Andrew Sullivan responds to my “Lust and Jesus Christ” post, which was itself a response to his Newsweek cover story. Into the breach, shall we?:

It’s revealing that for Rod, sex is the first thing that comes to mind after reading my essay. Which kinda proves my point- which is that in the grand scheme of Jesus’ teaching, sex is an extremely minor theme, while the current Catholic and evangelical leadership regards it as a central defining issue.

Please. I responded on this point for several reasons. One, because I don’t disagree with Andrew about Christ’s teachings about wealth, and their relevance to our time. On that stuff, megadittoes, Andrew.

Second, because Andrew himself has made sex and sexuality a defining theme of his own life and writing. It’s interesting how so many liberal Christians accuse conservatives of being obsessed with sex, yet so much of their own writing and activism focuses on sex and sexuality, especially homosexuality. In my old, lily-white Philly neighborhood, there was a mainline Protestant church that posted a banner out front with the rainbow flag, announcing that it was a “welcoming and affirming” congregation. Which is fine, if that’s their thing. I passed that church every day, though, and it finally occurred to me that they never put a banner up announcing that they welcomed black people, or Hispanics. They never put a banner up announcing that they welcomed poor people. For this congregation, being on record as welcoming and affirming gays was a priority. Like I said, if that’s how they roll, that’s how they roll. But I bet every member of that congregation, if polled, would agree that conservative Christians are obsessed with sex and sexuality, unlike themselves.

Third, aside from the prosperity gospel people, who really are a threat to the integrity of Christianity, nobody is trying to deny Christian orthodoxy and Gospel teaching on wealth. There is a powerful movement within Western Christianity, across the various churches, especially at the institutional level, to deny Christian orthodoxy on sexuality, including homosexuality, and radically reinvent the teaching. Andrew Sullivan is an especially articulate, if not especially persuasive, advocate of this view. It just won’t wash. It is radically (= at the root) discontinuous with how Christianity has viewed sex, sexuality, and the human person from the beginning. If Andrew wants to say that we need to realize that Jesus was about refusing power, refusing violence, and spurning wealth as a corrupting, I’m more or less on board with that, as is the Christian tradition. It’s when he claims that Jesus didn’t care about sex that I say, “Oh, come on, who are you kidding?”

Besides which, the reason I got started thinking about Andrew’s essay in the first place was the jarring juxtaposition between the essay claiming that Jesus didn’t really care about sex, so we Christians who insist otherwise should get over it, with Andrew’s posting, apparently with approval, a letter from a reader who hired an ex-porn star whore for birthday sex, and was touched by the porn star’s wanting to write children’s books.

Anyway, onward. Andrew brings up the story of the woman taken in adultery. She was about to be stoned to death by the righteous crowd, but Jesus saves her life making his famous statement: “You who are without sin, cast the first stone.” Here’s Andrew:

My interpretation is that Jesus is warning against believing that because you obey certain religious rules, you are somehow holy. Inside you are probably not. Lust, greed, racism, fear, and tribalism – to take a few aspects of fallen human nature – are innate; and his call is for a total, deep renunication of all of them, not just obeying formal rules like a “certificate of divorce.” This is of a piece with Jesus’ insistence on interior, personal transformation – not just obedience to religious law.

But in so far as this passage is about sex, it is a total impossibility. Not to feel involuntary sexual attraction is not to be human. The standard is impossible. I mean: try it. Try to have no sexual desires, feelings or moments of attraction. Not try to resist acting on them; but resist even thinking them. That’s Jesus’ standard. We all fail that standard. We are all therefore adulterers to different degrees. Any man who has ever had a chubby for someone not his wife is an adulterer. Every celibate priest is an adulterer. The Pope is an adulterer. Every Christian who has ever lived is an adulterer.

Well, yes, I agree! You can live scrupulously by every law of sexual purity your religion teaches, and still go to hell. That’s Jesus’s point throughout the Gospels, and what he means when he calls the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs.” It’s what St. Paul meant in I Corinthians 13, when he says that if you don’t have love, you have nothing. No serious Christian could possibly disagree with Andrew on this.

But here’s Andrew again, citing Jesus from that passage:

Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

This is the Christian model of sexual morality, it seems to me, as it is of morality in general. Jesus poses an impossible standard and then refuses to condemn an actual tangible human being who fails to reach it. Since we are all completely ridden with sin, we equally have no right to condemn anyone else, even if we are living the most upright lives according to the law.  

OK, stop right there. Andrew is right about the danger of condemnation. But he elides over what Jesus meant when he said “go and sin no more.” He told the woman, “Don’t do this thing, because it is sin” — sin being the thing that separates us from God. Her adulterous sexual relations were sinful. As Jesus said, if we have even though lustful thoughts, we are guilty of falling sinfully short of the glory of God. But Jesus did not say, “Look, I wish you wouldn’t do that, but if you do, it’s not really important, you’re not going to be held to account to that.” He told her not to do it again — knowing, surely, that she was bound to fail. He offers forgiveness, if we repent. The key, though, is repentance. If we love Him, we will keep his commandments. He forgives, but we must repent. Why repent if you don’t believe you’ve sinned in the first place? It seems to me that Andrew has taken Jesus’s radical message of forgiveness and turned it into a theological justification for sexual license.

I get this. It’s easy to do today. It’s what kept me from converting for a while. When I was in college, and right out of college, I wanted to be a Christian, and to have the psychological comforts of being a Christian, but I wanted also to keep my sexual freedom. Not that I exercised it often, alas for me, but I still wanted to reserve the right. I was willing to give God all of myself, except that part. I told myself that it didn’t matter much; after all, Jesus didn’t have much to say about sex, did he? But this didn’t work. I was lying to myself. It was impossible to make an intellectually credible case for what I was doing. The one thing that was hard for me, a single American male in his late teens and twenties, to renounce was sexual liberty. To no one’s surprise but my own, my faith did not thrive. Jesus wasn’t the Lord of my life; he was the Lord of as much of my life as I was willing to yield to him. I was worse than the Rich Young Ruler, who walked away sad; I was the Rich Young Ruler, but I tried to stay and convince myself that Jesus had not said what he clearly said. I played this psychological game with myself for years before I finally could no longer hide from the truth. I could choose myself, and my freedom; or I could choose Christ. I couldn’t have both, and I was fooling myself to think I could.

So I had a real conversion. Did that make me an angel? By no means. But I did start going to confession, and trying to repent, and to follow Jesus. I fell. I fell a lot. But I kept going, and taking my medicine through prayer and the Sacraments, including the Sacrament of Confession. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, I started to get well. I gained more control of myself, not by anything I was able to do, but, I believe, simply by getting out of the way of God. I really do believe that God purified my heart enough to be able to recognize the goodness in the woman who would be my wife. I don’t know that I would have been able to have responded to it earlier in my life. It is not true, by the way, that marriage is any kind of “cure” for unchaste thoughts. You have to keep at it, repenting, repenting, repenting, and allowing the grace of God to work on you. I am not the man I was at 25, when I had my conversion. I am not tempted as I once was, but that’s only because I was able to receive God’s healing grace. God did the work, but he wasn’t going to force himself on me. I had to quit standing at the door telling him he could only come in part of the way. The doors opened fully through repentance, which will be a lifelong project for me, and for all serious Christians.

But you do not repent unless you believe you have something to repent of. From my reading of Andrew’s position, it wouldn’t really have mattered had the adulteress of the Gospel gone forth and sinned again, because hey, we’re all sinners, and Jesus doesn’t care much about sex anyway. It’s not an either/or; Jesus was absolutely concerned with self-righteousness and hypocrisy, but that didn’t make him indifferent to sexual sin.

Andrew, in his essay, wants to have both St. Francis and Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant and noble man who, in his intellectual pride, only accepted as much of Jesus as made sense to him. This won’t work, and it won’t work because it can’t work. It is to progressive Christianity as the heresy of the prosperity gospel, or nationalism,  is to conservative American Christianity.

St. Therese of Lisieux wrote:

Don’t think that to follow the path of love means to follow the path of rest, full of sweetness and consolations. It is completely the opposite. To offer oneself as a victim to Love means to give oneself up without any reservations to whatever God pleases, which means to expect to share with Jesus his humiliations, his chalice of bitterness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it better:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. [Emphasis mine — RD] ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

If Jesus was God, like he said, then everything changed. Everything changes. Everything. Anything short of that is cheap grace, is poison to our souls. All of us — certainly I — am tempted by to drink it every single day, because costly grace is hard to swallow. It costs us everything. It may cost us our life. It cost Him his.