Jesus Forbids Even Unintentional Lust (Matt. 5:27–28)
The Doctrine of Concupiscence in our Lord's Sermon on the Mount
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers his authoritative teaching on the law. Through this section, we find Jesus arguing against the legalism of the scribes and the Pharisees—that is, the legalism that relaxed the infinitely high standards of the law (Matt. 5:19–20):
After showing that the Sixth Commandment against murder forbids even anger at our brothers (Matt. 5:21–26), Jesus begins teaching about the true requirements of the Seventh Commandment against adultery. Similarly, Jesus criticizes the traditional teaching of the rabbis that restricted the requirements of the Seventh Commandment to forbid physical adultery alone.
Much more, Jesus insists that the Seventh Commandment requires “pure and holy affections of the heart.”1 That God forbids coveting our neighbor’s wife should have been clear from the Tenth Commandment (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21).2 What Jesus intends to demonstrate, however, is that even the Seventh Commandment by itself deals with these questions of the heart.3
Result or Purpose?
Against a minimalistic view of the Seventh Commandment, Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). To understand the weight of Jesus’ words, we must ask an important question about the grammar of this sentence: is the lust the purpose of the looking, or the result of the looking? That is, does Jesus speak against the man’s lust when it is his purpose/intention for looking, or is Jesus talking about the lust that arises as a result from looking?
Looking with Lustful Intent?
Here, many (most?) commentators take the former sense of purpose, which is captured in the ESV’s translation of the verse: “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent…”).4 According to this view of purpose, Jesus is condemning the man’s intentional, willful, volitional decision toward lust.
Lust Arising Unintentionally, Apart from Choice?
Two important technical resources, however, argue for the latter sense of result, rather than purpose. The first resource is Murray J. Harris’s widely renowned Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament classifies this as a result, rather than purpose, citing a similar use of πρός (pros) to describe result in John 11:4: “This illness does not lead to [πρός] death.”5 The second resource is the standard New Testament Greek lexicon, by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich (BDAG), which classifies this phrase as “of the result that follows a set of circumstances (so that),” and translates the phrase as “one who looks at a woman with sinful desire.”6
According to this view of result, Jesus is condemning the lust itself that arises from looking on a woman—even when that lust arises unintentionally, and without any conscious decision of the will.
Matthew 5:28 in the Context of the Sermon on the Mount
How do we choose between the two interpretive options? To begin, we must consider the context of this passage. In the immediate context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is revealing the full scope of the requirements of the law—requirements that go much further than we realize. So, Jesus taught that anger alone violates the Sixth Commandment (Matt. 5:22), and there is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that this anger would be a conscious, volitional choice.
The immediate context, then, strongly suggests that Jesus is not only condemning clear, deliberate, willful choices to lust, but also (as with anger) instantaneous reactions of lust that arise from looking at someone who is not our spouse. So, it is not only a violation of the Seventh Commandment to commit physical adultery, and not only a violation when we deliberately stoke lust in our hearts, although both of those would be included.
Beyond that, Jesus is saying that any sexual desire toward someone who is not our spouse is already the sin of adultery—adultery of the heart. So, take a man who is minding his own business, but who happens to look up and sees a woman. If that man begins to experience unbidden, unchosen, and undesired sexual desires toward her rising in his heart, then that man has already sinned.
This, of course, is a heavy standard. How can we justify such a strict view of the the requirements of the law?
The Doctrine of Concupiscence
To understand the grounds on which Jesus condemns even unintentional lust, we must understand what theologians call the doctrine of concupiscence. Concupiscence is the Latin word for (sinful) desire or lust (concupiscentia), and, in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, this is the word that translates this key phrase in our passage: “ad concupiscendum eam” (“unto desiring/lusting after her”). This is also the Latin word that translates the word for “covet” in the Tenth Commandment (“Non concupisces…” [“You shall not covet…”]; Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21).
Thus, concupiscence describes sinful desires, or desires that incline toward sin. The question that theologians have debated for centuries has to do with whether concupiscence is in itself is sin, or whether concupiscence does not become sin until the will consents to the sin that concupiscence desires.
Roman Catholic Teaching on Concupiscence
This question was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church taught that concupiscence was not sin until the will consented to the desires within our souls. So, at the Council of Trent in 1546, the Roman Catholic Church formalized the view that affirms concupiscence as merely “of sin” and “inclining to sin,” but that rejects any sense that concupiscence is “truly and properly sin”:
But this holy synod confesses and is sensible, that in the baptized there remains concupiscence, or an incentive (to sin); which, whereas it is left for our exercise, cannot injure those who consent not, but resist manfully by the grace of Jesus Christ; yea, he who shall have striven lawfully shall be crowned. This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin.7
Biblical Teaching on Concupiscence
It is astonishing to see the Roman Catholic Church acknowledge that Paul (“the Apostle”) calls concupiscence sin, but then immediately state that the Roman Catholic Church has never understood concupiscence to be sin. One of the passages this council is considering is Romans 7:7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet [Vulg: ‘concupiscentiam’] if that law had not said, ‘You shall not covet [Vulg: ‘Non concupisces’].’”
Paul says that he would not have known the nature of sin unless the law had declared that concupiscence is sin. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church denies the very point that Paul is making about sin! Even more, the Roman Catholic Church is also denying the point of the Tenth Commandment. From the commandments of the Old Testament, to the teaching of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, the Scriptures are clear: concupiscence is sin, even before a conscious choice.
So, if we let Scripture interpret Scripture, then the context of the whole Bible (not only the context of the Sermon on the Mount) helps us to see the inescapable truth about Jesus’ words: concupiscence is sin, even before a conscious decision to lust.
Concupiscence is Truly and Properly Sin
Moreover, Protestants recognized that if we deny what the Bible says about sin, we cannot understand what the Bible teaches about the gospel. So, echoing the words that the Roman Catholic Church had used to deny that concupiscence is “truly and properly sin,” the Westminster Confession of Faith declares the opposite about the corruption of our nature that manifests itself as concupiscent desires: “This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin” (WCF 6.5).
More recently, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) published a study report on the question of same-sex sexual attraction that explored the implications of this doctrine. In the section on concupiscence, the report stated this:
We affirm that impure thoughts and desires arising in us prior to and apart from a conscious act of the will are still sin. We reject the Roman Catholic understanding of concupiscence whereby disordered desires that afflict us due to the Fall do not become sin without a consenting act of the will. These desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.8
Both contextually (in the immediate context, and the whole context of the Scriptures) and theologically, we cannot limit Jesus’ words to condemn intentional lust alone. Indeed, it is spiritually dangerous to suggest that Jesus only condemned conscious acts of the will.
While it is true that we should not make a further decision to stoke our imaginations toward lust, Jesus is saying that the first stirrings of concupiscent desire are already truly and properly sin. The one who sees another person (other than his/her spouse) and feels unbidden, unchosen sexual desire arising in his heart, has already committed adultery in his heart.
Biblical Example of Sinful Concupiscence
The classic biblical example of this is in the story of David and Bathsheba. David was not intending on seeing Bathsheba bathing from the roof of his palace, but he saw that she was “very beautiful [lit, ‘good’]” (2 Sam. 11:2). In the style of biblical narrative, the narrator leaves David’s concupiscent lust unstated in order to, ironically, give special emphasis to it in a technique called “gapping.”9 In other words, the narrator makes David’s sinful lust the focal point precisely by ignoring (“gapping”) that elephant in the room.
After this point, David commits a number of sins intentionally. So, David steals Uriah’s wife (Eighth Commandment), in order to commit physical adultery with her (Seventh Commandment), which he then lies to cover up (Ninth Commandment). When his plans fail, he ultimately commits murder to keep his sin secret (Sixth Commandment).
Nevertheless, all of those intentional sins began with a look that led adulterous covetousness to arise unintentionally in his heart (Seventh and Tenth Commandments). Accordingly, Jesus is condemning any look that results in lust, and not just looks where the purpose is lust.
Repenting from Sinful Desires
One of the most powerful resources God gives to combat sinful, concupiscent desires, is the grace of repentance. If the Scriptures reveal that our sinful desires are already “truly and properly sin,” then we can—indeed, we must—repent from them. We not only repent from the “sight” of sinful actions, but from the “sense…of the filthiness and odiousness of [our] sins” (WLC 76):
Psalm 51 (where David repents from his sin with Bathsheba) gives us such a powerful example of this:
First, we must ask God for forgive us: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgression” (Ps. 51:1). We must ask God to forgive our transgressions.
Second, David prays not only that God would “blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1b), but that God would “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity” (Ps. 51:2a). Where “transgression” describes an act that “transgresses” God’s holy boundaries, our “iniquities” refer to the corruptions and the pollutions of our heart—that is, our concupiscence.10 We must ask God to purify us from the pollutions of our souls. That is, we are praying that “the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed” by God’s work to weaken and mortify (i.e., kill) our “several lusts” (WCF 13.1)
Third, David prays that God would “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). Here, David is asking to be “more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (WCF 13.1).
The beauty of repenting from our sinful desires is that we start to attack the corruption of concupiscence when it first rears its ugly head. We don’t give our sin a head-start until it brings us fully under its control, but we ask God to forgive us, and then to begin his work of putting that sin to death, even as he causes his holiness to grow in our heart.
Yes, concupiscent desires are already a violation of the Seventh Commandment; however, it is far more heinous to allow those desires to keep growing to the point that they are “not only conceived in the heart,” but they fester until they “[break] forth in words and actions” (WLC 151.3).
John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 1 (1848; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 290.
William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1973), 302.
“This might be deduced from the tenth commandment, but Jesus finds it also in this one.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992], 118.)
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: The Wartburg Press, 1943), 226; Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, NAC 22 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 108–09; Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1 - 13, ed. David A. Hubbard, Glenn W. Barker, and Ralph P. Martin, WBC 33A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993), 120; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 236.
Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 189; however, compare Harris’s classification of Matt. 6:1 as purpose: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them [πρός + infinitive verb + preposition]” (Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament, 189).
Walter Bauer et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 874.
Council of Trent, Session 5, First Decree Concerning Original Sin, #5. <http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch5.htm>. Accessed March 29, 2022.
Bryan Chapell et al., “Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality to the Forty-Eighth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (2019–2020),” May 2020, 8, https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf.
“Bathsheba’s beauty is presented in the narrator’s impersonal style—‘And the woman was very good-looking’—even though it is the protagonist’s emotions that matter at this point, since they cause and explain his actions. Instead of finding the inner life specified in the interests of plot coherence, the reader can only infer their general drift from the plot (in light of ‘David sent and inquired about the woman and...sent messengers and took her’).” (Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading, ISBL 453 [Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996], 197.)
A. Craig Troxel, With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 82–85.