Q & A

Can the battle against impurity be won?

The struggle to live a pure life is as old as mankind itself. And the type of society in which we live does not make the struggle any easier. Ours has become a sex-saturated culture. Sex is used to sell anything from cars to ice cream. And some of the most popular shows on television have a strong emphasis on immoral living, without any hint that it is sinful. It is portrayed as the norm. As a result people have become like that time in ancient Israel when ‘each man did that which was right in his own eyes.’ Furthermore, the availability of pornography on the Internet has reached a frightening level. A recent survey showed that pornographic sites are getting 250 million hits per month! This is the world in which we struggle to live a pure life.

Is this struggle just too difficult? Are our lives littered with broken promises, defeated resolutions, false starts and moral failures? Is there deliverance for us? Is it possible to live pure lives in an impure world? I believe the Bible teaches that it is.

Called to be Holy

We need frequent reminding of God’s noble and holy calling and his divine purpose for us.

The gospel penetrated the pagan culture of the first century and, like our own society, theirs was also grossly immoral. The Apostle Paul frequently addressed the issue of sexual immorality, reminding the new Christians of the sinful life from which God had rescued them and the purpose for which God had called them. “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality… For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1,7) And Paul warns the Ephesian Christians not to be like the unconverted pagans, which they once were, who have “lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity with a continual lust for more.” (Ephesians 4:19) Finally Paul says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” (Ephesians 5:3)

It is in the nature of man to live a sinful life, to seek to satisfy every desire of the flesh. But God has rescued us and made us his holy people. So how do we live lives that reflect this wonderful truth? How can holy living, holy thinking become a reality in our lives?

It is God’s will that we be a holy people and to that purpose he has called us. So how can we live a holy life and win the battle against impurity?

The answer is found in the sixth chapter of the Roman epistle. The background to the chapter is important. Paul concluded his teaching on God’s grace toward sinners with these words: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” (Romans 5:20) In other words, God’s grace is superabundant; where sin exists, grace is not in short supply. Paul anticipated an unwarranted conclusion some might draw from his teaching on God’s grace: that if God delights in forgiving sin, we should give God every opportunity to be gracious. Paul refutes this by taking us back to our baptism.

Understand Your Baptism

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” (Romans 6:1-5)

Paul is saying it is totally unacceptable to continue living the way we used to live before our conversion to Christ. He reminds us that it was by faith that we participated in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, therefore “we should no longer be slaves to sin” (vs 7) and “count [ourselves] dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (vs 11) And in verse 19 he says, “Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity … so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.” What we once did and what we now do are opposites. Once we lived for impurity, but now we live a life of holiness.

When we were baptised, trusting the death of Jesus for the remission of our sins, we died and buried our old sinful life. We were then raised with Jesus to walk a new life. And because Christ now lives in us through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered and strengthened in the inner man to overcome the devil’s temptations, for “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4) No longer are we slaves to sin obeying the dictates of our former master, the devil. We now have a new master, the Lord Jesus Christ who bought us with his precious blood, setting us free from our former master.

Live Like Free Men and Women

How is this to work itself out in our daily life? Here is an example. Satan tempts us to sin; he puts impure thoughts before us, he tempts us with lust, he entices us with the pleasures of sexual sin, he suggests that we surf the Internet for pornography. Our response to such temptations is to insist that we are no longer his slaves, we no longer belong to him. We have been set free from his rule over our lives. We now belong to a new master, the Lord Jesus Christ and to him alone we owe our allegiance. Simply put, we need to stand up to Satan and not obey what he is telling us to do. And we do that because we now belong to a new master.

The late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explained it this way. When the American slaves were freed by President Lincoln, many continued to live as slaves. They continued to obey their masters even though they were legally free. What they should have done was refuse to obey the orders of their masters, telling them that they once belonged to them but now they are free men and women.

The same happens every time we submit to Satan’s temptation to be impure; we behave like free men and women returning to our old slave master. When Satan tempts us to be impure, let us do what James says: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) Satan has no right to tell us what to do! Furthermore, we are not under obligation to obey him. We now belong to our Lord Jesus Christ and to him alone must we be obedient. As we already mentioned, the Holy Spirit who dwells in us empowers us to win the battle against impurity. This point will be developed in the next section.

It is inconceivable to think that Jesus would give his life for the church, set high standards of holiness and purity for it, and then not leave it with the means to live a holy life. The Lord would be mocking us in expecting us to win the difficult battle against impurity by our own heroic efforts. How then does he enable us to be obedient to these instructions?

  • “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3)
  • “For it is God’s will … that you should avoid sexual immorality… For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7)
  • “… do not think how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:14)

The Power to Win

Having told the Christians in Thessalonica that sexual immorality was to have no part in their thinking or behaviour, Paul concludes by saying, “Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 4:8) God’s Holy Spirit empowers us to win the battle against sexual impurity.

Through the prophet Ezekiel God foretold a time when he would change the hearts of his people. This is referring to the new birth when we become a new creation in Christ Jesus. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27) With a new heart, we are now sensitive to his will. Furthermore, we have the Holy Spirit who moves us with a ‘divine nudge’ filling our heart with holy desires to be obedient. We now find ourselves longing to do the will of God.

Paul picks up the theme of Ezekiel’s words when he tells the Christians in Philippi, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed -not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13) This is one of the most extraordinary statements in Scripture, namely that God, the creator of our world, is at work in us! And what is God doing? He is creating in our hearts holy desires and empowering us to live victoriously over impurity and every other sin. This thought is repeated again in Scripture: “May the God of peace … equip you with everything good for doing his will and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:20-21) We can do God’s will because he equips us for the task. God works into our hearts what is pleasing to him and we work this out in our lives.

Living by the Spirit

To the Roman Christians Paul says, “Do not think how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Romans 13:14) How can we not think impure, lustful thoughts? The Apostle Paul gives us the answer: “Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Galatians 5:16) There are consequences to the way we live: “For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die.” (Romans 8:13a) But Holy living brings vibrant life: “But if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13b) All the willpower in the world will never enable us to live a pure life. Our best efforts are doomed to failure. We are too weak and sin is too strong. But, and this is most important, if we acknowledge to God our own inability and cry out to him to help us never to lust, never to be impure, the power of the Holy Spirit will bring that prayer to a reality in our life. We will, by the power of the Spirit, put to death those evil desires. That’s a guaranteed promise from God.

We don’t have to be immoral in word, thought or deed. We do not have to be a victim of the sinful deeds of the body. Divine power is available to us and it’s there for the asking. Didn’t James say, “You do not have because you do not ask God?” (James 4:2).

There is no doubt that God wants us to live pure lives and has provided divine power for that purpose. Then why do we fail so often? If God is so powerful why as we doing so badly?

Since sins of a sexual nature are pleasurable, we must ask ourselves if we really want to live a pure life. Do we want to give up our sinful ways? When we honestly answer the question we may have to begin by asking God to give us the desire to be pure; sometimes the desire to be pure is absent. Having done that we move on to asking God to help us be pure.

The Persistent Friend

Jesus had encouraging words to say about asking God for help. He told the story of a man who received unexpected guests. Having nothing to set before them he went to his friend to request some bread. It was midnight. His knocking on the door of his friend’s home met with a cold reception: “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” But he was not taking no for an answer. He kept making his request and was eventually given some bread. Jesus said, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is a friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.”

What follows is a very familiar passage to most of us, but it is interesting here to see it in context: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10) He is saying that we must keep on (that is what it literally means) asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking until we get our request. It was not friendship that obtained the bread for “the midnight caller”; it was persistency. And this is how Jesus said we should make our requests to God: be persistent!

Why does God want us to be persistent? Why not grant our request the first time we ask? That’s a fair question. Let me answer by way of an illustration. When your child asks you for a new bicycle, do you immediately buy one for him? Probably not. (And your refusal does not call into question your generosity or your love for your child.) The next day, the next week, the next month he is making the same request. He is persistent; in fact, that’s all he talks about. Soon it will be his birthday. What do you think you will give him for his present? You will give him a bicycle. Why? Because he has demonstrated by his persistency that a bicycle is what he wants.

The Greatest Gift

To further reinforce the point that God wants us to be persistent, Jesus speaks of a father responding with good gifts to a request from his child and says, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:12-13) If good gifts are given by us who are evil, how much more can we expect from our Father who is infinitely holy! Asking the Father for the Holy Spirit is asking that the Spirit’s work become more and more evident in our life. In our request we are saying, “Lord I want my life to be under the Spirit’s control, under his holy influence. I cannot live holy, I cannot keep my thoughts pure, I cannot keep my life free of immorality, I fail repeatedly, I lust frequently, and now I am asking that you do in my life what I am incapable of doing. I want to be everything you have called me to be. And I am asking for help.” And Jesus said that our heavenly Father will hear our prayer and give the greatest gift possible to his pleading child – the Holy Spirit, whose ministry is to enable us live holy and win the struggle against impurity.

No one has to be sin’s permanent victim. We have Jesus’ word on that.

How can we stop lusting?

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

The seventh commandment is clear – “Do not commit adultery”. However, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day took a narrow view of this commandment by limiting it to the physical act of adultery. (They did the same with the commands forbidding murder and stealing.) But Jesus’ statement reveals God’s intent when he gave the commandment on adultery.

Jesus says that adultery is committed not only when the physical act is engaged in, but when a man lusts in his heart after a woman. Immoral thoughts and immoral actions are both a violation of the command, “Do not commit adultery”. A man may never actually commit the physical act of adultery, but he may frequently break God’s law by committing adultery in his heart.

We live in a sex-saturated society where we are confronted every day with sexual material ranging from the mild to the extreme. So how can we live a pure life in such a sinful environment? Jesus tells us.

The Divine Solution

Lust begins in the heart. The eye sees a woman, the gaze is detained, then the heart begins lusting and sin occurs. Peter describes men “with eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning…” (2 Peter 2:14) These men don’t just look at a woman – we all do that – but they look with the intention of lusting after them. The way we keep our heart pure is by controlling what our eyes see. To emphasise this point, Jesus uses strong figurative language: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30) What Jesus is saying is something like this: if you are sinning because of what you are seeing, then start living your life like a person who is blind. Act as if you cannot see. The same is true of your hand; if your hand is used to engage in sinful behaviour, act as if you had no hand. This is the way you deny sinful gratification.

Willpower will not keep us from lusting, but there is a divine way to purity: “It is God’s will,” Paul says, “that you should be sanctified; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable … Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you the Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8) The way we live, the way we think is the result of long established patterns of practice. If lust is a continual problem, it is because we have allowed it to be. We have gotten into the habit of lusting. With God’s help – and it’s there in abundance – we can replace bad habits with good habits. It’s been said and it’s true that “habit overcomes habit.” God wants us to be holy and God has given us the Holy Spirit to enable us to be holy. And by the power of the Holy Spirit we can put to death the sinful deeds of our body and make no provision for the sins of the flesh. With the Spirit’s help, we can avoid lusting.

The case against pornography

The English word ‘pornography’ is derived from two Greek words: ‘porne’ meaning that which pertains to a prostitute and ‘graphe’ meaning writing. Pornography refers to the depiction of illicit sexual behaviour in either words or pictures.

Pornography primarily exploits women, but also creates degrading images of children and men.

Pornography corrupts the mind. The Bible says that our minds should dwell on ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things … and the God of peace will be with you.’ (Philippians 4:8-9) What is there about pornography that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy? Absolutely nothing! There is no way the existence of pornography can be justified in the light of what Scripture has just said.

Harmful: True or False

Sometimes it is argued that explicit sexual images are not harmful in themselves, but the Bible says that we must not even entertain impure thoughts. Jesus said: ‘I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Matthew 5:28) And the Apostle Paul instructs Christians, ‘But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity, or greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.’ (Ephesians 5:3) I like the expression Paul uses – not ‘even a hint’. We often come home and as soon as we enter the hall we get a hint of what’s cooking for dinner. We haven’t entered the kitchen, we haven’t seen the food, let alone tasted it, but the aroma has provided ‘a hint’ of what it is. It’s clear, there must not be even a hint of immorality among us.

We Become What We See

No one can have continual exposure to pornography and not be adversely affected by it. Jesus said, “‘What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'” (Mark 7:20-23)

Those in ministry today are having to deal with more and more people who have become addicted to pornography. The figures are frightening. A survey published in Leadership stated that pornographic web sites in America are getting 50 million hits per month. It’s inescapable; people eventually become what they read and think about. Exposure to pornography is devastating: it pollutes the mind, distorts the truth about sexuality and corrupts the conscience.

For Your Consideration

  • Pornographic images of women, children and men are not excellent or praiseworthy
  • Pornography does nothing positive to enhance society’s view of women
  • Pornography does nothing to promote stability in society and fidelity in marriage
  • Pornography is linked to crimes of sexual violenceRecommended Reading

    Pornography: A Human Tragedy by James Dobson, Charles Colson, C.Everett Koop. Publisher: Living Books, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois. (Dr. James Dobson also has an excellent video on the issue of pornography that is well worth watching.)