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Rules for Walking in Fellowship - Puritan Treasures for Today (Owen)Last month I was talking to an old friend about membership issues. Since he loves the Puritans, I mentioned that he might want to read Rules for Walking in Fellowship by John Owen. I did this because I had begun reading it and thought it might be pertinent in our current discussion. His response was that the church plant he belonged to studied it as they considered their membership vows.

This is a VERY short book that begs to be taught as a Sunday School class. I’m not sure I’d use it for membership vows, but it clearly is helpful in communicating the responsibilities to the pastor, the church and one another.

In his introduction to the reader Owen lays out his presuppositions about the church, laying some things on the table. He lays out an observation that “men for the most part spending their strength and time more to oppose things they disagree with than to practice the things they and others agree are most necessary.”

Owen divides his treatise into two parts. The first, Rules for Walking in Fellowship with Reference to the Pastor or Minister who Watches Over Your Souls, covers 7 responsibilities for church members. The second part, Rules to Be Observed by Those Who Walk in Fellowship, to Remind Them of Their Mutual Duties toward One Another, covers 15 responsibilities for members to one another.

Each of these rules or responsibilities expresses the rule, provides some proof texts, a brief explanation and a list of motivations. They are about 4-5 pages so this book could be used for devotional reading over the course of a month. If you take time to address each of the proof texts, this could easily be converted into a Sunday School curriculum for study and discussion.

Some of these rules seem obvious but in his day and ours they are obviously not obvious to everybody. For instance, the first rule could be stated as: show up! In a small church your absence is easy to notice. When attendance is low it can be very discouraging for a pastor especially if he doesn’t know why you are absent. Some people are good about communicating (letting you know about vacations, travel etc. that may affect attendance). When someone or a family is absent for a few weeks, past experience and the fiery darts of the Evil One can create fear and suspicion: have I offended them, are they looking for a new church etc.. Pastors are humans, and have wounds from the past too. If you get to know them you will likely discover those wounds and act accordingly.

He also reminds people to pray for their pastor. I’ve been often encouraged to know that people are praying for me, especially in difficult seasons. At General Assembly in 2018 someone told me about pastor prayer teams, so I developed one and update them periodically. I mention important meetings or events as well as some personal things. I want to help people know how to pray for me.

“This is a burden that congregations often lay on the shoulders of ministers, that they may not leave their post under any circumstances whatsoever, while those who lay the burden on them will often freely leave the pastors and their ministry without any cause at all.”

He reminds them to pay their pastor. I’ve heard some people say their job is to keep their pastor humble, and they often try to do that financially. Enable your pastor to care for his family in a way enjoyed by most of your members. They don’t need to join the jet set but they should only be eating beans and rice every day if the rest of the congregation is too.

“Prayer is the great engine by which to prevail with the Almighty and the sure refuge of the saints at all times, both on their behalf and also of others.”

People also need to pray for their church, as well as the afflicted. Pray for the congregation, that the programs would accomplish God’s purposes for the people. We should pray for the peace, purity and prosperity of the local church. On a personal level we should also pray for those afflicted by illness, financial problems, relational difficulties, being victims of crimes and more.

People should not simply pray for the unity of the church, but work (make choices) that preserve unity and peace in the local congregation. Sometimes that means submission on secondary matters. Sometimes that means bearing with other’s faults (another rule). This also means being wary of those who divide the church.

People shouldn’t simply pray for the afflicted but may also have opportunity to bear their burdens, particularly the poor. They should be willing to associate with the lowly instead of using church to climb the social ladder.

“Let pity, not envy; mercy, not malice; patience, not passion; Christ, not flesh; grace, not nature; pardon, not spite or revenge be our guides and companions in our life’s walk.”

We see many practical ways to be involved with one another here. These are practical ways to study the peace, purity and prosperity of the church.

Sadly, many take a very low view of church membership vows in our day. Some churches don’t even have church membership, meaning that people aren’t explicitly agreeing to walk together. There are times when changing churches is wise, and even necessary. But people are often influenced with a consumerist mindset and push aside the obligations the have taken upon themselves. I’ll be reminding our congregation of those vows at our upcoming congregational meeting.

 

1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?

2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?

3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?

4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?

5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

Every member of our congregation has confessed to being a sinner in need of redemption in Christ. This means each member can and does sin, and some of those sins are against members of the church or harm the church. Those sins put the peace, purity and prosperity of the church at risk. They need restoration, reconciliation and repentance. This means that some people may be disciplined, but all have promised to submit themselves to the government of the church while studying purity and peace. These vows are intended to shape how we live or walk together in Christ’s church. More churches should be talking about these things.

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Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ By Matthew Barrett, Michael A. G. Haykin cover imageFor years now I’ve been reading a volume in the Crossway series “On the Christian Life” while on vacation. That means I read two a year. This summer I decided to read Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ in light of the many references to him at General Assembly, particularly in discussions of sexual sin.

Ironically, in Carl Trueman’s foreward he references the pastoral problems that we share with Owen and his time, including sex (a perennial problem though with different manifestations at times). These problems require the making of fine distinctions, which, Trueman asserts, are difficult to do when we are emotional. Debate ignores these distinctions, and I’ve seen much of this in my denomination in recent days. Trueman continues:

“Owen distinguishes between external temptations and internal. Thus one might pass a suggestive poster outside a shop that tempts one to have a lustful thought and yet resist temptation and not sin. Or one may be sitting at home daydreaming and start to have inappropriate thoughts about a neighbor’s wife. The one represents an external temptation; the other, internal.”

Both temptations involve our sinful nature, but in different ways. External temptation often hooks us because of our sinful nature and our particular weaknesses. But to be tempted in this way is not necessarily a transgression (entertain it, and you do). But if the temptation arises from inside, the source is our sinful nature. We are responsible for that temptation and have transgressed.

These distinctions have been flattened and ignored, even by people who bring up John Owen to prove their point. Yes, Owen was used on both sides of the Nashville Statement debate, for instance. It is like Calvin on the sabbath, you can likely find a passage (often without context) to defend your point of view.

John Owen on the Christian LifeI am neither a novice nor an expert on John Owen. Previously I’ve read Sinclair Ferguson’s book John Owen on the Christian Life (which I regret selling) for a seminary class taught by Jerry Bridges. I’ve read most of volumes 6 and 10 in his works. In particular his books on Sin and Temptation, and the Mortification of Sin, I’ve read more than once. In some discussions I’ve resisted the temptation to snarkily respond to those who suggest I read them as though I were utterly ignorant. I experience an external temptation that my pride has interest in pursuing but the grace of God taught me to say ‘no’.

This is a dense book filled with Owen’s distinctions and working through his treatises. It is highly theological. I have no problem with that at all. But this is a series “On the Christian Life”.

At the end of the book the authors refer to Of the Mortification of Sin.

“This small work encapsulates Owen’s vision of the Christian life as lifelong warfare with indwelling sin and how the indwelling Holy Spirit is the believer’s great strength in this war.”

That is the book I wanted to read! I wanted a book focused on how we live as Christians. This necessarily involves theology, and this was much of Owen’s focus. But I felt like they generally settled for the theological controversies and how Owen responded to them instead of how that theology was intended to play out in our personal experience- something Owen thought was the essence of the Christian life.

Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin are the authors. Here is the chapter listing:

  1. Being John Owen (23)
  2. Living by the Scriptures (35)
  3. Communing with the Trinity (53)
  4. Beholding the Glory of Christ (89)
  5. Crushed for Our Iniquities (121)
  6. Salvation Belongs to the Lord (145)
  7. Justification by Faith Alone and Christian Assurance (185)
  8. The Indwelling Spirit, the Mortification of Sin, and the Power of Prayer (219)
  9. Living the Christian Life as the Church under the State (237)
  10. The Legacy of John Owen (253)
  11. Owen as Pastor to Pilgrims (261)

The latter chapters which are more focused on how we live as Christians as the shorter chapters. Those focused on the theological controversies are the longest chapters. At different times Owen found himself engaging Roman Catholics, Quakers (primarily regarding the Scriptures), Socinians, and Arminians. These controversies were the impetus for many of his treatises. In some of the chapters, like Justification, the authors cover the divergent views of the Roman Catholic Church, Arminians and Socinians and offer Owen’s refutations of each. The problem is that those refutations are often very similar or even identical. You find yourself reading the same thing repeatedly. This makes for a longer book. A more thorough book, but a longer book.

We can see that the Christian life should be rooted in the Scriptures, pursuing communion with the Trinity, meditating on the glory of Christ, being assured of our justification because of Christ’s substitutionary atonement so that we mortify indwelling sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. But they don’t seem to cut to the chase and say that. I felt like I was lead to the water, but not helped to drink from it. I can make those connections, but the people most needing to read this may not be able to.

I guess this left me think this was a book for people like me- theologically oriented elders and pastors. Other volumes in this series, I thought, were more accessible and practical. Don’t misread me. I like the book, but didn’t think it was what it needed to be in light of past experience with the series. Make sense?

In the preface, however they say “while we do not pass over or ignore the weightiness of Owen’s theology, nevertheless, the book is written with a very practical and pastoral focus in mind.” I would beg to differ. I think it was lost in the weightiness of his theology.

One of the places where it is pastorally helpful is the distinction between union and communion (or fellowship). Our union is accomplished monergristically and does not change. Our communion is rooted in this union, but calls us to action so we enjoy this communion. It grows or diminishes along with our obedience as a result. We can lose our sense of communion, but we don’t lose our union with Christ. In union we receive the fulness of Christ with a particular focus on the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. In communion we return His love and delight in God.

One problem with losing sight of this distinction is a faulty understanding of faith and regeneration. Union is part of our effectual call. Deny that and you are left with conflating union and communion so faith precedes regeneration instead of fellowship.

The following chapter on meditating on the glory of Christ is one of the more helpful. They show us the role in turning to Jesus in affliction and temptation, as well as gratitude feeding our desire to obey. Here the main opponent was Socinianism since that alone denied the deity of Jesus which ultimately, as they say, unravels all of Christianity.

In the chapter Salvation Belongs to the Lord they focus on the relationship between predestination and the Christian life. Here is the distinction between decrees and commands, his secret will and his revealed will. Lose sight of this and you confuse providence with your moral duty. They balance divine sovereignty and human responsibility. This includes the distinction between duty and ability. Pelagianism and Arminianism generally conflate them so that our salvation ultimately rests on ourselves and not the Lord. Owen reminds us that ” the command directs our duty, but the promise gives strength for the performance of it.”

In this chapter we also see the distinction between regeneration and sanctification. Socianians conflated the two so that regeneration was an “ongoing process of moral transformation.” The Christian should rest in God’s work for and in him/her as the basis for our efforts in sanctification. We labor as new creations, men and women made new.

“To abandon the doctrine of perseverance is to unleash havoc on the Christian life. Without the doctrine of perseverance, there can be no assurance that the God who began this work of salvation will bring it to completion.”

Justification brings us to the distinctions of between the active and passive obedience of Christ. The active obedience was denied by the Socinians, Catholics and Arminians though in different ways. For the Arminians, there was an embrace of neo-nomianism. Faith was not the instrument of imputed righteousness but was imputed as righteousness. The new law was faith, so Christ didn’t obey on our behalf. The distinction between imputation and impartion is important as the first is connected to justification and the latter to sanctification. Positionally righteous in justification thru the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we become personally righteous as Christ imparts righteousness to us in sanctification until we become like Him in glorification.

There is much to understand regarding justification so we can live a healthy, God-honoring life as a Christian. But to err here is disastrous for the Christian life. More space could have been spent unpacking that. It is important to get this down before moving to indwelling sin, temptation and the mortification of sin. That chapter could have been longer, with more discussion of the process of temptation and the distinctions Trueman noted so that it would be easier to unpack the Westminster Standards regarding the movements of the corrupted nature as sin: condition or transgression? This plays into the discussion of “sexual orientation” and transgression. Clearly SSA is a lack of conformity to the law of God, but at what point does it also become a transgression of the law of God (temptation ==> lust including dwelling on it in our thoughts ==> commission or act)? We don’t hold to the Roman doctrine, yet …. I don’t want to digress too far. This is not simply about that particular sin. We all experience temptation, and that temptation must be mortified. That desire does not conform to the law of God and is “sinful”. But have I transgressed the law or sinned because I experienced a temptation? I see an important distinction there that others seem not to see.

“It is in the death of Christ that we find the death of sin.” Sinclair Ferguson

So, this is a theologically weighty book rooted in the controversies that Owen addressed. Those controversies remain important today. They do affect how we view the Christian life. Yet, they aren’t the Christian life. Do you get that distinction? In my opinion this book could have focused less on theology in some spots (more in others) and explicitly drawn out those pastoral implications for the Christian life. This book could have been more for the average person in the pews that the pastors in the pulpits.

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This time last year the internet and FB groups were abuzz with discussion and disagreement about Revoice. Now we have the sequel as a number of PCA presbyteries are putting out their reports evaluating the Revoice conference. Unlike last year there is evidence to go on instead of speculation and fear.

One of the more weighty reports is the Central Carolina Presbytery report. It is relatively brief, focused and generally fair. I don’t say that last thing to impute wrong-doing. I’ll explain it as we go through.

For those who say “What is Revoice?” that is a complicated question. The answer can sometimes seem like the old proverb about blind people describing it based on the one part they hold. “A tree!” “No, a snake.” “I am holding a rope.” It is an elephant but those individuals have partial knowledge.

It does refer to a conference held at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in July of 2018. After the initial planning of the conference, Revoice was formed as an organization. This order of actions may explain some (not all) of the lack of clarity regarding their purpose(s). They have scheduled another conference in 2019, which will not be hosted by a church. They also have a new advisory board.

In addition to hosting the event, the pastor of Memorial was a speaker at the initial event. A professor from the denominational seminary was the speaker for a workshop. He was asked because he is particularly qualified to speak to his topic based on his Tyndale Commentary of the Old Testament volume on Leviticus. Dr. Sklar spoke about the continuing relevance of the laws against homosexuality from Leviticus 18 and 20. These connections to the PCA created the false impression that it was a “PCA event”, sponsored or authorized. The church was a host sight, and hosted many events from outside groups. As the Missouri Presbytery ruled, they should have used more discernment and wisdom when approving this.

Their stated goal was misunderstood, as well as other elements of their language or vocabulary. Here is their recently updated purpose:

To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

They observe the historic doctrines of marriage and sexuality. This is an important thing to keep in mind. This means that they believe and teach that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sexual activity is to be limited to the marriage relationship.

But the controversy comes with “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians”. Their use of those terms creates lots of heat and very little light.

Let’s pause for a moment because I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The Central Carolina study committee limited their work to the main speakers and their sessions. I understand, there were too many workshops to exhaustively examine. The downside of that is that Dr. Sklar was not vindicated as I desired to see happen. I did see one of the more controversial workshops having to do with “queer treasure” being brought into the kingdom. That workshop didn’t address that topic until the last few minutes, and I was still confused. It most mostly a sociological history of homosexuality in America.

They examined messaged by Matthew Lee Anderson, Ron Belgau, Brother Trout, Johanna Finnegan, Eve Tushnet, Nat Collins and Wesley Hill. Wesley Hill is one of the keynote speakers based on how influential his book Washed and Waiting was to the Revoice Founders.

As the Committee notes, this is a very diverse group of people. It is ecumenical in nature. Therefore they don’t speak from a unified set of beliefs beyond basic Christianity. I think this explains some of the lack of clarity as well. But they do represent a diverse set of opinions on topics like sanctification.

Anderson, for instance, talked about “sanctifying our illicit desire”. It would be much better to say we mortify or put to death our illicit desire. Illicit desires are those that we more and more die to. We more and more live to righteous desires.

I wish they had explored his talk more to see if he’s saying this in a way similar to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sanctification, or as those those “illicit desires” somehow become good.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Belgau sees same sex attraction as a produce of the fall and needing to be mortified. Brother Trout focused on seeing oneself in the Story such that we have value and direction about how to live beyond the “do’s and don’ts”. Finegan touched largely on issues of language and identity. She also addresses what change a gay person should normally expect to see as they are drawn closer to Jesus. For her, the reality of SSA is part of God’s sovereignty to experience their weakness and seek Him. She also spoke about learning to agree with God when He speaks in His word.

Tushnet sought to provide wisdom for same sex friendships from some of the friendships we find in Scripture. This means she isn’t viewing them as romantic relationships. These become a goal for people. Secondly she wanted to comfort people from God’s love for the marginalized.

Nate Collins’ message was about lament, and touched on some potentially controversial areas when he talked about church leadership. Both Jesus and Jeremiah lamented the corrupt leaders of God’s people. Surely, many pastors and elders have not treated repentant people who struggle with SSA well. Surely some have made the nuclear family into an idol. Many have heard these things and been quite upset. But he does call those who have SSA to suffer with Jesus, to take up the cruciform life.

Hill spoke about the woman caught in adultery to address hope in the midst of shame. He noted that Jesus was not soft on sin. Jesus sees all sinners as needing grace, not some more than others. But Jesus frees her to live a new life.

The Study Committee organized their analysis around five themes:

  • Desire and temptation
  • Labels and identity
  • Spiritual friendship
  • Homosexuality as a gift
  • The pervasiveness of pain

The section on desire and temptation is the longest and most complex.

The Revoice speakers we heard were all united in their belief that the Bible does not allow for gay marriage and that sexual activity between persons of the same-sex is forbidden by God. Given the mood of our culture, not to mention the many revisionist theologies clamoring for our attention, Revoice’s affirmation of certain aspects of biblical sexuality is to be highly commended. We thank God for their commitment to an orthodox, Christian understanding of marriage, especially when such a commitment comes at a personal cost for many in the Revoice movement. (pp. 6)

They turned to the question of: desire for sin or sinful desire? Some may wonder about the difference. Are they desires to do something that is sinful, or are the desires sinful in themselves? The speakers seemed to give different answers to that question. Some spoke of permissible forms of same sex desire. Others spoke of redirecting or redeploying those desires. Others about mortifying those same desires. This is a key area where the ecumenical flavor wrecks havoc.

This is a key area of disagreement among Christians who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage: are same-sex desires sinful, or are they merely disordered desires that become sinful when acted upon? (pp. 6)

TImage result for do not enterhis is a key area, and has large implications for how to care for people as pastors (and elders). One critique that I have of this report is that it polarizes this question. In other words, there are more than two answers to this question. Is temptation sin from the get go, or only when acted upon? fits the two pole theory. But some would argue that temptation is not sin but can become sin in thought (aka lust in this case) even though you don’t act upon it.

One way of looking at this is that temptation is a door. You can see the sin in the other room. Do you close the door and walk away, mortifying that desire? Or do you “enter into temptation” and become carried away. by your lust so you are sinning in thought, and may then sin in deed as well?

This is a difficult question. I reject that idea that it is only sin when acted upon (unless you mean entering into temptation). To lust is clearly sin.

Back to the report.

Most of our disagreements with Revoice start with the theological conviction that the desire for an illicit end is itself an illicit desire. (pp. 6)

They begin with the use of “covet” particularly in the tenth commandment. They then discuss sinful desires or lusts. I prefer the term inordinate desire since the word seems to indicate uppermost desires. The question is: are temptation and lust, or inordinate desires identical? The study committee is answering yes.

Question 18: Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
Answer: The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

They rightly note that we are guilty not only for our sins, but also for original sin. We are corrupt in Adam and our sinful desires flow out of that original corruption. Or as the Catechism says “actual transgressions which proceed from it.” There is a distinction made between indwelling sin or the remnant of sin and the actual transgressions. Is temptation transgression?

The Report brings us to the difference between Roman Catholic Theology and Reformed Theology. In Catholic theology the inclination to sin is called concupiscence. It is to be wrestled with but does no harm unless consented to. Our disordered desires are a result of the fall, but do not become sin (actual transgressions) without our consent (though this is not necessarily defined in the report).

The Study Committee call upon John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and John Owen not only as representatives of Reformed Theology but also to indicate the uniformity of Reformed Thought in disagreeing with Rome AND saying these “inordinate desires” (Calvin) are in fact sin.

I would say that inordinate desires are sin as well. But I’m not identifying temptation with inordinate desires. Using James 1, they ask if ‘temptation’ provides that moral space.

On the face of it, this passage seems to indicate that it is possible to be tempted by evil desires without sinning. Only when the will consents to the temptation does the alluring and enticing desire become sin. Although a plausible reading of the text at first glance, the Reformed tradition has consistently interpreted James 1:14-15 along different lines. (pp. 8)

It gets murkier as we seek to separate bone from marrow. I will confess, my head starts to hurt.

For Calvin, there is indwelling sin (the temptations caused by desire in v. 14b), actual sin (the birth of sin in v. 15a), and—mentioned in the next paragraph in his Commentary—“perfected” sin (the deadly fully grown sin in v. 15b). When James talks about temptations leading to sin, he does not mean that the temptation (in this case) is itself morally neutral.(pp. 8)

TImage may contain: one or more people, people sitting and indoorhey rightly note that both “sin” and “temptation” have ranges of meaning. “Sin” can refer to both the condition and the transgression (want of conformity unto or breaking of God’s law). Temptation can refer to external pressure, such as Jesus experienced yet without sin (Hebrews 4:25). It can also refer to internal pressure, desire that arises from within, which Jesus did not experience because He did not have a sinful nature.

In reading Owen again for a recent sermon on this passage and subject, I wrestled with his nuance and distinctions. They do too!

The parsing of sin and temptation can be thorny, which is why Reformed theologians have typically explained these issues with careful nuance. A case in point is John Owen’s handling of temptation in The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin (1667). Once again, James 1:14-15 is a pivotal text:

“Now, what is it to be tempted? It is to have that proposed to man’s consideration which, if he close, it is evil, it is sin unto him. This is sin’s trade: epithumei—“it lusts.” It is raising up in the heart, and proposing unto the mind and affections, that which is evil; trying, as it were, whether the soul will close with its suggestions, or how far it will carry them on, though it does not wholly prevail.”

Up to this point, it sounds like Owen may consider temptation caused by lusts to be morally neutral, to be a kind of spiritual struggle that cannot be called sin until we acquiesce to its allurement. But notice what Owen says next:

“Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin.” (pp. 9)

As I considered Owen’s description phrase “enter into temptation” every example he used the person not only was tempted by acted upon that temptation. Yet, to be simply tempted is not inevitably to commit the act. Yet, they reach this conclusion:

What makes temptation a “temptation” is that it tempts us to actual, observable sin, but this does not make the temptation something other than sin. (pp. 9)

They continue with Owen distinguishing between passive and active temptation. The former is from without, and the latter from within. But here is their conclusion of this section:

Each step of the process is worse than the next. We should not think that the entanglement of the affections is equivalent to obstinately pursuing a life of sin. There is moral space to be found between each step. And yet, this process is not one that moves from innocence to sin, but rather one that sees indwelling sin move from the mind to the affections to the will and finally to the outward working of sin in the life (and death) of a person.

It sounds to me that while admitting moral space, each step is in itself sin (transgression) such that one is heaping up sins until the outward working of sin.

I may be misunderstanding, but they speak of the uniform rejection of the Roman doctrine (rightly!) and seem to imply this is also the uniform doctrine of the Reformed heritage. If that is the case, I argue this is the overreach.

For instance, in her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield writes:

The Bible is clear that all sex outside of biblical marriage is a sin. The Bible is also transparent that homosociality is not sinful. 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. (pp. 123)

Later on that page she does say that homosexual lust is a sin. Heterosexual lust as well. She’s drawing a distinction between temptation and lust, calling the latter a sin but not the former.

In his book Holy Sexuality, Christopher Yuan reads Owen a slightly different way as well.

“If you’re wracked with guilt for simply having same-sex sexual temptations, hear these words from John Owen: “It is impossible that we should be so freed from temptation a not to be at all tempted.” Being tempted doesn’t mean you have little faith because it is quite ordinary and human to be tempted. The truth of the matter is that temptations are not sinful.” (pp. 57)

You find similar statements in Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body and Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?. If we look at the North Florida Presbytery’s Study Committee Report on Same-Sex Attraction we read:

That said, it is important to recognize that temptation is always an inducement to do wrong (1 Corinthians 7.5; Galatians 6.1; 1 Timothy 6.9; James 1.14-15). While the experience of temptation does not incur guilt, the temptation it self is not neutral. Temptation entices the Christian to transgress God’s will. In our sinful weakness, there is a short distance between sexual temptation and lust (Matthew 5.27-28). Therefore, it is wise to exercise caution and vigilance with all temptations to sexual immorality and to set our hearts and minds to what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and praiseworthy(Philippians 4.8; Colossians 3.1-4).

They put moral space between temptation and lust, the later of which incurs guilt.

Before I leave this subject, Kevin DeYoung wrote a blog post in 2013 entitled Temptation is Not the Same as Sin. He is one of the members of the Central Carolina Presbytery study committee. He may have changed his views since it has been 6 years. But the whole article creates that moral space. Here is part of his rationale:

Debts and trespasses require forgiveness; temptation needs deliverance. They are not the same. Just because you are struggling with temptation does not mean you are mired in sin. The spiritual progression in the human heart goes from desire to temptation to sin to death (James 1:14-15). We are told to flee temptation, not because we’ve already sinned, but because in the midst of temptation we desperately feel like we want to.

To sum this up. Some of the teaching of Revoice embraces the Roman Catholic view of concupiscence which states it is not a sin until consented and acted upon. We believe this view to be wrong.

We believe that temptations do arise from our sinful nature. Those should be mortified. There is some disagreement as to whether they are “a sin” or transgression. But based on the 10th commandment, among other passages, we should recognize that lust, or covetousness, is a sin because it is idolatry or an inordinate desire. Whether that is homosexual lust, heterosexual lust or the coveting of my neighbor’s possessions, it is a sin. We add further sin if we satisfy that lust.

 

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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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In this, the Year of Newton, I’m trying to also read some shorter books. At the end of last year I bought a pair of books by Christian Focus. I’ve already reviewed the one on the ascension of Christ. Over the last week or so I’ve read the second- In Christ: In Him Together for the World by Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde.

In Christ: In Him Together for the WorldTimmis is generally known for his other work with Tim Chester, particularly Total Church and The Gospel-Centered Church. Those are both books I’ve benefited from in the past (here’s one blog post). He is an English pastor/church planter who is generally Reformed. I hadn’t heard of de la Hoyde before.

As the book indicates it is about union with Christ, which until recently was a greatly neglected theological subject. There are a number of newer titles looking at it from more academic and popular perspectives. This short book (90 pages) is an introduction in some ways. It doesn’t look at the subject exhaustively. What it does say is good and helpful, but keep in mind they aren’t trying to say everything.

The introduction prompts our thoughts in terms of what a church plant needs to learn and believe. This is not a surprise in light of Timmis’ role in Acts 29 Europe. They threw out a few options, like ecclesiology. They then bring up John Calvin, asserting that he was believe that a church plant needs to learn what it means to be united to Christ.

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ … This union (with Christ) alone ensures that, as far as we are concerned, he has not unprofitably come with the name of Savior.” John Calvin

This book, beginning with this quote from the Institutes, is drenched in Calvin’s thought. They are also dependent on theologians like John Owen. The organizing principle in Paul’s thought on salvation is union with Christ, or being “in Christ”. Rather than simply define it, they address it in terms of its benefits.

The first chapter is Safe in Christ. United to Christ we are safe from God’s wrath, but outside of it we are subject to it. The opening illustration is a house in the storm: in the house is safety, warmth and nurture. Outside is rain, wind, lightening and danger.

They do bring us back to Genesis 2 and humanity’s first home, the Garden of Eden. It was full of provision and peace. Adam and Eve lacked for nothing, except clothes but they didn’t need those. But then came sin and their exile. The curse means that our work is not as fruitful. Yet God held out hope for a new city, a new land.

As the story line of redemption develops we see that to be in the land is seen as enjoying prosperity and protection. To be removed or excluded from the land is a picture is a picture of judgement. Between Malachi and Matthew there were 400 years of silence, something of a 2nd Egyptian captivity where they are in the land but under the thumb of the Greeks and then the Romans. They are “exiled in the land” as a conquered people.

In comes Jesus, entering the land from the Jordan to begin a new conquest of the land. Jesus as the head of the new covenant is our representative. He bore the curse for us, and obeyed for us. We are now safe if we are “in Him.”

They develop this idea of representation with the illustration of Olympic athletes and, more importantly, Romans 5. Adam was our initial representative. All human beings from “ordinary generation” (human parents) are born “in Adam”: guilty of his sin and corrupt so we are also guilty of our own sins. If, by faith, we are “in Christ” His obedience is our obedience, we died and rose with Him. In other words, sin has no hold on us. We have already suffered its penalty with Christ. We have been raised to newness of life with Jesus as well.

“The gospel is God’s command and invitation for us to come out of Adam: out of sin and judgment. The gospel is also God’s command and invitation for us to come into Christ. The good in Christ is so much better than the bad in Adam.”

Then they move to Connected in Christ. Our union with Christ is a relational union. They begin to delve into the work of the Spirit who unites us to Jesus, and to one another. The Spirit unites us directly to Jesus thru faith, not through ritual. It is mediated by the Spirit, not the Church as in medieval Roman theology.

Connected to Christ we are in the presence of God. As we see in Ephesians 2 we’ve been made alive with Christ AND raise and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. We therefore have unlimited access to God in Christ.

They then talk about Growing in Christ. Christians, and congregations, become more like Christ. They grow through their union with Christ. Calvin notes that in Christ we receive the ‘double grace’ of justification and sanctification. We are accepted and righteous in Christ. His righteousness is imputed to us. But it is also imparted to us in sanctification.

While our union does not change, it is a dynamic union through which Jesus changes us. This brings them into discussions of progressive and definitive sanctification. It is important to remember that we don’t become more or less acceptable to God even though we can be more or less conformed to the likeness of Christ.

In Christ we are dead to sin, and need to think of ourselves as so. They bring us to Romans 6 to unpack this. But we are not only united to Christ in His death, but also in His resurrection. We’ve been raised to newness of life, and need to think of ourselves that way. We grow into our identity in Christ. Sin is not inevitable for us. We are not indebted to sin. We are indebted to Jesus.

In Romans 6, their credobaptist colors show a bit. This is one of the few points of disagreement I have with them. What we see in Roman 6 is what baptism signifies as a sign and seal of God’s promise. They take this as necessarily signifying what we have already received. Our disagreement is more about sacramental theology than union with Christ. But while our union with Christ is mediated by the Spirit, baptism is a sign & seal of our ingrafting to Christ. Paul speaks of them receiving this in baptism because as fruit of missionary work they believed, coming out of paganism, and were baptized.

They begin to unpack our mutual union in Together in Christ, bringing us to Ephesians 4 and 2 “for we are members of one another.” A great reunification has taken place because Jesus has removed the wall of hostility. But that does not mean that church life is easy.

“Church life is messy. It’s tough, it’s long and it’s often ugly. That’s why we need to help each other to regain God’s own view of His church: we are a people reconciled in Christ to display His wisdom  to the universe.”

They return to Ephesians 4 to address the practices that help and hinder membership in the one body. Not only do Christians grow in godliness, but churches are to as well. We are a light in the darkness.

They shift to Mission in Christ. Joined to Jesus we share in His mission. God’s mission becomes our mission because we are united to Christ. They discuss identity (who I am), purpose (why I am) and function (what I am). Then they have a few case studies to explore these concepts.

The final chapter is Everyday in Christ. They admit “the Christian life can be frustrating.” Our temptation, in frustration and boredom, as they note is to look outside of Christ for help. They bring us to Colossians to look at some of the things we look to in addition to Christ. They call us back to the gospel.

“We need more of Christ, not more than Christ.”

Christ, who lived for us, defines how we should live. This is not intended to be an abstract doctrine. For Paul, it was a doctrine that shaped our daily lives. They direct us to a few areas: prayer and marriage. There could have been more, and I wish there were more (at the least singleness).

This makes a great introduction to the subject. They take a biblical theology approach, viewing union from the perspective of the history of redemption (creation, fall, redemption & glorification) rather than a systematic approach. They also try to bring out the connections to church planting and other practical aspects. For this they are to be commended. Just as they aren’t saying all they could theologically, they aren’t saying all they could practically or in terms of implications/applications. They want this to be short and sweet. In light of this they also avoid lots of technical terms so ordinary people can understand what they are saying.

All this to say it was a good little book that I wish was a little longer.

 

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I first heard of this book from Tim Challies’ blog. It piqued my interest. I thought it may prove a good resource when I preach through NT epistles.

This book is Sexual Morality in a Christless World by Matthew Rueger. Rueger is a Lutheran pastor who was asked to teach a lesson “on the other side” at a university class on ethics. The argument by cultural progressives is that Christianity is morally regressive. Rueger explodes this myth/fallacy by showing what the world was like before the Christian sexual ethic took root in the Roman Empire with the spread of the gospel. The sexual morals of societies before the spread of Christianity looks like where the progressives are trying to bring society. Rueger then moves to the present and discusses the current debate over homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

“My desire in writing this book is to help Christians engage the world around them in reasoned discussion.”

In a sense this feels like two books at times- or perhaps three. There are historical sections, theological/expositional sections and then sociological sections. They all work together to build a compelling case.

In many ways this is not an easy read, or one that should be read by everybody. In particular, some may struggle with the early chapters discussing the sexual morality of Greece and Rome. It made me very glad I was not born in that time and place. People who have suffered similar victimization may be troubled by it. However, this is an excellent book to offset the views students are taught in public schools and centers for higher learning.

The first chapter is The Roman Context, which necessarily includes Greece too. At the time of Christ, much of the Roman Empire had once been part of the Greek Empire and Hellenized. There were not really differences of practice, but there were differences of rationale behind those behaviors.

He begins by noting that orientation is a “modern phenomenon” which seems to be lost on most conservatives. Orientation is slippery, in a sense, because some gay activists freely acknowledge that orientation is a concept of recent conception, and some would not agree with the way orientation is defined by the courts. They see orientation as fluid, while the courts have defined it as immutable (he notes Varnum v. Brien, Iowa 2009).

The ancients, therefore, including the early Christians “did not understand sexuality in terms of orientation.” For Greek culture, “sex was about the pursuit of beauty”, and they took it where they could get it. The ideal of beauty in their culture was young boys. In Roman culture, sex was tied to their idea of masculinity which was domination. Men were honored for dominating others sexually, and ridiculed if they were dominated sexually. It was an ethic very much like what we see in prisons today. This shaped their view of rape in the legal system. It was only rape if it involved a free Roman citizen. Slaves and non-citizens could be raped without consequence, particularly by free Roman citizens (talk about privilege!).

Greeks made no such distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Pederasty was common among Greeks and Romans, though there was some taboo in Rome where freeborn boys were concerned. Young male slaves were vulnerable. You were expected to take advantage of them.

“Our early Christian ancestors did not confess biblical chastity in a safe culture that naturally agreed with them.”

Marriage was not between equals. Male privilege ran rampant in these “progressive” cultures. Marriage was for status and heirs and the Empire, not love. Sexual pleasure was sought elsewhere. Seeking sex from a boy or man was viewed as a higher form of sexual relationship which included intellectual love.

He discusses the role of the gymnasium in Greek and Roman life. The word meant ‘naked’ for it was where the boys and young men exercised naked. One of the more popular sports was wrestling. Clothes, inhibitions and modesty were all shed together. Generally slaves were prohibited from entering the gymnasium. These teens were watched, and pursued, by older men in this environment.

Family life was twisted by their diminished view of women. Greek wives were virtually prisoners in their homes. They would leave for some religious rites, but that was about it. Roman wives had more rights and mobility. They could conduct trade. Since their “job” was to produce children for the Empire, women were often married once they were able to have children to maximize the child-bearing years due to infant mortality rates. For the population to grow, you needed to have at least 3 children survive to adulthood (it’s all about the Empire)so you needed to have at least 6 children. Expectations were different for the wealthy (you can’t have too many elites), and infanticide was a problem in Rome.

Husbands had rights over their wives, but not wives over her husband. He was free to sow his oats outside of the marriage. She was not. If caught, she and her male partner could be prosecuted (assuming the husband was a free man with means). In keeping with the twisted view of sexuality in Rome, the husband could “rape the male offender and then, if he desired, to kill his wife.” This was a brutal and depraved society.

Image result for escherIt was a world of promiscuity and perversion into which the gospel of Jesus Christ was first preached. Paul called it a crooked and twisted generation (Phil. 2:15). The Gentiles who converted came from a background of pornography, prostitution (including temple prostitutes), homosexuality/bisexuality, and rape. Like those around them, they had been given over to their disordered desires. The Gospel called people out of this perverse way of life, confronting the sexual mores of Rome.

Rueger then addresses the Jewish Context, which should not be assumed to be the same as the Christian viewpoint because it wasn’t. Judaism did not permit homosexuality like the Gentiles did. It prohibited prostitution. It did, however, permit polygamy and concubines. There was also a double standard concerning adultery. Wives were to produce heirs.

The sexual abuse of children was considered punishable. But it was merely a fine in the Mishnah. Generally, Jewish culture was less perverse than Greek and Roman cultures. But we see it was still warped by sin. The Gospel and subsequent definition of holy living would confront aspect of Jewish sexuality and marriage as well.

“We live in a culture that has a vested interest in misinterpreting the passages about sex and morality.”

He then moves into the expositional section of the book. Rueger looks at particular passages that are central to these discussions. He discusses context, briefly, to help people understand how to interpret texts. He includes some passages about marriage to indicate the equal rights and responsibilities of spouses in sexual matters. He then moves into sexual immorality and homosexual sex. In 1 Corinthians he notes the two words used for homosexual activity which indicate both the penetrator and penetrated are guilty of breaking God’s Law, which is quite contrary to Roman ethics.

“It should be noticed that Paul does not treat homosexual sins differently than heterosexual sins when it comes to the application of Law and Gospel. Both are addressed side by side as equally contrary to God’s Law and both are spoken of as equally forgivable.”

He then moves to the present with “Mom, Dad, I’m Gay”. As a Lutheran pastor, he applies Law and Gospel to this situation. He also challenges the basis for those who challenge traditional/biblical teachings on homosexuality. In our culture, objectivity is laid aside and subjectivity is embraced. He discusses the many reasons why someone could be homosexual.

“It is important for us as Christians to understand that not all homosexuality is the same. … Christians do a great disservice to those who seek Christ’s grace and mercy by lumping all same-sec attracted people into one group.”

In that application of Law and Gospel, he draws a big distinction between those who seek to normalize homosexuality and those who believe it is wrong and struggle with their same sex desires (as well as other sexual sins). The former need the Law to convict them of sin, and the latter need to Gospel for forgiveness and sanctification. Too often I hear Christians speak of people struggling with same sex desire as one big group, as if they are all activists. There is a quiet majority (?) of those who are conflicted in themselves between what they experience and what they believe is right.

Additionally, the Church needs to remember that heterosexual desire also creates sinful desires (such as for adultery, fornication, pornography, polygamy etc.). I’ve had pastors say to me that it is different because same-sex attraction is unnatural. But we need to put those desires to sin to death because they are just as deadly & dangerous, just as sinful, as same-sex desires. Until we do that, we will treat them as lepers.

He stresses the role of the Church as making the pardoning and purifying grace of Jesus Christ known to its members who struggle with these desires. Being Lutheran, he stresses the sacraments. As a Reformed Christian, I hold a high view of the sacraments and their being means of grace. But not as high as Lutherans. He seems to disconnect their efficacy from faith. But the Table is a place to bring disordered desires of all kinds to Jesus and receive His help through our union with Him.

“Temptation is not the same as sin. Temptations play on those elements of our inner being that have a weakness for a certain sin, but in and of themselves temptations are not sins.”

He moves into an area of debate among even conservative Christians. He distinguishes temptation from sin. His statements are similar to those of Nancy Pearcey, Rosaria Butterfield and others (though Rosaria then seems to put homosexual temptation in a separate category in the next paragraph). The gospel does teach us to say ‘no’ to unrighteousness, which means we are mortifying our temptations. As Christians our temptations, while real and present, should not define us. He includes three paragraphs from Luther’s Larger Catechism in which Luther differentiates temptation and sin. Luther further distinguishes temptation from desire (or what we call lust), in which we are entertaining or giving way to temptation rather than mortifying it, but have not yet committed the act in question. This is likely what Owen means in his phrase “entering into temptation.” I find this a helpful distinction.

Tempted? Mortify it! Lusting? Mortify it and repent! Done it? Repent!

“Christians are not less sinful than non-Christians, but they do have a Savior who both forgives sins and fights within them against the temptations in their path.”

He returns to the question of orientation. It usually refers to the idea that sexuality and attraction are essential elements of a person resulting from their individual biology which cannot be changed. This “immutability” is an accident of their birth. This is how the courts have spoken about this. As Rueger notes, real life is not some simple. For some people, “orientation” or attraction is more fluid. They shift between heterosexual and homosexual at points in life (as opposed to bisexuality). The claims of the courts, and activists, don’t fit reality. Instead of orientation, he advocates talking about sexual identity or gender preference. These leave room for the gospel to be at work, while the language of orientation is misleading and fatalistic.

Rueger then addresses “A Mixed Bag of Objections”. He brings up objections to the Christian understanding of homosexuality and refutes them. We see objections like “inconsistency in applying the law” to which he responds with the three divisions of the law. He brings up racial prejudice and slavery, genetics and brain studies, and twin studies. He explores them, affirms where there are real concerns (Christians have been guilty of prejudice and advocated for and against race-based slavery rooted in man-stealing). He examines those studies and mentions other studies that sought to correct methodological flaws.

The next chapter focuses on same-sex marriage. He builds a case against it from natural law and reason since most people (especially the courts) aren’t concerned about what Scripture says. He brings up studies indicating that children thrive to a greater extent with two parents of the opposite sex. They do better in school and get into less trouble with the law. Where traditional marriage decays (including through divorce and never-married parents), state funding to support children increases greatly. He recognizes the limits of these arguments. Most people, while appealing to reason, often don’t listen to it. Their hearts want what their hearts want. Only God, by His Spirit can change that.

“Sexual promiscuity leaves a trail of broken people and regret. It also tends to go hand in hand with an attitude that sees people as objects for one’s own sexual gratification and not as beings worthy of committed love.”

This was a very helpful book. It is not a long book. Rueger is generally succinct and gets to the point. He does make a number of good and necessary distinctions which often trip up discussions by their absence. This would be a helpful book for pastors, youth workers, teachers, parents and students facing pressure to conform to worldly standards.

To return to his thesis: Christianity is not affirming regressive sexual mores, but continues to call people out of the regressive sexuality that results in rampant promiscuity, sexual abuse and assault, societal instability and misogyny.

 

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In addition to Tim Keller’s book on preaching, I decided to read a booklet by J.C. Ryle entitled Simplicity in Preaching. I will confess that at times I struggle with being clever. I suspect that at times my preaching could use a little more (or a lot more) simplicity.

Ryle obviously thought many of his peers could also stand to exhibit more simplicity in their preaching. This is why he wrote the pamphlet (what is the difference between a booklet and a pamphlet, if any?).

It was interesting reading this on the heels of Keller’s book on preaching. He exhibited some of what Keller said, and advocated some of the same things. There was overall harmony here. He quoted from a number of “respected” non-Christian voices in the area of oration (Quintilian, Cicero, an Arabian proverb, a painter named Turner), as well as some respected preachers.

Rather than a manifesto, as Keller wrote, Ryle confined himself “to one point”. “That point is simplicity in language and style.”

“Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you. … Of course the first object of a minister should be to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’.”

So, we see the same goals in preaching. We see a different emphasis on how to achieve that goal. We can do all Keller (or Stott or any other author) encourages us to do, but if we aren’t understood it doesn’t matter who awesome it looks on paper.

Simplicity is not to be confused with simplistic or childish preaching. The pastor shouldn’t be talking down to them. He should be speaking so they understand. Ryle is not speaking about using coarse or vulgar speech. Understandably, but as a gentleman is a lesson Mark Driscoll needed.

Ryle then goes ahead to note five points toward simplicity. The first is “Know your subject.” I simplified that for him. It the subject of the sermon isn’t clear to you, it will be even less clear or more obscure to the congregation.

“Never choose a text of which you do not quite know what it means.”

There is much wisdom here. We grow into some texts. I did not preach through Colossians until my mid-late 40’s. There is a spiritual maturity necessary to preaching some portions of the letter well and wisely. While I’ve preached texts in Hebrews and Romans, there are still some I am only now feeling mature enough to preach wisely. It isn’t simply about understanding the commentaries but being able to evaluate them and communicate the truth.

He also warns against “fanciful subjects and accommodated texts”. By the latter he means a whole lotta eisegesis, or reading into a text so that you make it say something it never tries to say. Chose texts that are clear so your point is clear and simple.

Secondly, use simple words. Or, as Keller says, define more complex terms. I rarely use a theological term without defining it for the congregation. Ryle argues that short words are often the “most powerful and forcible words.”

In the midst of this point he gets caught up in a controversy about Saxon words rather than words of French or Latin origin. It seems to be a bit of a hot button issue of his day. His focus is not on the origin of the words, but words people understand.

Thirdly, use a simple style. You can’t preach like John Owen wrote. Keep sentences short rather than complex with a series of colons and semi-colons. He notes to “take care to write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” This is because you aren’t writing a book and they aren’t reading a book. The congregants can’t rewind the sermon to hear that phrase until they get it, you keep moving merrily along.

“A hearer of English hears once for all, and if he loses the thread of your sermon in a long involved sentence, he very likely never finds it again.”

In addition to simple style, use proverbs and epigrammatic sayings. They are brief but pointed. This means they communicate well and can be remembered easily.

Fourth, use a direct style. Use “I” and “you” while avoiding “we”. I often use “we” to communicate it applies to me as well as to them. But he has a point in that the composition of “we” is unclear. Whom does it signify? If you clarify that periodically, use “we” as I do. But if you don’t clarify they won’t know what you mean- that they are part of “we”. The directness is for clarity as well as forcefulness. “This applies to you”, not some vague Anybody. He notes that Whitefield was well-known for such directness. It was a large part of his effectiveness.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. They are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” He advocates reading the Puritans, among others, to see how they use illustrations. He lauds Moody’s use of them.

He notes that a preacher with an eye for them is a happy preacher. Such a man finds them in books, movies, music and real life. He sees how these seemingly ordinary things communicate spiritual truth. Unless you are a good story teller, keep them short. Make sure you aren’t obscuring the truth you want to communicate by a lengthy or poorly told illustration or anecdote.

After repeating his points in summary, he adds a word of application (he’s essentially following the Puritan sermonic pattern). Simplicity is attained with much hard work and trouble.

“You must not think that God will do work for you, though he is ready to do it by you.”

God illuminates the Scriptures as we work in them. He doesn’t bypass our study of the grammar, history, context etc. Likewise, as we put sermons together we are to work hard. Exercise your brains in preparation and putting them together.

Oddly, he notes not to spend time reading the Fathers. They are interesting and sometimes helpful, but he doesn’t want us to read for the sake of reading. Read wisely. Read people who not only provide good information but who model such simplicity (today we’d include listening to podcasts that model it for us).

He also notes that part of your “study” is talking with your people. Keller says something similar in terms of expanding your bubble and getting out of the echo chamber. He noted that his time in Hopewell was helpful because he was able to talk to his congregation about his sermons- what connected and what didn’t. Ryle is essentially saying the same thing. He uses an interesting illustration about a pastor asked about the Fathers noting he usually meets with the mothers when he visits because the fathers are at work.

“We must talk to our people when we are out of church, if we would understand how to preach to them in church.”

The goal is to hit their hearts with the truth. Talking with them means you’ll learn to talk to them and the concerns of their hearts.

He concludes with an important reminder:

“All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not his rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe and be, and do, your preaching is of no use.

He also reminds us that simplicity is not a replacement for prayer, particularly for the Spirit’s work. Simplicity, though important, is not a magic bullet that covers a multitude of pastoral sins.

“… let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.”

Ryle provides preachers with a brief treatise that is helpful and often needful.

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