Is lust the same as covetousness? Why does the KJV in Romans 7:7 translate one word as “lust” and another as “covetousness” even though in other translations like the NASB and NIV they translate both words as “covet”?
A friend of mine, Emily recently wrote this to me about Romans 7:7. For my readers who are not familiar with this discussion one of the truths that I believe the Bible teaches is that lust is covetousness. Specifically in the context of Matthew 5:28 lust is referring to a specific form of covetousness – mainly to covet another man’s wife.
Emily is not alone, there are many good Christians who want to believe that lust is a separate sin from covetousness and that lust refers simply to sexual desire, rather than it applying more accurately to sexual covetousness. I believe based on the whole of Scripture, as well as the meaning of the original languages that this distinction between lust and covetousness is faulty. Lust is a form of covetousness.
Here was Emily’s statement to me:
“But first… that is not how it is phrased in my Bible, fyi. I just looked it up. It compares coveting to coveting, not to lust. Lust is not mentioned in that passage at all!
In that case, there is not much else in the Bible that equates the two. So I mean, thanks for clarifying what you mean by covet but I still think lust in and of itself is a sin.”
The reason Emily is not seeing see it in her English translation of the Bible is because some modern English translations have left out the distinction Paul was trying to make.
Here is Romans 7:7 in the KJV, the NASB and NIV:
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” (KJV)
“What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (NASB)
“What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (NIV)
Now usually between these three popular translations the KJV is the most literal(but uses older English words), the NASB is more literal than the NIV, but less literal than the KJV with more modern words and then you have the NIV rounding out with the most modern wording, but it is often the least literal out of the three. Each of these have their value and I have used all these and other versions in my studies over the last 20 years.
But occasionally the NASB is more literal than even the KJV, and sometimes even the NIV is more literal or a better translation of a particular verse than the KJV.
So the big question is why does the KJV translate the first word as lust and only the second word as covet while these other two translations translate both words as covet? The reason is because in the Greek these are two different words:
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust[Epithumia], except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet[Epithumeo].” (KJV)
Here is the definition of the Greek word Epithumia (which the KJV translates as “lust” in Romans 7:7) according to Thayer and Smith’s Bible dictionary:
“desire, craving, longing, desire for what is forbidden, lust”
Here is the definition of the Greek word Epithumeo (which the KJV translates as “covet” in Romans 7:7) according to Thayer and Smith’s Bible dictionary:
“to turn upon a thing
to have a desire for, long for, to desire
to lust after, covet
of those who seek things forbidden”
So while these words are synonyms they are not identical and the KJV accurately represents that distinction in its translation where the NASB and NIV loose that distinction for the reader. If Paul meant to use the same word twice he would have said “for I had not known [Epithumeo], except the law had said, Thou shalt not [Epithumeo].” but he used a deliberate word play here with these synonyms to get his point across.
Both Epithumia and Epithumeo are used in positive and negative contexts
These words do not always represent wrong desires, lust or covetousness in the bad sense of these words. The context of the surrounding passage is what tells us if these words are being used in a negative or positive sense.
Here is a positive use of Epithumia(translated as “lust” in Romans 7:7) in another passage of Scripture:
“But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire[Epithumia] to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” – Philippians 1:22-24 (KJV)
This is one of those passages of Scripture where I think the NIV does a better job of making this more understandable in modern English while still staying true to the wording in the original language:
“If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire[Epithumia] to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” – Philippians 1:22-24 (NIV)
In either case both the KJV and NIV correctly translate Epithumia as “desire” here. Desire is used in the sense of a positive desire on the Apostle Paul’s part to want to be with the Lord in heaven.
Here is a positive use of Epithumeo in the Scriptures:
“And he said unto the disciples, The days will come, when ye shall desire[Epithumeo] to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it.” – Luke 17:22 (KJV)
Here is a another negative use of Epithumia(translated as “lust” in Romans 7:7) in another passage of Scripture:
“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection[Pathos], evil concupiscence[Epithumia], and covetousness[Pleonexia], which is idolatry:” – Colossians 3:5 (KJV)
Concupiscence is an English word that means “evil sexual desires”. Incidentally the word translated “covetousness” here is not the same word “Epithumeo” that is translated as “covet” in Romans 7:7. This is another Greek word “Pleonexia” which has more to do with the greedy side of covetousness, rather than the desire to possess something that does not belong to us side of covetousness and this is why the NASB translates this same passage using the word “greed” instead of “covetousness”:
“Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion[Pathos], evil desire[Epithumia], and greed[Pleonexia], which amounts to idolatry.” Colossians 3:5 (NASB)
The NASB except for the word “immorality”, which should be “sexual immorality” is probably the most accurate translation of this verse to the original language of the Bible here in Colossians 3:5. The Greek word “Pathos” which is translated as “passion” in the NASB has the idea of a person being led astray by emotions.
But here we see based on the context of it being “evil” that these are speaking to wrong desires.
Here is another negative use of Epithumeo (translated as “covet” in Romans 7:7) in another passage of Scripture:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after[Epithumeo] her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 (KJV)
As I said before every translation of Scripture is just that, a translation of Scripture. Each translation has its strengths and weaknesses. But in this particular case the KJV rendering of Romans 7:7 by using “lust” in comparison to “covet” is accurately communicating the Apostle Paul’s attempt to play these two synonyms off each other.
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” – Romans 7:7 (KJV)
In the context of lust as it is spoke of in Matthew 5:27, this also proves by the fact that Epithumeo is used for lusting after a woman and Epithumeo is used synonymously of the 10th commandment in Romans 7:7 as “covet” that means God equates lust to covetousness.