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Are unwanted desires sinful?

July 2019 | by Paul Smith

Last month we contrasted who we are (God’s image bearers) with how we are (scarred by original sin). Rather than defining ourselves and others by the (often sinful) strongest urges we experience, we must embrace the gospel hope of the master restorer. The Spirit of God patiently restores fallen image-bearers to the glorious original: Christ (Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 4:4). He restores the destroyed centre of the image: knowledge, righteousness and holiness. He renews defaced images, changing our desires.

Restoration is gradual. In The Holy War, Bunyan’s city of Mansoul is captured by Diabolus and delivered by Emmanuel. But, even after deliverance, diabolonians remain within Mansoul. ‘Their holes, dens, and lurking places were in, under, or about the wall of the town. Some of their names are, the Lord Fornication, the Lord Adultery, the Lord Murder, the Lord Anger, the Lord Lasciviousness, the Lord Deceit, the Lord Evil-eye, the Lord Blasphemy, and that horrible villain, the old and dangerous Lord Covetousness’. Emmanuel urged Mansoul to drive them out.

God’s people have always been called to learn to war against sin. Enemies remained in the promised land ‘to teach war to those who had not known it before’ (Judges 3:2). In each ‘mansoul’ diabolonians are lurking in different places with different strengths. But our calling is the same — to learn war, to fight indwelling sin by the Spirit’s power.

To fight we must know our enemy, but the devil is a deceiver. He wants us to excuse our sin as who we are when actually it is how we are — especially Bunyan’s ‘old and dangerous Lord Covetousness’.

Why does the tenth commandment forbid coveting your neighbour’s wife when the lustful look is already forbidden by the seventh commandment (Matthew 5:28)? The seventh commandment accents deliberate desire – ‘lustful intent’. The tenth draws in all desire for forbidden things, intentional or unintentional.

Calvin stated: ‘covetousness can exist without such deliberation or consent when the mind is only prickled or tickled by empty and perverse objects’. A man breaks the tenth commandment when a forbidden feeling arises for any woman except his own wife; he breaks the seventh commandment if he dwells on it and again if he acts on it. Grasping the pollution of our heart’s desires (Mark 7:20-23) should quell proud sneering at the desires others struggle with. Fighting, rather than excusing, our heart’s desires liberates us from being defined by how we are in our sin. It drives us to the Spirit to be conformed more to who we are — God’s image bearers, renewed in Christ.

But, hang on, I didn’t ask for that desire! Correct.

So it can’t be sin! Not a sin of commission, but still sin.

But it didn’t come from me! It did, it sprang up in your heart.

But I didn’t ask for it! You didn’t, it’s part of your original sin, the remnants of the old nature.

But that’s how I feel, it’s who I am! As Rosaria Butterfield argues, defining yourself by a sinful desire is a sin of identity which requires repentance.

But that’s new teaching! Not to Paul, Augustine, Calvin or John Owen.

But that’s not fair, I didn’t ask for my sin nature! You were born in Adam but praise God you don’t deserve to be brought into Christ either but you can be!

But it feels so natural! That’s why you must keep in step with the Spirit. The more natural a sinful desire feels, the more it needs to be mortified.

To claim that any desire is unchangeable in this life is to limit the sanctifying power of the Spirit. To demand which desires must instantly be changed at conversion and which may be battled throughout life is to limit the sovereignty of the Spirit. We’ll focus more on his power next month.

Paul Smith Pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Broadstairs, Kent

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