Paul vs. Porn: How the Old Apostle Delivers a Death Blow to a Modern Addiction

Why are so many today seemingly hooked on porn—I mean, other than the seductive naked people?

More than one in three (39%) Christian men and one in eight (13%) Christian women say they believe their use of porn is “excessive.” Many of these would describe their use as “addictive.” Leaving aside the medical question of what “addiction” actually is, it seems many Christians feel their use of porn is not merely sinful, but out of control.

Addiction is an ugly thing. When that familiar craving comes, it seems to wash over us like a wave of compulsion. The heart begins to race, the blood pressure rises, and the mind is consumed with one nagging thought: “Just one more time.”

And the million-dollar question every addict has is this: How do I make it stop?

The Apostle Paul answers this question in Romans 6.

Addiction as Sin-Slavery

Long before the word “addiction” was adopted by 20th century medicine, the word had a different flavor—the term was not necessarily medical. The 1884 Oxford English Dictionary said addiction was “the state or condition of being dedicated or devoted to a thing, esp. an activity or occupation; adherence or attachment, esp. of an immoderate or compulsive kind.”

For many, this is how they feel about pornography: they feel a compulsive draw to it, an attachment, a preoccupation.

Rather than use medical terms to describe our compulsions, the Apostle Paul used familiar terms of the marketplace—in particular, the institution of slavery.

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Rom. 6:16)

Paul here is talking about debtor’s slavery: giving oneself into slavery to pay off a debt. What’s so startling about Paul’s analogy, however, is he only posits two potential masters: sin or obedience.

This is one of the controlling themes of Romans 6: sin as a slave master. In Paul’s mind, this is one of the essential ways to describe everyone’s sinful condition, as a kind of slavery. It is not merely the so-called sickos and the junkies who experience enslaving compulsions. It is everyone. There is an addict in us all.

The question is not whether you will belong to a master. The question is: who or what will be your master? As Bob Dylan said, “You’re going to have to serve somebody.”

How Porn Slavery Works

How does sin operate as a slave master? Paul explains in Romans 6, when our master is sin, we “obey its passions” (Rom. 6:12). The word “passions” is an interesting word in the original Greek language: ἐπιθυμία (epithumia). It means more than a desire or a drive; it means over-desire or overdrive. The word is not so much about desires for evil things as it is an inordinate desire for good things.

As Tim Keller says, this is the essence of “idolatry” in the Bible: when we turn good things into ultimate things, and in doing so they become our masters.

Everybody lives for something. Everyone has things in their lives that make them feel either significant or secure. Most of these things we desire are not evil in and of themselves, but the desires have become “ruling desires.”

For the porn addict, pornography has become the most effective delivery method of his or her idols. The addict has over-desire, and porn is the release valve to satiate that desire.

  • For some addicts, their idol is the affirmation and respect they get from beautiful people on the screen. In their fantasy world, the hot girl or hot guy never turns them down and the external beauty of that person is a trophy signifying their own sexual prowess or worth.
  • For some addicts, their idol the enjoyment of a relationship, never being alone. Porn provides a parody of this. In porn, the pseudo intimacy is on-tap and made-to-order.
  • For some addicts, their idol is comfort. Porn provides that place of refuge or escape from a life where they feel powerless or hurt.
  • For some addicts, their idol is the sense of personal autonomy. In the fantasy world of porn, the addict takes center stage, and nothing he or she wants is forbidden.

How Christ Sets Us Free from Porn

Here’s the short answer:

The reason our idols rule us is because of the power we’ve given them to define us. Our idols make us feel good about ourselves, make us feel secure, and we get hooked on the affirmation, the power, and the comfort.

We can only be set free when a new master comes into our life that gives us a profound new identity. Only the risen Christ can do this.

Remember the Meaning of the Resurrection

For Paul, the resurrection of Christ was a watershed moment in the universe.

The resurrection is more than just proof that Christianity is the true religion. For Paul, Jesus’ resurrection is a prototype of where all creation is heading. From the sin-scarred ashes of this world, some day God will resurrect a new creation. Christ is the firstfruits of those who will be raised from the dead on the Day of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:20-23). Some day, all of creation will follow and be free from corruption, decay, and death (Rom. 8:18-23).

Paul says when Christ died and rose from death, “he died to sin, once for all” (Rom. 6:10). This fact is at the heart of Paul’s argument in Romans 6, so we can’t miss it.

Jesus was born into this realm of sin and experienced all the temptations we face, all the limitations of living a body subject to weakness and death. He then experienced the ultimate price of sin by dying for our sins on the cross. He experienced all of this without succumbing to sin Himself.

But Jesus has now “died to sin” and experiences resurrection life. The devil cannot touch Him. The world cannot subject Him. His body is no longer perishable or weak. He now experiences what all Christians will someday experience: complete freedom from this sinful realm. Christ, in his humanness, is a foretaste of what all Christians will become.

Remember Your Union with Christ

Between the resurrection and return of Christ, God does not leave us hanging. We have been “united with Him” (Rom. 6:5), Paul says. The Spirit of Christ dwells in us (8:9).

Paul here is speaking to the baptized, the converted, those who have committed themselves to Christ (6:3). He says we have been “united” to Christ. The word used here is σύμφυτος (symphytos), which is a horticultural word meaning “engrafted into the root.” We are so profoundly united with Christ, all He has belongs to us.

This is union not unlike a marriage. Imagine a man who works hard throughout his life and becomes unbelievably wealthy as a result. His wealth and honor are his by virtue of what He has done. Now imagine that person getting married to a poor woman: his wife now shares all his wealth. Her new wealth is hers, not because of her labor but because of legal union. Her name has changed, her status is elevated, and her estate is unbelievably enormous—all by sheer grace. Her life is profoundly new.

So it is with us. We are united to the one who has died to sin, the one who now experiences resurrection life. The Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is in us, giving life to our mortal bodies (8:11).

Our relationship to our old master, Sin, is profoundly severed because the Spirit of the living Christ is in us.

Yes, we still live in the presence of sin, but we are not under the power of sin.

Consider Yourself Dead to Sin

“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Paul does not say we are dying to sin (a process). He does not say we should die to sin (a command). Because Christ’s resurrected life flows in our veins, we should consider ourselves already dead to sin. At times, you may not feel it, but it is true.

Interestingly, this is the first command in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Everything Paul has been saying about Jesus and our union with him has been leading to this application. You already know Jesus died to this sinful realm. You already know Jesus rose from the dead. You already know the Spirit of Christ has come into our lives. These are the core historical events of the gospel—Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Pentecost. Now, Paul says, you must “consider” these things.

The word translated “consider” is an accounting term: it means to add something up. When a child adds up how much money is in her piggy bank, at the end of the counting she doesn’t have any more or less in the bank than when she began. The only thing that has changed is her knowledge about the value of what is there. This is what Paul means. You have died to sin, so now reckon it to be true; reconsider it; meditate on it; get the idea of your new identity deep into your soul.

Often, the power of porn is the looking feeling of inevitability. When we get the itch for pornographic pleasure, we might resist for a while until we finally say to ourselves, “Well, I might as well do this and get it over with. The tension will build until I can’t take it anymore. It’s going to happen sooner or later.”

But what if we could say to pornography, “No, you are not an inevitability. I am united to the living Christ. It is my destiny to be like Him.” We must consider and reconsider and reconsider again—every single day—that we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17).

Our new identity is as real as Christ’s risen flesh and bone.

In his pre-Christian life, St. Augustine was ensnared by sexual lust, but after he surrendered his life to God, he gave himself single-mindedly to the work of Christ’s kingdom. One day an old mistress of his approached him on the street, seductively suggesting he follow her home. Augustine was cordial but turned her down. It occurred to her, “Maybe he forgets who I am,” and she said to him, “Augustine, it is I!

“Yes, I know,” Augustine replied, “but it is not I.”

Make Each Part of Your Body a Weapon for Holiness

“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:12-13).

The following metaphor might be helpful as we think of what Paul is saying:

Picture a large plantation owned by a cruel slave master. Day after day, generation after generation, slaves are subjected to back-breaking labor and harsh labor conditions. Eventually the slaves begin to believe, “The only way for me to be happy is to keep the slave master appeased.”

Then a new master comes into town and purchases many of the slaves for himself, only this master is kind, gentle, and fatherly. On the new master’s plantation, they are treated like family, not slaves, and slowly the slaves begin to feel a new sense of dignity.

But the old slave master is still just right across the street and his voice still carries a great distance. He still barks commands at his old slaves. Out of habit, when the slaves hear their old master’s voice, they instinctively begin doing what he says. As if driven by autopilot, they obey the old master.

Then their new master comes along and lovingly reminds them, “Stop. Wait. Remember: this is not who you are anymore.”

This metaphor captures some of what Paul is saying in Romans 6:12-13. The old slave master Sin still wants to reign and will bark orders at you, and your body, with its ingrained sinful habits and old passions, obeys.

Paul is saying, “Snap out of it! Remember: this is not who you are anymore.” Paul tells we need to act like “those who have been brought from death to life” (v.12)—because we are!

How do we do this? We do this through the daily choice—the moment-by-moment choice—to become an instrument in God’s hands. The original word translated “instruments” is perhaps better translated “weapons.” If this doesn’t instill us with a sense of nobility, I don’t know what will. Instead of being used by our old slave master, we can be effective weapons in God’s hands to fight back the kingdom of darkness.

Paul gets extremely practical here. He says we do this by presenting our “members”—the various parts of our body—to God.

  • Rather than give our hands to pixels on the screen, we give our hands to God to do useful work (Eph. 4:28) and to lift them to God in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8).
  • Rather than give our feet to sin to walk over to our laptop for comfort, we present our feet to God to carry the good news to others (Rom. 10:15).
  • Rather than giving our eyes to one more online seduction, we open our eyes to really see the needs around us so we can give generously to others (Matt. 6:22-23).

Changed By Love

The multi-award-winning Vietnamese language film, Three Seasons, features a touching story about a poor cyclo driver named Hai and a beautiful prostitute named Lan. Hai is in love with Lan but could never afford to be with her. Night after night Lan services her customers in the fancy hotels, and every night, when her job is done, she has to leave for her home. She dreams of being wealthy, dreams of a better life, dreams of getting to spend a whole night in one of those grand hotels. Instead, she lives the squalid life of a prostitute—enslaved and abused.

One day Hai wins the grand prize in a cyclo race, and he blows all the the prize money on one night in an elegant hotel—he wants his night with Lan. Viewers of the film expect a steamy sex scene, but instead, Hai tells her he doesn’t want to have sex with her. Instead, he asks her to rest. He only wants the privilege of watching her fall asleep.

One film reviewer comments:

He has only purchased her a place as an actual guest in the normal world she dreams of joining, and he asks only permission to watch her fall asleep in it. Slowly, comfortably she falls asleep. And he’s gone by the morning, having demanded nothing from her except the chance to fulfill her desire to belong. But something snaps in her. She finds she can’t go back to her old job of prostitution. Having experienced for the first time someone who used his power to serve her, rather than use her, she gets a new sense of her own dignity. She’s not the same person. She’s changed by the transforming grace of selfless love.

This is how the gospel changes us. The more we come to understand the love our new master has for us, the more our old master looses his grip. It is by more fully grasping the immeasurable greatness of Christ’s love—seen through his death for us—that we are filled with the fullness of God (Eph. 3:18-19; 5:25). Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father (1:20), the position of greatest honor and delight. The Father bursts with joy for Christ, and yet He feels the same for us because we are seated with Him (2:6). When we stare into the face of God, we stare into the face of complete acceptance.

Porn no longer needs to enslave us because our old ruling desires no longer define us. We have been given a profoundly new identity in Christ. And like Augustine, when lust comes knocking on our door and says, “It is I!” we can reply, “I know, but it is not I.”