In this column, we regularly look at word origins. The often-trustworthy dictionary tells us that “moral” comes from Latin “mos” -- "one's disposition." Really? Your disposition? Mine? A child molester’s? They proceed: “the plural is: ‘mores, customs, morals.’" “Mos is an attempt to translate Greek ethikos – ‘the study of morals.’” Then they punt; our “word is of uncertain origin.” Flailing about, they relate “moral” to “mood.” God help us!
He has. The Father/Son/Spirit, constitute the core of morality. Jesus’ followers know “true self-expression has been revealed perfectly once and for all in Him” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones). For example, Scripture shows us the Father/Son/Spirit do not steal – so we are forbidden to steal. When we and our culture violate God’s character, we smash into his immutable nature and we are further broken.
But, in 2016, pollster Gallup reported a mere 16% of Americans believe Scripture is a worthy foundation for morality. Similarly, according to Pew Research Center, public trust in government - near 80 percent in the mid-1960s -- has fallen to 17%. Is there a relation?
Nevertheless, 85 percent of Americans have confidence in our law enforcement (Gallup). Those who are willing to die for us especially deserve our gratitude and support.
What about The King of the Universe, the Ultimate First Responder, dying for many? Those who count on holy/merciful, crucified/resurrected/ascended Jesus begin a transformation embracing Jesus’ character – his morality.
For us to see our need of Jesus, let’s see what sin has done to us.
Jesus’ and Paul’s warnings
Consider Mark 7:20 -- (Jesus) said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
If we have ears to hear, these 13 warnings (and closely related words) raise our alarm 300 times in the New Testament (NT). Wow, 300 times. These describe our old nature. Our old nature generates actions deadly to our souls -- to our bodies -- to others.
Paul has several extensive lists of sins. In Galatians 5:19ff, he records 15 acts of our old nature. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Although there are other NT lists of sins that include still more sins, by joining the words in Jesus’ list in Mark 7 with Paul’s words in the list from Galatians 5, we find 419 warnings throughout the NT against these specific sins. Remarkable!
When we ask: “What is the Holy Spirit seeking to accomplish with so many warnings?” Cheer up; we are worse than we know.
Now, which sins does Paul repeat from Jesus’ list? Of the 28 (13+15), remarkably, there are only two: porneía and asélgeia. This grabs our attention.
“Porneia,” “sexual immorality/sexual abuse” -- is used 25x in the NT. It is the root of our English words "pornography, pornographic." In 2019, both sides of the aisle came together as our legislators adopted resolutions proposed by “Pornography: A Public Health Crisis” (a Public Health CRISIS!) published by End Exploitation Montana. Pórnos derives from pernaō, "to sell off" -- properly, a selling off (surrendering) of sexual purity; promiscuity of any and every type.
Note: Jesus lists porneia second -- only after “evil thoughts.” Paul lists porneia first! When we declare, “My sexuality is MINE,” we rebel against the One who made us sexual creatures. Porneia is an enemy coming after us -- victimizing us and others. For those catechized in casual porneia, watch out! Porneia, red in tooth and claw, has somehow impacted each of us.
Our word is made from “a” -- “not” and “Selgeia,” a city in Pisidia (part of Greece). Citizens of that city had a reputation for moral excellence. Paul’s audience would have known Selgeia -- and what its antithesis would mean. Asélgeia meant: “unbridled lust, excess, wantonness, outrageousness, shamelessness, insolence.” Asélgeia is warned against 10x in the NT.
Asélgeia is #9 on Jesus’ list and #3 on Paul’s. Here are two other Scriptures where asélgeia is used:
- Jude 4 – “Ungodly people pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”
- 2 Pet 2:18 “Speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption.”
Friends, we may recognize porneia as a great challenge. But, why would asélgeia be the only other common word in these two lists?
Selgeia is a poignant souvenir for those who grew up conservative. Despite Selgeia’s attractions, the world, the flesh and the devil can reverse Selgeia’s citizens to asélgeia. These citizens need a power greater than their own sanitized story -- even touting generations of supposed fortitude. Nor is help from fellow Selgeians enough. There are forces at work causing love for God and our neighbor -- even our closest neighbors -- to grow cold -- leading us to participate in the dark side. We need more than morality.
In your life, who gets the last word?
Christian, and those who will someday recognize they need Jesus’ choosing to die for them, we need Christ’s character. Although other magnetic forces attempt to disorient us in reading our life-compasses, God is our True North. His Spirit will reorient us and bring us home. Despite sin’s reality, we cheer up -- in Christ we have been loved more deeply than we imagine. Jude 21 urges us: “Keep yourselves in God’s love as you await (actively, expectantly looking for -- as though you have already received) the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”
Steve Bostrom, a descendant of Swedish homesteaders, husband of Via, father of eight, and grandfather of 13, loves Helena and serves here as a pastor at large. He is ordained by the Presbyterian Church in America. To contact him, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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