Doug Wilson and Concupiscence

Pastor Douglas Wilson recently said some complimentary things about my essay on concupiscence in the new book Ruined Sinners to Reclaim. Thanks, Doug. And thanks to the Gibson brothers and others for putting that big book together. But Pastor Wilson also registered a bit of disagreement. I have not been keeping up with his views on this topic, and it seems like he is in the middle of a dispute with other people. I don’t know who said what or where the lines are, but I was a little surprised to see where he landed by the end of his post.

Pastor Wilson argues that concupiscence is “sin” but not “a sin.” We can see this here:

Now is this situation part of “the motions thereof?” It most certainly is. Is it truly and properly sin? It most certainly is. Is it “a sin?” This is where our disagreement lies. I say no, and Jared Moore says yes. It should not be confessed as a sin, but it should be regarded as an aspect of a corrupted nature (without which she would not be attractive to him), a nature that deserves holy condemnation.


So the issue is not whether concupiscence is sinful. Together with the Reformed tradition, I confess that it is. The issue is what kind of sin it is, and what kind of remedy should be applied to it.

Some of the framing prior to this statement was a little confusing. The portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, should not be interpreted as contrasting true sin (actual transgressions) against only potential sin. Instead, it’s simply contrasting original sin from actual (active) sins. Both are sin. But original sin is one kind of sin and actual sin is a different kind of sin. This connects to categories like “the age of reason” and the role of volition. Still, by the time we get to Pastor Wilson’s conclusion, it seems like he’s in the general ballpark. Concupiscence is sinful and even “sin,” but not “a sin” until acted upon. This could be better explained by using the categories of original sin and actual sin. As long as those are probably understood, this fits somewhere within the spectrum of traditional Reformed views. And yes, there is some diversity to be found. I talk about this in my essay.

But at the very end things get shakier. Pastor Wilson appears to want to attribute internal temptation to Jesus Christ. He writes:

I don’t believe this use of external and internal is helpful at all. It is of course true that Jesus did not experience the internal churn that a fallen sinner does—He did not experience inordinate desire or misdirected loves. But when He was tempted to misdirect His love, was there really no internal aspect to this at all? If all of it is simply external, in what sense can it even be called a temptation?

If I were to drive by a billboard inviting me to drive to the nearest Indian reservation in order to gamble away my paycheck, and the impulse to gamble in that way was left entirely out of my makeup, and so the invitation simply bounced off my forehead, in what sense could I drive home and tell my wife “I sure was tempted”? I was only tempted externally in that I saw the billboard. But that is not temptation, and far from giving me sympathy with those who struggle with gambling fever, it would be likely to have the reverse effect. I would want to say to them, “What’s the fuss about?”

In the context of my essay, I was using categories taken from John Owen to correct the position of Ed Shaw. Pastor Wilson appears to be agreeing with Shaw against the view of Owen. That was surprising, but it’s also an important reminder. These questions are not automatically tribal, and one’s answer does not immediately signal allegiance to a particular cultural group within the broader Church. Still, to press for internal temptation within the sinless humanity of Christ is a mistake. The Reformed tradition, at least, does not allow it.

In the first paragraph I cited just above, Pastor Wilson says that Jesus did not experience “the internal churn that a fallen sinner does.” So far so good. But then in the second paragraph he argues that some sort of “impulse” in one’s “makeup” is necessary for a temptation to truly be a temptation. I do not understand how these two claims are coherent. Would Jesus have had the impulse to gamble? The rhetorical framing suggests that Pastor Wilson’s answer is “yes.” But how does that not contradict what he just wrote prior, that there was no “internal churn”? The following paragraph moves to hunger, but this is not an effective counter-example because hunger is not a sin. Hunger is a natural good. Jesus hungered, because hunger is natural. Jesus did not have an inclination to break his fast, however, because that would be a violation of his oath. These are distinct moral issues. Were Jesus to drive by the gambling billboard, I think we are justified in saying that there would have been absolutely no “impulse” to visit the casino within him. His “makeup” was not such that it would necessarily see a point of attraction there.

A sinless man would recognize any and all inherent “goods” and be rightly attracted to those things. But he would not be inclined to any of the attendant vices. How Adam first moved from integrity to this state of being attracted to sin is one of the deep mysteries with which theologians have wrestled. But it’s not a scenario that any of us will find ourselves in today. An interesting follow-up conversation to this might involve the category of impeccability, being not just “able not to sin” but actually “not able to sin.” This is a state which we will enjoy upon final glorification. At what point was Christ’s humanity thus glorified? I feel like we should go check Bavinck on this.

In my essay on this topic, I conclude that concupiscence is sin and should be repented of, but that as long as it is reigned-over sin rather than reigning sin it can be repented of in a general manner, as one aspect of original sin. As soon as its motions become more specific and begin to actually win over some of desires, however, it should be repented of as a particular actual sin. This can help us to understand some of the more hot-button topics of sexual orientation, but it also applies to the full range of our desires. This might be one of the most universal and practical issues there is. Everyone of us feels this challenge.

By the end of this study, I really understood Luther better. Were it not for the grace of God, none of us would have any chance. Even on our best days. Total depravity is important, not because we need to morosely dwell upon our failures, but because it’s only by understanding it rightly that you can understand what you are saved from. Only by understanding the truth of sin can you see the glory of the Cross.


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