When Belgau argues that same-sex desire is not sinful, he is being a good Roman Catholic. But he is also articulating a viewpoint that is at odds with the Reformed tradition and, more importantly, with scripture. The Bible teaches that our desires—all of them, voluntary or involuntary—are morally implicated. Desire is teleological, and its moral character is determined by its object. If someone desires a good thing, then the desire itself is good (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1; Matt. 13:17). If someone desires an evil thing, then the desire itself is evil, quite apart from whether or not the desire is voluntary (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:6). This holds for all human desire, including but not exclusively sexual desire.
The current debate about gay Christianity traces back to a centuries-old dispute between Protestants and Catholics about the doctrine of man and the doctrine of sin. Roman Catholics do not regard involuntary desire for sin (concupiscence) to be sinful. Reformed Protestants do.
Ron Belgau has written a provocative essay here at Public Discourse naming us as “unreasonable critics” of the upcoming conference Revoice and of the Spiritual Friendship project. We—like others who have opposed this movement—have been accused of misrepresenting his views. To the contrary, we believe that we have an honest theological difference, one that shows that different theological commitments will necessarily produce different theological applications.
In this essay we underline something that has gotten lost in recent discussions: the theological foundations of the current dispute.
Protestant vs. Catholic
The fundamental difference between Belgau’s perspective and ours has less to do with sexuality than it does with the fact that he is a Roman Catholic and we are Reformed Protestants. Our theological foundations are vastly different. Thus, our understanding of human sexuality, sin, personhood, and the suffering that results from original sin is vastly different as well. This is nowhere clearer than in our different understandings of concupiscence. Our differences here ultimately boil down to a different understanding of scripture.
The Reformed Tradition differs from Roman Catholicism in its understandingof Augustine’s doctrine of concupiscence. Concupiscence is simply the Latin translation of the Greek New Testament’s terms for desire (epithumia, epithumeō). Augustine understands this desire to be the key pre-behavioral component of our sin. Such desire consists of the fallen inclinations that we all continually experience before ever actually choosing to sin. In a sermon on Romans 7, Augustine describes it this way:
[The apostle Paul] gives the name of sin, you see, to that from which all sins spring, namely to the lust [concupiscence] of the flesh.
The key point here is that Augustine identifies the desire to sin as sin. Likewise, in a sermon that Augustine preached in A.D. 419 on Romans 7:15-25, he writes,
This lust [desire/concupiscence] is not, you see—and this is a point you really must listen to above all else: you see, this lust is not some kind of alien nature. . . . It’s our debility, it’s our vice. It won’t be detached from us and exist somewhere else, but it will be cured and not exist anywhere at all [in the resurrection].
Augustine understood unchosen longing for anything outside of God’s will to be itself sinful, and his influence over subsequent Christian reflection on this point cannot be overestimated. Although Augustine sometimes refrained from calling concupiscence sin, his mature reflection on Scripture reveals that he did, indeed, label it as such. Herman Bavinck points out that Augustine once said that “sin is so much a voluntary evil that it is not sin at all unless it is voluntary.” But later in his Retractions, Augustine reversed himself on this point when the Pelagians tried to argue that sin cannot consist in anything but an act of the will.
The Roman Catholic tradition, however, departs from Augustine on this point and reflects the view that concupiscence is not itself sin, and that only conscious acts of the will can truly be deemed to be sinful. This explains why the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls homosexual sexual activity sinful but stops short of calling homosexual desire sinful and instead labels the desire as “objectively disordered”—because not properly ordered to the good of marriage—but not in itself sinful.
The Reformed tradition differs sharply from Roman Catholicism on this point and reflects the Augustinian view that both evil desire and evil deeds must be regarded as thoroughly sinful. For example, The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 10, addressing Adam’s federal headship and the imputation of his sin to all humanity, asks this: “Will God suffer such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” It answers:
By no means (Psalm 5:5); but He is terribly displeased with our inborn as well as actual sins (Romans 1:18; Deut. 27:15; Hebrews 9:27), and will punish them in just judgment in time and eternity, as He has declared: Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10).
It matters not whether the desire for evil is involuntary or voluntary. The standard of rightness for a desire is God’s law, not the chosenness of the desire.
Perhaps the classic expression of this comes from John Calvin, who also acknowledges his explicit appropriation of Augustine on the point in 3.3.10 of his Institutes:
We hold that there is always sin in the saints, until they are freed from their mortal frame, because depraved concupiscence resides in their flesh, and is at variance with rectitude. Augustine himself does not always refrain from using the name of sin, as when he says, “Paul gives the name of sin to that carnal concupiscence from which all sins arise. This in regard to the saints loses its dominion in this world, and is destroyed in heaven.” In these words he admits that believers, in so far as they are liable to carnal concupiscence, are chargeable with sin.
The proper understanding of Augustine is still a point of contention between Protestants and Catholics. We do not wish to resolve that debate here. We simply make the point that the Reformed appropriation of Augustine’s doctrine of concupiscence differs from that of Roman Catholics, and it has been that way for half a millennium.
The theological roots of our differences with Belgau run deep. We Reformed Protestants believe that original sin, actual sin, and indwelling sin all condemn us. We know that for some of us, same-sex desire is Adam’s thumbprint on our lives. We do not believe that baptism removes original sin. Nor do we believe that redemption in Christ makes all effects of our sinful nature disappear. Redemption gives us ransom and Christ’s power and compassion to fight against our sinful nature, but until the final consummation we groan, struggling against indwelling sin and longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven (2 Cor. 5:2).
The gay Christian movement limits the extent of the fall. The dangers of this error must not be underestimated. As Joel Beeke put it,
Limiting the extent of the fall by exempting some aspect of man’s being from its effects opens the way for fallen man to be his own savior. If his intellect is not darkened, then he can find salvation by the use of reason and improve himself through education. If his will is not enslaved, then man has the final say in his salvation, quite apart from God’s will. If man’s body does not bear the marks of the fall, then defects, deformities, disease, aging, and death are natural and normal for our race, not evils to be opposed and overcome or enemies Christ died to defeat. Let us ask God to show us ever more profoundly the tragic results of our fall, that we might understand ever more profoundly the amazing wonders of the gospel.
Our division is the difference between a Reformed Protestant anthropology and a Roman Catholic one, and we remain convinced that the former is the one most faithful to scripture.