By Jared Nelson | July 14, 2022
The 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) passed Overture 29 with over 90% of the Assembly voting for it: 1922 to 200. This Amendment now heads to the Presbyteries for consideration, and reads, as amended:
16-4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. While office bearers will see spiritual perfection only in glory, they will continue in this life to confess and to mortify remaining sins in light of God’s work of progressive sanctification. Therefore, to be qualified for office, they must affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.
Overture 29 was in many ways a refinement and replacement for last year’s Overture 23 that narrowly failed to pass the Presbyteries (as Item 2) which read:
16-4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.
While the first section is identical, we can explore how the text has been updated and – given the General Assembly’s greater acceptance of this year’s Overture 29 – improved in the middle and last sections of the proposed amendment.
Middle Section Changes
First, the middle section of last year’s Overture 23 read: “Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction)…”
This verbiage can be confusing to read, perhaps due at least in part to the parenthetical statements. The concern of this section is to describe the relationship of an officer to his indwelling sin. Last year’s Overture 23 prohibited finding identity in our sins (i.e., sinful desires, thoughts, words, behaviors, etc.). Carl Trueman has recently (and notably) connected the concepts of “expressive individualism” with modern concepts of identity. Last year’s Overture 23 intended to clarify that our sense of meaning, purpose, worth, and personhood before God cannot be defined by our sinfulness or sinful desires, but rather with our position as new creations in Christ.
Over the course of the last year, the parentheticals, which contained particular sin identities to illustrate the broad categories, became a source of resistance and confusion for some presbyters. For instance, the example of a “Same-Sex Attracted Christian” has not been a source of cultural identity in the way “Gay Christian” has been connected with Gay Identity.
In its place, this year’s Overture 29 as amended, simplifies this confusing text and the debated particulars by simply stating the principle, “While office bearers will see spiritual perfection only in glory, they will continue in this life to confess and to mortify remaining sins in light of God’s work of progressive sanctification.” The relationship between an officer and his sin is stated, not with reference to “identity,” but with the confessional and biblical language of “confess” and “mortify.” The virtue of this year’s Overture 29 as an improvement over the language of last year’s Overture 23 is that the updated language is consistent with the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality (2020) and the Westminster Standards in how they deal with these concepts. For instance, you can look at the similarities with Statement 3 on Original Sin in the AIC Report (p. 7), as well as the relevant chapters in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) on Sin (6) and Sanctification (13). The language of “mortified” (WCF 6.5, 13.1) is found there as well as the teaching that there is “still some remnant of corruption in every part” (13.2), and yet “the regenerate part doth overcome” (13.3) .
The Confession is clear that sin – in its corrupting influence – persists in saints as they make their pilgrimage through life on this earth, even as the Spirit transforms them. As Thomas Watson put it: “Sanctification and glory differ only in degree: sanctification is glory in the seed, and glory is sanctification in the flower.” That is, Glorification is planted and starts to grow in Sanctification and our time on earth, but glorification is not perfected on earth.
Here, it is worth noting that the language of both last year’s Overture 23 and this year’s Overture 29 express this balance with either the vocabulary of “identity” (23) or the Confession’s language of “confess” and “mortify.” On the other hand, another overture passed by the Assembly this year, Overture 15, proposes to add to the Book of Church Order (BCO) the following statement on the office holder and their sin:
7-4. Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America (emphasis added).
The language of this year’s Overture 15 originally contained the same verb as last year’s Overture 23 (“identify”), but was changed to “describes themselves” in the minority report passed at the General Assembly. Comparing the three Overtures, this year’s Overture 29 employs the biblical and confessional categories of “confess” and “mortify” rather than a debated concept of “identify” from last year’s Overture 23, or the broad “describe themselves” of this year’s Overture 15, which is unclear as to whether or not concepts of identity or confession are implicated in the act of self-description. One must at least concede the virtue of this year’s Overture 29 using the less ambiguous concepts of confession and mortification, as they are clearly defined by their use in our Standards.
Final Section Changes
The other section of this year’s Overture 29 that has major revisions from last year’s Overture 23 is the final section which reads as follows:
Therefore, to be qualified for office, they must affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.
This year’s Overture 29 carries over the concern to address the issue behind words of identity or self-description, namely the matter of sanctification. The language itself is cleaned up from last year’s Overture 23, replacing the prohibition of a “denial” in last year’s Overture 23 with seeking positive “affirmation” of three propositions in this year’s Overture 29. With the last sentence, the proposed amendment (upon successful incorporation into the BCO) would require that an officer “must affirm” three propositions:
- the sinfulness of fallen desires,
- the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and
- be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.
It is worth exploring each of these as a distinct principle that addresses the issues of sexuality that have been raised in recent years.
1 – “the sinfulness of fallen desires”
Recent discussions of sexual sin have been confused on the status of temptations or desires that are not acted upon. There has been wide agreement within conservative theological circles that sexual activity outside of biblical marriage is always sin. Whether the internal temptation, or latent desire, to engage in such activity is itself sin as-such has been disputed. Some Evangelicals have questioned the need to repent of such desires, or even the propriety of labeling such desires “sin.” The AIC report in statements 4, 5, and 6 was clear that, consistent with WCF 6.5, the internal temptations and desires are themselves “properly sin,” and Reformed anthropology and hamartiology have always upheld this doctrine. The phrase “the sinfulness of fallen desires” in this year’s Overture 29 requires candidates to affirm this doctrine.
This year’s Overture 29 thereby retains the broad category of sin and desires, which makes it widely applicable. By naming the category “fallen desires” and stating the relationship earlier as “confess” and “mortify,” this year’s Overture 29 gives a tool for many situations that is not as easily dodged by a list of particulars. While the question many of us are currently asking is, “Can a Christian minister identify as Gay?,” the broader culture has already moved on to identification with other fallen desires such as gender dysphoria/transgenderism, M.A.P. (minor attracted persons), queerness, and more about which we have yet to hear.
In using the principial language of “sinful” and “fallen desires,” this year’s Overture 29 will not soon be obsolete, as the partial list of last year’s Overture 23 was feared to be. The language of this year’s Overture 29, in naming a principle rather than a few particulars, will be useful in the present and in the future. By way of contrast, the language of this year’s Overture 15 takes a different path in naming only one particular sin (homosexual), yet this particular stands alone without a principle of what category this is naming.
Furthermore, this year’s Overture 29 is concerned not merely with the words we use, but also with the reality behind these words, as seen in the second doctrine to be affirmed.
2 – “the reality and hope of progressive sanctification”
One important item within our debates over sexuality has been the issue of “orientation.” Modern secular approaches to sexual desires have generally held that sexual desires are fixed and immutable, largely unable to be changed. The doctrine of progressive sanctification, as expounded in Statement 7 in the AIC Report and Chapter 13 in the Confession holds that progress is made in the Christian life against sinful acts and desires. Said progress, even if imperfect in this life, affects every category of sin. There is no sin that is exempted from the Spirit’s work of progressive sanctification in the life of the believer.
This second proposition helpfully brings the question to the officer candidate to affirm that he does not hold sin (including sinful desires) to be an immutable reality in a Christian’s heart. Upon adoption of the proposed amendment, examining committees across the PCA will have to press candidates to the ministry to avoid antinomian perspectives even while acknowledging that perfection is reserved for the life to come. This leads to the third proposition in this year’s Overture 29.
3 – “be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.”
This statement personalizes the affirmations of this year’s Overture 29 to accept the AIC Report’s Statement 12 on Repentance and Hope, as well as the Confession’s teaching that: “although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13.3).
We are neither Wesleyan perfectionists nor Antinomians in our approach to sin. The above firmly plants us in a fully Reformed and biblical approach to fighting sin. This year’s Overture 29 in its totality accomplishes what last year’s Overture 23 attempted to address, but now in crisper and more timeless strokes.
Does Overture 29 Solve our Current Problems?
All BCO provisions are intended for the aid of Elders in the proper governance of the Church. This year’s Overture 29 seeks to prompt questions in the examination, instruction, and discipline of officers and candidates for office. As theological debate about how best to apply the doctrine of sanctification to modern sexuality has arisen in the Church, one approach emphasizes the issue of language and self-identification.
This is the attraction of this year’s Overture 15, which would likely just prompt one sort of question:
Do you describe yourself as a homosexual?
But this year’s Overture 29 commends a deeper exploration of the root issues, prompting further questions either in an examining committee or on the floor of a Presbytery. The virtue of this year’s Overture 29 is that the corresponding line of inquiry will address deeper issues than any one label, issues which are obvious to careful readers of the AIC Human Sexuality report, advocates for Side B Gay Christianity, or the latter’s most thorough critics who see the deeper root issues. Questions Overture 29 would prompt may include:
- What areas are a current focus of confession and mortification of sin in your life? (Asked particularly in personal interaction or committee)
- Would you find it inappropriate for a congregant, another officer, or yourself to celebrate or to identify with sinful desires rather than to confess and to mortify them?
- Do you affirm that even the desires for sins are sinful, even before those desires are acted on?
- Is there any aspect of your life in which you do not expect the Spirit to make any progress unto the change of your sinful desires and/or the reorientation of your heart away from illicit desires?
- Are you committed to Spirit-enabled victory over your sinful desires? Do you confess Spirit-enabled victory is a reality and appropriate to call believers to?
These questions get to issues that are harder to evade than preferences of self-description. After all, what gain is there if someone uses the right language while being mastered by their sin, without hope of any change or growth?
However, no matter where one falls in analysis of these overtures, no BCO provision actually asks (or forces) these questions or acts on its own volition. Tools are no help to those who do not use them. We must be clear that BCO Amendments do not do the work of the Church for us. Indeed, there is nothing right now prohibiting presbyters from asking the questions above in the course of officer examination, training, shepherding, or discipline.
A Brief Exhortation
This leads me to a brief exhortation, if you might indulge me. If anyone expected last year’s Overture 23, or this year’s Overture 29 (or Overture 15 for that matter) to guard the sheep or to ensure the godly teaching and practice of under shepherds serving in the PCA, they misunderstand the nature of the duties of Elders and the limited utility of BCO provisions. All BCO Amendments are equally weak where Elders want to avoid conflict, are inappropriately creative in their exegesis, and where our spines are weak to do the hard, frustrating, and time-consuming work of church discipline.
Therefore, brothers, if you believe an officer or candidate is disqualified in regards to his relationship to sin because he celebrates his sin, identifies in a manner of profession or modernist expressive identification, does not hold to the Reformed doctrine of progressive sanctification, or is not confessing and mortifying his sin, then brothers, do not be passive. Reject that candidate for ordination. Instruct and discipline, according to Matthew 18 and our Standards. Quit yourselves as men. Be strong in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13). No BCO amendment does the work of churchmen for you.
Yet you may say like Moses: “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice” (Exod. 4:1).
My fellow Elders, “What is that in your hand?” You have the Scriptures, the Westminster Standards, and the BCO. Hopefully, you shall have an additional “specialty instrument” in your hand if this year’s Overture 29 passes. But even now we have what we need to address these errors in our churches and presbyteries. What we absolutely need to have right now is the will to use the tools currently at our disposal. You have to know the issues beyond the surface, and you must be able to discover root problems, that we might be proper physicians of the soul. Spiritual doctors are called to be proficient not only in rejecting or disciplining error, but in applying the means of grace to the proper ailment.
Go to your presbyteries and ask the hard questions of candidates that this year’s Overture 29 prompts, and do not let others shout you down. Go confront any sin that an Elder is celebrating, professing, and expressively identifying with rather than confessing and mortifying. Be strong. This is where the bulk of your energies need to be directed. If this is a problem in your presbytery, you have work to do there first.
So by all means, vote for and advocate for overtures you think will be helpful, but do not think that an overture vote is doing the work of examining candidates, of instructing the brethren, and of disciplining errant officers. What is in your hand? What are you given to do in safeguarding the church? Be doing it. A BCO provision is a tool, but it will not be a churchman for you.
 See Carl Trueman, Strange New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), especially Chapter 1.
 Hereafter referred to as “the AIC Report.”
 Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, reprint edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1979), 168.
Jared Nelson is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, PA.