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Archive for April, 2019


IOut of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God. A Broken Mother's Search for Hope. became familiar with Christopher Yuan’s story when my wife gave me a copy of Out of a Far Country written by Christopher and his mother Angela. It is the story of his coming out of the closet, dropping out of dental school and pursuing a gay lifestyle, his parents’ initial rejection, their conversion and subsequent pursuit of Christopher and his conversion after being imprisoned as a drug dealer.

In the course of that story he mentioned the concept he called ‘holy sexuality’. At the time, I hoped he’d develop that further. Over the years I was disappointed that he didn’t. His name would arise periodically as a wave of controversies regarding how the church is to interact with people experiencing same-sex attraction arose.

The Revoice controversy was perhaps the worst of the lot. In many ways it seemed to be an exercise in talking past one another. At least that was my experience of many of those discussions and debates. These controversies reveal that the Church still needs to talk about how to faithfully and effectively serve those who experience same-sex attractions.

Recently I discovered that he’d released Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story in the fall of 2018. I bought a copy for myself, and by faith one for the church library. It was my hope that this could be helpful in helping us work through these issues.

He tackles a number of the issues that lay at the heart of the various controversies. It is not a big book, so it sticks to the point and does not overwhelm with information. At times he interacts (briefly) with opposing views. That can be too brief at times, for instance his discussion of Matthew Vines on the issue of ‘bad fruit’.

He begins with the reality of God’s Story which is intended to help us to understand and shape our story. This refers to the history of redemption (creation ==> fall ==> redemption ==> consummation) found in Scripture intended to help us to understand life and the world. He moves into questions about identity, the image of God, and the reality of sin. He then introduces holy sexuality and dives into the issues of temptation, desire, orientation and then marriage and singleness. The book concludes with how to assist those who struggle with sexual sin in terms of sanctification, discipleship, and outreach. As you can see, the breadth of material covered is impressive.

TImage result for rosaria butterfieldhe book begins with a forward by his ‘big sister’ Rosaria Butterfield. There is some irony there. She was a lesbian professor/academic who became a Christian in the process of writing a book critical of the Religious Right due to the friendship that developed with a Presbyterian pastor and his wife. She left academia and ended up marrying a pastor. She regrets the work she did in laying the groundwork for the changes in our culture we’ve seen in the last 15 years regarding marriage and benefits.

He is a man who was gay, dropping out of dental school to basically live the party life. To support himself he became a drug dealer and ended up in prison. He saw a Bible in the trash and grabbed it because he was bored. He became a Christian and after getting out of prison went back to school and entered academia. He remains single, experiencing same-sex desires but seeking to live out a holy sexuality.

Rosaria’s forward covers some ground he will as well: union in Christ, the development of sexual orientation in the 19th century, that the real issue is not homosexuality but unbelief (which keeps us in Adam).

“The idol of our historical epoch is this: your sexual desires define you, determine you, and should always delight you.” Rosaria Butterfield

Yuan begins with discussing paradigms. Our identity shouldn’t be based on sinful practices, or what we can’t do (anymore). He expresses his frustration with the dynamics of the discussions, particularly the heterosexual-homosexual paradigm. I share his frustration. Between Christians as least, we should try to use biblical language. Too often I find people, both conservative and liberal, using cultural language for a very theological discussion.

He shares the story of Andy who was a classmate of his who was married. Eventually Andy left his wife because despite his prayers, God didn’t take those same-sex desires away. We’ve all known a guy like Andy. I know a few. Some left the faith without getting married. Others left their wives and their faith, leaving a trail of wreckage because they had to be “true to themselves”.

At some point people started to confuse their desires with their identity. Some conservatives further this despite their intentions in how they shape the gospel differently for people who practice homosexual sex. What many people with same-sex attractions hear is “If I am my desires, then who I am, not just my actions, are condemned. As I continue to feel these desires, I must still be condemned.” People like Andy are tempted to change their convictions because they confuse those desires with identity.

He notes that until the mid-1800’s, sexuality was about behavior, not orientation or identity. Carl Westphal was one of the earliest to use homosexuality to describe a person’s nature rather than behavior. Yuan does some philosophizing about the rise of identity through Romanticism and nihilism.

Sola experientia (‘experience alone’) won over sola Scripture (‘Scripture alone’).”

We do need to have a biblical anthropology, and speak consistently with that. I agree with Yuan and Butterfield that due to our union in Christ our identity is Christ. Where I ‘depart’ from them is in mandating that people speak the same way. Part of the Revoice controversy was about using the term “gay” or “homosexual Christian”. They were following Wesley Hill who says in his book Washed and Waiting that Christian refers to his identity and gay/homosexual his struggle (page 22). I don’t get bent out of shape when I understand that. Not the preferred terminology, but he’s often communicating with people who aren’t Christians and don’t typically speak about same-sex desire (they use the language of identity and orientation).

This is a practical difference, not a theological difference. In her book Openness Unhindered she has a chapter, Conflict: When Sisters Disagree, about this capacity to love people who speak differently. But her comments about the PCA and Revoice appear to have a very different approach. I’m a little frustrated with my sister. It’s okay- she’s still my sister!

YuImage result for christopher yuanan brings us back to Genesis for the imago dei and the reality of sin. These are foundational concepts that need to be addressed in these discussions. He speaks covenantally about our fall in Adam. We are guilty of our covenant head’s disobedience. We now have a fallen nature. This moves us into the reality of indwelling sin or a sinful nature. If we are off here, then the rest of the discussion will really miss the mark. If we make the wrong diagnosis, we’ll apply the wrong cure. This cuts both ways, for the culture war conservative and the progressive accommodationist.

To a sinner, sin feels natural and normal. This is because we have a darkened understanding and our thinking is futile (Rom. 1). ALL sinners have sinful distortions of our sexuality. We all want to live beyond the boundaries God has established for our sexual behavior in one way or another. Our problem is sin (the condition or state), not simply a particular sin. The person engaging in same-sex activity also sins in other ways. The issue is not simply same-sex desires and activity but sin (Adam’s and their own). Salvation is about sin, not simply sexuality. The goal is not heterosexuality but living in obedience to God through the grace of God.

Here is part of where things get murky in many debates I’ve had with people. I think Yuan is helpful. Here is some of what he says within this biblical framework:

“I’m not saying the capacity to have same-sex attractions or temptations is actual sin. However, the concept of original and indwelling sin fits every description of same-sex sexual orientation. Original sin is an unchosen condition, and indwelling sin is a persistent pattern of sinful desires or behaviors.”

He will later draw an important distinction between temptation and desire. Here is the distinction between a temptation to commit a sinful act and committing a sin. Some see the temptation itself as sin. Butterfield has a few confusing paragraphs in Openness Unhindered; confusing because they seem contradictory (first she says temptation isn’t sin but homosexual lust is- she could be using those terms to refer to temptation and inordinate desire respectively and then we’d be in agreement- see below). I wish Yuan spent time parsing John Owens seeming distinction between temptation and falling into temptation (which I think is that same distinction).

“Again: temptation is not a sin. But what you do with it may be.” Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered, pp. 83

“In addition, temptation is not a sin, but temptations to sin are never good. They are never from God. Therefore, patterns of temptation can never be sanctified.” Rosaria, pp. 123.

“Moving up the scale, homosexual or heterosexual lust is a sin- even the unintentional and persistent kind that springs up like a hiccup or a reflex.” Rosaria, pp. 123

This doesn’t make same-sex temptation okay or neutral. Nor is it ‘sanctifiable’. If acting upon such temptation is sin (it is!), then we should mortify those desires of the flesh as Paul tells us to do (Rom. 6 & 8). We are to make no provision for them because we’ve put on Christ (Rom. 13).

In some discussions I’ve brought up temptations to commit adultery or engage in pre-marital sex (heterosexual lust). Some who ardently oppose homosexuality, and are critical of organizations like Revoice say those temptations are ‘normal’, or ‘not contrary to nature’ as if one gets a pass because those are heterosexual sins. Such a view is quite unbiblical. Yuan confronts that common, faulty, view. Holy sexuality is not for homosexuals alone but for all Christians. We are to be chaste outside of marriage and faithful in marriage.

“Chastity is more than simply abstention from extra-marital sex; it conveys purity and holiness. Faithfulness is more than merely maintaining chastity and avoiding illicit sex; it conveys covenantal commitment.”

Yuan then focuses on temptation. This section could use some more work. For instance:

“As God, Jesus did not sin and in fact is incapable of sinning (this is call impeccability).”

He doesn’t address Jesus as man, who specifically obeyed as man in our place for our salvation. There is a huge mystery here that Yuan pretty much ignores. It was as man, additionally, that he may be made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10). Jesus resisted sin “all the way” while we often give up well before that. We don’t really know how powerful temptation is.

But Yuan correctly reminds us that as fallen humans (despite being united to Christ) we will experience temptation. This includes same-sex temptation (something some others I know seem to reject based on their understanding of regeneration). The issue is not whether you will be tempted, but what you do with it no matter what the temptation is. We are to be vigilant and put it to death!

He then moves from James 1 to James 4 to discuss desire, or inordinate desire. For many, the same-sex desires are not primarily erotic. It is about romance and being together. He notes that in many lesbian relationships romance drives the relationship, not sexual desire. This means that the problem isn’t just about sex, but the inordinate desire for a person of the same sex: friendship gone wild. Here he draws more upon Augustine than Owen. People can fall prey to “co-dependency, relational idolatry, sinful fantasies” and more.

“Nonsexual romantic desires are essentially yearning to become one with and be permanently and exclusively united to someone we hold dear.”

His discussion of marriage is short but helpful. Sadly some take “it is not good for man to be alone” out of context and make marriage about companionship. Marriage is about far more than companionship. It is about fulfilling the creation mandate together. Yuan gets that and explains that (citing Christopher Ash in the process). When we make marriage about companionship, the end of loneliness, we more quickly make marriage idolatrous (or disposable when this primary ‘goal’ isn’t met). Marriage becomes about me and my feelings, not about covenantal union to fulfill God’s mission. It isn’t less than companionship, but far more. Marriage is about someone who is the same but different. The same creature but the opposite gender. Like but not like.

Yuan also upholds the dignity and goodness of singleness. All people are single for much of their lives. They are not less than whole people. Jesus was not less of a person because he was single. At times in this chapter he seems to display some characteristics of New Covenant Theology rather than Covenant Theology. Yes, we must be born again but we still have the truth that “this promise is for you and your children” (Gen. 17 ==> Acts 2). God works through generations as well as in individuals. I also disagree with some of his implications about 1 Corinthians 7 while agreeing with his main point. Singleness is not a lesser state or a death sentence.

Singles should be able to have vibrant relationships with their spiritual family. Couples and families need to do better in caring for single adults and inviting them into the web of relationships. Singles (and the infertile) can have spiritual descendants through evangelism and discipleship. God provides plenty of meaning in life for those who are not married. Being single is a calling all have at some point (sometimes more than once), a calling we can walk faithfully in because of the indwelling Spirit.

He then moves back to holy sexuality and the process of sanctification. Justified and sanctified Christians experience temptations. Some still experience same-sex temptations. We are already new creatures in Christ, but not yet completely new. We are in process, in part because God is humbling us and one way to humble us is the presence of temptations.

“… because of our union with Christ, we can hate our sin without hating ourselves.”

He then deals with some bad theology by Matthew Vines. Vines interprets “bad fruit” to mean physical harm or emotional despair. Theology that produces hardship and distress is false doctrine, in his view. Therefore because so many homosexuals struggle with suicide, the teaching of the church must be wrong. Yuan takes him quickly to task. “Bad fruit” is sin or the lack of repentance. There is no true discipleship without denying oneself, which is painful. He also takes on Jen Hatmaker who blames so much suicidal ideation among gay youth for the church’s historic (biblical) stance on same-sex relationships. Yuan notes studies in secular countries, quite accepting of same-sex relationships, which also have similarly high rates of suicide among homosexuals. The problem is not the church’s teaching.

He moves into reminding us to be compassionate toward those experiencing same-sex desires, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. His parents rejected him before they were Christians and then loved and pursued him after they converted. He brings us to the parable of the Good Samaritan, reminding us that the original audience were to see themselves as the beaten man. We’ve received compassion from Jesus Christ, and compassion we should show.

He also provides some guidance for outreach. Often we need to listen and ask questions. They often believe we hate them. Like his parents, we may have to love them for a long time in tangible ways. He also provides some practical advice for when someone opens up to us.

Lastly he provides some basic instruction on discipleship. He pushes that you need a mentor, not simply a friend or counselor. This means that the local church, and ordinary means of grace, are central. Yes, we need peers but we also need older more Christians speaking into our lives, challenging us and calling us to deny ourselves and follow Jesus. We need to have the right goal in mind: holiness, not heterosexuality.

At the end of the book there is an 8-session study guide to work through the material. He wants this book to be helpful to people and churches. I think it will be helpful for the Church to sort through ministry to people with same-sex desires. I hope it will help us to sit and listen to one another, understand what people mean, identify the common ground (rather than assume it or the areas of disagreement) so we can move forward helpfully. Our desire should be to see people caught in this sin come to saving faith in Christ, and then to walk faithfully in holy sexuality for their good and His glory. This is a book worth reading.

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The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set)John Newton has long been one of my favorite ‘dead guys’. A few years ago Banner of Truth reformatted his Works into 4 volumes (from the previous 6 volume set) and I picked up a set. Last year I read a church history set over the course of the year. This year I decided I’ll read a volume of Newton each quarter.

Well, the first quarter is done. One of the idiosyncrasies of the first volume in the pagination. If you look at the back it is just over 600 pages. But … it begins with Memoirs of Rev. John Newton from page xvii-cxlvi so the volume is nearly 750 pages long. I did have to adapt my reading schedule from 10 pages/day to 10-15/day and some times adding some Saturday reading.

After the Memoirs of Rev. John Newton we find An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton, in Fourteen Letters. In other words, Newton’s autobiography over the course of 14 letters. Then we have Forty-One Letters on Religious Subjects, by Omnicron and Vigil (a pseudonym) and Cardiphonia; or, the Utterance of the Heart, in the Course of a Real Correspondence.

The theme of volume one is two-fold: his life and his letters. We will find more of his letters in volume two (as they complete Cardiphonia). It did seem strange to have both the Memoirs and the Narrative at the beginning of his works. In one sense it makes sense thematically. From the perspective of the reader I would have preferred some space between the two accounts of his life.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgHis life, however, is an amazing testimony to the patience, persistence and providence of God. And the amazing grace of God. It is easy to lose track of how many times Newton nearly died, or should have died. For instance, one time the captain told him to stay on the ship one night after dinner. It was his custom to sleep ashore. The captain had no identifiable reason. That night the boat sank before reaching shore meaning Newton, who could not swim, would have drowned. Another time he took ill days before a voyage and could not go. That ship sank and Newton would have been lost. There are many of these stories which should remind you of how often we may be spared without knowing it.

Behind the seemingly random chaos of life, Newton saw God’s providence. He didn’t necessarily understand, or claim to understand, why God would do such things, but accepted that He did. And so should we. We don’t have to understand why. We do need to simply trust that God has His good reasons (a subject to which he will return often in his letters).

We fail to accept the fragility of life in our day. Due to technology we think we can prevent accidents from occurring. In his day, they were accepted as par for the course. For Newton, at least, the god-complex of thinking we should be able to control life didn’t exist. Both evil and calamity existed. We, on the other hand, seem to pretend evil doesn’t exist except in rare cases, and think we can prevent all calamity.

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott.jpg

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott

Mental illness shows up as well, both in the life of William Cowper and in some of Newton’s letters. This, obviously, was before the use of medications to treat them. People could be institutionalized for years. Cowper would die in an institution. Newton’s adopted daughter would also spend time in one. In a letter he alludes to visiting a person in an institution for the mentally ill, and it was a great struggle for him. It reminded me of the visits I’ve done to prison: there’s something about hearing that door slam shut and lock behind you. It feels oppressive.

This is not hagiography, which is refreshing. You do get a picture of a flawed man, a trophy of grace. You get a taste of life’s hardship. You also get a taste of societal sins: class and race struggles that marked his day. But also the people who worked to end the legalize prejudice. Today Newton might be called a Social Justice Warrior, but I think that would be quite the misnomer. He did fight to end some injustices which he saw as implications of the gospel. He was haunted by past sins of his regarding the slave trade. He kept the gospel central, and so can we.

As Newton moved into pastoral ministry, there was seemingly controversy on every side. Divisions filled England and its churches. He notes the high Calvinists considered him an Arminian and Arminians recognized him as the Calvinist he claimed to be. There were also Dissenters or Independents. This was a time when declaring oneself as a Methodist or Enthusiast closed many doors for service. Newton grew weary of such debate and dissension in Christ’s church. He wrote often enough about how to conduct ourselves in controversy. He also interacted with pastors who were younger and needing a mentor, and pastors of different minds on the secondary issues.

He provides some sound pastoral advice to pastors about subjects like when to seek a new call in addition to engaging in controversy. For me these have often been timely words of advice.

Sinclair Ferguson notes that the details of our conversion often shape the concerns of our Christian life. He notes Paul’s envy of Stephen’s gifts, as well as Isaiah’s subsequent focus on the holiness of God. In Newton’s case, he focused on the sinfulness of the human heart and God’s purposes in providence. They fill his letters. This is part of why I love Newton.

Newton doesn’t paint a picture of experiential religion that places us above and beyond sin. Rather, he struggles with his own heart, recognizing the temptations that arise both in private and public. In a number of places he wonders how a Christian can survive in London with all its temptations. This was before he was called to serve a church in London later in life. No pastors are called to serve in paradise. And neither is anyone else.

Newton is not excusing sin, but honest about the effects of indwelling sin, the world and the devil. He is critical of Christian Perfectionism that was found among some including some Methodists. Our pilgrimage is thru a fallen society that pressures us to sin, stirred up to sin and tempt by the Evil One, and possessing a heart that is too often receptive to these temptations.

“So wonderfully does the Lord proportion the discoveries of sin and grace; for he knows our frame, and that if was to put forth the greatness of his power, a poor sinner would be instantly overwhelm, and crushed as a moth.”

In addition to temptation we also experience much in the way of affliction. God reveals our weakness as well as His strength. It is not enough for us to consider this intellectually, but He wants us to “feel” our weakness and experience His sufficient supply. By these afflictions he reveals the idols of our hearts and the sufficiency of Christ for our satisfaction.

His letters address the subjects we struggle with but often don’t talk about. As a result, they are immensely helpful.

There are some topics of historical interest. Some of the letters mention the American Revolution. In that context he refers to the problem of the national debt a few times. He views the colonists as sinning in their rebellion against the king, but also that this is in some way a judgment on the nation.

For the anti-vax crowd, one letter struggles with the advent of the vaccine for small pox. He thinks thru the situation out loud. Does a trust in the God of providence avoid the vaccination leaning solely on Him or see this as God’s providential provision of means.

On subject of puzzlement is his view of the theatre or playhouse. He views it as a venue for sin. He doesn’t specify the content of particular plays. Could it be the sin that took place in the playhouses? In one of Jerry Bridges’ book on grace he mentions he grew up hearing that he should avoid the pool halls. As he grew older, he learned that playing pool itself was not the issue, but the gambling and other sins that took place in the pool hall.

Newton does chastise one person in a letter for attending a play. I need more context as to why in this case. Apart from the context it sounds a bit legalistic.

Volume One has plenty of material worth reading. Most of it is in readable chunks thanks to the fact it is largely letters. You can follow along as some relationships develop over time. Why don’t more people read John Newton?

 

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