By teaching us to name our sin, this doctrine gives us hope for growth in Christ. Paul wants Christians to be aware of their remaining sin, but he doesn’t want us to think we’re trapped. He calls us to mortify our sinful nature again and again until we reach glory (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:5ff.). How do we do this? We don’t obfuscate about our sin but regularly call the “old man” by his name in confession.
“Concupiscence” isn’t a word most people use every day. Even trained pastors and theologians who are more familiar with the term may be confused about its meaning. For many, the word brings to mind Augustine’s battles with lust or our contemporary debates about human sexuality. For these reasons, many think of concupiscence only as a term for illicit sexual desire. Merriam-Webster’s definition—strong desire, especially sexual—reinforces this usage.
But in Christian theology, concupiscence isn’t just about sex. The term applies more broadly to disordered inclinations and desires that are wrongly bent in any way—whether they be greedy, lustful, unfairly prejudiced, or selfishly biased. Church history shows us how embracing a Reformed understanding of desire can help Christians today.
Sin or Not? Augustine’s View of Concupiscence
For much of church history, the debate around concupiscence centered on this question: Does God hold people guilty for illicit desires even if they don’t act on them?
Augustine of Hippo’s early study of Scripture led him to answer this question in the affirmative. He taught that our illicit thoughts, desires, and actions incur guilt regardless of our will and intent. Why? They’re evidence of our participation in the original sin of Adam and Eve. Augustine wrote, “All that a man does wrongfully in ignorance, and all that he cannot do rightly through what he wishes, are called sins because they have their origin in the first sin.”
In his later debates with Pelagius, Augustine made clear that because of the corruption of humanity’s sinful desires, we can only do good by God’s grace. But he didn’t stop there. His teaching on baptism complicates his doctrine of concupiscence. Augustine wrote that “concupiscence itself is not sin any longer, whenever [baptized Christians] do not consent to it.”
Scholars throughout history have debated what Augustine meant by this statement. Latin doesn’t possess a distinction between active “sin” and “sinfulness.” The term peccatum can carry either meaning, making it difficult to determine what Augustine intended. But since Augustine’s time, the Roman Catholic Church has taught that baptism removes original sin. They’ve maintained that disordered desires that arise in baptized Christians don’t become sin until we act on them. By Martin Luther’s time, some medieval theologians even taught that disordered lusts should be welcomed by believers as opportunities to exercise virtue through resisting them.
We Remain Sinful: The Reformers’ View of Concupiscence
The Reformers saw the Catholic view as dangerous and contrary to God’s Word. They were convinced illicit desire remained sin and continued to incur guilt in believers even after Christian baptism. The King James (KJV) translation of Colossians 3:5 reflects their view (cf. Rom. 7:8, 1 Thess. 4:5). The KJV translators used the English phrase “evil concupiscence” to translate Greek terms our modern versions read as “evil desires.” Paul says that evil desires—along with “sexual immorality, impurity . . . and covetousness”—are “earthly” and should be understood as idolatrous at the core.
In Luther’s 1537 Smalcald Articles, he argued that the Catholic Church’s failure to name concupiscence as sin led them to a corresponding misunderstanding of repentance. Though illicit desires may arise in believers prior to and apart from a conscious act of the will, they stand, argued Luther, as evidence of our old sinful connection to Adam (Eph. 4:22). As such, they shouldn’t be allowed to fester; they must be “put to death” (Col. 3:5; cf. Matt. 5:21–30).