Sin: Action, Intention, or Orientation?

Posted by Clark Bates
July 18, 2018


The Christian social media-sphere has been ablaze in the last few weeks regarding a conference known as Revoice.  The organizers define their mission as “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”

Typically, I don’t feel the need to use this website as a commentary on social issues, but rather desire to see the Bible defended and, through a better understanding of God’s Word, allow it to change society.  The reason this has caught my eye recently is that it’s happening in my backyard, St. Louis, Mo.  What’s more, it’s being held at a church that allows me to meet with a men’s group regularly.  Because of this, and the tumultuous internet responses, I decided to investigate the conference.

I must say at the outset, that I have no desire to shame or slander anyone involved with this conference or those attending it, and that even approaching this issue is conflicting for me as I desperately want to extend the love of Christ to other image-bearers of God while remaining faithful to the Word of God.  And, to be honest, if you aren’t challenged in the same way when approaching this issue, it should give you a reason to reflect on why.  For this reason, this post is not going to discuss the conference specifically or the speakers directly but will respond to some troubling statements made by the host pastor and some positions held by the keynote speakers.

Is desire sinful?

It has become increasingly common in Christian circles, including apologetic circles, to say that homosexual desire is not sinful, only acting on that desire.  This is, of course, a very palatable response in the face of a very difficult and very personal struggle many people face.  I have even said this very thing in the past.  Recently however, I have been challenged by my own posts to ensure that all my positions are grounded in the Word of God first, and this position is no different.  The question then becomes, “Are desires themselves sinful, or just the acting on those desires?”

If we begin with the most common materialization of the will of God, the Ten Commandments, we find our first answer.  If you begin in chapter 20:13 you read of four prohibitions on actions: do not commit murder, do not commit adultery, do not commit theft, and do not lie about others.  Yet, v.17 takes these prohibitions one step further, and it is here that the Christian culture seems to have looked away:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to his neighbor.”

Commonly, the pulpit sermon will take this verse and leave it in the ethical dimension.  You need to be content with what you have.  Don’t spend your life wanting more than God has given you and certainly don’t compare your life to the things your neighbor has.  But I don’t ever hear the deeper message being conveyed.  The word for covet is the Hebrew חמד (khamad) which refers specifically to an internal mental activity.  It’s not in itself a negative thing, but when it’s applied to an object that is contrary to the design or will of God in Scripture it’s always negative.  Khamad is the intent behind an action.  It’s what comes first.  And it’s forbidden in the Decalogue.

This may sound familiar to those who remember Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5, wherein he states:

“You have heard it said, ‘do not commit adultery’ but I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

We often say that Jesus made the law harder here, but on closer and more careful reflection he did nothing but reiterate what Yahweh had already prescribed at the close of the Ten Commandments.  The Greek word translated here as “desire” or as “lust” in other translations, is the Greek επιθυμησαι (epithoomāsī) and means to desire or covet after something.  This is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament in Exodus 20:17. In other words, Khamad = epithumasi.

The writings of the apostle Paul continue to say the same thing:

“Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  – Gal. 5:24

“So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry.”   – Col.3:5

“Therefore, God gave them over to the desires of their hearts to impurity…”  – Rom. 1:24

“For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.”   – Rom. 7:5

What does all this mean?  It means that contrary to the more palatable approach of saying that the sin is in the action, the Bible states that the desire to sin, is in fact sin itself and must be repented of.

This might sound harsh and unloving, but what if we applied the same logic used toward homosexuality to any other sin?  What if you had a member of your church that was a racist.  He doesn’t go out on lynchings or abuse minorities, but in his heart, he hates other ethnicities and thinks they are less than human.  Is this man in sin or is he not?  Clearly the racist intentions of his heart are sinful and have no place in the body of Christ.  Racism should be repented of even if it is not acted upon.  Why then do we apply a different standard to a different sin?

Queer Treasure Brought into Heaven?

A break out session of the conference that has brought intense scrutiny identifies itself as focusing on what parts of “queer culture” (their words, not my own) or “queer treasure” will be brought into the new Jerusalem?

This concept may sound strange in many ears but is a reflection on Revelation 21:24 wherein it says that the nations of the earth will bring their “treasures” before the King (i.e. Jesus).  While I would dispute the translation choice of the word “treasure” in this passage, I will leave it for the purpose of the discussion.  This is an eschatological moment in the Bible.  It takes place after God has judged the wicked and restored all of creation to its original state of perfection.  The passage really just points out that all the nations will present themselves before God in their grandeur acknowledging that what they bring to the kingdom, or their uniqueness, is a gift to the Lord and ultimately comes from Him.

The question is, “How does this translate to ‘queer culture’?”  Here is where a real difficulty comes in, for the idea of a homosexual culture is a secular idea, not a biblical one.  The Bible knows nothing of homosexual culture.  What’s more, the Bible speaks of homosexuality as a sin.  Only a few verses from the passage in question, the Scripture states that “nothing profane” can enter the new Jerusalem.  The host pastor and the speakers at Revoice say that they agree that homosexuality is a sin.  How then, can a culture characterized by sin enter into the presence of a holy God?

You might respond that we are all sinners, and you’d be right.  So how can any of us come before a holy God?  The answer is that we come before a holy God “clothed” in the righteousness, or sinless perfection of Jesus.  We do not bring our sin before God as a treasure.  There will certainly be men and women in the new Jerusalem who struggled with life-long homosexual desires, but they will not be bringing homosexual culture with them; they will be bringing the spiritual treasure of a life of sacrifice to the Lord with them, something far greater than any earthly culture.

Can Orientation be Repented Of?

Lastly, during an interview with a Christian podcast, the pastor hosting the Revoice conference became entangled in a debate regarding orientation.  The argument boiled down to homosexuality being an orientation, just as heterosexuality is an orientation, and therefore it cannot be repented of.  Yet the primary message of Scripture is that the orientation, or condition, of homosexuality is itself a sin and not the design of God.  Genesis 2:24  states that from the beginning God made two genders, male and female, so that they would unite together as one.  This is the original orientation of man in perfection and is the design of God on all individuals.  Any deviation from this designed orientation is a result of Fall of man in the Garden of Eden.

If this means that even the orientation of homosexuality is sinful, how does one repent of it?  And perhaps more personally, what effect does such a teaching have on the homosexual individual?  To repent of an orientation is to live a life of repentance.  To use a word made popular by the Puritan John Owen, the Christian is to mortify sin, or to kill sin, daily.  This is not placing a greater burden upon the homosexual than on the heterosexual for all mankind lives under the orientation or condition of sin.  All of our lives, heterosexual and homosexual, should be lives of constant repentance.  However, with that repentance is the promise of God’s forgiveness, sufficiency and victory over sin.  A life of daily repentance creates a reliance on that forgiveness and sufficiency of God, the most important relationship for all believers.

But how does such a teaching effect the homosexual?  Plenty of proponents of homosexuality will argue that such a teaching leads to depression and suicide, and therefore is evil.  It would be far easier to dismiss such claims as overly simplistic, but as someone who deeply cares about those I speak to, this does concern me.  May I at least say that I understand the felt burden.  I am a man that has a lifetime of sin behind me.  I live in constant regret of my actions, my thoughts, and my desires, many of which still surface even today.  This feeling of despair does not eliminate my need for repentance, but neither do I identify myself with this sinfulness.  Rather, the more I learn of God through His Word and through His people, the more I see that a life of repentance is also a life of blessing.  It is a life emptied of self-reliance and one dependent on community.  It is a life governed by my Lord rather than my emotions.  It is what we are all called to.


A great danger that I perceive with a conference like Revoice and the message it contains is that it continues to encourage Christians to retain some aspect of their old self.  To continue to label oneself as a Gay Christian is to place a worldly identity ahead of one’s identity in Christ.  The Bible teaches that those in Christ are a “new creation” and are to put away the “old person”.  The sin of our past and even our future has been nailed to the cross with our Lord and we would seek to crucify Him again if we take those sins back up and apply them to ourselves.

I’m under no illusions that every man and woman struggling with homosexuality will become heterosexual.  Nor do I think getting married is the answer.  Neither am I suggesting that this struggle can be “prayed away” in such patronizing terms.  I work with men who fight this fight daily, and I love them with a deeper love than could ever be given in a sinful relationship, but if I only encourage them to embrace their gay identity alongside their Christian identity I am encouraging them to doubt the grace, mercy, love and power of a sovereign God and encouraging them to accept only partial healing rather than complete restoration.  I don’t know why some overcome sin immediately and others struggle for the rest of their life, but the fact that we struggle does not make it any less sin.

Yes, this is a hard truth.

Yes, it is an intense struggle.

It is a life of sacrifice, and it is the life of the believer.

To quote author Sam Alberry,*

“It is the same for us all – ‘whoever’. I am to deny myself, take up my cross and follow him. Every Christian is called to costly sacrifice. Denying yourself does not mean tweaking your behaviour here and there. It is saying ‘no’ to your deepest sense of who you are, for the sake of Christ. To take up a cross is to declare your life (as you have known it) forfeit. It is laying down your life for the very reason that your life, it turns out, is not yours at all. It belongs to Jesus. He made it. And through his death he has bought it.”

“Therefore, I exhort you brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice, living, holy and pleasing to God, which is your reasonable service.  Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that you may prove the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

  • Romans 12:1-2



*Sam Alberry is an Anglican minister vocally speaking and writing of his struggles with same sex attraction.  He is a member of The Gospel Coalition and the author of “Is God Anti-Gay?”


1 thought on “Sin: Action, Intention, or Orientation?”

  1. To repent of a desire is to say no to what it can do, it will not erase what causes it. How can you repent of something you can’t control? Desires proceeded from our sinful condition. ‘Sinful’ desires are consequences of our nature that has been weakened by sin. They only become sinful for us when we act upon them (James 1:15). The problem is our nature (the heart) and not a function of our nature(desire)(Matt: 15:19). Do to our condition, there might be many factors that give birth to desires, which could be demonic, psychological and even physiological. If desire is the problem some could arrive at the obligation to blow their brains out (Matthew 5:29). In fact, this is a reason behind why people that struggle with sinful desire commit suicide. Growing up with the shame of a desire that you don’t want can drive you insane. Some people do not want their desires (Romans 7:19). However, God does allow us to struggle with the weakness of our condition (Corinthians12:7-9). Christ came to redeem the human condition. He took on our sin scared humanity and transformed it (Romans 8:3). He had desires that could lead to sin, if he didn’t he could not be tempted and there would be nothing to redeem (Hebrews 4:15). He redeemed in his flesh what we were too weak to do (Romans 8:3). Not only that, he destroyed in his body the source the causes our flesh to be weak, the power of death, at the cross (Hebrews 2:14). Human desire in general, with its source being our heart, has the universal capacity to lead to sin (1 Cor. 10:15). Some desires can be more destructive than others and even the most innocent could be deadly. They all proceed from our weakened sin scared state that we all have from the fall. Never the less, we have something to offer the world that can set them free. Christ gives us the power to become partakers of the divine nature. He calls us to use his divine presence in our flesh to heal what can destroy us (2peter 1:4). A desire can be redeemed, it can be a moment when we redirect its source, the heart, back to God. Desire does not have to be the source that will condemn us or cause our own self destruction.

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