Skip to main content

On the Attempt to Distinguish Desire from Sinful Acts

Introduction

This blog post addresses the distinction sometimes made between desire and acts.  Some have used this distinction to suggest that only actions are sinful whereas the desire is not.  Such a distinction fails rather roundly in the court of Scripture, as this blog post will demonstrate.  Its application to sexual ethics, and to homosexuality in particular, has become a fateful error in pastoral counselling.  ‘Spiritual friendship’ is a recent view currently on offer.  It affirms being ‘gay’ as an internal good rather than an internal disorder while insisting that people not act out their same-sex desire.  The distinction between desire and sinful acts cannot, however, be Biblically maintained. On the contrary, the Gospel offers so much more.

The Distinction between Desire and Sinful Acts

Denny Burke and Rosaria Butterfield have recently addressed the distinction between desire and acts as an old distinction between Roman Catholic and Reformed teaching on sin.[1]  While this rather narrows the discussion in historical theology (why only ‘Reformed,’ e.g.?), they do shed light on the theological roots of the present discussion.  This will be helpful to outline in brief.

Burke and Butterfield, referring to his sermons on Romans 7, believe that Augustine’s mature views are clear and support the view that desires are not neutral but may be sinful.  As Augustine says:[2]

[Paul] gives the name of sin, you see, to that from which all sins spring, namely to the lust of the flesh (Sermon 151).

Augustine speaks of ‘bad desire’ and says the holy life entails continuous warfare against these desires and carrying through the evil (Sermon 151.7).  This lustful and covetous body will desist only when believers put on immortality (a reference to 1 Corinthians 15.54-55; Sermon 151.8).  During this life, Augustine says, we are engaged in a war with our sinful desires:

But if with the spirit you put to death the doings of the flesh, you shall live (Rom 8:13).  That is our work in this life, with the spirit to put to death the doings of the flesh; every day to afflict them, diminish them, rein them in, do away with them.  How many things, I ask you, no longer delight those who are making progress, which previously used to delight them?  So, when something used to give delight, and was not consented to, it was being put to death…. when it begins not to be pleasurable at all, you have put it to death.  This is our action, this is our warfare.  While we are wrestling in this context, we have God as a spectator; when we are in trouble in this contest, we can ask for God as helper.  Because if he doesn’t help us himself, we won’t be able, I don’t say to win, but even to fight (Sermon 156.9).

Burke and Butterfield claim that Roman Catholic teaching did not follow Augustine on this point.  This does not seem to be the case.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, homosexual acts are said to be ‘intrinsically disordered’ as they are contrary to natural law by closing ‘the sexual act to the gift of life’ and ‘do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity’ (Article 6, The Sixth Commandment II, 2357).  It then says of homosexual inclinations [desires] that they are ‘objectively disordered,’ must bear any suffering they experience by uniting it to the Lord’s Cross (2358), live in chastity, and ‘gradually approach Christian perfection’ through self-mastery, the help of disinterested friendship, through prayer, and by sacramental grace (2359).  The language of ‘sin’ is not used here, but the view is that  both acts and desires are wrong and Christians should make progress in this fight—rather like Augustine said.

Burke and Butterfield argue that John Calvin agreed with Augustine’s mature view on desire (concupiscence, lust) as sinful:

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 (Institutes 3.3.10).

Burke and Butterfield state their own position as follows:[3]

We Reformed Protestants believe that original sin, actual sin, and indwelling sin all condemn us. We know that for some of us, same-sex desire is Adam’s thumbprint on our lives. We do not believe that baptism removes original sin. Nor do we believe that redemption in Christ makes all effects of our sinful nature disappear. Redemption gives us ransom and Christ’s power and compassion to fight against our sinful nature, but until the final consummation we groan, struggling against indwelling sin and longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven (2 Cor. 5:2). 

Burke and Butterfield are countering the view of Ron Belgau[4] and Wesley Hill.[5]  These two authors advocate a view of homosexuality that affirms that homosexual acts are sinful but insists that homosexual orientation (desire) is not sinful.  In fact, Wesley Hill has argued—on the basis of his own experience—that being gay has its own good ends:[6]

Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations  I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay.  My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends. 

This is not different from Plato’s distinctions in the Phaedrus between universals and particulars regarding love, although Hill wishes to say that the latter (sexual acts) are not indifferent but may be sinful.  The universal of ‘spiritual friendship,’ as Hill calls it, though, may be related to the Good.

The articulation of a view is not, of course, an argument for it, although people are often duped into thinking that a clearly stated position is actually an argument.  Belgau and Hill, for their part, attempt to offer a clear articulation of their position and also offer their personal experiences as arguments.  Burke and Butterfield approach the matter with Scriptural arguments, and their suggested texts include passages with ‘desire/passion’ (epithymia) in them.  They mention James 1.14; Rom. 6.11-12; 1 Pt. 1.14; and 2.11.  This is an appropriate approach to forming a Biblical argument, and they might have included a number of other texts of the same sort (with epithymia).

As already noted in Philo’s Special Laws 3, the 10th Commandment concludes the list of commandments with a command against sinful desire:

Exodus 20:17 "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's."

For Philo, this 10th Commandment turns the focus on sinful acts to that of sinful desire.  As such, it is a commandment that captures all else, since all sinful acts stem from sinful desire.  New Testament texts using the term ‘epithymia’ (desire, covetousness, concupiscence, lust) will often find their basis in this commandment.  Paul, like Philo, finds the cause of sinful acts in sinful desire, for which he uses the term 'flesh' (sarx) most often, but also the 10th Commandment's term 'desire' (epithymia).  In the Biblical texts, sin is not only a matter of actions but also of desires.  

Consider the following passages:

Romans 1:24-28  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts [epithymais] of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,  25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions [‘dishonourable things’—‘passions’ is added to the translation]. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature;  27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion [literally, ‘enflamed in their desire (orexei)] for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.  28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Romans 6:11-13 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.  13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. [Note: Sin is presented as a power, distinct from acts, whose desires and acts are all part of sinful power.]

Romans 7:8  But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness [epithymian]. Apart from the law, sin lies dead.  [Note: Sin is here identified with desire.]

Romans 13:14  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. [Note: Earlier, Paul referenced several of the 10 Commandments, including the 10th Commandment not to ‘covet’ (epithymia).  Here he concludes his point not to give in to sinful desires by committing sinful acts (listed in v. 13).  Note that the ‘flesh’ is what desires: Paul does not distinguish immaterial desire from material flesh.]

Galatians 5:16-18  But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires [epithymian] of the flesh.  17 For the desires [epithymei: ‘what the flesh desires…’] of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.  18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  [Note: Verse 17 must be read in context with the previous and following verses: Paul is not affirming a constant fight between the flesh and the Spirit but a victory over the flesh through the empowering presence of God’s Spirit.[7]]

 Ephesians 2:3-6 … among whom we all once lived in the passions [epithymais] of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved-  6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….

Ephesians 4:20-25 But that is not the way you learned Christ!-  21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus,  22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires [epithymais],  23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds [noos],  24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.  [Note: the parallel to this point in Romans is Romans 1.28 and 12.2, where Paul moves from the ‘depraved mind’ (1.28) to the ‘transformed mind’ (12.2).  The internal disordering of sin is overcome in Christ by God’s mercy, and, in light of this divine empowerment, the believer is able to and must no longer be conformed to ‘this world’ but be transformed or renewed by the renewing of his or her mind.]

Colossians 3:5-6 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  [Note: the sins listed here are not actions but desires, except for the first (porneia).]

1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality;  4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor,  5 not in the passion of lust [en pathei epithymias] like the Gentiles who do not know God…. [Paul does not entertain a distinction between good passion and immoral acts but sees both as the result of not knowing God.]

2 Timothy 2:21-22 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.  22 So flee youthful passions [epithymais] and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.  [Paul contrasts passions to righteousness, faith, love, peace, and a pure heart.  As is typical of New Testament ethics, ethics begins with a transformed heart and is not limited to actions.]

2 Timothy 3:6-7 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions [epithymiais],  7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions [epithymias],  4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

Titus 2:11-14 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,  12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions [epithymias], and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,  13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,  14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Titus 3:3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions [epithymiais] and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.

James’s anatomy of desire entails the progression from desire to temptation to sin to death:

James 1:14-15 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Peter distinguishes ‘human passions’ from ‘the will of God’:

1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh [tōn sarkikōn epithymiōn], which wage war against your soul.

1 Peter 1:14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions [epithymiais] of your former ignorance….

1 Peter 4:1-3 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,  2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions [epithymiais] but for the will of God.  3 The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions [epithymiais], drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.

Moreover, as we see in 2 Peter and Jude, sinful desire is the reason for the corruption of the divine nature and characteristic of the unrighteous, but believers have been delivered from this:

2 Peter 1:3-4 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,  4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

2 Peter 2:9-10 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,  10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion [epithymia] and despise authority. Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones….

2 Peter 2:18 For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions [epithymiais] of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.

2 Peter 3:3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires [epithymias].

Jude 1:16 These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires [epithymias]; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.

Jude 1:18 They said to you, "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions [epithymias]."

Finally, consider texts with ‘epithymia from Mark, John’s Gospel and First John:

Mark 4:19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires [epithymiai] for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

John 8:44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires [epithymias]. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

1 John 2:16 For all that is in the world- the desires [epithymia] of the flesh and the desires [epithymia] of the eyes and pride in possessions- is not from the Father but is from the world.

In addition to these texts on desire are several other sorts of passages worth considering in the general discussion.

First, the Old Testament is not simply a law book about actions apart from or distinguishable from the inner person.  Since law is, naturally, focussed on acts, this impression may arise when considering the Old Testament law.  However, the Old Testament itself locates the problem in the sinful heart.  Texts to consider might include the following:

Genesis 6:5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  [This is said of the state of the world before the flood.]

Deuteronomy 30:6  And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Jeremiah 4:4  Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts….

Jeremiah 9:25-26 "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh-  26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart."

Romans 2:29  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

The new covenant for Israel upon her return from exile would entail a reordering of the inward person to live in obedience to God’s Law.  This reordering or internal change was expressed in terms of receiving God’s Spirit, having God’s words (Law) in one’s mouth, or a writing of the Law on the heart:

Isaiah 59:21  "And as for me, this is my covenant with them," says the LORD: "My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring," says the LORD, "from this time forth and forevermore."

Jeremiah 31:31-34 "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.  33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."

Ezekiel 36:25-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Jesus’ ministry can be distinguished from John’s ministry in reference to this last passage.  John’s ministry, the baptism for the repentance for the forgiveness of sins, had to do with a cleansing, with the sprinkling of water to remove Israel’s uncleannesses.  Jesus’ ministry went further: it brought about a changed heart and new spirit as a result of God’s indwelling Spirit, who causes us now to walk in His statutes and to obey His rules.  The former ministry cleanses from sin (forgiving grace); the latter is also a change of the heart (transforming grace). 

Thus, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount includes examples of how an external righteousness of the Law requires an internal change of the heart (Matthew 5.20-48).  Not only are actions, such as murder and divorce and remarriage (adultery) in view, but also anger and lust.  Jesus’ ethic of the heart is an ethic of the new covenant, a transformative ethic that refuses any distinction between actions and desires that would consider only the former sinful.  In this, Jesus does not offer a new perspective, for it is already in the prophets, but a new timetable: the Kingdom of God has drawn near (Matthew 4:17).  This is now the time of the new covenant for it is time to come out of exile in sin and enter God’s reign.  God’s reign comes not only with His demand for righteousness but also His forgiveness in Jesus’ substitutionary death and through the empowering Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Whereas some have thought to distinguish sinful actions from desire by arguing that only the former should be considered sin, Scripture allows no such thing.  The work of Christ, moreover, is not only forgiving grace but also transforming grace, and Jesus’ ethic is not only about actions but also about a changed heart.  The human heart is sinful and the flesh has sinful desires and is opposed to the Spirit.  The Christian life is progressive: we are not immediately and permanently changed upon belief in Christ.  Yet, what distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian, as Augustine says, is that the holy life engages the fight and is able to do so because God comes to its aid.  This fight is not limited to sinful actions but begins with the transformation of sinful desires.

In conclusion, consider the following statement from Paul on this very matter:

Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  13 for it is God who works in you, both to will [to thelein] and to work [to energein] for his good pleasure.

Indeed, it is God who works in us both to will and to work—desires and actions—for His good pleasure.




[1] Denny Burke and Rosaria Butterfield, ‘Learning to Hate our Sin without Hating Ourselves,’ Public Discourse (The Witherspoon Institute: July 4, 2018); online: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2018/07/22066/?utm_source=The+Witherspoon+Institute&utm_campaign=01142fad1c-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_15ce6af37b-01142fad1c-84102557 (accessed 5 July, 2018).
[2] Sermons 151-183 (Vol. III/5), The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, trans. Edmund Hill (New City Press, 1992).
[3] Burke and Butterfield, Ibid.
[4] Ron Belgau, ‘In Defense of Spiritual Friendship and Revoice,’ Public Discourse (The Witherspoon Institute; June 24, 2018); online: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2018/06/21927/ (accessed 5 July, 2018).  Also see the Revoice website: http://revoice.us/.
[5] See, e.g., Wesley Hill, ‘Christ, Scripture, and Spiritual Friendship,’ in Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016); Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos, 2015).
[6] Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos Press, 2015), pp. 80-81.
[7] Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Hendrikson, 2009), ad loc.