Martin Luther and Celibate Gay Christians

In my world lately, there’s been a debate about a theological concept called concupiscence (the desire for sin that remains, even in believers, this side of the resurrection), and how exactly it is to be applied in the lives of Christians who are celibate and gay. I am deeply unqualified to jump into the deep end of those theological waters, so I won’t, except to say that the debate has made me start to rethink and consider how sanctification should look in a life like mine. I’m more interested in those practical questions anyway, like When and for what am I supposed to repent in sorrow? What should my daily walk feel like? What should I be hoping for?

I was recently reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians for the study program that’s part of my job, and suddenly there was that word that has a lot to do with these questions: concupiscence. I was very encouraged and honestly, surprised, at what he had to say about it. First, because Luther is actually honest about the experience of every Christian, including people like me, and second, because unless I’m grossly misreading Luther (or he’s grossly misreading Paul) then this rules out the ex-gay approach that has hurt so many like me. I didn’t really need convincing of this, because the bad fruit of that approach seems obvious to me, but it is obviously even better to know that there are Scriptural reasons for rejecting such an approach. And they are so well-articulated by Martin Luther. These passages I’ve pulled out were a huge encouragement to me, and I hope are to you, too, whether you’re gay or not. The bolded emphases are mine.

(As an aside, these mostly present a negative case; that is, Luther is mainly saying what sanctification won’t look like for Christians. I hope to write soon about a positive case about what sanctification has looked like so far for me.)

The passage to which most of these pertain is Galatians 5:17-21:

“For the 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

“But thou wilt say: How can I be holy, when I have and feel sin in me? I answer: In that thou dost feel and acknowledge thy sin, it is a good token; give thanks unto God and despair not. It is one step of health, when the sick man doth acknowledge and confess his infirmity. But how shall I be delivered from sin? Run to Christ the physician, which healeth them that are broken in heart, and saveth sinners. Follow not the judgment of reason, which telleth thee, that he is angry with sinners; but kill reason and believe in Christ.”

When Paul saith that the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, he admonisheth us that we shall feel the concupiscence of the flesh, that is to say, not only carnal lust, but also pride, wrath, heaviness, impatience, incredulity, and such-like. Notwithstanding he would have us so to feel them, that we consent not unto them, nor accomplish them: that is, that we neither think, speak, nor do those things which the flesh provoketh us unto. As, if it move us to anger, yet we should be angry in such wise as we are taught in the fourth Psalm, that we sin not. As if Paul would thus say: I know that the flesh will provoke you unto wrath, envy, doubting, incredulity, and such-like; but resist it by the Spirit, that ye sin not. But if ye forsake the guiding of the Spirit, and follow the flesh, ye shall fulfil the lust of the flesh, and ye shall die, as Paul saith in the eighth to the Romans. So this saying of the Apostle is to be understood, not of fleshly lusts only, but of the whole kingdom of sin.”

“But we credit Paul’s sin, that he is led captive of sin, that he hath a law in his members rebelling against him, and that in the flesh he serveth the law of sin. Here again they [people Luther was arguing against] answer, that the Apostle speaketh in the person of the ungodly. But the ungodly do not complain of the rebellion of their flesh, of any battle or conflict, or of the captivity and bondage of sin: for sin mightily reigneth in them.”

This is one of my favorite passages; I love Luther’s new self-talk that came from rightly understanding the Gospel: 

“It is very profitable for the godly to know this, and to bear it well in mind; for it wonderfully comforteth them when they are tempted. When I was a monk I thought by and by that I was utterly cast away, if at any time I felt the concupiscence of the flesh: that is to say, if I felt any evil motion, fleshly lust, wrath, hatred, or envy against any brother. I assayed many ways, I went to confession daily, etc., but it profited me not; for the concupiscence of my flesh did always return, so that I could not rest, but was continually vexed with these thoughts: This or that sin thou has committed; thou art infected with envy, with impatiency, and such other sins; therefore thou art entered into this holy order in vain, and all thy good works are unprofitable. If then I had rightly understood these sentences of Paul: ‘The flesh lusteth contrary to the spirit, and the spirit contrary to the flesh,’ and, ‘these two are one against another, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would do,’ I should not have so miserably tormented myself, but should have thought and said to myself, as now commonly I do: Martin, thou shalt not utterly be without sin, for thou hast yet flesh; thou shalt therefore feel the battle thereof, according to that saying of Paul: ‘The flesh resisteth the spirit.’ Despair not therefore, but resist it strongly, and fulfil not the lust thereof. Thus doing thou art not under the law.”

“I remember that Staupitius was wont to say: ‘I have vowed unto God above a thousand times, that I would become a better man; but I never performed that which I vowed. Hereafter I will make no such vow: for I have now learned by experience, that I am not able to perform it. Unless therefore God be favourable and merciful unto me for Christ’s sake, and grant unto me a blessed and a happy hour when I shall depart out of this miserable life, I shall not be able with all my vows and all my good deeds, to stand before him.’ This was not only a true, but also a godly and a holy desperation: and this must they all confess both with mouth and heart, which will be saved. For the godly trust not to their own righteousness, but say with David: ‘Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall none that liveth be justified’ (Psalm 143:2), and: ‘If thou, O Lord, shouldst straitly mark iniquities, Lord, who shall stand?” (Psalm 130:3). They look unto Christ their reconciler, who gave his life for their sins. Moreover, they know that the remnant of sin which is in their flesh, is not laid to their charge, but freely pardoned. Notwithstanding in the meanwhile they fight in the Spirit against the flesh, lest they should fulfil the lust thereof. And although they feel the flesh to rage and rebel against the spirit, and themselves also do fall sometimes into sin through infirmity, yet are they not discouraged, nor think therefore that their state and kind of life, and the works which are done according to their calling, displease God: but they raise up themselves by faith.”

I love this next passage. In the first sentence, Luther diagnoses exactly what I think happened with the ex-gay movement; it caused a “fall into desperation” that damaged and/or destroyed the faith of many who were seeking God. The rest of the passage rings true of my current experience. It took almost five years of living with this weight, but in the last few months, celibacy has started to become a deep source of joy in my life, and far less a crushing burden.

“He that knoweth not this doctrine, and thinketh that the faithful ought to be without all fault, and yet seeth the contrary in himself, must needs at the length be swallowed up by the spirit of heaviness, and fall into desperation. But whoso knoweth this doctrine well and useth it rightly, to him the things that are evil turn unto good. For when the flesh provoketh him to sin, by occasion thereof he is stirred up and forced to seek forgiveness of sins by Christ, and to embrace the righteousness of faith, which else he would not so greatly esteem, nor seek for the same with so great desire. Therefore it profiteth us very much to feel sometimes the wickedness of our nature and corruption of our flesh, that even by this means we may be waked and stirred up to faith and to call upon Christ. And by this occasion a Christian becometh a mighty workman and a wonderful creator, which of heaviness can make joy, of terror comfort, of sin righteousness, and of death life, when he by this means repressing and bridling the flesh, maketh it subject to the Spirit.”

These are some of the most comforting passages; the fact that I am still gay is not a cause for despair: 

Wherefore let not them which feel the concupiscence of the flesh, despair of their salvation. Let them feel it and all the force thereof, so that they consent not to it. Let the passions of lust, wrath, and such other vices shake them, so that they do not overthrow them. Let sin assail them, so that they do not accomplish it. Yea the more godly a man is, the more doth he feel that battle. And hereof come those lamentable complaints of the saints in the Psalms and in all the Holy Scripture. Of this battle the hermits, the monks, and the schoolmen, and all that seek righteousness and salvation by works, know nothing at all.”

“And with these words: ‘If ye be led by the Spirit, ye are not under the law,’ thou mayest greatly comfort thyself and others that be grievously tempted. For it oftentimes cometh to pass, that a man is so vehemently assailed with wrath, hatred, impatiency, carnal desire, heaviness of spirit, or some other lust of the flesh, that he cannot shake them off, though he would never so fain. What should he do in this case? Should he despair? No, God forbid; but let him say thus with himself: Thy flesh fighteth and rageth against the Spirit. Let it rage as long as it listeth: only see thou that in any case thou consent not to it, to fulfil the lust thereof, but walk wisely and follow the leading of the Spirit. In so doing, thou art free from the law. It accuseth and terrifieth thee (I grant) but altogether in vain. In this conflict therefore of the flesh against the Spirit, there is nothing better, than to have the Word of God before thine eyes, and therein to seek the comfort of the Spirit.”

Here, Luther anticipates the antinomian objection, and answers it well. It’s an especially good word for celibate gay Christians, making the point that sin is still sin, and we must be honest with ourselves and wise about what we do. We are free in Christ to enjoy the goods of friendship and relational intimacy that comes with that; we need not build unnecessary walls around the law. But we should never flatter ourselves about how easily we can slip into sin:

“But here may some man say, that it is a dangerous matter to teach that a man is not condemned, if by and by he overcome not the motions and passions of the flesh which he feeleth. For when this doctrine is taught amongst the common people, it maketh them careless, negligent and slothful. This is it which I said a little before, that if we teach faith, then carnal men neglect and reject works: if works be required, then is faith and consolation of conscience lost. Here no man can be compelled, neither can there be any certain rule prescribed. But let every man diligently try himself to what passion of the flesh he is most subject, and when he findeth that, let him not be careless, nor flatter himself: but let him watch and wrestle in Spirit against it, that if he cannot altogether bridle it, yet at the least he do not fulfil the lust thereof.”

And finally, Luther comments on how to discern who are “true saints.” This was a huge encouragement to me, because in light of recent events and discussions about people like me, the thought has crept in: “What if I’m wrong? What if I should be aiming for marriage? What if me using the word “gay” does reveal a lack of faith? A lack of saving faith even?” I generally don’t entertain these thoughts long, but I think they come back for a lot of us who are celibate and gay, especially when respected Christian leaders are increasingly skeptical of lives like ours, as they have been in some of their responses to Revoice.

“This I say for the comfort of the godly. For they only feel indeed that they have and do commit sins, that is to say, they feel they do not love God so fervently as they should do; that they do not trust him so heartily as they would, but rather they oftentimes doubt whether God have a care of them or no…”

“The saints therefore do sin, fall, and also err: but yet through ignorance. For they would not willingly deny Christ, forsake the Gospel, revoke their baptism, therefore they have remission of sins. And if through ignorance they err also in doctrine, yet is this pardoned; for in the end they acknowledge their error, and rest only upon the truth and the grace of God offered in Christ, as Jerome, Gregory, Bernard, and others did. Let Christians then endeavour to avoid the works of the flesh; but the desires [or lusts of the flest] they cannot avoid.

“Wherefore, do you endeavor with diligence, that ye may discern and rightly judge between true righteousness and holiness, and that which is hypocritical: then shall ye behold the kingdom of Christ with other eyes than [carnal] reason doth, that is, with spiritual eyes, and certainly judge those to be true saints indeed which are baptized and believe in Christ, and afterwards in the same faith whereby they are justified, and their sins both past and present are forgiven, do abstain from the desires of the flesh. But from these desires they are not thoroughly cleansed; for the flesh lusteth against the spirit. Notwithstanding these uncleannesses do still remain in the unto this end, that they may be humbled, and being so humbled, they may feel the sweetness of the grace and benefit of Christ. So these unclean remnants of sin do nothing at all hinder, but greatly further the godly; for the more they feel their infirmities and sins, so much the more they fly unto Christ the throne of grace, and more heartily crave his aid and succour: to wit, that he will adorn them with his righteousness, that he will increase their faith, that he will endue them with his Spirit, by whose [gracious leading and] guiding they may overcome the lusts of the flesh, that they may not rule and reign over them, but may be subject unto them. Thus true Christians do continually wrestle with sin, and yet notwithstanding in wrestling they are not overcome, but obtain the victory.”

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