“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5, emphasis added)
The Apostle now lists just what it is we are to “Put to death.” The five vices are common to other vice lists in Paul’s writings, though they are not all used together in any other place. Each is in the accusative case, being either accusatives of reference (i.e., “put to death the members in reference to . . .”) or in apposition to “the members.” The first here is “immorality.” The word refers to “every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse” (BAGD). To this is added “impurity.” In the LXX the word is used to describe ritual uncleanness. In the New Testament it can continue to carry this connotation, but widens out to include uncleanness in a moral sense. It is often connected with sexual sin. It is a broader word than the previous one, but it “denotes immoral sexual conduct” (O’Brien, 181). It is paired with the previous word frequently (2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3, 11). Then comes “passion.” It designates “a strong emotion of desire or craving,” (Friberg, 291) a “drive or force which does not rest until it is satisfied” (Rienecker, 578). It is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in Romans 1:26 and 1 Thessalonians 4:5, both of which confirm that a sexual connotation may be implied here as well. Next is “evil desire.” The word “desire” points to any strong and overwhelming desire, but here clearly it is “evil” desire that is mind. It can refer to everything from the desire to be told what one wants to hear (2 Tim. 4:3) to illicit sexual desire (1 Thess. 4:5). To these Paul adds “greed.” The word literally refers to “a desire to have more.” It can be variously rendered as greediness, insatiableness, avarice, and covetousness (BAGD, 667). To this final, climatic, word Paul adds a relative clause: “which amounts to idolatry.” The relative pronoun (“which”) may emphasize a particular characteristic quality (“which, by its very nature,” Harris, 147) or it may have a causal sense (“for,” BAGD, 587). The present tense verb (“is”) emphasizes the ongoing nature of “greed.” It is ever and always “idolatry.”
The latter term (“greed”) may seem out of place after four nouns that all relate to sexual sins. But this disassociation is probably only apparent. The word group from which “greed” arises can be associated with sexual sin as well (cf. 1 Thess. 4:6) and Plato and Aristotle both used this noun of sexual sin (O’Brien, 182). Furthermore sexual sin is viewed elsewhere in the New Testament as a form of idolatry (Rom. 1:23-27). Sexual sin—like so many other forms of vice—is subject to the law of diminishing returns. What once titillated and thrilled has now become less exciting. “More!” is required in terms of experience and expression in order to maintain the initial level of excitement. Thus “greed” is an apt description of sexual lust. And the all-consuming desire for “more” in terms of sexual experience begins to dominate one’s every waking moment, consuming every thought, every look, and every relationship. Sex has become lord of every moment and as such is aptly designated as idolatry. Thus by using these five nouns the Apostle may be developing a theme, rather than simply stringing random nouns together. He seems to be moving from the more specific expressions of sexual sin in the direction of less specific expression and on to the core inner impulse that drives such sexual deviance. O’Brien calls it “a movement from the outward manifestations of sin to the inward cravings of the heart, the acts of immorality and uncleanness to their inner springs” (178). Paul begins at the broad end of the problem with manifold individual expressions of sexual sin (“sexual immorality”) and moves toward the narrows of the single impulse from which they arise (“greed”).
We must “put to death” all such impulses and actions. We must do so with both each expression of sin and with the root disposition that gives rise to them. Strategically speaking, however, we will never win the battle simply by addressing the “acts” or expressions of sexual sin (the initial nouns in the list). We must discontinue these, but strategically we must go to the root of such acts and there deal death to those impulses and desires. James is right, “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (vv.14-15). To the end of such application, consider the following two instructive charts.