“It’s not a sin to be tempted; it’s only a sin if you give in to the temptation.”
This is one of those axioms of the Christian faith, one of those fundamental propositions that everybody says, and we all accept, first, because it makes so much sense, and second, because it makes us feel a lot better, and we need all the feeling better we can get.
Pretty much everybody teaches this principle as axiomatic. Roman Catholics do. People in the Church of Christ do. Mark Driscoll does. Rick Warren does. Pretty much every conservative evangelical church does. Even the local newspaper in Conway, SC, the center of flooding from the recent hurricane Florence, does. (That’s how the Bible belt works, folks.)
But is it true?
Well, it must be true, right? If everybody says so. And if being tempted is sinful, we’re all toast, right? What chance do we have?
I’d like to suggest that The Axiom is overly simplistic—that the biblical view of temptation is slightly more complex than we’re seeing.
The key biblical principle underlying The Axiom is that Jesus was tempted, and he never sinned. Since the Scripture says that directly (Heb 4.15), it is of course true.
So it is possible to be tempted without sin. But the question for us is deeper than that. Is there no temptation that is sinful in itself? Is it only entertaining or acting on the temptation that places us in a position of sin? Is no temptation sinful?
The Bible has a lot to say about the nature and sources of temptation. Paul writes that in our lives before regeneration, we found ourselves following “the course of this world, … the prince of the power of the air, … in the passions of our flesh” (Eph 2.2-3). From there Christian theologians, beginning apparently with Peter Abelard, standardized the sources of temptation as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
Which of these served as the source of Jesus’ temptation? Well, in the most famous temptation event—we assume that there may well have been others—his temptation came directly from the devil (Mat 4.1ff; Lk 4.1ff). It’s important to note that these temptations originated outside of him; they were imposed on him from an outside source.
The flesh, of course, is internal to us. And John tells us that the world brings to us “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1Jn 2.16)—which sounds as though it’s at least partially internal to us as well. Did Jesus face the temptation of the flesh? Or the world, in John’s sense of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”? We have to rule both of those out, given that Jesus, conceived without sin by the Holy Spirit (Mat 1.20; Lk 1.35), did not have a fallen, sinful nature.
But what about us? Do any of our temptations come from within us? Do we ever tempt ourselves? We certainly feel as though we do, and James seals that suspicion by telling us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jam 1.14).
I would suggest that temptation is sinful when it starts within you. It’s sinful when you do it to yourself.
And we’ve all had that experience.
There’s a part of us that rises up in rebellion against our good and kind Creator, casts aside his laws and his desires, and seeks to go our own way.
And that, my friend, is blameworthy. It’s culpable. It’s sinful.
Whether you act on those desires or not.
Now, how are we inclined to respond to that?
If I’ve already sinned in being tempted, then I might just as well go ahead and do it. Phooey.
Not so, for two reasons.
First, there are practical consequences in pursuing sinful actions, consequences that limit our future choices and which we ought to avoid.
But much more importantly, we’re God’s children; he is our father; and we ought not do those things. That is reason enough.
But all of this is overshadowed and overwhelmed by a great and glorious truth.
All your sin is obliterated. Nuked. Gone. All of it.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you.