August 16, 2017

A Matter of Worship: The Truth About Sexual Immorality

Steve Thomas

Pastor, I don’t really know where to begin. I guess it all started when I was about twelve. You see, I found some pornography at a friend’s house. Before long, I made every excuse to spend time there so I could rifle through his father’s magazine collection. Through the years it got worse, and now, with the Internet, it all seems out of control. I’m scared.”

These words draw a fictitious composite sketch of men in churches across the country. Pastors hear these sad stories dozens of times. Superficial responses can never bring healing and change to those struggling with sexual sin. We must begin with a strong and often surprising statement: Sexual immorality is a matter of worship.

Idols of the Heart: The True Nature of Sexual Immorality

Those caught up in sexual immorality exhibit an uncanny ability to compartmentalize the various facets of life. They push lust into its own small, carefully guarded room mentally isolated from the other segments of their existence. “I love God and my wife. I regret my occasional secret excursions into sin, but they do not change who I really am.” So goes the rationalization. However, when we look at sexual immorality through the lens of Biblical truth, we gain a different perspective.

Scripture frequently uses sexual expressions as a metaphor for idolatry. For example, Ezekiel 16 unleashes a scathing rebuke against Judah for abandoning God for a love affair with idols. God calls her a harlot and describes her idolatry as fornication, adultery, and whoredom. When we unpack the significance of these terms, they emerge as more than mere figures of speech. Idols wielded seductive power by holding out the promise of fertility and procreation in the worshiper’s family, fields, and flocks. Adoration of idols consisted of ritual prostitution at pagan shrines that littered the landscape of Israel’s high places. In those shrines, metaphor and reality merged in a grotesque form of worship.

However, carved images and rampant sexual activity were mere symptoms. The real problem lurked in the heart. God declared, “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart” (Ezek. 14:3). Victory over lust requires us to define it as God defines it: It is an idol of the heart. The object of lust simply serves as a front for the real focus of worship, namely self. Every time someone indulges in sexual immorality, he or she bows at the altar of self-worship, despising the pleasure of God in the pursuit of personal pleasure. In the end, self-worship will pervade and taint every “compartment” of life.

Living in the High Places: The Ubiquity of Sexual Immorality

In Proverbs, Solomon repeatedly warned naïve, simple young men against setting foot on the path of folly paved with easy money and easy sex—two attractions that merged in the worship of fertility gods. “Reproofs of instruction are the way of life: To keep thee from the evil woman,” he said (Prov. 6:23, 24). The author wove this theme throughout the book because he understood the power and prevalence of sex. When Israel failed to listen to his instruction, pagan shrines multiplied in the high places of the land and served as havens for unbridled lust. “Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot” (Jer. 3:6).

We live in the high places. We hear the seductive call to worship everywhere. The axiom “sex sells” drives the marketing industry so that lurid images beckon to us from billboards and TV commercials. “Sexy” replaced “modesty” as the essential standard for style sometime in the forgotten past—even for many Christians. And then there is the Internet—a private world of explicit fantasy available at the click of a mouse.

Statistics tell an alarming story:[1]

  • The average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references per year on TV.
  • Network TV features sexual content every four minutes.
  • Movies have an 87% likelihood of presenting sexual material.

Another agency[2] reports that:

  • Nine out of 10 children between ages 8 and 16 have viewed pornography on the Internet.
  • 4.2 million pornographic websites exist, featuring 372 million pages.

Yes, we live in the high places. Christians must equip themselves to stand against the idolatrous allurements encountered daily within the home, the marketplace, and the office.

The Rites of Idolatry: Sexual Immorality as an Obsessive Force

Proverbs 5–7 paints a vivid portrait of a youth traveling a pathway near the house of the adulteress. Solomon uses the “pathway” motif to signify a chosen lifestyle of sexual immorality. This pathway has a definite beginning and end, with well defined mile markers in between. The entrance to the path is idle curiosity, for 7:8 describes the youth strolling near her house. Nothing indicates purposeful resolve to commit adultery. Instead we can easily picture a youth who harbors the hope of a secret glimpse—just enough to satisfy curiosity. Sexual immorality always begins this way. No one simply wakes up one day and resolves to become an adulterer. “In order to slip past our consciences, it must begin with small steps of disobedience. . . . When the sentry of our hearts is not vigilant, idolatry is like an instinct.”[3]

We then come to the mile marker of active participation. The youth not only saw the adulteress; she came to meet him (7:10)! What a flush of exhilaration—a thrill far beyond his hopes. Soon her attractions ensnared him: “With her much fair speech she caused him to yield” (7:21). We can almost hear him say, “Only this time.” Anyone who entertains those words soon repeatedly says, “Only one more time,” because the third mile marker is obsessive enslavement. No one anticipates that. Each convinces himself that he has the power to stop whenever he chooses, not realizing that “many strong men have been slain by her” (7:26).

Insatiable escalation marks the next mile. Lust stimulates appetites that nothing can satisfy. Activities that once made the idolater flush with excitement soon become boring. The quest then begins for more explicit pornography. Boundaries get pushed farther and farther. When images fail to satisfy, idols of the heart demand new sacrifices: the worshiper must replace images with reality.

Eventually, the pathway that once held out promise of great pleasure brings every idolater to the same end: painful tragedy. Homes disintegrate. Testimonies crumble. Wealth disappears (5:10). Health withers (5:11). Eyes flow with tears of regret over wasted lives (5:10, 12). “Her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a twoedged sword” (5:4).

Reaping the “Reward” of Idolatry: The Bitter End of Sexual Immorality

Think about this irony: idolaters always set out to use their idols, manipulating them for personal reward, only to have their idols turn on them and become cruel masters. The idolater expects the reward of pleasure only to find that lust, unchecked, brings the “reward” of eternal loss.

The apostle Paul stated the case clearly: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [male prostitutes] nor abusers of themselves with mankind [homosexuals] . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9, 10). He did not mean that Christians who commit these sins lose their salvation. Nor did he mean that a genuine Christian will never commit these sins. Paul went on to say, “Such were some of you” (6:11). In other words, God delivered the Corinthian believers out of that lifestyle. Therefore, if anyone professes faith in Christ, yet refuses to battle lust and cherishes sins of sexual immorality, that one has never come to Christ in genuine repentance. He or she still travels a path that leads to an eternity without Christ.

Toppling the Idols: Breaking the Chains of Sexual Immorality

No one ever achieves immunity from sexual temptation. Only a fool would think so. What should we do, then, to safeguard our hearts? How do we help those who have already put their foot on the wrong pathway? We can only topple idols of the heart by cultivating the right kind of heart. Here are five characteristics of a heart free of idols.

A repentant heart—Develop the habit of repenting over the right issues. Too often repentance focuses on outward deeds, ignoring inward attitudes. This only masks selfishness behind a thin veneer of spirituality to soothe the conscience until the next occasion of sin. To topple the idols one must learn to pray, “Forgive me for valuing my pleasure above Yours, for worshiping the creation rather than the Creator, for despising You by regarding human beings created in Your image as worthless objects, for brazen selfishness and enormous pride, for failure to love others as You have commanded,” etc. God will honor prayers that strip away all superficiality and expose the ugliness of the idols lurking within.

A disciplined heart—Practice the discipline of radical amputation. Jesus said, “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:29). Do you remember the story of Aron Ralston, the man who cut off his right arm with a pocketknife after being trapped by a boulder in a remote mountain canyon in Utah? The story flooded the news wires in May 2003 and stunned the nation with the reality of what a man is willing to do when faced with the choice of life or death. We need to start asking, what are you willing to do to live? Are you willing to sever all immoral relationships? Are you willing to sell the TV that you won’t control? Are you willing to entrust the Internet password to someone else? These things are more important than life and death.

A transparent heart—Establish an accountability relationship. Few people, if any, possess the strength necessary to topple these idols alone. We need help. The command to “bear . . . one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) specifically applies. The spiritually strong must help the spiritually weak. Unfortunately, the shame associated with this sin prevents many from seeking the help they desperately need. The knowledge that a loving brother in Christ will soon look you in the eye and ask the hard questions provides a powerful encouragement to stay off the wrong path.

A thankful heart—Cultivate a spirit of thankfulness. The door to sexual sin swings on the hinges of pride. Some excuse lust as a reward for achievement, while others excuse it as a solace for disappointment. Either way pride dominates the heart, for it says, “I deserve something.” However, pride cannot coexist with thanksgiving. A thankful heart always acknowledges utter dependence on God for every achievement and recognizes God’s grace in times of disappointment.

An enlightened heart—Pursue the knowledge of God with vigor. Paul prayed that the Ephesians would have their hearts enlightened in order to know God better (Eph. 1:17, 18). He wanted them to delight in God’s majestic glory unveiled in His eternal plan for the church. This profound knowledge of God lays the foundation for a life worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1). A worthy life does not even have a hint of sexual immorality (Eph. 5:3). We must keep praying that God will deepen our understanding of His glory, a beauty that shatters the attraction of all idols. May God grant His people the resolve to give attention to our worship so that we might always fulfill the command of the apostle John: “Keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1 John 5:21).


Steven Thomas pastors Huron Baptist Church in Flat Rock, Michigan, where he has served since 1983.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May / June 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. National Coalition.org – former link no longer relevant []
  2. Family First – former link no longer relevant []
  3. Edward Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), p. 69. []


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