Same-Sex Attraction Is Not A Means Of Grace Or Why We Distinguish Nature And Grace

Jeffrey Stivason has a helpful interaction with an August 2018 essay by Wesley Hill in which Hill seeks to justify the Revoice Conference, held last July (2018), and in which justifies his conclusion that he has an immutable same-sex attraction. Stivason notes that Hill has become skeptical of “any therapeutic interventions” that seek to alter his same-sex orientation. He observes “Hill also seems to implicate the means of grace as useless instruments in the wreckage of failed attempts.” Like many others in the LGBTQ worlds, Hill seems to have concluded that his homosexuality is not something that God wants to remove. Rather, as Hill explains, sexual orientation is an “intractable thing.”  Hill seems to have concluded that his homosexuality is part of God’s design, a “strange providence,” a thorn in the flesh, which drives him back to God in prayer. This realization led him to abandon his “fevered search for some cure for gayness.” At one point he equates “same-sex love” with same-sex attraction, that chaste same-sex friendships “can be an expression of homosexuality.” Stivason summarizes, “according to Hill, homosexual orientation is not sin but in fact actually produces the fruit of godliness called for in Scripture.”  Here two themes in Hill’s essay merge:

Homosexuality, I continued to believe, is sinful insofar as it represents a thirst for acts that Scripture forbids, but I came to see that it is at the same time—like St. Paul’s thorn—an occasion for grace to become manifest.

Exploring that grace was the point of the Revoice conference. It was the first theologically conservative event I’ve attended in which I felt no shame in owning up to my sexual orientation and no hesitation in declaring my sexual abstinence. At Revoice there was no pressure to obfuscate the probable fixity and exclusivity of my homosexuality through clunky euphemisms. Nor was there any stigma attached to celibacy, as though my embracing it were simply, as the ex-gay leader Andy Comiskey once wrote, “a concession to same-sex attraction.” There was, instead, a kind of joyful and creative moving on. “Yes, we’re gay, and yes, we’re committed to historic Christian belief and practice,” everyone seemed to be saying. “But that’s just the boring preamble. What we really want to talk about is where we go from here.”

There are two great problems that produce a third, perhaps even greater problem:

First, Hill’s resignation to his sexual attraction to other men is problematic on its face. Paul says: “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 6:11; ESV). The context of Paul’s declaration, “such were some of you” is v. 9: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…” (ESV; emphasis added). Some of the Corinthians had been homosexual, they had experienced same-sex attraction, but now, by the grace of God, that was no longer true of them.

In contrast to Paul’s approach, Hill recognizes that same-sex attraction is sin but he has resigned himself to it as part of who he is. Let us test this approach to sin and mortification, i.e., dying to sin. Substitute another sin and let us see if we are satisfied with such an approach. “Theft, I continued to believe, is sinful insofar as it represents a third for other people’s property, which Scripture forbids.” God’s Word says, “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15). Our Lord Jesus quotes this very commandment in Matthew 19:18 as he affirmed the abiding validity of God’s moral law. The Apostle Paul repeats this commandment the same way in Romans 13:9, in his summary of the moral law or the Ten Commandments. The same Ten Commandments also say, “You shall not commit adultery,” which includes all sexual immorality.  The tenth commandment forbids coveting what does not belong to us. In other words, it is not at all evident that Hill has set the bar high enough. He concedes that same-sex acts are forbidden but he seems to have accepted the premise that same-sex attraction is permitted. If, however, when we substitute theft (or coveting, or lying etc) for same-sex attraction we get unacceptable results, then Hill’s conclusion would seem to be in serious jeopardy.

One might argue that because sexual sins are unique that we may not use such moral math.  It is true that Scripture distinguishes sexual sin from other kinds of sin but Scripture does not regularize or normalize sexual sins because they are distinct from other kinds of sins. Indeed, if anything, Scripture raises the bar. Our Lord Jesus says that if a man even looks at a woman with the intention of lusting after her, he has already committed adultery (Matt 5:28). In this case our Lord was considering heterosexual attraction. If misdirected heterosexual attraction is sin then all homosexual attraction is also sin and sin, in the nature of things, is not normal. It is not natural. It if not a gift. It is not a means of grace.

At least heterosexual attraction, even if sinful when it transgresses the bounds of marriage or has the advantage of being natural. Homosexual attraction is not only contrary to Scripture but it is also contrary to nature. We know this from nature itself. When mammals of the same sex attempt copulation, there can be no procreation. Mammals of the same-sex are not designed by nature to copulate. Humans are mammals. Need I complete the syllogism? Scripture confirms this truth. The Apostle repeatedly denounces same-sex acts as unnatural. In Romans 1:26 he describes Lesbian sexual relations as “contrary to nature.” He condemns homosexual behavior as unnatural: “Likewise men gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, committing shamelesss acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Rom 1:27; emphasis added).

This brings us to a the second problem with Hill’s approach and another reason Hill may have come to the conclusions he has is that he has not reckoned sufficiently with the category of nature. As we have seen, nature is a biblical category but one that has fallen on hard times among evangelicals and even for some Reformed folk. For many late-modern evangelicals, whose principal influences (whether or not they realize it) are not the Protestant Reformers and the Reformation churches but the Anabaptists, who have a highly realized eschatology, grace is though more or less to wipe out nature. They are suspicious of nature per se. It does not function much in their thinking. It plays virtually no role in their ethics. Some neo-Kuyperians have a similar problem. For much of the 20th century they were at war with the traditional distinction between nature (creation) and grace (redemption) and have sought to blur the categories. Thus, among them there is much talk of “redeeming” (grace) this or that creational (nature) endeavor. Among them one finds much criticism of any “nature/grace dualism.” As a consequence, nature as a category has neglected. Those in this tradition have become estranged from the older Reformed language about nature and natural law. For both Anabaptist-inspired evangelicals and neo-Kuyperian Reformed folk, the language in the Reformed confessions about nature and natural law seems strange but it was not strange for our Reformed forebears who were deeply influenced by the older Christian tradition, going back to Augustine (at least), of distinguishing nature and grace.

Third, when we fail to distinguish nature and grace at least two things happen and neither of them are good. First, it tends toward Pelagianism. Augustine wrote his treatise on nature and grace in AD 415 to refute Pelagius precisely because the latter conflated nature and grace. He turned nature into grace. He set up a system whereby a men were said to have, by nature (which he conflated with grace), all that they need to be righteous. He also blurred the world as it was before the fall with the world after the fall. E.g. he saw death before the fall and affirmed human ability to obey by nature after the fall. In short, in Pelagius’ scheme nature is no longer nature and grace is no longer grace.

When we conflate nature and grace a second thing that happens, which we see in Hill’s essay: nature become sacramental. It becomes a means of grace. In this case, Hill writes about celibate same-sex friendships as if they were means of grace (e.g., sacraments). Nature is not a sacrament. Nature is not grace. As Augustine argued against Pelagius, nature was created good. Adam was, as we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, “created in righteousness and true holiness” such that he had the potential to obey God’s holy law, to love him and his neighbors (Eve and his posterity). He chose not to do what he had the power to do. He chose to break God’s holy law, to violate the covenant of works, and thus plunged us all into sin and death.

Grace is God’s favor merited by Christ for the fallen. Before the fall Adam was not a sinner.  He was righteous. After the fall, however, he was unrighteousness and very much in need of being restored to God’s favor. That is why God the Son came in his pre-incarnate state (who do you think was walking in the garden?) to announce the good news: that the seed of the woman (Eve) would do battle with the serpent, that the latter would strike the seed and the seed would crush the serpent (Gen 3:15).

The gospel and the sacraments are means of grace, i.e., those instruments instituted by God to be used by the Spirit to grant new life and true faith to sinners whereby sinners  might be restored to his favor (i.e., in a state of grace). The Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10:14) to bring his elect to new life and to true faith. He uses the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to confirm his promises  (see Heidelberg Catechism 65).

Same-sex friendship among men is a good thing but it is not a sacrament. Neither is same-sex friendship just another expression of homosexuality. Both nature and Scripture tell us that homosexual attraction is a transgression of nature. Friendship, camaraderie, and fellowship are not sexual. They are a natural bond. Christian fellowship is the fruit of grace and the Lord does use Christian fellowship to encourage (Heb 10:25; 1 Thess 4:18) the body but there is nothing sexual about that fellowship.

Such confusion is the fruit of 200 years of Anabaptist-inspired religious enthusiasm and the late-modern loss of nature as a category. For the Anabaptist-inspired evangelicals nothing is allowed to be ordinary. Everything must be spectacular, stupendous, and super-Apostolic. For the late-modern nothing is allowed to be natural or innocent. Everything must be sexualized. Sex is the sacrament of late modern life. People “hook up” for sex before they ever know their partner’s name and they seal their sexual union with the sacrament of abortion (an observation that Rush Limbaugh made 30 years ago). So, Hill follows both errors. Like the Anabaptist-inspired evangelicals (and our neo-Kuyperian friends) he has lost the category of nature. Like the late-modern pagans, he has made sex (or at least same-sexual attraction) into a kind of sacrament, a means of grace.

Sex was given to us in creation (nature) to enjoy within the bounds of nature and marriage. It is a gift by which men and women are intended to commune with one another, to become “one flesh.” The Apostle Paul says that, for Christians, says “it” (becoming one flesh) “refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). This is no license to sacramentalize nature—to turn nature into grace—but it is a marvelous natural illustration of a mysterious spiritual reality. If we are ever to come to our senses again about sex we must grasp the distinction between nature and grace. We must recognize the limits that nature places upon us. We must again accept those limits and submit to them. We must also listen much more closely to Scripture than we have done in recent years. When we do these two things we will recognize that same-sex attraction and behavior must not be normalized any more than they may be sacramentalized.

Related Resources

Defining Nature-Grace Dualism

Is The Gospel In The Stars Or The Distinction Between Nature and Grace

Rosaria Butterfield’s Alternative to Revoice

Homosexual and Homosexuality in the New Testament

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