The Bible treats the issue of human sexuality as one of primary importance. It is a salvation issue. Those who practice, teach and encourage sexual sin of any kind without repentance are in great eternal danger. This is not simply an issue of differing interpretation between brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not something on which we can agree to disagree and yet remain in fellowship. If we are to stand firm for the truth of the gospel in our generation, we need to first recognise the nature of the issue at stake. We need to undertake theological triage and treat the issue of human sexuality with the seriousness that it deserves.
There is no greater internal challenge facing the church in the UK than the pressure to revise the orthodox historic teaching on human sexuality and accept and affirm same-sex relationships. Some denominations have already decided to perform or bless same-sex marriages, including the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, and the United Reformed Church. The Baptist Union still formally upholds the biblical understanding of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual relationship but allows individual churches to perform same-sex marriages if they wish. The Church of England is in a lengthy process of consultation and deliberation (Living in Love and Faith) as to whether to allow gay marriage, and five bishops recently broke cover to demand that the church revise its teaching and practice to allow same-sex marriages. The Bishop of Oxford reiterated his support for same-sex marriage, and his re-reading of Scripture to justify this, in an article in the Telegraph on Saturday.
In essence, those who want to change the teaching and practice of the church take the view that loving homosexual partnerships are pleasing to God and ought to be celebrated and affirmed. They argue that the Biblical teaching condemning homosexual practice is either limited to abusive homosexual sex and does not prohibit same-sex relationships akin to marriage, or that the Bible’s teaching has been superseded in the present day, either by extrapolation of a claimed ‘redemptive trajectory’ or the assertion that in the light of developments in science, psychology and societal attitudes the Holy Spirit is saying something different to the church today from what he said in the Scriptures when they were first written. Some of those making these arguments claim to be evangelicals committed to the authority of Scripture, such as Steve Chalke and Jayne Ozanne.
I will not provide a comprehensive rebuttal of these arguments in this post. Suffice it to say that the idea that the Biblical passages condemning homosexual sex are confined to abusive relationships has been discredited by scholars of all theological persuasions. The Bible consistently teaches from Genesis to Revelation that sex was given by God exclusively for heterosexual marriage, which was created for the procreation of children and the modeling of the eternal relationship between Christ and his church, not merely for the psychological wholeness or personal fulfillment of men and women. There is no ‘redemptive trajectory’ argument that could be applied to homosexual relationships because redemption restores God’s good creation. The abolition of slavery cannot be equated with gay marriage because there was no slavery in pre-fall creation. Homosexuality was never part of the original good creation, as Romans 1v24-27 makes clear. The idea that the Holy Spirit is saying something different to the church today would be to entirely undermine the doctrine of Scripture and to claim that God is either a liar or a being who changes his mind about sin.
My purpose is this post is rather to argue for the significance of this issue. I am increasingly convinced that the affirmation of the biblical teaching on human sexuality is a primary issue, not a secondary issue over which honest Christians may disagree in interpretation and conscience. It is not in the same category as many ‘disputable matters’ that evangelicals are used to treating as ‘secondary,’ for example issues such as baptism, church government, eschatology, women’s ministry, charismatic gifts, etc. Over such issues, it is possible to disagree without breaking fellowship, as the disagreement does not indicate that a person cannot be accepted as a believer in the Lord Jesus. Such issues may be of ecclesiological importance, but they are not determinative of soteriology, in contrast to issues such as the deity of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and justification by faith alone, which are essential to salvation.
In several major talks this year I have made the assertion that the issue of human sexuality is a primary issue, with consequences for how we view those who seek to argue for the acceptance and affirmation of same-sex relationships in the church. I made my views clear in my plenary talk at the European Leadership Forum in May, on ‘What is an Evangelical,’ and in my Keswick Lecture at the Keswick Convention in July. I made the same assertion at the recent FIEC Leaders’ Conference preaching fromJude v1-16.
These are the reasons why I think that human sexuality is a primary gospel issue, and the implications that should flow from this:
1 The New Testament states that it is a primary salvation issue.
The only reason for believing that homosexuality is a primary gospel issue is because this is the way that the New Testament treats it. To be more precise, the New Testament makes clear that a person who commits sexual sin without repentance, believing it to be morally good and acceptable to God, thereby showing that they are outside the Kingdom of God. Their behaviour is to be taken as categorical evidence that they are not converted believers in the Lord Jesus and have no right to bear the name of ‘Christian.’ They are either unbelievers or apostates who have fallen from their profession of faith.
The principle that high-handed (ie proud and unrepented) sexual sin disqualifies from the Kingdom of God is thus true of all sexual sin, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Some of the New Testament references refer to ‘sexual immorality’ in a broad sense, which includes homosexual sex, but other references explicitly state that homosexual sex disqualifies a person from the Kingdom of God.
Ephesians 5v3-7 states:
‘But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.’
In these verses, Paul makes quite clear that people who profess to be Christians with their lips but practice sexual immorality with their bodies without repentance have no inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ. They are those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ about Jesus but who do not truly know him, and he will cast them into judgment as evil doers. The gospel does not just forgive our sins but delivers us from our sins. A person who continues to sin sexually after conversion without repentance, sorrow, grief, and efforts to resist future temptation is showing that they are not truly regenerated. They remain dead in their trespasses and sins.
Revelation 21v6-8 makes exactly the same point, contrasting those who will enter the new creation because they have maintained their faith in Christ with those who have continued to live a life of sin:
‘He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.”
In exactly the same way as Ephesians 5v5, Revelation 21v8 makes clear that those who unrepentantly continue in sexual sin, which includes homosexual practice, will be cast into judgement rather than enter the kingdom. Those who ‘live in sin’ can have no hope of living in the eschatological Kingdom of God – unless they repent and turn from their sin.
In 1 Corinthians 6, the exclusion of those who continue in homosexual sex without repentance from the Kingdom of God is made explicit. The wider context concerns a case of high-handed heterosexual sin committed by a man who is proud of what he is doing and who refuses to repent. In 1 Corinthians 6v9-10 Paul states that his sin, and the sins of others who are unrepentant, will exclude them from the Kingdom:
‘Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’
Paul could not be clearer. Men who continue to have sex with other men without repentance are excluded from the Kingdom of God.