03 Jul 2019
We define a sexually faithful church this way: A church that disciples its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality through education and redemptive ministry. The major point in this simple but far-reaching statement is this: For a church to teach, lead, model, and assist its people to live faithful lives within God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender, discipleship is the key. Discipleship is a subset of the Great Commission, “making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.”
This is the mission of the church. Placing sexuality within the context of this mission gives focus and direction to how we address it.
There is another passage that has long been recognized as paradigmatic for the ministry of the church.
“And he gave. . . shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. . . so that we may no longer be. . . tossed to and fro. . . by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning. . . Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up. . . into Christ, from whom the whole body. . . when each part is working properly. . . builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV)
We see in this description of what faithful ministry looks like a guide, also, to sexually faithful ministry. We can identify in these verses four characteristics of a church that is faithfully discipling its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality. Such a church will be biblically grounded, mercifully honest, humbly led, and ministry minded. Let me briefly describe what we mean by each one.
“. . . no longer. . . tossed to and fro. . . by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning. . . ”
A mom and dad sit in my office, tearfully recounting to me the conversation with their son about his coming out as gay: “Mom, don’t you know, Jesus never talked about homosexuality. Besides, the few parts of the Bible that do talk about it are not addressing someone like me, who was born this way.” They are confused. They sense that what he is saying is wrong, but don’t know what to say or think.
A group of young girls run by me in church. They are singing a song from the latest Disney movie. The chorus urges them to look inside, follow their heart, and believe in themselves.
What do these scenarios have in common? They illustrate that the world around us is discipling us—especially our kids—all the time. It should not be surprising that we are being “tossed to and fro.”
Being biblically grounded means more than settling on the right doctrinal positions. It means giving people the kind of deep and regular teaching that effectively counters the constant barrage of messages they hear in this world. It means biblical teaching on sexuality and gender that does not only focus on “the bad.” It means winsomely communicating the Bible’s message of the beauty and goodness of sex. It means explaining how God’s good design for sex and gender helps us understand him and the gospel.
A church can give all the right answers from the Bible, and yet have no connection to those in their midst who languish in isolation, paralyzed by fear and shame.
But also, it involves teaching about sexuality and gender in the context of an entire worldview. It means identifying the misunderstandings, distortions, and even lies being spread in our culture about what the Bible does or doesn’t say. The “winds of doctrine” that are tossing our churches blow from a rival world. We need to learn to recognize the worldview foundations of our culture’s messages. We need to counter them with the biblical understanding of God, of the nature of reality, of what it means to be human, of what hope we cling to, of what redemption looks like.
“. . . speaking the truth in love. . . it builds itself up. . . ”
He was in his early seventies and had come for help in his fight against pornography. Early in our discussions, two things stood out. He had been struggling with this sin for over half a century, and I was the first person he had ever talked to about it. This, even though he had been in the church his whole life, even an officer at times. These kinds of details are significant. We have found stories like his to be very common. The amount of time varies, but the prolonged period of struggle in isolation is typical. A church can give all the right answers from the Bible, and yet have no connection to those in their midst who languish in isolation, paralyzed by fear and shame.
Talking about sex is scary enough—for people and churches. It is scary because it is so personal. Even exploration of the theological meaning of sex makes us uneasy because objective theological talk always hovers at the borders of our subjective, personal story. People’s stories are filled with failure, pain, brokenness, and powerful shame.
However, keeping our personal stories hidden in isolation and darkness is the problem that hinders us from grasping the gospel that radically changes our lives. Hiding keeps people struggling with these issues from all the help, encouragement, comfort, and life that is offered by Christ through the means of the fellowship of the saints. That fellowship requires openness and honesty. As John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7).
But to “walk in the light,” we all need an environment that is invitingly merciful. People need to know that there is much more to be gained by coming out of isolation than to be feared. Because of the gospel, there is grace, patience, hope, encouragement, love, strength—all the blessings of union with Christ and communion with his Body, the church, are offered to the ones who step into the light through faith. But our nature is averse to faith; we are hesitant to trust the mercy offered to us. So the proclamation of this mercy cannot be lackluster. The mercy of the gospel merits special emphasis because, as fearful sinners, we need assurance that the Savior is for us.
Unfortunately, it is not just our natural fear of exposure that is a challenge here. Some have had experiences in church, or have heard of others’ experiences, which confirm their fears—people shunned, shamed, or clumsily disciplined. But often it is not particular incidents that create a church culture of hiding. It is the unintentional signals that surround every public and private interaction, the social pressure to look good, the emphasis on the external beauty of the public worship, the insistence on the correct doctrine (a good thing, but not the thing), the lack of any visible models of humble confession graciously received, the way “sin” and “sinners” are talked or joked about, the way every discussion or teaching on sex or gender tends toward culture war rather than gospel hope.
A sexually faithful church works to build a culture that is as merciful as Jesus himself. It is his mercy that calls us out of darkness and into the light of the gospel.
“He gave. . . shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints. . . ”
I’ve been in many small group studies, Sunday school classes, and other church teaching events. But one stands out to me from all the rest. It was a Sunday school class for men, hitting many of the typical topics you would expect. One thing made this class different. The elders who led it made a clear commitment to lead in humility. None of us saw them make that commitment, but we saw the results.
So the proclamation of this mercy cannot be lackluster. The mercy of the gospel merits special emphasis because, as fearful sinners, we need assurance that the Savior is for us.
When it was time to discuss any topic, they took the lead in speaking honestly from the heart, freely admitting personal struggles and failures, acknowledging ongoing battles with sin and temptation, and pointing out areas where they still needed to grow in living out the truths of the gospel. It was clear from the start they were not interested in a race to the right answer. The way they modeled humility transformed that class into a place where men were encouraged to make the gospel real at the front lines of their struggles in daily life.
How these leaders lived was as important as what they taught. Leaders need the gospel like everybody else. Those who preach the gospel must also model gospel repentance and faith in their own lives. This means they don’t give the impression that they alone do not need gospel growth when it comes to sexuality. They also need to be honest about the presence of sin in their life, and of their daily reliance on Christ, seeking the power of his resurrection life to put it to death.
For all Christians, this kind of transparency happens in the context of honest and deep friendships of spiritual accountability. But leaders need to seek this kind of fellowship with urgency. The humility this engenders will cause them to deal with sinners (everyone) in their congregation with great gentleness and sympathy. It will move pastors to preach and teach on sexuality not as generals in a culture war but as shepherds mending a ravaged flock.
The Ephesians 4 passage points out that Jesus is the one who gives the church shepherds and teachers. The calling and skills of the leaders are dependent on the gifting of Jesus himself, and that engenders humility. It is a humility that shapes the way shepherds and teachers fulfill their Jesus-given purpose: to equip the saints to fulfill their mission.
“. . . the whole body, joined and held together. . . when each part is working properly. . . builds itself up in love.”
We have a fireplace in our home that we use often, but I am poorly skilled in the art of fire-starting. Almost invariably, my first try to light the fire catches flame quickly and promisingly. I settle back into a comfy chair to enjoy the warmth and ambiance of the blaze. But a few minutes later, the tongues flicker away into smoke, and I’m looking for more used newspaper and a new match.
Ministry, especially in difficult areas such as sexuality, can be like that. At Harvest USA we help local churches design and implement ministry to sexual strugglers. I was recently asked, “When these ministries start up, and then flounder, is there a common reason?” My answer? They flounder because one significant leader either moves away from that church or loses enthusiasm from tiredness or burnout. Lone ranger ministries suffer from instability. The ministry fades like my initial fireplace effort.
Humility. . . will move pastors to preach and teach on sexuality not as generals in a culture war, but as shepherds mending a ravaged flock.
Lone ranger ministry is not the vision God gives us in Ephesians 4. There we see ministry that is broad and deep. The pastors and teachers are not the ones doing the ministry; they are equipping the saints to do it as a “whole body. . . each part working properly.” There is variety in this vision for ministry; not everyone is doing the same thing, but every part is active. And issues of sexuality and gender are essential areas of discipleship for every single person.
A sexually faithful church is discipling its people in all of their varied roles and stations: children, innocent and vulnerable; parents, overwhelmed and fearful; young adults, eager and reckless; singles, restless and anxious; marrieds, disappointed and confused; those dominated by sin, desperate and ashamed; those who think they have no sin, complacent and selfish. To minister to all these types of people, it takes an army of different people, “each part working properly.” It takes leadership that considers the unique needs of every sub-group, equipping the saints to meet these needs. This is especially so in ministry to those who have deep struggles with sexual sin. This kind of ministry needs a team. A church where the work of ministry is spread broadly and deep gains stability and momentum. It “builds itself up.” It becomes a fire that is effective and not easily extinguished.
All these characteristics describe what a sexually faithful church is. Is it possible? Absolutely—it’s God’s design, God’s work, as is written in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s workmanship. . . ” We see evidence of God’s working in his church. We see more churches than ever asking for help to teach biblically on sexuality and gender. We see more talking about these issues with grace and honesty. We see pastors humbling themselves, leading in repentance. We are getting requests from churches all over the country to train teams to walk alongside those repenting from and affected by sexual sin. What about your church? Are you eager for Christ to build you up into maturity? Are you willing to be a sexually faithful church?
This article is from the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
13 Jun 2019
“I’ve been repenting of this sin—seems like thousands of times—but I can never make any progress!” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this from someone about repentance and what it looks like to change a deeply-rooted behavior. It is a common frustration about the nature of repentance.
I usually hear erroneous views of repentance when I first meet a man trying to stop using porn. Along with his struggle, there is a strong feeling of despair and a faltering assurance of salvation. “I’ve been told that sin does not have dominion over me, but it doesn’t seem to be true. Perhaps I’m not really a Christian.”
I can respond to this man in many ways to give him real hope, but one thing that can be of great help to him is some basic instruction on repentance. In his mind, he has given ample effort at this repentance thing and has found it ineffective in producing any lasting change. But in my observation and experience, there are a few common flaws in how repentance is done, which virtually guarantee it to be fruitless and frustrating. Here are three:
The Lone Ranger Flaw
I have estimated that the typical man coming to Harvest USA has been fighting his porn struggle for upwards of twenty years.
Alone. By himself. In secret. With no one else helping him.
Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle. Why? The shame they feel about their sin and about being exposed is just too intense. Shame gives them the excuse that they can overcome it on their own. “I can confess this after I have conquered it.” Then it can be a victorious testimony. But the victorious testimony never comes.
Trying to repent on your own fits well with the individualistic bent of our heart, but it is unbiblical and foolish. Proverbs 18:1 warns us, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” This is selfish and bad judgment.
Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle.
The Bible consistently depicts a healthy, godly life as one lived in community, in relationship with others. The godly life is profoundly relationally connected; we image a Trinitarian God, after all. Christians are fellow members of one “body,” where the “eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). And, as John points out, truthful confession and “walking in the light” is integral to fellowship with both God and one another (1 John 1:6-10).
Further, trying to beat a sin like pornography on your own shows a misunderstanding of the nature of sexual sin. Sexuality is inherently relational. Sexual sin of every type is a relational sin, even if that sin is one done in private, like watching porn. Even if you think you commit your sin in the privacy of your own imagination, you are training your heart and body to treat others in a profoundly selfish and destructive way. A sin that involves attitudes and actions towards other people cannot be repented of in isolation from people.
So why do we cling to an individualistic, isolationist approach to repenting? We need to dig a bit deeper about shame.
The Shame Syndrome Flaw
A desire to escape shame can look like true repentance, but it is not. I am not thinking of shame as a proper sense of guilt before God, but of a painful, self-deprecating alertness to the judgmental opinions of other people. This is one piece of the “worldly grief” described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, where Paul says “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. . . For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
We can experience grief over a variety of consequences of our sin: a lost job, economic hardship, marital strife, etc. Some people may misinterpret grief over these kinds of things as repentance.
But the grief we feel over shame is the easiest to mistake for repentance. The sense of shame is so closely connected to the sin that honest expressions of shame (“I am so ashamed of what I have done!”) can sound to those around us—and ourselves—like sincere hatred of sin. But it may not be.
It might only be that it hurts that people see your “dirty laundry.” This may especially be the case if the occasion for our seeking help is having been caught in sin. In other words, a sudden and humiliating shame has been forced upon us, and we are eager to get rid of it. What looks like an earnest effort at repentance may really be a striving to push through and beyond this present shame to reach a place where we can be at peace with our reputation again.
True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.
What are the effects of this repentance flaw? Because our strongest motivation is to be rid of shame, we will not maintain humility and honesty for the long haul. We will tend towards minimizing the sin that is still in our hearts and overestimating our repentance “success.” We will be quick to claim “victory,” giving the impression that whatever we have to be ashamed of is past and gone.
Now people will think well of us again. Now we can exchange being known as a sinner for being known as a sin-conqueror. Ironically, the “victorious testimony” we mentioned in flaw #1 is now achieved, but it is a shame.
The “Just Stop It” Flaw
A third flaw is focusing your repentance almost entirely on stopping a behavior. This fits naturally with flaw #2; it is primarily the behavior that has gotten us in trouble and earned us the shame we want to escape. Accordingly, we think the solution is to cease that behavior. Like the effort to escape shame, this can look a lot like real repentance. Shouldn’t we try to stop this sinful behavior, after all? Yes.
But the flaw in this way of repenting is that it does not adequately understand the nature of sin.
The mistake here is that sin is viewed as nothing more than wrong behavior. But the Bible presents behavior as the final, outwardly visible manifestation of the affections, desires, and thoughts deep in our heart. Sinful behavior, then, is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Repentance that ignores this reality fails.
So a behavior focus is much too narrow. Any one behavior is the fruit of deeper desires and thoughts of the heart. The truth is that the roots of sin in our hearts find expression in a wide variety of sinful behaviors. For instance, a habit of using porn may be an expression of an inner desire to control people and circumstances to project a sense of self-importance as an antidote to deep insecurities. That same heart desire is acted out not just in looking at porn, but in manipulative and destructive ways in how you treat your wife, conflicts with co-workers, parenting, driving, etc. Merely trying to curb one behavior, porn use, without addressing the heart, leaves all these other areas untouched. Any change achieved is weak and unsustainable.
True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.
Are you or someone you know struggling with a persistent and frustrating battle with porn? Are you struggling to understand how gospel repentance truly works? Before you are tempted to revise the promises of the gospel to fit the complete inertia of your repentance, make sure you are not working with a completely unbiblical view of sin and repentance.
Stop going it alone. Seek help. Confess to your brothers. Repent beyond your shame; repent of loving your own reputation more than God and the people around you.
Finally, repent of sin deeper than behavior; let the gospel confront your heart.
16 May 2019
“To be honest, I can’t imagine life without it.” He was referring to porn. His tone expressed exasperation, discouragement, defeat. There were nods of agreement in the room from the group of men—several had said roughly the same thing recently and continued to feel it that way. Giving up porn was their life or death battle.
I had known these men for a few years having led their biblical support group at Harvest USA. They had all showed progress against their sin, with varying levels of “victory.” The one who spoke up had gone a significant time without a fall. Every day he said no to porn, every day he fought to give up porn—but only by harboring the secret concession that he could still go to it tomorrow.
I felt tempted to give in to their discouragement. A slew of biblical scenes came to my mind: Rachel hiding the family gods in her saddlebag (Genesis 31); Achan burying some of the spoil in his tent (Joshua 7); the rich young ruler walking away sad, unwilling to give up his “one thing.” (Mark 10:17-22).
Here is their fatal flaw, I thought—they will not forsake their idol. This will not have a good ending.
My discouragement increased.
But in my mind I settled on the story of the rich young ruler and remembered that sentence, “Jesus loved him.” While the rich young ruler walked away thinking I can’t imagine life without it, Jesus was loving him. We are not told the end of that young man’s story. But I have more than a little hope for him—because Jesus loved him. And that’s why I ultimately couldn’t lose hope for the men that I had come to love, either.
Could it be that moments like this, when confronted by the stark choice Jesus gives us, to follow him or to follow our wayward hearts into idolatry and sin, are when the necessary climatic turn can happen in one’s life?
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it.
They—and all of us—are faced daily with the choice to believe the gospel and follow Jesus. Other biblical phrases echo the scene from the young ruler story: “He that loses his life, for me, will find it. . . ”; “. . . consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God. . . ”; “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old is gone; the new has come”; “Behold, I am making all things new.”
You see, these men have reached a point where they are facing the question of their existence at its starkest and darkest: “Am I willing to die to all that I’ve been living? Am I ready to forsake forever my familiar idolatrous refuge? Am I willing to let Jesus re-create me? Do I want to be holy, to be steadily reshaped into the character and image of Christ?”
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it. We had thought repentance was change, only to discover that it really means becoming a completely different person!
How do we help someone who is at this place?
First, cheer them on to the right choice.
Remind them that Jesus’ promise of new life is for crises such as this. He said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” There is nothing but death in the “old,” and nothing but life in the “new.” Implore them to run after new life. At the point of crisis, remind them that Jesus loves them. Even in their struggle; even in their doubt; even in their stumbling and falling.
Second, model life-long faith and repentance yourself as you walk with your brothers.
Your role in encouraging them is not just for this crisis moment; you need to show them by example that this is an ongoing turning. We want to believe we can turn once from an idol that has been a long-time staple of our life, then never have to face the decision again. It is true that there is a decisive turning when we know in our hearts that we belong to Christ and no longer to ourselves, but the full implications of that take a lifetime to work out.
As a new believer, this decisive turning comes with a sense of joy and freedom. But we do not know ourselves very well. God knows us perfectly. We do not see all at once what it will mean to “put off the old self” and “put on the new.” There are other idols we do not immediately see.
As we mature in our life as a Christian, the Spirit progressively brings us from one repentance crisis to another, each time showing us another piece of what is earthly in us and giving us the opportunity—no, the necessity—of saying goodbye to it, of reaffirming, “This is not who I am anymore; I don’t have to do this.”
Third (and this is of course the most important), pray with and for them.
Prayer is how we re-focus on the person who is the power behind our repentance, Jesus himself. It is his work. He is the one to whom we turn. His is the life by which we turn. His is the voice that beckons us to forsake our old life to live his new life.
I have more than a little hope for these friends of mine. I have every reason to believe Jesus loves them, and has brought them to this crisis of eternal identity with his hand outstretched, inviting them to trust him, beckoning them to life, “Come, follow me. . . I am making all things new.”
11 Apr 2019
In my last post, I left Tom, my Christian brother who struggles with same-sex attraction, with the encouragement that if we are united to the crucified and risen Christ, the struggles and sins we continually battle do not define us anymore. And I said that living out of our identity in Christ was, in fact, the only way to make true progress against sin. Because fighting sin needs to happen at the level of the heart.
What does this mean? What does it look like in real life?
First, we must recognize that this is the way the New Testament presents the Christian life. This is especially true in the writings of the apostle Paul. As many have noticed, his letters are consistently structured in what theologians call an indicative-imperative order. He reminds his readers of what is true for them in Jesus, the indicative of gospel truth. In other words, “This is the new you!”
Then Paul tells them to strive to live out of that truth, the imperative that leads to life change. In other words, “Now, work in God’s strength to live out the truth of the new you!”
My big point to Tom was this: The truth of God’s promises to you in Christ comes first in how you view and understand your life. One particularly clear instance of this is in Colossians 3. The beginning of chapter 3 marks the transition in Colossians from indicative to imperative. It is one of the clearest statements of the truth that understanding your identity as being in Christ is the key to how you live your life from now on:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Remember, the indicative (Colossians 3:1-5) establishes the foundation of all and any progress in your Christian life. It provides confidence, motivation, and direction: confidence, because you know you are considered righteous because of Christ and your eternal future is sure and glorious; motivation, because you have been given eyes to perceive the beauty and glory of Jesus, into whose image you are being transformed, and you want to bring as much as possible of that promised future glory into your present life; direction, because Jesus himself is the pattern to which you are being formed, so his love and obedience is the mark toward which you eagerly aim.
The imperative (Colossians 3:6-17) builds upon this foundation. This involves a continual “put to death” and “put on” flow to one’s Christian life.
So, how does this help you in your struggle with growing in Christ, and how does it help my friend, Tom? Three things here.
There is no kind of struggle or sin that this gospel truth does not apply to
This may seem obvious but needs to be stated. There is not any class of sins that are dealt with differently, nor Christians that experience Christ and the Christian life differently than described here in this chapter. The dynamic of gospel identity and change is the same for all of us. Tom and others who live with same-sex attraction and struggle with all the issues it brings—temptation to sin, discouragement with feeling different than others, loneliness, misunderstanding by others in the church, etc.—need to grasp this truth and be encouraged by it.
Repentance links outward actions and inward thoughts
By outward actions I mean the sins we commit by conscious decision—an angry insult spoken, a lie told, a harmful bit of gossip shared, immoral sexual desires indulged. By inner workings I mean the things you think and feel. Recognize that these inward thoughts and feelings can occur without conscious thought or deliberation. All throughout the day thoughts and feelings automatically pop up.
But I am not suggesting that outward actions are sin and what is inner is not. We sin both at the level of conscious decision and at the constant background level of the inner workings of the heart. Jesus established the principle that the inner working of the heart connects—in ways we may not fully understand—to outward behavior (see Matthew 12:34; 15:19).
The inner workings of your heart, however, are oblique, complicated, less accessible. Why are you so easily angered, for example? What are the deep beliefs that lodge in your heart about yourself, life, and God that feed your compulsion to be anxious, depressed, or lie or gossip or feel pulled by sexual desires?
These questions of inner motives, affections, fears, assumptions, etc., are especially difficult in the area of sexuality. Sexuality has the power to bring into focus many of our deepest desires and fears. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
But how does this understanding help us in our progress against sin and our striving to grow in Christ?
It helps us to be patient and gracious with the process of repentance. In your life, and the life of my friend, Tom. It is essential to recognize that repentance in Christ includes both outward actions and the inner workings of the heart. The list in Colossians 3 includes both. If you have fought a sin, like anger perhaps, at the level of your heart, you know how slight the progress often seems; you come to expect a lifetime of the Holy Spirit pushing the “front lines” of the battle deeper into your heart. We must expect no different for Tom. So we do not burden Tom with the expectation that he “just stop” his feelings; we help him see, increasingly over time, how the inner workings of his heart can lead either to faithful living or continued falling into sin.
But to do this, those like Tom—and you and me—need one more thing.
Worship is at the core of all gospel change
At all points in the fight against sin, we must focus on Christ, loving him, learning him, hoping in him. We do not make progress against any sin by simply focusing on the sin; we make progress by focusing on Christ, “who is our life.” That is why the list of new-self things to “put on” culminates in “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, …singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
For Tom, this means his Christian life is much bigger than his struggle with sexual attractions. He needs to increase in the joy of worshipping and pursuing Jesus. But let’s be honest. There is a big challenge here for the church. Too often worship is painful for Tom, because he feels different and unwelcome, even like an enemy, because of the feelings that persist in him.
The church needs to pursue authentic fellowship with Tom and those among us who feel weak and despised. That means we must be open and transparent about our struggles to grow in Christ. United to me and you and the rest of “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” we need to help Tom grow with us as we all grow in mutual compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness as we rejoice together in how Jesus is all of that perfectly. This is what we all need.
21 Mar 2019
“This feels so compulsive!” he complained. Tom feels like he is always fighting sin. He fights against a tendency to desire and pursue sexual pleasure from men. He believes in Jesus and has seen significant changes in the direction of his life. But his same-sex attraction did not magically go away when he trusted in Christ. His faith is in crisis, “Maybe they’re right; this is just who I am.”
What do we have to offer someone like Tom? Does the gospel have an answer to this crisis, the crisis of continually fighting sin? Yes. And a vital part of that gospel answer is what theologians call indwelling sin. Why would I bring up sin to someone in a faith crisis, especially one involving same-sex attraction? Because the Bible’s teaching on indwelling sin connects the gospel to our deepest struggles.
The Universality of Sin
Scripture teaches that we are all sinners; all who share in the human nature represented in Adam share in the corruption of sin (Romans 5:12; Ecclesiastes 7:20). But more than that, each of us is sinful in every part of us (Rom. 3:10-19; 8:7). We are whole people, with bodies, minds, wills, and affections, and it is as whole people that we are corrupted by sin. At the deepest level, what the Bible calls the heart, we recognize in ourselves a tendency towards sin (Matthew 15:19; Jeremiah 17:19).
This tendency has a corrupting influence on our thinking, our emotions, and even our physiology. This sinful leaning (what theologians call original sin) is behind whatever sin acts we commit (what theologians call actual sin). The result: sin feels natural to us.
And this is rather unconscious and spontaneous in real life. We fall into the same kinds of behavior over and over despite a desire to stop. A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.
Here’s Tom’s dilemma and ours: this sinful tendency doesn’t disappear when we become Christians. How are we to understand this? What does it mean for Tom, and us, when we were taught that faith in Christ gives us victory over sin?
Here we turn to the teaching of Paul in Romans 7, from which the term, indwelling sin, originates. But first we need a view of the context in which he brings this idea up.
Good News about the Universe and You
In the chapters leading up to Romans 7, Paul lays out a tale of two humanities, the first being “in Adam,” and the second being “in Christ.” In Adam describes our natural state, corrupted by sin, condemned by the law, bound for death. Paul often uses the shorthand, “the flesh” to refer to this.
A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.
But who Christ is, and what he did, changes everything—literally, everything—all of reality, including human nature. Christ takes upon himself the flesh of Adam, and in that flesh he dies. Though without sin or sinful tendency, Jesus fulfills the sentence of death that is on sinful humanity. Then, he is raised from the dead. And here is the key—it is not just that Jesus came back to life. Rather, he is resurrected with a new kind of life, an immortal, eternal, powerful life. He is declared to be righteous and therefore given the eternal life that from the beginning was promised to righteous humanity.
And this resurrection life which Christ was given is nothing less than the first installment of God’s plan to re-create the whole universe into a glorious and unspeakably beautiful new reality! Paul’s main point? We, who by faith are united to Christ, have our true identity in that new reality. Paul’s way of saying this is that we have died with Christ and were raised with Christ (Rom 6:1-11).
A Startling Implication
Next, Paul takes this new reality in Christ idea into our real-life struggles. In the early portion of Romans 7 (vs. 7-12), he is explaining that the law of God must be considered good, even though it produces death in us. It’s not the law’s fault, but ours; it is our persistent tendency to break the law that forces the law to prescribe death.
Then, in verse 17, he relates our tendency to break the law to our new identity in Christ in a startling way, “…now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
How in the world can he say such a thing? What does he mean? The answer is not that he is arguing for some sort of psychological dissociation. It is not anything in our psychology that accounts for this new “me.”
What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains. In other words, something has happened that has redefined the Christian’s true identity separate from the sinful tendency he experiences.
It is the new reality, the new humanity every Christian has that has objectively come into existence with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and which defines us if we are united to him. That is why the conclusion of Paul’s argument is, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).
Why does this matter to Tom who remains troubled by his persistent tendency to pursue intimacy with men?
Why does it matter to the Christian husband troubled by his persistent tendency to use his eyes and mind to sexually enjoy women other than his wife; to the church elder dogged by his tendency to feel self-righteous contempt for others; to the teenage son battling his tendency to resist and oppose parental love and wisdom? And the list goes on.
What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains.
Here is why it matters. Who doesn’t struggle with the troubling resiliency of sinful feelings? Who doesn’t get discouraged at the unrelenting battle against our tendency to sin?
The answer is not that you can, by your own effort and with the right therapy, remove your tendency towards sin; this will lead you to despair. The answer is not that you should come to peace with your tendency towards sin, call it a part of you, and identify with it; this leaves you without hope and without God. The answer is not to say that true Christians no longer experience the pull of a sinful human nature; this is unbiblical and contrary to your experience and leaves you confused and desperate.
The answer is this: Jesus has borne our sin and our tendency to sin, died with and for it, and has been resurrected, inaugurating a whole new reality which shapes our hope for the future and defines us in the present. The continued experience of the tendency to sin is to be expected in this life. But that experience, for the believer, is only the “sin living in me”; it is not a part of who I am for all eternity. Who I am is defined by the resurrection life of Christ. This is not a small thing. It is the gospel. It is everything.
The gospel answer of union with Christ is the only answer that doesn’t disappoint! This is your new identity!
And as it turns out, living out of your new identity in Christ is the only way to make progress against sin. But that’s for another post…
14 Feb 2019
There probably isn’t a more controversial passage in the New Testament than Romans 1. Pro-gay advocates refer to this passage, and five other passages in the Bible, as “Clobber Passages.” Those who advocate for gay marriage in the Church explain away Paul’s argument condemning homosexual behavior, while traditionalists lean in on it with a glaring spotlight.
But I would argue that both sides are not seeing clearly here.
I want to sound a note of caution about how we use Romans 1. Romans 1, particularly verses 26 and 27, is rightly recognized as an important text in the church’s discussion of homosexuality. So what’s the problem?
It’s this: it is dangerously easy for the effect toward which orthodox or traditionalists use this passage to be the opposite of what God intends. Even we can use the passage wrongly.
When we read Romans, we hear it in solidarity with the original audience. It is a letter to Christians about the gospel. After his greetings and other introductory matters, the Apostle Paul sets the trajectory and agenda for the remainder of the letter in verses 16 and 17—the apparently foolish gospel which is the power of God to salvation, salvation offered to both the Jews and the Greeks the same way: by faith. This is ultimately what he is arguing in the whole letter. It forms the broadest context.
To begin his argument, Paul broadens his view. He starts in verse 18 by talking about “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He’s talking about the world here. Paul’s scope here is much wider than the church—wide enough to include Fox News, CNN, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, China, the E.U., North Korea, New York, Venezuela, Planet Fitness, Lady Gaga, Snapchat, Walmart, and on and on. This is our culture, the world’s culture, the diverse mass of humanity descended from Adam.
That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference.
What does Paul have to say about this broadest category of people and culture? He says that the judgment of God upon them is visible; he uses the word “revealed” (1:18). In other words, it’s on display. How so? In three ways.
First, God’s existence and humanity’s accountability to him is obvious to everyone who can perceive anything (1:19-20). Second, everyone—the great mass of humanity and culture—has decided to deny God’s existence and make created things ultimate (1:21-23). Third, God lets fallen humanity develop and live out the worldview that flows logically and inevitably from that fundamentally flawed starting point—(1:24ff).
This is where Paul brings in homosexuality. Why? The reason is in the answer to this question, “What sort of conclusions flow logically and inevitably from a worldview in which all of nature is disassociated from God?” The answer: ironically, all sorts of “unnatural” conclusions.
Ironically, but inevitably, when humans make nature merely “Mother Nature” and not any kind of creation, they redefine and manipulate “nature” according to their desires, resulting in conclusions that are patently un-natural. Remember, Paul is speaking about, but not to, the broader world here. He is not speaking to that broader world where these unnatural conclusions are held forth as truth; of course, they would not agree that their views are patently unnatural.
That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference. But to those who have been called out of atheistic or agnostic darkness into light the unnaturalness is clear. And to those to whom it is clear, Paul’s point is this: isn’t all this exactly what one would expect in a world opposed to God? God lets denial of his existence play out to its obvious consequences. Of course! No wonder Paul shines a spotlight on the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality. (Cue the traditionalists at this point saying “Amen!”)
Oh, but wait.
Paul continues his list of the consequences of a God-less worldview. As his list continues, we begin to hear some things that are a little less obviously “unnatural.” We still hear “Amens” now and then, but they are more subdued, less confident. We still see some easy consequences to condemn: “evil,” “murder,” “haters of God,” “heartless,” “ruthless.” But mixed in are, “covetousness,” “strife,” “deceit,” “gossips,” “boasters,” “disobedient to parents.”
Yikes! The thought that ought to be whispering in the minds of Paul’s Christian audience—in our minds—is, “Uh… if these are the outworkings of a God-denying worldview, and their existence is a sign of God’s judgment, then how do I account for these things in my life in spite of my claim to know God?”
That is exactly what Paul intends you to think. It should be troubling. It should be jarring.
If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point. And if we are really committed to missing the point, we stop at the end of chapter 1.
But Paul didn’t put any chapter break here. In fact, the first word in what we call “chapter 2” is, “Therefore….” Here is the conclusion of his argument: “…you, oh man, have no excuse.”
If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point.
No excuse. Bam! We are brought full circle back to verse 20 of chapter 1, where it was said of the God-denying world, “they are without excuse.” At least when they do these things it is a logical consequence of their worldview. But if we do them—and we do—it proves something that should stop us in our tracks and terrify us. It proves that what is wrong with us is so bad that we too continue to rebel against God while claiming to acknowledge him.
What, we should ask ourselves, is worse—to live in godless ways consistent with an atheistic worldview, or to live in godless ways in betrayal of a professed acknowledgement of God?
What is the application here? How should this affect us? It should bring a deep humility that precludes judgmentalism.
I am not saying that Romans 1:26-27 means anything different than we’ve always thought. My caution is this: if reading Romans 1 leaves you feeling anything but uncomfortable, humbled, and convicted—in short, in desperate need of mercy—you are not reading it correctly.
And if all of us do not hear Paul’s message correctly, we are ill-prepared to understand the gospel and to help others do so as well.
11 Oct 2018
An essential aspect of walking alongside married couples dealing with a pornography issue is helping the husband see how this sin hurts his wife. Helping him understand how porn hurts will be a necessary part of his true repentance.
In Christian circles, pornography use carries a heavy weight of shame. A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit. This is not only ineffective; it is not true repentance. Good pastoral intervention is to help him see the particular ways his wife suffers as a result of this sin and the related behaviors that often go with it.
When Nathan confronted King David on the adultery and murder that he was hiding so carefully, he did so by drawing David into a story of a man whose actions were so selfish, so unloving, so disturbingly hurtful that David’s sense of justice and right was acutely aroused. Only then was David able to finally view his own hurtful actions from God’s point of view. Until then, repentance was impossible. The goal was to get David to deal with God (Psalm 51:4), but he would get there by facing how he had hurt people.
A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit.
It is helpful to identify three different levels at which a husband, mired in a porn habit, may be hurting his wife. As with King David’s sin, you will notice that this one sin draws into its service other, more aggressive sins. So, each succeeding level is more than just a step up in hurt; each represents an exponential increase in relational disruption and personal injury.
Level 1: Pornography itself.
Too often this is viewed as merely a shameful habit and not the serious breach of covenant that it is. I cannot give a detailed theology of sex here, but I will summarize by saying that sex is designed by God to function uniquely as the physical, literal culmination of the one-flesh union of the husband and wife, and as such is in multiple ways a picture of the gospel itself, as union with Christ (1 Cor. 6:12-20; Eph. 5:25-32).
Sex is designed to express the permanent, exclusively faithful, self-sacrificial love that characterizes our Savior’s love for us. When a man takes what is supposed to express his highest, most profound love and commitment to his wife, and repeatedly focuses it on other women’s bodies, it becomes an anti-gospel message to his wife:
“I am not yours forever, but belong to whatever turns me on for a while; I have not set you apart as the object of my affection, in fact you don’t compare all that well to the hundreds of women I look at; I am not giving myself to you to love you, nurture you, and cherish you, because all I want is for you or anybody who is available to meet my needs and desires on my terms.”
Pornography in a marriage makes a wife feel unloved, insecure, and worthless. An addiction to pornography, if we use that word, is not merely something a husband struggles with— it represents serious mistreatment of a wife.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty.
Level 2: Deception.
At some point the use of pornography involves deception. But deception comes into a marriage relationship in some deeper and more damaging ways.
First, there is the accumulation of deception over time. The longer a man uses porn without fully confessing to his wife, the harder it will be to restore trust in the relationship. If a man spends significant time hiding his sin, and eventually confesses and commits to complete honesty and transparency going forward, a wife will be rocked by the realization that he had been deceiving her for all that time. It is not uncommon for a wife in such a circumstance to say, “I don’t even know who I married!” With real repentance, trust can be mended. However, to restore trust, it is likely that a husband will have to spend just as much time practicing total openness and transparency as he spent hiding and deceiving. Long-term deception seriously handicaps a relationship.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty. This could be rejecting outright to be completely transparent, or just delaying that transparency. Delaying transparency has virtually the same effect as denying it altogether—on what basis can a wife believe him when he suddenly decides to “tell the truth?” He has already proven that there is much he values over being honest with her. This persistent kind of deception destroys the relationship.
Level 3: Abuse.
I am always nervous about using this word. It is a severe word, and not to be thrown around lightly. But I am using it for this third level because a strong word is needed. The key word in abusive behavior is control.
The desire for control is a common heart-idol fueling pornography use. Pornography caters to that need for control in obvious ways. And, to varying degrees, the control impulse porn caters to also takes aim at the wife. Who she is isn’t enough; he needs her to be someone of his own desires and imagination.
So, a husband will learn to think of his wife like a porn object—there for his pleasure, at his bidding, on his terms. He may control her sexually—pressuring her to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, even against her wishes. This is sexual abuse.
It can be even worse—the control impulse that porn feeds on can manifest in broader emotional abuse and manipulation. But it’s important to realize that even if one’s behavior is not yet overtly abusive, pornography always trains a man to think abusively—people exist for your own pleasure, entirely under your control.
This is not love, and a wife knows it. She feels used, cheap, and dirty. To the extent that a husband exerts abusive control over her, she will also feel trapped, helpless, even hopeless. This kind of treatment destroys a person.
This is how hurtful pornography, and all that comes with it, can be to a wife. If you, like David, are hearing, “You are the man,” as you read any of these levels of hurt, then remember also that Nathan’s rebuke was the instrument of God’s grace to David. Restoration of worship, love, and joy is offered to you, but it begins with a clear view of the hurt you have done.
Jim Weidenaar shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: Why Should Husbands Know How Porn Hurts Wives? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Oct 2018
To learn more, read Jim’s accompanying blog: How Porn Hurts: Husbands and Porn.