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On Actually Reading What People Actually Say

March 14th, 2023 | 4 min read

By Jake Meador

Here are excerpts from interviews or brief writings on issues of sexuality, sin, and concupiscence from three pastors:

Pastor A:

Interviewer: It sounds like you’re saying that original sin is culpable sin, but then it produces something that is not culpable unless your will agrees with it?
Pastor: There might be some nuances in there, but that’s basically it.
Interviewer: How can original sin produce anything other than sins?
Pastor: Well, because we’re complex beings.

Pastor B:

The reality, however, is that it is rare to find a Christian young man, whether raised inside or outside of the purity culture, who does not experience his own terrible weakness and inability in the face of his own fleshly desires, despite his efforts to control them. This is especially true today when pornography is so readily available, a veritable click away. Does his weakness and inability mean that he should give up and give way to license? Of course not, but it does mean that both young men and the women who love them should face the lust of the flesh with a sense of reality rather than idealism. …

The reality is that human beings indwelt by the Spirit will continue to sin. Some Christian men will not overcome lust completely. … No human being will ever be utterly free of idolatry on this side of the grave. Telling Christian people otherwise leads them into unnecessary paroxysms of despair. Telling them otherwise is a recipe for sending men and women, especially in adolescence and young adulthood, into the hopelessness of expecting absolute purity and finding instead that they are consistently unable to meet the mark and concluding, therefore, that in fact, they do not have the Spirit and must not be in Christ.

Pastor C:

We affirm that from the sin of our first parents we have received an inherited guilt and an inherited depravity. From this original corruption—which is itself sinful and for which we are culpable—proceed all actual transgressions. All the outworkings of our corrupted nature (a corruption which remains, in part, even after regeneration) are truly and properly called sin. Every sin, original and actual, deserves death and renders us liable to the wrath of God. We must repent of our sin in general and our particular sins, particularly. That is, we ought to grieve for our sin, hate our sin, turn from our sin unto God, and endeavor to walk with God in obedience to his commandments.

Now here’s the fun thing:

Pastor A is Doug Wilson. Pastor B is Matt Kennedy, an ACNA pastor who has been strongly opposed to Revoice. Pastor C is Tim Keller.

To put this another way: Keller’s view is plainly in keeping with the historic reformed understanding of sin and concupiscence. Kennedy’s view, presented in a more pastoral mode and on a blog, is not as precise as Keller’s articulation, but that is to be expected given the differing contexts. Ultimately, though, what Kennedy has stated here is fully reconcilable with historic reformed conceptions of sin. Wilson’s view, as articulated in this interview, meanwhile, is plainly outside the bounds of the Westminsterian tradition, at the very least. Whether it falls foul of the Three Forms is perhaps a separate question and as I am much less familiar with those, I’ll not comment on that.

Now, to be fair, there are a couple extenuating circumstances here. The excerpt for Keller is from the PCA’s sexuality report and I do not know if Keller himself wrote these exact words because I do not know for sure which parts of the report were directly authored by Keller. But as a committee member, Keller’s name is signed on this report, so these words can, I think, reasonably be treated as coming from him, as well as the other committee members. Indeed, when you consider what Keller has written for By Faith on this issue, I think it is abundantly clear that the excerpt above is fully in keeping with Keller’s views. Additionally, it’s not altogether fair to compare one pastor’s words when written in a denominational report with another pastor’s words given in an interview or still another’s when given in a blog post.

Even so, the point I want to make here is simply this: Because we live in a moment where public arguments often take place on a platform that is categorically incapable of authentic communication, our public arguments are often unfathomably stupid and incoherent. Put the question of where Wilson, Kennedy, and Keller fall on the theological spectrum to your average terminally online Reformed Christian and you’d be told in no uncertain terms that Wilson is far right, Kennedy is not as far as Wilson but definitely right wing, and Keller is progressive.

But when you actually lay out each man’s words, the resulting picture is far more complex. Kennedy’s piece evinces a gentleness with broken sinners that one would not ordinarily expect to find with a pastor whose online calling card is being somewhat hard-edged and decidedly anti-woke. And yet they are his words and I, at least, admire much of what he is saying, even as I find some of the phrasing odd given his broadsides against Revoice.

Wilson’s response to the interview question, meanwhile, is not simply at odds with Keller’s, but is plainly at odds with traditional reformed teachings regarding concupiscence. Finally, Keller’s view, as articulated by the report, is a more carefully stated version of Kennedy, less pastoral in its tone but more precise and clear in its content. And so when you actually read their own words, what you find is that Kennedy and Keller are far closer to one another than either is to Wilson.

This, then, is what I had in mind when I said on the main site that the right and left both tend to confuse “reflexive responses” with “actually thinking.” Set aside the brands of these men and simply consider their own words. Which of these men is at odds with the historic reformed faith? Answer: It ain’t Keller.

What to do with all this? Well, that depends on how you assess the issues involved, I suppose. But if you have spent the past several years championing Wilson as a defender of the reformed faith and criticizing Keller as a progressive innovator, I would suggest you reevaluate that. What’s more, if you’ve spent the past several years arguing that a view virtually identical to Wilson’s apparent view was heretical when it was being presented by Revoice speakers, I would suggest you either cast Wilson out in the same way you did the Revoice speakers who articulated his view or that you reconsider your assessment of Revoice. I’m not telling you which you should do. I’m merely asking you to actually read people’s actual words and then be honest about what they said.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).