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The Gospel and Self-Conception: A Defense of Article 7 of the Nashville Statement

If you stop and take the time to take notice of just how often in the New Testament the Gospel impacts, changes, gives imperatives for, or opposes the cognitive life of man, you will find that the prevalence is staggering.[i] As Christ claims all things for himself in his redemptive work, so he claims for himself the consciousness of man.

Jesus in his explanation of the Greatest Commandment, as the Lord and Lawgiver of his people, sees fit to append to Deut. 6:5 that we are to love God with all of our mind, as well as all heart and soul (Matt. 22:37; Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27). Paul tells us that the Gospel demands of us not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)

Among this mass of intersections between the Gospel and the cognitive life of man is an imperative in Romans 6:11 which has particular relevance for discussions in the PCA which have now gained even more gravity in light of the actions of the 47th General Assembly.

In response to Overture 4 from Calvary Presbytery the 47th General Assembly opted (after a lengthy and impassioned debate) to “declare the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood’s ‘Nashville Statement’ on biblical sexuality as a biblically faithful declaration and refer the ‘Nashville Statement’ to the Committee on Discipleship Ministries for inclusion and promotion among its denominational teaching materials.”

Debate over this proposal covered a wide range of things which I will not touch upon here. But one of the most salient objections marshalled by those opposed to the overture which spoke to the actual content of the Nashville Statement centered on Article 7 of the statement.

Article 7 reads:

WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

In the words of the Missouri Presbytery’s report on their investigation of Revoice, “The statement alienated the Side B community, who felt that the authors of the Nashville Statement did not consider the,ir [sic] viewpoints or experiences. They were especially offended by the language ‘we deny adopting a homosexual or transsexual self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes’ since Side B proponents identify as ‘gay,’ but qualify the meaning of the term.”[ii]

Questions of Identity and Nate Collins’ Project

Nate Collins, the founder and president of ReVoice, authored a book in which the question of the relationship between same-sex attraction and Christian identity was at the center of his overarching purpose. His descriptive subtitle indicates that centrality: All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, & Sexuality. We cannot treat the entire complex of issues which Collins addresses in his 312 page book in the space of this post, however, putting our finger on a few key elements is needed before we proceed, especially given that frequently it is claimed in the debate over “side B” Christians that the various spokespersons are talking past one another.

One element that needs to be noted is that Collins deploys an array of eclectically appropriated sociological schools of thought in order to serve the goal of helping to “understand the concrete benefits of encouraging gay people to integrate their orientation into their Christian identity.”[iii] Prominent in the conceptual framework Collins constructs is the school of social identity theory represented in Henri Taijfel and John Turner.[iv] I will not give a detailed recounting of Collins deployment of these thinkers here. I note them, however, in order to point up how much of the technical terminology Collins deploys in his own systematic-theological project assumes the conceptual framework of these schools. His use of terms like “nested subgroup,” and “subgroup v. subtype” comes from this appropriation. This makes a conversation about Collins’ claims about a space for an identity as a “gay Christian” quite complex. His project of constructing space within the church for a “gay Christian identity” is at points largely dependent upon very specific and very detailed theories of sociology.

Another key element that needs to be noted in Collins’ project is his central thesis that “being gay (understood as an aesthetic orientation) is not sinful in itself. . .”[v] Collins contends that what the church needs in order to address the current crisis of sexuality is “a degree of theological innovation”[vi] which involves a re-centering of gay orientation off an exclusive focus on sexual attraction and onto what Collins terms an “aesthetic orientation.”[vii] Collins writes,

If we are to speak of an aesthetic orientation and use it to differentiate between gay and straight, we would say that both gay men and straight women are, for example, less aware (in general) of the beauty of feminine personhood than straight men or lesbian women. These general patterns that we discern in the way people experience the beauty of others are now the basis for distinguishing between straight and nonstraight orientations, rather than an impulse toward sexual activity.[viii]

This theological-ethical innovation which moves gay orientation off an axis of sexuality to a relational aesthetic is the linchpin of Collins’ claim that a gay orientation can be and should be integrated into a larger Christian identity for those who experience same-sex attraction. It is what allows Collins to claim that as “individual people with a particular identity” Christians who experience same-sex attraction can submit their gay orientation to Christ as part of “the global claim of the Christian calling to submit all things to the lordship of Christ”[ix] and yet not have the lordship of Christ eradicate that orientation from one’s identity.

As submission to the lordship of Christ looks categorically unique when it comes to submitting one’s sinful desires to Christ, we can say without exaggeration that the entirety of Collins’ projects hinges upon his attempt to carve out a space for a gay orientation that is morally neutral. While both a chaste heterosexual orientation for a single Christian and a monogamous heterosexual orientation for a married Christian sit in a subordinate way to union with Christ in the hierarchy of Christian self-conception and identity, a homosexual orientation and self-conception sit in an antithetical way to union with Christ as it is sinful. The two things are morally incomparable in that respect. They are thus also in many ways (but not all ways) incomparable in what they respectively look like as the Christian submits them to the lordship of Christ. Now, a full critical engagement and refutation of Collins’ thesis about a morally neutral gay aesthetic orientation is beyond the scope of my purposes here. Such an engagement is needed, but that would require an entirely distinct article from what follows. I will simply say here that it is most unclear what exactly a non-sexual gay orientation is, or to put things in the common terminology of the conversation, it is apparently contradictory to speak of a nonsexual homosexual orientation.

A redefinition of gayness which takes sexuality out of the picture produces a conceptual mutation that appears to be rather unrecognizable in comparison to the issues involved in the debate over a Christian sexual ethic thus far. If an aesthetic orientation towards members of the same gender is non-romantic and non-sexual, it is hard to see how it could be labeled as “gay,” since gayness has historically been understood to encompass an aesthetic appreciation for the physical and personal beauty of another member of the same sex that is irreducibly oriented to the possibility of romance and sexual intercourse. The rest of my article will proceed on the assumption that Collins’ conceptual project to create a theological category for gayness as a morally neutral aesthetic orientation is an unsuccessful one.

Without his assumption that gayness can be such, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that what a homosexual or gay orientation is oriented towards is something unlawful. It desires something that is categorically prohibited by the law of God, i.e. a romantic and sexual relationship with someone of the same sex. Thus, an orientation towards this for the Christian—its spontaneous givenness notwithstanding—is, in the Reformed understanding, an example of remaining corruption which “though it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.” (WCF 6:5)

Much more could be said, but hopefully this positions us now to work through a Biblical reasoning for why Article 7 of the Nashville Statement is in fact Biblically faithful in its denial “that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.”

Self-Conception and the Gospel

In Romans 6:11 Paul issues a command to the Christian which flows out of the intricate chain of reasoning he constructs from the opening of the chapter in order to answer the rhetorical question “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). Paul declares in Romans 6:11, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

This verse is particularly relevant to the debate over Article 7 of the Nashville Statement. In it Paul issues an imperative which refers to a cognitive act or process. The Greek verb he uses (λογίζεσθε) is sometimes translated as “reckon” in the sense of mathematical calculation or a crediting in the realm of accounting. More broadly its semantic domain covers the activity of consideration or categorization. It refers to the cognitive process of the way of conceiving a thing.

Noteworthy in Romans 6:11 is the fact that the object of that cognitive process is the believer’s very self (ἑαυτοὺς). What must be conceptually categorized in a very specific way is the very personhood of the believer, or put another way, their understanding of their identity or self-conception. The cognitive reckoning that the believer must do towards themselves is to consider themselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

John Murray helpfully points to the exact nature and ground for Paul’s command here. “We are not commanded to become dead to sin and alive to God; these are presupposed. And it is not by reckoning these to be facts that they become facts. The force of the imperative is that we are to reckon with and appreciate the facts which already obtain by virtue of union with Christ.”[x]

Charles Hodge provides a similar commentary on this verse, “What is true in itself, should be true in their convictions and consciousness. If in point of fact believers are partakers of the death and life of Christ; if they die with him, and live with him, then they should so regard themselves. They should receive this truth with all its consoling and sanctifying power, into their hearts, and manifest it in their lives.”[xi]

Assumed in Paul’s reasoning is that the believer has been represented by Christ in his once and for all actions in redemptive history of executing judgment upon sin as a power (Rom. 6:7), that Jesus not only died for the sins of the believer in his substitutionary death on the cross, but also that in his representation of his people he also died a death to sin on their behalf (Rom. 6:10). Furthermore, Paul assumes that in his resurrection, Christ, as our representative head, has left the realm of the dominion of the flesh and death never to die again (Rom. 6:9) and is alive in resurrection power in a life lived unto God (Rom. 6:10). In order to lay the ground for the freedom which the believer has from sin, Paul appeals to both the decisive, unrepeatable, and irreversible actions of Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection. As Murray puts it,

It is just because we cannot allow for any reversal or repetition of Christ’s death on the tree that we cannot allow for any compromise on the doctrine that every believer has died to sin and no longer lives under its dominion. Sin no longer lords it over him. To equivocate here is to assail the definitiveness of Christ’s death. Likewise the decisive and definitive entrance upon newness of life in the case of every believer is required by the fact that the resurrection of Christ was decisive and definitive. As we cannot allow for any reversal or repetition of the resurrection, so we cannot allow for any compromise on the doctrine that every believer is a new man, that the old man has been crucified, that the body of sin has been destroyed, and that, as a new man in Christ Jesus, he serves God in the newness which is none other than that of the Holy Spirit of whom he has become the habitation and his body the temple.[xii]

This is what theologians refer to as “definitive sanctification.” The process of progressive sanctification in the Christian life in which the believer more and more dies to sin and lives in obedience to God unfolds from an alpha point in which the Christian is existentially united to Christ by the Spirit, and thus has the Spirit apply to them what Christ has already accomplished on their behalf as Jesus represented them in his person and work in redemptive history. Herman Ridderbos summarizes this relationship well.

The reverse side of all this is that just as the church has once died with Christ, it also has been raised with him. Here again the aorists denote the redemptive-historical moment, that of Christ’s rising. The thought is thereby that as in Christ’s death on the Cross the church has died to the powers of sin, world, and law, in the resurrection of Christ it has been set at liberty for Another, in order to live for him, under his government, for Christ himself (Rom. 7:4; 2 Cor. 5:15); or for God (Gal. 2:19). From these passages, too, which speak of having been raised with Christ, it is evident how much the new life of the church not only has been grounded—as something that has taken place for them and outside them—but also has been given and has begun in the resurrection of Christ. This finds clear expression, for example in Ephesians 2:4ff.: “God . . . For his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up together, and made us to sit together in heaven in Christ Jesus. . .”[xiii]

Paul’s cognitive command for the believer’s self-conception in Romans 6:11 flows out of the definitive character of Jesus’ death and resurrection as it has ransacked the kingdom of Satan and debilitated the cosmic power of sin.

Remaining Sin and Self-Conception

However, as any self-aware believer can attest, that definitive conquest of the power of sin of which the Christian becomes participant in their union with Christ, does not mean that the remnants of sin are obliterated in the believer. The Christian still lives as one in need of waging a war against the internal reality of indwelling sin and the external reality of the temptation of the world and Satan. Frank Thielman captures well the almost counter-intuitive nature of Paul’s command in Romans 6:11.

Here too Paul asks his readers to draw conclusions that do not at first seem obvious. They have not experienced physical death as Christ does; and they still experience the effects of the sinful world around them, including its deceptive appeal. Nevertheless, because they are ‘in Christ’ they are now in the realm that he rules. Within this sphere, his death and resurrection have effectively atoned for sin, reconciled them to God, and broken the power of sin (3:24–25; 5:1–6:11; cf. 8:1). They can only live in a way that is consistent with these truths if they “count” (λογίζεσθε) them as true for themselves. . . In light of the sinful nature of the visible world around them, they will need to make a conscious mental effort to reason from their identity in Christ to conduct that is consistent with this identity.[xiv]

Herein lies the struggle of the Christian life, the struggle assumed by Paul’s imperatives regarding the believer’s war against sin which appear throughout every letter Paul wrote. As Murray puts things,

The exhortation, ‘Put to death, therefore, the members which are upon the earth,’ is one that arises from the categorical propositions which precede. It is clear, as in Romans 8:13, that the activity of the believer is enlisted in this process. The implication is, therefore, to the effect that, notwithstanding the definitive death to sin alluded to in Colossians 2:20; 3:3, the believer is not so delivered from sin in its lust and defilement but that he needs to be actively engaged in the business of the slaughterhouse with reference to his own sins.[xv]

In Romans 6:11 Paul is providing a reference point by which believers are to reckon themselves that is not primarily indexed to the existential experience of the believer. It is primarily indexed to the once and for all death and resurrection of Christ which he accomplished on behalf of his people. True, we only come into possession of that by the existential experience of a Spirit-wrought union with Christ through faith. Nevertheless, the cognitive imperative which Paul extends in Romans 6:11 calls the believer to look beyond their existential experience, or rather look through their existential experience of union with Christ, and back to the objective work of Christ on their behalf as he accomplished it once for all in redemptive history.

It is thus a call for a self-judgment which is based upon faith; and like all faith it looks beyond what is seen to what is unseen (Heb. 11:1; cf. Rom. 8:24–25). It is a call for the Christian to imitate Paul in the life they now live in the flesh, to be lived in a way that looks beyond the existential experience of the present with all of its imperfections and sinful orientations, and instead lives in the flesh in the present by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20).

One glorious implication of this is that the present state of frustration which the believer experiences in their battle against the remnants of the corrupt flesh which still inhabits their members is not the primary standard by which the Christian should judge themselves. The cognitive experience of the internal opposition of the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit which keeps us from doing the things we want to do (Gal. 5:17) is not the cognitive moral ideal for the believer. The present experience of the internal contradiction of the Christian life is to be expected, but that expectation does not make that internal contradiction ethically normative, nor the standard by which the believer is to conceive of their identity.

This is not to deny the reality of the intensity of struggle that obtains from this war within the self, nor to deny how it manifests in a uniquely difficult form for those Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction. It is also not to deny that this real experiential and psychological struggle for same-sex attracted Christians might in fact persistently resurge throughout their Christian life. But it is to point out that we cannot equate the psychological and experiential real with the moral ideal.

The Christian ought not to reckon their identity by means of the present experience of their struggling and often failing battle with temptation and sin. Rather, the Christian ought to reckon their identity—their conception of self—in a way that is indexed to the once-for-all judgment Christ has executed against sin, the world, and Satan in his death and resurrection. Our union with Christ summons us to lift up our eyes away from our contemporary experience with the exasperating hindrance to holiness which our remaining sin presents, and to behold by faith the cross and the empty tomb and there find the decisive standard by which we are to conceive of ourselves.

 This allows us to pinpoint the problem with the objections to the denial set forth in Article 7 of the Nashville Statement. The imperative to “consider yourself” in Romans 6:11 assumes the context of the pervasive and ongoing struggle of the Christian life. The cognitive warfare of establishing a self-consciousness and self-perception that is fundamentally aligned with what is already true of us by virtue of our union with Christ is merely a permutation of mortification of sin and vivification unto God.

Whenever we fail to adorn our mental life and self-conception with our identity in Christ in such a way that is fundamentally calibrated unto the past victory which Jesus accomplished over sin in redemptive history, we are then failing in a Gospel imperative. Whenever we conceive of ourselves, or adopt a self-conception, in such a way that fails to reckon with the definitive breach with sin that has occurred in us on account of our union with Christ, we are then acting in inconsistency with God’s holy purposes in redemption.

That is true of a self-conception that frames our personhood or self-identity in terms of homosexuality or transgenderism, but it is equally true of self-conceptions that would frame our personhood or self-identity with any other remaining corruption within us be it gossip, pride, adultery, fornication, greed, alcoholism, etc. In light of Paul’s exhortation in Rom. 6:11, we can safely say that the battle of self-conception is one more place, indeed one preeminent place, where the believer must be “actively engage in the business of the slaughterhouse,” in the business of putting sin to death.

It is not to say that the irreconcilable war between the remnants of our flesh and the Spirit who is within us will not continuously exert its pressure upon that most central sphere of our life, i.e. our very consciousness as it is directed towards our own personhood. It is to say rather, that even there in the realm of self-consciousness or self-conception that a Gospel ideal lies before us, a Gospel imperative with which we must daily reckon. We must conceive of ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. In fact the hope that the Christian awakens to every day is that, despite our failures to live in a way that is dead unto sin and alive unto God—even the cognitive failures to reckon ourselves thus—the Gospel imperative of Romans 6:11 still calls us to look beyond those failures to the irrevocable work of Jesus and there find the identity which will endure for us until the day when all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more.

Article 7 of the Nashville Statement does not necessarily deny the life and death struggle of pervasive internal corruption which seeks to enthrone itself in command and control of our very self-consciousness, or the unique way that struggle unfolds for the Christian who contends with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. Article 7 does not necessarily deny the persistent difficulty and imperfection which Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria face in fending off this military coup which would place the junta of sin over their very personhood.

But Article 7 of the Nashville Statement does hold before us the Gospel imperative and the Gospel ideal of a cognitive life of consciousness towards self in which no sin, including homosexuality and transgenderism, claims hegemony over our very personhood. Christ has planted his flag there, and he will countenance no rivals.

[i] If you would like to trace through the repetitious appearance of intersections of the Gospel with the life of human cognition, just take the time to run through this sampling of the New Testament – Mat. 6:28ff.; 15:16; Mk. 12:33; Rom. 1:28ff.; 7:23ff.; 8:5–7; 12:2; 1 Cor. 1:10; 1:26; 2:16; 3:18; 7:36; 10:12; 10:18ff; 14:15–19; 14:20; 2 Cor. 3:14; 4:4; 10:12; Gal. 6:3; Eph. 2:3; 4:17–24; Phil. 1:27–28; 2:2ff.; 3:15; 3:19–21; 4:4–7; 4:8; Col. 1:9; 1:21ff.; 2:2–4; 3:2; 2 Thess. 2:2; 1 Tim. 1:6–9; 3:2; 3:11; 6:5; 2 Tim. 2:7; 3:8; 4:5; Titus 1:15; 2:2; Heb. 8:10; 10:16; 10:24; 12:3; 13:7; 12:3; James 1:6–8; 1:26; 3:13; 1 Pet. 1:13; 2:19; 3:6; 3:7; 3:8; 4:1; 4:7; 5:8; 2 Pet. 3:1ff.; 1 Jn. 5:20). I am sure much more could be added to this list, but I hope it is enough to grasp the magnitude of the Gospel’s impact upon the life of human consciousness.

[ii] Missouri Presbytery Ad Hoc Committee to Investigate Memorial Presbyterian Church for Hosting the Revoice 18 Conference in July 2018, pg. 17.

[iii] All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, & Sexuality, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017),pg. 289.

[iv] Ibid, 245–249.

[v] Ibid, 303.

[vi] Ibid, 142.

[vii] Ibid. 149–156.

[viii] Ibid, 150. Emphasis original.

[ix] Ibid, 292.

[x] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), vol. 1, 225–226.

[xi] Charles Hodge, Commentary of the Epistle to the Romans, (Philadelphia: William S. & Alfred Martien, 1864), 315.

[xii] John Murray, “The Agency in Definitive Sanctification,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust), vol. 2, 293.

[xiii] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 211.

[xiv] Frank Thielman, Romans: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 309.

[xv] John Murray, “Progressive Sanctification,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust), vol. 2, 296


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