March 13, 2023
There’s a great deal of confusion about the nature of temptation and same-sex attraction. Many Christians, even pastors and theologians, some of whom are ostensibly Reformed, believe that same-sex temptation is not a sin. For them, sin only occurs when the act itself takes place. Others affirm that original sin makes us guilty before God, but original sin produces something that is not culpable unless the will agrees with that desire. So, they argue, a thought can emerge that is unclean but if we wrestle with that unclean thought then we have not sinned. What are we to make of these arguments and others like them?
The internal acts of the mind involve, as Thomas Goodwin says in his work, The Vanity of Thoughts, “all those reasonings, consultations, purposes, resolutions, intents, ends, desires, and cares of the mind of man, as opposed to our external words and actions” (Works, 3:510).
Goodwin himself acknowledges that “men usually think that thoughts are free.” (Ibid). But the law judges our thoughts (Heb. 4:12); thoughts can receive forgiveness (Acts 8:22); thoughts can be repented of (Isa. 55:7); thoughts can defile a person (Matt. 15:18–19); and thoughts can also reveal hypocrisy (Isa. 29:13) (see Goodwin, Works, 3:512–13).
Goodwin concludes his analysis of sinful thoughts by noting that our thoughts “are the first motioners of all the evil in us. For they make the motion, and also bring the heart and object together, are panders to our lusts, hold up the object till the heart has played the adulterer with it, and committed folly: so in speculative uncleanness, and in other lusts, they hold up the images of those gods they create, which the heart falls down and worships; they present credit, riches, beauty, till the heart has worshipped them, and this when the things themselves are absent” (Works, 3:512–13).
The first motions of the mind (i.e., thoughts), when disagreeable to the law of God, are sinful. As the WCF says (6.5), the corruption of nature remains in the regenerate, and while in Christ our sins are pardoned (justification) and mortified (sanctification), “yet both itself and all the motions thereof are truly and properly sin.”
And we should be aware that God monitors our inward motions better than another person monitors our outward actions. As Charnock says, “We should as much blush at the rising of impure thoughts before the understanding of God as at the discovery of unworthy actions to the knowledge of men, if we lived under a sense that not a thought of all those millions, which flutter about our minds, can be concealed from him. How watchful and careful should we be of our hearts and thoughts” (Existence and Attributes, p. 733).
Why should we blush at the rising of an impure thought if such a thought is not sin?
The lawfulness of a thought must be governed by God’s will, specifically his law, which provides a moral basis for what is right and what is wrong. Thoughts and desires arise from the will, but how are we to understand sin in relation to the will?
When trying to understand whether SSA is sinful or not, one must consider how we speak of voluntary sin in relation to the will. We may distinguish between the will considered narrowly (strictly) and broadly (generally). This is an important distinction, just as we distinguish between the image of God broadly and strictly. (We lost the image of God, narrowly speaking; but broadly speaking it was not lost and so we can still say we are made in the image of God, Gen. 9:6; Jas. 3:9).
Regarding the will considered narrowly, it refers to that which is done by a deliberate movement of the will. However, concerning the will considered broadly, it refers to anything that effects the will or depends upon it. All sin is voluntary in a certain sense if we are speaking about the will “broadly” considered. But, narrowly, not all sin is necessarily voluntary. A thought may “suddenly” appear before our mind without any thoughtful wish for them to appear. To use Goodwin’s language, they are like “knockings and interruptions,” which can break in upon the heart of a believer (Works, 3:510). That does not mean that a certain “involuntary” sin could bypass the will, however.
Some in the Roman Catholic tradition had argued that involuntary motions opposed to God’s law are not sins. Francis Turretin makes the point that the “very first motions of concupiscence do not cease to be sins, although they are neither wholly voluntary nor in our power” (Rom. 7:7) (Institutes, 9.2.5).
Returning to the will considered broadly, Bavinck explains well how involuntary sins simply cannot occur apart from the human will:
“There is not only an antecedent but also a concomitant, a consequent, and an approving will. Later, to a greater or lesser degree, the will approves of the sinfulness of our nature and takes delight in it . . . even the sin that is done without having been willed does not occur totally apart from the will” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:144).
All of this is to say, we can never excuse our unclean thoughts or desires just because they are not voluntary acts. The will, in a certain sense, is always at work since as humans we are never not willing. To be is to be willing. In addition, those “involuntary” sinful desires that occur are the result of certain patterns of thinking we cultivate in our lives. If we are often meditating upon sinful thoughts we should not be surprised at the “involuntary” sinful intrusive thoughts that take place. Conversely, as we cultivate good thoughts, we shouldn’t be surprised at “involuntary” righteous thoughts that emerge from the will. In other words, we are responsible for all that we think because our thoughts are not isolated from who we are.
Temptation and Sin
Lusting in the heart after that which is opposed to God’s law is opposition to that which is good. Here we are speaking of internal temptations, understood as the deliberation to sin. Thus sin has several stages, as follows:
A) Inclination and propensity, an act of the will either broadly or narrowly considered (involuntary and voluntary).
B) Deliberation (via inward or outward temptation or both).
C) The resolution to sin (always voluntary).
D) The act itself.
E) A certain pleasure in performing the act.
G) Deliberate repetition of the act.
There is no stage at which we are not culpable. Obviously, not all stages are necessary for sin to take place. Temptation, inwardly, may be sinful, but a Christian may repent of an inward temptation before it becomes a desire to carry out or act upon the sin.
What is temptation? As John Owen notes, “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 do not wholly prevail. 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” (Works, 6:194).
If temptation is understood this way, then a proposal towards that which is evil (e.g., same-sex attraction) is sinful.
As John Davenant notes, “although the faculty of desire itself is not sin, yet the inclination and propensity of it to evil is sin; even in one asleep, when it does not at all actually incline to sin” (A Treatise on Justification, 1:127). As those who still have remaining indwelling sin, we have the habit of sin that can lead to sinful acts. We mortify not just the acts but the habit, which means we repent not only for the act but the habit of sin (i.e., its sheer presence). In other words, we repent for who we are, though forgiven, because we are still those who have remaining uncleanness in our very being. David was not just concerned with his acts in Psalm 51, but with the very fact of his sinfulness.
Christ Tempted in Every Way
Given the above, I hold that Christ was not “liable to temptations from within.” If I may summarize the basic view of Reformed theologians, I would argue the following:
Our temptations typically arise from within us, as we are lured away by desires that give birth to sins such as unbelief and sinful lust (James 1:14–15). Jesus was free from these types of temptations. He did not possess an inclination towards evil or the “inclination and propensity” of desire towards evil from within.
For example, as the Sinless One, filled with the Spirit beyond measure, he did not experience lust in his heart towards a woman; however, that does not mean he did not find certain women attractive. As a man, he would have experienced a natural attraction to a beautiful woman. Beauty is necessarily attractive. Nevertheless, this “attraction” was always kept perfectly in check. Never once did it move to the realm of lust or covetousness. He not only treated but thought of women with “absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:2).
To depend on oneself or to give in for a moment to a lustful thought or action always carries an appeal, but Jesus could not and did not do that. He always entrusted himself to his Father. He always responded perfectly to any situation in which he found himself tempted.
There were, however, no sinful impulses in Christ that originated from within his human nature. Because Jesus had infirmities, he had natural human weaknesses that, for example, made him subject to hunger. Thus, the devil tempted him in that area in the hope that Jesus would not depend on God but upon bread alone. The desire to eat when hungry is not sinful, but such a craving at the expense of faith in God’s provision is.
Homosexual lust, even if it is not acted upon, is sinful. Even homosexual attraction must be mortified because it is not natural, but rather unnatural. It is a temptation towards that which is evil. So not just the act itself, but also the “deliberation” that arises from the “inclination and propensity” is sinful and needs to be mortified (Rom. 8:13). Inclinations need to be reoriented so that propensities are reoriented. In this way, the justified child of God is freed more and more from resolutions to sin.
The Christian faith has indeed seen homosexual orientation as perversion and its expression as a serious sin. But if people want to argue that inward temptation in the form of homosexual desires is not inherently sinful because Christ was tempted in every way as we are, they will have to do a little better than simply make that assertion.
As for those who wish to argue that original sin makes us guilty before God, but original sin produces something that is not culpable unless the will agrees with that desire, they must hold to a view of the will that is quite different from the classical Reformed view of the will. Same-sex attraction is an act of the will, but it is a disordered act of the will and therefore needs to be mortified and repented of.
In Christ, these motions are not only forgiven but they can and must be mortified. To the degree that we put on that which is good we will put off that which is evil; the inward motions that arise will be more Christ-like than fleshly as we continue to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, [and] whatever is commendable…” (Phil. 4:8).
Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.