Until recently the doctrine of concupiscence received little attention in Reformed circles. Perhaps it was mentioned in passing during a systematics class in seminary, but until the first Revoice conference in 2018 few knew how to pronounce, much less define concupiscence. Since then however, the PCA has produced a helpful Ad-Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality (AIC) that unquestionably affirms, “thoughts and desires arising in us prior to and apart from a conscious act of the will are still sin.” The report continues, “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.”1 In this the members of the study committee make clear what the PCA believes concerning concupiscence—the attraction to sin is sin.
What is less clear, however, is what kind of sin it is. Should we understand concupiscence as an actual sin or as original sin only? I started asking this question after watching the video featuring Drs. Timothy Keller and Kevin DeYoung wherein they talked their way through the AIC study report. While the AIC report and the accompanying video are helpful overall, we should not agree with comments made by Dr. Keller from minutes 27:52 to 29:05 of the video. During this exchange, Dr. Keller posits that concupiscent desires that are contrary to nature are no more heinous than concupiscent desires that are according to nature. To be specific, Dr. Keller argued that a man sexually desiring a woman not his wife and a man sexually desiring another man are both “equally illicit, equally wrong.”2 The question I asked myself immediately was, “How can that be? What about WSC Q.83? What about the qualitative difference between sins against nature and sins according to nature?” Dr. Keller’s comments thereafter brought the heart of the issue into sharper focus, “And we have to be very careful not to say, ‘Well, the desire for a man is unnatural desire, a woman is natural, so one of those is a more sinful desire than the other.’ This text is actually saying ‘no,’ that basically they’re both equally illicit, they’re both equally wrong, the capacity for sin is still wrong, it’s the original sin is what’s wrong with this and I think that’s very important, that we don’t create a little hierarchy inside.” Herein lies the issue—is concupiscence (i.e. unbidden sexual desire) a mere “capacity” or part of original sin and thereby exempted from degrees of heinousness, or is it an actual sin and can be more or less heinous? Though this might seem like hairsplitting, imprecision on this point leads to even greater problems further down the line as will be shown.3
Before addressing the matter of homosexual desire specifically, let me say now that both of the aforementioned desires are sinful. Sinful desires according to nature and sinful desires contrary to nature are both sin. Both justly deserve God’s wrath and curse, and require wholehearted repentance of the sinner. We all stand in need of the grace of God. Furthermore, neither natural or unnatural concupiscent desires are as heinous as physically engaging in the activity desired. Our Larger Catechism teaches that sins that “break forth in word and action” are more heinous than those that are only “conceived in the heart.”4 Such being the case, those who struggle with same-sex attraction should not be made to feel that those desires that arise prior to a conscious act of their will are as heinous as actively nursing those desires or engaging in sexual activity. As the AIC wisely says, “To feel a sinfully disordered sexual attraction (of any kind) is properly to be called sin—and all sin, ‘both original and actual’ earn God’s wrath (WCF 6:6)—but it is significantly less heinous (using the language of WLC 151) than any level of acting upon it in thought or deed. The point here is not to encourage those with homosexual attraction to become comfortable with or accepting of it. Rather, it is to counter the undue heaping of shame upon them as if the presence of homosexual attraction itself makes them the most heinous of sinners.”5 With this I wholeheartedly agree and echo the need to be compassionate and discerning in how we handle the doctrine of concupiscence. Sins externalized are always worse than those which remain internal and our manner of approach ought to reflect this truth.
We must not, however, let the sincere desire to be gentle or pastoral with those who experience same-sex attraction force us to redefine systematic theological categories which would amount to a challenge of God’s wisdom and goodness as Creator. In all our discussions surrounding sin and its heinousness, let us have a greater fear of offending Almighty God than of offending man. In order to understand whether concupiscence should be classed as an actual sin or original sin, we must first define them both.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) teaches that original sin consists of three parts: the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want (lack) of original righteousness, and the corruption of our whole nature.6 This means that all those who are descended from Adam by ordinary generation are born with a guilty verdict over their heads by virtue of their federal head’s failure to keep the covenant of works. Adam’s guilt is imputed to all his posterity making them legally guilty before God.7 According to Thomas Vincent, the want of original righteousness includes, “1. Want of spiritual knowledge in the mind. 2. Want of inclination and power to do good; and want of all spiritual affections in the will and heart.”8 This means that fallen mankind is originally inclined toward evil whereas Adam, prior to his fall, was originally inclined toward righteousness. In addition to this inherited guilt and want of “perfect conformity of all the power and faculties of soul to the holy nature of God,” original sin means that we inherit corrupted natures from Adam.9 The extent of this corruption is universal meaning that it touches every part of our being and, consequently, everything proceeding therefrom (inclinations, volitions, thoughts, words, deeds, etc…) will be corrupted and displeasing to God.
WSC Q.18 goes on to teach that the sinfulness of that estate wherein to man fell consists not only in his original sin but also in “all actual transgressions which proceed from it.” Actual transgressions are those sins which we commit against God in thought, word, and deed, whether intentionally or unintentionally.10 Actual sin is the fruit and original sin is the root. The reason these are called “actual” sins is because they are acts of the soul as opposed to the inherited, corrupted nature (i.e. original sin) that gives rise to those sinful acts. It is worth saying here that one must be careful not to equate “actual sin” with sin “acted out” or externalized. Actual sins do not need to be manifested in either word or deed for them to be considered actual. For example, consider Jesus’ teaching on lust in the Sermon on the Mount.11 It was not just the outward act of committing adultery that was sinful, but even the look with lustful intent, which was born in the heart, was sinful. If it “proceeds from” original sin, whether internally or externally manifested, the language of our Standards teaches that it is an actual transgression.
Degrees of Heinousness
The Standards also teach that all sin is not equally heinous. Contrary to the mantra, “All sin is the same in God’s sight,” the WSC Q.83 reads, “Some sins in themselves, by reason of several aggravation, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.” What those “aggravations” are is spelled out in greater detail in WLC Q.151.12 Of particular interest to the SSA controversy is the third paragraph of WLC 151, “From the nature and quality of the offense: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature…” (emphasis mine). According to the divines, those sins which are contrary to creational design (e.g. homosexuality, pedophilia, bestiality) are more heinous in the sight of God than sexual sins which are according to nature (e.g. adultery).13 Thomas Aquinas explains why unnatural sins have a higher degree of heinousness than natural sins, “Just as the ordering of right reason proceeds from man, so the order of nature is from God Himself: wherefore in sins contrary to nature, whereby the very order of nature is violated, an injury is done to God, the Author of nature” (emphasis mine).14 In essence, sins committed against nature are more heinous by virtue of the party offended (WLC 151:1, “immediately against God, his attributes…”), namely God himself.
Original sin, on the other hand, is not subject to varying degrees of heinousness. Neither Reformed nor Roman Catholic theology teaches that one person is more originally sinful than another. In his Summa, Thomas answers this question. “I answer that, there are two things in original sin: one is the privation of original justice (i.e. “original righteousness”); the other is the relation of this privation to the sin of our first parent, from whom it is transmitted to man through his corrupt origin. As to the first, original sin has no degrees, since the gift of original justice is taken away entirely; and privations that remove something entirely, such as death and darkness, cannot be more or less, as stated above…” (emphasis mine). Thomas continues, “Now it happens that some of the soul’s powers are stronger in one man than in another, on account of the different bodily temperaments. Consequently if one man is more prone than another to acts of concupiscence, this is not due to original sin, because the bond of original justice is equally broken in all, and the lower parts of the soul are, in all, left to themselves equally; but it is due to the various dispositions of the powers, as stated.”15 In other words, because no one of us is more or less descended from Adam or more or less federally represented by him than any other, our corrupted natures are equally corrupted by the fall. That one man manifests his original sin to a greater or lesser degree is, according to Thomas, a matter of individual “bodily temperaments.”
Concupiscence: Which Is It?
So far as I can tell, there is universal agreement in the PCA on the points above. All affirm that homosexual acts and the conscious lusting after a person of the same sex is more heinous than illicit heterosexual acts and the conscious lusting after a person of the opposite sex. Likewise, we affirm that original sin is equally shared among all by virtue of our equal descent from Adam. No one person possesses more original sin than another. The point of divergence presents itself in how one answers this question—are unconscious/unbidden same-sex desires more heinous than unconscious/unbidden opposite-sex desires? In other words, can one concupiscent desire be more heinous than another? If one equates concupiscence with original sin exclusively then the answer must be “No.” If one believes unconscious/unbidden are an act of the soul and not merely a defect of nature, then the answer must be “yes.”
Though it may be true that in Medieval discussions on the topic, concupiscence, in its technical theological sense (AIC, “It was the inclination to desire in disordered ways experienced as spontaneous feelings and not the consent to or active cultivation of those feelings”), was associated more closely with original and not actual sin, this does mean that we should assert that it is original sin itself.16 Original sin is the inherited, corrupted condition we inherit from Adam and concupiscence is a function or consequence of this inherited condition. Concupiscence, like every disordered desire, “proceeds” from our corrupted natures (WSC 18). One may even say it is the first function or motion of our corrupted nature which produces other actual sins of greater heinousness thereafter (active thought, word, deed). So yes, by virtue of its being the most immediate/earliest expression of original sin we experience, one can understand why the Medievals addressed it in their discussions on original sin. But, this does not mean that we can conflate concupiscence with original sin. This would be akin to saying that a green garden sprout is identical to the soil in which it is planted. Is it closely related? Indeed, it is rooted in the soil and has only just poked through the surface. It is the first fruit of the soil. But it would be incorrect to say, “This sprout is the soil itself.” Likewise, though concupiscence may be the first motion or act of our corrupted natures, this does not make it identical with the nature itself.
In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus makes a clear distinction between original sin and concupiscence in his exposition of the 10th commandment:
This commandment, therefore, enjoins original righteousness towards God and our neighbor, which consists in a true knowledge of God in the mind, with an inclination in the will to obey the will of God as known. It also forbids concupiscence, which is an inordinate desire or corrupt inclination, coveting those things which God has forbidden…There are some who hold that concupiscence and original sin are one and the same thing; but they differ in the same way in which an effect differs from a cause, or as a part of a thing differs from the whole. Concupiscence is a propensity to those things which are prohibited by the divine law. Original sin is the state of condemnation in which the whole human race has become involved by the fall, and a want of the knowledge and will of God.17
Though some may indeed use concupiscence to describe the disposition or inclination of our fallen natures toward sin instead of God himself (i.e. “the want of original righteousness”) we cannot narrow its meaning to this disposition alone. To prefer or be inclined toward anything other than God, at any level, is a violation of the first commandment, which is an actual sin. The AIC reads, “These desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful” (emphasis mine).18
W. G. T Shedd echoes this sentiment and argues that inclinations are indeed acts of the soul, “When Adam inclined away from God to the creature, he exercised an act of pure self-determination…To desire what God has forbidden is to prefer self to God, and this is to sin. This concupiscence was the beginning of sin in her (Eve’s) will. It was the same thing, in kind, with the concupiscence which God forbids in the tenth commandment” (emphasis mine).19
Moreover, Scripture refers to concupiscence as an actual sin in countless places. Consider the Vulgate’s use of concupiscentia to translate epithumia in Romans 7:7, 8 and 1 Thessalonians 4:5. In our English Bibles, these verbs are rendered “coveting” and “lust.” If concupiscence is equivalent to coveting and lust, is anyone prepared to say that these are not actual sins? Even if we experience these without a conscious act of our will, our AIC says in no uncertain terms, “We affirm that impure thoughts and desires arising in us prior to and apart from a conscious act of the will are still sin… “.20 Concupiscence is not merely a capacity for sin. It is the earliest movement of the soul wherein we prefer our sin over God and in so doing commit the sin of idolatry.
On June 30, 2021 Dr. Keller published a tweet in which he argued that WLC 151.3 teaches that only sinful actions are subject to degrees of heinousness, not sinful desires.21 He wrote, “Notice that WLC 151 does not argue that some sinful desires are more heinous than others before we act on them. You can conclude from the guidance of LC 151 that murder is a more heinous act than adultery in that ‘reparations’ are not possible. But LC 151 doesn’t say the desire to kill is more heinous in God’s sight than a desire for adultery. The gradations the LC outlines are of sinful actions and their circumstances and consequences—some of which are greater than others—not of desires” (emphasis mine). This prompted more questions in my mind than it resolved. I cannot find any scriptural or historical, orthodox support for this view. Moreover, if one adopts Dr. Keller’s reading of WLC 151 and WSC 83, then they would have to say that these are not comprehensive statements concerning sin, but that they refer to only some sins, namely those that are “acted on.” Contextually, there is nothing in either WSC 83 or LC 151 to support this view. Taken to its logical extreme, there is literally no objection one could offer if a person said the following: “So long as you don’t actually engage in sex with a child, the desire to do so is really no worse than the desire to steal a candy bar. They’re both equally illicit, equally wrong. All sin is the same in God’s sight… until you act on it.”
There is also the issue of God’s justice. If God does not see a qualitative difference between the desire of a sociopath to commit murder and the desire of a 5-year-old to strike his brother, can we really say that our God is just? Though it may seem like I am comparing apples to oranges, or mountains to molehills, Dr. Keller’s tweet states that there are no hierarchies, no distinctions between sinful desires until they break forth into action. As I have said, while I respect Dr. Keller and agree with him on a number of fronts, on this point I cannot agree.
When one puts Dr. Keller’s comments from the AIC video and his tweet side-by-side, the commonality between them becomes quite clear—homosexual concupiscence is made to seem no more heinous than heterosexual concupiscence. The pictures are identical. Failing to recognize degrees of heinousness even at the level of concupiscence threatens to undermine historic, Reformed understandings of nature, anthropology, and hamartiolgy. I would encourage my brothers in the PCA to be humble in their evangelism, to lead with compassion and sympathy and not with judgement as Dr. Keller has wisely advised but, as we bring the gospel to our neighbors, let us do so with our feet firmly planted upon God’s Word and with an unwavering commitment to uphold our confessional standards. We have vowed to maintain this system of doctrine, even when it makes us or others uncomfortable. Let us be faithful to proclaim the truth and make no apologies for it.
© Stephen Spinnenweber. All Rights Reserved.
2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JWQPFvtzck. Please note that it is not my intention to call into question Dr. Keller’s character or to dismiss the considerable impact his ministry has had in the lives of many. In fact, R.C. Sproul’s What is Reformed Theology and Dr. Keller’s The Prodigal God were the first books I read when I began attending a PCA church. I offer all of my comments with the utmost respect.
3. WSC 18, 83. WLC Q.151, WCF 6:4, 5
4. WLC 151:3
5. PCA AIC Human Sexuality Report, Appendix W, II.B.5, 899.
6. WSC Q.18, “The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called Original Sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.”
7. The Westminster Divines provided Romans 5:12, 19 as their prooftext, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
8. Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly Explained and Proved from Scripture, 1st Banner of Truth ed., Puritan paperbacks (Edinburgh ; Carlisle, Pa., U.S.A: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980), 60.
9. James Fisher, James Fisher’s Catechism on the Catechism, Question 18, see Q.12. https://reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/documents/fisher/q0018.html
10. For scriptural examples of actual sins that were unintentional see: Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:5; Numbers 15:15, 22, 27, 28; and Heb 9:7. The obvious implication is that sin can be an actual sin even if the will of the offender has not been actively engaged in the performance. Nowhere in the verses above is original sin in view. Any who deny that concupiscence is an actual sin because the will is not actively engaged should consult the above texts.
11. Matt 5:27-30.
12. Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others? A. Sins receive their aggravations, 1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others. 2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many. 3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance. 4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.
13. For those who believe my aim is to excuse or minimize the heinousness of “heterosexual sin” please refer to the following article where I make clear that this is, in fact, not the case. https://heidelblog.net/2022/02/actually-we-do-care-part-1-a-response-to-greg-johnsons-still-time-to-care/
14. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Complete English ed. (Westminster, Md: Christian Classics, 1981), Q.154, Art. 12.
15. Ibid., Q. 82, Art. 4.
16. AIC, II.B.5, 889.
17. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism. (United States: Scott, 1852), 606.
18. Ibid., Statement 5, 880.
19. William G. T. Shedd and Alan W. Gomes, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Pub, 2003), 553.
20. AIC, Statement 5, 880.
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