Perhaps you have heard it said, or felt it clearly implied, that homosexuality is the worst possible sin. Perhaps your testimony includes some kind of personal experience of homosexuality or same-sex attraction, and you have felt—whether they meant to communicate this or not—that others considered you the worst kind of sinner. When this opinion is openly expressed, it is not uncommon to hear Romans 1 referenced, especially the point about homosexuality being contrary to nature.

Is this correct? Does Romans teach that homosexuality, being contrary to nature, is therefore the worst sin?

To begin, let’s admit that not conforming to nature does have a bearing on sin. In Romans 1, this concept is connected to rejection of the Creator. Those who exchange the truth of God (that he made everything and rules over its design) for a lie (that we are autonomous beings who may choose to live how we wish) worship and serve the created—for which the Greek word is ktisei—over and against the Creator—para ton ktisanta (1:25). That is, we might say, to make up a word from the Greek, they make themselves “para-creational.” These creation-worshippers, then, are the very ones who, for that same reason, also exchange the natural—physiken—use of the body for the unnatural use—para physin—or “para-natural” (1:26). Paul is arguing that the willingness to ignore the normativity of created design and intent for the body is a manifestation of the willful rejection of the Creator.

So, in discussions of whether homosexuality is sin, the issue of created design is plainly relevant. You can also see why the Westminster Larger Catechism would list “against the light of nature” (Q151.3) as one of the many contextual considerations that aggravate the seriousness of any particular sin. All sin, of course, is a manifestation of our rejection of the Creator and logically flows from that rebellion. All sin is, in this sense, against the Creator’s design. But in Romans 1, Paul rhetorically seizes on the obviousness to his readers of this particular rejection of natural design. This obvious contradiction of natural design makes especially clear the connection that all sin has to rejecting the Creator of nature.

Nevertheless, the language of Romans 1 does not mean that any sin that is “contrary to nature” is for that reason the most heinous sin, or even that it is automatically worse than any other sin. As I explained in a previous post, “Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?,” determining the relative heinousness of any sin act is complicated and context-specific. The catechism, for example, lists many factors to consider, of which being “against the light of nature” is only one. The effect of this list is not to automatically put any one whole class of sins in a worse category than other classes of sins, but to urge church leadership to wisely shepherd individual cases before them according to the unique situational context. But even in the text of Romans, it is clear that Paul did not intend to single out sins contrary to nature as the pinnacle of wickedness.

First, in the immediate context, one of Paul’s main concerns is to encourage unity in the gospel, especially between the main demographic division of Jew and Gentile. His concern is that each individual in the church, whether they be Jew or Gentile, would have no basis on which to look down upon or judge the other. In the flow of Romans 1 and 2, he does this by progressing from the “unnatural” sins of the Gentiles that would seem so obvious to his Jewish-background readers to the more common and less obviously unnatural but equally debased (1:28) sins like covetousness, strife, deceit, haughtiness, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, and the like (1:29,30). The mere inclusion of some of these sins in this list should be enough to curb the temptation to feel morally superior (see my post on Romans 1). But, significantly, Paul ends this list by adding, “Though they know God’s righteous decree” about such things, they do them anyway (1:32)—a point that the Larger Catechism would describe as another factor increasing the heinousness of a sin that it is committed by a person “of greater experience or grace” (Q151.1). The rhetorical effect is clearly to humble the readers who, because of their greater biblical training and theological heritage, would be tempted to judge their Gentile brothers and sisters (even though his original audience, of course, would not have had the catechism’s language!). Thus, he culminates this section with the rebuke, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges” (2:1).

But, some may ask, doesn’t the very idea of “contrary to nature” carry a certain pejorative power, conveying an emotional intuition against what clearly ought not be? That is to say, doesn’t it capture what some have described as the “yuck” factor? Well, the point that I have been trying to show is that that kind of understanding is not consistent with Paul’s concern in Romans 1–2 for humility and unity in the gospel. I would also suggest that his other use of this phrase supports this point. The Greek phrase translated “contrary to nature” (para physin) shows up twice in the book of Romans: First, here in chapters 1 and 2, at the beginning of Paul’s argument, where he is mainly urging Jewish Christians to a humble gospel disposition toward the Gentiles. The other time this phrase shows up is in chapter 11, at the end of Paul’s argument, when he flips the coin to make a similar plea to the Gentile Christians: “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles… For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:13, 24, emphasis added). Ironically, Paul’s first use of the phrase is as a description of the sin that comes from rejection of God, but his second use of the phrase is to illustrate the unexpected grace of the gospel! Both times, the phrase occurs in the context of encouraging Christians to a humble, gospel-based love for those who are otherwise very different from themselves.

What can we conclude from this? If we listen carefully to the apostle Paul, we will never use the category of “contrary to nature” to favorably compare ourselves to any other sinner or class of sinners. Rather, we will in humility seek out, and point others to, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” acknowledging that there is really “no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (3:22–23).

A question often asked here at Harvest USA is a common one. “Why do people, Christians even, go back to a gay life after they have come for help?” It’s a legitimate question. For Christians who believe the Word, the Scriptures, and believe that faith in Christ makes one a “new creation,” the issue may seem confusing, but the answer must be honest and biblically grounded. Here is the second reason that could explain what might be happening here, as we have seen some common denominators over the years in our ministry.

 The cost of obeying Christ seems too high a price to pay

For many people, the call to obey Christ and live within the boundaries of God-designed sexuality is just too difficult, and its benefits too intangible and not immediate enough. Unfortunately, this is the kind of society in which we now live. If anything seems too difficult or doesn’t produce immediate results, then it’s not worth the time and effort. The downside of life in a technologically-based society is the false, utopian ideal that everything should work or should be fixable—now! Growth that can only take place over time, and the very idea of struggle itself, is dismissed as unnatural.

I remember something Gail Barker, our first secretary at Harvest USA, said to me one day. Gail was telling me that while she was growing up in the 1940’s, life was difficult, and everyone just accepted the idea of struggle as a part of life. She went on to say that was why people enjoyed times of respite from struggle. There was an awareness that life was not easy, and therefore one came to appreciate, as a blessing, the times when life was not so hard. But those moments were brief, which made them so much more valuable. It is especially important for for those who desire to come out of homosexuality to realize this intertwining of struggle and respite.

God calls us all to obedience to his will, to what he knows is best for his creation, and that entails turning away from those things which seem to offer life but, in reality, lead to the death of the soul. Those who have embraced homosexuality have opened a Pandora’s Box and have found false comfort and counterfeit life in a mistaken attempt to make sense of a broken and fallen world. This is true for anything that anyone embraces outside of God’s design, not just for this issue. Sometimes, then, God’s call to all of us to live a life of holiness (that is, a life live according to God’s call, separated from the innumerable ways in which the world encourages us to live) seems not worth the price to pay. Like I mentioned in point number one, that price is nothing less than a death—the death that comes from leaving behind those things which once gripped your heart and felt good and affirming.

There is suffering involved in self-denial. The book of Hebrews reminds us that to walk in self-denial, in order to live fully engaged in a life with God, is costly. In Hebrews 11:24-26 we read that, “Moses . . . refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (ESV). To deny oneself immediate pleasure and gratification is only possible when you look ahead to a greater future, one that is only realized by immersing oneself in God and in the people of God.

Of course, to speak of a road of self-denial and suffering is an unattractive option to most people. Yet it will be the path, at least most strongly in the beginning, for the journey out of a homosexual life. That is understandable, as many who come to Harvest USA say that they can’t imagine a future life without sexual involvement with a person of the same sex.

But there is an answer here. Unless that person comes to see Jesus as the one who takes center stage in their heart, displacing all others and the idols of the heart which draw us away from following him, then there will be an overwhelming and unending ache over what has been left behind and what is being denied. Seeking to end that ache makes going back into sin that much easier and more attractive. Jesus has to been seen as more attractive, worth much more than the denial of the flesh. Self-denial is not displaced by nothing; it is replaced slowly, over time, by a growing relationship with Jesus, and it is in that relationship that the grace and power to live a whole new life comes. It is a life that has its own joys and pleasures, made all the richer in the knowledge that such a life pleases the One who redeemed you by his death for you. We have learned at Harvest USA that unless people grasp that there is a greater reward that comes with obedience, then they don’t make it.

Link to: Part 1.Part 3.Part 4.Part 5.Part 6.

Updated 5.4.2017, 6/1/2018

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