Recently while driving home from out of state we passed a billboard with the message “Lust will drag you down to hell – James 1:15.” As one who does not want to go to hell I found the billboard’s message interesting. In particular I wondered what was the goal of the billboard. Did the person or persons who erected the billboard hope to keep people out of hell, stop people from lusting, or both? Also, what type of lust is being denounced? Typically when I see the word lust without any context I think of sexual lust. Is this billboard against pornography and other sexual sins? The referenced bible verse says
Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:15 ESV)
The King James Version uses the word lust instead of desire.
Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. (James 1:15 KJV)
Evidently the creators of the billboard were thinking of the KJV rendering. However, using the word lust on the billboard without the original context of the verse misses the true meaning. The verse occurs at the end of the section where James explains that God does not tempt us to sin.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15 ESV)
The context shows the temptation to sin comes from our own sinful desires. We are lured into sin as a fish is lured by bait on a hook. These sinful desires birth sin and sin births death. This is what Paul says in Romans 6:23 where he says, “the wages of sin is death.”
The actual message of James is much different than the billboard. No one is dragged to hell. Sin is what we desire. Also, the message of the billboard taken at face value is, if I don’t want to go to hell, then I just need to stop lusting. The problem is that is impossible. We maybe can stop the outworking of sexual lust by blocking Internet pornography sites and other measures but it does not remove the lust in my heart. On top of that, even if I restrict the message to just sexual lust, that does not cover the many other lusts of my flesh. Sanctification is the process not only of eliminating sinful behavior but also of sowing to the Spirit instead of to the flesh.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8 ESV)
The result of sowing to the Spirit is eternal life, which is much more that just not going to hell.
Most importantly, the billboard is deceptive because it has the wrong goal (stay out of hell) along with the wrong method (stop lusting) to achieve the goal. There is nothing wrong with talking about hell but my main motivation should not be to stay out of hell. My primary motivation should be to be right with God. Until the Holy Spirit takes the Word and awakens me to my sinful condition all my motivations for eternal bliss are purely selfish. At the moment of regeneration we realize we have sinned before a holy God, and we cry out to Jesus to wash us clean. Our goal is not to stay out of hell but to be with the one who sacrificed it all for us. Staying out of hell is a tremendous benefit of our salvation in Christ, but it is not the goal.