Can Sin and Desire be Sanctified?

7 May 2024

6.8 MINS

God cannot bless sinful desires.

Consider this news item: “On Saturday, May 4, 2024, Pastor Jen Nagel was elected as the next bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod [of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America].” To which, some of you might respond: ‘And your point is?’ My point is: this is the sixth practicing homosexual bishop the ELCA has elected.

The homosexualisation of the church has been going on for decades now, but things keep going from bad to worse. Sadly, too many believers see no problems with any of this, or are totally confused about such matters. Much of it has to do with the issue of acts versus attitudes. Let me explain.

Most folks – including plenty of Christians – believe that they are really pretty decent, and God would readily accept them just as they are. After all, they have not killed anyone, or stolen funds, or slept with their neighbour’s spouse, etc. They conveniently forget that Jesus told us that to hate a person is the same as murder, and to look lustfully at a woman is the same as committing adultery.

So our inward desires are just as important as our outward acts. Yet Christians can stand at quite different points on a spectrum here. Let me offer a simplified version of this, moving from the worst (most unbiblical) to the best (most biblical):

  1. Homosexuality is fine and quite compatible with Christianity.
  2. Homosexual acts or practices are sinful, but not the desires.
  3. Homosexual Christians exist (they no longer act it out, but still identify as homosexual).
  4. Homosexual desires and lusts are also sinful and must be resisted.

As I say, this is a quite simplified presentation, and options 2 and 3 are somewhat interchangeable. And there IS debate among ex-homosexuals on these matters. Some say they always will have homosexual desires, while others say that God has even healed them of their same-sex attractions.

In my 2011 book Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, I said this in part about the matter:

Although Christians differ on this issue, it may well be that homosexual orientation (desire, lust, attraction), not just homosexual activity, is also sinful, just as is heterosexual lust and desire. As an indication of this, throughout scripture, the condition of the inner man is intimately connected with outward actions. When Jesus spoke of lust as adultery in Matthew 5:28, He was making it perfectly clear that it is not only the act, but the thought, which is sinful, and in need of transformation.

Elsewhere Jesus stressed that outward evil actions come from an inner evil heart: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’.” (Mark 7:21-23).

When Paul speaks of homosexuality, he uses terms like “thoughts”, “desires” and “lusts”, as in Romans 1: 24, 26, and 27. When David prayed his great prayer in Psalm 51, he didn’t ask that he would no longer commit acts of adultery. Instead, he pleaded with God for a clean heart and pure thoughts (v. 10). A person’s disposition (or what the Bible often calls our ‘heart’), is the ultimate driving force behind our actions. As Proverbs 4:23 put it, “Out of the heart are the issues of life.”


The Lust of the FleshWhile debates on these matters continue, a new book by Jared Moore deserves careful reading: The Lust of the Flesh: Thinking Biblically About “Sexual Orientation,” Attraction, and Temptation (Free Grace Press, 2023). In it, he looks carefully at the biblical material, arguing that we all must deal with sinful desires and lusts just as much as with acts.

Early on, he discusses Christians such as Wesley Hill who take a different view on these matters:

For them, same-sex sexual attraction must be rejected, but same-sex attraction can be turned to holiness, which they call sublimation. This book will show that the practice of sublimation is ungodly, for repentance of same-sex attraction from root to fruit and walking in the Spirit are the only correct responses to any inclination within us that is contrary to God.

He continues:

Lust begins the moment someone sexually desires anyone who is not his or her spouse. But unchecked sexual attraction is not the only sin plaguing Christians today. Many believe that lust can only occur if the person has consented to it with his will. They have redefined fleshly desires as “sexual orientations” that can be “sublimated” or tuned to holiness.

As should be clear by now, while his book is mainly about same-sex attraction, his main point applies to heterosexuals as well. Sinful lusts are just that: sinful, and must be resisted as much as any sinful action. As such, he looks closely at the biblical material on this.

The book starts with four detailed chapters on Genesis 3:1-6, Matthew 5:24-27, Romans 1:24-27, and James 1:13-15. Let me briefly look at two of them. I already referred to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount above. Regarding the Matt. 5 text, Moore says this:

Obviously, looking at a woman is not sin. But, to look at a woman who is not one’s wife with sexual desire in one’s heart makes one guilty of sin. It is because Jesus emphasises desire that one scholar [David Turner] writes, “By stressing the lustful intention over the act itself, Jesus apparently interprets the seventh commandment by the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting in general and specifically coveting in one’s neighbour’s wife. But Matt. 5:28 is speaking of women in general, not just married women. Second Temple writings warned men of the dangers of women but Jesus puts the onus on men.”

A representative quote from his chapter on Romans 1 can be shared here as well:

God made every single person male or female, and included in this design is the pursuit of opposite-sex marriage, according to Genesis 2:18-25. This is the rule, the default design, for all humanity. There are exceptions to this rule, biblical reasons to pursue singleness, but God’s default design for all humanity is opposite-sex marriage, including opposite-sex attraction…

Again, men and women are defined according to their design, not their impulses, feelings, or desires. We are who God says we are; we are not who we feel we are. The men and woman Paul wrote about denied this. They did what was right in their own eyes, rejecting God’s design, and it led to them turning their sexuality upside down and being consumed by their sin.


The last six chapters deal with important questions. For example, how do we understand the temptations of Jesus? Moore says that temptations – biblically defined – are not sinful as such:

Christians are only tempted like Jesus when we are offered inherently good things through an evil means. If we desire the good things because God has created them good or has promised them to us, and we reject the evil means entirely, then we have not sinned. We have been tempted like Jesus.

But, in most cases for Christians, we are tempted like David or Peter, tempted from within by our flesh for an inherently evil object. As we studied in chapter 5, James tells us that inner temptation occurs when our flesh desires something that is contrary to God. God cannot tempt us because it would be sin for Him to tempt us (James 1:13).

Thus, our inner temptation is contrary to God’s nature and God’s design, and is therefore sin. When Christians face inner temptation, the question is not if we will sin, but how much we will sin. For, the first desire from our hearts that is contrary to God is the beginning of the lust of the flesh. Will we feed it, and let it consume us; or will we starve it, and let it burn itself out to no effect?

He then has chapters on how Augustine and the Reformers looked at such matters. Briefly, as to the former, Moore says: “For most of his ministry, Augustine strongly argued that the will is involved in everything a person does.” He “also taught that the lust of the flesh is morally culpable sin.”

The final two chapters tie all this together. He offers three reasons why same-sex attractions cannot be turned to holiness:

  1. “no sexual attraction contrary to God’s design can be sublimated to holiness”
  2. “no sinful desire can be sublimated to holiness”
  3. “only God-designed desires can lead to holiness”

His final chapter opens with these words:

The previous chapters have shown that the lust of the flesh does not come from God and cannot please God. It is a result of sin, is sin, and can only produce sin. Inner fleshly desire cannot be sublimated or turned to holiness. Our flesh remains in us after we become Christians, though it has lost its authority, it is still an enemy within, trying to tempt us to do evil. If sublimation is not the answer, how may pastors help Christians fight these fleshly desires?

We begin by knowing and teaching that only God designed desires lead to holiness. Unlike our flesh, God does not tempt with evil and cannot be tempted by evil (Ps. 92:15; Isa. 6:3; Jas. 1:13-14). We can trust Him, by the Spirit through the Son to the Father; And He has given all Christians two basic ways to fight. We fight our flesh and train others to do the same by believing the gospel and using the weapons for warfare God has given us.

He looks at these in more detail, and he then says this in the book’s concluding paragraph:

The Christian life is one of continual repentance, not of perpetual sublimation, the turning of the lust of the flesh to holiness. By the spirit, the gospel was powerful to transform, but one ignores the power of the spirit to use the gospel to transform if one starts to tell God what he can and cannot do.

There is no particular lust of the flesh that is a special sin that warrants special categories of “sinless evil desire” that have their source in sinful man apart from God. Rather, all lust of the flesh is a sinful pattern like every other sinful pattern that needs to be turned from, and we must turn to Christ, seeking to live His holy God-designed desires, by walking in the spirit. Where sin is great, God is greater. When sinners are good at sinning, Christ is better at saving. And when sublimation spreads its lies, God’s truth eternally abides.

One can only say “Amen” to that.


Republished with thanks to CultureWatch. Image courtesy of Barcelos_fotos.

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  1. James 7 May 2024 at 9:18 am - Reply

    The overwhelming presence of absolutely vast amounts of every possible form of pornography on the internet has ‘normalised’ in the minds of many practically every sort of sexual perversion. Homosexual acts form a part of all of that. The whole purpose of pornography is to normalise the sin of lust so that it is no longer seen as sinful.
    Our children are being ‘sexualised’ at an early and impressionable age by visits to pornographic websites. Today a majority of young people of both sexes will have watched what can only be described as horrific porn by the time they are in their mid teens. Its little wonder that there is an explosion of young people identifying as homosexual (and every other possible variant of sexual expression).
    If only our governments could make it impossible for people under 18 to watch porn there would possibly be some hope. Despite decades of trying, the power of the porn industry is well able to orchestrate effective campaigns against any attempt at regulation or removal. Its an industry that brings in billions of dollars and which gains more traffic than any other single aspect of the internet.

  2. Countess Antonia Maria Violetta Scrivanich 11 May 2024 at 12:20 am - Reply

    The Bible is clear–homosexuality, etc are all sins , hence the destruction of Sodom and Gammorah. The churches have failed to guide the young who are now confused.

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