Concupiscence, Pt. 1: The Biblical Use

A three-part series on concupiscence:

  • Part 1: Origins and Biblical Use
  • Part 2: Historical & Theological Use
  • Part 3: Responding to Critics of Spiritual Friendship & Revoice

A disclaimer: Although I am keenly interested in Christian theology, I am not a credentialed theologian. I hold degrees from a Christian institution, but the Christian content included in those curricula was centered much more on worldview formation and the ability to read, think, and converse theologically than on systematic theology. Therefore, I am but a layperson—a layperson particularly interested in the doctrine, dogma, and drama of my fervently held Christian faith, but a theological amateur nonetheless. Because of this, I may have gotten much wrong as I’ve considered the Christian doctrine of concupiscence. If so, please forgive me.


Dr. Greg Johnson, lead pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis, recently tweeted this:

And it’s true: The recent controversy over the Revoice Conference has brought into the limelight a theological term that had fallen somewhat into disuse—concupiscence. For examples of Revoice critics who argue that same-sex attraction or temptation itself—apart from acting on it—is sinful, not morally neutral, see the following:

Before we can respond to these specific criticisms, though, I think it important that we first examine the origins of the word concupiscence and its use by the biblical authors.

Etymology

Modern dictionaries reduce the definition of concupiscence simply to “sexual desire” or “lust,” but the biblical Greek word to which concupiscence owes its etymology had a considerably broader meaning. The English word “concupiscence” is derived from the Latin word concupīscentia, which meant “beginning to desire” and in turn was a translation of the Greek word ἐπιθυμία (epithymia), which Eerdman’s Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament defines simply as “desire, longing.” Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words adds the shadings of “to set the heart upon” and to “earnestly” or “ardently” desire something. Leon Morris writes about the word in his commentary on Romans 1:24: “ἐπιθυμία is Pauline in exactly half its New Testament occurrences (19 out of 38). It denotes strong desire, occasionally for good (e.g., 1 Thess. 2:17), but usually for evil, so that it frequently means ‘lust’.”

Concupiscence in the Bible

Forms of this word (ἐπιθυμέω, ἐπιθυμητής, and ἐπιθυμία) occur 54 times in the New Testament, catalogued here with the translation used in the English Standard Version:[1]

Gospel Accounts
Reference Text Moral Status Commentary
Matthew 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Evil Jesus is condemning lustful thoughts and actions—those involving an actual desire (the most literal translation of the verb epithymeo) to have sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse. Yet despite the danger of overapplying this verse, an even greater danger is that of underapplying it. Adultery among Christians today is a scandal, yet it almost never occurs without precipitation. Christians must recognize those thoughts and actions which, long before any overt sexual sin, make the possibility of giving in to temptation more likely, and they must take dramatic action to avoid them.

—Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew (New American Commentary)

Matthew 13:17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. Good
Mark 4:19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. Evil
Luke 15:16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. Neutral
Luke 16:21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. Neutral
Luke 17:22 And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. Neutral
Luke 22:15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. Good Both of Jesus’ opening statements are strongly worded. “I have eagerly desired” (v.15) represents a strong double construction with a Semitic cast—epithymia epethymesa (lit., “with desire I have desired”).

—Walter L. Liefeld, Luke (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)

John 8:44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Evil
Acts
Reference Text Moral Status Commentary
Acts 20:33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. Evil
Pauline Epistles
Reference Text Moral Status Commentary
Romans 1:24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, Evil By connecting the desires or lusts of man’s heart with uncleanness, he indirectly intimates what sort of progeny our heart generates, when left to itself.

—John Calvin

Romans 6:12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Evil
Romans 7:7–8 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”  But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. Evil Paul’s choice of the commandment he cites in v. 7c, “You shall not covet, or desire” is often thought to reflect his personal history. Gundry, for instance, emphasizing the sexual connotations of “desire,” argues that Paul describes his own awakening to sexual lust as an adolescent. However, Pauline usage dictates a broader meaning of “desire,” encompassing illicit desires of every kind.

—Douglas J. Moo

Romans 13:9–14 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.  The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Evil Paul is not here concerned with the right way of using the body; he is warning against the wrong way. It is this that came home to Augustine in the most famous conversion associated with this passage. Augustine was a highly intellectual person, but found it completely impossible to break away from his sexual sins. But one day when he heard a child at play calling out “Take up and read”, he took up a copy of Romans and his eye fell upon this passage. God used that to bring home to Augustine both the reality of his sin and the reality of salvation in Christ. It can do so still.

—Leon Morris, Romans (Pillar New Testament Commentary)

1 Corinthians 10:6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Evil
Galatians 5:16–24 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Both A regenerate heart . . . is able to experience desires that stem from the presence of God’s Spirit, alongside desires that are the work of the flesh. . . . Redeemed human persons are capable of experiencing holy desire through the Spirit even in the context of desires that emerge from the fallen flesh of their first-creation bodies.

—Nate Collins, All But Invisible

Ephesians 2:3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Evil Whereas the ontological difference is a good gift of our creation, ethical difference came about as a result of the fall, when Adam transgressed the original covenant. In this sense, God is not only qualitatively different from us but morally opposed to us. We are estranged from God by sin. In his righteousness, goodness, justice, holiness, and love, God is outraged by our collective and personal rebellion.

—Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith

Ephesians 4:22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, Evil The lusts, the self-centred desires that belong to that old way of life, are deceitful in that they promise joy and gain but cannot fulfil the promise. The whole Bible, from the story of humanity’s first temptation, presents the persuasion to sin as deceit (cf. Matt. 13:22; Rom. 7:11; Heb. 3:13). It leads to the pollution and the spoiling of what God has made and planned, and in the end causes the doer to perish in it (John 3:16; 2 Thess. 2:10).

—Francis Folkes, Ephesians (Tyndale New Testament Commentary)

Philippians 1:23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. Good His desire for death is expressed with a term connoting a “great desire for something, longing and craving.” Paul used this word to speak of intense cravings of the sinful human nature, the lust of the flesh (Gal 5:16). The same word is used in positive sense to express his strong desire to see believers face to face (1 Thess 2:17). And in this text Paul employs the word desire to express the intense longing he has to depart and be with Christ.

—G. Walter Hansen, Philippians (Pillar New Testament Commentary)

 

Epithymia, desire, is usually used in the New Testament in the bad sense, i.e. evil desire, lust. Its use here is different. The reason for this strong desire is his confidence that death provides the entrance gate to the immediate presence of Christ.

—Ralph P. Martin, Philippians (Tyndale New Testament Commentary)

Colossians 3:5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Evil The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin. . . .

Do you mortify;
do you make it your daily work;
be always at it while you live;
cease not a day from this work;
be killing sin or it will be killing you.

—John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers

1 Thessalonians 2:17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, Good
1 Thessalonians 4:5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; Evil
Pastoral Epistles
Reference Text Moral Status Commentary
1 Timothy 3:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Good
1 Timothy 6:9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. Evil
2 Timothy 2:22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Evil
2 Timothy 3:6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, Evil
2 Timothy 4:3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, Evil
Titus 2:12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, Evil
Titus 3:3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. Evil
General Epistles
Reference Text Moral Status Commentary
Hebrews 6:11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, Good
James 1:14–15 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Evil For James, concupiscence [DESIRE] is our fallen inclination to sin, such that our own corrupt hearts and wills are the authors of sin and it is them we must blame and not God. Concupiscence (original sin) conceives actual sin and actual sin brings death.

—R. Scott Clark, “Concupiscence: Sin and the Mother of Sin” in Modern Reformation

James 4:2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. Evil
1 Peter 1:12–14 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,

Both v. 12: The word long (epithymeō) is used in the New Testament to speak of very strong desires, both good and evil. Here (as in Matt. 13:17; Luke 17:22; 22:15; etc.) it refers to the positive desire of sinless angels. . . . The longing must therefore include a holy curiosity to watch and delight in the glories of Christ’s kingdom as they find ever fuller realization in the lives of individual Christians throughout the history of the church (cf. Eph. 3:8–10).

v. 14: The fact that Peter could give such a command implies that he knew that such desires still remain and have some power in the hearts of true Christians. Yet he also implies that he agreed with Paul (Rom. 6:11, 14; Gal. 5:24) that the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work has broken the ruling, dominating force of those desires, and that it is possible for Christians to have a significant measure of victory over them.

—Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter (Tyndale New Testament Commentary)

1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Evil
1 Peter 4:2–3 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.  For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. Evil
2 Peter 1:4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. Evil
2 Peter 2:10–18 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.

Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones,  whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord.  But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction,  suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you.  They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children!  Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing,  but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.  For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.

Evil
2 Peter 3:3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. Evil
1 John 2:16–17 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. Evil
Jude 16–18 These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.”

Evil
Revelation
Reference Text Moral Status Commentary
Revelation 9:6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. Neutral
Revelation 18:14 “The fruit for which your soul longed
has gone from you,
and all your delicacies and your splendors
are lost to you,
never to be found again!”
Neutral
Conclusions

What do we see from all these examples of concupiscence in the New Testament?

  • Translated by the ESV as:
    • Desire (27 times, three times as sinful desire, once as earnest desire)
    • Passion (14 times)
    • Longing (5 times)
    • Coveting (5 times)
    • Lust (3 times, once as lustful intent)
  • Can indicate an immoral desire (28 times), a moral desire (6 times), an amoral desire (5 times), or both immoral and moral desires in the same passage (2 times)
  • Although concupiscence more often indicates immoral desire, Jesus said that “prophets and righteous people” were capable of it (Matthew 13:17) and his angels also can experience it (1 Peter 1:12). Most startlingly, Christ himself experienced concupiscence (Luke 22:15)!
  • One can experience concupiscence for truly good things, including Christian responsibility (1 Timothy 3:1), fellowship with other believers (1 Thessalonians 2:17), and even to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23)
  • It seems obvious that a central passage to understanding concupiscence is Galatians 5:16–24. There, the concupiscence of the flesh is contrasted with the concupiscence of the Spirit.
    • The concupiscence of the flesh is described as “the works of the flesh”: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (vv. 19–21)
    • The concupiscence of the Spirit leads to the famous virtues we know as “the fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control” (vv. 22–23)
For Future Consideration

Parts 2 and 3 of this series will be a long time coming; as I’ve done this initial research, I’ve realized what a large project this is (and how ill-equipped I am for it!). Please be patient as I work.

  • Part 2: Historical & Theological Use

In Part 2, we will examine the use of concupiscence by Christian theologians, with special emphasis on Augustine and Calvin. We will also unpackage what Galatians 5:16–24 and James 1:14–15 teach us about desire, temptation, sin, and the moral status of concupiscence.

  • Part 3: Responding to Critics of Spiritual Friendship & Revoice

In Part 3, we will examine the arguments of critics of Spiritual Friendship and Revoice. Foreshadowing: No matter how persuasive their arguments on the moral status of concupiscence, how have they forgotten to redirect their own criticism back on themselves?

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:3–5


1. ESV translators’ translation of ἐπιθυμία in bold, any helping adjectives in Greek in italics

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