In this post my goal is to utilize the issue of homosexuality as a case study to demonstrate that the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” approach to sanctification is not merely an academic wrinkle, but an error of such prodigious import that it threatens the very essence of the Christian church.
American culture has apparently reached a tipping point when it comes to homosexuality. It’s OK to be homosexual now. In fact, those of us who aren’t homosexual are apparently supposed to trip all over ourselves in our affirmation of homosexuals to make up for all those years in which American consensus stood against this vice. Blah, Blah, Blech. I’m disappointed, but not particularly devastated: this kind of thing really is an inevitable result of the non-foundational, democratic, and relativist worldview that America has been cultivating for decades.
What is devastating to me, though, is some of the Christian responses to the problem that have recently been raised: applause for believers who have “come out” to unabashedly affirm (not to repent of, mind you, but to affirm) their homosexual status; gracious acceptance of and commiseration with homosexuals who sit beside us as fellow-members of the Christian church; etc. The new angle is that Christian homosexuals are a growing part of the Christian community and we need to be attentive to, not contemptuous of, their peculiar needs.
This conclusion is a necessary one if we hold to a “Jesus + Nothing = Everything,” “Preach-Justification-to-Yourself” approach to sanctification. At the point of salvation, we are told, nothing really happens to us: we still are what we were, with the only notable difference being that we have been declared righteous. If I was a thief before I was converted, I’m still a thief, but a thief saved by grace. If I was a drunkard before I was converted, I’m still a drunkard, but a drunkard saved by grace. If I was a homosexual before I was converted, I’m still a homosexual, but a homosexual saved by grace. And so forth. But this is an inaccurate explanation of the Christian experience. Note with me the following from 1 Corinthians 6:9–11:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
In these verses Paul clearly states that thieves, drunkards, and homosexuals (and a bunch of other sinner-types) will not inherit the kingdom of God. This does not mean that believers who feel acutely the temptation to steal, drink to excess, or to act homosexually are barred from heaven, but it does mean that anyone who unashamedly and persistently self-identifies as a thief, a drunkard, a homosexual, etc., is unconverted, should be excluded from membership in the Christian church, and must be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor 5:5). What Paul excludes here is any possibility of the kind of sanctification in which one “comes out” about what he irremediably is and then excuses his identity by musing repeatedly on what he has been declared to be in Christ. Instead, Paul’s vision of sanctification involves the repudiation of what one once was in Adam (the old man) and the embrace of the new creation in Christ that now is (the new man).
Paul does not allow Christians to self-identify as sinners. The church is not comprised of thieves, drunkards, homosexuals, etc.; instead, the church is comprised of Christians who once were thieves, drunkards, homosexuals, etc., but who are no longer what they once were. The church is to be populated by new creatures in Christ who have become “spirit people”—people who still sin, but whose dominant trajectory of life is upward. Christians persevere in their identity as spirit people, repent when they fail to live out their new identity, and beat and enslave their bodies lest they be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor 9:27). Anyone who fails to do this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Period.
Of course we are rightly chastened by Paul’s reminder that we too were once enslaved by such sins. As such we should expect unbelievers to be thieves, drunkards, homosexuals, etc., and should treat them no differently than any other sinner—there’s nothing here to suggest that more sanitary sinners such as “the greedy” will fare any better than homosexuals at the Great White Throne. Further, we are sobered by Paul’s observation that all believers have lingering sinful tendencies (like stealing, drinking to excess, and acting on homosexual impulses) that need to be addressed with exhortation, discipline, encouragement, and love. There is no room here for sequestering particular kinds of sins as more contemptible or “yucky” than others. The church must surely learn this virtue and quickly.
But those churches who would accept sinners “as they are” (whether homosexuals or any other variety of sinner) into their memberships, and who would encourage such sinners to ponder the glories of justification rather than repent, engage in a great evil. Such acceptance violates this and every biblical text on church discipline, destroys the purity of the church by including in its ranks those who will not inherit the kingdom of God, and injures severely the witness of the people of God. The problem is not a minor one.