If I were asked to identify the two most dominant features of our society today, I may well opt for (1) unbridled sexual self-indulgence and (2) greed. If there is any justification in that selection, Colossians 3:5 is uniquely relevant for our day.
In this passage Paul gives us the first of two lists of five sins that we are to slay (v. 5a) and strip away (v. 8; it is here that we find the second list). The ESV renders the verse as follows: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” I want to say a few words about the first four, leaving the fifth for our next lesson.
One thing that makes this sequence of sins especially significant is that Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, clearly believed that one can exercise control over one’s desires. One need not slavishly and passively yield to them. Note well: Paul does not say that we should refrain merely from the outward expression of those desires (although that is surely included). Rather, we are exhorted to kill the desire itself. Put to death passion. Put to death evil desire. Put to death covetousness.
Secular theorists find this untenable because they don’t believe a person has any power on which to rely other than the strength of one’s own will. One simply cannot resolve or determine or will oneself to cease desiring. This is especially relevant given the current debate over homosexuality. Many argue that a person is powerless over his/her “sexual orientation.” Such desires, they say, are a given of human nature and cannot be altered or overcome.
But Paul’s counsel is based on his belief that the Christian is energized, animated, and empowered by the Holy Spirit (cf. Col. 1:29)! No desire or passion or urge is so entrenched in the human soul that a person indwelt by the Spirit cannot conquer it. This is confirmed again in v. 7 where Paul reminds the Colossians that they “once walked [in these sins], when they “were living in them” (see also 1 Cor. 6:11). Although they have been delivered from the enslaving power of that lifestyle, they are not yet invulnerable to the temptation to revert to their former ways. Hence Paul’s urgency in commanding them to “slay” and to “strip” such desires from their hearts.
Many contend that you can’t simply choose to suppress certain passions. In fact, they argue that it is psychologically dangerous to attempt any such thing. Venting our desires, giving them full and fetterless freedom, is the counsel we most often hear. “Be yourself! Embrace your longings!” And above all else, never judge or condemn someone for their expression or attempt to find fulfillment of these inward urges.
I’m speaking only for myself when I say that I don’t want to “be myself”! I want to be like Christ. When I look within myself I see evil passions and uncleanness and covetousness and I want nothing of them. These are violations of my true self. These are invasive enemies from which I long to be delivered and over which I am committed to triumph, by the grace of God. I have no desire to affirm all that is within me. I rather choose to oppose it, defeat it, and live in true freedom from its enslaving power. That said, let’s look briefly at the first four.
(1) We are all familiar with this first term, translated “sexual immorality” (ESV). It is the Greek “porneia,” from which we have derived our word “pornography.” This word has a prominent place in the NT. It is the first of the many works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19 and is a practice from which we are commanded to abstain in 1 Thessalonians 4:3. We are to “flee” from it (1 Cor. 6:18) and are told, in no uncertain terms, that no individual who is given to the unrepentant practice of it will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9; cf. Eph. 5:5). Here in Colossians 3:6 Paul declares that it is because of such things as “porneia” that the wrath of God is coming.
“Sexual immorality” (porneia) refers to any and every kind of illegitimate sexual intercourse. Yes, dear friend, there are certain kinds and expressions of sexual activity that are illegitimate! With all due apologies to my politically correct readers (and no such apologies, in fact, are due!), any sexual intercourse under any and all circumstances outside of marriage between a man and a woman is illegitimate, out of bounds, and is one of those things on account of which God’s wrath is most assuredly revealed.
(2) The second sin, “impurity” (cf. 1 Thess. 4:7-8), obviously means sexual uncleanness given its place in the immediate context. Whereas it is from the first term that we get our word “pornography,” it is this word that more appropriately encompasses that contemporary phenomenon (although it cannot be restricted to it).
Pornography is defiling. It stains the soul. It imprints on the mind images that corrupt, pervert, and twist one’s sexuality, as well as one’s perception of the opposite gender. Its addictive and destructive power has been well documented.
“Ah, Sam, you’ve been reading the Puritans too long! You need deliverance from your Victorian, outmoded, and unenlightened views of human sexuality!” Really?
If we are justified in making application of this word to modern expressions of pornography (whether in magazines, videos, internet websites, television, or so-called “gentlemen’s” clubs [what a pathetically twisted use of the word “gentleman”]), and I think we are, this is a matter of eternal importance (see below).
The third word in Paul’s list, translated (3) “passion,” together with the fourth, (4) “evil desire,” give added weight to the point I’m making. Needless to say, we use the word “passion” today, as well as “desire,” to refer to good and honorable and godly yearnings. But in this context, and in view of the adjective “evil” that qualifies the kind of “desire” Paul has in mind, clearly these are all related and most likely have in mind sexual longings that are altogether inappropriate for those who bear the image of God.
Worse than inappropriate, it is “on account of these [that] the wrath of God is coming!” (Col. 3:6). Is that serious enough for you? These are not casual impulses or experiences to be coddled or ignored or justified because “that’s simply part of what it is to be human.” Such behavior merits divine and eternal judgment.
No, I’m not saying that a person who has ever fallen prey to such sexual impurity is going to hell. Rather, Paul has in mind those who have given themselves over to the persistent practice and cultivation of sexual impurity. He is not talking about the man (or woman) who falls, but is broken, contrite, and devastated by the affront that such sin has caused to the purity and dignity of God. He has in view unrepentant, cold-hearted, calloused commitment to a life of sexual impurity.
I have known and ministered to a number of men who are devastated by their addiction to pornography and are determined, with God’s help, to break free of their bondage and are willing to make whatever practical sacrifice is necessary to walk in purity of thought and deed, no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant that sacrifice may be. Their conscience has been pricked by the Spirit and they are quick to confess and repent when they sin.
But to those who choose to live in sexual immorality, impurity, passion, and evil desire, and somehow justify or find excuse for it, Paul promises only divine wrath. Yes, it’s a hard word. No, we can’t afford to ignore it.