It may sound like a speculative question but a moment’s reflection confirms that it is intensely practical. Can someone disclaim responsibility for their desires to sin? Perhaps they would claim that those desires are part and parcel of a fallen world but not sinful in themselves. Are they free from sinning as long as they don’t act on the desire? These are questions that are currently under intense debate. They need clear answers from the Bible.
It is very clear that our own sinful desires drag us into sinful actions (James 1:13-15). Such desires are all part of “the flesh” (Galatians 5:24). The Lord Jesus Christ makes it clear that the desire to sin is sinful. Sin is not just in the actions but in the heart (Matthew 5:27–28; see Job 31:1). Evil actions and thoughts have their origin in the heart (Matthew 15:18-19; Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 7:16-18).
There are sinful desires (Colossians 3:5). This is what the apostle Paul came to realise when he understood the real nature of the sin of coveting (Romans 7:7). In Romans 7:8 he explains how sin took the opportunity and advantage of the commandment to produce all kinds of sinful desires in him. An older word used for those desires is concupiscence. It is wrong to be a passive slave to these sinful desires as though it is impossible for a Christian to resist them and put them to death. This is also dealt with in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 which warns believers to avoid the sinful desires and passions of the Gentiles who do not know God. It is especially focussed on sexual sin. James Fergusson draws out the full implications of this verse to help us deal with sinful desires.
He explains how that in urging chastity, the apostle Paul shows how far abstinence from fornication (mentioned v3) reaches. It is not just restraining the external act but also the inward lust. The original word signifies a feverish fit or violent passion of burning desire that boils within, raging in the body (1 Corinthians 7:9). It is like a high fever that produces mental confusion. It stirs up both body and mind to the outward act of filthiness. Otherwise Paul says, they would be like the godless Gentiles, who were for the most part given over by God to be enslaved to their filthy lusts because they did not know God savingly. They do not know Him as He is revealed in His Word nor did they make right use of the knowledge they could have of Him by nature. God therefore gave them over to uncleanness (compare Romans 1:21 with 1:24).
1. Sinful desires easily take control
If sinful desires and the first stirrings of lust are not restrained in time they become passionate. They inflame the body and restrain the mind from solid thoughts of anything else except what will fulfil their goal. These violent passions and feverish fits of fleshly sinful desire disable both the body and mind from carrying out any duty of holiness in a way that is honouring to God. Paul shows that sinful desire grows into lust or violent passion and a kind of frenzy, as the word literally means. When lust prevails in this way it is the opposite of possessing the body in sanctification and honour (v4).
2. Sinful desires must be resisted
We ought to be diligent in seeking “to know how” to preserve chastity (v4). This will help to allay and root out those feverish fits of burning lust. Unless they are allayed one way or the other it is impossible for someone to possess their body as master of it. They are rather in daily danger of being enslaved to it to fulfil the utmost of those fleshly lusts burning in it. In requiring everyone to know how to possess their body not in sinful lust Paul implies that they are not in full possession of it otherwise. There is skill and knowledge required for keeping the body free of those boiling passions.
3. Sinful desires are the root of sin
One and the same sin has various degrees, each one making way for the next. When we seek to put a sin to death we must not only lop the utmost branches (refraining from the outward act) but also restrain the inward desires of the heart after it. Paul urges us to set ourselves against the inward
lust or passion, of sinful desire as the best way to abstain from sinful desire breaking out into the outward act spoken of in verse 3.
Paul gives them a clear view of the tyranny of sin and of indulging its loathsome filthiness in others. He shows how it prevailed among the pagan Gentiles to warn them from it, “even as the Gentiles” he says.
Paul elsewhere plainly describes such sinful desires as sinful in the context of same sex attraction (Romans 1:24 and 26). This has become a contested area due to the trends in our culture. The factors and experience that give rise to those desires may be highly complex but the Bible is clear that such desires are nevertheless sinful. Just like any desire to sin, they are not morally neutral in any way. Thos Christians with a lonely, painful struggle against such desires must seek the help of the Spirit to put sin to death (Romans 8:13). Just as much as those who strive against other sinful desires. An important of this is to put on the new man as well as putting off the old (Ephesians 4:22-24). We need to proactively sow to the Spirit or else we will be sowing to the flesh (Galatians 6:8). It is the great calling of the believer to wage spiritual warfare against all sinful desires (Romans 6:11-12; 1 Peter 2:11; 1 Peter 1:14). How much we all need to be on our guard against sinful desires and to be positively putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14).