In a recent article I wrote about the historic understanding of the nature of sin. In it I discussed at length one particular vein of this doctrine that has recently come under scrutiny. The historic Protestant perspective on sin is perhaps most succinctly summarized by Louis Berkhoff when he writes that, “sin may be defined as lack of conformity to the moral law of God, either in act, disposition, or state.” This definition includes not only those actions we take where our will is engaged in the choice to directly disobey God, but includes dispositions and states of sin as morally culpable as well. In other words, sin has so corrupted our being that even our seemingly natural pre-will desires have been affected. We must not only repent of and pray for Holy Spirit transformation over our willful choices, but we must also repent of and pray for transformation over any disposition of our heart that is postured towards a morally forbidden object.
One particular group taking aim at this historic doctrine are those who are on the leading edge of the discussion of LGBTQ individuals and their relationship to Christ. Immediately, one can sense why this historic doctrine is so jarring. According to this historic Protestant view of sin, LGBTQ individuals need not only repent of overt lusts and actions made by sinful choices, but must go deeper and also repent of their corrupt dispositions and moods which desire what God has forbidden—in other words it is necessary to repent of the disposition of same-sex-attraction and hope for God’s mercy of transformation (Romans 8:15). I have personally known many who once claimed to be same-sex-attracted, who have since experienced full transformation of their desires. I also know some who have repented and asked for transformation but have not experienced that transformation yet. In their waiting, repentance is biblically a continued part of their journey of sanctification.
Those who disagree with this historic position often turn to one particular passage in an effort to make their point, the Garden of Gethsamene. For example, Matthew Lee Anderson writes, “Christ seems to desire to not do something his Father commands. Christ’s conflict in the garden is one between fidelity to the Father and His vocation as the Son on the one side, and the created goods that make up His earthly life on the other. Those created, human goods clearly involve a natural disposition to avoid suffering and pain.” This author goes on to explain how Christ’s behavior in the Garden is an example for LGBTQ folks to follow in their struggle with same-sex-attraction. He writes, “We are free to meet even those non-voluntary desires with renunciation and not repentance, precisely because Christ’s experience reveals to us that not all temptations arise from and within our own sin.”  This is critical and we must evaluate carefully. The argument is that in the Garden, Christ desired something other than God’s design, yet functionally suppressed that desire and remained sinless. Therefore, in the same way, an LGTBQ individual can experience the ungodly desire of same-sex-attraction yet suppress that desire by not entertaining it and, like Jesus in the Garden, remain without sin.
Which position is right? Was the great Reformed Systematic Theologian Francis Turretin correct when he wrote, “The very first motions of concupiscence do not cease to be sins, although they are neither wholly voluntary nor in our power.” Or are the new theologians correct that say, “We are free to meet even those non-voluntary desires with renunciation and not repentance.” They both cannot be correct at the same time.
Why Does This Matter
Before we evaluate the text itself we must answer the question, why does this matter? Perhaps it seems like only a theological trifle, not something to split hairs about. But I believe this is far more than a small matter of personal opinion. There is much at stake.
1 We are not free to redefine sin. We must handle God’s Word with utmost diligence and we must concern ourselves with seeing the world through the lens of Scripture. What God has defined as sin, we must proclaim as sin, lest we find ourselves leading others into a false sense of security. If others are stuck in habits of sin, and we have so altered God’s Word that we no longer call those habits sin, then we are willfully choosing to lead people into destructive paths for themselves and others they interact with. At that point, the sin is on us.
2 We risk watering down the Gospel. To every degree that we lessen or lighten sin, we simultaneously lessen and lighten the power and glory of the gospel. It is when we fully understand sin, in all of its depth that the bright light of the Gospel shines the brightest. Indeed, when we reflect on the reality that our depravity is such that even our dispositions and states are in need of mortification, we see just how far the grace of Christ extends.
3 We risk robbing others of the greatest tools God has provided for the mortification of sin, repentance. Repentance is the primary tool God has given his Church for the deep work of the mortification of our sin. If we stop calling particular aspects of sin, sin, then we also no longer apply repentance as the tool to be used in the sanctification process. The result is that we end up labeling what God calls sin, morally neutral, and in the process remove God’s great mechanism for sanctification, repentance. Even when that process takes years and years, the continued genuine repentant soul will experience powerful transformation, as well as deep joy and contentment in their salvation.
4 We risk furthering a theologically liberal drift among the Church in an effort to cater to the LGBTQ community rather than honor God with clarity and truth. Lastly, in is no secret that our hyper-sexualized secular culture has made massive inroads into the Church in the last few decades. Entire denominations have left the historic and clear teaching of the Bible in an effort to cater to the LGBTQ community. The road to theological liberalism is often paved with “trifles” like these. We must give no ground. We must hold the line faithfully. Holding the line is indeed the greatest act of love God’s Church could offer any community. The world needs the clear unadulterated Gospel.
An Evaluation of the Garden of Gesthemane
Let us now turn to the Garden of Gesthemane. From the start it must be stated that this scene is worthy of our deepest reflections. In this moment before as his physical sufferings were ahead of him, the humanity of Christ was on full display. Our Savior bore the weight of full humanity, including God’s good design of fear of death and instincts that recoil at physical pain. Jesus confronted his impending torturous death neither as a stoic, emotionally aloof and straight faced in the presence of torture, nor as a coward running from the task before him. He endured the agony of the Garden of Gesthemane with a blood stained brow from capillaries bursting under the intensity of prayerful pressure. Oh what a Savior.
Let us consider all three accounts of this scene from two separate Gospels. And then I will attempt a response to writers like Matthew Lee Anderson (above), who attempt to use this scene of Christ’s agony as an analogy for the LGBTQ community suppressing their own desires.
Matthew 26:36-40 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?
Mark 14:32-39 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.
Luke 22: 39-46 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
First, consider what is taking place in this scene. Jesus is in the final hours before his arrest and torturous death. He is pouring his heart out to the Father in the physical agony of stress. Luke gives the detail that Jesus’, “sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” This is a medical condition that those undergoing extreme internal stress experience where the stress is so great that the blood capillaries around the brow burst causing one to physically sweat blood. This is not uncommon for those on death row.
There is a good and godly human repulsion of pain that includes both physical and psychological elements. God’s design of the human body includes these pain sensors and precautions as protective measures. Indeed we consider it a disability when a person’s pain sensors fail or when they lack a true psychological hesitation towards physical harm, because we require those built-in inhibitors to survive. Therefore, if any human—including Jesus—is heading into a slow and torturous death, in no way is it immoral for their physical body to retract. In fact, there could even be something immoral about a failure to retract in any way.
Next, consider Jesus’ exact words in order to understand what was happening in the Garden. While Jesus’ words vary slightly in each of the three accounts, it is likely that each was only capturing a small portion of the overall prayer. We might conclude that Jesus did indeed say all these words over a lengthy period of prayer. In Matthew he says, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” In one regard we might compare this to Jesus’ hunger in the wilderness. In that scene we are told in Matthew 4:2 that Jesus had fasted for forty days and, “was hungry.” Consider Christ’s physical hunger pains after fasting for so long. Was it sin for Jesus to hunger, even though he knew God had called him to fast and then face temptation in the wilderness? No, of course not. His physical body felt physical needs. In fact, it would not be wholly inappropriate if Jesus had said in his hunger, “Lord I hunger, nevertheless not my will but yours be done.” The desire to eat is not a morally corrupted desire, it is a human response to food deprivation that Jesus overrides through submission.
Similarly, in the Garden Jesus experienced a human response to impending torture. As his body physically and violently repulsed against the pain he was soon to experience, there was a human reaction that is properly expressed in the statement, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” To compare this statement to a morally forbidden desire, something like same-sex-attraction, is to deeply confuse categories. The desire to avoid pain is not immoral, while the desire for same-sex-attraction is.
In what way is this scene in the Garden of Gesthemane related to temptation. After all, we have already stated in the previous article that internal temptation away from God’s design is morally culpable sin (see previous article). In other words, is this statement by Jesus morally equivalent to an LGBTQ person experiencing same-sex-attraction and then suppressing that desire by saying, “Not my will but yours be done.”
No! To say that Jesus was tempted internally by an ungodly desire would be to reject Hebrews 4:15 which says that Jesus, “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Within the Scriptures it is clear that there are different kinds of temptations. Externally, we are tempted by the Devil and his enemies who prowls like a lion seeking those to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus was externally tempted just as we are. It is also clear however that fallen humanity is often internally tempted as well. Internal temptation occurs when a heart that has been corrupted by sin generates thoughts and feelings antithetical to God’s good and perfect moral design. Jesus was never internally tempted, nor could he have been, because he was not working with a corrupted human heart as we are. As Hebrews 4:15 says, he was, “without sin.”
Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane is not expressing the internal temptation to avoid God’s will. In fact He explicitly states his perfect desire of the opposite, to be directly in the center of God’s will. Rather, under his extreme physical duress, his human nature asked if there was any other God-ordained way to accomplish the same vocation/calling he had been assigned. This is not an expression of temptation towards ungodliness, it is rather an expression of fellowship with the Father discussing from a human perspective the path ahead. As soon as he has prayed this prayer, Jesus stood up and boldly confronted his betrayer and faced his arrest, for through the prayer had gained his
As I conclude, I offer simply a plea with God’s Church. We face a unique set of theological battles reflective of our day and age. It is no surprise that efforts are being made to adjust historical theology through the category of LGBTQ, for that is one of the primary thrusts of secular culture at the moment. Previous generations of theologians faced attempts at watering down the clarity of God’s Word in the categories that were relevant to their time. As history shows, they stood strong and held the line. So must we. We must not be quick to abandon historical theology for the sake of the flavor of the day. This does not mean that our great theologians of the past were perfectly correct on all they wrote. In fact, at times the greats disagreed with each other as they wrestled for the truth. However, on a topic like this, when you discover that you are standing outside the bounds of virtually every major prominent Protestant Systematic Theologian of the last five hundred years, it is wise to be sure you have checked your work.
- Sex, Temptation, and the Gay Christian: What Chastity Demands by Matthew Lee Anderson. https://mereorthodoxy.com/sex-temptation-gay-christian-chastity-demands/