A YOUNG MAN SAT ACROSS FROM ME at a large, oak conference table. He was in trouble. He had an ongoing pornography habit that had persisted for years. He had met with an accountability group for the last twelve months, but it didn’t help. Then he met weekly with an individual counselor. For a while he made progress, but then he eventually slid back into his old habits. Every effort to help this young man had terminated in failure.
The elders of the church were concerned. We cared for him. We knew his addiction would ultimately destroy him. The problem was simple: he needed to change, but sometimes it felt like we wanted him to change more than he did. What were we missing?
As we talked deeper I realized that the problem was basic. He lacked faith. At best his faith was lukewarm. At worst it was non-existent. The Bible tells us that genuine faith always produces fruit. It acts because it really believes both God’s promises and threats. But he was not acting. In addition, there is an expression of faith that is crucial for conquering sexual sin. The Bible calls it the fear of God, and he lacked it. “There was no fear of God before his eyes” (Romans 3:18).
The Fear of God
Those who read the Bible fear God. In fact, John Bunyan called the Bible the fear of God. Why? It is full of warnings, and when hose who read the Bible earnestly believe those warnings, they respond.
Fear is an important expression of saving faith. Suppose someone told this young man that the next time he watched porn and masturbated his arm would be instantly severed at the elbow. If he really believed this, you can be sure that, no matter how strong the temptation, he would never engage in that behavior again.
In the same way, God pairs every biblical exhortation to sexual purity with graphic warnings. The problem is that the cause and effect are not always immediate. Because God is slow to anger, and slow to bring judgment it may be several years. In addition, when the pain comes the connection is not always immediately obvious. For example, giving us up to the lust we refuse to quit pursuing is one way his anger expresses itself. When that happens, our conscience dies. Now we are totally snared even while we are convinced that God doesn’t care. (See Romans 1:18-32).
Why does God connect exhortations to sexual morality with fear? The Holy Spirit does this because the fear of God is crucial to sexual purity. In fact, without the fear of God holiness will never be perfected in us (2 Cor. 7:1). This is especially true of sexual immorality.
The conclusion is obvious. Those who really believe these warnings will not engage in sexual sin. I am going to list some of them. I’m not saying this is the only motivation for sexual purity, but I am saying the biblical emphasis suggests that this is where we should start.
Let’s start with Leviticus 18. It prohibits adultery, incest, bestiality, and homosexuality. The point is that the Egyptians, whom you just left, do these things; and the Canaanites,where you are headed, also do these things. But, I have called you to be separate from the nations. You are not to imitate them. If you do the consequences will be dire.
Chapter 20 follows with a list of consequences. Death by stoning is the penalty for adultery, incest, bestiality, or homosexuality.
How about Proverbs five ? Solomon warns his son that the adulteress “is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol…”(Vs. 4-6). Those are strong words: “bitter, sword, death, sheol.” Proverbs six adds that “a married woman hunts down a precious life.” Then it asks, “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes into his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished” (Vs. 26-29).
What about Jesus’ dire warning in the Sermon on The Mount? “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent [think porn] has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:27–30). Some might respond, “this is legalism!” I am saved by faith plus nothing. That’s right. But saving faith believes these promises and acts. If someone doesn’t act it might mean they lack saving faith.
How about the apostle Paul? “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you” (1 Corinthians 6:9–11).
Notice: Paul begins by warning us to not be deceived. Did the early Christians have the same problem that we have? Did they think they could practice these sins without consequences? Also notice: he puts sexual immorality and homosexuality in the same camp with drunkeness, stealing, and greed. In addition, he says, “And such were some of you.” Paul reminds the Corinthians that they were this way before they believed, but now they are new creations. They don’t need to live this way any more. They can put the old man to death. They can change, grow, and become more like Christ with each passing day. This is the normal progress of true conversion.
Later, in the same letter, Paul reminds the church of God’s judgment of the Jews in the Old Testament. “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Corinthians 10:8).
In Galatians Paul takes the same approach. “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality…sensuality…orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19–21). To not inherit the Kingdom of God is synonymous with damnation. It’s a serious matter.
Paul uses the same tactic with the church at Ephesus. “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints… For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” (Ephesians 5:3–6). Again, Paul is concerned that the saints are living in the deception. They have presumed upon God’s grace. They don’t think these sins have significant consequences. Are we deceived in the same way?
How about his warning to the church at Colossae? “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5–6).
In his letter to the Thesalonians Paul pounds the same drum. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–7).
The writer to Hebrews piles on with these sobering words. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
Finally, the book of Revelation adds the coup de grace. “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, 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”” (Revelation 21:8).
I shared these texts, and others like them, to the young man seated before me. I wish I could say he changed. He responded with passivity. He had been deceived. He did not really believe there would be any serious consequences. The real problem wasn’t a lack of will, or determination. It was a lack of faith. The plain truth is these warning were not real to him. He didn’t believe God would judge. He didn’t believe that there would be a solemn and serious price. In addition, he didn’t believe that God’s Spirit would help him change.
This is not the only way to motivate sexual purity. We need to talk much about the undeserved grace inherent in the gospel, how Jesus bore the wrath that we deserve for these sins. However, I am saying it is a good place to start. I am also saying that it seems to be the way the Bible motivates sexual purity, and if this is the emphasis of scripture, it should be ours as well.
Anyone who really believes these texts will DO WHATEVER IS NECESSARY to overcome their problem. If necessary they will get rid of their cell phone and their computer. They will find an accountability partner and confess all. They will call that person when temptation arises. That is how a vibrant, living faith responds!
As always your comments and questions are appreciated.