As an author and pastor, Paul Tripp stands out for me as one of the most passionate about what he does. A few years back I heard him say that before he preaches a sermon to an audience, he will first preach it to himself. For him, it is of vital importance to believe what he is going to preach before he steps on the pulpit.
When I saw his new book Sex in a Broken World: How Christ Redeems What Sin Distorts (Crossway, 2018), I knew I was in for a man who has already been cut to the heart by the very book he has written. I was not disappointed.
As early as the preface of this book, Dr. Tripp notes that finishing this book left him “a sad celebrant,” sad because of the sin and idolatry the book has uncovered in his own life but also celebrating because of the glorious hope of the gospel to redeem what sin set out to distort.
The book, with numerous captivating stories, brings to the open the debate which so many Christians have so long confined behind closed doors. Sex is for us a shameful thing to talk about before our children, or even brothers and sisters, yet this is what has led to things sexual getting out of hand. In eleven carefully written chapters, spanning 187 pages, Tripp identifies the sexual insanity of our age as a problem that needs to be addressed head-on—in the open.
Tripp does a masterful job of investigating the root cause of what he calls “the sexual insanity” of this age. In a theologically balanced, yet compellingly honest tone, he weaves the Doctrine of Original Sin into the narrative. Whereas we may say that our problems with sin—generally and sexual sin—specifically—have their source outside of us, this is very far from the truth. We are the problem.
Because of the events of Genesis 3, none of us was left unharmed. The biggest enemy of my sexuality is me. Aside from the fact that we live in a sexually broken world, we are sexually broken people.
“Your behavior is inextricably connected to the thoughts and desires of your heart. People and situations may be the occasion and location of what you do, but never the cause. So when you have done with sex what God says you should not do, you can’t look outside yourself for explanations. You must look inside. If, as Jesus says, you’ve already committed adultery in your heart, it won’t be long before you commit the act with the members of your body. Here’s what these two diagnostic passages tell us: it is always the sin of thought and desire in your heart that hooks you to the evil in the world in which you live. Your problem when it comes to sex is much deeper than an entertainment and media culture that has simply gone crazy. Your problem is the self-oriented, pleasure-addicted insanity that lives inside you and makes you an easy target for the madness of the society around you. Monasteries and boycotts simply don’t create pure living; never have, never will.” (pp. 60-61)
He then ascertains that our attempts at addressing the problems have been too ineffective. When it comes to the problem of sexual sin, the legalism which we have in the past used to address the problem never works. All through the book, the author reminds his readers of the inability of the law to change anyone’s life:
“God’s law is effective in exposing our moral neediness; it works to give us moral tracks to run on, but it cannot transform us. The law has no ability to make our hearts willing and pure. If it could, the Redeemer, Christ Jesus, wouldn’t have had to come to live and die and rise again in our place (p. 144).
“So when I face the deeper struggle of sexual purity, I am not helped just by getting a greater understanding of my sexual self, a clearer awareness of where I am susceptible to temptation, or a better system of accountability. Those things are helpful, but they easily become a way of asking the law to do what only grace can accomplish.” (p. 145)
When it comes to the real solution, however, Paul Tripp is quick to draw us outside of ourselves. Unlike many of the books on the topic which will ground their recommends in legalistic gymnastics such as moral restraint and spiritual disciplines, Tripp rejects that view. He is well aware that the human heart is totally depraved and therefore it would only be disastrous to seek answers in trying harder and getting better.
“Sanity in this area will never be found in trying harder and doing better, because it’s what lives inside rather than outside of you that you most need to defend yourself against.” (p. 51)
He locates the solution from outside of us and this broken world in which we live. For the author, only Jesus Christ and his gospel have the power to redeem what sin ravages. Our answers, therefore, to horizontal problems can only come to us vertically.
For my part, reading this book didn’t leave me the same. As I slowly went through these sentences, God was revealing before me that sexual sin is not a problem ‘out there’ but one that lurks ‘in here’ (in my heart). The book also punched holes in all my legalistic attempts at sexual restraint.
Above all, Sex in a Broken World pointed me outside and up to God who alone is the answer to the sexual insanity that always contests for the throne of my heart that can only be God’s. The assurance in this book is that there is hope for you and me, as we wait in anticipation of salvation between the already and the not-yet, we don’t wait as those who are hopeless. Our hope is sure and it is grounded in the glorious promises of Jesus Christ.