[Note: This blog is part two of a series. The first part can be found here.
If you are like many people, you will look in your Bible and not see the word concupiscence at all. As in a previous post I made about unicorns in the Bible, much depends on having the right version(s) of the Bible to find words that are translated differently by others. I happened to find the word in my Bible when a speaker was discussing evil desires and the struggles against them and I realized it would be a good idea to explain the concept a bit more, because this word does happen to be present in older English language translations and not in contemporary ones. As I have previously discussed, this loss of a good term to discuss evil desires has come about because of a hostility our present society has to properly recognizing and dealing with evil desires. As it happens, though, the King James Version of the Bible uses the word concupiscence in three passages, and it is worthwhile for us to examine what is meant by that word in context.
Let us therefore first turn to the passage where the word first caught my eye on the Last Day of Unleavened Bread as the sermon speaker was delivering his message, Romans 7:6-13: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” This passage is, of course, part of Paul’s lament about the division that exists in humanity between a will to do what is right and godly that we consciously have and a law within our flesh that is hellbent on doing what is contrary to God’s laws and that is inflamed to evil desire for what is across the boundary lines that God has set in the law. Paul laments the concupiscence, the evil longings, that find something attractive because it is forbidden. The knowledge that something is forbidden can prompt longings for something that would not have been desired as much otherwise, as many governments have found to their sorrow when enacting prohibitions of various kinds.
We next find concupiscence in the KJV when we look at Colossians 3:2-8: “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.” It is noteworthy here what concupiscence is connected to in this particular passage: fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, and covetousness. We may therefore better understand that concupiscence is connected to these strains of sins and faults that deal with misplaced and misdirected longings, desires, and affections. Paul makes it very clear what Christians are to do about these related lusts, and that is to put them to death. If this is hard to do, that is at least what our marching orders are.
Finally, the third passage where we find the word concupiscence used in scripture is 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7, which reads: “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.” Here again Paul connects concupiscence with lust and fornication and uncleanness, and contrasts with honor and sanctification. In Paul’s mind, at least, concupiscence was evil desire that brought uncleanness and dishonor, and that was reason enough to oppose it strenuously because the purpose of a Christian’s walk is to grow in holiness, which is directly opposed to concupiscence.
This leads us to two very basic questions. What Greek word was translated as concupiscence, and what is it translated into now? Let us answer the second question first. The NKJV translated it in 1 Thessalonians 4 as “evil passion of lust,” as “evil desire” in Colossians 3, and as “evil desire” in Romans 7. The NIV translates it as coveting in Romans 7, evil desires in Colossians 3, and passionate lust in 1 Thessalonians 4. Predictably, The Message paraphrase seems to miss the point in all of the passages, failing to discuss the problem of evil desire in any meaningful way and reading Romans 7 with an antinomian gloss. So, where does this word come from in the biblical Greek? As it happens, concupiscence is a translation of the Greek word ἐπιθυμία, transliterated epithumia, which is a compound word of epi (meaning on) and thumia (meaning strong feelings), referring to a passion that is founded on strong feelings. The word is used in the Bible numerous times to refer to lusts but not always negatively. The word is used in a praiseworthy sense in Luke 22:15 when Jesus says to his disciples that He has earnestly desired to eat this Passover with them. For the most part, though, when the word is used it discusses passionate desires that are contrary to God’s ways but deeply felt in the heart of people, which is precisely the sort of situation that concupiscence discusses. Indeed, the word concupiscence itself, and the fact that it discusses passionate longings that are nonetheless wrong, is a reminder that our longings are not the moral standard by which our conduct is to be judged. This understanding, of course, carries with it certain implications, and it is to those implications that we will now turn.