The Gay Movement is a Gospel Issue
It’s virtually impossible to go a day without some media emphasis on the rising tide of homosexuality in our culture. We are witnessing a sea change in attitudes and cultural acceptability—what some are trumpeting as “The New Normal.” Depending on where you stand and in what light you view it, this issue reflects a variety of opinions and elicits a dizzying array of reactions.
For many it is a social justice issue, as questions of gender identity and gay marriage bounce between legislative house, courtroom, school, church, town hall, and home. For others it’s primarily a moral issue, as people seek to uphold traditional values or biblical teaching, or to else overturn and update them. For still others it’s biological and psychological, as scientists and psychologists duke it out over genetic disposition, social adjustment, and reparative therapy. And let’s not forget that for some this is no theoretical debate, but very a personal issue, as they live daily with attraction and desire toward the same sex and the social and emotional ramifications for either acting on those desires or refraining from them.
For many of these same people it is an issue of identity—who they are, how they believe they were made (and how others categorize or marginalize them). Related to this, it is for many a family issue, as parents wrestle with how to respond to their gay children or their children’s gay friends, and with children growing up in same-sex parent households. For a few it’s still a private issue—regardless of whether they agree or disagree, it’s none of their business. And of course it is a church and denominational issue, as mainline Protestant denominations continue to fragment over it, and as evangelicals fumble over their response while the world shakes its head in suspicion and outrage.
Others could be added to the list. Whatever else can be said, the issue before us is incredibly complex, and requires much patience, compassion, and humility for all involved.
But may I suggest that more than any of the above categories, the gay movement is ultimately a gospel issue. By “gospel,” I mean the good news of what God has done to establish his kingdom and deal with our sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Read more here.) It is this gospel message that gives us the lenses to make sense of the present sexual upheaval, as well as the ability to see a way forward that offers hope and wholeness to everyone involved.
So how does the gospel help us make sense of homosexuality and the gay movement?
The Gospel Begins and Ends with God
Our approach to this issue must begin with God and his purposes, because that’s where the gospel of Jesus begins. The gospel is something God accomplished in Christ. Moreover, it’s something he accomplished ultimately for himself and his glory. This gospel does not merely save us from something (sin, sorrow, brokenness, eternal judgment), it also saves us for something—restoration to God and his design for humanity and creation (in part now; fully when Jesus returns). Without an understanding of that design, we are ill-equipped to make sense of much of anything, not least the issue of homosexuality.
The Bible introduces God to us as king over all creation. He made it, he owns it, he rules over it, he has the authority to judge it, and he deserves its worship (Gen. 1-2). The whole thing exists for the sake of his glory and greatness. The Bible also tells us that God made humanity in his image to be his children and royal representatives over all the earth (Gen. 1:26-28). God’s intention for humans was to reflect his holy character and exercise his rule on his behalf, filling every corner of this world—every cubicle, every classroom, every living room, everything—with his image and worthy reputation. More specifically, it tells us God made humanity male and female—we are sexual beings by design. This sexuality was part of God’s vision for humans—to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with his knowledge and glory. This does not mean that to be fully human one must experience sex (certainly our Lord’s humanity was not compromised by his celibacy). It does mean that God has an opinion about sex, and that since he is King, we should listen to him.
Sex was God’s idea, and it is good. But it’s only good when participated in according to his design, because it only brings him glory when it’s participated in according to his design. Like everything else, sex has its place in God’s created order. In this case, it’s the covenant of marriage, which God instituted as a permanent, exclusive, public, and legal commitment between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:18-24; cf. Matt. 19:4-6). According to Scripture, there is no other context of human relationship wherein sexual activity of any sort is permissible, including but not limited to sexual interaction between people of the same sex (e.g. Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Tim 1:9-10). There are several reasons for this, but chief among them is that one of the ways sex brings glory to God is how it displays to us the gospel of Jesus. When the apostle Paul reflects on God’s design for marriage, he makes the audacious assertion that the whole thing is really about “Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). So when the husband and wife come together in intercourse, it’s a picture of the union that Christ has with his church (Eph. 5:21-33; cf. 1 Cor. 6:15-17). Any expression of sex outside of male-female marriage ruins the picture because it betrays the design.
This assertion will no doubt already rub several people the wrong way. Try to bear with me. Beginning and ending with God in our understanding of homosexuality means that his design, his purposes, and his glory must shape our perspective and drive the discussion. When we begin our conversation by focusing on humanity instead, not only do we forfeit any objective standard for navigating the issue, we immediately follow the path out of the garden and subjugate God’s rightful evaluation to our own. This is both foolish and deadly, because what’s at stake is not merely our personal desires or how society functions, but how we relate to the eternal God who is our rightful king and who deserves our allegiance and worship.
Rather, when we begin with what God thinks about all this and what brings honor to him, two things become readily apparent. First is the fact that because all humans bear God’s image, all should be treated with respect, compassion, and dignity, regardless of things like religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This is crucial, not just for a healthy conversation, but for a just and healthy society. The second observation is that sex and sexuality are not up for grabs, but are part of the larger question of holiness as a people created to reflect and serve a holy God.
The Gospel Recognizes the Sinfulness of Sin
As soon as we recognize that God had a design for humanity and human sexuality, we’re immediately faced with the chaos that surrounds our culture today and invades our very hearts. The world does not always work the way it is supposed to, not least our relationships and our sexuality. Nor do God’s people always treat others the way they’re supposed to—with humility, compassion, and love.
It’s easy to cry foul when we’re on the aggrieved side of such personal struggles and cultural battles. But what light does the gospel of Jesus shed on these realities?
The gospel of Christ recognizes that all humanity has rebelled against God and his rule (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12). From the secret pride of heart to public expressions of coercion and violence, we all share in Adam’s failure and follow his model by thinking we know better than God about how our lives should work. This is what we mean by “sin”—rebellion against God—and it affects every part of our lives.
The gospel recognizes the sinfulness of sin—that disobedience to God and his rule really is wicked, because God really is that holy. More specifically, the gospel recognizes the sinfulness of all sin, not just the sexual variety or the expressions to which we take personal offense. From greed and dishonesty to adultery and pornography, anything we do that disregards God’s Word and forsakes him and his rule is treachery and high treason. This includes sexual activity outside of traditional marriage. Any attempt to empty sin of its sinfulness is in essence an offense against the holiness of God.
The gospel also recognizes that there is a brokenness to humanity and creation that goes deeper than volition—a fracturing of the very goodness and order of creation. The apostle Paul tells how “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” For this reason, it shouldn’t surprise us when sin and rebellion find expression in social structures and cultural movements that transcend individual accountability. But Paul continues, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:20-23, ESV). There is sin in our hearts and sin in our bones. In this connection, it also shouldn’t surprise us when we find our minds and bodies predisposed toward attitudes and actions that repudiate God and his glory.
But being disposed toward something does not for that reason make it virtuous. The Christian life is in fact one marked by self-denial in following Christ (Matt. 16:24). But neither does it make it easy, a fact too easily lost on those who shake their finger at people living daily with same sex attraction, while they request prayer once again for continually losing it with their children. Our common human condition ought to foster compassion and humility as sinners rub shoulders with other sinners, rather than prideful self-righteousness.
Sin is serious business, punishable by eternal death. Our holy God will call all to account in the end. This is a sobering reality, and ought to move every heart to tears, if not terror. Yet it is for this very reason that the gospel message focuses on a Savior—the Lord Jesus Christ.
But as Thomas Watson reminds us, “until sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” We can make no sense of the good news of Jesus (and the hope it offers to everyone including homosexuals) if we empty sin of its sinfulness. The beautiful thing is that we don’t have to, because in Christ we have a sufficient solution to deal with our sin and brokenness.
The Gospel Triumphs in the Sufficiency of Grace
The gospel is a message of grace, and that grace comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ. By “grace,” we mean more than just forgiveness or tolerance. In Scripture, grace is when God gives us something utterly wonderful when we in fact deserve something utterly terrible. We deserve justice for our treachery against his heavenly crown; instead God gives us himself, acquitting us, cleansing us of our sin, and adopting us into his own family. He takes us from the dungeon to his own dinner table.
How is such grace possible? Only through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
While humans were made in God’s image—an image spoiled and stained by sin—Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). He is the one in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9), who makes known to us the God we cannot see with our eyes or approach with our unclean lives. As the very image of God, Jesus is also the True Human after whom we were patterned, who actually accomplishes the work of humanity by faithfully bearing God’s image to the world in relationship with the Father. Jesus is and does everything that Adam, Israel, you and I fail to be and to do. He never sinned nor succumbed to temptation or rebellion (e.g. Matt. 4:1-11; 1 Pet. 2:22). His was perfect covenant obedience, so that he might stand in our place, as our representative in both his life and death.
And that’s precisely what he did. When Jesus went to the cross, he took upon himself every self-serving action, every misplaced desire, every arrogant boast, every careless and cutting word—whether committed by us or against us. He bore in his body our very weaknesses and illnesses. Every expression of rebellion and brokenness in this fallen creation was laid on him. He did this that he might bear the full weight of God’s holy anger against our sin, in order to exhaust it in our place and clear of the charges against us. He did this in order to crush the power of sin and death, disarming them by willingly laying his life down in our place and rescuing us from their devastating effects. He did this to make much of his Father, and to reclaim us humans for our created purpose, to glorify our God and King forever.
Because Jesus is enough, God extends grace to those who are united with him in faith. Take away grace, and everything falls apart. We end up living legalistic lives, bouncing between two extremes of self-righteousness (when we’re able to keep up the show) and self-hatred (when we inevitably fail). Moreover we impose unattainable standards on others, making them strive for our favor in fear of rejection and shame. It’s an ugly and wicked scene. It’s not surprising that when grace is removed from the picture, many find the only realistic way forward to adjust God’s standards for sin.
But God’s grace is sufficient for our sin and brokenness, whatever shape it takes. In Christ we have a hope that is able to deal decisively with our sin and brokenness and to bring forgiveness, healing, and change for the sake of God’s glory, if we will surrender our lives to Christ in faith. We don’t have to redefine the boundaries of sin or turn a blind eye to our own sin while we stand in judgment over others; we can freely agree with God and surrender to him, because we know that in Christ we have a sufficient and compassionate Savior.
The Gospel Shows Us the Way Forward on this Issue (and Every Issue)
So how can we follow the contours of the gospel in responding to homosexuality and the gay movement, whether we find ourselves looking at it from within or from without?
First, we need to remember that all God’s people are sinners saved by grace. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (ESV):
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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.
We do not find our identity in our sexuality. As Christians, we find our identity in Christ.
That means, second, that we need to take a posture of compassion, humility, and even camaraderie with fellow sinners in need of grace. Those who agree with Scripture on the issue of homosexuality are no better that those who disagree; we are completely dependent on grace. Moreover, just as God did not wait for us to clean up our act before lavishing his love upon us (Rom. 5:8), so we are called to lay down our lives in sacrificial love for our gay friends, family, and neighbors. The church must be a safe place for all sinners to be honest about their sin, where we can wrestle with it as a community dependent on Christ. So away with the triumphalism and pride. Enough returning evil for evil by taking up the coercive tactics of the world. Keep the gospel the main thing. Love others as Christ has loved you. Bear witness to his life-giving Word.
Third, we need to look to Christ for strength and hope amid our struggle against sin, whatever shape that sin takes. God’s grace in Christ has the power not only to rescue us from sin’s penalty, but to transforms us increasingly into his image. This is an ongoing process for every sinner in Christ, but a necessary one to pursue. It means that all of us must cling to Christ and the power of his Spirit for the strength to say no to passions and actions that are contrary to God’s holy character. This is not the easy road; self-denial never is. But as Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian, writes in his recent book, Washed and Waiting, it is the only truly fulfilling way for Christians who have same sex attraction to live. He writes, “Imitating Jesus; conforming my thoughts, beliefs, desires, and hopes to his; sharing his life; embracing his gospel’s no to homosexual practice—I become more fully alive, not less. According to the Christian story, true Christlike holiness is the same thing as true humanness. To renounce homosexual behavior is to say yes to full, rich, abundant life.”1 Similarly, Christopher Yuan, reflecting on his own pursuit of holiness amid homosexual desires, reminds us that “Change is not the absence of struggles; change is the freedom to choose holiness in the midst of our struggles.”2
No sinner is guaranteed that they will never struggle with the wayward desires of their heart again. But we are guaranteed that we will never be alone in our struggle. For we have a Savior who not only clears our names before the judge, but who is with us every day in the trenches of sin and holiness, giving us mercy and strength through his indwelling Holy Spirit. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “was made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:17-18, ESV). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16, ESV).
Moreover, all who hope in Christ are guaranteed that there will come a day with the battle will finally be over. When every residue of human rebellion and brokenness in this world will be taken away, God’s new creation will shine in its full glory for all eternity, and we will receive our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Paul continues, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:24-25, ESV).
Finally, for this reason, the gospel bids us to remember that “victory” on this issue will not come in the form of legislation, bans, boycotts, petitions, or the like. This is not to say that national laws and civic policies are unimportant. I believe it’s critical for Christians to continue to uphold a biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, just as it’s critical that all humans be treated with dignity and basic human rights. But our hope for God’s glory in this matter does not rest in Congress, the Judiciary, or the Oval Office. It rests squarely with Christ, the King of kings, who is sufficient, and who will finish his work of new creation when he returns. Whatever civil action we engage in, let it be done with an unbridled hope in the gospel of Jesus, shining forth the character of the gospel as we love and serve others.
1. Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 77. Kindle Edition.
2. Christopher Yuan and Angela Yuan, Out of a Far Country: a Gay Son’s Journey to God: a Broken Mother’s Search for Hope (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2011), 188.