The late John Stott, himself a single man, wrote these words about submitting to the Lordship of Christ rather than to prevailing culture: “How can we call ourselves Christians and declare that chastity is impossible? It is made harder by the sexual obsession of contemporary society. And we make it harder for ourselves if we listen to the world’s plausible arguments, or lapse into self-pity, or feed our imagination with pornographic material and so inhabit a fantasy world in which Jesus is not Lord, or ignore his commands about plucking out our eyes and cutting off our hands and feet, that is, being ruthless with the avenues of tempatation. But whatever our ‘thorn in the flesh’ Christ comes to us and says ‘My grace is sufficient for you…’ To deny this is to portray the Christian as a helpless victim of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to demean ourselves into being less than human, and to contradict the gospel of God’s grace.”
He goes on to say that “at the very center of our Christian discipleship is our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” He cites the St Andrew’s Day Statement by the Church of England’s Evangelical Council in the homosexuality debate (1995): “We are called to follow in the way of the cross. We are all summoned to various forms of self-denial. The struggle against disordered desires, or the misdirection of innocent desire, is a part of every Christian’s life, consciously undertaken in baptism.”
And so it is that Christians (I speak of myself as well) continue to struggle with the desires of our flesh, whether heterosexual or homosexual desires. These “disordered” desires are certainly the result of the fall, but are not in themselves sinful. They may be the result of original sin and may be temptations that try and lead us to sin, but they are not sin in themselves, unless they morph into lust and then conceive into behavior. Martin Luther once described temptation like this: “You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”
John Owen points out in his not-easy-to-read book “Temptation and Sin” that according to Gal. 5:24 our flesh has been crucified together with its passions and lusts. This doesn’t mean that these are dead, however, but that we can consider ourselves dead to them (Rom. 6:11). In other words, our sinful flesh is dying the slow death of a victim of crucifixion- to the end that the “body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved” (Rom 6:6). We will always be contending against this crucified flesh until we receive our new bodies free from sin, but by the Spirit of God we can live a life where sin “shall not have dominion over you…” (Rom. 6:14). Thus Owen speaks of mortification (putting to death) of sin as the Holy Spirit empowered action of denying our disordered desires any opportunity to exert their influence over us. These desires may still be wiggling and squirming on the cross and calling our name, but the path of discipleship leads us to say “no” to their beckoning and to do whatever it takes to lessen their influence.
Many would call all this emphasis on celibacy, chastity, and mortification nothing more than legalistic aseticism. However, along with John Stott, I would call it participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and working out his redemptive grace in my life. “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and wordly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14). Herein is our discipleship.
[Just a note to say that I’m taking a few weeks off from blogging, unless I get really inspired. Gloria and I are heading out to Alaska next week. I will still see some of you on Facebook or Instagram.]