By Douglas Wilson
I have other things to write about, but it appears to me that the Lord doesn’t have other things for me to write about. I don’t mind because this is actually a subject that gives me full opportunity and scope to preach the gospel. But be forewarned, this opportunity is actually an opportunity to preach a scandalous gospel. But that is all right also, because that is actually the only kind of gospel there is.This scandalous gospel has to be declared in a world that loves lies and distortion. A friend just shared with me something apropos from Swift that was in the Wall Street Journal today — “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.” The twittermob has been circulating numerous untruths, among them that Steven Sitler is a child rapist. He was actually convicted of one count of Lewd Conduct with a Minor under 16 years of age (Idaho Code 18-1508). He has also been accused of raping and/or molesting his son, which no knowledgeable person is even alleging. If the consensus of the mob gets its way, then some court will try to make Katie Sitler choose between her husband and her son. They don’t even know that this is what they are yelling for — that’s one of the lies. I could go on, but will refrain for the present. There is a time and a place for answering lies with truths, but there is also a time for answering lies with the Truth, the living Truth, the personal Truth.
Important clarification: When I say above that Steven was convicted of one count, I was not meaning that this was his only offense, and neither was I seeking to minimize the egregiousness of his behavior in those other instances. That is why I argued, just below this, that the father in Texas who killed the molester he walked in on was fully justified. I should have made my meaning more clear than I did, which I could have done by putting the Texas paragraph first, and linking it expressly to Steven’s offenses. My apologies to any friends who missed my meaning here, and who thought I was trying to trim and be cute on Steven’s behalf. Such a misreading would be my responsibility. I believe there was at least one scenario where Steven could have been killed on the spot, and no injustice done.
What we need is a prodigal gospel. So what we should do is confront and answer the lie, and then pivot to declare a gospel that overflows the banks of respectability, and then overwhelms and drowns all the sinners who like to live there. And when it drowns them, they come up out of the waters of baptism smelling different.
One of the twittertaunts thrown at me in different ways has been my apparent inconsistency in my love for Steven Sitler and my support of the death penalty for certain crimes. And by the way, I don’t just love Steven Sitler, I love his victims also. But there is in fact no inconsistency at all. In a hypothetical biblical republic, I would support the death penalty for child rape, but that republic is not yet upon us. However, quite apart from the penalties applied by the current justice system, you may remember what that father in Texas did a couple years ago. The Texas grand jury in that instance did the right thing, and there was no injustice done.
But justice is one thing, mercy is another, and because Christ came to live among us, and both died and rose here, those two divine attributes have to occupy the same screwed-up world together. That reality gives us complicated pastoral problems. To complain about them is to complain against His wisdom.
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
This is where a classical education really helps. Anyone acquainted with the actual conditions of life in the first century Roman Empire knows that it was the photo negative of a sexually upright society. When Paul says “such were some of you,” he was not talking about the occasional odd case every ten years or so. Sexual perversions of all sorts were on tap, all the time, in that era. Immorality was ubiquitous, and many of the perversions he addresses were perversions that, if done on Moses’ watch, would have called for the death penalty. The same is true in our day. Not only would child rape have called for the death penalty, but so would homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), adultery (Lev. 20:10), and abortion (Ex. 21: 22–25). And apart from the law/word of God, in that ancient world, children were not off limits — far from it.
Now when the gospel of grace breaks into such a pagan world, filled with such sexual licentiousness, Paul does not tell the affected Corinthians (because they had previously done such things) that they should therefore go downtown to throw themselves off a bridge — even though Corinth was such a foul city the verb to corinthianize meant to fornicate. Hypothetically, had they been executed for such crimes in another place and time, there would have been no injustice. The law is given, in part, to teach us what we all deserved. The law teaches us what Christ delivers us from. “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:32, ESV). The list that precedes this verse is pretty long, and includes a lot more sins than those committed by our current designated scapegoats — including our very guilty designated scapegoats. Just because you are a scapegoat doesn’t make you innocent. Complicity is the air we breathe.
Now we all understand this forgiveness pretty well — when it comes to some sins. Usually we understand it best if it involves sins that we were once guilty of, or have been tempted by. Other people, the ones with the terrible sins, can fend for themselves and devil take the hindmost. But as for ourselves, as for me and my house, there is forgiveness in Christ!
This relates directly to another central confusion of our unbelieving generation, which is the question of sin and identity. The Bible gives us two fundamental identities — Adam and Christ. We are either in Adam or in Christ. We may have lesser, subordinate identities, such as our families, our trade or vocation, affection for regional sports teams, and so on, but we may not let any of those subordinate identities, whether great ones or small ones, define us. To do so would be idolatry. If we are converted men and women, our foundational identity is in Christ. We are not permitted to allow any sin to become part of our name, part of our identity. After Jesus cast the demons out, Mary Magdalene did not go through the rest of her life as a recovering sex worker.
But because our therapeutic era does not know what to do with actual sin, they try to deal with it by making it part of the individual’s identity, and then suppressing it by main force. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic — you are simply an alcoholic who doesn’t drink any more. The whiskey is gone but the identity remains. They make you pour the whiskey down the sink, but then they make you keep the bottle, especially the label.
We do this with all kinds of things — thus we have recovering gamblers, recovering sex addicts, recovering substance abusers, and so on. But here comes a tricky one — recovering victim. We know how to do that one too.
Don’t mistake me, and don’t start yelling. There are true victims, just as the sins listed above are true sins. And what many people have had to go through is simply appalling. I could tell you story after story. When someone has been terribly wronged — the brunt of some father’s rage problems, or the recipient of some creepy uncle’s lusts, or the browbeating of an older brother’s morbid curiosities, it is important to address the wrong, bring about restitution and restoration whenever possible. Healthy pastoral counsel is essential, and it should be counsel that is grounded in the liberation that only Christ can provide. Christ offers His grace to both defilers and defiled.
But healing does not come about by teaching someone to become a victim for life. Healing comes when the person is enabled, by the grace of Christ, genuinely to heal. I know many Christians, members of my congregation, who have been grievously wronged in the past — but that is not their identity. The task is two-fold — to help them to heal, and help them to not have a perpetual process of healing become part of their identity. When someone has been wronged, it does not help them to wrong them in another way for the rest of their life by building them a therapeutic cage to live in. If anyone is in Christ, everything is new. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV). That is what this verse is talking about. All things new. But outside of Christ, nothing is new. Outside of Christ, it all falls apart.
Ironically, I have seen some who have adopted a victim identity attack the “church ladies” for “not understanding” when I know for a fact that many of those women understand all too well. The fact that they are not working through the issues out loud on Facebook does not mean that they have no real wounds in their stories, or that they have not addressed them with grace. I commend such women, not because they are “stuffing it,” but rather because they worked through it, and do not want someone else’s perversion to become their identity. Such women are the kind of women who can truly provide help to real victims in the immediate aftermath of some wicked event.
The Scripture, by stark contrast to this generation’s therapies, tells us to put off and put on. Put off the old man — and all its lusts — and put on the new man, created in righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24). Put off the old man, who is a horny bastard anyway. Doing this is a battle, but the battle does not consist of knowing that this is the assigned task. Knowing where the battle is should be easy; fighting the battle is the hard part. This is what our sanctification consists of. We are not supposed to keep the old man bound and gagged in the basement; we are to reject him. Put him off. Stop dragging him around. That is not who we are.
So then, is pedophilia an identity? It is certainly a sin, a great evil. And a converted Christian, truly converted, can still experience such temptations. But despite the temptations, that is not his identity. He will be tempted to think that this is what he is, and the world — even a big part of the Christian world — will cluster around and tell him that “once a pedophile, always a pedophile.”
Supposing that to be the case for a moment, what could we possibly do? The world, for its part, is stuck. They have bought into the idea, elsewhere in other sexual affairs, that if an sexual impulse occurs to you, it is necessary that it be allowed to come out to play. No barriers may be thrown in the way of it. If you want to have sex with a man, with a woman, with two women, with a wig on, and so on, then this orgasmic imperative is assigned to you in some constitutional penumbra somewhere. So the basic axiom is that no sexual impulse can be denied. It is not possible to deny it — for that would mean that sexual self-control is a possibility.
But this places them in a real jam when it comes to those who have sexual desires for children, because the actual outworking of such an expression is still horrible to them (thank God for common grace), but they still hold it as axiomatic that no sexual urge can really be repressed. This is why there is such a rage against such sex offenders, a rage born of such internal contradictions. This is why the only reasonable thing is, it seems to them, to take them all down to the river and drown them.
What about Christians? A sexual offender is at large in society, believes in Christ, and comes to your church. His offenses were years before, and he has been clean for a long time. What do you do? You — of course — do what is necessary to ensure that all the parents of your little ones need not worry about the safety of their children at worship. But with all such protections in place, you welcome him to the Font and to the Table. He is as welcome there as anybody else. If he is not, then you have denied the gospel the same way Peter did at Antioch.
Now because he has been welcomed into your fellowship, as he ought to have been, he meets a Christian woman whom he would like to marry, and she would like to marry him. He manifestly does not have the gift of celibacy. Do you bless it? Do you okay it, but make him get married by the justice of the peace? Or do you forbid it?
If you forbid it, one reason might be because you think he should live as a celibate because he did things that would have resulted in his execution under Moses. But if we are to use equal weights and measures, there are other offenses like that in your church also. Must adulterers live in perpetual celibacy? Homosexuals? When the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, He told her to go and sin no more. He didn’t say that she must never get married because she had done something that could warrant the death penalty, a penalty that had almost been applied to her, and the issue clearly might come up again. In fact, Jesus warned her against the possibility of a repeat offense — go and sin no more.
Must women who have had abortions be prohibited from marrying? I am going to say something here with a hard edge, but it is only so that I can declare a scandalous gospel. Please stay with me. Sexual molestation is terrible, but the murder of unborn children is worse. Should women who have had abortions be placed under the ban? Of course not — but that means something is wrong with the earlier “death penalty sins” logic.
Or you might forbid it because you think that the “identity” of pedophilia is something that simply cannot be surmounted. This collides with the gospel as outlined above, and it is also inconsistent with what we say about things like homosexual temptations. A homosexual who cannot desire a member of the opposite sex should not get married. But that is not true of all homosexuals. Some can and do marry, and those who can, and who have the opportunity, should. Do we want to say that pedophilia lies closer to the bone than does homosexuality? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.
Or you just might prohibit marriage to a pedophile if he had been a serial offender. Okay, now we have to define that. And do this remembering that many adulterers are serial adulterers, and many homosexuals have had serial encounters. If the past is the indicator of the future, this applies to more than just pedophilia. A lot of things might happen again, and a lot of men have a lot of dark urges. They have serial dark urges.
But back to the pedophile. We can have a serial pedophile who started when he was fifteen, molested six cousins, and ended when he was eighteen. Is that identity fixed forever? He is a serial sinner, like everyone else in Adam, but is his sin tattooed on him in such a way that Christ cannot remove it?
Then there is another thing. If you forbid marriage to someone who is not gifted with celibacy, under pain of excommunication if he marries, then you have painted yourself into quite a medieval corner. You now have as a “mortal sin” the sin of marriage, which God did not prohibit, as opposed to the “venial” sins of porn and hookers, which He did prohibit. The church, trying to head off one possible sin, ought never to make other sins fairly certain.
So when I say that bringing repentant pedophiles into the church is a gospel issue, I do not mean that they get a magic forgiveness card at the door such that no one has to think about it ever again. That would be both naive and stupid. But I am saying that the gospel project is the divine project of making us all into true human beings again. When marriage can be a part of that, it should be a part of that. Sometimes it cannot be. But when it is, and it is good, it is very good.
The world says that there is no life outside of Adam. We say there is no life inside him. The world says that your sin defines you. The Lord Jesus says that He has a white stone with your name on it, which only the two of you know, and none of your sins are inscribed on it anywhere (Rev. 2:17). Turn it over and over, and be sure to look at the whole thing. There is no reference anywhere to Drunk, or Adulterer, or Molester, or Porn Addict, or any of that. Why has it been put away? It has been put away so that God might be glorified in the salvation of sinners. Really bad sinners.
How has it been put away? This happened, not because we found the one guilty person in our town and drove him out with stones. It is made possible because we were given the only righteous man who ever lived, and so we took the opportunity to betray and flog Him, spit in His face, drive nails in His hands and feet, drop the cross into the hole with a thud, and then run a spear into Him in order to make sure. That’s what we do with righteousness around here. And when we did that with our only hope of righteousness, what came out was blood and water . . . our only hope of righteousness. And because blood and water came out, it is possible for any of us to believe. It is possible for you — and every other wretch up and down your street, to believe in Jesus, come to Jesus, cry out to Jesus, and be turned into a real person by Jesus. No exceptions. Whoever is weary, He said, may come. He didn’t carve out exceptions for those people who were made weary by their sick perversions. He applies His blood to those too. What a Savior.