The Anatomy of Sexual Sin

In every genre of Scripture, whether it be narrative, Psalms, wisdom or the Gospels and Epistles, warnings against sexual sin are prominent. From Genesis to Revelation, every book of Scripture teaches that believers are to vigorously pursue sexual purity and forewarns against transgressing God’s law in this area. Perhaps the most serious warning is in Revelation 21: 8 “But as for the cowardly, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (ESV). Yet how attitudes in the church have changed to sexual sin! No longer the scandal it once was, it is not so much a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ this sin will happen in the church. We cannot deny that the world’s lax and liberal attitude to sexual sin has permeated the church--to the point that it is now bordering on being accepted as one of the so-called “acceptable sins.”

Perhaps this is because we have lost sight of what a terrible offense sexual sin is in the eyes of God. Following the pattern of the world, the church rarely sees the terrible nature of this sin both in its inherent sinfulness and its destructive nature to those who engage in it. What then can we in the church do to help warn against the epidemic-like spread of sexual sin, especially, though not exclusively, in our young people. First we need to diagnose what sexual sin is, before we can seek to counsel and protect those who are tempted or have fallen. Paul, in Colossians 3:5 does precisely that.

Paul wrote “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness which is idolatry”. Paul is very clear – sexual sin, which is manifested in both thought and deed is actually covetousness, which itself is idolatry. More of that in a moment, but consider the common response of those caught or confess their sexual sin. “We just fell into it,” or “I just wanted someone to comfort me during my trial,” or “it just happened.” Not so, according to Paul. Sexual sin NEVER “just happens,” rather it is the end of a long process which starts with idolatry.

In Colossians 3:5 Paul provides us with a list of sins, all inter-related, that always accompany sexual sin. He starts with the acts of sexual sin - sexual immorality and impurity - and concludes with the cause – idolatry. He works backwards from the outward manifestation to the inner cause. To put it another way, he works from the execution of the sin to its conception. Consider his flow of thought, as we treat it in reverse:

  • covetousness which is idolatry”. This is the root-cause. Those who sin sexually are guilty of committing idolatry, in that they have made a god of sex. It matters not what kind of sexual sin it is - heterosexual, homosexual, pornography - or any other, the first sin is idolatry. That is to say, there has been a coup d’état in the heart of man: God has been dethroned and individual, selfish desire reigns in his place. In this particular coup sex is the new god. The sexually immoral has given him/herself over to what is an unlawful practice in the sight of God. Long before the mouse clicks on an image, or a flirtation, or sexual act takes place, the heart has been taken captive by another god. Notice Paul states that idolatry is related to covetousness. To covet is to lust for something you do not have. In sexual sin, it is to lust for something you should not have. In other words, the sexually immoral person desires something prohibited and enshrines it as god in his own life.
  • The next sin Paul highlights is “evil desire.” Notice we are still in the realm of the heart, not the body. Note that Paul diagnoses sexual sin as an evil desire. To want something that is inherently evil, that is, something which is prohibited by the law of God. To desire such is evil. How many of us pause to think that the glance to the bill-board, or the lingering look, the flirtation with a co-worker or the fantasy of the mind, is in fact, an evil desire. Paul says that once the heart worships sex, it will conceive all manner of evil desires.
  • “passion” – that is living in a manner consistent with the evil desires. It is to be controlled by such desires, so that moderation and abstinence from such thoughts are impossible. To be passionate in sexual sin, is to be controlled by one’s desires for sex. And when one is controlled by sex, sex is your god, and the Spirit of the true God does not rule in you.
  • Moving from internal passions to action Paul states that “impurity” is the natural consequence of such desires. What is impurity? It is the making of something to be less pure, or to put it another way, to be corrupted. In the context in Colossians, Paul is speaking of the Christian. The Christian, who Paul has earlier said “has died to the elemental spirits of the world”, who has “received Christ”, who was “dead in [his] trespasses...God made alive together with [Christ]”, in practicing impurity, is one who pollutes the good work of God in himself and the church. What is impurity? In context, it probably has reference to sexual activity in pagan worship, which had permeated many aspects of life including art and even furniture design (carvings etc). Impurity today would include a participation in practices, events, occasions and environments which flaunt sexual immorality. That would, of course, include certain forms of art, some TV and movies, and events where sexuality is on open show. The Christian is made impure by contact with such. And in Paul’s mind, this is but one step away from the full acts of a sexually immoral life.
  • The final sin listed by the Apostle is that of “sexual immorality.” Porneia in the Greek, from which we get our word pornography. Fornication, adultery, sexual activity outside of marriage, pornography, sexting and so on, would all covered by this term. Here we see the stinking and deathly fruit of sexual idolatry. By the time this is enacted, the heart has lost nearly all sense of personal and sexual propriety, righteous boundaries that once stood firm have been cast down, and the body enacts the will of the heart. Fulfillment and satisfaction are found in the worship of the god of sex.

Sexual sin does not “just happen,” and one does not simply “fall into it.” No, it is the determined process of a heart which has set sex up as its god; a heart which has coveted what does not belong to it (e.g. a neighbour’s wife or daughter)--a heart which has practiced and rehearsed the evil desires of sexual sin; a heart that is seeking to find ways by which it might--stealthily--enact these wicked desires; a heart which has been given over to its passions and cannot fight against them any longer; a heart which will stop at nothing, which is intoxicated by sex, until the uncontrollable urge is satisfied by the practice of sexual immorality. At ground zero, sexual immorality is God-denying. That is the very essence of idolatry. 

This is why the warning of Revelation 21:8 is so serious. Sexual sin is grievous. It is not an indiscretion or a misjudgment, and no matter how circumstances conspire against the Christian, one never has the right to transgress sexually. Sexual sin is sin which condemns to hell.

That is why it is insufficient to simply put outward guards on our own heart, and on the behavior of those engaging in sexual sin. Prohibiting internet access or stopping contact with the “other person” is never simply enough. Those are right and proper precautions of course, but the sexually immoral heart is idolatrous. It needs re-programming, so to speak. It needs realignment from its previous dislocation. In sexual sin the heart has been lost, given over to a false god, enslaved to a cruel and demanding task master who can never be satisfied. This heart needs to come back under the power and freedom of the gospel of Christ.

 For the unbeliever who is sinning sexually,  they need the liberating truth of the gospel of Christ preached to them. They need to be taught of sin, redemption and then liberty from sin. They need to hear that there is One more powerful and blessed and fulfilling than the god of sex.  And to the Christian that is caught in such sin, what do they need? The very same gospel as the unbeliever! Which is precisely how Paul exhorts the Colossians to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you”. Not simply a mere command “don’t do this!” – but what great blessings and realities of which he reminds them!

Dear Christian, the following truths teach us that what we are in Christ does not just get us out of sexual sin--it keeps us out of a lifestyle of sexual sin:

  • Jesus Christ, your Saviour, has made peace with God for you, through the blood of his cross (Col 1:20-22).
  • As you received Jesus Christ, so you are to walk in him (Col 2:6).
  • You are not to be taken captive by any philosophy or idol (Col 2:9), because Christ is not only your head and ruler, but “the head and rule of all authority” (Col 2:10).
  • Your old nature has been put off – and though you were once dead, you are mow alive in Christ (Col 2:11-14).
  • Because you died to your old nature, you need not live as if enslaved to is (2:20). 
  • Because you have been raised with Christ, you should and can seek the things which are above, where Christ is (Col 3:1-2).

THEREFORE, given all this “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you, sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness which is idolatry” (Col 3:5).

Matthew Holst