Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
II Corinthians 5:16-17
Who are you? Or, perhaps more specifically, how do you define yourself? Is the first thing that comes to mind your ethnicity or skin color? Or is it the role you have in your family as a husband, wife, parent, or child? Maybe you think first about your career or your status in society?
Are those the things that really define you?
What is your true identity?
Few readers of this article, I suppose, would answer the question posed above by trying to determine the one besetting sin that most characterizes their life and then making that sin the basis for their identity. If you truly believe that “your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), then your identity in Christ is what matters. It is not as though all of those other things are unimportant, but they are not the defining feature of who you are if you belong body and soul, both in life and death, to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ (LD 1).
Belonging to Jesus Christ yields a radical change in the identity of a converted believer. Paul elaborates on this truth throughout the New Testament epistles, notably in Romans 7. In this passage he makes a remarkable statement: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (vv. 19-20). Paul’s point here is not that belonging to Christ somehow removes the believer’s responsibility for sin, but rather that the power of sin remaining in a believer does not define him or her before God’s throne of grace. Instead, every believer who is united to Christ in true faith is a new creature.
Sadly, this core message of the New Testament gospel has been lost in a movement that wants Christians to define themselves according to their fallen human nature. It is as if that makes for a more honest acknowledgment of reality. Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction, we are told, are “gay Christians.” They have two identities that naturally coexist side-by-side in a kind of happy symbiosis. Perhaps the one has dominance, but both are equally true and should be acknowledged as such.
How we arrived at this point in time, where homosexuality has supposedly become compatible with the Christian life in Western society, was the focus of the past two articles in this series. Central to these articles was this concept of genetic determinism, which posits that behavior is biologically hard-wired into us to such an extent that we are essentially incapable of escaping the destiny in our genes. The implication of this theory is that we are not culpable for those behaviors either because we are just “born that way.”
This is not a minor problem for pastors and elders to debate in consistory rooms. The world in which we live literally bombards us (and our children) daily with messages of personal rights, self-autonomy, and identity politics. Such messaging is aimed to stoke the self-idolatry and self-indulgence that dwells in all of our hearts, enticing us to capitulate to the idea that “we are who we are.” Conservative, Reformed Christians are not immune to this lie. We too can fall into this error by offering the common theological argument that says we have no need of change, just forgiveness. This argument is, of course, wrong because, belonging to the very nature of salvation is that we are both justified and sanctified by the work of our Savior Jesus Christ (LD 32). True conversion produced in us by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is always a twofold work in which the “old man” is mortified and the “new man” is quickened (LD 33). This complete change in moral direction is one that every one of us needs when it comes to our natural inclinations.
The idea of direction is therefore the point at which we return to a discussion of the conclusions regarding genetics and behavior that were discussed in the prior articles. Studies done with identical twins and modern genetic techniques demonstrate, from a statistical point of view, that many aspects of personality and behavior are influenced by our genes. But the complexity of this point lies in the fact that no single gene accounts for personality or behavior. Rather, it is the subtle contribution of many genes that together provide a very rough outline—or direction—of personality.1 Instead of specifying exactly how someone will behave, genes tend to outline the boundaries and dimensions of personality. One might rightly say that we have a propensity or orientation toward some sort of behavior or personality type based on our genes, but exactly what that looks like in time depends on far more than genetics.
The idea that our genetics are directive, but not determinative, is critically important in relation to the issue of responsibility and fault. To put this in a more theologically useful framework, we might say that our genetic makeup may very well present a specific sin to us in a more intense and serious way, but our genes do not make us sin.
At first glance it seems that this contention might be hard to extract from Scripture. Nowhere in God’s inspired Word do we find a discussion of genetics or how our genes relate to sin. We do, however, find another useful term that encompasses this idea and is prominent throughout the New Testament. This term is the word “flesh,” which is closely related to the adjective form of the same word commonly translated as “carnal” in the King James Version.2 This is how the apostle Paul refers to the sensual sins of unregenerate man, which he describes as the “lust of the flesh” or the “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:17, 19).
That the concept of ‘flesh’ or ‘carnality’ certainly includes our genetic inheritance is clear from John Calvin’s explanation of the breadth of original sin in man:
I only wished briefly to observe, that the whole man, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and, therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin. Thus Paul says, that all carnal thoughts and affections are enmity against God, and consequently death (Rom. 8:7).3
No part of our fallen being, including our genes, is naturally directed toward God apart from His gracious work of regeneration. Even our genes point us in the wrong direction relative to God’s will!
The concept of being oriented in the wrong direction is captured biblically in the Hebrew and Greek words that are often translated as “sin,” both of which draw on the image of an archer missing a target.4 This is not, however, an accidental near-miss from an otherwise accurate archer who merely veered away from the target for moment. It is a miss of the target because the archer was willingly and intentionally aimed in the opposite direction.
From these words, Scripture teaches us that the natural inclination of all people is off-target—literally aimed in the wrong direction (Rom. 3:23). Sin stains every part of creation as it now exists; there is no escaping it. Whether we are talking about the genetics of disease or the cultural corruption of our society, sin is everywhere in our world. We start out in sin (original guilt and corruption) and we are bathed in it all of our life long. Regardless of where we fall in the “nature-versus-nurture” debate, everything in us is naturally directed toward sin.
A biblical understanding of fallen human nature and the corruption that flows from it in the sphere of human behavior is important as we address the widely held distinction between sexual orientation (attraction) and sexuality (behavior). While we may perhaps agree that there is a real distinction between a “pre-behavioral disposition” and an actual behavior, this distinction does not strip away the moral character of even our unwanted dispositions, or the calling to fight against them. This is the point made in the following quotation:
Sin is not merely what we do. It is also who we are. As so many of our confessions have it, we are sinners by nature and by choice. All of us are born with an orientation toward sin in all its varieties. The ongoing experience of same-sex sexual attraction is but one manifestation of our common experience of indwelling sin—indeed, of the mind set on the flesh (Rom. 7:23; 8:7). For that reason, the Bible teaches us to war against both the root and the fruit of sin. In this case, samesex attraction is the root, and same-sex sexual behavior is the fruit. The Spirit of God aims to transform both (Rom 8:13).5
This is a critical point to make because it relates back the argument over the genetics of sexual attraction and human accountability. Even if our genes do have a subtle influence upon sexual attractions, we are nonetheless unambiguously called to war against the impulses of the flesh that lead us into sin. Any disposition or behavior that is contrary to God’s Word is sin, which must be resisted by the power of the Spirit.
As we think about the issue of human responsibility in relation to our sinful nature, it may also be helpful to approach the question about genetics and behavior from the opposite perspective of what has been discussed to this point. Consider, for instance, another reasonable approach to the studies described in the prior article, which purport to show that one who is a homosexual is ‘born that way.’ While these studies do support a relatively minor correlation between genetics and homosexuality, the more important point is how minor that correlation really is. And so we ask the question: What are the more significant influences on sexual behavior, and do these influences excuse our sins any more than our genetics?
The authors of the key study on genetics and sexuality provide the answer, which they label the “unsystematic, idiosyncratic, serendipitous events” of a person’s life. To put it more simply, these are the unplanned and everyday experiences that a child faces due to the environment in which he or she is raised. It is these environmental influences that are almost certainly more important than genetics in directing the fallen human nature toward a given sin. Constant exposure of a child or young person to pornography, for instance, is very clearly connected to addictive behaviors, promiscuity, and sexual deviancy.6 This exposure may not be the fault of the child at all, but rather a result of persistent sin in a family member who puts sexual sin before the eyes of the child early in his or her life. Nevertheless, the exposure to pornography is formative for that child and becomes an unavoidable stain on his or her conscience that—apart from God’s grace in Jesus Christ and the transformative power of His Spirit—will most probably impact sexual behavior. If we were consistently to follow through with the logic of culpability and causative identity in this instance, we would have to conclude that deviant sexual behavior or promiscuity displayed by this child is not wrong because it is part of his or her imprinted identity. It cannot be helped because it is who that child has become.
It is not hard to refute this logic with the Word of God. Whatever a child of God’s identity was before his or her conversion, that identity lies in the past at the moment of regeneration and remains in the past during lifelong conversion. As Paul notes, “such were some of you” (I Cor. 6:11a). That is not who the believer is anymore. The believer is not essentially Jewish or Greek, male or female, bond or free (Gal. 3:28). And even more importantly, no believer is essentially defined by his or her sins because the curse of sin is broken at the cross and its power is broken by the indwelling Spirit of Christ. The believer is not essentially a thief, a liar, an adulterer, or a murderer. Or a homosexual. Maybe he or she committed that sin, but it does not define him or her, though the rest of Paul’s words do: “but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor. 6:11b).
And that is the problem with “identity politics” for Christians. It blasphemes the grace of God in Christ Jesus, who redeemed us, sanctifies us, and gives us the power to live a new life of resistance to besetting sins. Claiming a “gay Christian” identity is capitulation to the philosophies of this world. It defines the believer as being something other than a child of God in Christ Jesus and denies the power of the cross to effect real change. The identity of a “gay Christian” is not a biblical category, nor is it supported by the genetic science that is purported to trump Scripture.
We will end this article with a hypothetical scenario. What if the genetic studies described in the previous article had demonstrated a strong—perhaps greater than 50%—contribution of genetics to homosexual behavior? Or what if rather than a collection of minuscule contributions by many genes to this behavior, the study had been able to identify a single “gay gene” that is different in people who describe themselves as homosexuals? Would that or should that change our interpretation of the data? The answer is a resounding “No!”
The battle is not in the genetics laboratory or in the court of public opinion on personal identity. Christians need to stop chasing those ‘red herrings’ and understand where the battle really lies. The battle is sited in Scripture and in the readiness of the church to proclaim “the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Or, maybe more to the point, the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation for the straight man and the homosexual man, for the straight woman and the lesbian woman. Our issue ought not to be whether there is or is not a genetic influence on sin, but rather in whether the new life in Christ, by His grace and Holy Spirit, is able to overcome any and every temptation to sin in the life of the believer. We confess that “nothing is impossible with God” in Christ Jesus. That is the rock on which we stand.
1 Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Gene: An Intimate History (New York: Scribner, 2016), 384-390.
2 “Flesh” (meaning the physical aspect of a body) is the most common translation of the Greek word sarx, whereas “carnal” is the most common translation of the related adjective sarkikos.
3 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.i.ix. Notice an important aspect of this quotation. Calvin does not say that all “carnal actions” are enmity against God, but that even our “carnal thoughts and affections are enmity against God” and, consequently worthy of death. Such is also the conclusion of the Heidelberg Catechism on this matter in LD 44 (Q&A 113), which declares that the tenth commandment forbids “even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments.” Orientation is not justified while action is condemned. Both are enmity with God.
4 Hebrew chata’ah and Greek hamartia.
5 Denny Burk. “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 58.1 (2015), 95-115.
6 Love, et al. Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update. Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), (2015), 388-433. And Luke Gilkerson, “Your Brain on Porn: 5 proven ways pornography warps your mind and the 5 biblical ways to renew it.” Covenant Eyes. https://www.covenanteyes.com/2011/09/12/5- proven-ways-pornography-warps-your-mind.