With the rising influence of Christian organizations in America that exist to cater to “sexual minorities” in the church, there has been much confusion among reformed evangelicals regarding temptation and desire, specifically as it relates to same-sex attraction. Confessional Presbyterian denominations are not exempt. The Presbyterian Church in America, at present, is on a collision course with Revoice theology and is inundated with debates surrounding homosexual identity and whether men who profess to be “same-sex attracted” can be admitted to ordained office.
Pastor Tom Buck, one of the framers of the Social Justice and Gospel Statement, has said that Living Out, founded by Sam Allberry, is “more dangerous than Revoice.” Even so, the OPC Committee on Christian Education has recommended Sam Allberry’s book Is God Anti-Gay? as a “[S]ound, uncompromising and winsome guide to give someone who struggles with the issue of homosexuality theoretically, or someone who struggles with same-sex attraction personally…” No doubt there is wide disagreement on the topic of sexual ethics within reformed evangelicalism.
The PCA’s Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality, authored by Kevin DeYoung, Bryan Chapell, et al. is still perhaps the most rigorous, clarifying, and helpful resource dealing with these issues from a biblical, Reformed theological, and confessional standpoint. However, the average layperson (and most elders) won’t be sitting down to read sixty pages written by a Presbyterian committee.
Therefore, as one who has served in the Australian PCA, American PCA, OPC, and now the ARPC, I have put together answers to six of the most frequent questions I tend to get from laity in Presbyterian circles who, as it pertains to same-sex attraction, genuinely have queries about the meaning of temptation, desire, sin, etc., and are also interested in learning a tad bit from the Reformed faith on these issues. Of course, there are numerous other interrelated points and clarifications that could also be addressed here, but the intention and aim of this piece is conciseness. To that end, I hope it is useful.
How can temptation be sinful when Jesus himself was tempted?
It depends on what is meant by “temptation.” Reformed theology has always maintained that temptation has a legitimate internal/external distinction. Internal temptation, which is the desire to sin, arises from the corruption of nature and is, therefore, inherently sinful (James 1:14). On the other hand, external temptation, so long as it remains external, is not inherently sinful (James 1:2).
In Hebrews 4:15, when it says Jesus was “tempted as we are, yet without sin,” it is highlighting the reality that he was never tempted internally with first motions drawn from a sin nature, despite the realities of his full humanity (e.g.s., hungering, thirsting, etc.). In other words, Jesus’ temptations were entirely external as he was not born in original sin. We, on the other hand, are born in sin (Psalm 51:5). Therefore, if we claim that our internal temptations to sin are not sinful, we can deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8).
Does Reformed theology draw an internal/external distinction as it relates to sin?
It does. Westminster Confession 6.5, for instance, states the following: “This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.”
N.B., that the corruption of nature is itself sin and all the motions of this corruption are sin. As Christians, we are called not only to mortify the motions of our corruption but also the nature of our corruption. On the one side, the corruption of nature includes all internal inclinations to sin (James 1:14), whether through thought, impulse, temptation, attraction, affection, or desire. On the other side, the external motions of that corruption include all sin deeds committed outwardly (James 1:15), arising from inward sinfulness.
In addition, Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Ethics, provides this helpful comment on Institutes 3.3.10:
Calvin articulates the Reformed position well: ‘But between Augustine and us we can see that there is this difference of opinion: while he concedes that believers, as long as they dwell in mortal bodies, are so bound by inordinate desires (concupiscentiis) that they are unable not to desire inordinately, yet he dare not call this disease ‘sin.’ Content to designate it with the term ‘weakness,’ he teaches that it becomes sin only when either act or consent follows the conceiving or apprehension of it, that is, when the will yields to the first strong inclination. We, on the other hand, deem it sin when a man is tickled by any desire at all against the law of God. Indeed, we label ‘sin’ that very depravity which begets in us desires of this sort.’
Briefly, what does the PCA Report on Human Sexuality say about desire and temptation?
The Report, which aptly comports with the Confession’s teaching on this matter, states the following:
We affirm that impure thoughts and desires arising in us prior to and apart from a conscious act of the will are still sin. We reject the Roman Catholic understanding of concupiscence whereby disordered desires that afflict us due to the Fall do not become sin without a consenting act of the will. These desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful. (p. 8)
The Report’s statement on temptation is helpful also. It describes internal temptations as “morally illicit desires” and external temptations as “morally neutral trials” (p. 9). The entire Report, which I highly commend, can be read here.
Isn’t “heterosexual desire” and “homosexual desire” essentially the same thing?
The short answer is no. Heterosexual desire can be and must be rightly directed, otherwise it is sin. Homosexual desire, on the other hand, cannot ever be rightly directed and is, therefore, always sinful. Thus, it’s not a 1:1 ratio. The former is a sin against God’s moral order (Matt. 5:28), while the latter is a sin against both God’s moral and natural orders (Jude 1:7). Other sexual desires that go against God’s natural order would include pedophilic desire, bestial desire, and incestuous desire (Exo. 22:19; Lev. 18:6; Deut. 27:21).
But isn’t all sin equal in God’s sight?
All sin, no doubt, is deserving of eternal punishment for the mere fact that sin is itself a transgression of God’s law. However, not all sin is “equal.” In fact, Larger Catechism 150 states the following:
Q. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
A. All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous, but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.
Furthermore, according to Larger Catechism 151, one aggravation that makes a sin more heinous than others is if it’s “against the light of nature.” The prooftext offered is Romans 1:26-27:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Should we tell Christians who experience homosexual temptation that they won’t be rid of it in this life?
Despite our many advances in sanctification, there will always be an enormous abyss between our holiness now and our holiness in glory. However, death is not the alpha point of transformative holiness in Christ. Transformation begins at regeneration (Titus 3:5) and progressively continues through the sanctifying power of the Spirit in time and space (Gal. 5:16; Phil. 1:6) — even to the degree that particular internal temptations can be overcome in this life.
Jesus is in the business of redeeming the whole person from the debilitation of sin. As our Sanctifier, he progressively conforms us to his image not just by reorienting our external acts but also our internal thoughts, impulses, predispositions, temptations, attractions, affections, desires, longings, hopes, and faith.
The question, in the end, comes down to whether homosexual temptation is more powerful than Christ or whether Christ is more powerful than homosexual temptation. As Savior, Christ is mightier than our internal temptations. Therefore, if we counsel same-sex attracted people into believing that they may never be rid of homosexual temptation in this life, we have diminished the power of the Cross.