It Was Not So From The Beginning: What Nature And Grace Teach Us About SSA

It is being argued in some evangelical quarters that same-sex attraction (SSA) or homosexual attraction is “natural” and that it SSA (sexual desire for someone of the same sex) is not per se sinful. One writer who defends this view quotes John Cheever who wrote that every attractive man was like a loaded pistol. He writes, “I think that will help me next time I see a beautiful man and find myself wanting to be united to him. I am, at one level, just responding to beauty as I am created to respond to it. There is little I can do to avoid this natural response. We are all wired to appreciate beauty. That’s just how we work.” This writer seeks to address this problem from the assumption that same-sex sexual behavior is sinful but SSA is not. As another writer puts it, SSA is a form of temptation but temptation is not sin. I respond by conceding that temptation is not sin. Our sinless Lord was “tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). What is in question, however, is whether SSA is temptation or whether it is in fact sin.

The Creational Order

First, we should not accept the premise that SSA is natural. What does natural mean? If by it we mean, “part of the creational fabric” or “reflective of the divine order in creation,” then certainly SSA is not natural. Advocates of the view that SSA is temptation and not sin agree that the creational pattern was heterosexual. God created humanity in two sexes, male and female (Gen 1:27). Our Lord himself confirmed this understanding of the creational pattern. When the Pharisees approached our Lord to try to trap him in a question regarding divorce and re-marriage, Jesus responded by measuring the temporary Mosaic laws against the permanent moral and natural law:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.(Matt 19:4–6; ESV)

There is a creational pattern. In Romans 1, Paul refers to the natural order. We will return to Romans 1 momentarily. Heterosexual sex within heterosexual marriage is the divinely intended order. It is the order that Jesus re-affirmed. When the Pharisees tried to leverage the natural pattern with the temporary Mosaic law again, Jesus replied by again appealing to his intention in creation: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (v. 8).

That phrase, from the beginning it was not so” is, if the reader will pardon the pun, pregnant with significance for this discussion. When Jesus thinks of nature, he thinks not, in the first instance of what has happened to us after the fall, but the way things were intended and ordered before the fall.

It is true that people, after the fall, because of the vitiating power of sin, desire all manner of sinful things naturally, i.e., according to their fallen natures, but that does not make those desires righteous or normal. In the state of sin, in Adam, our inclinations are warped. Our intellect is warped. Our affections are warped. We do know, will, and love freely according to our corrupted natures but those objects of our affection, those things that we will, those things that we seek to know do not thereby become good or right.

Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 1:16–27:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged (μετήλλαξαν) natural relations for those that are contrary to nature (εἰς τὴν παρὰ φύσιν); and the men likewise gave up natural (τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν) 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 (Rom 1:26–27; ESV).

Paul was familiar with Greco-Roman homosexuality. It was open display in the cities. He could not miss it. He first addressed what we today called Lesbian affection and sexual relationships in v.26. Notice on what basis he condemns and rejects it: nature. This is an essential biblical category and it was a category with which historic Christianity was quite familiar but it is a category that has been forgotten by modern and late-modern evangelicals. There are a few reasons for this neglect. The first is the influence of Pietism (not piety). Pietism is the quest for a certain quality of religious experience. In this theology grace (salvation) is thought more or less to wipe out nature. This is the view of nature and grace that gives us record and book burning as religious acts. It tells boys to get rid of their baseball cards as “unspiritual.” The second reason is that evangelicalism is the creature of Modern culture, which has been at war with nature for most of its history. Evangelicals have simply baptized the culture in this regard. Thus, in face of the third wave of the sexual revolution, evangelicals lack this basic biblical and Christian category by which to understand what is happening.

Paul knows natural revelation, he also knows special revelation. Both tell him that there is natural order. In a sane time and place this would not need to be detailed but any biology or physiology teacher (or any farmer) can tell one the facts of nature. In its very essence, SSA is a transgression of the natural order.

The Order Of Grace

In 1 Corinthians 6 the Apostle Paul addresses sexual immorality quite pointedly. Just before verse 9 he has been remonstrating with the Corinthian congregation for their ungodly way of resolving disputes among them, by taking them to the secular courts to be adjudicated by the pagans. Then he turns to another catalogue of sins:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral (πόρνοι), nor idolaters (εἰδωλολάτραι), nor adulterers (μοιχοὶ), nor homosexuals (ἀρσενοκοῖται), nor the effeminate (μαλακοὶ)…. 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 6:9–11).

Paul was not saying that sinners cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is composed of sinners redeemed by the grace of God. Those who continue in their former way of life, however, who profess faith in Christ but who live like pagans will not inherit the Kingdom because they have never entered the Kingdom. They have no saving relation to King Jesus by grace alone, through faith alone.

The first category of specific category of sin he addresses is sexual immorality generally. This includes heterosexual and homosexual immorality but then he turns his attention to two distinct homosexual groups. To put it politely, Paul addresses those who were sexually dominant in the relationship and those who were sexually submissive. These are almost technical uses of the categories. For more on this see the resources below, especially the brief survey of the New Testament’s language on homosexuality.

Perhaps the key clause in these verses, however, is the first part of v. 11: “such were some of you.” Idolatry, drunkeness, sexual immorality, homosexuality (of both varieties) characterized the lives of the Corinthian Christians before they professed faith but they were not to characterize their lives after their profession of faith.

Given Paul’s condemnation of sexual desire and behavior that transgresses the boundaries of nature, which are inherently disordered, and his condemnation of immoral sexual attraction and behavior (πόρνοι), including homosexual desire and behavior, we can hardly think that he would agree that SSA is per se (in itself, in the abstract) not merely a temptation.

Scripture does, after all, regulate not only our actions but also our desires. Our Lord said that “whoever looks at a woman with the intention of lusting after her has already committed adultery” (Matt 5:28) speaks directly to the question of sexual attraction. It is not appropriate for a man to entertain sexual desire for a woman who is not his wife. It is not mere temptation to lust after a woman. Neither is it mere temptation to lust after or to be sexually attracted to the same sex. These desires, desire for sex outside of marriage or against nature, must be, as we used to say, mortified or “put to death.” Just as they are contrary to nature so too they are not consonant with grace.

There are consequent obligations that come with the grace of God. Our Saviour does not love us because he foresees that we will believe or be good. He does not love us because we believe or because we are good. Nevertheless, because of his grace, because he has given us new life, because we have been given true faith, because we are united to him by his Holy Spirit we seek to order our lives according to his will, by his grace, in gratitude. This includes our sexual attractions and desires. In Colossians 3:5 Paul calls us unequivocally to “mortify…sexual immorality (πορνείαν), impurity (ἀκαθαρσίαν), inordinate passion (πάθος), evil desire (ἐπιθυμίαν κακήν), and covetousness, which is idolatry.” SSA is sexual immorality, it is impurity, it is an evil desire.

The Lord is not surprised by your disordered sexual attraction (heterosexual or homosexual) but neither does he approve of it. Christ obeyed in the place of sexual sinners but he did not die to ratify their disordered sexual desires. Rather, he is graciously leading his people, in his Word, by his Spirit, to order their affections in Christ, according to his moral law.

NOTE: This essay was slightly revised from the initial version to clarify the distinction between temptation and sin.

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Resources On These Issues

  1. Gay Christians?
  2. Not Everything Called Christian Is
  3. Same-Sex Attraction Is Not A Means Of Grace Or Why We Distinguish Nature And Grace
  4. Rosaria Butterfield’s Alternative to Revoice
  5. Rosaria Butterfield: Believers Are Not Defined By Their Sins
  6. Rosanne, Gender Bending, and the War Against Nature (1)
  7. Roseanne, Gender Bending, and the War Against Nature (2)
  8. Homosexual and Homosexuality In The New Testament

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  1. If certain temptations are sin, then Jesus never experienced certain temptations.

    It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the same sorting out of temptation and sin is fought in the very English translation differences, that is being discussed here? with the trends not clear as to earlier translations verses later? The earlier NAS77 corresponds to the later ESV, and the later NAS95 corresponds to the earlier RSV.

    • Larry,

      Thanks for calling to my attention the question of translations. I quoted the ESV not the NASB. I corrected that. I also revised my language in one paragraph to distinguish between temptation and sin. Our Lord was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. As I understand Scripture, SSA is sinful by nature.

      I wonder if the very term SSA is not itself misleading and problematic? Perhaps it inherently re-defines the problem and creates confusion? I mean to say that SSA (homosexual orientation) is concupiscent in its essence. “Attraction” is too benign. I was “attracted” to the woman who became my wife but that attraction, that interest was not sinful in itself. Lust is concupiscent. David’s lust for Bathsheba was concupiscent, it was not pure. He did exactly what our Lord condemned in Matt 5:28. There is no innocent, pure same-sex attraction.

  2. As a Christian one of my biggest struggles has been the lust of the imagination. I, too, tossed off my admiration of a beautiful woman as “just admiring God’s handiwork.” However much I wanted to deny I was sinning, actually I thought about being united to her and the way I read Jesus’ words, this thinking lust in my heart is sin. It is no less sinful for a gay man to want to be united to another man than it is for me to want to be united to a woman other than my wife. I still fight sin, but God is gracious!

  3. Professor, you didn’t look at Mt 5:28 which I mistakenly didn’t say my translations comment was about? My fault! In the blog, Mt 5:28 is still quoted anonymously, and happens to be the ESV, advocating the opposite point that the NAS95 would have allowed you to use the verse for. For the ESV of Mt 5:28, intentionality is key, as it is with the NAS77. The NAS95 would be more to your point.

    Lord bless. I also happened to notice you exchanged which Greek word refers to which English word in 1 Cor 6:9. It is the malakoi, not the other word, that refers to the word effeminate.

    • Larry,

      I’m having difficulty tracking all of your comments.

      1) I did invert the two nouns, which I’ve revised.
      2) Anonymously? Sometimes I make my own translations. When I’m not quoting an existing translation, I don’t quote one. When a translation serves my purpose, I quote it but I’m not a slave to any translation.
      3) I typically use the NA27 or NA28.
      4) My interest in Matt 5:28 in NA28 (seems identical to NA27 here) is in the clause “πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι,” which I understand to mean, “with the intention of lusting.” My claim is our Lord condemned sinful, disordered sexual desire and that, by analogy, homosexual sexual interest is inherently lustful (concupiscent) and therefore sinful.

  4. That’s why Mt 5:28 is so crucial. There is a sin being discussed. Two translations (the RSV and the NAS95) minimize the chosenness of the event, and two translations (the NASB95 and the ESV) highlight the chosenness of the event, as does, btw, your direct translation.

  5. (Sorry, it is the NASB77 that goes with the ESV, and the NASB95 that goes with the RSV, as in the original comment made. If you could fix my previous comment and delete this one.)

  6. I think one observation that might be helpful in Mt 5:28 is that the Lord is using what in English we would call a pun or double meaning. that of blepon pros. To look, you look toward. To lust in the heart, your heart looks toward something evil, the epithymion.

  7. I think a part of what makes these discussions so difficult is that when some people say SSA they mean just that; attraction, whereas others use the same term (or related ones) and mean willful choices and actions that are more than attraction.

    I think that’s the big point in Matt 5:28. The hypothetical example can play out one of two ways:

    1. A man sees a woman who is pleasing to the eyes and with whom certain actions would be pleasing to the flesh, but by God’s grace he has disciplined himself after Joseph’s example to turn away if not run away from temptation because it is sin. It’s not that the woman is unattractive to him, but it is sin to linger, so he doesn’t continue looking and objectifying her, thinking about how she would be pleasurable to him. In his turning away, he has been tempted, he is attracted, but he does not sin.

    2. A man sees a woman who is pleasing to the eyes and action would be pleasing to the flesh, and he takes the Davidic example and continues looking; he looks at her with lust. Whether or not any physical interaction occurs, he has committed adultery in his heart because of his response to the temptation; he chose, he looked, and he imagined. He lusted.

    Is this not the delineation? A thing cannot rightly be called a temptation if you are not attracted to it. You can taunt most kids with brussel sprouts, but very few can you tempt with them. So, if it is MERE attraction, that is disordered but not sinful. Yes?

  8. Well, I liked your translation of Mt 5:28 (which happens to be the tack taken by the ESV and NASB77). The whole thing can be resolved largely by this verse, by noticing the pun in that verse, that is, the double meaning. Just as the eye looks toward something, if the heart looks toward sin, there has been committed a sin, in the heart. This can be generalized to the present discussion. In what a person’s eye looks toward, what is the heart looking toward? What our heart is setting its sight on, is where the battle is.

  9. There seems to be a lot of hair splitting going on here. Which of the thoughts, imaginations, and actions of man are not tainted by sin? We can’t keep God’s Law. That’s why we need a Savior. Anyone who tries to justify himself by declaring that any SSA is not sinful is deceiving himself and others. The larger problem for that person is denying the plain meaning of scripture. The words “Hath God truly said…?” echo down through the ages.

    • Unfortunately Bob for the logic of your argument, it must be not selectively applied: if the answer to your question, “which of the thoughts, imaginations, and actions of man are not tainted by sin?” is none, then to say, of ANY thought, imagination, and action of man, that it is “not sinful” would be the necessary conclusion. Not just “those” people….

      It’s making a phase mistake, to apply the imperfect state of all that we think, imagine, and do, to the deliberative moment. When the Lord says “make friends with your opponent…, ” and “pluck it out,” and “judge for yourselves what is right,” and “provide for yourselves purses that do not wear out,” and pro-active things like that — He does so throughout! — it is not as an excuse, to decide on what is good to do, think, and feel. It is out of the heart that we are to bring treasure. We do this, as we do anything, in participation with Christ, and He will not only remove the imperfection, but does endorse the choosing and discrimination that deliberation consists of.

    • You guys are right, it wasn’t clear, more like writing for myself. Sorry. I think the problem is the second paragraph. In the first paragraph I was saying that if ALL thoughts, imaginations, and actions, and actions of “man,” i.e., everyone, are tainted by sin, as you Bob implied by the question, ” Which of the thoughts, imaginations, and actions of man are not tainted by sin?” then it is all those, of everyone, that are, not just all those of some are, or some of some.

      In the second paragraph, I point out a contrasting fact: when it comes time to deliberate, the above fact, does not preclude the Lord Jesus to tell His hearers, including us, to deliberate, to love, to take action! all kinds of tremendous pointers for taking proper action! all kinds of tremendous help for taking proper deliberation before action! and tremendous encouragement to desire God, and what is good!

      How do we reconcile these two things? Even though everything we will do, will be tainted by some sin, we are not to be do-nothings, but God Himself has prepared good works, for us to walk in! We are to knock off those deeds of the flesh, and it doesn’t happen without wanting to, planning to, and executing (pardon the pun).

      There is no Christian (nor any part of God’s creation) that has the right, to do evil, that good may come, and that includes acting upon evil desires. Evil desires are desires to do evil. The problem is making a dichotomy between certain desires to do evil which “they” have and certain desires to do evil which “I” have. My desire to do evil does not become neutral, because it’s not their unnatural desire to do evil. The comparison is what makes people mad: it’s not that sexual attraction to the same sex is not evil, or not unnatural, but that it is singled out for being evil when the attraction to do evil with someone not my wife is exalted as pure.

    • Great point, Larry. In the twisted logic of the LBGQTetc, perverted affections are extolled as “loving!” Therefore any criticism of their sinful lifestyle must be unloving and hateful.

  10. In my province of Alberta there is an upcoming provincial election. The socialist New Democratic Party has made any negative reference to the LBGQTetc the cardinal sin, calling it unloving, bigotry, and even Fascist. They have been so successful in persecuting conservative candidates who have ever said anything critical of the LBGQTetc that some have even dropped out of the race. How long before it becomes a disqualification in seeking other employment, to be disapproving of the LBGQTetc lifestyle?

    • That has been their intent all along: Christ and the LGBTQLASKDID lifestyle dogma are completely opposed and incompatible and irreconcilable.

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