Going to Rome By Way of Corinth
The Truth about Concupiscence - Part 1 of 2
God’s speech carries final authority. That is only right. He is, after all, God. His gravitas weighs in every word on every page of his Word, where he calls us to lifelong response and faithful resolve. This embedded authority causes us to “treat Scripture with the same reverence that we do God, because it is from God alone, and unmixed with anything human.”
His Word then requires comprehensive response–what we do (word/action), the goal for what we do (telos/end/purpose), and why we do it (motive/desire). The whole of life before the Author of life–such is the scope of biblical ethics, including our sexuality. Our lives and our sexuality speak antiphonally, making covenant reply to the God of heaven with our acts, our goals, and our desires.
In his word, God declares the norm for our behavior. What God demands, we must do. What he forbids, we must not. He speaks with no ambiguity as he lays down the divine boundaries for sexual activity, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14). Sexuality belongs in monogamous marriage, period. Any deviation from these divine boundaries is sin against him (cf. Psalm 51:4).
Some moral paradigms attempt to squeeze covenant life into bald duty, yet God’s demands can never rightly be reduced to the behavioral. Our Creator is concerned not just how we behave on the path we trod, but the destination charted in our hearts. Biblical ethics concern teleology not just deontology. To what end do we obey? What outcome do we seek? What is the highest good, the summum bonum of our actions?
These are critical questions. Actions are meaningful, in fact, because they have a purpose. As creatures living before the face of God, we receive that purpose, we do not define it. In terms of the seventh commandment, God is not concerned only with the boundaries for our bodies, but with our sexual ambitions. Like every other human activity, sexuality too possesses a telos; it concerns the heart’s hopes and its goals.
Multiple good goals surface, including procreation, intimacy, and pleasure. But there is more. The ultimate goal of sexuality is not merely offspring, increase of marital closeness, or attainment of personal (or even mutual) satisfaction. God has created marriage with a depth of significance that points beyond the human sphere; this deepest of human relationships in its covenantal and relational contours mirrors the Triune God, as we reflect his blessed mutuality, relationality, and dynamic communication. The institution of marriage makes the imago Dei sing; the symphony of interpersonal rhythms and harmonies resounds divine relations. Further, the Spirit draws upon the marriage relationship as a living metaphor of the consummate reality of Christ’s relationship with his Church (Eph. 5:18ff)—a meaning well beyond horizontal, human engagement (see, e.g., John Piper’s This Momentary Marriage).
Sexuality in marriage reveals no exception. Our sexual activity is a component of our covenant reply to God, and God defines the ultimate ends for it. In fact, marital nakedness which intends anything less than the glory of God as its ultimate end, fails holy prescription and whole delight. Contrary to pop narratives, God’s will for our sexuality does not rob us, but fuels joy at its highest. Moreover, divine goals for sex cohere with the divinely appointed goodness of sexual activity for procreation, for the genuine value of marital intimacy, or even for the thrill in sexual intimacy. In principle, no competition exists between these human joys and divine intention. The negativity about sexuality espoused by some Church Fathers lost touch with biblical exuberance about this divine gift.
Accordingly, divine ends for sexuality get drowned either by the millstone of artificial limits or the ball and chain of wanton license. When having children only to advance our own family name, to pursue satisfaction, or to ensure greater end of life comforts, procreative goals fall short of divine glory. When pursuing sexual intimacy with myopic mutuality, plans of the heart fall short of divine glory and short circuit the very intimacy we seek. Such self-absorption and short-sightedness expose spiritual cataracts. And when we fail to consider our sexuality for the glory of our Maker, such horizontalizing and silencing of divine ends is culpable; it is sin against the Lord.
Covenant reply does not come easily, for our hearts are readily tickled by godless desires. So writes Calvin:
All writers of sounder judgment agree that there remains in a regenerate man a smoldering cinder of evil, from which desires continually leap forth to allure and spur him to commit sin. They also admit that the saints are as yet so bound by that disease of concupiscence that they cannot withstand being at times tickled and incited either to lust or avarice or to ambition, or to other vices.
It is here that we get to the root of biblical sexual ethics. As pervasive as are sinful acts of sex and associated ungodly goals, sexual sin shacks up in the heart. Sexual desires are both complex and controversial. Though discerning the heart’s desires will remain to an extent mysterious, their impenetrability does not warrant the convenient confusion that rules the day (and the night!). The biblical doctrine concerning desires and sexuality is as simple and clear as it is profound and life-giving.
Biblical teaching concerning the sinful tickling desires (epithumia, Greek; concupiscentia, Latin) cuts through the contemporary fog concerning self and sexuality. The collective fetish over idolizing our own identity—or better, our perception of identity—drives much contemporary moral discussion. This lust for self-determination takes on gospel-like scope and authority: “In the beginning was my desire. My desire was with me. My desire was me.” Abandoning the Creator for the created, contemporary views of ontology make human desires and our right to preserve them the final court of appeal. The gavel has come down: I am my desires. And I will always be who I am.
As if this cultural orgy were not enough, when we celebrate our sexual perversion, we blame (thank?) God for it. We drivel with Lady Gaga: “I’m beautiful in my way, ‘cause God makes no mistakes; I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.” The Lady got it right… into our hearts. No one, we assert with burning passion, should tell us that our sense of identity is wrong. That sense of who I am is right. That sense of who I am is my right. No one, including God evidently, would tell me otherwise.
In Romans 1, Paul sounds the Gaga alarm. Wherever God’s revelation is corporately suppressed, he pointedly contends, perverse practices and views of sexuality rise with a vengeance. Where autonomous sexuality rises, judgment is distorted, foolishness reigns, and LGBTQ agendas seek to destroy every boundary. Autonomy celebrates sexual deviance, and generates temerarious mandates and tenebrous redefinitions:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen (Rom. 1:21–25).
Under the tsunami of cultural religion, many of the people of God now flip head over heel. Worn down by the pummeling criticisms against so-called evangelical insensitivity, injustice, and unkindness, we flail about. If it were not enough to face these pressures from the outside, we find ourselves badgered and battered by bold cultural sermons from those in our own communities, our own churches, and our own denominations. We now wonder if these new voices about sexuality and sexual desires may actually be right. Maybe it is time to listen. Maybe it is time to repent of our criticism of the sexually odd and sexually ostracized. Perhaps the church has failed. Perhaps we (and centuries of the church before us) have missed the fact that in a qualified way LGBTQ desires are OK, as long as they are not acted upon. Perhaps these desires are neutral. Perhaps they are weakness, but not really sin. If God makes “no mistakes,” maybe we need to repent of our categorical rejection of LGBTQ normalization. Maybe it is time for new definitions and new interpretations of the Bible. Maybe. Just maybe.
In fact, now that we think about it, desires seem so embedded in us, such a part of who we perceive ourselves to be, that to change these desires or to infer that they should be changed advances its own cultural sin. Our intolerance has become intolerable. Good news, we now say to ourselves, could not possibly say that the orientation of my heart is all wrong. Perhaps the outer edges, maybe the excesses; but not the entirety of it. Good news might free us from our lusts, but not our innate inclinations. Good news can make me a better me, but surely not a different me.
Having traveled at nearly warp speed, we find ourselves in a different place. Sin is not what we thought it was; and what we thought was sin is no longer sin. Though we employ similar, even identical, theological language (“sin,” “Jesus,” “brokenness,” “gospel,”, etc.), these terms no longer carry the same meanings. We truly have moved—to a different theological, spiritual, and moral location. It is called Corinth.
In Part 2, we will hear from Paul about this newfound residence. His words should jar us to our very foundations.
John Calvin, quoted in Readings in Christian Thought (edited by Hugh T. Kerr; Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1966), 163.
Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.10.