Christ commissioned the church to take his good news to every part of the world, to every type of people, who are held captive to every type of sin, to point them to Christ as the only bondage breaker, so that they will be rescued from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son. Those who respond to this good news, no matter what their former way of life, are so transformed that their focus is now on Christ, not on their former way of life, knowing that they have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
In all of the discussion about same-sex attraction, one question that I haven’t seen discussed is this: Is same-sex attraction the only unchangeable sin? I raise this question because of the claim made by some within the evangelical church that those who identify as same-sex attracted (SSA) Christians do not or cannot change that orientation. The contention is that same-sex attraction is not a sin or at least not one that requires change. This view, if really believed, is contrary to the basics of biblical redemption.
Scripture teaches that all human beings are born in and with sin resulting in all of us having a sinful nature. From this sinful nature specific sinful acts demonstrate that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart are only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5); and manifest not only that we “are dead in our transgressions and sins,” but that we also live together among sinners while “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph. 2:1, 3). And because of this sinful nature we deserved nothing but God’s wrath.
Then the good news is announced: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6). Having been made alive by being raised up with Christ, we are now in union with Christ, identified with him, and even being seated with him in the heavenlies. Our orientation is no longer that of dead sinners deserving wrath, but as resurrected believers living in the fullness of God’s mercy and grace.
The biblical application of this new life principle is that “we must no longer live as the Gentiles do (what we used to be), in the futility of our thinking, not giving ourselves over to sensuality to indulge in every kind of impurity.” Now that we have been raised with Christ and given a new life, we put off our old selves, no longer corrupted by our former deceitful desires. Now we put on our new selves since we are created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness and displaying the new the attitude of our minds (Eph. 4:17-24). All of this is the new reality for all who profess Christ since they have been made alive in him.
The truth of this gracious redemption is that it applies to all believers. All believers are made new in Christ; all are raised with him; all have been rescued from the futility of their thinking, from their sinful attitudes and patterns that once held all of us in bondage. We all learn to put off the corrupt strangleholds of our old self, and to put on, to clothe, ourselves with our new self, which in God’s purpose, is to become conformed to the likeness of Christ. Throughout the span of our lives and by the power of the Holy Spirit, all our sinful patterns are confronted and changed; every sin is put to death; and every thought and action are taken captive to serve Christ. As Paul stated it, “If by the Spirit you put to death (mortify) the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13).
If this redemptive process is true, and I believe it is, how can those who say they identify as same-sex attracted Christians claim that SSA is not a sin in itself, and think they do not have to change? To contend that individuals with same-sex attraction have no control over these feelings and/or attractions; or that though these feelings may be unwanted, they feel helpless to avoid them and do not need to repent or change, is contrary to the power of Christ to redeem and eventually change even these sinful dispositions. It is a lie of the evil one to believe that of all the sins believers must confront, that same-sex attraction is the only one that is unchangeable. If it is true that SSA is not their fault, that they are disposed this way and they cannot change, then this view is a denial of the transforming power of gospel and of Christ’s renewing grace flowing from our new birth.
The Scripture teaches that sanctification is a life-long process in which believers constantly have to deal with their sin. Larger Catechism Question 75 teaches that
Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God has, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.
Larger Catechism Question 78 applies pastoral care when it recognizes or deep struggles and it asks, “Whence arises the imperfection of sanctification in believers?” It provides this helpful counsel:
The imperfection of sanctification in believers arises from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.
Perhaps the reason why believers who struggle with same-sex attraction have difficulty defining this disposition as “sin” and dealing with it as a part of their sanctification, is because we are using morally neutral language like “same-sex desires/attractions” to describe immoral desires and behaviors. To be more consistent with biblical and confessional definitions it is better for us to use “homosexuality,” “homosexual desires” or “unnatural affections.” In the same manner that Jesus in applying the seventh commandment defines “lust” for a woman as the committing the sin of adultery, so homosexual desires, lust or affections are sin in the same manner (Matt. 5:27-28).
The Larger Catechism understands the seventh commandment in this manner: “What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment? It answers: “The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications….” (WLC 139). By defining sin as sin believers are able to repent of them and seek the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to overcome the remains of sin.
The Apostle Paul did not consider homosexuality an unchangeable sin. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul lists a number of sins, including homosexuality and then concludes, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” Paul does not say that homosexuality or same-sex attraction is who they are. That is who they were. But… they are now different as a result of the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.
They have now been sanctified by the Spirit of God and they have put on the new man in Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The old temptations have been replaced with a new desire to put to death the deeds of the flesh and and aspire to be as holy as God is holy.
No sin is to be placed around our necks like a garland of flowers. Sin is not a badge of identity for a believer. There is no such thing as a same-sex attracted Christian anymore than there is a category of Christians identified by any other sin such a “kleptomaniac-Christian,” or a “prevaricating-Christian.” It is more appropriate to define Christians as struggling and wrestling with various types of sin issues: stealing, lying, gluttony, idolatry, pornography, gossip, etc.
I realize that some who see themselves as “same-sex attracted Christians” may deny that their attraction is a sin. It is, according to them, an attraction they have from birth—God made them that way. Yet, I fail to understand why Reformed Christians (and church officers) have fallen so easily for such an unscriptural narrative.
The Scripture does not distinguish between an attraction to a sin and a lust. Desires are either right or wrong depending on the object of that desire. When the object of that desire is wrong, the Scripture usually calls it ‘lust.’ Same-sex attraction is wrong because homosexuality is wrong. In fact, Romans 1:24 says, “Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” The lusts of the heart are impure, even as homosexual acts are sin. If the object of the desire is wrong, then the desire itself is a sinful lust. This is what makes the use of “same-sex attracted Christian” so contrary to the power of the gospel and God’s redeeming grace.
Those who claim to be “same-sex attracted Christians” perpetuate their pain by using their sin as an identity badge. If they are indeed new creatures in Christ, then they need to identify those old lusts as part of the “old man.” They are Christians who once were “same-sex attracted” or still wrestling with this specific remaining sin.
Those who claim to be SSA Christians (better: dealing with “homosexuality,” “homosexual desires” or “unnatural affections”) are acting the very opposite of the way the Scripture tells sinners to act concerning their sin. Consider the following Scriptures:
“For after I turned back, I repented; And after I was instructed, I smote on my thigh; I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the reproach of my youth” ( Jeremiah 31:19).
“Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations. ‘I am not doing this for your sake,’ declares the Lord God, ‘let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!” (Ezekiel 36:32).
That sense of humiliation and shame is a necessary part of true repentance. Without repentance unto life, there is no saving faith and there is no salvation. As Westminster Confession of Faith 15.2 says about repentance unto life:
By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of his danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.
There is a self-loathing for our sins that is a very healthy part of true repentance. It is expressed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15: “I am doing the very thing I hate.” When sin is hated it is not celebrated. It is not an identity badge of who we are in addition to our being a Christian. Can you imagine Paul saying about that sin that he said he hates? “This sin is a large part of my identity; I am known not only by my union with Christ, but by this sin that I hate. Therefore, I wear this sin that I hate around my neck where everyone can see it. I am a covetous-Christian.”
I have not heard and do not see among the SSA that self-loathing; that indignation at their besetting sin; that hatred of their sin that the Scripture describes in so many places as a necessary part of true repentance. These SSA proponents seem to express the opposite. It is like they want us to feel sorry for them while also accommodating them for having sinful desires. That is the mindset of the world.
Proponents of SSA (“unnatural desires”) appear to make an unwarranted disconnect between the heart and life. They say it is not a sin to have an “attraction” towards something that is sinful. Nothing could be more contrary to the truth. From the very first temptation of Eve in the garden to our own day, there never has been and never can be such a distinction. Eve was tempted in her heart to “be like God.” She was tempted before eating the forbidden fruit because she saw that “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). In other words, her desires were motivated to violate God’s commandment before she partook of the fruit of the tree. James 1:14, 15 teaches that all sin begins in the desires: But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
Sin always begins in the heart first. That is why Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). It is a sin to commit adultery. It is also a sin to lust for an adulterous relationship. Thoughts prohibited by God’s law are sins.
If it is not a sin to be attracted to (or lust for) someone of the same sex, why is it an unnatural sin to engage in a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex (cf. Romans 1:24-28)? If the action is sinful, how is the desire for that action not also sinful? To think otherwise misses the point of Scripture. Further, we are told that their attractions for the same sex are given them by God and are similar to the blindness of the man in John 9. Yet, the same-sex attraction/lust is indeed sinful and must be repented of with self-loathing and humiliation before our holy God.
Scripture teaches that an attraction to something that is sinful is a lust and is never good. The problem with the narrative of those affirming SSA is that they deny that God can take away the lusts of their hearts and give them pure desires. Their solution to their professed same-sex-attraction is to resist the sin at the level of the actions.
This denial of the Spirit’s power to change any sinful disposition, whether wittingly or unwittingly, upends the biblical teaching on the regenerating grace of Christ. For believers to think that same-sex attraction is such a part of them that they can only hope to produce good fruit despite their sinful attraction, contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. And for believers struggling with unnatural affections to assert that their attraction is something akin to it being a part of their DNA and cannot be changed, is to deny the transforming power of God’s grace to break the cycle of sin.
It is in this sense that there is no such thing as “the only one” unchangeable sin. The point is this: there are no sins, no matter how defined, that are outside of the Spirit’s transforming power and grace to overcome.
Should the church minister to people struggling with same-sex attractions, homosexual desires, or unnatural affections? Of course, there is no question that the church is to minister to people struggling with any type of sexual sin. But the larger question is, shouldn’t the church minister to people struggling with every type of sin? Of course! And the reason is that Christ commissioned the church to take his good news to every part of the world, to every type of people, who are held captive to every type of sin, to point them to Christ as the only bondage breaker, so that they will be rescued from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son. Those who respond to this good news, no matter what their former way of life, are so transformed that their focus is now on Christ, not on their former way of life, knowing that they have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
Dr. Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Cornerstone PCA in Destin, Fla.