Happy Friday, everyone. Today, we have a question from a listener named Mary. Actually, I should say we have several questions wrapped into one, from Mary. “Pastor John, hello! I have a hard question, and I’ll articulate as best as I can. The apostle Paul commands Christians to ‘put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.’ We are to put these sins to death because, as Paul says, ‘on account of these the wrath of God is coming’ (Colossians 3:5–6). We are commanded to die to sin impulses that remain in us. So, something earthly remains in us, and yet these same sin impulses, things like ‘evil desires,’ warrant God’s eternal wrath.
“So, is the ground of judgment the acting out of sins, beyond merely harboring the impulse within? Or is this very tendency in us, a diminished but still present earthly desire towards sin’s allure, also ground for eternal judgment? Or is putting to death sin the complete eradication of evil desires from in us? Or is it (by grace) tamping down those desires that will always be there, but not acting out consistently on those impulses? If so, how would that apply to not just the acted-out sins, but specifically to ‘evil desires’?” Whew! What would you say to Mary?
My goodness, those are five good questions. She’s really overflowing with questions, and they really are quite good questions. She asks, “Is putting to death sin the complete eradication of the desires?” And I think I would start with that one because that one’s easy. The answer is no. No, it’s not. If that were the case — in other words, if by the first prayer, by the first act of holiness or act of obedience, we totally eradicated all evil desire in our lives — this passage would read very differently than it does.
Paul would not be writing to Christians to get on with their warfare against sin if that were the case. Colossians 3 is not written as if during your first week as a Christian, you put a sinful desire to death, and then for the rest of your life, you never deal with it. That’s not the way the New Testament reads at all. But to see that, we’d better read these verses.
Away with the Old
Let me read Colossians 3:5–10. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.” — now literally, it says, “Put to death your members that are on the earth,” which is very odd. What it means is that, to the degree that your tongue or arm or sexual organ is about to be taken over by a sinful impulse, treat it as dead and unresponsive. So, let me start over.
Put to death therefore [your members on the earth]: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must [here’s the imperative] put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed [not a done deal] in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:5–10)
“The Christian life is to become what we are — to become in desire and in practice what you are in union with Christ.”
There is a new self — that’s what it means to be born again, to become a new creation in Christ, to be united to Christ so that his life is our life. This is a done reality for all true Christians. And the rest of the Christian life is to become what we are — to become in desire and in practice what you are in union with Christ. Or as Paul says here in Colossians 3, to put off the old self and put on the new self, or put to death the old and to walk in the newness of life.
But there’s no thought here that the absoluteness of the new self implies an absoluteness of emotional or behavioral perfection in this life. So, that question we can just put aside. There is a complete eradication of sinful desire, but that will happen when we die and go to be with Christ, or if he comes back during our lifetime. It’s not going to happen while we’re living in this fallen age.
Behaviors and Desires
Now, the next question that I think is also relatively easy to answer that she asks is this: Is the wrath of God a response to the behavioral outworkings of inner evil desire, or do the desires themselves bring down the wrath of God?
I assume the reason this question feels urgent to Mary is that my answer to the first question, which I think she already knows and agrees with, implies that we still have those old desires that have to be battled with, which raises the question whether the wrath of God is going to come down upon us because of the desires that God hates rising up in us.
Now, the answer to the first part of that question is yes, the wrath of God comes upon both behavioral sin and upon sinful desires that lie beneath those behaviors. And I say that simply because that’s exactly what the text says in Colossians 3:5–6. It says, “put to death,” and then it names five things:
- sexual immorality — various acts of the body contrary to the will of God; sinful sexual bodily actions
- evil desire
- covetousness, which is idolatry
And then it says that “on account of these” five realities — both the actions and the desires — “the wrath of God is coming.” These refers back to all five of those things, the behavior of sexual immorality and impurity, and then three references to desires — passion, evil desire, and covetousness. All three of those last desires precede, and are beneath, behaviors.
And Paul says, “On account of these” — both the behaviors and the desires — “the wrath of God is coming.” Which brings us then to the most urgent question, which I think is implied in what Mary’s asking — namely, “Well, if evil desires continue to rise up in the hearts of born-again people, how will we escape the wrath of God, which is coming up against such desires?” And the answer has two parts.
Evil Desires Forgiven
First, becoming a Christian means that God unites us to Christ by faith so that his death, Christ’s death on the cross, becomes the payment for all of our sins and the ground of all of our total forgiveness for all the sins we will ever do, whether desires or actions.
Just a few verses earlier, Paul said this: “God made [you] alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13–14). So, the entire record of debt for all the sins that we will ever commit — that’s behavior sins and desire sins — was nailed to the cross. That’s just breathtakingly wonderful.
“Wrath comes upon unforgiven evil desire. Christ bore the wrath for forgiven evil desire.”
So, the first answer to the question of why the wrath of God will not fall upon us for the sins of our remaining evil desires is that Jesus paid the penalty for them and secured complete forgiveness. Wrath comes upon unforgiven evil desire. Christ bore the wrath for forgiven evil desire. Therefore, it won’t come upon us because we are forgiven.
Evil Desires Fought
Now, the second part of the answer for why the wrath of God will not fall upon Christians, even though we have remaining sin in us, is just as essential, though not as foundational. The wrath of God will not fall upon true believers because we confirm our union with Christ — and our state of acceptance with God and our forgiveness — by the war we make on our sinful desires.
Many people do not understand this. They think that if they are secure in Christ, then the battle against sinful desires is not essential. Now that’s wrong. It is essential; it’s necessary, because if the battle is forsaken, and we make peace with sin in our lives, then we fail to confirm that we are united to Christ. We fail to confirm that we are a new creation because the new creation in Christ was created for good works, for holiness (Ephesians 2:10). Therefore, the failure to pursue good works, the failure to fight sin in ourselves, to fight for holiness, shows that a person is not a new creation.
Here’s the way Paul says it in Romans 8:13: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” In other words, if the Holy Spirit dwells in you, you will make war on sin in your life, and the result will be the escape from wrath and the enjoyment of everlasting life — not because the warfare against sin provides forgiveness (it doesn’t work like that), but because it shows that we are forgiven, we are in Christ, we are a new creation.
So in summary, no, there is no eradication of all evil desire in this life. Second, yes, wrath is coming upon both sinful behavior and sinful desire. Third, that wrath will only come upon unforgiven sinful behavior and desire, and we confirm that we live in the safety of God’s forgiveness by hating and making war on our sinful desires by the Holy Spirit.