Review: Paul Tripp's Sex in a Broken World

Imagine you’re a stranded early 20th century pedestrian on a back road of Georgia, and you need to get to Atlanta in a hurry. Suddenly a man comes along and says, “You can’t do it on your feet! But guess what, you can use a car! A car can get you there!” Delighted, you say, “Great! How do I operate a car?” But instead of teaching you to drive, the man just goes on and on about how powerful the car is, and how beautiful the car is, and the fact that it can carry you great distances, without really mentioning how to put the key in the ignition and put the gas pedal into action.

As someone who has struggled significantly with sexual sin—particularly in my early years as a Christian—this is how I would have felt after reading Paul Tripp’s latest book, Sex in a Broken World: How Christ Redeems What Sin Distorts.

Let me explain.

It must be stated that there are many things in this book that Tripp does well. For example, there is certainly no book about sex in the Christian market in which God features so prominently. Naturally other Christian volumes take God into good account, but Tripp represents God as big, personal, and ever present. God’s character and motivations are always in view, and no one could escape this read without understanding that Tripp is fully convinced that God in Christ is full bodied and our only hope.

God is that only hope not merely because he is so grand, but because we are so wretched. Tripp walks his readers slowly and convincingly through biblical and real-world evidence that we are our biggest problem when it comes to sex. This is a point that needs to be underlined for most conservative Christians, who love to publicly and privately hand wring over the depravity of the world around us in 2018. Tripp wants to pop this bubble with good-old fashion theological anthropology: we are sinners, and everything we touch we break, no matter our circumstances.

Tripp works wonders here because he doggedly pursues the root of sexual sin, which is ultimately a rejection of God’s authority over us. He works logically through to bring this point out as self-evident by the end. He begins with a rejection of the sacred/secular dichotomy that compartmentalizes sexual behavior, and shows how sex is always a contingent set of acts related to all of a person’s life. Because it is, just like any part of life it must be exercised in God’s way, which is fundamentally relational. Tripp in fact doubles down on this last point, to great effect.

By the closing of the book, the reader has been exposed to dozens of realistic stories of sexual problems, thoughtful biblical theology, and many, many expressions of the gospel truth that only God can save us from our “sexual insanity,” Tripp’s rallying cry. So how does it fall so flat?

While Tripp is explicit about the fact that we are our own problem, and that only taking hold of the gospel can transform us, he fails at explaining how—just like the fictional man praising the car to the pedestrian. For a book to get theology so right yet miscarry on application is heartbreaking. Tripp rebukes us for being so individualistic in our view of sex, but in the end, he’s as helplessly individualistic in his presentation of sanctification.

What do I mean by individualistic? Simply that he affirms that a believer must grasp on to God’s truths as revealed in His word, but he says nothing of service about the other two things Jesus has given us to actualize these promises: His Spirit and His church. Learning a truth can truly be life-changing, but what about when we know a truth that doesn't seem to be penetrating our hearts? God is not limited, he can work with reflection questions at the end of chapters. But he has given us so much more in the Spirit and in each other. So while Tripp doesn't mean to, he will leave many with a functional white-knuckling through sexual sin, despite his good intentions. This is tragic.

There is another way that the book disappoints, which would have been unnoticed fifteen years ago but is inexcusable in 2018: it does not in any way speak to the goodness of God’s design of sexual complementarity nor to the challenges that same-sex attracted believers face, save a one sentence mention of a woman attracted to women near the end of the book. It feels as if the topic is an afterthought to Tripp, which is a luxury the church can’t afford right now. We have failed those in the church who are sexually broken in this way by ignoring them, why perpetuate this? Tripp had such an opportunity to paint a picture of God’s grandness in sex in this area, and he declined.

I have no doubt that Paul Tripp loves Jesus with all his heart and has been a great service to many people in the body of Christ. I have no doubt that this book will sell and encourage. But Tripp can do better—and the church must say so.

*I received an advance digital copy of this book from Crossway for reviewing purposes*