Results tagged “Original Sin” from Reformation21 Blog

Looming Debate Over SSA


These days, it seems that almost every week social media uncovers another eruption along the Presbyterian Church in America's (PCA) volcanic fault line between social accommodation/compassion and biblical obedience. This week, a conference promoting strategies to address same sex attraction (SSA) has raised heads and provoked comment. This particular event seems to be a laudable attempt to balance the tension: while calling for a compassionate acceptance of SSA Christians it also makes clear statements in support of biblical marriage and takes a position against homosexual behavior that most people in our society would consider fundamentalist. Conservatives should therefore refrain from drawing the worst possible implications from what seems to be a thoughtful and responsible attempt to address this major cultural touchstone.

While avoiding hysterical division, we can at the same time note that a major question mark hangs over the normalization of SSA as a Christian category. It seems that there is a growing consensus in the PCA that we can and must distinguish between one's sexual orientation and sinful desires. The alternative would seem to be that we tell men and women struggling with homosexuality that what they consider a part of who they are is sinful and (as some would have it) subject them to tortuous rehabilitation techniques that probably include electric shock. The bridge, therefore, between compassion and biblical fidelity is to embrace "gay in Christ" as a normal and wholesome category and then help our LGBTQ brothers and sisters live celibately with these desires.

One problem with this love-motivated strategy is that it collapses under the weight of Scripture. The biblical argument in favor of SSA acceptance goes like this: we always distinguish between desire and temptation. A heterosexual may sinlessly experience an attraction to a member of the opposite sex without giving in to lust. The same must therefore be the case for a homosexual. The orientation is not necessarily sinful, while the desire represents a temptation to be avoided. The key issue is behavior: does the person (heterosexual or homosexual) give in to temptation and commit the sin?

A first criticism of this approach will note that it fails to apply the Bible's vastly different approach to homosexuality versus heterosexuality, only one of which can ever be sinless. But the major problem is that the Bible does not distinguish between orientation and desire, while instead categorizing desire as temptation. Biblically, temptation is the outward circumstance that prompts desire into sin. But desire for sin itself is an expression of our sinful nature. Bible-believing churches take this approach to virtually every sin other than homosexuality (it is often pointed out that we would never take the pro-SSA approach to racism, for instance). A biblically accurate approach to homosexuality must therefore be congruent with our understanding of sin in general.

One key text is James 1:14-15: "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." Notice that James does not equate desire and temptation but distinguishes them. Desire is the inward disposition toward a given sin. As James sees it, the key issue is not temptation but desire: until desire is sanctified by the grace of Christ, temptation is going to produce sinful behavior. Epithumia, the Greek word translated as "desire" identifies an inward impulse and almost always has a sinful connotation (see Rom. 7:7-8, Gal. 5:17, Col. 3:5, and 1 Thess. 4:5). Therefore, to isolate orientation from sinful desire in simply contrary to Scripture.

Theologically, the key term is concupiscence, which comes to us from Roman Catholic theology. The Latin Vulgate translated epithumia with concupiscentia, viewing it as a pre-sin orientation or disposition. The Protestant Reformation found no biblical support for a sinless orientation to sin and equated concupiscence with original sin. So, as is usually the case, we are not left to ourselves to sort out the question of SSA. Both biblically and in Reformed theology, orientation and desire cannot be separated; together, they must be cleansed by Christ and mortified by the Christian. (For valuable articles on the topic of concupiscence, see R. Scott Clark and Derek Thomas). Herman Bavinck pointed out that the rooting of sin in the will, apart from the fallen nature, is the impulse of rationalism, not the Bible. He noted that under secular humanism, "the basic idea was always that sin is not rooted in a nature and is not a disposition or a state, but always an act of the will."1 As for any idea that God approvingly endorses any orientation to sin, Bavinck responded as follows:

"Not only does Scripture testify against this view, but the moral consciousness of all humans rises up in protest against it. Sin may be whatever it is, but one thing is certain: God is the Righteous and Holy One who prohibits it in his law, witnesses against it in the human conscience, and visits it with punishments and judgments."2

This leads to the second problem with the loving attempt to embrace SSA but deny homosexual behavior: it collides with reality. If the desire for sin is unmortified (Col. 3:5), then it will produce sinful behavior when presented with temptation. Here is the quandary well-meaning pro-SSA churches are going to have to face: can you really embrace the desire as unsinful and persist in condemning the behavior as sinful? For some churches today, the answer is No. Indeed, this is the testimony of those PCA churches who have left our denomination for LGBT-affirmning communions. They argue that it is unloving to consign people who for no fault of their own are same sex attraction to a life of sexless loneliness and they can no longer bring themselves to refuse church membership (and, with it, leadership) on this basis. Yet the biblical and practical reality is that desire and behavior cannot be separated. This is why Solomon urged us never to rest comfortably with corruptions in the heart, but urged: "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:23).

So what is the alternative? Must we choose between biblical fidelity and Christ-like compassion? The answer is No - a thousand times, No! For refusing this alternative, we should appreciate PCA churches who seek to minister to the homosexual community while still upholding biblical marriage and sexual behavior. Their problem is that affirming SSA as a Christian category - "gay in Christ" - is both biblically inaccurate and humanly unrealistic. What else, then? The what else for the homosexual question turns out to be the same as for every other sin. I know of no one who would affirm an orientation toward idol-worship, blasphemy, violence, laziness, stealing, lying, or covetousness (I'm perusing the Ten Commandments, you will observe). So why would we take a more positive position towards homosexual desire than any other sinful desire, especially when the Bible speaks with particular stridence when it comes to sexual sins against the created order? The answer is that for the love of God and man we should not.

Can we not affirm the person who struggles with homosexual desires? We absolutely can, just as we can affirm all persons who struggle with sin tendencies (and that is all persons!). But normalizing the desire is no help to anyone. We call them to repent of the desire, including the prayerful pursuit of biblical norms and the wise avoidance of tempting circumstances. We recognize that while God will bless this pursuit in his own timing, he is certain to do so (if not sooner, then in heaven). Then we love them with insight and compassionate action, requiring nothing more than faith in Christ, while acknowledging that repentance from sin is integrally joined to that faith for every Christian.

In short, true compassion will not be achieved in the affirmation of desires that the Bible forbids. True compassion embraces the biblical bridge between biblical compassion and truth, and does so by holding out a holy identity in union with Christ and in the experience of his cleansing grace. We find this very approach in the apostle Paul:

Do not 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 Cor. 6:9-11).

1. An excerpt from Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ.

2. Ibid.

The curious decision of Adam and Eve, having been the recipients of such goodness from God, to defect from their Maker, thus spoiling the "native excellence" of both themselves and "the whole world which had been created for them," raises "many difficult questions." Chief among them, Calvin acknowledges, is "why God permitted Adam [and Eve] to be tempted, seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him?" Two further questions lurk behind Calvin's discussion of the Fall: First, was God in some way responsible for Adam and Eve's defection (that is, did he instigate or cause their sin)? And second, does the Fall constitute a lapse in God's providential rule of his created world and its history?

Calvin's starting point in approaching these questions is the assumption that we, as creatures of God, stand "to be judged by God," not to "pass judgment on him." His goal, then, is never to vindicate God before the bar of human moral judgment. He does, however, feel it proper to represent God's character faithfully and truly in all our talk about God and his ways, and he seeks to do just that as he narrates the origin of human sin. He thus provides to us a model for God-honoring thinking and speaking about the Fall.

Faithful representation of God's character means, first and foremost, observing that God created all sentient beings -- angels, men and women, and even animals -- upright in nature. God is not the author of evil; he created all things "very good." Calvin goes to great lengths to emphasize the integrity of the created natures of all four participants in the event of the Fall: the serpent, the Devil, Adam, and Eve.

The need Calvin feels to defend the created nature of the serpent stems not only from its role in tempting Eve, but also from Scripture's description of it as "more subtle" or "crafty" than the other animals. Calvin worries, first of all, that some might conclude from this description that the serpent determined "to deceive man" by virtue of "its own malignity," and so fail to recognize that behind the serpent lay Satan, who used the serpent as his "instrument" for "effecting the destruction of man."

He worries, secondly, that some might consider "craftiness" a created flaw or vice in the snake as such, and thereby conclude that God purposefully made an evil-prone being. Thus Calvin labors to render "craftiness" not only innocuous but even virtuous: Scripture "does not so much point out a fault as attribute praise to [the serpent's] nature, because God had endued this beast with such singular skill, as rendered it acute and quick-sighted beyond all others." Proof that craftiness per se is no vice is drawn from Christ's instruction to his disciples to be as "subtle as serpents" (Matt. 10:16). The Savior, it seems, encouraged his followers to exercise the very quality which rendered the serpent an apt "instrument" of the devil; the quality as such, then, cannot be considered sinful.

But what about Satan, who through the serpent deceived God's image bearers? Satan, of course, is not explicitly named in the Fall narrative. That, and the consequent truth that Genesis provides no account of "how the tempter himself had revolted from God," has led certain "fanatical men," Calvin notes, to believe "that Satan was created evil and wicked, as he is here described." Calvin firmly insists that Satan's own wickedness cannot be traced back to God's creative activity, and is therefore unnatural, in the truest sense of the term, to the wickedest of all beings. "The principle of evil with which Satan was endued was not from nature, but from defection; because he had departed from God, the fountain of justice and of all rectitude."

What about Adam and Eve? Does the apparent ease with which they were led astray suggest that God himself, in creation or at any point prior to their actual sin, endowed human nature with some proclivity towards sin? Calvin shudders at the very thought: "It is an impious madness to ascribe to God the creation of any evil and corrupt nature; for when he had completed the world, he himself gave this testimony to all his works, that they were 'very good.'" How, then, do we explain the fact that Adam and Eve sinned? According to Calvin, Adam and Eve simply exercised their "free choice," a capacity he unreservedly attributes to them as pre-fallen divine image-bearers.

The "free choice" Adam and Eve made was, of course, an act of "contumacy against the Divine Law-Giver," and as such "it was against the will of God." But nothing happens in human history unbe(fore)knownst to God. Indeed, God is sovereign even over free human choices. There is a real sense, then, in which Adam and Eve sinned in accordance not only with God's permission, but with his express ordination. Calvin expresses this truth in no uncertain terms: "evil did not take place except by his permission." But he hastens to add, lest this truth cause confusion, that God's active permission of the Fall does not imply that Adam and Eve's sin was "pleasing to him," or that "he simply wished that the precept which he had given should be violated." Sin remains sin (that is, abhorrent to God and "against [his] will") even when it occurs in accordance with God's purpose and decree, and so even by a certain kind of necessity.

So why, again, did God permit the temptation and defection of his creatures, "seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him?" Why has God apparently willed that which is, well, contrary to his will? In the end, Calvin offers no answer, but rather asserts that God's reasons for this, like many things, remain "to us unknown."

There is, in fact, a notable and rather obvious lack of anxiety pervading Calvin's acknowledgment that we, as creatures of God, do not know -- and should not guess at -- why God permitted humankind's defection. Scripture, after all, tells us not everything we wish to know, but everything we need to know. For Calvin, it is enough to know that proper responsibility for sin and all its attendant miseries must be laid at the doorstep of our first parents (and so, in truth, at our doorstep). It is enough to know, moreover, that God, who providentially rules all things but never creates or causes sin, does something about sin in the person and work of His Son, thereby restoring us to friendship and fellowship with him. Any attempt to rise above the God-fixed limits of our understanding of these things and view them from God's own perspective is, in the final analysis, a reenactment of Adam and Eve's initial failure to let God be God, to acknowledge our creaturely limitations, and to confidently rest in the wisdom, sovereignty, and fatherly care of our Creator.