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They are as close as our skin, the troika of lusts described by the Apostle John: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16). These inordinate and forbidden longings of the sinner are the fountain of sin, as James points out when teaching that God does not tempt us to sin: “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:14–15 NASB).
The natural man is in bondage to his lusts (Rom. 3:10–18), but at our conversion, because of our union with Christ, we are delivered from the dominion of lusts: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (6:12–14).
God, however, in His inscrutable wisdom, determined to leave within His converted sons and daughters a remnant of sin; and that remnant resides in the lusts. Hence, the same Apostle who announced that we are dead to the dominion of sin chronicled his struggles: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (7:18–19).
We all are well aware of the struggle with the besetting sins of our lusts. They come clothed in lots of different garbs, including materialism, power, and pride. But here I will focus on the problem of sexual lust. We all recognize that sexual failure is an epidemic in today’s church. Hardly a week passes that we do not learn of another church leader who has been exposed in adultery, fornication, homosexuality, or pornography.
Sexual temptations are everywhere; we are bombarded by sexual temptation via clothing (or lack thereof), television, billboards, songs, suggestive language, and solicitations on Facebook. Take, for example, pornography. No longer does a person have to walk into a store and purchase pornographic material—it is as close as the privacy of your computer screen, and it is powerfully addictive.
But do we have to succumb? The answer, as noted above, is no. We are not under the dominion of sin. However, we need to take daily precautions. Foundationally, our families and churches need to foster a culture of chastity, emphasizing sexual purity in thought, dress, language, and behavior. Such a culture begins with parents in the home and office-bearers (pastors and church officers and their wives) in the congregation.
We must carefully use the means of grace—public worship, preaching, prayer, sacraments, fasting, and private and family worship. Above all, we must cling to Christ.
We also need to develop habits that will help guard the heart. In the booklet Impure Lust, John Flavel gave seven directions for dealing with lust:
1. Beg of God a clean heart, renewed and sanctified by saving grace. We must always begin with the heart, for it is the fountain of all else (Matt. 15:19), and God promises to answer our prayers as we pray according to His will (John 14:13–14). We must seek the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.
2. Walk in the fear of God all the day long, and in the sense of his omniscient eye that is ever upon you. How often our behavior is dictated by who is watching. We forget that He sees all.
3. Avoid lewd company, and the society of unclean persons; they are panderers for lust. Evil company corrupts good manners. Remember that this direction not only includes our personal contacts but those we encounter through movies, music, books, magazines, and computers.
4. Exercise yourself in your calling diligently; it will be an excellent means of preventing this sin. You have heard the adage, “Idleness is the Devil’s workshop.”
5. Put a restraint upon your appetite: feed not to excess. This direction does not mean that we may not enjoy God’s good gifts of food and drink, and the pleasure of feasting with friends, but it is a sober reminder that if we pander to our physical appetites in one area, we will be more prone to fall in other areas.
6. Choose a spouse and delight in the one you have chosen. One of the liberating insights of the Reformation is that within marriage, sex is for pleasure and is a God-given protection against unlawful lusts.
7. Take heed of running on in a course of sin, especially superstition and idolatry: in which cases, and as a punishment of which evils God often gives up men to these vile affections (Rom. 1:25–26). Sin inevitably breeds sin.
In these ways, the church may guard her people. Practice and teach these things.