willed to do? This is crucial: “What evil have I not done?” Over against his Manichean, dualistic past, which neatly categorized evil and righteousness, Augustine came to see that he was pervasively depraved.
This was a landmark contribution to Christian theology. But in reality, it was Sermon of the Mount 101. We think of Christ’s words on lust, for example.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28 ESV)
What Jesus teaches, Augustine will recover. That is, sin is not only an act. Sin is also a desire. It is an inborn passion. One need not “do” anything to rouse it. It is already there, dwelling in the heart, festering and fighting to get out and wreak havoc. Many times, we are conscious of such desires. At other times, we are not. We are not only susceptible to sinful desire of the kind that Jesus says causes the “whole body [to] be thrown into hell” (5:29). It has mastered us. It rules us. It has taken over the kingdom of our being, root and branch.
The Greek word used here of “lust” is epithumeo. It speaks of a sinful desire. Our desires can run two ways in the biblical mind: toward sin and hell or toward God and life. Sam Storms has said of this usage of desire that it teaches that “to look upon another human being with the express purpose of fantasizing illicit sexual activity or mentally and emotionally gratifying a sexual desire is out of biblical bounds.” There is no sense of lust that is okay. There is no form of non-marital sexual attraction that is okay. It’s all out of bounds.
Things are much, much worse than any of us know. We are all lost, every one of us. Outside of Christ, we rightly despair.
Third, things are much better for us in Christ than we know. When we are saved by faith in the blood of Jesus, our fundamental nature is changed and we are comprehensively remade. We now carry an inborn desire to love and glorify God. As Jonathan Edwards put it, the “superior principles” now rule the “inferior principles,” which led us to death (see Original Sin, for example). These desires are teleological, that is, directed toward an end.
As Denny Burk has pointed out (see also here), it is the object of our desire that makes all the difference between sin and righteousness. For believers who have been born again and given the indwelling Spirit, there are many good things to desire–the office of overseer or elder for men, for example (1 Tim 3:1). Epithumeo or “desire” does not have a necessarily negative meaning. There are good things to desire, and bad things to desire. What is the difference between them? Their end, or telos.
The reality for the Christian is that we have power, immense divine power, over temptation and sin. We have been fundamentally renewed by the work of Christ. We no longer have to sin. Thinks of Romans 6:
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. For one who has died has been set free from sin. … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:6-7, 11)
We possess the Holy Spirit, the one who descended on Christ at his baptism and empowered his ministry of holiness (1 Corinthians 3:16). Unlike the world and compromised “Christianity” which is no Christianity at all, we do not leave people to despair. We believe in transformation. Without grace, we should be inconsolably sorrowful, as Paul says (1 Corinthians 15:19). But this is not the end of the matter.
In Christ, every person of every background and every struggle and every sinful past of the worst possible kind has infinite hope.
Fourth, this means that we can resist heterosexual and homosexual desire when tempted. It is no sin for us to be tempted externally. This is a regular, even constant, part of being a Christian in a fallen world. Whatever our natural predilections, it is not sinful in any respect for us to be tempted as Christ was by the world outside of us. We have power over devil and his evil empire.
We must also be clear, however. We must not only resist sin from the outside, but from the inside. This Jesus did not have to do, but this he gives us power to do. Think of Paul’s words to the Colossians: put to death therefore what is earthly in you (Colossians 3:5). Sin is “in” us. This means that unrighteous desires bubble up within us. We are not only tempted to lust by a pop-up image, but by a pop-up desire within us that is itself transgressive.
We do not need to repent when confronted by external temptations. But following the words of Christ in Matthew 5:27-30, we do need to repent when we feel a desire for unholy things. This is why believers who face same-sex attraction must repent of both the practice of homosexuality and the desire to practice it. An orientation is nothing other than a pattern of inborn desires. We cannot morally endorse a pattern of desires that are called by Scripture an “abomination” and “dishonorable passions” (Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:26).
Conclusion: The Awesome Power of the Cross
In the end, there are no “pedophilic Christians” or “alcoholic Christians” or “gluttonous Christians.” There are Christians. We are born-again. We have a new nature. Our desires have been redirected to God. Our orientation is Godward. Whether we face an inborn desire to commit homosexual or heterosexual sin, the solution is the same: setting our eyes on Christ. Jesus, we remember, resisted sin to the full. He went all the way. He did not give in. So it is for us.
Like us, he encountered a world ruined by Adam’s fall, a world that clawed at him, that wanted him to compromise himself. But he never did. He has rescued us by his cross. He has given us the Holy Spirit, the helper (John 15:26: Acts 2:1-12). We have infinite power available to us. The work of grace is not only convulsive, however. It not only gives us the ability to overcome temptation in the moment. It also progressively transforms us, making us less attuned to sinful desire and more steeled against external temptation.
So the news, in sum, is worse than our Pelagian hearts tell us. Sin is not only found in conscious acts and choices. It has mastered us. We have died in Adam. But the news is better than our despairing souls have realized. We have risen to life in Jesus. In fighting temptations of various, he is not only our example. He is our agency.
One easy-to-read resource for this discussion is the book I coauthored with Doug Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards on the Good Life, which has a section on how Edwards viewed the renewal of our affections.
The image above is of Edwards himself.