By faith we should expect substantial progress in our holiness. Statement 7 does not countenance the defeatism of unbelief, whereas Revoice fails to encourage any expectation of change. The Side B view and appeal is “accept us just as we are.” Faith looks to the power of God to raise the dead and move mountains, because sanctification is an effective ministry of the Spirit.
On Homosexuality in the PCA: #12
It was a moment of relief and gratitude when I read Statement 7 in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Ad Interim Report on Human Sexuality.[i] The report touches upon the chief error in the Side B homosexual movement in the PCA, the idea that Christians can live with continuing sinful desire, unabated. Such a view in a church committed to a robust view of sanctification is a doctrinal misfit which necessitates contention. I am pleased with what Statement 7 says, though it could say more. Here is Statement 7 verbatim:
We affirm that Christians should flee immoral behavior and not yield to temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, Christians should seek to wither, weaken, and put to death the underlying idolatries and sinful desires that lead to sinful behavior. The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can make substantial progress in the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 4:4; WCF 13.1).
Nevertheless, this process of sanctification—even when the Christian is diligent and fervent in the application of the means of grace—will always be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.5, 6), with the Spirit and the flesh warring against one another until final glorification (WCF 13.2). The believer who struggles with same-sex attraction should expect to see the regenerate nature increasingly overcome the remaining corruption of the flesh, but this progress will often be slow and uneven. Moreover, the process of mortification and vivification involves the whole person, not simply unwanted sexual desires. The aim of sanctification in one’s sexual life cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex (though some persons may experience movement in this direction), but rather involves growing in grace and perfecting holiness in the fear of God (WCF 13.3).
Some helpful features in Statement 7 and their implications
- The working of the Holy Spirit is in this life. It is a terrible reduction of genuine sanctification (and of the kindness of the Lord) to picture some sins as not cleansed until the appearance of Christ. The result is that one may live the rest of his life in sinful desire unhindered by the Spirit’s cleansing. Such a delay is a recipe for shame, and it allows one to say, “I am this way, because God does not change my condition, and I did ask!” That is simply unbelief. Add to this many claims of mortification and the result of none. There is no recess or ceasefire in the Spirit’s war with our flesh.
- Since sanctification is of the whole person, there is no ungodly sanctuary for select sins. Rather it is openness unhindered, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”(Psalm 139: 24,25).
- All Christians have the responsibility to use the means of grace diligently, pondering the promises within God’s Word. To assert that God’s promises do not apply to some areas of our lives suggests unfaithfulness in God.
- Closely related to this, by faith we should expect substantial progress in our holiness. Statement 7 does not countenance the defeatism of unbelief, whereas Revoice fails to encourage any expectation of change. The Side B view and appeal is “accept us just as we are.” Faith looks to the power of God to raise the dead and move mountains, because sanctification is an effective ministry of the Spirit.
- Sanctification is not a onetime act of instant holiness, but the continuing work of God (WSC #35) so persistent that regenerate people really do overcome their corruptions.
- The report is bold in its view of transformation and deliverance – words irritating to some Side B advocates. Diminishment of same-sex desire comes with the reordering of the heart toward Christ, a beautiful phrase. (The Missouri Presbytery exonerated a minister with undiminished sinful desire, and thus he and that view, are poor examples of sanctification.)
- The report is brave in spite of what “the studies show,” the world’s experts say, and how the PCA Side B proponents frame the issue. Statement 7 embraces what is unthinkable to some, when it has as a worthy goal “the end of occurrences” of sinful desires. This is the kind of statement that is reacted to not with argument but with kneejerk intimations of triumphalism. Some in the PCA simply do not hold a worthy view of sanctification as we find in the report, even though it is presented as change brought on by the reordering of the heart to Christ. Surely reordering the heart to Christ brings change.
- To deny that substantial change in sexual passions comes by faith is to deny an aspect of salvation itself. Sanctification is a work in which the Lord takes great joy. Our salvation is not forgiveness without cleansing.
- The report does not hesitate to emphasize the Christian’s duty in both “flight from” and “pursuit of.” It offers no gimmickry of nine steps or five phases; Statement 7 simply urges the standard ordinary means of grace. Immersing one’s mind in Scripture is essential. The means of grace includes corporate life and worship together. The report is very aware of the pastoral side of community life. Its joyful note holds up hope, for “everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:11). The Lord will not disappoint by withholding what is good.
- It is good to read in the context of mortification that Christians should seek to “wither and weaken” evil passions, because that, quite simply, is how we starve sin. Many unfortunately think that “mortification” is a synonym for eradication when it is simply a metaphor for rendering a sin so ineffective it is not actively and constantly demanding fulfillment. All our sins hide within, yet a habitual “no” denies temptation its tempting power. In other words, “kill it before it gets going.”
- Mortified homosexual desire can end, and become an idea repugnant to a godly person.
- Statement 7 on Sanctification has excellent realism when it does not say that sinful desire might possibly lead to sinful behavior; it simply says it does! This agrees with the Lord who said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander”(Matthew 15:19). Overcoming is real; so is remaining sin, but with the Spirit of God overcoming really overcomes. The Confession uses the word “overcome” to indicate the opposite of a stalemate with sin; this latter view of a stalemate being the substandard view of the Missouri Presbytery.
Things that might improve Statement 7
Statement 7 could begin better. Both of our catechisms begin with good news: “Sanctification is a work of God’s grace.” In the Ad Interim report the Spirit’s work appears in the second sentence, but even there it is the means of what Christians do. But what is God doing? Statement 7 begins with a Christian’s duty, and the emphasis throughout the first paragraph is what the believer should do, can do or have as a good goal.
Because we are being inundated with a doctrine of no progress against sexual sin, what the PCA needs in response is a firm conviction of the effectiveness of the Spirit’s work. If we give priority to sanctification’s challenges, struggles, and obligations, though relevant and important, that is just not the same as stressing what God does in us (Phil. 2:12-13). He weakens sin more and more in every person united to Christ. Of course, teaching on obedience must emphasize our responsibility, but what is also needed is an emphasis on the solid frame our response rests on, namely the sure work of God. While Christ is our righteousness, he is also our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). Would not the truth of “the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ” be an enormous source of burden-lifting hope?
While repentance and duty call, we are not alone. We still have God’s promise in the new covenant and his oath to perform for us. This is the steadfast anchor of the soul for a Christian struggling with any kind of sin, no matter how deeply buried in the heart. We have strong encouragement to hold fast to God’s transforming work (see Hebrews 6:17-20). We are heirs of promise, because it is God who guarantees his word; we can trust him never to disappoint us. This surely applies to our sexual sin. he cannot break covenant with us.
The steadfast love of the Lord never changes, thus the washing of regeneration and the renewal from regeneration on is personally delivered by the Holy Spirit. We are being renewed; it is not merely that we should be. We are enabled more and more to die to sin, and that is the case without exception for redeemed people. Those homosexuals who cry, “Not me” while begging for acceptance, count themselves out. Christ is faithful, “and we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Hebrews 3:6). God has chosen his elect to be holy, and we find that he is already making progress in attaining his purpose in election. We believe, because He who has called us is faithful.
We know we have been saved when we find spiritual renewal we have not caused. What God promises in the new covenant he delivers, because his glory is on the line. God cannot fail to stir up graces in all who belong to him. No sin in a believer is able to defeat the Holy Spirit. Then, standing on this home base, we welcome appeals for growth in grace to begin. He always leads us in paths of righteousness (Psalm 23).
The Ad Interim Committee has taken the position, and we agree, that same-sex desire is sin.
So we apply the promise of the new covenant this way:
- Same-sex desire is contrary to God’s law.
- The Spirit writes that holy law in the heart of each believer.
- So the Spirit’s renewal is now at work in all who have been united to Christ.
Two serious corollaries
The new covenant promises a heart changed from hard stone to a heart of flesh which is obedient to the Lord (Ezekiel 34:25-27). This is for every believer without exception.
- Those who “testify” that they have and expect no change whatever in the grip that evil sexual desire has in them (a sinful desire of any kind), do not have the covenant blessing which all true believers experience. They show themselves to be not Christians at all. In the case of every believer, the living water that the Lord Jesus gives becomes a spring welling up to eternal life (John 4:14).
- This delightful aspect of salvation does not remove the serious danger that remnants of sin remain in all believers; while sin is weakened, weakness in Christians persists while they are being strengthened. Temptations will crop up. Sin is still in us, so we must not dabble in it, for it never fails to damage us. We must never deny the reality of sin, and we must never deny the reality of salvation from it. One day to complete salvation Christ “will appear a second time … to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).
A modified and unofficial restatement of Statement 7
God is at work to cleanse and renew every soul that belongs to Christ. Jesus saves his people from their sin. In our salvation he calls for and produces obedience. Christians must heed that call and flee immoral behavior and not yield to temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, Christians seek to wither, weaken, and put to death the underlying idolatries and sinful desires that lead to sinful behavior. God’s commitment to produce holiness is effective as he disciplines his children to share his holiness. He causes us to flee temptation, to mortify our sin and to delight in Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, our substantial though imperfect progress in the practice of true holiness is assured. No one shall see the Lord without it, though our acceptance rests entirely on the righteousness of Christ. (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:10,14; 1 John 4:4; WCF chapter 12 & 13.1).
Nevertheless, this process of sanctification—even when the Christian is diligent and fervent in the application of the means of grace—will often be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.5, 6), since the Spirit and the flesh war against one another until final glorification (WCF 13.2). The believer, who struggles with same-sex attraction, will find that his or her regenerate nature increasingly overcomes the remaining corruption of the flesh – and this because of “the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ”. This progress may often be slow and uneven. God’s ministry of mortification and renewal involves the whole person with all our sins. The certainty of sanctification of one’s sexual life, no matter how distorted, rests on the promises of God, so, having such promises we are called to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, including sexual sin whether heterosexual or homosexual, thus bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (WCF 13:3; 2 Cor. 7:1)
David Linden is a retired Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is living in Delaware.