I was interested to read through 1 Corinthians 8–10 a few months ago in the Bible Readings and see that Scripture differentiates between idols and idolatry. Idols are "nothing" in this world (1 Corinthians 8:4), but idolatry is very real (1 Corinthians 10:6–10, 14).
It's sort of cliche to say it, but really almost anything can become an idol. A lot of Christians have idols. It's probably safe to say that all Christians have idols. But 1 Corinthians 8–10 makes the point that really, the issue isn't the idol, the issue is idolatry. Consider the connection with Colossians 3:1–7. In Colossians, believers have died with Christ, we have been buried with Him, and we have been raised with Him (Colossians 2:9–12). But when we get to Colossians 3, we find to our surprise that we have "members on the earth" (Colossians 3:5). And notice, the final of those members that Colossians lists, is "unbridled desire, which is idolatry".
Let's think about idols for a moment. One of the hot-button topics today is pornography. There seems to be a lot of concern among Christians about it, so let's talk about it for a few minutes. No doubt pornography is a real idol for a lot of believers. Their bondage to it is real and the pain is real . But there is an obvious fact that doesn't seem to occur to a lot of people: pornography has basically no power over people who don't look at it.
I know people are going to object that there are secondary effects on all of us, and I'm sure there are. But that's not really the point I'm trying to make. The point I'm making is that when a person is looking at pornography, the problem isn't the image on the page (or the computer screen); the problem is in the heart.
Many believers find themselves with some sort of besetting sin: some sin or vice or habit over which they have no apparent victory. And as much as they abhor that sin or vice or habit, they find themselves entangled in it again and again. What's the real problem here? It's not that they don't despise the sin, but they are missing the point. The key to victory over sin isn't to despise the sin, but to despise the self.
It has taken me many years (and a considerable amount of pain) to see this. It's not enough to despise some particular sin. It's not enough even to recognize the presence of sin in my own flesh (Romans 7:17–18, 23). It's not even enough to recognize my own powerlessness over sin, although that's absolutely necessary. There is a deeper truth even than that,the truth of Colossians 3: we all have members on the earth, and there is no remedy for them except death (Colossians 3:5). When I find myself tempted to sin, it's proof that there is some unmortified and unjudged flesh in me.
(I've mentioned before that I have come around to Darby's view that Romans 7 actually discusses a man who is born again, but not sealed with the Holy Spirit. But Romans 8:12–14 shows there is a practical sense where a believer who has been sealed with the Holy Spirit may find him or herself in a very similar experience.)
We have a tendency to think that temptation is not sin. It's all right to be tempted, as long as we don't give in to that temptation and actually sin. But that's not really what Scripture teaches (James 1:13–15). Johnny D. says,
Temptation is used in two senses in scripture. We are tempted when we are drawn away of our own lusts and enticed, and we are tempted from without by the enemy. The latter the Lord underwent, the former of course never. All this is confounded by Mr. S. He says temptation is not sin... Does it come from the life and Spirit of Christ in us? – 'Review of R. Pearsall Smith on "Holiness through Faith."', Collected Writings, Volume 23, p. 190Temptation might not be the same as sinning, but it is proof that there is sin in me. And this is really the point, isn't it? I couldn't be tempted if I hadn't lusts.
Ultimately, fornication, lust, and uncleanness aren't produced by temptation. They were there all along. It's that we haven't obeyed Colossians 3:5 – we haven't mortified our members on the earth. The real problem is that we have not been willing to judge the flesh in God's presence. It's proof that we haven't judged ourselves.
Perhaps Job illustrates this best. At the start of the story of Job, we're told, "this man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God and abstained from evil" (Job 1:1). Would that the same could be said of me! But the end of the story, we have a somewhat different Job, "I abhor [myself], and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). At the start of the book, we have a man who doesn't sin. But at the end of the book, we have a repentant man. Why is he repentant? Because he started sinning? Not at all, because he learned that he was lost. It's one thing to recognize I am guilty, it's quite another to recognize I am lost.
So what should we do when we are tempted? Temptation is proof that there is a need for self-judgment. It's proof that one of those "members on the earth" has gone unjudged. It's proof that I have not accepted what God has said of me.
For years I have known Colossians 3. I memorized that chapter back when I [foolishly] thought that memorizing Scripture would somehow earn me favor with God. I memorized it again later, with much better motives, when I was part of a Bible study working through the epistle. But I have been freshly convicted by this passage in the last months. Probably at some point in my life, I thought Colossians 3:5 was a command to self-denial and spiritual discipline. Now I'm convinced it's teaching something quite different: it's self-judgment in God's presence. It's what Scripture calls "repentance".