Is temptation a sin?

Earlier this week, I contributed a piece to the Canon & Culture blog titled “Is homosexual orientation a sin?” I argued that homosexual orientation describes one who experiences an enduring sexual attraction to persons of the same-sex. Because the Bible teaches that it is sinful to have a desire for illicit sex, homosexual orientation is by definition sinful. So yes, homosexual orientation is a sin.

Since publishing the article, I have received a good bit of feedback—some positive and some negative. By far, the most frequent response has been with respect to temptation: “Are you saying that all temptation is sin? Wasn’t Jesus tempted like us yet without sin (Heb. 4:15)? How can you say that temptation equals sin?”

The short answer to these questions is that I do not believe that all temptation equals sin. Plainly, Jesus was tempted, but he never sinned (Matt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:15). So unless we want to imply that Jesus was a sinner, we must affirm that not all temptation equals sin. But in saying this, we must be careful to define what we mean by temptation and precisely what our temptation has in common with Jesus’. There are both similarities and differences between Jesus’ experience of temptation and ours. In order to see this, we will have to take a closer look at two key texts: Hebrews 4:15 and James 1:13-15.

Jesus’ Experience of Temptation

Yes, Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, but his experience of temptation was not identical ours. This is the necessary corollary of Christ’s impeccability, and it is anticipated in Hebrews 4:15:

Hebrews 4:15 “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”

The key thing to note here is that Jesus’ experience of temptation is “without sin.” There was no aspect of Jesus’ temptation that ever involved sin on his part. He had no desires that predisposed him to sin. His response to external pressures never resulted in an evil thought or attraction. And of course, he never engaged in any sinful behavior. From top to bottom, he was perfect, innocent, wholesome, and good in the face of every temptation. That means that Jesus’ experience of temptation was never internalized into any disposition toward evil. Ever. Jesus’ attractions—whatever they were—were never directed toward something that His Father prohibits.

This is not our experience of temptation. We experience a level of internalization that Jesus’ impeccability never allowed. Yes, he faced the same sorts of external pressures to sin. No, those pressures never had a landing pad in his heart. In the face of withering Satanic attacks, He only always desired his Father’s will (John 5:19; Matt. 26:39). In this way, the words “without sin” indicate that—while Jesus faced the same kinds of temptations as we do—his experience of those temptations was quite different from ours.

The Sinner’s Experience of Temptation

James 1:13-15  Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

The text says that God cannot be tempted by evil. In what way are we tempted by evil that God is not tempted by evil? Verse 14 gives the answer. While God cannot be tempted by evil, we face temptations that arise from our “own lust” (1:14). By contrast, Jesus never faced temptations arising from “his own lust.” Jesus never experienced desire for evil. His heart never in any degree fixated on evil. Temptation had no landing pad in Jesus’ heart nor did it have a launching pad from Jesus’ heart. The same is not true of sinners who are often carried away by their own desires.

The temptation in “each one is tempted” is explicitly tied to the sinner’s inner inclination. Literally, “each one is tempted when, by his own desire, he is carried away and enticed.” Is it possible that “desire” is morally benign? The word translated as “desire” (ESV) or “lust” (NASB) is epithumia. The only time epithumia is good is when it is directed toward something morally praiseworthy. Epithumia is always evil when it is directed toward something morally blameworthy. Thus, “desire” is not neutral anywhere in this text. It’s a “desire” that “lures” and “entices.” In short, it’s a desire that is directed toward evil. Thus the desires themselves are sinful. When such illicit desire conceives, it inevitably gives birth to sin because it is sin.

What Jesus Teaches Us about the “Way of Escape”

If all of this is true, then what does it mean for us to be tempted while not sinning? After all, the apostle Paul says that God always provides “a way of escape” for us when we are tempted (1 Cor. 10:13).

Our experience of temptation can possibly have both external and internal aspects. The “testing” of temptation is external. Jesus faced such external “testing” just like we do. Satan set before Jesus “temptations,” but those temptations were external to his desires. Satan never laid a finger on Jesus’ holy resolve to do all His Father’s holy will. Jesus experienced “temptation” in that external sense but the temptations never had a place within his heart. Biblically speaking, that’s the moral space between temptation and sin. The temptation is external to desire, but sin is conceived when desire fixes on evil.

Perhaps Satan would set before me an image of a scantily clad attractive woman. I might see her and apprehend that she is beautiful. But the moment that apprehension turns into a sexual/romantic attraction to someone not my wife, it is sin within my heart. It has moved from an external temptation to an internal attraction that is unwholesome. Sinners leap right over this moral space all the time. It’s so easy and natural to us. But Jesus never did. Such temptations were wholly external to his desires–he never fixated on evil.

This aspect of Jesus’ impeccability ought to evoke worship when we really think about it. Jesus always looked at every woman in a way that was without sin. He never experienced an untoward sexual desire for any woman. He was able to sit with the woman at the well without the turmoil of disordered lusts that he ought not be feeling (John 4:1-42). He just saw her, loved her, and ministered to her without all the garbage that we have to reckon with. Maybe she was beautiful. Maybe there was a bait to lust there. She had already made herself sexually available to at least five different men. But there was no place for that temptation to land in Jesus’ heart. He was perfect. Hallelujah!

Jesus models for us “the way of escape.” If we would be conformed to his image (Rom. 8:29), we must not only flee from immoral behavior but also from immoral desire. When we experience the root of desire fixating on evil, it is then that we must apply the ordinary means of grace to wayward attractions. We must pray, repent, call forth scripture and invoke the Spirit of Christ within us to redirect our imagination toward that which is true, honorable, right, pure, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). Whether your attractions fixate on the opposite sex or the same sex, this will be a fight for holiness and joy that we must engage for the rest of our lives. And it is one that we must engage without flagging in zeal (Rom. 12:11).

Is temptation the same thing as sin? No, it is not. But let us not think that our frequent attraction to evil ever had a parallel in Jesus’ heart. It did not. And by his grace, may it be increasingly absent from our own.

16 Responses to Is temptation a sin?

  1. Chris Ryan February 22, 2014 at 1:32 am #

    This thesis cannot stand; its built on circular reasoning. It looks like maybe the temptation here was to construct an argument that rationalized a pre-determined belief.. The resulting argument then changes the very definition of temptation and also refutes the plain meaning of Hebrews 4:15. Were Christ to have experienced the academic, aesthetic-only sensation here described it would be nothing at all like human temptation. Why women (Gretchen Carlson) say all the time that so-and-so other woman (Sarah Palin) is attractive, but they don’t mean they’re seriously tempted by them. A recognition that someone is attractive is not temptation.

    This is Occam’s Razor, and the simplest explanation is also the most literal, and the one literalists should gravitate toward. Sexual attraction–as distinguished from lust (Matthew 5:28)–not acted upon is not sin. If simple sexual attraction was sin, then simply being of heterosexual orientation would be sinful. We can’t have it both ways, if homosexual orientation is sinful then so to is heterosexual orientation. Its important to remember that Christ was our sacrificial lamb. But He wouldn’t have been a lamb if He didn’t–like us–fear the wolf. What makes His sacrifice worthwhile is that He faced the same feelings and overcame them.

    • Denny Burk February 22, 2014 at 1:53 am #

      Chris, Thanks for taking time to comment. The text says that Jesus’ temptation was “without sin.” Jesus himself says that desire for immoral sex is sin (Mt 5:28). Your distinction of sexual “attraction” from sexual “desire” seems to me a distinction without a difference. The text does not allow the suggestion that Jesus ever set his desire/attraction on evil. He was without sin inside and out. Thanks, Denny

    • Ben February 22, 2014 at 10:32 am #

      Heterosexual orientation is also sinful. Every time a man desires a woman not his wife–he sins. This is a point not made often enough, though Denny does make it in this post. We in the Church aren’t against only homosexual “orientation” but the heterosexual kind as well. We want faithfulness. We want Christlike sacrifice. We want the discipline of marriage, children, responsibility and patriarchy (father-rule).

      Desires not acted upon =/ sin? How can this be so and Matthew 23:25-26 and Matt. 15: 16-19 still be in your Bible? Honest question, not trying to be insulting. An essential part of the Gospel message is that the problem with us is what is INSIDE us, the things we cannot see.. Therefore, if we have corrupt desires there is something internally wrong. The inside of the dish is filthy. What good does it do to polish the outside?

      • Ben Carmack February 22, 2014 at 10:38 am #

        Whoops, didn’t fill out the thing correctly so my last name did not appear. Sorry

      • Chris Ryan February 22, 2014 at 11:49 pm #

        The problem here is that a new definition of “temptation” is being introduced. From Denny’s original article: “The word that Jesus uses for “lust” is the exact same term used in the tenth commandment’s prohibition on coveting”. That’s spot on. But Webster’s defines “lust” as “intense or unbridled sexual desire, or an intense longing”. Webster’s defines “covet” as “to want something that you do not have very much”. Hence, lust/covetousness is a great deal much more than a simple sexual desire. It has to be intense or unbridled. The way David wanted Bathsheba is one example of lust that comes to mind.

        Now, OTOH, Webster’s defines “attraction” as “a feeling that makes someone romantically or sexually interested in another person”. This would be temptation–in fact Webster’s gives “temptation” as a synonym for “attraction”. It does not list “temptation” as a synonym for “lust” however. So, yeah, Satan will bring to mind the pleasure that comes from sex, but unless your heart dwells on that pleasure you haven’t committed the sin of lust. Ergo, based on Matt 5:28 Christ would’ve been tempted–in the attraction sense–without being lustful–since that would be a sin.

      • buddyglass February 23, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

        “Heterosexual orientation is also sinful.”

        Yes, but I understand Denny to be arguing that same-sex attraction is sinful in a way heterosexual orientation is not. That is to say, the person who experiences same-sex attraction needs to repent of it because it is per se sinful, whereas the person who is merely “heterosexually oriented” has no such need. He may need to repent of lust, but not of the mere temptation to lust after members of the opposite sex.

  2. James Bradshaw February 22, 2014 at 7:54 am #

    Perhaps you should distinguish between involuntary desires which conflict with our own sense of values versus desires which we may actually feed into a bit, the latter being a reflection of personal sin while the former may not.

    For example, I may conceive of harming someone while I’m angry at them, but that feeling is also conflicted with my own loathing of violence and hatred in general. On the contrary, I can despise someone and wish them harm but refrain from doing so only because there would be repercussions if I did (or because the timing it inopportune).

  3. Don Johnson February 22, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    My concern with Denny’s arguments are that they are a form of legalism, which will have at least 2 harmful effects. 1) Sin is most fundamentally missing the mark, but this implies a choice is involved; when there is no choice possible, there simply cannot be a sin. Denny’s argument tries to obliterate this aspect of choice. Getting this wrong (the definition of sin) cannot have a good effect. 2) People that believe as Denny does will then tend to become hypocrites, denying the truth that could set them free.

    I am a heterosexual male, this means I am attracted to (some) females in a way that I am not to males. I cannot choose whom I am attracted to or not attracted to, it is just something that I have learned to recognize and accept. What I CAN choose to do is not act in inappropriate ways to those I might be attracted to.

    • Denny Burk February 22, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

      Don, I have tried to set forth what I think the Scriptures are saying. If you think that I have the Scriptures wrong, then set forth what you think the proper interpretation is. The bottom line is what the Bible says, not what our opinions are.

      The Bible doesn’t speak about sin and choice in the way that you do. The Bible teaches that we’re sinners by nature and by choice. The “sinners by nature” part was not our choice. Sins like pride and unrighteous anger spring up spontaneously and uninvited. They aren’t necessarily chosen per se. they spring from our nature, which is sinful. Sometimes there aren’t any observable behaviors connected to them. They are invisible within our hearts. Nevertheless, they are still sins.

      It’s not legalism to know the depth of our own sinful corruption. We are crooked deep down, and it helps to know exactly what Jesus is doing as he saves us and redeems us. He changes us from the inside out. That’s freeing news, not legalism.

      Thanks, Denny

  4. Bill Hickman February 22, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

    Denny –

    Above you acknowledge that you can “apprehend the beauty” of a scantily-clad woman without sinning. But your Canon & Culture piece appears to state that a homosexual man cannot “apprehend the beauty” of another man without sinning. Both cases – your noticing a scantily clad woman and his noticing another man – are presumably rooted in your respective sexual orientations. So why do you think there’s a difference between the two cases?

  5. James Harold Thomas February 22, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    Denny, honest question here, was Jesus attracted to the sin of avoiding his crucifixion? It’s tough for me to imagine him praying “Father, please let me [insert any sin], though not my will but yours”, and not call it attraction. Gethsemane needs attention in your thesis.

    • Denny Burk February 22, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

      Great question. I was waiting for someone to ask it. I think John Pipers article “are there two wills in God” is a helpful resolution to that conundrum. Of course, not everyone agrees with his interpretation. But I do, and I think it provides a way forward with respect to that text.

  6. buddyglass February 23, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    Hebrews 4:15 is pretty clear. Jesus was tempted “in all things as we are”. The word there for “tempted” is peiraz?. In order for “temptation to engage in homosexual acts”, which includes acts limited to the mind, to be sinful, then, it must be something that doesn’t fall under the category of peiraz?. In other words there’s the peiraz? kind of “temptation” and then there’s some other thing that’s not peiraz? but that we use the same English word (“temptation”) to describe.

    It seems strange and arbitrary that there would be one particular sin for which its impossible to be tempted towards without sinning, whereas for all other sins its possible to suffer temptation without sin.

    Or have I misunderstood Denny? Is he instead arguing it is possible to be tempted to engage in homosexual acts without sinning but that experiencing “same-sex attraction” is something more than mere temptation?

    If so, how does one delineate between the person who “suffers temptation to engage in homosexual acts” and the person who “experiences same-sex attraction”?

    • buddyglass February 23, 2014 at 10:30 am #

      Hmm. Looks like Disqus cut off the “o with an accent” character at the end of peirazo.

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    […] or immoral. Burk provides the following summary of the conclusion he draws from this reasoning in a follow-up article on his own […]

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