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.