Because Anne and I do a great deal of marriage counseling, I try to read as many publications on marriage as I possibly can. I am presently in the process of reading one of the more popular books on marriage, “The Great Sex Rescue,” by Sheila Gregoire, Rebecca Lindenbach, and Joanna Sawatsky. I am not very far in, but so far I have found it a troubling book. It is offered as a corrective to some of the excesses of evangelical purity culture, especially as these excesses have tended to distort the way women and men sexually relate to one another in marriage. Raised in The Episcopal Church, I was thankfully spared this evangelical phenomenon. I can agree, however, that wherever sexual purity was emphasized to the exclusion of or, at least, without also holding out the cross of Christ with equal if not greater vigor, then the Gospel of grace was obscured. But not all correctives serve to actually correct. Some do more harm than good. So far, “The Great Sex Rescue,” seems to fall into the “more harm than good” category. This morning, for example, I happened upon the following line:
“According to the Bible, once we are indwelled with the Holy Spirit, we should expect that lust will be defeated,” (pg. 90)
This notion is central to what seems to be a primary argument in the book, namely that men and women have been trained, *falsely,* to simply accept that young men often find themselves overwhelmed by lust and that being overwhelmed by lust is thus, “every man’s struggle.” The good in view here is that men who are relieved of this notion will not think of themselves as hopeless victims of their fleshly desires. They will see themselves as free in Christ and set about controlling and killing off their lust and, crucially, begin to view attractive women as fellow human beings rather than de-souled objects of desire. This is, indeed, good and the goal toward which all Christian men should strive. We can and should affirm that in spades. And, it is certainly true that the Holy Spirit does indeed aid in this struggle in ways that set the Christian man apart from the non-believer. He, more readily than other men, is made to see and acknowledge the ugliness and corruption of lust in increasing measures as he learns, by grace, to see Christian women as sisters and mothers and friends. These are all good things.
The reality, however, is that it is rare to find a Christian young man, whether raised inside or outside of the purity culture, who does not experience his own terrible weakness and inability in the face of his own fleshly desires, despite his efforts to control them. This is especially true today when pornography is so readily available, a veritable click away. Does his weakness and inability mean that he should give up and give way to license? Of course not, but it does mean that both young men and the women who love them should face the lust of the flesh with a sense of reality rather than idealism.
If the principle that one who is indwelt by the Spirit should expect that lust will be defeated totally in this life were true, it should be true not just for lust but for every sin. In fact, to support this assertion, Gregoire and her fellow authors cite Colossians 3:5, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Yes and Amen, that is the Christian task. And over some sins, lust included, some do gain total victory by God’s grace, but not all. Are there Christians who struggle their whole lives with covetousness? Should you consider your habitually covetous Christian spouse devoid of the Spirit? Is there anyone who can claim victory over “evil desire”? How about “idolatry”? To apply Colossians 3:5 as Gregoire et al apply it would mean that every Christian should expect to be able to mortify whatever “is earthly.” You should expect earthly perfection.
The argument is similar to the classic Pelagian/Semi-Pelagian assertion that: “If the bible commands you to do something, then you must be able to do it. Otherwise, God would not command it.” Pelagians use this principle to deny that human beings are fallen by nature; to say that the human person is able, apart from grace, to do what is right. The authors, thankfully, do not make that argument. But their use of Colossians 3:5 is similar in that they assume that the Holy Spirit so transforms the human will, that one might be wholly sanctified in this life. Otherwise, God would not issue such a command.
The argument seems to ignore what theologians have identified as the “first use” of God’s law: God’s law reveals that you cannot follow the law and that therefore you need Christ and his cross (Romans 3:20). Are Christians done with that notion? Is the first use of the law only fit for unbelievers, to draw them to Christ and forgiveness but unnecessary for the forgiven? Are we able to be so sanctified that we can dismiss the need for the cross altogether save for sins of the past?
To conclude from Colossians 3:5 that we can expect victory over every sin in this life flies in the face of the apostle Paul’s confession in Romans 7:18. He writes there of himself – in the present tense, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” And it directly contradicts 1 John 1:8 in which the apostle John, addressing Spirit indwelt Christians writes, “If we say we have no sin, we lie and the truth is not in us…” The Lord, moreover, personally gives us a prayer to be said daily that includes the line, “Give us this day, our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses…” (Matthew 6:12). The New Testament assumes that Christians are both justified saints and yet also wicked sinners. This is why we, as Anglicans, confess daily in the Book of Common Prayer that, “There is no health in us.” And we ask God to have mercy on us because we are “miserable offenders.”
The reality is that human beings indwelt by the Spirit will continue to sin. Some Christian men will not overcome lust completely. Some Christian women will lie on their death bed and covet what they have not had in this life. No human being will ever be utterly free of idolatry on this side of the grave. Telling Christian people otherwise leads them into unnecessary paroxysms of despair. Telling them otherwise is a recipe for sending men and women, especially in adolescence and young adulthood, into the hopelessness of expecting absolute purity and finding instead that they are consistently unable to meet the mark and concluding, therefore, that in fact, they do not have the Spirit and must not be in Christ.
The answer to sin in the Christian life is not more law. The remedy is, and this has always been true, the Gospel, the Good News that God has taken on flesh in the person of Christ; that he has fulfilled the righteous demands of the law for you; that he has taken your sins to himself as if they were his and given you his righteousness as if it were yours; that his blood cleanses you from all unrighteousness; that by his stripes you are healed; and by his Resurrection you are restored and have been given life eternal. Trust in Christ and his promise. That is where hope and victory lie, not in your efforts or purity.