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When it comes to the practice of homosexuality, knowing what to say is not all that difficult if one believes the Bible. It pretty clearly says, from “Genesis to the maps,” as one of my professors used to say, that

  • Men having sex with men is wrong
  • Women having sex with women is wrong
  • Humans having sex with animals is wrong
  • People having sex with other people’s spouses is wrong
  • People having sex with close family members is wrong

In other words, the Bible pretty clearly lays out the boundaries of human sexuality from God’s perspective. Just as it lays out all kinds of other limits on what we can and cannot do.

From a Bible-believer’s perspective, God created the world, God created us, and God created human sexuality. As the Creator, He gets to decide what is and what is not within His intent, purpose, and design for human sexuality.

From a non-Bible-believing perspective, there appear to be no limitations on what is acceptable. Who has the authority to make rules? Who gets to define right and wrong? No one.

That is why knowing how to say what we believe is extremely difficult. I never want to condemn, ridicule, insult, or even offend unnecessarily, do you?

But the more this issue comes to the forefront in our culture, and the more Bible-believing people try share their faith, the more difficult any kind of discussion is going to become. Why? Because the two “sides” come at the conversation from completely different perspectives. Consider this quote from Jeff Hood:

“I heard a really nasty hateful homophobic and bigoted statement this past week…it simply stated, ‘The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.’” *

Think about the statement he is condemning: the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

  • The Bible condemns the practice of homosexuality. It is a sin. The only way around that is to find a way to get the Bible to say something other than what it clearly says.
  • Christian teaching is based upon the Bible.
  • Therefore, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

That is a perfectly valid, straightforward, neutral statement of truth.

And yet, to Mr. Hood and so many others in our culture, how is the statement characterized?

  •  Nasty.
  • Hateful.
  • Homophobic.
  • Bigoted.

I wonder how we are going to bridge this divide. How can I express what I hold to be a valid, non-judgmental, non-homophobic, non-bigoted statement of truth (i.e., the Bible says this, Christian teaching holds this, etc.) and not be characterized as hateful, nasty, homophobic, and bigoted?

* http://revjeffhood.com/phil-robertson-and-the-united-methodist-church/

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Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ

There is much talk today about the Christian doctrine of sin. A new book has just been released:

  • Jesse Couenhoven, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

As a preacher in Churches of Christ, this book is a challenging read for me.

Many non-Christians in America are turned off by the Christian teaching on sin. Why would anyone want to go to church and sing about human failure, death, and dying?

Perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that some Christians find the biblical depiction of human sin overly pessimistic.

  • When Scripture speaks of human corruption, some Christians speak of human potential.
  • When Scripture says “all have sinned,” some Christians say, “Yeah, but I have overcome all that now.”
  • When the Lord Himself says, “With men, [salvation] is impossible,” some Christians say, “Get over it—pull yourself up and let’s do this thing!”

In Churches of Christ, a movement born on the American western frontier and steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, as well as the views of John Locke and Scottish Common Sense Realism, we deny the traditional, orthodox Christian teaching on “original sin.”

Many of our critics accuse us of being “Pelagian” in our view of human sin. Right or wrong, our critics do point out a serious issue in our theology, in our view of the human condition after the Fall.

My question to our people is, “What do we believe about sin and its effects on the human condition?” What did we inherit from Adam, if anything? What were the effects of “sin entering the world” through Adam’s disobedience? What is Paul’s point in Romans 5:12-21?

As a man who makes his living preaching in and for Churches of Christ, I want to know what to teach about the ability of human beings to overcome sin by themselves. Do I go with Christian orthodoxy and risk losing my position of employment? Or do I go with the party line and, while retaining my job, run the risk of violating the overwhelming testimony of our Sacred Text? This presents quite a dilemma.

I have heard sermons within Churches of Christ, many sermons, which could be accurately characterized as Pelagian. According to these sermons, even after the Fall human beings at birth are, following the philosophical view of John Locke, a “clean slate.” According to these sermons, every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life. Our logic is, “Otherwise, God could not hold us accountable for sin.” Or, “How could God command us to keep a law that is impossible for human beings to keep?”

Fair enough, at least according to “common sense.” But what about Paul’s clear teaching–teaching inspired by God’s Holy Spirit–that it is humanly IMPOSSIBLE to keep the Law, or any law, perfectly? What about Paul’s teaching that it was never the purpose of the Law, or law, to produce righteousness but, rather, to expose human sin?

Furthermore, the other side of the question is, “If every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life, why did it take the miraculous birth of Christ—the incarnation of God Himself—to produce a human being who could actually accomplish that feat?” Surely if it were possible for every human being to live a perfect life, there would be at least one example from history. Heaven knows many have tried. The problem is that each and every one who has tried has failed, most failing miserably–except One, and He was God-in-the-flesh.

My present sermon series is an expository journey through Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. In this hard-hitting letter, Paul is attacking the human tendency toward self-reliance head on. He is intense, he is angry, and he is pulling no punches. Why? Because Paul has discovered hope—true hope for the human condition.

And true hope does not come from the power of positive thinking. No! True hope comes from “the truth of the gospel,” which is: Christ and Him crucified is the ONLY cure for human sin. This truth is pessimistic to some, but liberating to those who see its power.

In his new book, Jesse Couenhoven makes some very insightful observations:

  • The Christian teaching on sin seems pessimistic only to those who think we ought to be able to justify ourselves, by ourselves.
  • The view that we can justify ourselves degrades the Bible’s teaching on human sin.
  • The belief that we participate in—or even contribute to—making ourselves righteous offends God’s claim that righteousness (justification, salvation) is a free gift, given by grace.
  • The Bible’s teaching that we are not masters of our own goodness and cannot justify ourselves is not a counsel of despair but testimony to our only true hope—Christ and Him crucified.
  • Freedom is NOT an autonomous achievement but, rather, a free gift. One that we ought to receive joyfully.

I am still wrestling with this mystery. Regardless of which view one takes, there remain unanswered questions. It seems to be impossible to tie up all the loose ends in this challenging debate.

After more than three decades of struggle, however, my conclusion is this: Regardless of “who made me do it,” I have personally participated in Adam’s rebellion—I am guilty of sin.

And so I do not need a self-help remedy for my sin problem. I need a Savior.

Praise God that He has provided One for me—and for everyone else who comes to Him in humility, repentance, and submission.

The Bible says that without Christ we are slaves to sin (see John 8:34, Romans 6:16, 7:7-25, 2 Peter 2:19). It also says that without Christ we are dead in sin (see Ephesians 2:1ff). In other words, once sin is conceived and born it immediately begins to mature. And sin will always accomplish its ultimate objective, that is, sin will always kill its human subject.

But how does that happen? What is the process by which sin is conceived, born, and perfected (brought to its ultimate maturity)? James 1:13-15 reveals the process of sin’s maturation in our lives.

Before sin can be born there must be a conception, which requires the coming together of two things: our strong desire (or “lust”*) must come together with our will before sin can be conceived. As I read James, here is the step-by-step process of sin’s maturation:

  1. We experience an eager desire, a strong desire, lust (a morally neutral human characteristic*).
  2. We recognize God’s option of satisfying that strong desire and, as we depend on God’s option for satisfying human desires, we remain safely confined within God’s will for our lives.
  3. We are “drawn away” (lured out) from that life of safety by the presence of an alternative option. It dazzles us, excites us, attracts us, and convinces us to leave our place of safety.
  4. Once outside, we are “enticed” (the hook is set) to remain drawn away from God’s place of safety as we further contemplate the alternative option being presented to us.
  5. At last, we give ourselves permission to satisfy our strong desire by forgetting God’s will, ignoring God’s option, and taking advantage of the prohibited alternative. It is here that sin is conceived as two things come together:
  • Our eager desire (our “lust,” which does not necessarily have to be evil, simply a strong desire*).
  • Our will (our “permission” to ourselves to satisfy our strong desire via the prohibited alternative).

Note that sin is conceived only after all five steps have been taken. Having desires is not sinful, even strong desires. Being drawn away from God’s standard and baited to stay there as we contemplate the satisfaction of our desire in an unauthorized way may be very risky behavior but it is still not sinful. In other words, life gets riskier as we progress through the first four steps; however, until permission is granted to satisfy our longing in an unauthorized way (until that fifth and final step is taken), sin is still merely a possibility. Disaster can still be avoided. Sin has not yet been conceived. We can still retreat to our place of safety.

But once we give in, once our lust comes together with our will and we “give ourselves permission” to satisfy our desires via the prohibited alternative, then sin has been conceived. And once sin is conceived, it will be born.

Conception may be an internal event but it is almost always followed up with an external act. Sometimes it takes time but often the act immediately follows the thought. Once the sinful act is carried out, sin has been born into our lives. And once sin has been born, it relentlessly and immediately progresses to its objective: death.

Understanding the process of sin will alert us to its deceptive ways and may even help us avoid its deadly snare. But, overcoming sin completely is beyond the reach of human beings. It takes supernatural power to do that. And, praise be to God, such power has been released on our behalf in and through Jesus Christ.

So now, as fallen human beings who are disciples of Christ, we not only ignore sin as best we can but we also abide in Christ, where there is safety and power. As we recognize sin in our lives we immediately turn from it, confess it, and rely on Christ’s work on the cross to remove it from our lives. And, we eagerly await that day when God will destroy sin and eliminate death once and for all.

* It is my opinion that in this context “lust” is not necessarily an “evil desire” as the NIV has it translated but is a morally neutral human characteristic. Jesus experienced this characteristic. Luke 22:15 says “And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired [literally, lusted] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.'”