Sexual Identity: Doing What Comes Naturally
The surging waves of the sexual revolution continue to crash on the shores of our culture and threaten to wash the Christian church, supporting institutions, and believing individuals and their families out to sea. This is not really new. While scholars often point to the 50s and especially the 60s as the groundswell of the sexual revolution in the West, human rebellion against God’s revealed sexual ethic goes back to the garden when our first parents rebelled against God. I am not suggesting, like St. Augustine, that the first sin was sexual. But we need to recognize that sexual sin in all its various permutations, like all sin, goes back to the primal sin recorded in Genesis 3 and our inheritance of a sinful nature.
The fall has wreaked havoc on every aspect (nook and cranny, if you will) of our humanity. Of course, there are limits to the effects of the fall due to God’s common grace. Adam did not become not-Adam after the fall. He went from being holy and righteous Adam to being sinful Adam. The fall was, as Cornelius Van Til reminded us, ethical. That is, human nature was not destroyed in the fall. To put it another way, not even the image of God was destroyed. Human nature/the image was twisted, tarnished, defaced, and perverted. But it was not utterly destroyed. We could not be human otherwise. As Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 attest, even though fallen and utterly corrupted by sin, we are still images of God. Historically humans have been understood as complex beings made up of bodies and souls. Our soul, heart or personality involves a nature, habits, and acts. The nature has remained intact in the fall. It is the habit or inclination and the acts that flow from our inclination or habit that are sinful. Adam (and Eve, of course) was created with a holy habit or inclination and it is this that was perverted in the fall and now is sinful rather than holy and righteous.
With the fall our whole personality has been plunged into sin and our hearts are dead in sin. As the prophet Jeremiah told us, our hearts are “desperately wicked” so that even we cannot know them rightly nor can we trust an unregenerate self-assessment of our hearts (Jer. 17:9). In Scripture, the heart is the seat of our personality, our soul. While in the West, we have typically thought of the heart as the seat of emotions, in the Bible the heart is the center of what one scholar has called our “dispositional complex.” Our heart involves the intellect, will, and emotions. These are all implicated in the fall and are being restored in progressive sanctification. The truth of the matter is that since the fall not one of us, in our natural state, and to greater or lesser degrees depending on our sanctification, can rely upon what feels natural to guide us or what we think seems normal.
If our inclinations or desires (or habits, to use the technical philosophical term) are infected with sin then what comes naturally to us whether with regard to our relationship to God, to one another, or to our environment, needs both the Word of God spoken to us from outside of us and we need the Holy Spirit working inside of us to make us receptive to the external Word and pliable to the divine commands which call for our obedience. The external Word informs us of the person and work of Jesus Christ who procured redemption for us in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly ministry for the saints. The Holy Spirit is his Spirit and he conforms us to Christ’s image (Rom. 8:29). Our inclinations and desires, perverted in the fall, are being renewed in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (as Paul notes in Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10).
All of this is to remind us that what feels natural or what we think is normal, based upon an unguided self-assessment is untrustworthy. I have had a lifelong struggle with weight and have had poor eating habits. If you were to ask me what feels natural or normal, it would be eating everything I want to my heart’s content. But God’s Word does not allow me this freedom to assess myself according to what I feel or think is right or normal. The same is true with regard to our sexual appetites. Sex is a good thing. It is God’s idea after all. But our sexuality has been infected with sin so that what may feel right or natural may not be what is right or natural as God intended.
Our heart’s desires need to be retooled or refashioned anew. This is what the new birth or regeneration provides. Our hearts of stone (Ezek. 36:26) are replaced by hearts of flesh and we have a new Spirit. That is, the Holy Spirit recreates us in the image of Jesus Christ the only perfect man to ever live. Our inclinations toward sexual sin and deviancy (whether as unregenerate or as regenerate works-in-progress) are not the standard of what is right and wrong. We may experience gender dysphoria. But with the exception of the rare cases of the hermaphrodite, God has determined our sex from before birth. Our sex/gender is not pliable, fluid, or malleable. If we think we are a man trapped inside a woman’s body or vice versa, or experience same-sex attraction, or fail to maintain heterosexual sexual purity in mind and body we are in rebellion against God and his will for us (Rom. 1:18-32).
Christians experience these problems as do unbelievers. In other words, becoming a Christian does not exempt one from having to wage war against the flesh. By flesh, in this instance, we mean sinfully inclined fleshly desires. Any inclination or desire that tends toward sin is sinful itself. Not just the outward acts that come at the end of the birthing of sin in our hearts, but the whole process is sinful (James 1:14-15). As Christians, the standard for assessing our inclinations and outward behavior is Scripture. And the Holy Spirit works over time molding and shaping the Christian into a Christ-like individual. As Paul notes in Romans 7, even Christians have sinful dispositions that need to be remolded and reshaped. This is what sanctification in all its various phases is all about. Over time as we daily mortify the flesh (put sin to death) and live to righteousness we progress in the Christian life.
Ought we to just do what comes naturally? That depends on whether we are united to Christ and his Spirit inhabits us so that we are endeavoring to please our heavenly Father. Because we have been born in sin, sin feels natural and seems right. Only when we enter in glory can we safely do what comes naturally. Then what comes naturally will be God-honoring and spiritually sound.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.