Lesson 16: Sex, Greed, and Christians (Colossians 3:5-7)Related Media
March 6, 2016
I recently got an email from a woman who had read one of my sermons online. She asked for my counsel regarding a friend who is a part of “a very anointed church where the rich word of God is preached and the rich presence of God descends and the Lord is adding numbers and the church is growing in glory and fame.” But she went on to say that the pastor there “has a weakness,” where he engages in immoral relationships with the inner circle of women disciples.
He invited her friend to be in that circle and then made advances toward her, which she resisted. She excused herself from this team and broke off all contact with this pastor. But her friend was wondering whether it was scriptural to cut off all contact with him, since, in her words, “He is a very, very anointed man whom God is using mightily.” She added that her friend is planning to continue in the same church, as there are not many churches in that part of the world (which, I learned, is India).
I replied that in spite of outward appearances, this man is not in any way anointed by the Holy Spirit. Rather, he is like the false teachers described in 2 Peter 2 and in Jude. I told her that her friend should leave that church immediately and take as many of her friends with her as she can.
But sadly, that same story could be told in just about every country where the church is found, including the United States. We regularly see scandals in the news involving well-known pastors and church leaders. In his recent book, Strange Fire [Thomas Nelson, 2013], John MacArthur documents numerous moral scandals involving various Pentecostal and Charismatic leaders. One such was Lonnie Frisbee, who was instrumental in the early development of both Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard. It finally became public that he had been a practicing homosexual, a fact that had been well-known to his friends and fellow charismatic ministers. He died of AIDS in 1993 (ibid., pp. 60-61, 287, note 8).
Back in 1988, Leadership Journal [Winter, 1988, pp. 12-13, 24] reported that almost one fourth of pastors admitted to doing something “sexually inappropriate” with someone other than their spouse since entering the ministry. Twelve percent specified that the inappropriate behavior was adultery. Twenty percent of pastors said that they looked at sexually oriented media at least monthly (before the Internet existed!). Among readers of Christianity Today (an evangelical magazine), 23 percent of those who are not pastors admitted to having committed adultery.
Since then, moral values in our culture have not improved. Recently, The Barna Group found that 56 percent of people under age 25 think that not recycling is wrong, but only 32 percent think that viewing porn is wrong! The same survey found that nearly half of young people actively seek out porn monthly or more often. In the church, 21 percent of youth pastors and 14 percent of pastors admit they currently struggle with using porn. In light of the 1988 survey that found 20 percent of pastors look at porn at least every month, I suspect that the more recent lower numbers are way underreported.
In addition to sexual sins, the sin of greed is a huge problem in the church. The so-called “prosperity gospel” is thriving not only in America, but all over the world. MacArthur (ibid., pp. 58-59) cites a source that over 90 percent of Pentecostals and Charismatics in Nigeria, South Africa, India, and the Philippines believe that “God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith.” MacArthur rightly states (p. 59),
The prosperity gospel is more morally reprehensible than a Las Vegas casino because it masquerades as religion and comes in the name of Christ. But like the casinos, it attracts its victims with glitzy showmanship and the allure of instant riches. After devouring their last cent, like a spiritual slot machine, it sends them home worse off than when they came.
In view of the immoral, greedy world that we live in, to which many professing Christians have succumbed, Paul’s words in our text dealing with sex, greed, and Christians become quite relevant:
As Christians we must radically separate ourselves from all sexual immorality and greed.
Paul begins this chapter with the sublime theme that we must seek and set our minds on the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, where our life is now hidden with Christ in God. But now he abruptly moves into the seamy subjects of sex and greed! He joins the two subjects with “therefore,” showing that there is a close connection between these two seemingly disjointed themes. He’s saying that the fact of our new identity with the risen Lord Jesus Christ is the basis for a godly life of separation from all sexual immorality and greed. In other words, we need to be in actual practice what God says we are in spiritual truth. If we are in fact raised up with Christ in heaven, we need live like it on earth.
We will look at Paul’s command; the subject of his command; the consequences if his command is disobeyed; and, the hope behind his command.
1. The command: Radical separation from sin.
Usually I like the New American Standard Bible. But here the translators varied from their normal literal approach and took an interpretive approach, relegating the literal translation to the margin. Paul is not saying, “Consider your body dead to sin” (as he does in Rom. 6:11), but rather, “Put to death your members on earth.” The parallel text is not Romans 6:11, but rather Romans 8:13, “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
But what does Paul mean when he says, “Put to death the members which are on earth”? He is using the term, “members which are on earth” as a figure of speech (metonymy, “the use of one thing for another with which it is associated”) to refer to sins which stem from our old nature, but are associated with our bodies. In American English we have a saying, “Don’t give me any of your lip!” We’re using “lip” as a metonymy to represent the words which come forth from our lips. So when Paul says, “Put to death your members on earth,” he means, “Kill all sexual sins and all your greed, which come from your flesh.” Note three things:
A. This is radical terminology!
Paul easily could have said, “Control your sexual impulses.” But instead, he uses shocking, radical language: “Kill your bodily parts when it comes to sexual immorality and greed!” John Owen put it (The Works of John Owen: Temptation and Sin [Banner of Truth], 6:9), “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Curtis Vaughan (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 11:211) says:
The verb ... is very strong. It suggests that we are not simply to suppress or control evil acts and attitudes. We are to wipe them out, completely exterminate the old way of life. “Slay utterly” may express its force. The form of the verb ... makes clear that the action is to be undertaken decisively, with a sense of urgency. Both the meaning of the verb and the force of the tense suggest a vigorous, painful act of personal determination.
I’ve heard Bible teachers say that we already died with Christ, so we don’t need to put ourselves to death. We just need to consider ourselves dead to sin (Rom. 6:11). While that’s one side of the truth, it’s not the entire picture. Paul here is using this radical terminology to say, “Lay hold of your sinful nature, wrestle it down, and nail it to the cross! Nothing short of a violent death will do.” And as often as that old nature squirms off the cross and resurrects itself, nail it back again!
The Lord Jesus used similar radical terminology in the context of talking about the sin of mental lust, which He equated with adultery (Matt. 5:29-30):
If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.
Did Jesus and Paul mean for us to take this literally? No, because cutting off parts of your body doesn’t solve the problem. You could cut out both eyes, but as long as you have a functioning brain, you would still have a problem with lust. Rather, they meant:
B. Get radical in dealing with your sin.
Jesus taught that all sin begins on the thought level (Mark 7:20-23). No guy ever cheated on his wife without first thinking about it. If he had judged it when the temptation popped into his mind, it wouldn’t have gone any further. By tearing out my eye and cutting off my hand, Jesus meant that I must take radical action to kill my sin on the thought level.
Let’s be honest: It’s easy to play games here. You can look godly outwardly, but be entertaining lustful thoughts that no one else knows about. But that’s like tolerating cracks beneath the surface in a dam. Nobody sees those cracks, but sooner or later, the dam will burst and cause a lot of damage. Remember, nobody ever falls into the sin of sexual immorality without thinking about it for some time beforehand.
So putting to death my earthly members with regard to immorality means forsaking and confessing any lustful thoughts the moment they occur. I must immediately separate myself from those thoughts and acknowledge them to God as sin. It means guarding what I look at in magazines. I sometimes tear pages out of magazines because I want to read the rest of the magazine, but I don’t want to keep being tempted by pictures of seductive women. I would not subscribe to Sports Illustrated because of their yearly swimsuit issue, or if I really wanted to subscribe, I’d have my wife intercept that issue and shred it before I could look at it.
For the same reason, I don’t watch movies rated R for explicit sex or nudity. I don’t have time, but if I did I wouldn’t watch many of the shows now on evening TV. I see the ads for those shows while I watch the evening news as I work out, and seeing the short ads tells me, “Don’t watch those shows!” The sad fact is, I can remember sensual scenes from movies years later, but I can’t remember Bible verses that I worked on last week! So I need to get radical in dealing with my sin. Also,
C. This is radical action that I myself must take.
Paul doesn’t say, “Let go and let God deliver you.” He doesn’t even say, “Pray for deliverance from this sin.” He says, “Put it to death!” It’s a command, directed to each Christian. As I stated earlier, the command is based on the truth about our identity in Christ (Col. 3:1-4). Because of who we are in Christ, we are to take this action. And, we are to do it by the Holy Spirit’s power, relying on Him. But then we must take whatever action is necessary, however radical it may be, to kill our sin. As Paul commands (1 Cor. 6:18), “Flee immorality!” It’s a war that you don’t win by standing and fighting; you win by running in the opposite direction! Even though it cost him his job and landed him in prison, Joseph had the right strategy when he left his coat in the hands of Potiphar’s seductive wife and ran away (Gen. 39:12).
God puts the responsibility for active obedience in sexual purity on me. It’s not an impossible command to obey, or God wouldn’t tell me to do it. It’s not opposed to God’s grace, because His grace instructs us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires” (Titus 2:11-12). So the command is that I must take whatever radical action is needed to kill my sinful sexual impulses and greed.
2. The subject of the command: All sexual immorality and greed.
Paul lists four sexual sins plus greed, which underlies all sexual sins, but is much broader, since it includes the desire for material possessions also (I plan to focus on it next week). “Immorality” translates the Greek word “porneia,” a broad term for any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. This includes sex between unmarried partners, adultery, homosexuality, child molestation, and bestiality. Since all those sins begin in the mind, we must avoid any sort of media that tempts us toward those sins.
“Impurity” is similar to “porneia,” but it also includes impurity of thought as well as deed. It reminds us that sexual sin defiles us. If you’ll excuse a gross illustration, you can’t raise a family without, at times, needing to put your hand into a dirty toilet. We used cloth diapers that needed to be rinsed out. Or, sometimes, one of the kids would drop something into a toilet that already needed to be flushed. When you stick your hand into a dirty toilet, it is defiled. You wouldn’t think of then going about the day without washing it thoroughly with soap and hot water. In the same way, sexual sin defiles us and demands God’s immediate cleansing.
The third and fourth words, “passion,” and “evil desire,” are similar. They both focus on the strong inner emotional lure of sexual sin. Paul elsewhere described such feelings as “burning” (1 Cor. 7:9). These words show that these feelings are not easy to deal with—they are powerful and you’re not usually in a calm, rational state of mind when they burn within! But, if you don’t control them, they will enslave and consume you.
The final word in Paul’s list is “greed,” which he equates with idolatry. Other references mention greed in the same context as sexual sin (Rom. 1:24-32, esp. vs. 29; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:3), because greed is the desire for more so that I can fulfill myself without regard for God or for others. It’s idolatry because I am putting myself in the place of God. All sexual immorality has greed as its motive, because it’s based on personal gratification, not on permanent love and commitment to the other person’s good.
The only reason that the so-called “prosperity” preachers have become so popular worldwide is that neither they nor those who follow them have killed their greed. If we had the biblical view that greed is as serious a sin as sexual immorality, would we even tolerate as Christian some clown who waves his diamond rings at us and boasts of his expensive cars and homes and claims that prosperity is our divine right? Have you ever heard of an American Christian being disciplined by the church because of greed? Kent Hughes (Colossians and Philemon [Crossway], p. 97) cites a proverb that is sadly, often true: “If a man is drunk with wine, we kick him out of the church; if he is drunk with money, we make him a deacon!” Yet Paul says that greed is equal to idolatry. We must put our greed to death!
Paul goes on to show the seriousness of these sins by showing where they lead:
3. The consequence if the command is disregarded: God’s wrath.
Colossians 3:6: “For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience” (some manuscripts lack the last phrase, “upon the sons of disobedience,” which a copyist may have added from the parallel Eph. 5:6). It means that those characterized by these sins will face God’s wrath.
We don’t like to focus on God’s wrath in our day. We’d rather focus on His love. But the Bible is full of references to God’s wrath and His judgment on sin. Jesus spoke frequently about hell and judgment, including the verses we looked at earlier about plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand as better alternatives than hell. He called it a place of outer darkness, of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:30), a place of torment and agony (Luke 16:23-24), where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). You cannot say that you follow Jesus and yet reject His teaching about hell.
The Bible often connects God’s judgment with sexual sin and greed. God judged Sodom because of sexual immorality and greed (Gen. 19; Ezek. 16:49). Paul wrote (1 Cor. 6:9-10), “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” Hebrews 13:4 warns, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” Revelation 18 shows Babylon reveling in sexual immorality and greed just before God’s judgment falls.
Those verses should scare you! If they don’t, you may have a warped view of God’s grace. Fear of God’s judgment is a legitimate motivator. It ought to make us think twice before we go with the flow of our sensual, materialistic culture. God’s wrath means that He stands in fierce, settled opposition to such sin. The fact that He hasn’t judged it yet and that evildoers seem to be having a great time doesn’t mean that His judgment is not coming. God gives us such strong warnings because He loves us and doesn’t want us to come to such an awful end. But the warning is clear: those whose lives are characterized by sexual immorality and greed are not God’s people. They stand in danger of His awful wrath! “Do not be deceived” (1 Cor. 6:9)!
But, thankfully, because our text does so, I can end on a note of hope:
4. The hope behind the command: God can deliver those enslaved to lust and greed.
Colossians 3:7: “and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.” “Walked” and “living in them” show that these were not occasional sins, but rather the former way of life for many of these new believers. But the good news is, “walked” and “living” are past tense. As Paul wrote after warning the Corinthians about many sexual sins (including homosexuality) and greed (1 Cor. 6:11), “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
No matter how enslaved to sexual immorality, greed, or any other sin you may be, there is hope if you will come to the cross of Jesus Christ. God’s wrath and love met at the cross. Jesus bore the wrath of God’s judgment on the cross so that God could freely pour out His love on those who put their trust in Christ’s shed blood. As Paul testified (1 Tim. 1:15), “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” No sinner is beyond the reach of God’s grace through the cross! Believe in Jesus and you can be assured of God’s complete forgiveness!
Alexander Maclaren, a 19th century British preacher, illustrated our text by describing a man who was working at a machine and got his fingers caught between the rollers. The machine begins to suck in his hand and in another minute his arm and then his whole body will be flattened to a shapeless, bloody mass. The man grabs an axe lying nearby and with his other arm, hacks off his own hand at the wrist. It’s not easy or pleasant, but it’s the only alternative to a horrible death. (Cited by Vaughan, p. 211.)
It’s a gruesome picture, but it illustrates the truth that we can’t play around with a little bit of sexual sin or greed. If you’re already involved in these sins or even if you’re just secretly entertaining them in your mind, God is telling you what you must do: Cut it off, put it to death, radically separate yourself from it—before it sucks you in to destruction! Do it in light of your new identity in Christ. Do it in the power of the Holy Spirit. But, do it!
- Should Christians fear God’s wrath? Do we take it seriously enough?
- Since we can’t isolate ourselves, how much should we allow ourselves and our children to be exposed to the sexual immorality which permeates our culture?
- How could you practically help a professing Christian enslaved to sexual immorality?
- What are some ways we overlook or even encourage greed? How can we fight it?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation