Is the Temptation to Sin, Itself, Sin?

Most Christians know that temptation is what can lead us into sin. However, when we experience temptation, is that experience, in and of itself, sin?

There has been a very lively debate in evangelical theological circles in recent months, on this very question. The occasion for the debate has been the Revoice Conference controversy, the question of same-sex attraction, and how it relates to sexual orientation, lust, and behavior. But the implications are far reaching, as the debate gets to the very heart of how all believers progress in our sanctification.

Sanctification 101: Temptation vs. Sin

As a new believer, back in my teenage years, I struggled intensely, just as almost every high school boy does, with sexual lust. I really needed help in this area, and I got some great advice once at a Christian youth music festival.

The main speaker put it this way: If you see a girl, and you find yourself attracted to her, that is not sin, in and of itself. Instead, that is an opportunity for you to thank God that you can appreciate the beauty of another human being. So, praise God for beauty, but then take your eyes off of that girl, lest you fall into sin! You have been presented with an opportunity to sin, but it is a temptation, for which you can resist, and say no to. In our obedience, God can give us those little victories, as we progress forward in following Jesus, by trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit to transform us.

But if you find yourself drawn to take a second look at that girl, and allow your imagination to run away, then you are in real trouble. That would be lust, and lust would be sin (Matthew 5:27-28 ESV). Resisting temptation at that point is not enough. You must repent of your sin, and seek the Lord’s forgiveness. In other words, there is a clear distinction between temptation and sin, and the two are not necessarily the same. We resist the one, and repent of the other.

That nugget of wisdom has served me well over the years, convicting me at times where I have needed to be convicted of my sin, which is sadly, yet honestly, a continuing difficulty for all Christians, and giving victory at other times, when God gave the strength to say, “No,” and I followed in that obedience.

Sanctification 101 Twisted Around

Strangely though, there are some Christians who seek to turn that simple advice, that I got as a teenager, and flip it on its head. In classic Christianity, marriage between a man and a woman is the sole arena for sexual relations. Any sexual expression, in thought or deed, outside of that, is sin. But a well-intentioned, theological movement, among some Christians, regarding same-sex attraction, in response to challenges from the culture, adds a peculiar, mind-blowing twist.

Apparently, it is not enough for some Christians to reject same-sex relations, either in thought (fantasizing about it) or deed (physically engaging in such behavior). Pay attention to that, as it is important. The teaching goes beyond that.

Consider the words of prominent Baptist theologian, Albert Mohler, (from The Briefing), who gives an otherwise thoughtful, trenchant critique of the tendency to confuse one’s sexual identity with one’s spiritual identity in Christ. He raises some important questions, observations, and cautions, with which I support. Yet despite having a prophetic outlook, and crucial voice in the conversation, in this essay, Dr. Mohler makes this shockingly broad statement: “The Bible identifies internal temptation as sin….We are called to repent both of sin and of any inner temptation to sin.

What are we to make of this?

Repenting of sin, I get. But repentance of temptation?? How does one go about doing that? Was the advice I received as a teenage boy, as applied to thinking about girls, in error?

For such Christians, in a nutshell, the mere presence of same-sex attraction in a person’s life is inherently lust, and therefore, it is inherently sin. Same-sex attraction, awakened by temptation, is surely a disordered desire, a fallen part of human nature, and it can lead to sin, but is it actually sin itself?

Advocates of this view also want to say that all sin is sin, and that same-sex sin is just as sinful as any other sin. But there is a theological inconsistency problem with this view that is very disturbing. You can not have both without twisting what I call “Sanctification 101.”

If you extrapolate that way of thinking out to include all sexual attraction, consistently, outside of marriage, heterosexual as well as homosexual, you reach a very, very strange conclusion. Let me explain, in a few steps, why I believe that this view is misguided at best, a theological error that has far reaching negative consequences, if left unchecked.

It is a lot to unpack, so I will just try to hit the highlights in this blog post, as best as I can. I will put in bold the main points and objections, if you want to skim through first, and come back later to digest. You might put this blog post in the “TL;DR” category. But these are weighty issues where sound bite answers will not suffice. So here we go…

Vasili Surikov. The Temptation of Christ. 1872

Why We Should Resist Confusing Temptation With Sin

First, it treats temptation as being inherently sinful, and by confusing temptation, with sin itself, it muddies the waters horribly. Think of what equating temptation with sin itself means, more generally. The mere presentation of the temptation to the person irretrievably leads the person into sin. Before you have a chance to resist the temptation, you have already sinned. You are condemned before you even get out of the starting gate. We might be able to throw ourselves on the mercy seat of Christ, and receive our justification, but we can never make progress in our sanctification; that is, our conformity to Christ, in our daily life, in this way.

An important caveat must be inserted at this point, however. There are surely times where sin itself can act like and take on the characteristics of temptation to give into further sin. If you have succumbed to the sin of lust, it makes it a lot easier to continue in further, lustful sin. As a concrete example, once you start viewing pornography on your iPhone, and fail to repent of that, the easier it is to do it again, and again, and make this recurring sin into a guilt-ridden habit.

In this sense, temptation itself can be a sin. But it would be a grave mistake to label all temptation as inherently sin. More on this below.

Secondly, this is not how Jesus dealt with temptation.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15 ESV).

Consider this: The moment we start to confuse temptation with sin is the moment that we start to undermine Christ’s work to set us free from sin. Because Jesus resisted temptation, He was able to say no to sin, and instead, to be a sin offering for us, without sinning. But if temptation is somehow, really sin in disguise underneath, then Jesus would have never been able to have victory over sin, because he would have been sinning, when he was tempted. We would still be doomed and lost in our sin.

When Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), Jesus experienced real temptation. It was the will of the Father that the Son was to fast for the entire wilderness period. But Jesus experienced hunger, and Satan came to Jesus, enticing Jesus to sin. This was a temptation, in which the Son resisted, and was faithful.

Some objections can be raised at this point. Objection #1: This is a very old debate, but some contend that since Jesus was God, He would not have had the capability of really sinning. Some Christians take this view, but it tends to draw the conclusion that this temptation in the wilderness was not a real temptation. If you go this direction, it makes a mockery of the whole story of Jesus being “tempted” in the wilderness. It gives us a Jesus who was not facing a real struggle. Rather, Jesus was merely “play acting,” giving the impression that He was tempted, when really He was not. No matter where you stand on this old debate, we must still honor the text and affirm that Jesus, in fact, really was tempted.

Objection #2: Others contend that there is a difference between internal temptation and external temptation. Here is the argument: We as sinful humans experience both internal and external temptations. Jesus, on the other hand, because He had no sinful nature, only had external temptations. Therefore, when Jesus experienced hunger in the wilderness, this was not a temptation. Only the external, enticement of Satan, served as Jesus’ temptation.

While this is an interesting hypothesis, worthy of consideration, there is no specific text in Scripture that I can find to support it. Furthermore, it would serve to undermine the insistence of Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus was tempted in every way (see the NIV, on Hebrews 4:15) in which we are tempted. We have no evidence of an internal versus external classification of temptation at work here.

Hebrews 4:15 does not mean that Jesus experienced every possible kind of temptation for every conceivable sin. It is more general than that. It means that Jesus understands the way in which temptation works for every person. Therefore, it does mean that no matter what the struggle we face, Jesus has, in a sense, been there, and He can sympathize with our weakness…. including in the area of human sexuality.

Thirdly, it muddies the waters as to how desire, temptation, and sin are related to one another.

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).

This is where things can get real tricky. But it cries out for clarity, so I will go for it.

Here James gives a concise teaching as to how desire, temptation, and sin are related to one another. Temptation is a form of testing, whereby there is an enticement by our “own desire.” This phrase is a bit ambiguous, and other translations try to interpret it for us, such as our “own evil desire” (NIV 2011), or our “own lust” (KJV), but these translations can be confusing.

For example, when the KJV translated desire as “lust,” it originally had a very broad meaning in English, which according to Websters, meant “pleasure” or “delight.” Such pleasure or delight could indeed be sinful, or evil, or it could have simply meant something less morally obtrusive, closer to something like, “She has a certain lust for life.” But such a rendering of “lust” has been typically obsoleted today in favor of a more negative, often sexualized meaning.

This might suggest objection #3. Desire, as in same-sex desire, is evil, therefore it must be sin, which makes the temptation a sin. But is it? Is this what the Apostle James really has in mind?

The Douay-Rheims translation gets at the real difficulty here, of verse 14, with verse 15 following:

But every man is tempted by his own concupiscence, being drawn away and allured. Then when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin. But sin, when it is completed, begetteth death. 

That word concupiscence is an old word, fallen largely out of our modern English vocabulary, but it has a very interesting history. In short, concupiscence is typically understood to be “disordered desire,” going back to the theology of Saint Augustine, of Hippo, in the 5th century. In other words, God gave us natural appetites, but the impact of the Fall of Adam has distorted these appetites. These corrupted desires are a product of living in a fallen world.

But does this mean that experiencing such disordered desires inherently make you morally culpable for sin? Not necessarily, as we examine closer in this text.

There are two components of temptation that James is describing here: (1) desire, and (2) the lure and enticement of that desire. Desire, when we are carried away with its enticement, gives birth to sin. In other words, temptation can lead us into sin. But through the Holy Spirit, we can also say no to the enticement, no to the desire, and therefore, resist the temptation.

Sanctification is not all about the repentance from sin, though it is obviously part of the story. We need to repent when we fail to resist temptation and fall into sin. But sanctification is also about growing in virtue, learning how to say “NO” to sin, when we are tempted with it, so that we might grow in godliness, day by day. This step-by-step obedience, where we grow in developing the character of Christ in our life, gets at the central idea of renewing one’s mind (Romans 12:1-2). If we simply conflate temptation and sin together into one big mess, it robs us of that very opportunity to resist temptation, and therefore, to grow in virtue.

Here in James, it makes no sense to confuse “desire” with being sin, in and of itself, as sin can not give birth to itself. The analogy of “birth” is crucial: a mother gives birth to a child, but a mother can not give birth to herself, nor can the child perform “self-birth.” Understood this way, James is fully consistent with the idea that temptation can lead to sin, but that temptation is not necessarily sin, in and of itself. This disordered desire is presented to us, as temptation, but in obedience to Christ, we can say no to that temptation, and therefore, not sin.

This raises objection #4, as concupiscence more forcefully elsewhere appears in the Bible to equate such disordered desire as sin itself, and this should color our understanding of James. Therefore, all disordered desire in Scripture is sin. But is this correct?

What makes the above interpretation of James precarious for some is that this same word concupiscence is also found in this New Testament passage:

What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? God forbid. But I do not know sin, but by the law; for I had not known concupiscence, if the law did not say: Thou shalt not covet. But sin taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead (Romans 7:7-8 Douay-Rheims)

Compare with the ESV, where the different translation for concupiscence is in bold:

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! 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 if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.

Here, the context is different, as concupiscence is understood by Paul to be inherently sinful. So, why would this be different than what we find in James? Because here in Paul, the Apostle is talking about sin that leads to further sin (theologians differ on this point, as to the exact meaning of this Greek work for “desire,” or “concupiscence,” transliterated as “epithumia,”  which for some in Romans suggests that this is the internal inclination to sin that resides in every human heart, but the context in James suggests a more ambiguous reading).

In other words, Paul in Romans is specifically addressing those cases where temptation itself can be sin, the caveat I noted above. Some, like the Puritan divine John Owen, refer to this “sinful desire” as an “indwelling sin” or “besetting sin.” It is a sin that feeds upon itself, generating more and more sin, if left unchecked.

There are times for every Christian where such a sin can grab a hold on us in this way. A pornography addiction, that I mentioned earlier, made ever more easy with an iPhone, is an example of this. But thankfully, not every temptation is like this. There are other cases where temptation is not sin, in and of itself. This more ambiguous way of understanding desire, as with temptation that can lead to sin, but not necessarily is sin, is what the Apostle James is going after in his letter.

Another objection can be raised at this point, objection #5. Some would say that if temptation, in the non-sinful sense, is understood to be this way, that such a view of temptation might imply that temptation is somehow morally neutral. Therefore, such a view is to be rejected since temptation can never be morally neutral. But such criticism would be misleading.

An analogy might help. If I am traveling down the highway, and I reach a fork in the road, I have a choice to make. If going down one path is the right way, and the other path is the wrong way, then there is no neutrality involved. Inertia guides me, by default, down the wrong path, unless I resist, which makes the crisis ever more difficult. Either I must go the right way or the wrong way. There is not enough time for me to slam on the brakes and avoid the fork. Do I take the right way, or the wrong way?

You could argue that this default, inertia-oriented trajectory, towards going down the wrong path, is driven by sin, but there is more to it than that. The mere presentation of the two paths, given to me by the presence of the fork in the road, does not automatically condemn me down the wrong path. The right path is still an option before me. Likewise, for those who are in Christ, the mere presentation of a desire, even a disordered one, does not necessarily imply a sin is being committed. Nevertheless, I still must respond, in obedience to the Gospel, if I am to be faithful to going down the right path. I must actively resist going down the wrong path.

To repeat: I do not repent from temptation. Rather, I am to resist temptation and repent of my sin. To suggest otherwise is to take away the Christian’s opportunity to grow in virtue.

Certain sins do act as temptation, that try to entice us into further sin. But not all temptation works that way. While we all have a proclivity towards sinning, as fallen human beings, it is important to hold temptation and sin separately in our minds, as it is appropriate to the particular temptation.

Pardon the pun, but we must resist the temptation to conflate all temptation with sin. Otherwise, we shipwreck the sanctification of our souls upon the shores of our own temptations, without ever having an opportunity to make it out of the harbor, on our ocean-wide journey with Christ.

The Revoice Conference controversy. Is it even possible, or even desirable, to promote LGBT+ Flourishing in Historic Christians Traditions? Some say “yes.” Some say “no.” Where can we have a conversation to resolve these matters?

Temptation, Sin, Desire, and Same-Sex Attraction

This gets at the heart of the current debate over same-sex attraction. Historically orthodox Christians agree that same-sex attraction is a disordered type of desire, or concupiscence, if you will, that temptation can exploit. But does that necessarily mean that same-sex attraction is inherently a lustful sin? The current debate hangs on this question.

It is one thing to say that same-sex attraction is, for those who experience it, a product of living in a fallen world. Participants in the current debate all agree with this. But it is something altogether different to say that same-sex attraction is itself sin.

Saying that same-sex attraction is part of our fallen world, like blindness, or cancer, is one thing. But saying that same-sex attraction is itself a sin, like pride, or some other inherent sin, changes our whole theological framework regarding sanctification.

The problem with equating same-sex attraction itself with sin is that we would never apply the same logic to other-sex attraction outside of marriage. But this is, in fact, what the logic implies, in order to be consistent. It would imply that if you are traditionally married, in the male-female sense, and you find yourself attracted to a member of the opposite sex, aside from your spouse, you would inherently be lusting after that person.

One example demonstrates the absurdity of this: If I merely notice that a young lady is wearing a dress that makes her particularly attractive, and I compliment her for it, my sin is exposed and I stand condemned. It is too late to resist. No opportunity to say “No.” I must repent of seeing that dress. All because the colors make her look striking.

Really? Is that how it works?

Frankly, I do not see heterosexual Christians “repenting” after they compliment someone of the opposite sex, on the clothes they are wearing. And yet this is exactly how some Christians treat same-sex attraction.

Furthermore, it would imply that if you are non-married, and you found a member of the opposite sex attractive to you, you are inherently lusting after that person, and condemned in sin. That would make it very difficult for a single person to find a mate, without actually sinning in the process (Alas, some might even raise objection #6Some say that there is such a thing as lusting after your spouse, which would also be a sin, but that’s another Pandora’s box to open up some other time).

Admittedly, no one really thinks like that. No one really thinks they are sinning when they compliment someone on what they are wearing. But this is surely what the logic implies when someone contends that same-sex attraction is inherently sin. Advocates of the “same-sex attraction temptation = sin” view should ponder this before they pontificate on their views.

The only way someone can avoid this logical implication is by placing same-sex attraction in a completely different moral category, from any other temptation or sin. This would contradict the twin assertion, by those who argue for this; namely, that same-sex sin is just as sinful as any other sin. This puts same-sex attracted persons in a special, one-of-a-kind box, for which there is no escape.

This will not do. Confusing temptation and sin together, as with respect to same-sex attraction, creates two classes of people within the church: the normal Christians, versus the odd-ball Christians, who experience same-sex attraction. Ask a Christian who continually struggles with same-sex attraction in their life, and they can tell you. This is not life-giving. This only leads to despair.

But neither is this profitable for the “normal” heterosexual Christian. We all struggle with temptation and sin. To think of yourself as being less of a sinner than someone who experiences same-sex attraction is a recipe for self-deception. 1 John 1:8 puts it no better: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

I resonate with what Rosaria Butterfield says, in her book Openness Unhindered (Kindle location 1353): “Temptation comes in many forms, but it is always personal, uncannily tailor-made for our individual moral weakness, and it takes aim at God’s character, seeking to ransack our faith….Although temptation is not sin itself, it is also not good.” 

This is a wiser way of putting it. It keeps a proper boundary between temptation and sin, without making a misleading moral judgment, while neither minimizing the dangers of temptation.

As even Al Mohler would probably say, “theology matters.”

Temptation is temptation. Sin is sin. Sometimes our sin does act as temptation, enticing us towards further sin. But, otherwise, let us not muddle the matter, by needlessly conflating sin and temptation together. There are no special categories of temptation or sin that require us to completely overhaul and redefine a biblical approach to sanctification.

Jesus carried up to a pinnacle of the Temple, to be Tempted, by James Tissot , a watercolor between 1886 and 1894.

NOTES:

If you have not a clue as to what the current debate is all about, you might want to first look at this blog post, by biblical scholar Bill Mounce entitled, “Temptation is Not Sin,” to get an introductory, “down-on-the-bottom-shelf”  look at a major theological misconception among believers, particularly among new Christians.

As to the more specific question about same-sex attraction; that is, is same-sex attraction itself, inherently sin, then you can follow the following blog posts, to get the flow of the debate (it can get technical at points). To put it bluntly, what is same-sex attraction, is it a temptation to be resisted, or a sin to be repented of? I go with the former, but not everyone agrees.

The occasion for the debate surrounds a 2018 conference in St. Louis, held in a PCA church, Revoice, which has been an attempt to reach out to LGBT individuals with the Gospel, while still affirming the traditional sexual ethic, or marriage, as being solely between a man and a woman. Revoice had some really good elements to it, and some elements that were not on the mark. Yet some strangely have seen this Revoice conference as a covert attempt to “smuggle the LGBT agenda into the church,” a perspective that borders on absurdity, if not being outrightly conspiratorial. Other more informed, critical voices, on the other hand, are worth engaging. The conversation started by Revoice will be with us for some time to come, and I am sure that I have much to learn and correct in my thinking myself. This is a pretty deep, theological debate, so hang onto your hats! :

For the two primary biblical studies and theological texts that dive into this topic, comprehensively, on different sides of the debate, consider Denny Burk’s Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change (note: I have not read this book yet, but the above blog posts summarize the arguments, according to the author), and Nate Collins’ All But Invisible: Exploring Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality. It may seem like I am piling on here against Denny Burk, but I hope I am not. He is a fantastic biblical studies professor, and I frankly do not know quite what to think yet about his contention regarding the growing normalization of other, traditionally perverse attractions, as orientations. I just think that folks like Collins, Sprinkle, and Belgau have the better argument on this particular issue, especially due to how it impacts the real world of sanctification for the Christian. My prayer is that Denny Burk might come around and see things a bit differently. My interest stems from reading Gregory Coles fine book, Single, Gay, Christian, which I reviewed previously on Veracity, as I have Christian friends who share Gregory Coles’ story.

If you think I am wrong about this, or that I have missed something, please let me know in the comments section below. If you have sound biblical reasoning, I am open to be convinced otherwise. This is a pretty emotionally-charged issue, so please keep your comments cordial,

In closing, one more word about the Revoice Conference controversy: We should gladly celebrate when God miraculously, and by His Glorious Power, changes the same-sex attractions of persons, and heals them of their disordered desires. Really, We should. Praise God! God also heals people from cancer, and other aspects of our fallen world.  At the same time, we should be honest to admit that such miracles do not happen as often as we would like them to happen. Johanna Finegan, at the Spiritual Friendship pre-conference, connected with Revoice, explains the  story of the last thirty years. Just before I finished this post, I listened to the following talk she gave, on my way to work today, and she says it better than anyone else, while being really funny and honest, all at the same time .

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About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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