Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on the Gospel Reformation Network website prior to the 48th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). It has been revised for publication in this magazine.
Angry and Afraid?
If you have not heard the roar, you have probably been living in a closet. Pleading for understanding, love, and authentic care, many now boldly demand the church to allow Christians to articulate and even celebrate gay identity. The newly emboldened chorus declares, “We are gay Christians. We are same-sex attracted (SSA) Christians. This is who we are. And who are you to question our identity?”
At the same time, it has become increasingly popular, even within self-consciously conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches, to label those who advocate traditional views of sexuality and sexual identity as an immature and irrelevant subset of the church who relish theological saber-rattling over compassion. Evidently, we sword-wielding traditionalists battle out of fear; because of our lack of Christian compassion, we reject the supposition that SSA is an unchangeable trait and that “SSA” or “gay” provides a suitable label for a Christian. To the SSA identity advocates, we are unloving, emotional manipulators, riveted to fear rather than governed by grace.
Notably, though many Christians who demand freedom to identify as SSA complain of being ostracized, marginalized, and disenfranchised, they have not returned their own swords to their scabbards. Advocates of the new sexuality use their sense of pain as an emotional weapon, and the more sophisticated seek to reposition the warfare onto a social theory frontline rather than a biblical one. The SSA identity warriors jab fiercely and furiously, and many faithful Christians have found themselves pummeled. This theological debate—and note well, it is a theological debate, and those who embrace SSA identity are fighting it—must not be framed around allegedly innocuous contemporary trends or denominational politics, and must not be treated dismissively by progressive culture warriors who describe their opponents as uninformed and unkind fundamentalists. Such a misrepresentation of the concerns expressed by challengers to the SSA identity paradigm is itself unhelpful, unfair, and unloving.
To be fair, some in the church are both angry and afraid. Some may see denominational fights as a badge of honor and a mark of gospel fidelity. Some treat unkindly those who daily battle SSA. But for many (most?) of us who oppose the SSA identity paradigm, we are not angry; we are deeply grieved. We believe God’s Word expressly opposes this new theological position and gloriously delivers the unqualified remedy. In fact, I would contend that most in the church who oppose SSA as an unchanging orientation and an acceptable category of self-identity for Christians do so out of love for Christ, His Word, and His church, along with zeal for Christ’s disciple-making mission. They respond out of fear of God, conviction, and compassion; they humbly contend for biblical and theological reasons.
Many grace-filled brothers and sisters speak openly against the SSA identity paradigm. These humble servants are no ivory-tower theologians, hurling theological darts from afar. They are followers of Christ who are mindful of their own sins and of their constant dependence on the mercy of God. These are leaders whose own family members have exited their closets. These are men who shepherd congregations with people who identify, or have identified, as LGTBQ+. These are men and women who have shared the gospel with LGTBQ+ people, borne witness to their repentance and conversion to faith in Christ, and tearfully rejoiced with the angels. These are transformed saints who have counseled post-operative transgender converts, who are legally united in marriage and face the difficult discipleship decision about how now to honor God.
And despite many opponents’ contention to the contrary, these are grace-filled Christians who do put the gospel first. They rejoice when men and women who are same-sex attracted obey God in their sexual behavior and who find contentment in their celibacy. But they do not stop there, because they know the gospel delivers more. For biblical and theological reasons, they refuse to believe that fallen sexual orientation is immovable and that identity is merely a state of mind. These are believers who trust the power of the gospel to change sinners and who believe God’s Word speaks directly to SSA identity and confirms the power of the Holy Spirit for genuine sanctification.
While all are rattled by the unrelenting blows of the current moral revolution, in their concerns about the SSA identity paradigm, these courageous and compassionate Christian servants are not caving to fear of man; they are reckoning with what it means to fear God and to love their neighbors. By contrast, if you listen long and hard to those making the case for a Christian version of SSA self-identity, you will wait in vain for a cogent biblical and theological defense. Almost without fail, a sentimental and sociological one fills the airspace. Yet these SSA matters need careful, biblical, theological, confessional, pastoral response. Who we are in Christ drives us to the very foundation of our faith. When it comes to sense of identity, what is our final court of appeal?
Authority and Identity
If you ask a group of evangelical or Reformed Christians to define “guilt,” most will describe a feeling of shame and sense of remorse. “Guilt is that feeling I have when I believe I have done something wrong.” Sounds basic, doesn’t it? Yes, but only to those who have imbibed the cultural waters of theology as primarily a matter of self-expression, a Schleiermachian-friendly paradigm where the interpretive framework for theology draws foremost upon the sensibilities of the human psyche. This is not your father’s guilt. And it certainly is not the way your heavenly Father defines it.
According to almighty God, guilt and feelings of guilt are not the same thing. In fact, guilt is not a feeling. God defines righteousness. God defines sin. God defines guilt. And to our point here, guilt is a fact—a divinely disclosed one based upon the explicit mandates of God’s Law. If you murder someone, you are guilty whether you feel badly or not. If you speak the truth in love to someone according to the need of the moment, you are not guilty whether or not you or your hearer feel badly.
Our “massively sentimental age,” as Brian Mattson has put it, has compromised our collective ability to navigate the gap between what is and what we perceive, what is true and what we feel. The hellish hegemony of the almighty self has poisoned the air we breathe, and sadly, the theological framework we now inhale and exhale. We should find little shock that this contaminated air has swept into our confessional churches.
It is time we breathe in God’s authoritative, life-giving Word afresh. According to Holy Scripture, God created you and me. He defines us. He interprets our status and identity. And His language matters. Though the cultural waters in which we swim seem to make our sense of things the ultimate determiner of reality, it is not so. What is so is what God declares, no matter what we think or feel.
Scripture gives lucid explanation concerning who we were in Adam and who we are now in Christ. The Bible makes identity binary: we are either identified by and with the first Adam or identified by and with the Last Adam. As covenant heads, they and their respective characters and conduct demarcate our identities.
To the point, identity—like guilt—is a theological fact, not a product of human perception or feeling. When in Adam, no matter how good you may have felt about yourself, and how blindly optimistic you were about the ability of your mind, will, and emotions, you neither knew yourself nor interpreted yourself accurately. You did not and could not please God. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). Period. No qualifications. No exceptions. No equivocation. No redefinitions.
In Christ: Resurrection and Identity
Dead in trespasses and sins, the sons of disobedience needed new life—complete with a new heart, a renewed mind, a restored will, and a new identity. And that is exactly what we receive in the resurrected Christ. Scripture and Scripture’s Christ do not offer a reparative therapy program; they deliver cosmically-critical, sin-forgiving, freedom-rendering, past-crushing, and utterly-transforming new life and new identity in Christ.
Christ, on the cross, not only conquered the guilt of sin but the power of sin. Jesus’s victory has rendered a decisive breach with sin, and His children are no longer identified by it or mastered by it. This is why the Apostle Paul says, “So you must also [along with Christ Jesus!] consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God inChrist Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).
Several important facts emerge in this text concerning identity and sanctification:
1. Union with Christ. Christ is raised for us; and we are raised with him (Eph 2:6; 1 Cor. 15:12ff). In the gospel, I not only receive the double graces of justification and sanctification, but I also receive the Christ who justifies and sanctifies me. I am His and He is mine. By His Holy Spirit, this inviolable bond between Son and the children of God, between the Redeemer and the redeemed, between Savior and the saved, provides the very framework for how we must see ourselves. We are in Christ. Full stop.
Therefore, no matter how stubborn the sin, the temptation, the desire, the lust, or the sorrow, as one united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, we are not defined by our sense of things. The gospel frees you from this tyranny, including the self-labeling and/or self-destructive intimations of SSA.
The deepest channels and strongest shackles of stubborn sin no longer define us. We are a new creation in Christ. The old things have passed away. New things in Christ have come.
2. From Christ to Us. Our in-Christ identity bears directly upon our thinking and our use of language. As our Savior and Master, Jesus gives explicit mandates about self-identification, because we are united to him.
We are delivered by, determined by, and defined by the success of Christ and the power of His resurrection. For this reason, we must think and speak of ourselves according to our life in Christ.
A look to our prior sinful self for identity is not only wrong; it absurdly and perversely defies the meaning of, power of, and nature of the work of Christ in His resurrection from the dead for us. His life is our life, His holiness, our holiness. “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Only in disobedience do we think of ourselves or speak of ourselves otherwise.
To think of ourselves in any way—even secretly—as still alive to sin is an open denial of the saving and sanctifying power of God in Christ.
3. From Us to Christ. With Paul’s breathtaking doctrine of in-Christ solidarity, we discover seamless bi-directional riches of our vital communion with Him.
Note first the stunning historical argument. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues from our future resurrection to Christ’s past resurrection. “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised” (1 Cor. 15:16). Solidarity with Christ is such that we cannot speak of Jesus’s past resurrection apart from our future one!
The implications for sanctification are mind-bendingly marvelous, where the power of this resurrection solidarity bears upon our current morality: “And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Cor.6:14, 15). The point is startlingly blunt. If you go to bed with a prostitute, as a member of Christ’s body, you bring the holy Lord Jesus with you.
This solidarity in Christ’s resurrection and our bi-directional communion with Christ shape self-identification. Wherever I go, I take Christ with me. Accordingly, our self-conception necessitates a Christ-conception. If I consider myself an SSA Christian, then Jesus is an SSA Christ. If I am a gay Christian, then Jesus is a gay Christ. What grotesque distortion of our Savior, His holiness, and His saving and sanctifying work!
But don’t miss this. The SSA identity paradigm tells us language of self-description is no big deal. Whatever someone chooses to use as language for themselves—“gay Christian,” “ex-gay Christian,” “same-sex attracted Christian,” etc., we should just accept it. The Apostle Paul says otherwise. Whatever adjective you are prepared to put before your name as a Christian, you first place it before the name of Christ. We are to consider ourselves as we are, “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11b).
Honesty and Identity
One of the most frequent, and emotionally compelling, arguments for the SSA identity paradigm is that to speak otherwise would be to live a lie. Because there may not be a felt change in sexual orientation and temptation, it is said that it is more honest to simply embrace it inwardly and to express it aloud. That alone, many contend, is honesty.
Does the SSA attraction argument have a point here? Isn’t it dishonest to deny my sense of identity? Is God asking me to be inauthentic? Does God forge sanctification in my heart by denial of what is true? Hardly! Instead, he graciously informs us that any self-designation that does not align with Christ is itself the lie. Honesty occurs when I am in alignment with what God says about me in Christ. Anything else is deception. Anything else lacks authenticity.
Yes, our own sinful proclivities deliver real and regular threats. But isn’t that the point? The Christian life is a violent battle. But Christ has already won the war, no matter what I feel or perceive. As John Owen famously put it, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” By the grace of God, I am freed from affirming my sin as an identity marker. I may repeatedly lust, get angry, pursue self-glory, or suffer SSA. But these sins do not define me. To claim otherwise outrightly denies the efficacy of the Christ’s cross and the power of His resurrection glory.
Recategorization of SSA as an untouchable identity fails the biblical and confessional test. This new perverse doctrine of sanctification requires befriending an identity that opposes Christ. Deciding that a particular besetting sin is no longer sinful may temporarily placate one’s emotions. But friendship with the world is enmity with God. And to whatever degree we find affinity with this new SSA identity paradigm, we need confession, not concession. We need repentance, not redefinition. We need authenticity, given by and defined by our Savior.
A Call to Delight
Real freedom is found in knowing that we are not prisoners of our pasts or to our own self-perceptions. We are not victims of the jet propulsion of lusts or of fallen aesthetic impulses.Thanks be to God! Christ frees us from these things. The gospel we preach delivers reverse thrust against our past sinful lives, our thinking and our willing. And to put a point on it, if it does not, it is not good news. A christ that leaves us in our old corrupt categories and abandons us in our own self-interpreting devices is not the Christ of Scripture.
Fellow Christians and my fellow teachers and leaders of the church, the resurrected and exalted Christ defines us. No matter how we may feel, we are not Muslim followers of Christ, materialist followers of Christ, or SSA followers of Christ. Such language opposes the gospel. We are instead sons and daughters of God, who possess a new name, a new heart, new language, and a categorically new orientation. And as those in Christ, that is how we must count ourselves.
To be sure, we may not taste the newness in the way we would like. In that sense, we join the Apostle Paul (see Romans 7)! We may even feel that we have failed to progress a millimeter. But that self-perception of failure may be as flawed as thinking that gospel sanctification is impotent against sexual orientation. We may also need to (re)submit to the mandate of Romans 6:11, to count ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Unless we yield our minds and hearts—and our sense of identity—to God’s Word, we will formulate and affirm misguided conclusions. Romans 6:11 provides the definitive starting point for divinely certain progress in sanctification, including the rescue from my faulty sense of identity.
Though SSA identity advocates demand us to join them in this newfound paradigm, to do so is neither loving nor honest. The SSA identity paradigm aligns neither with Scripture nor our confessional standards, and we should make this point lovingly, lucidly, and lastingly.
There is no room for fluidity in this debate. Identity is either defined by us or defined by God. Sanctification either extends to us comprehensively or it is not gospel sanctification. Sin is stubborn and internal proclivities surely still fight mightily against us. But as fierce as is the warfare, Christ the Victor and our Identifier is greater still.
As the leaders and teachers of Christ’s church, we must remain steadfast in affirming these glorious truths, our biblical and confessional standards, and the comprehensive hope of the gospel to unbelievers. Indeed, let us delight in the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, who is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the fully adequate sanctifying Savior of sinners.
For the glory of God and the honor of his Son Christ Jesus and with the theological, evangelistic, and pastoral delight incumbent upon officers of Christ’s church, let us hold fast our convictions so well-expressed in Westminster Larger Catechism 75 (emphasis mine):
Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.