Can Impulses and Pre-Choice Desires Be Morally Culpable Sin?

It has often been quoted that light shines brightest against a black backdrop. In reference to the gospel, this implies that it is only when we truly examine the depth of our sin, the bleakness of our condition, that the good news of Christ’s atoning work on the cross is fully understood. We must adequately wrestle with the bad news of our sin—in all of its fullness with all of its consequences—before we can ever truly grasp the riches of the gospel.

In this post I aim to deepen our understanding of our sinful condition. Sin, put simply, is missing the mark of God’s design. The standard by which we know what sin is, is God’s Word. Any departure from God’s good design, even in the slightest degree, is morally culpable sin. The thesis that I will try to present in this post is that sin is deeper than simply the wrong moral actions we take. Further, sin is deeper than the wrong thoughts and affections we entertain. Sin has so permeated our nature, that our very impulses—before the will or mind is applied in entertaining the sinful thought—are corrupted by morally culpable sin.

The reason I wrote this post was actually in response to a growing movement among Evangelicals, particularly in our response to the LGBTQ community. Out of a desire to minister to the LGBTQ community with a heart of compassion, evangelicalism has slowly adopted a false definition of sin. A perfect example of this is demonstrated with the ministry of The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender. Article IV of their Statement of Marriage, Sexuality & Gender states,

Simply experiencing attraction to the same sex (or being gay) is not in itself a morally culpable sin.”

The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender

This simple statement, while at first glance might sound correct, is in fact a theological redefinition of sin. Once this redefinition is assumed, there are an entire host of implications and applications that come along with it. An impulse towards same-sex-attraction is no longer something that ought to be dealt with through repentance. In fact, that sam-sex-attraction part of our identity—now that it has been redefined as morally neutral—can be a source of both pride and beauty. Other organization and people that hold to this redefinition of sin, seek to discover the beauty of the sin. Some groups go so far as to assume the label as a ‘gay Christian,’ as part of their identity.

This post is not intended to be simply about LGBTQ issues. Rather, I use that particular statement, as an example of the dangers of redefining sin. What I will aim to do next, is demonstrate that indeed, even our pre-choice impulses, our demeanors, in fact our instincts, so long as they deviate from God’s good and perfect design constitute morally culpable sin. In order to do that, I am going to allow the great theologians of the past to speak. The seven theologians that I quote from below do not define truth by any means. However, they are often considered seven of the greatest and most influential systematic theologians of the Protestant tradition. Indeed, their work on this topic may be wrong. But, if we are going to say they were wrong, we must be ready. to do the hard Biblical theological work to demonstrate how they got it wrong.

Concupiscence” Defined: One last remark before engaging the theologians below. A vital term in this conversation is the term ‘concupiscence,’ which will be used repeatedly by the quoted theologians below.  The term refers to inward desires and affections towards sin and/or forbidden objects. Historically this term is most often used in association with sinfully directed sexual desires and impulses, but can also be associated with any inward sinful desire. Older translation like the KJV actually use the word ‘concupiscence’ regularly for the word ‘desire’ (Rom. 7:8. Col. 3:5, 1 Thes. 4:5). The major point is that concupiscence always refers to desires towards something considered sin or forbidden by God.

John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 1559.

In the quotation below we see that John Calvin discusses concupiscence and states with clarity that all concupiscence is sin. He goes so far as to say, “the very gravity which begets in us such desires is sin.” Calvin then in order to show the historic nature of this theology, quotes a number of early Church fathers, including lengthy sections from Augustine.

“They also acknowledge that the saints are still so liable to the disease of concupiscence, that, though opposing it, they cannot avoid being ever and anon prompted and incited to lust, avarice, ambition, or other vices… We again regard it as sin whenever man is influenced in any degree by any desire contrary to the law of God; nay, we maintain that the very gravity which begets in us such desires is sin… Accordingly, 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. Augustine himself does not always refrain from using the name of sin, as when he says, “Paul gives the name of sin to that carnal concupiscence from which all sins arise. This in regard to the saints loses its dominion in this world, and is destroyed in heaven.” In these words he admits that believers, in so far as they are liable to carnal concupiscence, are chargeable with sin.

Calvin then goes on to argue against the Catholics who were claiming that we ought not condemn in men desires which men are “naturally affected” by, meaning desires which we have no control over, but seem to operate beneath our active choices. Calvin vehemently argues that even the “naturally affected” desires that are aimed at something against God’s law are indeed morally culpable sin.

“Again, the law furnishes us with a clear demonstration by which the whole question may be quickly disposed of. We are enjoined to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength. Since all the faculties of our soul ought thus to be engrossed with the love of God, it is certain that the commandment is not fulfilled by those who receive the smallest desire into their heart, or admit into their minds any thought whatever which may lead them away from the love of God to vanity…

There were some, particularly Calvin’s contemporary Catholics who were using James 1:14-15 as a counter argument to Calvin’s position which reads, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” This is a common argument used by those in the Side B conversation today. Calvin responded to them by saying,

“But this is easily refuted: for unless we understand him as speaking only of wicked works or actual sins, even a wicked inclination will not be accounted sin. But from his calling crimes and wicked deeds the fruits of lust, and also giving them the name of sins, it does not follow that the lust itself is not an evil, and in the sight of God deserving of condemnation.”

Francis Turretin. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. 1623-1687.

Francis Turretin is considered among the greatest of the Reformed Systematic Theologians. He deals at length with this topic. I have only selected a handful of helpful quotes from his Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Writing on the definition of sin, Turretin speaks on how sin is not just in our actions but in our dispositions and disorders. He describes it as a disease of the soul. According to Turretin, anything within any of our members that is at odds with God’s law is rightly considered sin.

“But this privation is not pure or simple, but corrupting; not idle, but energetic; not of pure negation, but of depraved disposition, by which not only is the due rectitude taken away, but also an undue unrectitude and a depraved quality laid down, infecting all the faculties. Just as a physical disease is not only a removal of the temper of the humors, but also a corrupt disposition and disorder (dyskrasia) of them, so sin (which holds the relation of a moral disease of the soul) is not only the negation of a good, but the position of a corrupt disposition.”

Turretin then goes on to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary sins. Voluntary sins involve an “act of choice.” Involuntary sins involve no formal choice by the sinner, but nevertheless are morally culpable sins. He uses the term “first motions of concupiscence” to describes these pre-choice impulses, which as we will see is language that later theologians also utilized. He writes,

The very first motions of concupiscence do not cease to be sins, although they are neither wholly voluntary nor in our power. “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). Those very unbridled motions of concupiscence he not only calls “sin,” but “sin exceeding sinful” (Rom. 7:13). Although indeed these motions may not be in our power (eph’ hēmin), yet because they were such in the beginning and ought to be in accordance with the duty of man, they do not cease to be sins.”

Turretin goes on to describe a “depraved disposition” as a “culpable error.”And then in another lengthy section adamantly argues against the Catholic position on this topic. (Note: I have a separate article contrasting the Catholic position against the Protestant position on. this topic here.) The Catholics were arguing that desires and affections that occur before a choice of the will, cannot be sin. Turretin responds with many Biblical passages to defend the Protestant position. Summarizing the conflict well Turretin writes,

“The other question relates to the first motions of concupiscence (which the papists deny are prohibited here because they are not sinful). They call “first motions” those which arise stealthily, but without a deliberate judgment of the mind and a formal consent of the will… They think that these only are prohibited by the law because they are voluntary and in our power; not the others, since they are neither free nor in our power and thus are not sins. Toletus speaks thus on Rom. 7 and others with him. On the contrary, as we think concupiscence is evil in its root and forbidden by the law, so also as to all the acts and motions springing from it, whether they follow or precede the formal consent of the will.

Turretin goes on to defend the Protestant position by describing the moral culpability of sins that are “first motions” and “not in our power.”

Therefore although the first motions are not voluntary in the former sense, still they are properly so called in the latter because they affect the will and are placed under it. Although such motions are not in our power, still they are not the less inordinate because neither is any good work in our power (whose omission, however, is nonetheless sinful and inordinate). Therefore the law does not attend to the ability of man, but to his duty; not what he can or cannot, but what he is bound to do in morals. The motions of concupiscence cannot be called natural except with respect to the corrupt nature whence they flow; not however with respect to a sound and unimpaired nature. If Adam had never sinned, he would never have felt such motions (which cannot be free from vitiosity).

Charles Hodge. Systematic Theology. 1797-1878

In his robust Systematic Theology, Charles Hodge has an entire section titled ‘Sin not Confined to Acts of the Will.’ In this section he lays out the Protestant position, built upon the Bible, that even inward desires that occur before the will is applied constitute morally culpable sin.

“Another conclusion drawn from the Scriptural doctrine as to the extent of the divine law, as held by all Augustinians, is that sin is not confined to acts of the will.”

Referencing the Catholic position, he says, “they strenuously deny that mere impulses, the motus primo primi, as they are called, of evil dispositions are of the nature of sin.” In response to the Catholics he says,

"The Protestant doctrine which pronounces these impulsive acts to be of the nature of sin is confirmed by the consciousness of the believer. He recognizes as evil in their own nature the first risings of malice, envy, pride, or cupidity. He knows that they spring from an evil or imperfectly sanctified nature. They constitute part of the burden of corruption which he hopes to lay down in the grave; and he knows that as he shall be free from them in heaven, they never disturbed the perfectly holy soul of his blessed Lord, to whose image he is even now bound to be conformed.”

Hodge then goes on with great clarity to defend the position that even “impulsive” ideas and “dispositions” are morally culpable if they are at odds with God’s law.

“It follows from the principle that the law condemns all want of conformity to the nature of God, that it condemns evil dispositions or habits, as well as all voluntary sins, whether deliberate or impulsive. According to the Bible and the dictates of conscience there is a sinfulness as well as sins; there is such a thing as character as distinguished from transient acts by which it is revealed; that is, a sinful state, abiding, inherent, immanent forms of evil, which are truly and properly of the nature of sin. All sin, therefore, is not an agency, activity, or act; it may be and is also a condition or state of the mind. "is distinction between habitual and actual sin has been recognized and admitted in the Church from the beginning. Our Lord teaches us this distinction when He speaks of an evil heart as distinguished from evil exercises, which are as distinct as a tree and its fruits. The Apostle speaks of sin as a law, or controlling principle regulating or determining his acts even in despite of his better nature.”

Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics. 1854-1921

The great Dutch theologian had much to say on this topic. He, like Turretin and Calvin before him, recognized that the debate over whether or not sinful affections that seem to appear in us “naturally” or before any effort of the will is applied were sinful or not, came down to a division between Catholics and Protestants. He equates the idea that these sinful affections are not morally culpable with the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism. Bavinck describes the errors of the hereesy of semi-pelagianism in language that actually very popular in today’s evangelical circles that sinful impulses are merely, “an occasion for sin,” but not sin itself.

“Yet they [the Pelagians] do not call it sinful in the true sense of the word. So they create an intermediate state and speak of original sin as a disease, a deficiency, an illness that is not a real sin but can only be an occasion for sin.”

After quoting many biblical citations he writes with great clarity the Protestant position,

The notion that innate sinfulness only becomes sin and guilt when the will consents to it, so far from improving the theory, makes it worse. We have to choose: either the will, as it were, stands above and outside that innate tendency, and then original sin consists in nothing but the innate sensual nature, and the entire [moral] character of sin is lost; or the will is itself more or less affected and weakened by original sin.”

Bavinck then goes through history and describes the Scholastic era and how they, “distinguish between primo-primi, secundo-primi, and plane deliberati desires, that is, those thoughts and desires that arise in us spontaneously before any consent of the will and are not at all sinful… What remained, concupiscence, was itself not sinful but only a “possible incentive to sin.” Against these Catholic Scholastics, Bavinck writes,

“The Reformation spoke out against that position, asserting that also the impure thoughts and desires that arose in us prior to and apart from our will are sin… So although sin originated by the will, it does now exist outside of the will and is also rooted in all the other faculties and powers of human beings, in soul and body, in the lower and the higher cognitive and conative capacities (Gen. 6:3; 8:21; Exod. 20:17; Pss. 19:13; 51:5; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 5:28; Mark 7:21; Rom. 7:7, 15–17; 8:7; Gal. 5:7; etc.)”

Louis Berkhoff. Systematic Theology. 1873-1957

In Berkhoff’s section on sin he, like Charles Hodge previously explored, has an entire section titled ‘Sin does not consist exclusively in overt acts. Rather, even sinful dispositions find their root in our sinful nature as inherited from Adam. This section is developed immediately after his section titled ‘Sin has its seat in the heart.’ in which he shows he writes, “And from this center [the heart] its influence and operations spread to the intellect, the will, the affections, in short, to the entire man, including his body. In his sinful state the whole man is the object of God’s displeasure.” He then writes,

Sin does not consist only in overt acts, but also in sinful habits and in a sinful condition of the soul. These three are related to one another as follows: The sinful state is the basis of the sinful habits, and these manifest themselves in sinful deeds. There is also truth, however, in the contention that repeated sinful deeds lead to the establishment of sinful habits. The sinful acts and dispositions of man must be referred to and find their explanation in a corrupt nature. The passages referred to in the preceding paragraph substantiate this view, for they clearly prove that the state or condition of man is thoroughly sinful. And if the question should still be raised, whether the thoughts and affections of the natural man, called “flesh” in Scripture, should be regarded as constituting sin, it might be answered by pointing to such passages as the following: Math. 5:22, 28; Rom. 7:7; Gal. 5:17, 24, and others. In conclusion it may be said that sin may be defined as lack of conformity to the moral law of God, either in act, disposition, or state.

In another section Berkhoff directly takes on the Catholic position, as we have seen other theologians do. He titles this section on sin, ‘Objections to the Pelagian View.’ He writes vehemently that anyone who says that only “conscious choices of the will” is sin, is going against the clear teaching of Scripture.

The fundamental position that man is held responsible by God only for what he is able to do, is absolutely contrary to the testimony of conscience and to the Word of God… To deny that man has by nature a moral character, is simply bringing him down to the level of the animal. According to this view everything in the life of man that is not a conscious choice of the will, is deprived of all moral quality. But the consciousness of men in general testifies to the fact that the contrast between good and evil also applies to man’s tendencies, desires, moods, and affections, and that these also have a moral character. In Pelagianism sin and virtue are reduced to superficial appendages of man, in no way connected with his inner life. That the estimate of Scripture is quite different appears from the following passages: Jer. 17:9; Ps. 51:6, 10; Matt. 15:19; Jas. 4:1, 2.”

Berkhoff goes on to attack not just the Pelagian view, but the more historic and larger Catholic view as well. 

“The prevailing Roman Catholic view of sin is as follows: real sin always consists in conscious acts of the will… The objections to this view are perfectly evident from what was said in connection with the Pelagian theory. A bare reminder of them would seem to be quite sufficient. In so far as it holds that real sin consists only in a deliberate choice of the will and in overt acts, the objections raised against Pelagianism are pertinent… According to the Bible concupiscence is sin, real sin, and the root of many sinful actions.

William Shedd. Dogmatic Theology. 1820-1894

William Shedd, another historic Protestant theologian, writes at length on this topic. It would be far too long of a document to quote the level of detail he goes to cite not only his own opinions but many other historic well known voices throughout Church history. Particularly he spends much time considering Jonathan Edwards and his work on the affections. In one particular section he quickly quotes from many different authors throughout history to show that, with one voice, historic theology has been consistently stating that even concupiscence, and all sinful affections and desires that occur before an act of the will, is morally culpable sin. You will notice in these quotes language like, “first motions”, “stimulations”, “concupiscence.” This is all historic language pertinent to the discussion at hand. I provide a number of his historic quotes below with the authors whom he is quoting.

We must not only abstain from evil deeds, but even from the desire to do them. Christ commanded not only to abstain from things forbidden by the law, but even from longing after them. Our Lord forbade concupiscence itself, as well as the act of adultery. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.13)
The command not to lust condemns the beginnings of sin, that is, unruly desires and wishes, no less than overt acts. (Tertullian, Concerning Modesty)
If lust which wars against the soul (1 Pet. 2:11) be already sin (Exod. 20:17; Math. 5:28),then must the act of sin be regarded as augmenting its degree. (Nitzsch, Christian Doctrine §111)
By the precept concerning the tree of knowledge, man was taught that God is Lord of all things and that it is unlawful even to desire, but with his leave. Man’s true happiness is placed in God alone, and nothing is to be desired but with submission to him. (Witsius, Covenants 1.3.21)
To root out the pernicious error of self-righteousness, our Lord gives the spiritual intention of the law and declares that the law had regard to the regulation of the heart with all its first motions and actings. For he asserts that the first motions of concupiscence, though not consented to, much less actually accomplished, are directly forbidden in the law. This he does in his exposition of the seventh commandment. He also declares the penalty of the law upon the least sin to be hellfire, in his assertion of causeless anger to be forbidden in the sixth commandment. (Owen, Justification, 17)
Have we felt any evil desire in our heart? we are already guilty of concupiscence and are become at once transgressors of the law; because the Lord forbids us not only to plan and attempt anything that would prove detrimental to another, but even to be stimulated and agitated with concupiscence. The curse of God always rests on the transgression of the law. We have no reason, therefore, to exempt even the most trivial emotions of concupiscence from the sentence of death. (Calvin 2.8.58)
The law says, “Do not lust.” And so, even if you do not give assent to the lust which inflames you, this very impulse of your flesh is sin nevertheless. (Bullinger)
We must understand that an evil inclination or a depraved nature is that which does first violate the law of God; and so that it is not infelicity only to be ill inclined, but it is sin: sin in the highest and most eminent sense thereof. It is the habitual frame and bent of the soul which the law of God does in the first place direct. So that the empoisoned nature of man, the malignity of the heart and soul, is that which makes the first and principal breach upon the law of God. (Howe. Oracles 2.24)

Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology. Current.

Grudem is perhaps the best known modern Systematic Theologian. His textbooks are often used in seminaries that our Pastor’s attend. Wayne Grudem was a co-founder of the Council of Biblical manhood and womanhood along with Pastor John Piper and other well respected pastors and thinkers of modern evangelicalism. Denny Burk now leads that organization and has come out with a short and helpful book titled ‘Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change.” The Council’s findings on this issue are consistent with the historic Protestant position outlined above.

Grudem’s working on this topic in his textbook is limited. But one quote in particular might be helpful. Grudem writes in his Systematic Theology,

...the idea that we are responsible before God only for what we are able to do is contrary to the testimony of Scripture, which affirms both that we “were dead in the trespasses and sins” in which we once walked (Eph. 2:1) and thus unable to do any spiritual good and also that we are all guilty before God. Moreover, if our responsibility before God were limited by our ability, then extremely hardened sinners, who are in great bondage to sin, could be less guilty before God than mature Christians who were striving daily to obey him. And Satan himself, who is eternally  able to do only evil, would have no guilt at all—surely an incorrect conclusion. The true measure of our responsibility and guilt is not our own ability to obey God but the absolute perfection of God’s moral law and his own holiness (which is reflected in that law). “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).”


I want to close by offering a glimpse of why this is so important. I began by saying that light shines brightest against a black backdrop. If we understand this historic doctrine of the depth of sin, then it implicates all of us. This is not just something to applied toward the LGBTQ conversation. This doctrine reveals that every person has a morally corrupted nature. Our very impulses have been fatally shifted from God’s good purposes and design. It is a good and wonderful thing to fight against sinful impulses through all the tools God has supplied us with. God is honored when we battle our sin. But that does not mean that we ought not be repentant even for the broken impulses that cause us to go to battle. It is possible to both repent of the faulty impulses, and praise God for victory over the battle of. our mind and action at the same time.

As I chatted with someone about this recently, they mentioned the possibility that this doctrine could lead us to a place of constant gloom over sin. It’s as if we would be spotting sin in ourselves everywhere, all the time. In response I say, Yes & No. Yes—on the one hand it is a devastating blow to realize just how deep our sin goes. Paul works this exercise out for us in Romans 7 and concludes with the gloomy lament, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24).”

But then, Paul immediately takes us to Romans 8, that glorious New Testament chapter that begins with the great words, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” How precious are these words to those who recognize how deep sin pervades their very core! How precious are these words to those who have taken the time to openly confess that even their hidden corners of their heart, those instinctual demeanors that drive our thought life and emotional life, even those have been corrupted by sin.

We must never water down the gospel by watering down sin. We must never redefine sin, for in doing so we may very well be redefining the full work of Christ.

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