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Living by Principle, Not Practice

Yesterday I attended a conference here in Taipei by Stephen Tong (唐崇榮). Many people in our church had become quite a fan of him, and so I thought I'd take this chance to hear him speak. The topic was "The Key to Victory over Premarital Love/Sex" (婚前愛與性之得勝秘訣). I was greatly encouraged to see him address this important topic, and to see the huge auditorium of people  filled with people desiring to hear about this topic. 

But towards the end of the third session (the only one I attended), he began an aside on the question of masturbation (自慰), and his answer to this question was basically that it is not always wrong. I was shocked! I disagree strongly with his answer. Yet, his reasoning alarmed me even more.

1) If it's hard to obey, then it's okay

He did not say it in so many words, but he basically said that because avoiding it is so hard, we should not call it absolutely sin (絕對是罪). This argumentation is basically pragmatism. It is refusing to call something sin just because it is hard to obey, rather than searching the Scriptures to find what is sin and what is not.

He told a story of a preacher who called masturbation absolutely sin. Stephen Tong talk to him afterwards and asked if the speaker himself was pure. The speaker replied, "I'm talking about principles." (我在講原則). The audience laughed and Tong had "made his point", but what point had been made? Since when is teaching principles wrong? What else is the preacher supposed to preach, except what God's word says?

If Tong were condemning a self-righteous attitude, then I agree. But his response to the man is, "Why do you put a yoke on their necks that you yourself cannot bear?" His point is to deny that the act is absolutely sin.  

What of struggling against sin? What of Hebrews 12:4, "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood"? Where is Jesus' call to radically deal with sin like Matt 5:29-30, that it's better to cut out your eyes or cut off your hands than to continue in sin! And Jesus was talking about the sin of lust (albiet, speaking hyperbolically)!

Tong did not advocate masturbation outright, of course. He did say it was wrong. He did say that you should ask the Lord for strength to not do it. But he said when people get to a point where they cannot bear it, we should counsel people, "The Lord will understand you." (主會了解你). When I heard him say that, I almost just stood up and left.

That is nothing less than giving divine approval / justification for one's actions. What did Jesus say? Cutting off your hands is better than falling into sin!

2) This is "a yoke our father's couldn't bear"

Tong made an extended reference to Acts 15 as the proof of his position, where Peter says that the law was a yoke that their fathers could not bear, and should not be insisted on as a way to salvation. He then said calling masturbation "sin" is the same thing. Calling it sin absolutely is to put a yoke on the neck of people that is too great to bear.

But the context is quite a different issue! The issue in Acts 15 is about salvation. Read verse 1. False teachers said circumcision / law were necessary to be saved. But Tong did not read the passage aloud that night, he only referenced it. A few verses later (v. 20), the apostles command the Gentiles to abstain from fornication (e.g. masturbation). 

Peter was clearly not against demanding holiness; he was protecting the gospel of grace. Therefore, if one says "you must be pure to be saved", then Acts 15 applies to condemn such teaching. We are indeed saved by grace. But, this text has no relation to whether or not we shall label as "sin" commands that are "hard to obey".

3) Anybody who says otherwise is proud, uncaring, and not real

Tong said repeatedly that anybody who insists on calling masturbation "absolutely sin" is simply proud, uncaring and not real. He insists that such a person only cares about saving face, about their own dignity, and do not desire to really help people. He said such a person is not living in the real world (活在現實).

Again, practice has overridden principle. Just because many people commit this sin, calling it sin makes one "not real". I'm sorry, I thought the Bible was the standard of what is real, and what the Lord demands of us!  

This is just an empty character assault against people who disagree with him. I believe that masturbation is sin, but this has nothing to do with me preserving my dignity! It is because I know how ugly a sin this is, and how strong a grip it can hold on people, and how much it robs people of joy in the Lord and produces overwhelming amounts of shame! 

Related is what really helps people. Does allowing people to commit this sin when it's hard not to really help them? Does saying "Try not to, but if you do, the Lord will understand," really help people? Or does it rather help them to justify their sin and minimize God's grace? 

We should call sin sin, and strive after holiness. As often as we fall, we should repent and weep, and ask for more grace next time. We should not casually say, "The Lord understands me."

4) Calling a desire a "need"

Then there is the issue of calling sexual desire a human "need". He would ask, "Are you going to deny them this need?" "What if nobody ever marries them?" Then, they need to learn self-control and strive after holiness! It is dangerous to think of a desire a need. Sex is a desire, not a need. If you think of it as a need, then you will demand it and do what it takes to get it. 


I agree with Tong's emphasis that people in this sin need help and we should not treat them with a self-righteous, condemning attitude. Yet, I disagree strongly that we should not call sin sin.We live by principle. We live by the Scriptures. Christians are not to be pragmatic. We have no right to decide what is right and wrong outside of the Scriptures!

I fear for his responsibility of having taught this to such a large crowd, and for how many who may have walked away feeling justified in their sin, rather than with a greater desire to mortify it, looking to God's grace.

1Th 5:21, "Test everything."


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Matt Hauck (郝柏昇)

A once enemy now son, forgiven and freed by Jesus' blood, adopted and called by grace for glory.   (more...)

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