Am I a Sinner Saved by Grace?

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Public Discourse just published an article in which I make a major defense of Spiritual Friendship and the Revoice Conference. In this post, I want to focus on a point that Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College—made in his recent briefing on the Revoice Conference:

But finally, as we try our best to think compassionately and clearly about these issues, I think we have to turn to a text such as First Corinthians chapter 6, verse 11, where Paul writes: “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.” Now in First Corinthians 6 as in Romans chapter 1, Paul mentions specific sins, but by implication, he is indicting the entire human race. But speaking of our identity as sinners saved by grace, he says, “Such were some of you,” and then uses the language of being washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. It can’t be an accident, and we must not miss the power of that verb tense: “such were some of you.”

That’s not just a message for those who’ve organized and will be attending the Revoice Conference. That’s a word for every single Christian all the time.

I am puzzled.

The claim that we must speak of all sins and struggles with sin in the past tense is a surprising position for the leading Calvinist in the Southern Baptist Convention to take. In “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” [pdf], Mohler’s protégé Denny Burk quoted John Calvin:

We hold that there is always sin in the saints, until they are freed from their mortal frame, because depraved concupiscence resides in their flesh, and is at variance with rectitude.

There’s no past tense to struggles with sin there, unless you’re in Heaven—in which case, I assume you are not listening to Mohler’s briefings or reading my blog: you have a better Source of instruction readily available.

The claim is also puzzling, because this insistence on the past tense comes in what Mohler says is a discussion of “our identity as sinners saved by grace.” But if we are not sinners, but only were sinners, then it makes no sense to speak of “sinner” as part of our present identity.

It’s important to pay attention to the last two sentences. Mohler’s argument here goes far deeper than just saying that he thinks it would be wiser for me to say, “I am a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction,” rather than to say, “I’m a celibate gay Christian.” He’s making a much larger claim about the verb tenses which “every single Christian all the time” should use for talking about their struggles with temptation and sin.

He makes this claim on the basis of an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 6:11, which comes two verses after the condemnation of homosexual acts in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Yet here is what Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:12-15, which begins just two verses after the condemnation of homosexual acts in 1 Timothy 1:10:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

As Mohler would say, “we must not miss the power of that verb tense”: “of whom I am the foremost.”

It’s a bit embarrassing to admonish the President of “the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world,” on the subject of Biblical exegesis. But I would suggest that, before putting forward a verb tense as the basis for a major doctrinal claim, it would be wise to consult the verb tenses of other verses relevant to the same claim, to make sure that all use the same tense.

The problem goes deeper than that, however.

If I had only this quote from Mohler in front of me, and were asked to judge his theological position, I would presume that he was a Pelagian. Pelagius taught that it is possible for sin to be a past-tense in our life; if we understand right teaching about God and His commandments, we can obey, and live sinlessly.

On Pelagius’ view, claims like “there is always sin in the saints, until they are freed from their mortal frame, because depraved concupiscence resides in their flesh, and is at variance with rectitude” are just excuses put forward by sinners to excuse their failure to really resist sin and live in the obedience God calls them to.

I presume that Mohler is not a closet Pelagian, and I do not think that his argument here should be seen as his coming-out party. I think it would be fairer to say that Mohler is a confused Calvinist, who, in trying to make an important point about sanctification, ended up making a claim that was much too sweeping. I’ve done the same thing on other matters myself, and it’s easy enough to issue a correction.

The word arsenokoitai, which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6:9 refers to men who have sex with men. As Mohler points out, the organizers of Revoice agree that Christians must not engage in homosexual acts. I agree with Paul that all sexual sin must be repented of and left behind, and I believe that despite the ongoing reality of temptation and indwelling sin in the believer, we can and should, in the words of the Catholic Catechism, “gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” So I agree with Mohler (and the Apostle Paul) that there is an important sense in which sexual sin must be placed in the past tense for Christians.

And it’s not like we have not considered this point. Wesley Hill, one of the Revoice keynote speakers wrote a book called Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. The first word in the title refers specifically to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and recognizes the past tense in which we leave homosexual sin behind.

In addition to the past tense, however, there is the present tense: our ongoing struggle with temptation and sin, testified to by St. Augustine, John Calvin, and the Apostle Paul:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 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. 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. (Romans 8:22-25)

The organizers, speakers, and attendees at Revoice are mostly still waiting, still struggling with temptation, still striving to be faithful, in hope that we will one day enjoy what we do not now see. In my Public Discourse article defending Spiritual Friendship and Revoice, I quoted St. Augustine (the sort of man who Mohler believes it would be too risky to call as a pastor):

In City of God, however, Augustine recognized that even good men will struggle with temptation throughout life, at some times more intensely, at others more easily. He did not teach that we can destroy all evil desire [malam concupiscentiam], “but can only refuse consent to it, as God gives us ability.” He also recognized that “however valorously we resist our vices, and however successful we are in overcoming them, yet as long as we are in this body we have always reason to say to God, ‘forgive us our debts.’”

This is, I take it, how all Christians must live with the struggles, the temptation, and sin that remains in our lives while we “wait eagerly for our adoption as sons.”

It isn’t simple to distinguish between what we must leave behind as Christians and what remains with us in this life despite the work of grace. To do so requires a lot of careful exegesis of different texts to understand how Christians should talk about their struggles with sin in the past-tense and how they should talk about it in the present tense. But Mohler’s attempt to turn 1 Corinthians 6:11 into “a word for every single Christian all the time” skips past that exegetical hard work in order to make an easy point against Revoice.

There is a lot that I appreciate about Mohler’s briefing, and a lot I could respond to in more depth. Those who are interested in a more in-depth response to some of the ideas in Mohler’s briefing should read the Public Discourse essay I linked above or Matthew Anderson’s recent in-depth criticism of Denny Burk.

I take criticism of my theology seriously, because I agree with Mohler that it is critical for Christians to properly understand and apply what God has revealed to us in our life. But the point Mohler seems to be making about how we talk about our same-sex attraction—a point which he claims is “a word for every single Christian all the time”—seems at odds with both the Bible and with Mohler’s own Calvinist convictions. It is even at odds with “our identity as sinners saved by grace,” which Mohler says he is discussing in the clause prior to quoting 1 Corinthians 6:11 above.

I am a sinner saved by grace, and will remain so in this life. I am also a Christian struggling to understand Mohler’s use of past and present tense. Perhaps further clarification from him will allow me to put that struggle, at least, in the past tense.

2 thoughts on “Am I a Sinner Saved by Grace?

  1. Thank you, Ron, for your irenic tone and for cautioning all of us against making too-sweeping of statements in support of our positions. In all of the controversy swirling about Revoice, I think many of its critics have revealed an utter inability to realize and overcome their own cultural and/or Freudian biases. We all—gay and straight and otherwise—need to think carefully about how we can mortify sin while still acknowledging the reality of ongoing temptation in our lives.

  2. I’ve always taken that Corinthian passage to mean that my identity is no longer that sin (whether its greed, idolatry, or sexual sin etc), not that I will no longer be tempted or struggle in that area

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