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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Lust

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1. Linguistic usage

(1) The English word ‘lust.’-The word ‘lust,’ which, is modern English, is restricted to sexual desire, had originally a wider application and could be used de neutro and de bono as well as de malo of desire in general, and, as Trench says, was ‘once harmless enough’ (NT Synonyms8, 1876, p. 313). The German Lust is still used in this wide sense.

There is no instance in the NT where the English word ‘lust’ is used de bono in the Authorized Version unless we supply the word in Galatians 5:17 -‘the flesh lusteth (ἐπιθυμεῖ) against the Spirit and the Spirit (lusteth) against the flesh.’ The verb is absent in the Greek as in the English. Lightfoot (on Galatians 5:17) thinks that ἐπιθυμεῖ cannot be supplied, as it would be unsuitable to describe the activity of the Spirit by this term. But Rendall is probably right in saying that the word ἐπιθυμεῖ here is neutral and equally applicable to the good desires of the Spirit and the evil lusts of the flesh (Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘Galatians,’ 1903, in loc.). The English word ‘lust,’ however, is scarcely neutral in the Authorized Version , and yet, because there is no possibility of misunderstanding, no other verb is supplied to describe the action of the Spirit. Even the Revised Version has not supplied a different verb in the second clause. This is not to say that the Revisers would consider ‘lust’ a fit word to describe the working of the Spirit.

It is true also that the passage in James 4:5 -‘the Spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy’-is now generally understood of the Indwelling Spirit of God, but it was not so understood by the Authorized Version translators. To them it was the evil, envious spirit of man. The Greek verb used here is ἐπιποθεῖν, which is frequently used in the NT, and always in a good sense. St. Paul uses it of his great longing to see his converts (1 Thessalonians 3:6, 2 Corinthians 7:7; 2 Corinthians 7:11, 2 Timothy 1:4, Philippians 1:8; cf. also Romans 1:11; Romans 15:23). They are to him ἐπιπόθητοι. It expresses the longing of Epaphroditus for the Philippians, and of the Judaea n Christians for the Corinthians who had liberally helped them. St. Paul uses it also to express his longing for heaven (2 Corinthians 5:2), and St. Peter exhorts his readers to ‘desire’ the sincere (?) milk of the word (1 Peter 2:2). The Septuagint uses it of the soul’s longing for God (Psalms 41:2 [English Version Psalms 42:2]). Analogy would thus lead us to suppose that St. James used the word in a good sense. The quotation in which the word occurs cannot be located in the OT with certainty (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9, Ephesians 5:14); otherwise the sense of the word would be beyond dispute. Some suppose that St. James is here quoting St. Paul (1 Corinthians 3:16, Galatians 5:17). The most likely meaning of the passage is: ‘The Spirit which he caused to dwell in us yearneth (for us) unto jealousy.’ The Spirit of God has such a longing desire to possess the whole Christian personality that its passion may well be called holy jealousy. If this be the meaning, the rendering ‘lust’ is erroneous. The Revised Version is not decided on the interpretation, and has substituted ‘long’ for ‘lust.’ Revised Version margin is probably correct.

There is no passage, then, in the NT where the English word ‘lust’ is used de bono.

(2) The Greek word ἐπιθυμεῖν and its cognatcs.-(a) The Greek word ἐπιθυμεῖν with its cognates, although as a rule used de malo, is not always so used. It occasionally takes the place of ἐπιποθεῖν (1 Thessalonians 2:17, Philippians 1:23, 1 Timothy 3:1, Hebrews 6:11), which seems always to be used in a good sense. It is used of the desires of the prophets to see the deeds of the Messianic Age (Matthew 13:17; cf. also Luke 17:22), of the desire of Lazarus to eat of the crumbs falling from the rich man’s table (cf. Luke 16:21; Luke 15:16; perhaps the desire for food or drink or the sexual desire is the ordinary meaning of the word). It is used by the Saviour to express His desire to eat the Paschal feast with His disciples (Luke 22:15), by St. Paul of the desire for the office of a bishop (1 Timothy 3:1), by St. Peter of the holy desires of the angels (1 Peter 1:12), and, in the substantive form, St. Paul uses it of his desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better (Philippians 1:23), and of his longing to see his Thessalonian converts (1 Thessalonians 2:17). The Septuagint also uses it in a good sense (Psalms 102:5 [English Version Psalms 103:5], Proverbs 10:24). In all these cases we have ἐπιθυμεῖν translated by the word ‘desire.’ The word ἐπιθυμεῖν in the Gr. NT is thus much wider than the word ‘lust’ in the Eng. NT, and even ‘lust’ itself in the Authorized Version is not to be restricted to ‘sexual desire’ but is used of unlawful desire in general, the context determining its specific application.

We find the same large use of the word ἐπιθυμία in Plato. Generally with him it means ‘appetite’ in the narrow sense-the motive element in the lowest part of man-yet he uses it also of the other higher departments of the personality. Even the rational soul has its high and lofty desires (Rep., bks. iv. and ix.).

(b) When the word is used without an object it generally refers to evil longings (cf. Romans 7:7; Romans 13:9 [from Exodus 20:14], James 4:2, 1 Corinthians 10:6), not, however, in the restricted usage of sexual lust. The moral colouring is as a rule supplied by the context, either by the mention of the object desired, as in Mark 4:19, 1 Corinthians 10:6, which is the ordinary classical usage, or by the mention of the source of the desire (commonly in the NT) or by a descriptive epithet (Colossians 3:5). This transference of moral colouring from the object desired to the subject desiring is significant. It is in harmony with the NT moral standpoint. Here the stress is laid on the inwardness of morality, and the object of moral judgment is the character (καρδία), rather than bare outward actions, or the consequences of actions. In the NT the desire is morally judged according to its origin, i.e. the originative personality as a whole is dealt with rather than the desire per se. The NT is thus more concerned with change of character than with the reformation by parts of the individual.

‘Scripture and reason alike require that we should turn entirely to God, that we should obey the whole law. And hard as this may seem at first, there is a witness within us which pleads that it is possible.… “Easier to change many things than one,” is the common saying. Easier, we may add, in religion and morality to change the whole than the part.… Many a person will tease himself by counting minutes and providing small rules for his life who would have found the task an easier and a nobler one had he viewed it in its whole extent and gone to God in a “large and liberal” spirit to offer up his life to Him’ (B. Jowett, Interpretation of Scripture and other Essays, London, n.d., p. 321).

The NT, however, does not hesitate to pass judgment on desires per se and on their consequences. We find such expressions as ‘the corruption that is in the world through lust’ spoken of (2 Peter 1:4)-where corruption is the consequence of evil desire. We find the phrase ‘polluting desires’ (2 Peter 2:10). We find pleasures (ἡδοναί) regarded as a turbulence of the soul (James 4:1), as if desires destroyed the balance of the soul (cf. 1 Timothy 6:9, 1 Peter 2:11, Romans 7:23). The NT has no meticulous fear in passing judgment on evil desires and on their consequences. It does not take up the immaculate, fastidious attitude of ‘virtue for virtue’s sake,’ but its point of view is the whole personality, and on this is moral judgment for good or evil passed.

(c) Thrice in the NT we find the word ἐπιθυμία translated by ‘concupiscence.’ This term is a dogmatic one, which has played a large part in theological controversy. It means the natural inclinations of man before these have passed into overt acts. It is different from consilium, which is the ‘deliberata assentio voluntatis’ (so Calvin, Institutes, bk. ii. ch. viii. 49). Two questions of importance arise in connexion with this concupiscence; (i.) What is its origin and nature? and (ii.) What is its relation to responsibility and redemption? The Pelagian theologian tends to identify it with man’s nature as appetitive and in itself morally neutral. What makes the moral difference is the exercise of the will, and the will is free. It may be that there is weakness in man due to the removal of ‘original righteousness’ which Adam had before he sinned, but this removal does not impair human nature and it does not make virtue impossible. To this class of theologians free-will is the important matter. Sin is only conscious sinful actions. This is, generally speaking, the position of Abelard, Arminius, and the Tridentine Council. To Augustine and the Reformers, however, this concupiscence was prior to the individual’s evil volition and in a sense caused it. Free-will was not sufficient to cope with it. The redemption of man was a radical affair, cleansing the whole personality, the will included. Concupiscence is not simply a defectus (morally indifferent) but an affectus of the soul resulting in a positive nisus towards sin in man’s nature. The soul as a whole is deflected from its true centre-God. As regards responsibility for concupiscence, this school distinctly teaches it while the other side denies it. The Reformers did not regard ‘desire’ viewed as a part of man’s ideal nature as ‘evil’; but, as a matter of fact, in actual experience the desires are found to be evil.

‘All the desires of men we teach to be evil, … not in so far as they are natural, but because they are inordinate, and they are inordinate because they flow from a corrupt nature’ (Calvin, Institutes, bk. iii. ch. iii. 12).

During the Middle Ages and in Aquinas concupiscence was identified with man’s sensuous nature. The difference between flesh and spirit was physical. So concupiscence was supremely manifested in the lusts of the flesh interpreted in a sensual fashion.

The NT does not directly deal with these aspects of desire, but its spirit is more in harmony with the deeper analysis of Augustine. As regards responsibility and redemption in relation to concupiscence the Augustinian position is the Pauline. The word ‘concupiscence’ has been omitted altogether by the Revised Version . In Romans 7:8 ἐπιθυμία is translated ‘coveting.’ It means illicit inclinations to follow one’s own will as against God’s law. With the arrival of self-consciousness there is already found in the personality the strong bias to sin which comes to light as man is brought face to face with law. Sin is regarded in a semi-personal fashion as receiving a basis of operation in this bias. The word ἐπιθυμία is thus well translated ‘concupiscence’ in the theological sense of the term. In Colossians 3:5 the English ‘desire’ is sufficient to express the thought, because it is as vague as the original.

(d) In 1 Thessalonians 4:5 the word ἐπιθυμία is used, as the context shows, of ‘sexual lust.’ The use of the term in Judges 1:18 approximates to this but seems to be wider. The same letter (Judges 1:18) ascribes it to impiety. The passage 1 Peter 2:11 approximates closely to this meaning. In 2 Peter 2:18 it means ‘lust’ in our restricted sense. It is equated with σάρκος ἀσελγείαις. See also Apostol. Church Order (ed. Schaff, The Oldest Church Manual, 1885, p. 242), where it is said that ἐπιθυμία leads to fornication.

ἐπιθυμία, then, when used de malo of illicit desires is not wholly restricted to sexual depravity (exc. in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 and 2 Peter 2:18; cf. Judges 1:16), although that is included, and owing to its obtrusiveness could not fail to be included. It means ‘the whole world of active lusts and desires’ (Trench, NT Syn.8, p. 312).

(3) Other Greek words.-(a) The Greek word πάθος is also translated ‘lust’ in 1 Thessalonians 4:5, and ἐπιθυμία is subordinated to it as species to genus. This is the usage of Aristotle, who regards ‘lust,’ anger, fear, etc., as species of πάθος. It is usually maintained that the difference between the two is that πάθος refers to evil on its passive and ἐπιθυία on its more active side. It is impossible, however, to prove this distinction from the NT, although in Galatians 5:24, where παθήματα and ἐπιθυμίαι are found side by side, this distinction makes excellent sense. The words are used in a loose popular sense and not as the exact terminology of an ethical system.

(b) The same is true of the ἡδοναί (James 4:1), which in translated ‘lusts.’ It refers pleasures in general; though sexual pleasures are included, and perhaps form the chief element, eating and drinking would also he meant. ‘A11 men are by nature weak and inclined to pleasures,’ and so injustice and avarice follow (Swete, Introduction to OT in Greek, 1900, p. 567).

(c) Similarly ὄρεξις (Romans 1:27)-a word used sometimes in classical writers of the highest desires-is used by St. Paul of the unnatural sexual lust of heathenism (see Trench, NT Syn.8, p. 314).

2. Genesis, growth and goal of lust

(1) Genesis of lust.-We do not find any attempt to deal psychologically with this problem. What we find is various suggestions and incidental allusions. In John 8:44 the lusts of murder and deceit are traced back to the devil. The idea is the Jewish one that the devil tempted Cain to murder his brother Abel, and that the serpent deceived Eve (cf. 1 John 3:8 ff.). This view that the devil is the originator of lust took various forms in Jewish thought (Sirach 25:23 ff., 2 Esdras 4:30; 2 Esdras 8:35), and there are echoes of these in the NT. St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:10) seems to regard the wicked angels as moved to sensual lust by unveiled women. The existence of an evil tendency (yezer hara) in human nature was a problem for Judaism. Sometimes it was simply referred to the fall of Adam (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23 ff.; cf. Romans 5:12 ff., 1 Corinthians 15:21 ff.), sometimes it was ascribed to the devil, and sometimes to God. The last view is not found in the NT except to be refuted (James 1:13-17). The good tendency (yezer hatob) was without difficulty ascribed to God, but the evil tendency could not be so treated. St. Paul (Romans 7:15-24) simply states these two tendencies and connects the evil with the fall of Adam. Yet there is nothing to encourage the view that man is not responsible. In truth, where St. John mentions the devil (1 John 3:8) as the originator of evil desires, he is opposing the Gnostic view that the ‘spiritual’ man is not responsible for sensual sins. Yet it is certain that the problem of evil is not solved on NT principles by any atomistic view of human personality, and that the redemption of Christ has its cosmic as well as its personal aspects. St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 7:15-24 was open to misunderstanding, but in principle it is the very opposite of libertinism.

Again, the origin of lust is ascribed to the cosmos (1 John 2:15-17). It is whatever is opposed to the will of God. So in Titus 2:12 we read of ‘worldly lusts’ (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). The world is the ‘lust of the flesh,’ the ‘lust of the eyes,’ and the ‘pride of life.’ It is the kingdom of evil as organized in customs and tendencies in human society and human hearts, including also evil spirits. It is found in man as the desires of the ‘flesh and mind’ (Ephesians 2:3), and specifically called the lusts of men (1 Peter 4:2). It might appear as if this ascription of lust to the ‘world’ destroyed personal responsibility, but such is never the case. The law of God recognized by man as good, i.e. as the law of his own conscience (Romans 7:7 ff.), is against such lust, and the Christian command is to love God and do His will. The fact of responsibility is not proportional to ability in the NT, and so redemption is always regarded as primarily of grace.

Similarly, and characteristically, the origin of lust is ascribed to the flesh, i.e. the sinful personality as apart from God. The ‘lusts of the flesh’ mean much more than sensuality. ‘It was not the corruptible flesh that made the soul sinful, but the sinful soul that made the flesh corrupt’ (Aug., de Civ. Dei, xiv. 2, 3). It is true that the body (σῶμα) with its desires (Romans 6:12) was a sort of armoury where sin got its weapons, but the body as such is not the originative seat of evil; otherwise St. Paul’s view of the Resurrection would be meaningless. Platonism looked on the body as the tomb of the soul and as pressing down the soul (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:27), but Rothe is scarcely warranted in making the sensuous nature the primary root of evil (Theol. Ethik2, 1870, ii, 181-7).

Again, the heart is viewed as the origin of evil desires (Romans 1:24; cf. Sirach 5:2). This centres the origin in man’s personality as a whole, not in any one part of the personality. But it is the personality apart from God. So we read in Jude not only ‘their own desires,’ but also (Judges 1:18) ‘their own desires of impieties,’ i.e. evil desires originating in their impious state. A similar thought is found in Romans 1:26 ff. (cf. Titus 2:12). Evil tendencies develop pari passi, with God’s judicial withdrawal.

It might thus appear that those who make selfishness (φιλαυτία) the root of sinful desires are nearest the truth, Philo does so and Plato. ‘The truth is that the cause of all sins in every person and every instance is excessive self-love’ (Laws, v. 731); but in the NT the ‘self’ is not an entity that can be understood apart from the redemption of Christ, and the Christian personality is so complex that we cannot safely limit to any single strand the origin of sin. What the NT is concerned with is not the origin-an insoluble problem-but the abolition of evil desires. Man himself is the moral origin, and the great question is how to redeem sinful man. In other words, those questions are discussed not from the point of view or genetic psychology but from the point of view of redemption.

(2) Growth and goal of lust.-St. James gives a graphic picture of how ἐπιθυμία develops. She is pictured as a harlot enticing man. Like the fisherman she baits her hook, and traps her prey as the hunter does. Then sin is produced, and sin completed brings forth death. It is clearly stated that ‘lust’ is not of God. It is man’s own, and the inference is that man can resist it. There is no mention of God’s grace in the specific Christian sense, although in Judges 1:18 we seem to have this strongly emphasized. Perhaps the writer loosely holds both the Jewish notion of free-will as itself sufficient to resist desire, and the Christian sense of God’s grace. It is possible to restrict the whole passage (James 1:15-17) to sexual lust, but the wider sense is probable.

Clement of Rome (Ep. ad Cor. 3.) gives a long list of evil desires leading to death, but to him strife and envy are characteristically causative of this result, as in the case of Cain (iv.). In the Apostol. Church Order (ed. Schaff, p. 242), lust is pictured as a female demon. It leads to fornication, and it darkens the soul so that it cannot see the truth clearly (cf. Romans 1:26 ff.).

St. Peter associates lust with ignorance (1 Peter 1:14) and St. Paul with deceit, the opposite of ‘truth’ (Ephesians 4:22). Since the time of Plato desire has been regarded by philosophers as aiming at a good (true or false). The end is always viewed sub specie boni. This is an aspect which the NT does not emphasize. But it does say that evil desires leave the soul unsatisfied and produce disorder (James 4:2). It is possible to be always seeking some new thing and never coming to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:6 ff.). Knowledge alone is not sufficient, however, for St. Paul regards the law as both revealing desire and intensifying it (Romans 7:7). Redemption is necessary to cope with evil desires.

The desiring of evil things St. Paul regards as the moral ground of all sinful acts (1 Corinthians 10)-of sensuality both as fornication and idolatry-of unbelief in its varied forms. This desiring does not work in vacuo; it is active in an atmosphere already tainted with idolatry, sensuality, and devilry (1 Corinthians 10:15 ff., 1 Thessalonians 3:5, Ephesians 6:10 ff.). God allows this testing of men, but He also affords a way of escape from it, so that men with this hope can bear up under temptations. The consequence of following one’s own lust is regarded both subjectively and objectively. It produces corruption of the personality, ending in complete φθόρα (Ephesians 4:22; cf. 2 Peter 1:4, where φθόρα is said to be the fruit of lust), whereas the will of God leads to righteousness and holiness. The man who sets his heart on riches falls into many foolish and hurtful desires, and these bring him to the depth of destruction (ὄλεθρος and ἀπώλεια are the inevitable consequences). Lust is also said to pollute the soul (2 Peter 2:10). Besides this, lust brings one face to face with God’s destructive anger against sin (cf. 1 Corinthians 10 and Deuteronomy 32:28 ff.).

It is not possible, however, from the NT to arrange in psychological order the stages in the development of lust. The progress is as varied as life itself. Catalogues of sins are given because these sins are closely connected in actual experience, and in experience the cause is often the effect and the effect the cause.

St. John (1 John 2:15-17) is not to be taken as making the ‘lust of the flesh’ the origin of the ‘lust of the eyes’ and of the ‘pride of possession,’ nor are these a complete summary of sin. They are comprehensive and characteristic, but not necessarily exhaustive. The genitives in this passage are of course subjective, i.e. ‘the lust springing from the flesh,’ etc. Here again the ‘flesh’ is the origin of evil desire-not the body as such, but the sinful personality (Law [Tests of Life3, 1914, p. 149] explains ‘flesh’ otherwise here, but the very fact that the ‘flesh’ is regarded as causing desire is against him). To St. John also the issue of sinful desire is destruction, as it is contrary to the abiding will of God.

To the NT, then, evil desires contaminate, corrupt, and destroy the soul itself and bring upon it God’s punishment. These desires, however, are already proofs of a personality out of order, and to set the desires right the personality must be set right. This is done by the new gracious creation of God through His mercy which operates through Christ. Thus man is made God’s ποίημα by the Spirit. To walk in the Spirit is the privilege of the new creature (Ephesians 2:3 ff.), and in this way he can overcome the desires of the ‘flesh’ (Romans 13:14), and learn to do the will of God.

Literature.-See Thayer Grimm’s Gr.-Eng. Lexicon of the NT, tr. Thayer , under the various Greek words translated ‘Lust’; H. Cremer, Bib.-Theol. Lex. of NT Greek, 1872, pp. 273-278. For the general teaching see C. Clemen, Christl. Lehre von der Sünde, Göttingen, 1897; J. Müller, Chris. Doct. of Sin, Eng. translation , 1877-85, i. 157. For the Jewish Yezer Hara see F. C. Porter in Bib. and Sem. Studies, New York, 1901; W. O. E. Oesterley, in Expositor’s Greek Testament : ‘St. James,’ 1910, pp. 408-413. For Concupiscence see I. A. Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, Eng. translation , 1880-82, Index, s.v. ‘Concupiscentia.’ See also Literature under article Flesh. The various Commentaries are indispensable: Mayor (3:1910) and Carr (Camb. Gr. Test, 1896) on St. James in relevant places, and Plummer on St. John (Camb. Gr. Test., 1886), pp. 154-156. See further articles ‘Lust’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) and ‘Desire’ in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels .

Donald Mackenzie.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Lust'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/l/lust.html. 1906-1918.

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