Mark Dever: Well, I’ve gotten a number of questions over the day, and one that I think is relevant has to do, Al, with a talk that you gave this morning, but I’d like to get other people in on this as well. Is homosexual tendency a sin?
Albert Mohler: In some sense, yes. In a Romans 1 perspective, an unaligned or wrongful affection is objectively wrong and therefore sin. It falls short of the glory of God. And even more to the point, it robs God of his glory in the right ordering of our affections. But on the other hand, again, I think it’s important to say that I believe every single human has wrongful sexual affections. And so in other words, it’s not pointing to that particular profile as the only form of corrupted and distorted affection.
And it can often come as the result of what is at least in the perception and experience of the one struggling with it in an innocent way. It could come from sexual abuse as a child; it can come from any number of inexplicable and unknown areas, and it itself is perhaps more a manifestation of sin. And I appreciate it very much what David had to say about the difference between the sins we do and why we do them and understand we are sin in that sense.
So I think honesty compels me to say that it is objectively wrong. We know that the Scripture makes that absolutely clear, and the source of all that is manifestly objectively wrong is sin. And it all falls short of the glory of God. But it is a struggle. And when you say tendencies, I think some of those tendencies are outside of our conscious control. And so I want to make a distinction between sins of commission in which we entertain a notion and give ourselves to the sin. We know that sin, and sin that is a part of the fabric of who we are as those who are born in a sinful world and conceived in sin in our mother’s womb and struggling with sin in a very real sense until the day we die.
Mark Dever: I think some people may have been surprised this morning in your talk because I think a lot of evangelicals have sort of built the line around, “You can’t say this is natural because it’s not natural according to creation.” But you said, “Well, because of the fall, we, of all people, have the theology that should be able to take on board there may be some things that are innate to us as individuals that are wrong.” We know that.
Albert Mohler: No, I mean we know that already. And in fact, we know that in dimensions of life not related to sexuality. We know that the corruption that entered into the world with sin corrupted our genetic code. For instance, the human genome was corrupted, and sin led to the programming of death and decay in the human body. So there was a genetic impact of sin that is explainable by the reality of death. If I could just say this, the claims that there’s a genetic basis for homosexuality are completely overblown and largely scientifically without basis. Although they’re good PR and largely you see the cultural capital they gained for the homosexual argument.
But let’s just say that we were presented at some point with irrefutable scientific evidence that on the basis of our best understanding would indicate there’s some at least correlation genetically. We have a theology that can handle that because we understand what total depravity really means in terms of its effect of every single dimension of our lives. Not only our consciousness and our conscience decisions, but also our bodies and the very structure of physical existence.
Mark Dever: Ben, David, John, any comment on that?
John Piper: Well, I would say I’m in process on whether to agree or not. I’m trying to figure out whether this is accurate. You wouldn’t say that to die is sin, right?
Albert Mohler: No. But it is the result of sin.
John Piper: So I’m trying to figure out whether desires can fall into that category. You say that the Scriptures make it patently obvious that the existence of the orientation is sin. Which you’re thinking about Romans 1:27?
Albert Mohler: I said the result, at least the manifestation of sin.
John Piper: Okay. That’s different.
Albert Mohler: Well, it’s different and not. Like I say, I have to think the Scripture makes a distinction between the sins that we contemplate, that we consciously choose to commit (just to use the old theological sins of commission) and the sin that is a part of the very fabric of human existence in which every individual may find himself and herself in a different place. But sin is the only explanation for why this is here.
John Piper: I totally agree with that statement. I asked him during one of the breaks: Is it sin to limp? Remember his illustration of you sinfully get drunk, crash into the wall, break your leg. From then on you’re limping and thus the limp is always pointing to the drunkenness, and you always bear testimony, “I was a drunkard and I got myself into this fix and I’ll carry this wound for the rest of my life.” But to limp is not sinning, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s an analogy.
The reason I say I’m not sure is because you used our desires for heterosexual, illicit things. So you’re driving down the road, and here’s this half-dressed — really, if she were half-dressed, it wouldn’t be a problem. This is not half; this is way less than half — and there she is. Now my analysis of what happens is that there can be a kind of awakening that isn’t sin yet.
One time somebody asked when Jesus had his feet wiped by her hair, was he sexually aroused? Had he been, would it have been sin? So you can see where I’m trying to draw lines here is, I’m not sure I want to say that the orientation with its first flickers of impulse or desire is at that moment yet sin. It’s certainly disordered, disordered and rooted in the fall, and should not be pursued at all and should be resisted at all costs. So that’s just kind of little, “Hmm, I need to think some more.”
Albert Mohler: Well, if I could respond to that just quickly. I think what I’m trying to point to is what I hope is a matter of brutal honesty that helps us to speak with genuine truth-telling compassion to homosexuals as well as to the rest of us sexual sinners. I would have to go back and say sin is the only explanation for why that billboard is there. Sin is the only explanation for why my first impulse in seeing that billboard is not to declare the glory of God.
In a very literal way, there’s something wrong in this whole equation. The fact even that sin is entered in my mind as a contemplation is itself a part of what it means to be a sinner. My fear is if we declare all of that not sin until you get to the point where you consciously choose to desire it, we set ourselves up for ignoring an entire structure of sin into which we are born that we have to fight against like a soldier who has to be alert at all times standing on watch.
We can never just assume that we are in some situation of moral neutrality. We are predisposed to sin, and every individual’s predisposition may be, as I spoke about, an erotic profile may be inclined in a different way for one, pornography for another this, for another that, for someone homosexuality. I think we have to be really honest to say even a conversation about these things raises the contemplation of these things. But that’s a risk we have to take as Christians in maturity and we’re still going to have to drive down the road. But let’s be honest, I’m suggesting about how that billboard got there and why it’s dangerous even to see it if unavoidable.
John Piper: I’d love to hear David Powlison.
Mark Dever: On the same question? David?
David Powlison: There’s so many directions we could take. I find that really thorny issues like this; it’s helpful to go to a simpler issue and then think your way back. So you take something like anxiety or anger, and it seems clear to me that different children are born out of the mother’s womb — the first ten minutes of their life — you see certain characteristic temperaments. And it may well be that someone, child A is born with more of a tendency to be fearful, to be anxious, to be fretful, and child B is born with more of a tendency to be willful and domineering.
So there’s something about the way they come hatched that is tied to temperament, constitution, genetics, presumably because they haven’t had any kind of choices yet in life or any kind of social nurture.
I tend to see that as probably what your comment about a profile. You can say there’s a profile about what our typical besetting sins are. I can think back on the first ten minutes of each of my three kids’ lives and actually could say you could see both their strengths and their weaknesses in seed form from that point.
It doesn’t make any excuse for sin, just as that sin comes out with certain tendencies. So one person’s fight is going to be with their temptation of anxiety, another person with a temptation towards pleasure-loving, another person with a temptation towards irritability and anger, or a heightened temptation maybe we should say. So I would see an analogy with sexuality.
And the other thing I’d say is that our culture is so obsessed with genetics at this moment in time that it leaves out the other great side of the deterministic causality, which is nurture. You know, nature-nurture, the two causalities that get used to override human responsibility and the covenantal heart. And there’s all kinds of ways that homosexual behavior and inclination correlate sociologically. It’s no accident that on all-male prisons and all-male navy ships, you get instances of homosexuality.
I would tend to put those on a par. The sin nature coming out. I don’t know if I can quantify how much sociology plays a role or how much genetics plays a role. I’m content to be agnostic and yet know it’s sinful.
Mark Dever: Ben, any comment on this? You don’t have to, but you’re welcome to.
Ben Patterson: I have nothing to add.
Mark Dever: All right. Al, why is it that evangelicals have all gone so quickly and so firmly to defend that it must not be nature? And is there anything that we should be careful of if we’re all saying, “Now, actually no. It’s fine that it’s nature. We’ve got a theology to take care of that.” Is there anything we want to be cautious about in that?
Albert Mohler: Oh, I think hugely cautious. And yet, let me go back to that for a moment. I think our first instinct rhetorically and in terms of argument is to want to make every conversation about sin, about sins of active conscious, contemplative commission. And those are the sins we can handle most easily. Whether we’re parents with children or a warden with prisoners or a teacher with students or just looking at ourselves in the mirror, those are the sins that are most easily addressed by us.
The more difficult part is getting down to why we are sinners in the first place and the fact that even when we think about sin, we’re thinking about sin as sinners and even as Christians thinking about sin we’re sinners saved by grace, thinking about sin and the rationalizing process I talked about from Romans 2 doesn’t end at the moment of our conversion and regeneration. So let me say that I think the first response of evangelicals to this is if we admit there’s anything other than conscious choice to this, we give away the store. And I think that’s profoundly wrong. I think that is a hugely superficial understanding of sin in the first place.
But on the other side, yes, of course there is a danger because the logic of the fallen world is that — well, for instance, I spoke about the issue of sexual orientation. The formula that the homosexual community tries to communicate even to very young children is and to teenagers, arousal is destiny. What your body tells you is who you are. Well, we are the people who know our bodies lie to us all the time. We can’t trust what our body’s telling us any more than we can trust our conscience unaided by the objective reality and guidance of revelation.
So in other words, we need to be honest about the fact that nature is going to have an impact as nurture. And of course, again, I wish we had more time to talk about this. I think there’s a hugely important pastorally applicable amount of documentation about the nurture side that has to do with, for instance, the absence of a strong masculine figure in a young boy’s life and the presence of non-trustworthy or abusive males in the presence of a young woman or girl’s life that can lead to these wrongful manifestations.
But the moment we admit nature and nurture, we’re not conceding one centimeter of moral consequence and importance nor need for confrontation with the objective ordering of all of this by the word of God.
Mark Dever: Okay, so that’s what we’re not conceding. Is there anything we need to be careful about in that?
Albert Mohler: Well, I think we have to be cautious about the very point I was trying to make, that we’re not conceding moral responsibility here or the absolute unconditional need for the entirety of our lives to be ordered by the objective reality of God’s revelation. In Scripture, our affections and the totality of our lives is to be directed to the glory of God.
I do think pastorally, though, again, it is important, and that’s why I hit this this morning and in every conversation I have with Christians, especially where I know I’m talking to Bible-believing evangelical gospel-loving Christians, when homosexuals tell you that they did not choose this, they are not lying to you. They may be lying to themselves somewhat, but they honestly generally believe what they say.
Now, again, the logic of the world is to say, “Well, if you didn’t choose this in terms of some point in your life where you made a decision, ‘I’m going to have this affective or erotic profile, and this is what I’m going to give myself to,’ then it’s you. That’s who you are. Be liberated. Form your interest group. Claim your identity as a group and demand your rights.” I think we have to come back and say, “No, that’s just not the way it works.” We bring all this to the cross of Christ.
But I do think it allows us — no and more than that — it compels us to say to the homosexual, “Your sin is deceptive. My sin is too. The only way out of that deception is by the grace of God. So let’s not deceive ourselves, and let’s go to the word of God and claim the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
David Powlison: I have found that talking with people about that, “I didn’t choose it.” And again, it’s that widening the battlefield. You think about it: when did you choose to be proud and self-centered? Or when did you choose to take your cues off of what other people think about you? Or when did you choose to try to control your world? Or when did you choose to get your back up and get self-righteous when you got accused of something? And you realize that there are the high-handed sins that people choose, and then there’s this, “It’s just what we are.”
And in that sense, you again normalize the argument. Let’s not just get all hyped up about this one because it’s a hot-button issue in the culture, but there are so many things that you realize the issue of sin is complex. There’s actually a historical term for the thing we’re talking about here. It’s Pelagius versus Augustinianism.
Pelagius said that all sin is consciously chosen acts in the presence of a consciousness of the alternative. You saw a fork in the road; you decided to take the wrong fork. Augustine, who was following Scripture, said that’s one kind of sin. That’s the high-handed sins, and then there’s all the other ones, which are all those metaphors in the Scripture about being like a beast, being drunk, being asleep, being impulsive, and being deceived by our lusts and being deceived by our false beliefs. Then there’s all those vast, massive sins where we’re just clueless about what we’re doing.
One of the great effects of redemption is a progressive awakening of our consciousness that we realize things that we never thought were wrong. Matter of fact, there’s a funny story. A lady I knew came to Christ in her 70s and was led back to Christ by her daughter. About three years into her being a Christian, she came up to her daughter and said, “Carol, did you know that grumbling is a sin? Why, I grumble all the time. I’ve grumbled for my whole life.”
And here’s a lady 76 years old realizing that this thing that just came naturally, this is, in fact, a sin. It was just one of those very charming, delightful steps of sanctification in a 76-year-old lady’s life.
Mark Dever: I think sometimes, as evangelicals, because of Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount about the interiority and the intention, whether it’s hatred or lust, that intention is a necessary part of every sin. There are laws in the Old Testament law for unintentional sin, sacrifices that are made for sins that are not intentional because things are objectively wrong in God’s eyes. Ben, anything else?
Ben Patterson: I have nothing to add.
Mark Dever: Just checking, brother. Al, one more thing on your talk before we move on to other things. I just particularly appreciated the way you structured all of your points: “We need to be a people who are.” “We must be the people who are.” “We must be the people who are.” I think, because as evangelicals, we have a very difficult word to understand well and to speak in this culture, which can sound so self-righteous. You really led us well there in trying to cultivate the correct spirit, and I really appreciate that.
John Piper: What do you think we need to be careful of? It sounded like you had something in mind, and he wouldn’t say it.
Mark Dever: No, I think he was right. I just wanted to make sure that we didn’t ignore the fact, the very things that David brought out, that the intentional sins that are there of people trying to excuse themselves that we didn’t ignore the fact that those are important sins to point out in just being comfortable with the nature of it. So no, I was happy with the way he kept going.
John Piper: We have a collective consensus up here that though Mark is the guy asking the questions, he was one of the plenary speakers. So we have a right to do this.
Mark Dever: But I was speaking on the Puritans. I mean, yeah. We’re going to turn to Ben’s talk now.
David Powlison: Actually, could I add one thing? Just out of interest for people, perhaps. I’ve written actually two articles on this topic we’ve been talking about, an essay called “The Ambiguously Cured Soul.” It examines a case study of a woman with lesbian tendencies and the way in which she and her personal story was explaining why she became that way and addresses and thinks through biblically all the kinds of issues that we’re talking about here. And then there’s another article.
Mark Dever: These are both in the Journal of Biblical Counseling?
David Powlison: That was in the Journal of Biblical Counseling. It’s also an essay in the Seeing with New Eyes book, “The Ambiguously Cured Soul” essay.
Mark Dever: That’s the book that’s for sale down in the bookstore. You can get it afterwards.
David Powlison: Yeah. It’s down there. And then there’s another book that I contributed to. It’s called Psychology and Christianity: Four Views. And I argued the biblical counseling view against, in interaction with three other views. My interaction with a man named David Meyers, who argued for a pro-homosexual point of view, my response to his article has a whole discussion of what to make of presumed genetic linkages. And I even argue there, if and when they find the “homosexual gene,” what would that do to Christian thinking? And I walk that out. So that might be of interest to some people.
Mark Dever: Ben, in your talk this morning, which was a glorious celebration of the goodness of God and sexuality, I mean it’s exactly what it was billed as. Thank you so much for that and walking us through it. A question I had in your last couple of points, I began to wonder if I were sitting here as someone who was single, because you were saying so eloquently how we know in giving ourselves away to others and how God made us to be together. If I’m sitting here, and I’m a single person, then does that mean I’m not fully human?
Ben Patterson: Not at all. I’m obviously saying marriage is a brilliant, vivid, and fairly common worldwide picture of some profound truths about God and about the gospel. But remembering that the God who gave the gift of marriage is what we need. We do have a tendency to focus on the gift and forget the God who gave the gift. Whether you have the gift and the calling to marriage or you don’t. And if you have the gift, you should still see it as a signpost. It should point away from itself to the God that we love and adore. I do think certainly the major aspects of the Mormon religion, forget about that. They tend to worship marriage.
I think there’s a real tendency here in evangelicalism to worship marriage, to see it as just the heart of good spirituality. And I think that’s wrong. So I want to say whether you’re married or not, it’s about God. And I don’t remember which Puritan said this, maybe you do, but it was just, we ask for silver and God gives us gold. And for some of us, our desire to be married may end up being actually silver. Another way of saying it, God, whenever he says no, I believe he always does it to say a greater yes.
Mark Dever: So, do you actually have students coming into you at Westmont saying, “I have the gift of being single?”
Ben Patterson: No, it’s funny though. I do have that. Come to think of it, I have people coming in who are so frustrated with the dating scene that they really do think maybe they’re called to celibacy. This is so complicated and difficult. I just don’t want to mess with it. And that’s about as close as it comes. But I’ve never heard anyone say, “God has called me to be single.”
John Piper: I would risk something like this. Let’s just float this balloon that probably single people have the possibility of being more human than married people because of the gifts of pleasure. Let’s leave aside the mechanical reproduction possibilities that do that in different ways. But if you’re talking about the delights of intimacy, delights are given for two reasons, one to be experienced and then offered up in worship through thanks. And the other is to be surrendered and replaced with God.
That’s why we have fasting. That’s why we have a call to self-denial. It is a profoundly and uniquely human experience to take a denial and sanctify it by replacing God with it. No other being can do that. Therefore, I would just throw it out that singles probably can be more human than married people, more fully human.
Mark Dever: While we’re here on this topic, do you want to go on and add anything about the order of creation, order of redemption now, and say anything about that, and then we can have Al come in on that?
John Piper: Well, we can move there if you want. I mean, they’re not the same issues here. I’m not arguing whether that produces a duty for singleness or a duty for marriage. I’m going to push on who bears the burden of proof here. I feel like singles are having to bear the burden of proof here, like, “Oh, well, are we fully human? Because everything here is really going for marriage, and marriage is where you experience love and marriage is where you experience intimacy, and all this is a picture of God. And I’m out here just watching this thing happen.”
I just want to put a different twist on that and say that’s one way to be human: to receive a unique gift and then return worshipful thanks. And the other way is to be denied the gift and return thanks and sanctify it by drawing more on God. I mean, a question I kept writing in my margin that would be really helpful, I think, to discuss here is should we really believe in a form of asceticism and work hard at it?
I’m more inclined today at age 58, watching my life and its ease and the way I’ve labored to turn pleasures into worship. I’m more convinced than ever I need asceticism in my life with all of its risks and dangers because I think in my experience I am more likely to be deceived right now that I am leaning on God when I’m leaning on a retirement or my wife, or a successful pastorate than any other danger. And therefore, I feel like I need some conscious self-denials to put myself to the test and see whether I get angry or irritable, or fretful by not having something I want so bad every day or every week.
It might be sex, might be food, might be approval. It might be attending staff meetings. Just wherever I am leaning on pleasure and then saying, “Well thank you, thank you, thank you, God.” It’s worship here. When really it’s idolatry. So how do you find out which it is? And one of the ways is asceticism. And so I’m just kind of waving the flag, even though I wanted this to be a conference about the goodness of sex, as my idea. Let’s do that here.
I’m waving the flag over John Piper’s life. I’m in danger all the time of idolatry. And so singles, bringing it back to where we were, singles are in a position where they are forced to be denied sex, a massive desire. And I’m saying there can be the most human experience there imaginable, even perhaps more human than indulging that desire and then trying to make a worship act out of it, which we must.
Mark Dever: Could you imagine having a conference on singleness and the supremacy of Christ?
John Piper: Absolutely, I could imagine that. I hope this would be a little bit of that. Like one-eighth maybe.
Mark Dever: Ben?
Ben Patterson: No. All I have to add to that is, “Amen.” John, you’re absolutely right.
Mark Dever: Thank you, Ben. John, I’m curious on your asceticism comment. I mean, I read some quotes from the Puritans today that I think you would’ve appreciated and agreed with when Baxter, I think, was calling for something sort of like that. Do you not feel that in the normal course of your life, in God’s providence, you have enough trials that help you deny yourself?
John Piper: No, absolutely not.
Mark Dever: That’s what I love about you, John.
John Piper: We live in America, Mark. We live in Disneyland. Look at this room, these clothes, this health, the nine-one-one, the refrigeration, the indoor plumbing, the warm water. Good night.
Mark Dever: And that also means though that you have the expectation of all those things, so that you’re going to have more things that you would probably be disappointed about than somebody who wasn’t used to all those things. I’m not arguing against it necessarily. I’m trying to refine and understand what you’re saying there. I may be arguing against it. Asceticism, it seems like for the Christian, because we are redeemed in a fallen world, our experience is daily to deny ourselves. Yes? No?
John Piper: Take up your cross daily, Jesus said.
Mark Dever: I mean that is what we aspire to. But if we’re truly following Christ, that actually is our experience. There are desires we have every day that we will look at and we do say no to.
John Piper: And so I’m talking quantity here. There are more. At this stage in my life, I am feeling the challenge of not assuming that the gratification of all of my innocent pleasures that I have come to take for granted for 58 years are as worshipful as I think they are, and not as idolatrous as they may be.
Mark Dever: And you would’ve said that differently twenty years ago?
John Piper: I don’t remember.
Mark Dever: All right. Al, you want to pick up on this? We only have twenty minutes left.
Albert Mohler: I know, and I’ll just be honest with you: my struggle is where to grab this. And I mean that seriously, not making light of it at all. I think the huge problem with this is that we want to talk about this without hurting anybody’s feelings. And we certainly don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I mean it seriously. But marriage is one of God’s good gifts he’s given his people. We are the people who can’t talk about sex without talking about marriage.
So if you think it’s weird, we’re talking about marriage at a conference on sex, something is weird. I mean, because that’s where we have to give our focus to see God’s glory in the arena of creation, in marriage, in a unique way. This is one of God’s good gifts to us. And in a world of sexual confusion, I think we have to admit that we have aided and abetted this. The fact that young Christians are not marrying at a demographic rate right now, that in previous generations has been approximated only by plague and pestilence and war and famine.
The way that we have been complicit in making marriage a lifestyle option, that woefully undercuts our ability to speak against homosexual marriage or against any of the other violations of marriage. We’ve got to recover an ethic of marriage in the church. And that is not to say that if you’re unmarried, I’m declaring you to be a sinner. We have read 1 Corinthians 7. There may be a good gospel reason for you to be unmarried at this point in life. And of course, Paul gives us a test there too. That means in Christ there is satisfaction where others would burn with lust. You do not. Would burn with desire, you do not.
Then go for that gospel purpose. But I guarantee you if you’re rationalizing that by saying that you’re simply going to stay single, so it’s easier to become a partner in your law firm, you’re sinning against the glory of God as you’re involving yourself in sexual sin by the delay of marriage and the refusal to receive this gift. So I just want to speak carefully to say that throughout every century and generation of the Christian church, marriage has been understood to be the norm. And it’s been understood that adulthood means acceptance of marriage. Now, I am in it too deep just to stop. So let me say one thing.
Mark Dever: I want to be clear that I don’t hear John saying marriage isn’t normal.
Albert Mohler: No, I’m not necessarily even responding to that. I’m just trying honestly to put something out there that I feel like I have to say. And that means that this gets tied to the whole biblical worldview in terms of complementarity and all the rest because this is largely a failure of men. It’s largely a failure of young men to grow up and take responsibility and lead, and to seek a wife. I mean, I resonated with the Puritans. I wish you’d read it all over again.
Mark Dever: John thought about having Al do the single men seminar this afternoon, but for some reason he decided not to.
Albert Mohler: I mean, because what we have is this extended male adolescence in which they’re just kind of ganging together and not growing up and not getting married and not pursuing a wife. And there are millions of Christian women who are praying for marriage and are being victimized by men who won’t grow up and lead and excuse that by some kind of, I think, rationalization. But we talked about that already.
Obviously, singleness is not a sin. But I’m going back to the fact it might be a result of sin. And for some of you, it may be very well sin because marriage is the gift God gave us. If you say you’re struggling with lust, young man, and you’re having a difficult time dealing with this and you don’t know how you’re going to handle this, there is a real short trip from Genesis 1–2. Go there.
Mark Dever: David, is that generally how you handle them at Westminster when they come along with a question?
David Powlison: Nothing to add.
Ben Patterson: That’s how a Presbyterian handles a Baptist controversy.
Mark Dever: Let me just throw this out, John, just for the sake of an entering discussion. I think asceticism is overrated. I don’t think it plays a prominent role in the Bible, but what I do think plays a prominent role is gratitude in Thanksgiving. And I think in order to be genuinely grateful, we have to first be very humble. In the way Job was humble when he lost so much, this sort of enforced asceticism. And his first impulse after tearing his clothes and dumping the ashes on his head was to say, “I came into this world naked. I’ll leave naked. The Lord gave, the Lord took away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
And just for the sake of a little give and take here, I am a greater fan of the profound cultivation of gratitude in the Christian life as a way of cultivating humility and a sense of wonder and amazement at all this than I am in favor of asceticism as a way of making sure I don’t forget what a trap it is.
John Piper: You’re certainly right that gratitude is a more profound and pervasive human category of experience in the Bible than denial because we are told to be grateful for tribulation, which may be self-imposed and good. And therefore, I doubt very much that the first half of what you said is true; asceticism is overrated. We took a survey in this room right now; tell me the value of asceticism in your life. Almost nobody would say it’s huge. Where are you talking about? What planet are you from? Where is it overrated?
Mark Dever: I think you were overrating it.
John Piper: Oh, by me? Got it. I’m sorry. I’m quoting Scripture here.
Mark Dever: I wasn’t specific enough. Okay?
John Piper: Okay. “If anybody would come after me, let him deny himself” (Matthew 16:24). Take up your cross daily. You die daily. Paul pummels his body even. In marriage, go apart for a season. So this discipline comes into marriage. I would say if you started doing a study on the call to conscious acts of self-denial, you might find more than you think. And we might rediscover something worthy in the first four centuries of the monastic tradition in its impulse. So we don’t need to go further with this. But in my life, I think it is a call, not an overrated one because, and you judge you, and I’ll judge me. I think I am growing presently. I think I’m growing aware of my undue expectation and reliance upon the American ease.
It’s very difficult for me to imagine being without a lot of things that I may be called to be without. I want to be able to lay them down when the time comes. If my head is slit, I want to be able to sing. I want to be able to sing and not talk to Tony Blair. I want to be able to sing. Now what do you do in your life? Tell me what you are doing to get ready to be beheaded? That’s the question I’m asking right now. What are you doing to get ready to be beheaded? And it isn’t second helpings at the meal. We don’t need a test. That’s what I mean. And it’s a personal thing. And that’s where I am.
Mark Dever: On the conference, it’s the last night tomorrow morning. Lord-willing, we’ll hear you preach on the glories of Christ. Is there something that you, and I’m asking this to each of you as speakers, would think would be helpful to come out on a conference on this topic, sex and the supremacy of Christ, that you haven’t heard has come out or that you think would be useful to put in people’s minds before we send them to the bookstores and their beds?
John Piper: I have two things, and I’ll try to say it real quick, and then others can jump in. One fellow grabbed me over here and just said, “What about the wiles of the devil?” I think what he meant was, “I haven’t heard it come out enough.” And David Powlison said, “That’s one of the many things I said I wasn’t going to address.” And I read it up in one of the rooms where we read Ephesians 2:1–3, where the prince of the power of the air is so closely linked with the passions of the flesh and the passions of the mind. It’s like they’re just interwoven.
So I think we ought to have a seminar on the devil or a talk on the devil himself. And what are these fiery darts that he shoots at us? And if we were to have a seminar, I’m sure what we would do, would we start with the gospel where he was absolutely and decisively defeated, according to Colossians and Ephesians. He was put to naught at the cross because the one lethal weapon the devil has is unforgiven sin. That’s what he condemns us with and nothing else. And it was taken out of his hand at the cross.
He has no lethal weapon that he can beat you up with. He can even kill you, but he cannot damn you anymore. And so now you know that because of the cross, the lethal weapon is out of his hand, and he’s only got fists, and he can pummel you, and you can handle that. That would be my approach if we did a little seminar on that.
The other thing is it took me a long time, and I’ll just say this for the younger guys, it took me a long time to discover that the brain is a muscle. I don’t know if that’s accurate, physiologically. I mean, I think I had a passivist view of my brain as a teenager when a thought came, and I tried something like, “Oh Lord, take this away. I’m not supposed to have it.” If it didn’t go away, I just assumed the battle was over. Isn’t that ridiculous?
It didn’t occur to me that the mind can now begin to push on that thought, and push, and push, and push. Or you can’t say, “I will not think of white elephants. I will not think of white elephants. I will not think of white elephants and have no thoughts of white elephants in your head.” When a white elephant is there or a new woman is there, you must consciously push on another vision, the cross, and Christ dying in agony, or the beauty of your child’s face, or a glorious sunrise.
And I have discovered that if you push long enough and pray hard enough, it takes 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes, a miracle can happen, namely forgetting. I didn’t think that was possible 25 years ago, and I know it’s possible today. The mind can direct itself toward an object with such discipline and such constancy that the miracle of forgetting the alternative thought, the gift of having it not there, occurs to you a week later.
It hasn’t been there. You didn’t keep working on it because that would mean it’s always there. The miracle of forgetting a lewd thought can happen when the mind undertakes. I’m a total Calvinist in reliance upon grace and would base this on 1 Corinthians 15:10. “I worked harder than any of them. Nevertheless, it was not I, but the grace of God was with me.” So my brain is going to push, and push, and push toward a holy thought. If that billboard has lodged itself on the way to the hospital or somewhere, I’m going to push it away from that. And God has shown me, why didn’t I discover this earlier? Why did I give up after three minutes? Three minutes of praying, three minutes of pushing. Huh? I’ll just indulge. I’ll just let it be there and savor it, lick it like a lollipop because I tried.
Mark Dever: Good. Thank you. David?
David Powlison: Let me tell a story. A friend of mine came out of a wild homosexual background. The bathhouse scene in the ‘70s, got converted to Christ, typical progressive sanctification. You break with the behaviors, and you break with the pornography, but there’s still the mental images you wrestle with. At one point, he and I were meeting for discipleship, and what he was struggling with were fantasies that would hit him as he would fall asleep. At one level, he was very discouraged. And I was very joyful. I said, “Look how far you’ve come. The only place the devil can get you is when you’re one-half comatose. And it’s the only place where your battle is now being fought. Praise the Lord.”
We talked about, “Well, how do you fight then in that dim, half-awake state of pre-sleep?” We got together next week. He described what had happened the night after we’d talked. He said, “I was lying in bed about to fall asleep. The thoughts started to come in, homosexual fantasies, kind of like Viet Cong sappers under the wire. And it’s like they’re coming in. And the word of God ran through.” He fought, and it was God saying to him, “You are my son. Do not covet. That does not belong to you.” And he said, “And the Viet Cong went back. And then about five minutes later, they were back.” “You are my son, don’t covet.” And the Viet Cong go back. And they come a third time, “You are my son, don’t covet.” And he fell asleep in peace. And he was ecstatic.
He said it was the first time in his life that he’d been at that state and not followed the logical progression of indulgence leading to masturbation. I mean, struggles never stop, as has been one of our themes. But that man has gotten married and had children and has worked as a missionary and wonderful redemption. And that was just one more step in the battle testimony to what John was speaking of.
Mark Dever: Amen. One of the things I was thinking of: I would encourage you to share stories with each other of victories you’ve seen in your own life to encourage each other, things that the Lord has done, because that’s one of the most practical ways, I think, we can be helped to see the Lord do even more in our lives. When we take note, a very Puritan thing to do is to stop and sometimes literally write down, but certainly take note of those things the Lord has done in your life so that you don’t squander his graces to you. Ben, do you want to add anything you think in the conference that you think it’d be good to hear before we go out?
Ben Patterson: Just to add another layer to what’s just been said. John, I think I got this line from you. We become what we behold and 2 Corinthians 3:18, and “we who with unveiled faces all behold the Lord’s glory are being changed.” Reflect the Lord’s glory are being changed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory. I think Thomas Chalmers, him of this line with the expulsive power of a new affection.
In some ways, the most direct approach to lust is not to deal with the lust, but it’s to look at the goodness and glory of God. And I think the cultivation of a life of prayer and worship, these things are immensely practical and have direct ethical and moral impacts on us. I really love that verse, and I love the way, again, it’s not wrestling with the lusts. That’s part of it, but it’s much more going hard after God.
Mark Dever: Al, you must be the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that has taught most in public about sex since John R. Sampey. Do you have anything else you want to say about sex in public here, Al?
Albert Mohler: Yes. As you’re writing my resume or epitaph.
Mark Dever: But you do talk about this all the time.
Albert Mohler: I do. I mean, it is the burning issue of this time. I could go to a lecture on the hypostatic union, and the questions are going to come back on this because this is where people live, and we’re living in a day of just huge, huge confusion that leads to a deep sickness. And so I pray for a day when this isn’t the issue that we have to discuss in this way. It’s always going to be a matter we’re going to have to discuss. But I pray for a day when it isn’t the crisis that it is right now. But if I could say the one thing that I think maybe has been missing from here, that I don’t know may oddly tie together some of what John was talking about and others, I don’t think we take seriously how much of this crisis is the result of leisure and luxury, and options no other generation ever had.
It is true that someone in a Saharan hut can lust, and probably does, undoubtedly. But it’s different when we surround ourselves with entertainment, and we give ourselves so much leisure. There are so many greater things we can give ourselves to than the contemplation of sexual sin. It is such a small thing before it’s even an evil thing. It’s just not where we need to be spending our time. And that’s one of the things I appreciate so much about this ministry. It is about desiring God. And so don’t tell me that you’re really serious about fighting lust if you’re not reading serious theology.
Don’t tell me you’re serious about fighting lust if you’re not deeply involved in ministry. Don’t tell me that you’re serious, and you’re just horribly caught in this vortex of sin if you give yourself all this leisure time and hide yourself away in a hole. Get out, do something great for the glory of God. Contemplate the glories of God, learn about God. Give yourself to the study of Scripture and the truths of God’s word. Go out and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And then you’ll still have a fight, but it won’t be the same fight.
Mark Dever: Amen. Amen. Well, friends, there’s much more we can say, but it’s about closing time for the evening. Anything else, John, you want to say before we end. I’m going to ask Ben to close this in prayer in just a moment.
John Piper: If it wasn’t obvious, I commented sort of off the cuff, looking down at Al Mohler last night and said, “He’s on a crusade.” Well, you heard a little bit of it and then he said that in response to my talking about the potential of singles being even more human. I don’t think I heard anything come out of his mouth that I disagree with. And in fact, as I hear him nuance and qualify the crusade, I feel like joining it.
Mark Dever: Amen.
Albert Mohler: Thank you for that word.
Mark Dever: Good. Well, let me ask Ben to closes in prayer and then Scott may have an evening announcement for us.
Ben Patterson: Let’s pray.
Lord, whom have we in heaven, but you and earth has nothing we desire besides you. Our heart and our flesh may fail us, but you are the strength of our heart and our portion forever. It is good to be near you. Be pleased, O, Father, to make us into the image of your son. Lord, stir up on us holy and profoundly, holy affections. And, Lord, in all this, I pray that you would build your church, you would add to your church, you would destroy the devil’s work, and you would destroy every pretense that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and every conspiracy against your holy word. And that, Lord, you would do this until your kingdom is so complete that in it you are all in all. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.