Posted On April 12, 2020

Idolatry and Sexual Sin 1

“Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister’, and call insight your intimate friend, to keep you from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words” (Proverbs 7:4-5).

Life in this fallen world means that we will face sinful temptations of various kinds, and the Bible notes that one of the most powerful of these is the temptation to sexual immorality. David’s life is an implicit warning to us in this regard. If he, one of the godliest people in ancient Israel, could commit adultery (2nd Samuel 11–12), then surely we should not think that such a sin would be impossible for us to commit. When it comes to the power of this temptation, however, the book of Proverbs stands out in its depiction of how powerfully enticing sexual sin can be. The prologue of Proverbs (chapters 1–9) repeatedly warns against the power and destructive nature of the adulteress.

Proverbs 7 is one of the most explicit warnings from this prologue concerning adultery. Yet, before mentioning the adulteress specifically, the opening verses of this passage exhort the reader to search after wisdom as an intimate friend and bind the commandments on the fingers and heart (Proverbs 7:1-4).

We see here a call to take the lessons of Proverbs and internalize them, to memorize these wise sayings. Knowing and believing these teachings, we read, is the way we will be kept “from the adulteress with her smooth words” (Proverbs 7:5). Sin is seductive and deceptive, especially sexual sin, and the only way to stand fast against it is to know the truths of divine wisdom before we enter into the arena of temptation. Given the teaching of the rest of Scripture, we can broaden the instruction in Proverbs 7:1-5 to cover all of God’s Word and all sin. That is, the critical way to be prepared to resist temptation is to know and trust in the Word of God.

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 calls us to put the law of God on our hearts and to have it on our minds and in our speech at all times. When Jesus resisted the temptations of Satan, He did so by His knowledge of biblical content and its true meaning (Matthew 4:1-11). If even the Savior resisted temptation by knowing the Word of God, how much more do we need this knowledge?

The remainder of Proverbs 7 focuses on the smooth speech of the adulteress and the promises that she cannot fulfill (Proverbs 7:5-20). Of particular note here is her reference to having made sacrifices and paid her vows (Proverbs 7:14–15), a reference to the idolatry of the nations that incorporated cult prostitution into the worship of their gods. By yielding to the adulteress, the young man would be joining with a cult prostitute in idolatrous worship.

The temptation of sexual sin does not, in our day, always present itself as a temptation to idolatry. However, the Bible’s teaching on sexual sin makes it clear that sexual immorality is not only a sin against the body, but it is also a sin against the Lord. To lie with one who is not one’s lawful spouse is to forsake our union with Christ and be joined to another (1st Corinthians 6:15-20). We flee sexual sin not only to protect our families, but also to protect our very souls.

What To Do With Sexual Sin

The first thing to do to flee sexual sin is to turn to the Scriptures. Next, turn to John Owen (never a bad idea!), or some other counselor—dead or alive. But remember that we have not been left only to good human resources in this area. We need to be taught from “the mouth of God”, so that the principles we are learning to apply carry with them both the authority of God and the promise of God to make them work. 

Several passages come to mind for study: Romans 8:13; Romans 13:8-14; 2nd Corinthians 6:14-7:1; Ephesians 4:17-5:21; Colossians 3:1-17; 1st Peter 4:1-11; and 1st John 2:28-3:11. Significantly, only two of these passages in Romans contain the verb “mortify” (put to death). Of equal significance, the context of each of these passages is broader than the single exhortation to put sin to death. As we shall see, this is an observation that turns out to be of considerable importance.

Of these passages, Colossians 3:1-17 is the best place for us to begin. Here we see relatively new Christians, who have had a wonderful experience of conversion to Christ from paganism. They had entered a gloriously new, and liberating, world of grace. Perhaps, if we may read between the lines, we can acertain that these new Christians had felt for a while as if they had been delivered, not only from sin’s penalty, but almost from its influence — so marvelous was their new freedom. But then, of course, sin reared its ugly head again. Having experienced the “already” of grace, they were now discovering the painful “not yet” of ongoing sanctification. Sounds familiar, wouldn’t you say? But as in our evangelical sub-culture of quick fixes for long-term problems, unless the Colossians had a firm grasp of gospel principles, they were now at risk!

For just at this point, young Christians can be relatively easy prey to false teachers with new promises of a higher spiritual life. That was what Paul feared (Colossians 2:8, 16). Holiness-producing methods were now in vogue (Colossians 2:21-22). The Christians at Colosse seemed to be deeply spiritual, just the thing for earnest young believers. But, in fact, “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). Not new methods, but only an understanding of how the Gospel works, can provide an adequate foundation and pattern for dealing with sin, which is the theme of Colossians 3:1-17.

Paul gives us the pattern and rhythm we need. Like Olympic long jumpers, we will not succeed unless we go back from the point of action to a point from which we can gain energy for the strenuous effort of dealing with sin. How, then, does Paul teach us to do this?

First of all, Paul underlines how important it is for us to be familiar with our new identity in Christ (Colossians 3:1–4). How often, when we fail spiritually, we lament that we forgot who we really are — Christ’s bride. We have a new identity. We are no longer “in Adam”, but “in Christ”; no longer in the flesh, but the Spirit; no longer dominated by the old creation, but living in the new (Romans 5:12-21; 8:9; 2nd Corinthians 5:17). Paul takes time to expound this at length in Colossians 3. Consider the following:

  • We have died with Christ (Colossians 3:3)
  • We have even been buried with Christ (Colossians 2:12)
  • We have been raised with Him (Colossians 3:1)
  • Our life is hidden with Him (Colossians 3:3)
  • So united to Christ are we, that Christ will not appear in glory without us (Colossians 3:4). 

Failure to deal with the presence of sin can often be traced back to spiritual amnesia—forgetfulness of our new, true, real identity. As a believer, I am someone who has been delivered from the dominion of sin; therefore free and motivated to fight against the remnants of sin’s sickness in my heart. 

Principles to Fight Sexual Sin

The first principle is simply this: Know, rest in, think through, and act upon your new identity — you are in Christ.

Second, Paul goes on to expose the workings of sin in every area of our lives (Colossians 3:5-11). If we are to deal with sin biblically, we must not make the mistake of thinking that we can limit our attack to only one area of failure in our lives. All sin must be dealt with. Thus, Paul ranges through the manifestation of sin in private life (Colossians 3:5), everyday public life (Colossians 3:8), and church life (“one another”, “here”—that is, in the church fellowship; see Colossians 3:9–11). The challenge in mortification (putting sin to death) is akin to the challenge in dieting (itself a form of mortification): once we begin, we discover that there are all kinds of reasons we are overweight. We are really dealing with ourselves, not merely with calorie control. I am the problem, not the potato chips! Mortifying sin is a whole-of-life change.

Third, Paul’s exposition provides us with practical guidance for mortifying sin. Sometimes it seems as if Paul gives exhortations (“Put to death”; Colossians 3:5) without giving “practical” help to answer our “how to” questions. Often today, Christians go to Paul to tell them what to do and then to the local Christian bookstore to discover how to do it! Why this bifurcation? Probably because we do not linger long enough over what Paul is saying. We do not sink our thinking deeply into the Scriptures. For, characteristically, whenever Paul issues an exhortation, he surrounds it with hints as to how we are to put it into practice. This is certainly true here. Notice how this passage helps to answer our “how to” questions.

  1. Learn to admit sin for what it really is.

Call a spade a spade — call it “sexual immorality”, not “I’m being tempted a little”; call it “impurity”, not “I’m struggling with my thought life”; call it “evil desire, which is idolatry”, not “I think I need to order my priorities a bit better.” This pattern runs right through this whole section of Colossians. How powerfully this unmasks self-deceit and helps us to unmask sin lurking in the hidden corners of our hearts!  

  1. See sin for what your sin really is in God’s presence.

“On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:6). The masters of the spiritual life spoke of dragging our lusts (kicking and screaming, though they be) to the cross, to a wrath-bearing Christ. My sin leads to — not lasting pleasure — but holy divine displeasure. See the true nature of your sin in the light of its punishment. Too easily do we think that sin is less serious in Christians than it is in non-believers (“It’s forgiven, isn’t it?”). Not if we continue in it (1st John 3:9)! Take a heaven’s-eye-view of sin and feel the shame of that in which you once walked (Colossians 3:7; Romans 6:21).

  1. Recognize the inconsistency of your sin.

You put off the “old man”, and have put on the “new man” (Colossians 3:9–10). You are no longer the “old man”. The identity you had “in Adam” is gone. The old man was “crucified with him [Christ] in order that the body of sin [life in the body dominated by sin] might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6). New men and women live new lives. Anything less than this is a contradiction of who I am “in Christ”.

  1. Put sin to death (Colossians 3:5).

It is as “simple” as that. Refuse it, starve it, and reject it. You cannot “mortify” sin without the pain of the kill. There is no other way!

But notice that Paul sets this in a very important, broader context. The negative task of putting sin to death will not be accomplished in isolation from the positive call of the Gospel to “put on” the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14). Paul spells this out in Colossians 3:12-17. Sweeping the house clean simply leaves us open to a further invasion of sin. But when we understand the “glorious exchange” principle of the gospel of grace, then we will begin to make some real advance in holiness.

As sinful desires and habits are not only rejected, but exchanged for Christ-like graces (Colossians 3:12) and actions (Colossians 3:13)—as we are clothed in Christ’s character and His graces are held together by love (Colossians 3:14), not only in our private life, but also in the church fellowship (Colossians 3:12–16)—Christ’s name and glory are manifested and exalted in and among us (Colossians 3:17).

You might have a friend talk with you about their struggle with sexual immorality or another sin issue in their lives. When they ask, “How you are?” be honest, but also be open with them when they talk about their sin issues. As Christians, we are to “one another” each other in our local churches. What I’ve talked about in this article is meant not for you to point the finger at someone else and say, “Why (or how) are you doing at that?” (what was mentioned in the article). The maturing Christian doesn’t point the finger at others, but points the finger at themselves, pleads guilty, then runs in confession and repentance to the Lord (1st John 1:9).

My earnest prayer is that we will be quick to keep short accounts before the Lord and to run to the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

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