Going to Rome By Way of Corinth
The Truth about Concupiscence - Part 2 of 2
Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of Dr. Garner’s article. Part 1 may be accessed here.
The frequent and urgent biblical cries to sobriety expose the danger of the spirits of the age. With unbelief having fermented in the Corinthian hearts, Paul calls for spiritual sobriety according to the resurrection power of Christ: “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning” (1 Cor. 15:34a). It seems that many of us have again imbibed the Corinthian spirits and suffer moral and theological inebriation. The wakeup call comes also to church leaders. To his own beloved son in the faith, Paul urges spiritual sobriety because Paul knows Timothy will face intoxicating opposition (2 Tim. 4:5; cf. 1 Thess. 5:6, 8; 1 Pet. 1:13).
To counter drunken empathy with the LGBTQ culture, the church needs the courage to call the entire LGBTQ paradigm wicked and the courage to call all who embrace sexual distortions to Christ and his all-powerful gospel. This wakeup call justifies no unkindness to people who daily face LGBTQ temptation. We must advocate no justification of godless mockery or make any excuse for treating folks entangled in sexual sin as untouchables. But we must outrightly reject the redefinitions that call biblical morality unloving, and ungodly desires acceptable. We must refuse the current pressure to cave into de novo morality—celebrating sexual aberration or legitimizing sexual sin by revoicing theological categories.
To introduce a new brand of Christian by tying a Christian claim to an immoral identity (“Gay” Christian, etc.) imports a foreign belief system, a new theology, an unChristian and, therefore, unloving paradigm. We do not love the sexually aberrant by affirming the neutrality and unchangeability of their desires. If Jesus cannot or does not change all our desires, his salvation is pathetic. It surely is not good news.
Stubbornly seeking a synthesis of historic Christian morality with LGBTQ doctrine evidences the intoxicants of unbelief. Robert Traill perceptively warned, “such men as are for ‘middle ways’ in point of doctrine, have usually a greater kindness for that extreme they go half-way to, than for that which they go half-way from.” Moonshine morality which generates godless empathy is neither right nor charitable. Attempted synthesis of light and dark is open opposition to Christ. It is evidence of our drunkenness.
A Call to Sobriety
One of the most repeated calls in Scripture is for God’s people to remember. The reason for repeated calls for reminder is simple. We forget. We forget the goodness of God. We forget the mercy of God. We forget the Word of God. We forget the holiness of God. We forget the Law of God. We forget the holy will of God. We forget God himself. Professing to be wise, we become fools.
Once again let us remember the biblical ethics of desire. To want a forbidden thing is sin. To want even a good thing inordinately is sin. To want autonomy and to assert our desires as neutral is sin. The idol factory of the heart (Calvin) elevates even good things to the place of worship. Make no mistake. The problem stems from our sinful desires, our concupiscence.
With the skill of a master physician, Calvin takes a scalpel to the human heart, when he removes Augustinian and later Roman Catholic distortion.
“We, on the other hand, deem it sin when man is tickled by any desire at all against the law of God. Indeed, we label ‘sin’ that very depravity which begets in us desires of this sort. We accordingly teach that in the saints, until they are divested of mortal bodies, there is always sin; for in their flesh there resides that depravity of inordinate desiring which contends against righteousness.”
Depravity extends to the desires, not merely to the actions, thoughts and goals. The heart’s magnets are neither neutral nor spared the dross of sin. Recent arguments unhelpfully distinguish between types of desires, e.g., eros desires and philia desires–where the former is subject to the impact of sin and the latter is not, or at least not in the same way. Such sin-evading distinctions evidence cultural inebriation, not the mind of Christ.
We need therefore to reawaken, to get sobered by the Word of the Lord.
First, the biblical framework distinguishes between desires of the flesh and desires of the Spirit: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17). This biblical paradigm expresses desires antithetically–the desires of the flesh oppose the desires of the Spirit. There are Spiritual desires and carnal desires; desires shaped by the Holy Spirit please God, and desires driven by the “flesh” oppose him. We find no third category of desires or justification for desires as a component of human weakness without a moral compass. These fundamental biblical categories about desire bear divine imprimatur and must shape and interpret any other rubric. Imposing self-protecting and culture-appropriating categories upon the Bible is an act of defiance and exposes a heart of defiance.
Second, biblical teaching on original sin and depravity are comprehensive in scope; no component of our minds/hearts/lives is unaffected by the leaven of lust. Since Scripture locates all human desires in antithetical terms, where the desires of the Spirit oppose the desires of the “flesh,” we must recognize that all types of desire are corrupted by sin, and all types of desire are corrected by the Spirit. Westminster Confession of Faith 6:2 spells original sin out clearly, “By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all parts of faculties and soul and body” (my emphasis).
Biblical psychology does not allot for a category of human desires untouched by depravity, any more than a category of redeemed desires that are not to be fully sanctified by the Holy Spirit. As biblical hamartiology and soteriology affirm, no corner of our human hearts escapes the corruption of sin; the gospel combats, overwhelms, and sanctifies every cell of our souls. Even if for some reason we were to find it helpful to parse varying types of desires (e.g., eros and philia), let us not forget that all of our desires require gospel correction, a radical transformation by the Holy Spirit of Truth. Platonic affection requires the recalibration of gospel grace as much as erotic love.
In the popular redefinitions we face inexorable difficulties. When I define my own desires as weakness or simply “who I am” when Scripture views them as sin, I justify my own evil. Such re-conception of desires effectively pushes my desires outside the scope of redeeming grace, making Christ’s work less than efficacious. His power reigns over some sins, but not others. The good news becomes terrible news, for without his comprehensive power over our hearts, we remain in our sins and our sinful desires. Ultimately such redefinitions poison both the Law of God and the gospel of Christ Jesus. And as believers in this imposter gospel which emasculates the power of the resurrection, we are, as the Apostle Paul put it, the most to be pitied.
In short, the act of imposing an artificial categorization about our desires comes without biblical warrant and even militates against the gospel. The work and results of such a framework are sinful. Moreover, the very desire to isolate and justify certain desires exposes the comprehensive effects of sin. Artificial categories imposed actually turn us into antinomians—we oppose the law of God. These desires themselves demand particular repentance.
Third, we need to be aware that classifications of desires, in which some are deemed a-moral rather than moral or immoral, or in which we categorize human weakness according to natural, but not sinful desires, formally moves us toward Roman Catholic anthropology and hamartiology. Rome has made concupiscence less than sinful; it is instead a created weakness that can lead to sin. The compulsions of this concupiscence require super-added grace, even before the fall. Hear the words of Trent: “This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin [with reference to Rom. 6:12 and 8:8], the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin.”
Rome acknowledges that concupiscence is called sin, but claims it is so only “sometimes.” Yet this occasional claim simply does not align with the comprehensive analyses of Jesus and Paul. Jesus would have us know the heart is the font of every thought or action. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matt. 12:33–35). The desire paradigm is binary—evil versus good. No middle road exists.
In keeping with the absolute categorization of his Savior, Paul positions desires according to a holy/evil antithesis: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:5–6). Again, desires are binary—a matter of life versus death.
Calvin offers a summary refutation of the Roman view of concupiscence:
But in all our keeping of the law we quite fail to take our concupiscence into account. For the natural man refuses to be led to recognize the diseases of his lusts. The light of nature is extinguished before he even enters upon this abyss. While the philosophers label the immoderate incitements of the mind as ‘vices,’ they have reference to those which are outward and manifested by grossers signs. They take no account of the evil desires that gently tickle the mind.”
This moral tickling is neither neutral nor good. It is nothing less than evil.
Note well then that the Roman Catholic doctrines of man and his desires openly contradict the Protestant understanding. To put it briefly, attempted “new” classifications of desires (e.g., eros vs. philia) put us on the road to Rome. With these classifications we wander back into the trappings of Roman anthropology, soteriology, and sacramentology, a journey which spawned a reformation some 500 years ago. By the push of contemporary redefinitions and embrace of certain LGBTQ dogma, some evidently want to go back to Rome by way of Corinth.
Gospel grace is holy grace. Gospel love is holy love. Gospel ministry is holy ministry, which never changes its doctrine of sin to reach those trapped in it. To be sure, some professing believers may rightly be accused of failing to exercise compassion to those caught up in sexual sin, of failing to demonstrate grace to those tempted by LGBTQ desires or the LGBTQ religion. But let us not allow the sinful lack of compassion for those trapped in the LGBTQ vortex spawn sin of another kind. We do not exercise gospel compassion when we ignore the Law of God. We do not exercise gospel compassion towards a sinner when we tell him or her that the gospel doesn’t change their type of sin.
In the end, our unsanctified compassion may be the greatest offender to the gospel. We see real people really hurting and are deeply moved. We hear their pleas for our understanding. We hear their accusations that our churches do not welcome them. They feel ostracized. But our replies to their needs must be sanctified by the Spirit of God, so that our own desires and our own acts of compassion will reflect pure biblical love rather than Corinthian tickling distortions.
Pure gospel sobriety will always compel a life of holy reply. May the church wake up, love with Christ’s holy love, and discern with Christ’s holy wisdom. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
 Recorded in James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and Its Exposition from Scripture (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), 173.
Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.10.
Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.24.