Actually, We Do Care: A Response To Greg Johnson’s Still Time To Care

Still Time to Care: Selective Quoting?

Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care has garnered no small amount of attention since its release in early December. Prominent voices in the Reformed and broader evangelical world have hailed it as the seminal text for a new era of ministry to same-sex attracted persons both within and without our churches. Out of the ashes of the ex-gay movement of the last 50 years has arisen, they say, a new (or if you ask Greg Johnson “revitalized”) paradigm of care. For a fuller treatment of the book’s contents I would heartily recommend Dr. Jonathan Master’s review. In fact, the reader may find it helpful to consult his panoramic view of the forest before reading what is my cross-sectioning of several noteworthy trees.

It is my intention to demonstrate with these articles that Johnson’s book muddies the already muddied terminological waters regarding human sexuality and that he is not alone in using classic Reformed systematic-theological language in a novel manner to support his own conclusions.

Throughout the book, Johnson puts what he calls “heterosexual orientation” and “homosexual orientation” side by side in an attempt to demonstrate how both are fallen, sinful orientations (139).1 Johnson is not shy in expressing his frustration with those who turn a blind eye to their own heterosexual sins and fixate instead upon the homosexual sin of others. To be sure, if a man is addicted to internet pornography, frequenting gentlemen’s clubs, or cheating on his wife, he is in no place to identify specks or beams in the eyes of others when he has such a whopping beam in his own. Sexual sin is not the exclusive vice of the same-sex attracted. This is not up for debate, we are all in agreement. Men and women sin when they lust after a member of the opposite sex who is not their spouse.

As true as this is, Dr. Johnson so stresses the sinfulness of heterosexual lust that, at times, he obscures the Reformed distinction between sins that are against nature and sins that are not thereby obscuring the differing degrees of heinousness. 2 In one particular instance Johnson does so by bending the language of others to support his premise that “heterosexuality as experienced on this side of the fall is drenched in sin” (139). In the section titled “The Sinfulness of Heterosexuality This Side of the Fall” Johnson recounts the details of his interview on the CrossPolitic podcast.3

NB: What follows should in no way be construed as a defense of the people or theology represented by the CrossPolitic podcast or as a defense of others in Moscow, Idaho. Far from it. The reader should consider me squarely in the camp of those who are opposed to the pastoral abuses that have been documented and the reader should consider me opposed to the Federal Vision theology. My only intention in recounting this discussion is to demonstrate that Johnson engages in a subtle twisting of words to support his own conclusions and misconstrue the position of his discussion partners. To what end does all of this trend? To the blurring of the distinction between sins that are contrary to nature and sins that are not. In a follow up article, I will demonstrate how Johnson further blurs these lines in choosing to apply the word “disordered” both to heterosexual and homosexual lust, but never the descriptor “unnatural” to homosexual lust.

Johnson says:

I was once on a podcast with some church leaders who seemed to be of the opinion that a gay person who becomes a Christian can choose not to be attracted to members of the same sex anymore. I questioned them about their own sexual attraction to women other than their wives.4 Can you choose to turn that off? They scoffed.

“For one, heterosexual men don’t need to repent of being attracted to another woman,” one panelist said.

Another added, “Because that’s natural.”

A third agreed, “That’s the way God planned it.”

The first one then jumped in again. “What we need to repent of is being lustful” (139).

Admittedly, the language of being “attracted to another woman” sounds very different from simply saying, “So and so is a good-looking/attractive person.” I have been told the latter by my wife and taken no offense, but were she to come to me and say, “Dear, I am attracted to so and so” I would be understandably concerned. Gabriel Rench could have used better wording. Seizing upon this phraseology Johnson writes

They seemed to have a very shallow view of their indwelling sin—their own internal corruption. Did God design Adam to feel an internal sexual pull toward his neighbor’s wife? To see another man’s wife and have sexual feelings for her? Was that our Father’s good design for sexuality? Or is that not—like sexual attraction to a member of the same-sex—also a result of the fall?…Sexual longing was designed to exist within marriage. Since the desire for sin involves a motion of the sinful nature, I wonder how a sexual longing for someone other than your spouse is “the way God planned it” (emphasis added; 139).

It seems like a slam dunk in Johnson’s favor—yet another sad example of heterosexual Christians excusing their unbridled, “polyamorous” lusts for members of the opposite sex and choosing instead to fixate upon the homosexual sins of another.5 But, something key is missing. Johnson omits the dialogue immediately preceding the above quotations which puts them in a considerably different light. Beginning at 41:00 Johnson tells the story of Nate Collins, the founder of the Revoice Conference. Collins, a man who has wrestled with same-sex attraction his whole life, fell in love with and married his best friend, a woman, with whom he now raises three children. The conversation thereafter is as follows:

Johnson—She (Collins’ wife) is the only woman he is sexually attracted to. (emphasis added)

Shannon—Mmm…kind of how it’s supposed to be! (emphasis added)

Sumpter— That’s good news! (emphasis added)

Johnson—That to me sounds like what Adam would have had had he not fallen. Now, if it is fallen for you to find other women sexually attractive, okay, I understand how you repent of lusting after them, I don’t understand how you repent of being attracted to women other than your wife.” (emphasis added)

It is immediately after this distinction between heterosexual lust and simply being attracted to women other than one’s wife that Rench’s comment comes into play, “For one, heterosexual men don’t need to repent of being attracted to another woman.”

It is unfortunate that Johnson does not provide a citation for this conversation, which he does extensively for other material in the rest of the book, so that readers might have been able to better judge his representation of this interview which was so important in the early debate about Johnson and Revoice. When the broader context is revealed, it inevitably changes one’s perspective on the provided quotes. Johnson, we have seen, has just distinguished between lusting after members of the opposite sex, which is sinful, and being attracted to a member of the opposite sex, which is not intrinsically sinful (surely you found your wife attractive before you married her, which is possible to do without lusting). Lust is sin, full stop. But identifying a person of the opposite sex as attractive, and even desiring to pursue marriage with them, is not. This may seem subtle, but it is significant.

Johnson says, “Sexual longing was designed to exist within marriage.” In response to the assertion that Nate Collins is only sexually attracted to his wife, Shannon responds, “Mmm…kind of how it’s supposed to be.” Shannon and Johnson agree! Johnson makes it appear as though Shannon and company are winking at sexually lusting after women not their wives, while Shannon’s comments substantially agree with Johnson’s, that a man is “supposed” to be sexually attracted only to his wife and not to all women indiscriminately. (emphasis added)

Notice how Johnson chooses to set the tone differently in his written presentation of the CrossPolitic conversation, “I questioned them about their own sexual attraction to women other than their wives.” Did he not just distinguish between heterosexual lust and attraction? This moving of the goalposts inevitably colors Rench’s comment, “For one, heterosexual men don’t need to repent of being attracted to another woman.” Notice that nowhere does Rench or his fellow panelists use the word “sexual” to describe their attractions to other women. Following the train of thought set by Johnson where he distinguished between lusting after members of the opposite sex and finding members of the opposite sex attractive, Rench simply says that for a man to find a woman attractive is not sinful—finding one attractive and lusting are not equivalents. (emphasis added)

None of the CrossPolitic hosts imply that “sexual longing for” someone other than your spouse is “the way God planned it.” Shannon’s commendation of Collins’ sexual attraction to his wife exclusively evidences this to be the case.  (emphasis added).

Had Johnson quoted the comments of Rench, Shannon, and Sumpter that preceded his selected quotations, their comments would not have supported his claim that heterosexual Christians are dismissive of their own lusts. Lust was not the topic of discussion once Johnson distinguished between “lusting after” women other than your wife and “being attracted to women other than your wife.”

What About Nature?

Above we saw how Greg Johnson used only select portions of his conversation partners’ comments on human sexuality for the purpose of holding them up as examples of heterosexual Christians who “have a very shallow view of their indwelling sin—their own internal corruption” (139). In reality, however, the two parties appeared to agree more than Johnson let on in writing. Further, whether or not one believes Johnson rightly interpreted their comments is immaterial to my point. The question that needs to be answered is this: does Johnson indicate in Still Time to Care that the sexual attraction of a man to a woman other than his wife is according to nature? The question is not whether it is a sin or whether it is “God’s good design for sexuality.” Let me be very clear and say that sexually desiring, longing for, or lusting after anyone other than one’s spouse is sin. Jesus said so in Matthew 5:28, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I agree with Johnson that God’s “good design for sexuality” is for it to “exist within marriage” and extend no farther. A man’s sexual attractions should be limited exclusively to his wife. This is the question: is the sin of sexually desiring a woman other than one’s wife contrary to nature? What does Johnson say?

At one point, he does use the word “natural” to describe heterosexuality, but not directly and not in the way that “natural” is traditionally used in discussions regarding human sexuality. Johnson writes:

Did God design Adam to feel an internal sexual pull toward his neighbor’s wife? To see another man’s wife and have sexual feelings for her? Was that our Father’s good design for sexuality? Or is that—like sexual attraction to a member of the same sex—also an effect of the fall? Is that not internal corruption? It that not overdesire? Is that not a natural longing for beauty or approval or intimacy that has been bent by the fall? (139; emphasis added)

In the first italicized statement Johnson draws a comparison between homo-sexual attraction and hetero-sexual attraction to a person that is not one’s spouse, saying they are both effects of the fall. With this I agree: sexual attraction to a member of the same sex and sexual attraction to a member of the opposite sex who is not one’s spouse are both sinful effects of the fall and require the blood of Christ to cover them. Praise be to God that, in Christ, when we repent and believe, he is faithful and just to forgive us of all our sin, whether it be expressed heterosexually or homosexually. Johnson and I agree on this point.

Let me also say, however, that heterosexual lust and homosexual lust are not the same qualitatively. Though they are both fallen and fall short of the glory of God, they are not fallen in the same way or for the same reason, which distinction Johnson does not make clear in his writing. Here it becomes necessary to make a distinction between sins that are contrary to nature and sins that are not.6

At its root, hetero-sexual desire is a natural, pre-fall gift of God that has become subject to the fallen imaginations and manipulation of sinful man. Heterosexuality is good in that it accords with nature (pre-fall), but it becomes bad whenever it is directed toward a person who is not one’s spouse (whether pre or post marriage). The compatibility of male and female reproductive organs, the potential for mutual pleasure when engaging in sex, and the ability to procreate are God’s way of indicating that this is the original, natural way, in which sex was designed to function—male and female. Heterosexual orientation is not the problem, in and of itself it is rightly ordered, natural, and good. It is only when heterosexual expression transgresses the bounds of monogamous marriage that we may talk about sinful heterosexuality, never before.

Though it is indeed a sad reality that hetero-sexual desire is often abused, the abuse of heterosexuality does not make the orientation per se disordered or contrary to nature as homosexuality is. Heterosexuality per se is not sinful. The abuse of heterosexuality is sinful. Heterosexuality is certainly subject to the consequences of the fall, but that does not make heterosexuality altogether fallen as an orientation. The abuse of a good thing does not thereby make the good thing cease to be good. For example, it is one thing to say that alcohol is a good gift from God and that one must be careful not to use it in a sinful manner (e.g. drunkenness) but it is another thing entirely to say that because alcohol, on this side of the fall, is so often abused that we should now regard it as a sinful, disordered substance. Yet, in multiple places, Johnson applies this sort of logic to heterosexuality as an orientation. He writes:

It seems to me that the polygamy of heterosexual desire—or more technically, a polyamory or polyeroticism—is also disordered. Heterosexuality as experienced this side of the fall is drenched in sin (140; emphasis added).

Heterosexuality as experienced on this side of the fall is also a fallen orientation on account of its failure to remain exclusive to one spouse at the attractional level (141; emphasis added).

We don’t need to set up a bunch of exstraight ministries to help you sisters and brothers be cured of your unwanted attractions to other people’s spouses. That approach has been tried for forty years with a very similar fallen sexual orientation, and we found that internal corruption didn’t go away. I don’t tell straight men they’re not real Christians for identifying as straight, even though that typically means attractional polygamy. So long as they’re not bragging about it and they recognize that it’s disordered, I don’t get too worried (140; emphasis added).

If my internal sexual pull is disordered 100 percent of the time, perhaps theirs might be disordered 90 percent of the time (141; emphasis added)?

You can view us as believers exactly like yourself, just with a sexuality that is disordered differently from your own… (212; emphasis added).

We all bring our various disordered desires to Jesus. The gospel is the same for all of us. You are no exception (214; emphasis added).

Johnson’s description of heterosexuality as a fallen, disordered orientation side by side with homosexuality as a fallen, disordered orientation only serves to obscure the biblical and Reformed distinction between sins that are against nature and sins that are not (Romans 1:26–27, Jude 1:7). Further, because Johnson so downplays this distinction, he is able to avoid addressing the uncomfortable reality that our confessional Standards speak of sins against nature being more heinous in the sight of God than those that are not (WSC Q.83, LC Q. 150, 151.3).7 This theological fact may not be word-smithed or equivocated away. It is there in our Standards, plain as day.

Now, to the second italicized sentence. Prima facie, it seems as though he acknowledges heterosexuality to be in accordance with nature when he writes, “Is that not a natural longing for beauty or approval or intimacy that has been bent by the fall?” (emphasis added) If one looks carefully, however, Johnson is not saying that hetero-sexual desire is natural. Instead he redirects the reader’s attention to a set of other non-sexual human longings/desires that are natural and that often do accompany sexual desire (whether heterosexual or homosexual), but are not identical with the desire for sexual intercourse itself.

It is worth noting that he assigns these same natural emotional longings and desires to homosexuality two pages earlier, which should inform how one reads his usage of the word “natural” to describe heterosexuality on page 139. Johnson writes of homosexuality on page 137

Sin, Augustine argued, is always a privation of the good. There is no such thing as pure evil, he explained, only good things that have been bent and therefore have lost their goodness or had some of it distorted (emphasis added). What is bent when I experience that internal pull toward homoeroticism?…For one thing, we’re dealing with a legitimate God-given human longing for community. Yes, this longing has become sexualized in ways that distort God’s creational design. But it is a legitimate longing nonetheless. It might be a longing for healthy intimacy—to know and be known. It might be a longing for acceptance, a need to feel wanted. Our longings for intimacy, community, and friendship, our longings to be loved and accepted, our recognition of human beauty—these are not evils. The longing for nurture, inclusion, and affirmation are not evils. The longing to matter to someone, to be unique and special to them, the longing for family—don’t you dare call these sins. They are core human needs we all share as image bearers of God. We all long to be delighted in. We all long for companionship. We all long to be seen inside and out. These longings are good longings placed there by God” (emphasis added).

Who would deny that the longings for intimacy, community, friendship and acceptance are natural, good, human desires? No one. I would not dare to call these sinful. These are indeed legitimate longings common to all who bear the image of God but, natural as they are, their frequent presence alongside homosexual sexual desire does not thereby make homo-sexual desire any less unnatural or contrary to nature. If one puts Johnson’s description of homosexuality on page 137 side by side with his description of heterosexuality on page 139 then it seems that the reader is being led to make the following deduction:

1. If heterosexuality is a natural longing for beauty, approval, and intimacy that has been bent by the fall,

2. and if homosexuality is also a longing for beauty, approval, and intimacy that has been bent by the fall,

3. then homosexuality must be just as natural as heterosexuality.

In my mind, this section of Still Time to Care reads something like this, “Alright, if you are going to call my homo-sexual desires disordered then I’ll concede and call your hetero-sexual desires disordered too. If my orientation is going down, then yours is going down with it.”

Going back to Johnson’s application of Augustine’s theory of evil to human sexuality, I wonder how he would respond to the following question: if all sin is “always a privation of the good,” if fallen mankind’s sins are “only good things that have been bent and therefore have lost their goodness or had some of it distorted,” then what is good about a man wanting to engage in sodomy? I am not asking what is good about a desire for intimacy, community, friendship, acceptance, beauty, or the whole complex of other non-sexual desires that ordinarily accompany homosexual desire. I am asking what is the inherent good in wanting to engage in homosexual sex that has been distorted by the fall?

Though I would never say that someone who struggles with same-sex sexual attraction is purely evil, I may not say that desiring homosexual sex is a moral or natural good that has been bent by the fall as I may of heterosexual attraction to a person other than one’s spouse. One is a good, God-given desire that has been bent and abused by sinners while the other is nowhere called good in the pages of Scripture.

What Dr. Johnson has confused or obscured, I hope I have made clear. Homosexual sexual desire and hetero-sexual desire outside of marriage are both sins, but they are qualitatively different. They are not equally heinous as one is altogether contrary to the created order for human sexuality (nature) while the other is a misuse of the created order for sexuality. Nevertheless, despite the differing degrees of heinousness, if repented of, God will forgive and remember these sins no more. My goal has not been to belittle persons whose sexual struggles are different from my own. I am committed to hating and warring against my sinful desires right alongside them. I am a fellow sinner saved by grace. God’s grace is for us all. What I hope, however, is that I have also made clear that it is dangerous to engage in theological revisionism in the interest of being more sympathetic and humble toward our neighbor. We need not change our theology or equivocate for the sake of being pastoral. Cognitive and theological dissonance is not the key to contextualizing the gospel for the sexually broken. What we need to do instead is receive and believe the theology revealed to us in the pages of holy Scripture, humble ourselves daily at the foot of the cross, and extend the hope of Christ to our neighbor regardless of what his or her sexual struggle might be. This is our task, and may God make us faithful to perform it.

A Forgotten Third Paradigm

Since the inaugural meeting of Revoice in 2018 the Reformed and evangelical world has been holding its breath wondering, “Where will all of this lead?” In four years we have seen three successive Revoice conferences with the fourth forthcoming, hotly debated BCO amendments with more to be debated at the 2022 PCA General Assembly, and the recent decision of the Standing Judicial Commission concerning Missouri Presbytery’s investigation of Memorial Presbyterian Church. All of these together suggest that matters will get worse before they get better. Only the sovereign God knows exactly how everything will fall out, but we now know where the most prominent figure of the Revoice movement wants to see things go. In the concluding chapters of Still Time to Care, Greg Johnson offers his vision for the church’s future: he wants us to pick up the ball that we dropped forty years ago and return to the “paradigm of care” that he sees exemplified in the ministries of C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard Lovelace (216). The “paradigm of care” is Johnson’s antidote to the “paradigm of cure” that undergirded the ex-gay movement of the last 50 years. To be sure, the ex-gay movement was fraught with serious theological and methodological errors from the start but, as one examines Johnson’s “paradigm of care,” one will find a  host of other issues that will do more harm than good to the one who adopts it. For the sake of our sheep, I  encourage pastors to consider different paradigm, a third way that I believe better adheres to the teaching of Scripture: a paradigm of change.

“But wait, change? That’s the same empty promise of the ex-gay movement. They tried to change peoples’ sexual orientation before, but it was an utter failure. Why turn back to a defunct paradigm like that?”  In Johnson’s eyes, the language of “change” has become so poisoned by the ex-gay movement that calls to change are all but off limits. In fact, he goes so far as to call them abusive.

While Exodus in the United States is largely buried and dead, change-focused ministries continue to exist. And in much of the world, the ex-gay movement is still very much alive. As we ask what a path to care looks like for gay people who become Christians, we have to confront the ways the ex-gay movement is still moving about undead among us. The relics of the ex-gay movement continue to foster emotionally unsafe and even abusive spaces within conservative Christianity. Any path to care must root out the emotional abuse within our churches and ministries (190).

To be sure, if the only change that is pursued is a change in one’s sexual orientation, that is setting the bar for holiness woefully, woefully low.8 I am not here to advocate for mere behavioral change as was common among the purveyors of the ex-gay movement. As Christians we are called to aim higher and seek change that is deeper— change at the level of our hearts, affections, and yes, even our sexual desires. I agree, by and large, with Dr. Johnson’s assessment of the ex-gay movement and find many of its measures misguided and some even abusive. It pains me to hear that anyone would be told they must not be a Christian if they continue to struggle with a particular besetting sin. This represents an unfortunate and painful chapter in the history of American evangelicalism and it is one to which I hope we never return.

Johnson’s reaction, however, to the excesses of the ex-gay movement and its promise of orientation change inflicts a new damage all its own: it cuts the hope for meaningful change at the knees. Johnson writes:

Lewis, Schaeffer, Graham, and Stott viewed the homosexual condition not as a cognitive behavioral challenge to be cured but as an unchosen orientation with no reliable cure in this life (32; emphasis added).

What is a paradigm of care?…Be honest about the relative fixity of sexual orientation for most people (33; emphasis added).

In this positive gospel vision for gay people and the church, we see a focus not on curing homosexuality but on caring for people. We see that the locus of hope lies in the coming age. This present age is not for cure but for care (35; emphasis added).

There were some individuals who experienced profound shifts in their sexual preference. Jill Rennick recalls several cases that could be deemed orientation change. She counts eight women and one man whose stories she is confident pan out. I spoke with one woman, named Debra, who has experienced a significant shift in her sexual orientation. So it’s not impossible in some instances, but the rarity of these cases is still striking (123–4; emphasis added).

Our struggle to confirm even a couple handfuls of cases of true gay-to-straight orientation change is telling. God has the power to do anything. It appears this is something he has chosen to do only very rarely in this era (127; emphasis added).

For me (Johnson), the sexualized pull toward people of the same sex is not likely to go away. This is a lifetime calling not to let it rule over me (136; emphasis added).

Paul wrote to the Corinthians to stress just how limited our transformation is in this life. Yet many well-meaning believers, having drunk the ex-gay Kool-Aid, continue to twist Pauls letter to say something very different (143; emphasis added).

Can we not find a way to acknowledge the reality and persistence of sexual orientations that seldom change and are part of our lowercase, secondary identities, while still locating homoerotic temptation as an affect of the fall and manifestation of indwelling sin? I think we can and must (207; emphasis added).

We learned that sexual orientation is real. It’s not an addiction. And any shifts within it are fairly rare and incremental (243; emphasis added).

Whatever hope Johnson gives with one hand, he immediately takes away with the other. One can feel the walls closing in on the believer who wrestles with homosexual desire and longs to be freed from its bondage. “Sexual orientation is relatively fixed…change is so rare…hope is beyond our grasp until we reach the eschaton…look at all these statistics of people who tried and failed to change their orientation,” what other choice does the homosexual struggler have than to wave the white flag and adopt their homosexual desires as a “secondary identity” (199)?

Johnson is very careful in his walk along the terminological tightrope. Nowhere does he say that a homosexual orientation is altogether fixed, which would certainly open him up to ecclesiastical investigation. Instead he speaks of homosexuality’s “relative fixity” (33) which doesn’t violate the letter of progressive sanctification, but when all the individual pieces above are brought into focus, the spirit of progressive sanctification is consistently undermined throughout the book. The cumulative affect of Johnson’s countless qualifications and reminders that change is “fairly rare” and that “the locus of our hope lies in the coming age” feels like death by a thousand paper cuts instead of blunt force heterodoxy. Either way, the sexual struggler is left with virtually no encouragement to war against his sin.

Is “Change” a Biblical Paradigm?

Any paradigm of “care” that does not manifest itself in encouraging one’s brother to pursue comprehensive, Spirit-wrought change is caring only in name. Calling on a fellow believer earnestly to desire and actively to seek change at the level of sexual desire is not abusive; it is our duty. As believers we are called to hate our sin, turn from it to God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience (WSC Q. 87) and to call on our brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same.9 Repentance unto life is the pulse of God’s people individually and corporately. No desire, no matter how consistent or persistent, is exempt from Scripture’s call to mortification and vivification. Consider Pauls exhortations to the saints in Rome and Colossae:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rom 12:2; emphasis added).

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5; emphasis added).

Paul didn’t seem to think that calling on believers to mortify evil desires in their hearts and minds was abusive, so who is Greg Johnson to say that it is? Paul’s call to “put to death” the earthly within sounds very differently from the way Johnson speaks about homosexual desire, “God has called me to steward my sexual orientation in obedience to him” (199). How can one steward that which Scripture commands be put to death? How can Johnson’s paradigm of care peacefully coexist beside Scripture’s obvious paradigm of change?10 It cannot.

Is “Change” a Confessional Paradigm?

Change, however, is not only the expectation of Scripture. It was is the expectation of the Reformed churches. Consider the Westminster Standards’ stress on the necessity of holistic sanctification, i.e., change not in part but in the whole man. They taught that sanctification cannot be selective or piecemeal, it must be comprehensive. If we exempt a handful of our besetting sinful desires from the process of progressive sanctification then we are guilty of two perilous errors:

  1. Thinking too much of the power of our sin;
  2. Thinking too little of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.

In our Standards we confess God’s Word to teach:

WSC Q.35 What is Sanctification?

A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (emphasis added).    

WLC Q. 75. What is sanctification?

A. Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life (emphasis added).

WCF 13.2  This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part: whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh (emphasis added).

The language of “increased and strengthened” graces, the ability to die “more and more unto sin,” and “continual and irreconcilable war” does not figure prominently in Still Time to Care. Is this because the divines expected too much or could it be that Johnson expects too little? It is true, sanctification on this side of glory will always be imperfect. There will still be “some remnants of corruption in every part” even as we wholeheartedly pursue spirit-wrought change in every part. We must not, however, allow the reality of remaining corruption to blunt our resolve to mortify sinful desires and pursue greater likeness to Christ. When Johnson writes, “Paul wrote to the Corinthians to stress just how limited our transformation is in this life” what other effect can we expect this to have than to lower the reader’s appreciation for the transformative power of the Holy Spirit? (143; emphasis added)

Is “Change” a PCA Paradigm?

In the PCA’s Ad Interim Committee’s (AIC) report on Human Sexuality, we find that it too expects change in the lives of those who experience same-sex attraction, more change than that indicated by Greg Johnson. In the section titled, “Sanctification—the Already-Not-Yet Tension” the report says:

What kind of change is normative for believers who experience same-sex attraction? These questions have generated much debate. There are two common errors we might encounter in our attempts to answer such questions, one which reflects an over-realized eschatology and one which reflects an under-realized eschatology…The error of other Christian approaches to same-sex sexual desire is to treat it as a sort of fixed reality that has no malleability or capacity for change whatsoever. In its most extreme forms, this reflects our broader culture’s notions of one’s sexual orientation being a completely fixed reality—contending that there is no sense in which sexual desires can meaningfully change over time. The problem with this under-realized eschatology is that in its attempts to push back against views of change that overstate the Christian’s sense of having “arrived,” it suggests that there is no journey to take at all and no progress to be expected (emphasis added).4

In essence, the reader is being warned of the dangers of the violent pendulum swing. In one’s attempt to combat an over-realized eschatology one must now swing so far in the opposite direction that one maintains an anemic, under-realized eschatology, which leaves the sinner with little to no expectation of change. Sadly, this is what Johnson does with his “paradigm of care”—he swings the pendulum too hard and downplays the possibility of “meaningful change over time.” The AIC report continues:

However, the Biblical perspective is that the Holy Spirit uses repentance with the ordinary means of grace to advance Christian understanding, godly desires, and Biblical obedience. If a believer struggles with habitual sexual sin, we should expect to see real meaningful change in their behaviors as they repent and mortify their sin, and pursue holiness in aggressive practical ways. If believers are routinely tempted along similar lines over the course of life, they should expect that the less they give in to that temptation and establish deep habits of holiness, over time the pull of their hearts toward sin should lessen, or even be drown out by the expulsive power of a greater affection for Christ (emphasis added).

The AIC expects that meaningful changes in behavior will take place over time as the believer repents, mortifies their sin, and pursues holiness with intentionality. The AIC believes that the heart will feel the pull toward sin less and less with the passage of time. The AIC leaves the door open for no longer wrestling with homosexual desire whereas Johnson leaves that door barely cracked. The AIC’s report has a ring of hope whereas Still Time to Care has a ring of resignation.

What, however, if the sexual struggler does not experience change to the degree that the pull of homosexual desire is completely “drowned out”? Would that be our cue to scrap any expectation of change and adopt the “paradigm of care” instead? No. Instead of packing it in, the section titled, “Celebrating Sincere Efforts” offers this helpful reminder to the discouraged believer:

God is truly pleased with one’s sincere efforts to follow Christ in holiness because he looks on even those imperfect deeds as being “in Christ,” and covered by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness (WCF 16.6)…In Christ, every bit of progress, every moment of victory over temptation, even victory over the temptation that comes from the sinful corruption remaining inside of us, is to be celebrated as a gift of the new life of Christ with confidence that it pleases God as such.

This is the kind of encouragement that we ought to be giving sexual strugglers in our churches. God is truly pleased with their sincere efforts. He is not like an overbearing earthly father for whom the best efforts of his children are never enough, who furrows his brow at anything less than sinless-perfection. God smiles upon us as we say “no” to sin and “yes” to righteousness because we do so in union with his perfectly righteous Son. When we faithfully communicate this reassuring truth to the sexual struggler, what we are doing is furnishing him with the proper motivation to keep mortifying his sin even when he isn’t pleased with his progress. “You may be displeased with where you are right now, but remember that God is pleased. He accepts your sincere efforts in Christ. Do not be discouraged. Don’t give up the fight. Keep striving. Keep pressing on toward the mark.”

Is a Paradigm of “Change” Fixated Upon Externals?

The AIC report makes clear that sexual strugglers are to pursue holiness in “aggressive practical ways.”  To his credit, Johnson does advocate for CovenantEyes on personal devices, regular accountability, and investment in the life the local church, all of which I have recommended to members of my flock who are warring against their own sinful sexual desires.,Johnson’s paradigm, however, goes no deeper than this. He encourages changes in patterns of behavior, but labels calls to change patterns of sinful desire abusive. Consider Johnson’s analogy below:

Let me give you an illustration of emotional abuse by using a struggle with which many people are familiar. Lets talk about the temptation to overeat. The Bible has more passages about the sin of overeating than about homosexual sin. Being overfed. Gluttony. Its one of the seven deadly sins… Now imagine you feel shame about your temptation to overeat. Some people do. Imagine you were teased as a child—not for overeating but for being tempted to overeat. Imagine you spent your life trying to no longer feel that pull toward french fries, which everyone seems to think makes you a freak. Let me flood your Facebook wall with repeated posts written by people who have never been tempted by french fries. The posts will explore at what point noticing that french fries look or smell pleasant becomes a gluttonous pull of indwelling sin tempting you not only to desire food God hasnt given you but also to consider acting out on such a sinful longing to eat. Then lets zero in on the smell of french fries and make sure those tempted by the smell of fries—fries that arent yours and arent good for you—feel enough shame about it. We just need to know youre really dealing with your sin and not making a halfway house for iniquity. Then lets talk about how the temptation to overeat is itself a sin, and if you were repentant deeply enough, youd no longer feel the temptation to desire fries or overeating. Your attractions would change if you were repenting deeply enough. Then lets post testimonies of people who say they no longer are tempted to overeat. Theyve been delivered. They say that they dont even like the smell of fries anymore. And lets use those testimonies as normative to further shame those still tempted to grab seconds…When we treat the temptation to overeat differently than we treat the sexual attraction to a person of the same sex, it’s the ex-gay movement walking dead among us (emphasis added).

Perhaps you might get a sense for how it feels when a gay person is born again and steps into a conservative Christian space of people fixated on his or her sexual orientation. If the topic were overeating—which is far more pervasive in our churches—it might also leave you thinking, you know, lets just focus on helping each other have healthy eating habits. Maybe our focus on becoming no longer attracted to eating too many french fries is the wrong focus (emphasis added). Maybe the focus on what term we use to describe hunger is misplaced. Lets just not supersize the order, and keep not supersizing it over and over again, choosing to trust and obey God moment by moment. Maybe we just need to trust God with our fallen affections” (2107–12).

Aside from the analogy being an irresponsible one (e.g. confusing categories of degree and kind), Johnson’s proposed method of “care” leads to an underdeveloped response to indwelling sin. It seems that, in Johnson’s paradigm, there is little to no room for asking diagnostic questions that go beneath the surface of gluttonous behavior. “When you are tempted to overeat, what are you usually feeling at that time? Stress? Anger? Melancholy? Can you identify any triggers that tempt you toward gluttony? What steps have you taken previously to combat these desires? What are some ways you can redirect your desire for comfort away from food and take comfort in God instead?” According to Johnson, focusing on what gives rise to gluttonous behavior is misplaced. He believes it better to focus on external eating habits, you know, lets just focus on helping each other have healthy eating habits. Maybe our focus on becoming no longer attracted to eating too many French fries is the wrong focus.” In this, Johnson’s paradigm of care has more in common with the kind of fundamentalism with which he frequently charges his opponents, a focus upon external behaviors and a neglect of the heart of the matter, which is the heart.

To demonstrate how untenable Johnson’s approach is, consider the following thought experiment: would Johnson’s paradigm of care be considered a satisfactory response to the sin of racism? “You know, let’s just focus on helping each other not perform racist acts. Maybe our focus on becoming no longer attracted to racism is the wrong focus…Let’s just not go to white supremacist rallies over and over again and trust and obey God moment by moment. Maybe we just need to trust God with our fallen, racist desires.” Doesn’t work. Why not? Because the heart has been neglected, racism has been left to fester. If applied to homosexuality, the results will be equally disastrous. As Christians, we are called to root out our sinful behaviors and the desires that give rise to those behaviors. If Johnson sincerely believes that “when we treat the temptation to overeat differently than we treat sexual attraction to a person of the same sex, its the ex-gay movement walking dead among us” then his approach to the sin of overeating indicates that he has an equally deficient approach to the sin of homosexuality.

Given the teaching of Scripture, the Standards, and our own Ad Interim Committee report on human sexuality, change needs to be put back in its rightful place as the expectation of the Christian life. What exactly that change looks like is not up to us to define. God is sovereign and sanctification will look different from one believer to another but, given the wisdom of these three witnesses, I can say confidently that a paradigm of change will navigate safely between the two ditches on either side of the gospel. On the one side there is the ex-gay movement’s “paradigm of cure” with its over realized eschatology and on the other side there is Greg Johnson’s “paradigm of care” with its under realized eschatology, both of which will leave the sinner discouraged, confused, and hopeless. Let us not buy into the error that change and care are mutually exclusive. Pursuing change together is loving. Do not concede the charge that unless one adopts Johnson’s paradigm that one is an (unintentional) abuser. Instead, love your brothers and sisters in Christ, walk alongside them through their sanctification process, invite them to walk alongside you in yours, and point them to him who is their hope, to him “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph 3:20).

©Stephen Spinnenweber. All Rights Reserved.


1. My using the terms “homosexuality,” “heterosexuality,” and “orientation,” is not a wholesale endorsement of those terms. I find them problematic at a number of points. The purpose of their usage is to engage as directly as possible with Johnson’s line of argumentation.

2. See WSC Q.82 and WLC Q.151 s.3

3. The full interview can be found here. Please note that this is not an endorsement of the CrossPolitic podcast. For more on this podcast see the resources below, e.g., “The Smear Was Intentional” and “A Smear Memorialized.”

4. Please note that all emphases are my own.

5. See the bottom of page 139, “It seems to me that the polygamy of heterosexual desire—or more technically, a polyamory or polyeroticism—is also disordered.”

6. See WLC Q.151. Notice that the prooftext for the clause, “light of nature,” is Romans 1:26-27.

7. Notice how the language used to describe the sin of heterosexual fornication in Leviticus 18:20 is less severe than that used to describe the sins of homosexuality and sex with animals in verses 22 and 23, both of which are against nature. The difference in the severity of language used indicates a higher degree of heinousness for those sins which are against nature. “And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her…You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.” Nowhere does God say through Moses that lying sexually with a neighbor’s wife is “abominable” or a “perversion” of nature as he does of lying with a member of the same sex or with an animal (emphasis added).

8. I do not like the language of “orientation.” I find it unnecessary and confusing. If a homosexual orientation is “when sexual attractions are consistently and persistently toward members of the same sex,” (194) then by that definition, couldn’t other consistent and persistent sinful desires also be considered orientations? What is to stop the multiplication of sinful orientations? “I have a racist orientation, a kleptomaniac orientation, a lying orientation, a gossiping orientation.” Additionally, the oft used phrase “heterosexuality isn’t holiness” should not be understood to mean that a “heterosexual orientation” is altogether contrary to holiness, as there is a way in which the sexual desire for a member of the opposite sex can be expressed in a holy, God-honoring fashion, namely sex within marriage. The problem with the phrase is that it speaks without qualification, “Heterosexuality isn’t holiness.” Ever? Does this mean that we should dissuade a homosexual struggler in our church from pursuing marriage since heterosexuality “isn’t holiness”? If by the phrase the speaker simply means that not all forms of heterosexual expression are holy, then there is no disagreement. Heterosexual sin does exist and our goal in counseling should not be for the individual to cultivate wanton heterosexual desires but, because this phrase raises more issues than it resolves I wish that it, along with “orientation,” would be retired from our ecclesial vocabulary. There is a great deal of handwringing over the problems presented by the word “identity,” but, I for one, believe “orientation” to be far more problematic and laden with secular psychological baggage than the word “identity.

9. Hebrews 3:12-13, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (emphasis added).

10. Consider the radical break from the sin of lust that Jesus prescribes in Matthew 5:27–30.


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Posted by Stephen Spinnenweber | Tuesday, February 15, 2022 | Categorized LGBTQ, PCA, Reviews | Tagged , , Bookmark the permalink.

About Stephen Spinnenweber

Stephen Spinnenweber is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA). He was born and raised in Pasadena, MD and was educated at the University of Maryland and and Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Together with a local campus minister, he cohosts The Shorter Podcast, a podcast on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Stephen and his wife Sarah have been married since 2013. They are proud parents to Reid (3), Ruthie (1), and recently welcomed their third child, Wesley. Meet all the Heidelberg contributors»


  1. Well done and we’ll critiqued. (As is Masters’.) one of the things that has seemed most consistent throughout this, is Johnson repeatedly bends and twists things. This is not to say he’s the only person to do that, for there are definitely those who oppose him who do the same. Contextually speaking, however, the cultural situation and prominence of this issue let alone being a follower of Christ, demand precision. Distortions betray a knowledge of a weak argument. The only thing Johnson has going for him is his argument is friendly to the secular world and finds support given that a Biblically (and implicitly, confessional) sexual ethic will have less support in “numbers” because those who are faithful to Scripture are in naturally going to be smaller.

    What troubles me most, however, is the grandstanding that Johnson does. This comes off as more about him and his own attempts to justify himself and thus by extension others who identify with him. If this was truly about “caring” for others, he would not throw his denomination (and other Christians faithful to the Scriptural sexual ethic) under the bus publicly, nor would he keep putting himself at the forefront of attention by constantly provoking with comments via his Twitter or elsewhere.

    This leads to a final point that does not seem to be expressed, or at least as bluntly as I am about to express it, which is this: Johnson is NOT caring for those struggling with these issues by adhering to this belief. He’s doing the same thing those who try to express an instantaneous “turn or burn” do but from the other side. Where the latter set individuals up for failure with immediate perfection, Johnson is setting individuals up for failure with accepting worldly conceptions (I.e., identifying oneself by specific sin), avoiding mortification, and implicitly denying the Spirit’s power in sanctification. This is perhaps, the most tragic part of all of this. It’s alarming, to me, that he attacks those who are actually showing more care to those struggling with these sins by calling it what it is and who are counseling individuals to identify in Christ and trust the power of the Spirit in sanctification.

    • Drew,

      I appreciate this and especially your third point.

      It may be that there are abuses in some of the approaches now labelled “conversion therapy” but the Revoice ideology seems unloving to those who are genuinely struggling with SSA, who are looking to the church for help and hope.

  2. As I listen to or read Johnson he comes across as the angry child who has been told “No, do not touch the hot stove” but continues to try.

  3. One thing that stands out with Johnson is also true of the post-modern “woke” movement—the constant attempt to deflect from the revealed truth of scripture and nature and substitute “story.” So, we get heart-tugging stories of Easy Bake Ovens and “innocent” attractions of an adolescent for groomsmen.

  4. I remember that Crosspolitic conversation. I don’t know to what extent those guys, being Wilsonites, are actual theonomists. If so, that could explain why they never really developed the natural law point. They said that heterosexual attraction is natural, and that’s true as far as it goes. But they aren’t really working with nature as a category.

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