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

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

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

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

There are two great problems that produce a third, perhaps even greater problem: First, Hill’s resignation to his sexual attraction to other men is problematic on its face. Paul says: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11; ESV). The context of Paul’s declaration, “such were some of you” is v. 9: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…” (ESV; emphasis added). Some of the Corinthians had been homosexual, they had experienced same-sex attraction, but now, by the grace of God, that was no longer true of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R. Scott Clark, Escondido

Related Resources

Defining Nature-Grace Dualism

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

Rosaria Butterfield’s Alternative to Revoice

Homosexual and Homosexuality in the New Testament

10 comments

  1. Good insight and a very thoughtful and timely article. I really appreciate reading your blogs.

  2. first of all, exegetically, if 1 Cor 6:11 proves ” they had experienced same-sex attraction, but now, by the grace of God, that was no longer true of them” it also proves that attraction to revile, or to steal, or to be greedy, or to be a drunkard, or to be sexually immoral was no longer true of them, and every Christian is defined away by that kind of definition.

    Similarly, in saying ” when we substitute theft (or coveting, or lying etc) for same-sex attraction we get unacceptable results” — you compared apples and oranges. When we substitute, you might better have said, attraction to theft (or attraction to coveting, or attraction to lying, etc.) for same same-sex attraction we are discussing things that are similar. In no case is the attraction approved of, only acknowledged as sinful.

    In neither case do we need to rule out the possibility among the converted. There are converted people attracted to lying. There are converted people attracted to the same sex.

    • Larry,

      I think you make a reasonable point. There are compulsive thieves, liars etc but we classify them as sinners but also as mentally ill. We should probably not accept the rather political move to remove homosexuality from the DSM c. 1973 as a given. That was an aspect of the problem that I didn’t address. Same-sex attraction is iterative. Thieves ordinarily steal in order not to work but, inasmuch as it is compulsive and interactive sexual desire belongs to a different category. Theft is sin but SSA and same-sex behavior is sin and a disorder of nature.

      I am synthesizing what Paul says about unnatural desires in Romans 1:26-27 with what he says in 1 Cor 6. I don’t mean to say that Christians never struggle with SSA but Hill’s move to normalize and regularize SSA not only makes natural what Scripture and nature teach us is unnatural but it removes any possibility of ever overcoming SSA.

      Even if we change the terms to “desire to steal,” I think my analogy with theft etc still holds. We wouldn’t allow a believer to identify himself as an idolater or a thief or a liar. Consider this introduction, “Hi, my name is Joe, I’m a Lying Christian” or “…a idolater Christian.” This way of speaking and thinking contradicts the biblical doctrine of sanctification. “Such were some of you.”

      I’m not a perfectionist but we shouldn’t normalize a pattern of sin and unnatural attraction and behavior.

    • You just nailed it. What the LBGQT are trying to do is normalize or naturalize their sins so they will be accepted as just different, but still a normal and acceptable part of society. That puts them at odds with God’s Word, so they must deny the validity of Scripture which presents an obstacle to their acceptance. “Has God really said?” Sounds familiar somehow!

    • Thank you, prof, for a circumspect reply to my remarks. I agree with you that to take something out of the category of sin is to try to remove any possibility of having to deal with the sin. You say “Hill’s move to normalize and regularize SSA not only makes natural what Scripture and nature teach us is unnatural but it removes any possibility of ever overcoming SSA.”

      But I thought your post also said ” Hill recognizes that same-sex attraction is sin.” We cannot provide a false witness of his actual beliefs and still help him sort this stuff out. If he (consistently) believes that same-sex attraction is sin, he will be for dealing with it as sin; if he is also dealing with it in ways that contradict that, it should be pointed out.

      It helps to compare attraction to stealing. (Since greed and thieves are in this list, we can interact with Paul in 1 Cor 6:9-11 too here.) There is repeated attraction to stealing, that is different from the psychometric term “compulsion.” I stole (the first time I remember) a 3-Musketeers bar when I was about 7 from a store. As a Christian I stole things from roommates in college. I have had a repeated attraction, coupled with defeats and victories, concerning stealing and greed. Though it repeats, I am not a compulsive thief. A psychologist would look for other clues, before calling it compulsion, such as perhaps, if the first thing I notice about someone is if they have a wallet, or something like that.

      What the SSA-desire categorization is considered to be, by fellow Christians without it, among Christians with it, is the sensitive issue. Calling it sin, is different from launching it into the hyperspace of compulsion. We can encourage (among those whose SSA is NOT compusive) a parallel to the way Christians have dealt with sins that repeat … “such as is common to man.”

    • Larry,

      Yes, I am saying that he wants to normalize sin. This is one of the reasons I wrote the essay. There’s a sleight of hand occurring here. One the on hand Hill makes what amounts to a formal admission that SSA is sin but then goes on to try to regularize it and even to make it, as Carl Trueman has said, “heroic” and a means of grace. This is not false witness. This is my analysis of what Hill is about, what his agenda is.

      As to the analogy of SSA to theft, there are analogies but there are genuine differences. As I have noted elsewhere, sexual sin is unlike other sins—as Paul himself says. As I argued above (not to go in circles) there are compulsive thieves, who are, by definition mentally ill. The effects of the fall are so pervasive that we need not set sin against mental illness. Theft is always sin and it is sometimes also a symptom of mental illness.

      I remember reading studies in the 1980s that showed the homosexual behavior is not exactly parallel to heterosexual behavior. Homosexuals typically have a much larger number of partners than do heterosexuals. Camille Paglia noted decades ago in her essay, “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex” gay sex is much more about back alleys than it “gay marriage.” There is often a compulsive quality to it. That compulsion explains the gay response to the outbreak of HIV/AIDS. There was a period of restraint but then, after a time, they essentially said to the public health authorities, “We don’t care. We’re going to engage in behavior that will likely lead to death.” That’s not a rational decision. It’s a decision fueled by compulsion.

      I’m not saying that heterosexuals are not sometimes compulsive. They certainly are. No one hesitates to describe compulsive heterosexuals as “sex addicts” and the like but political correctness being what it is (we may be thankful that as a Lesbian, Paglia is not so constrained by PC norms) we hesitate to describe homosexuality for what it is, what Dr King called in the late 50s.

      So, my case is that Hill fails to recognize conisistently both that homosexual desire (SSA) and homosexual behavior (and thus homosexual identity) is sin— there is no such thing as a “Gay Christian”—and that they are unnatural. I think that, as a typical evangelical in this regard, Hill lacks the category “nature.” For most evangelicals (influenced as they are by the Anabaptists) grace more or less obliterates nature and the category goes away. Nevertheless, it is a basic and essential category in Scripture itself and in the older Christian tradition, including the Reformed tradition.

      I am hoping that Christians won’t buy Hill’s attempt (and that of the Revoice conference) to repackage SSA (even when celibate) as normal. Like any other disordered desire, it should not normalized, it should be mortified. That is the Christian approach to sin and to unnatural desire.

  3. The sexual sins of our generation would make the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah blush. The idol worship of pagan religions was based on sex as a sacrament, which makes for an interesting parallel with Rush Limbaugh’s observation that people “hook up for sex before they ever know their partner’s name and seal their sexual union with the sacrament of abortion.” Only the pagans sacrificed their children to Moloch or Baal. The fact that their sexual perversions lead to such unthinkable crimes, and they excuse themselves by claiming they are righteous in doing so, underlines the depths of human depravity.

    • Angela,

      To clarify, I’m responsible for the comment about hooking up. Rush was the first person I ever heard call abortion the sacrament of sexual liberation or the sacrament of autonomy.

    • Wow! That expression was new to me. Abortion is the sacrament of sexual liberation and autonomy—from God’s Word. It is lawlessness. It is a glimpse of where this is heading. Already we are seeing Christians characterized as bigots, backward and hateful for standing in the way of the religion of sexual liberation which just happens to have a strange resemblance to the practices of pagan idolatrous worship that was characterized by all manner of sexual perversion. “You tolerate that woman Jezebel,who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality…” Rev. 2:20

    • In further thinking this through, it seems to me that God has a special hatred for sexual sins because they are the misuse of His gift of procreation, against His command to be fruitful and multiply within the confines of marriage, and God brings judgment. God is especially against those who misuse this gift. We see this judgment over and over, in the OT, where God sends His people to war, to destroy the pagan idol worshippers who made sexual perversions an integral part of their religious practice and even sacrificed children to their idols. God is especially angry when His people adopt these idolatrous practices, which are an abomination to God, as they did under the reign under king Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel. God also warns the seven churches of Asia, in Revelation against compromising the faith, and by joining it to the idolatrous, sexual perversions of region, that are like those that Jezebel introduced in the OT. God threatens to take away their candle stick and bring destruction if they fail to heed His warning, and makes good on His threat, having warned them against their unfaithfulness, since these seven churches disappear without a further mention after 70 AD. If these churches also represent types of modern churches, maybe there is a lesson to be learned about compromise of doctrine and tolerance of promiscuous and perverted sexual orientations and practices that are condemned in Scripture. Already we are being persecuted for standing firm, on the side of God’s Word.

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