‘But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed’ (James 1.14).
We often hear it said, ‘It is not a sin to be tempted. It only becomes sin when you succumb to temptation.’ But this statement is seriously inadequate and mistaken, being contrary to many biblical passages and also to the great confessions of faith.
To begin with, it fails to distinguish between temptations that come from without and temptations which come from within, and this is all-important. It is Catholic interpretation that insists that temptation itself incurs no sin. This is only true if the temptation comes from outside us, and is instantly rejected, but the trouble is that most temptation actually comes from within, and rises from our own sinful nature. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England say so. The Westminster and Baptist Confessions say so. Supremely, the Scriptures say so, especially detailed passages such as Romans 7.20-25, and James 1.14-16.
Those who insist that temptation is never sinful erroneously use two texts, answered later in this article.
James 1.14 is a perfect anatomy of the course of temptation and sin, saying, ‘But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.’ The word ‘lust’ refers to a desire or longing of the heart for something which is wrong, an inordinate desire. It is evil in character even while hidden in the heart. It emerges from our corrupt old nature and clamours for satisfaction. In no way is this temptation from within morally neutral or innocent, and it has become known as ‘indwelling sin’. Temptations from within are indwelling sin seeking expression.
James proceeds to the next stage in the life of a sin, saying, ‘Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin.’ A ‘child’ is ‘brought forth’, or suddenly born and brought into view. As the old writers said, ‘Lust becomes the mother of the sin.’ Says Matthew Henry, ‘The origin of sin and temptation is in our own hearts.’
Indwelling or ‘residual’ sin constitutes an unseen cauldron of sin, removed only by the atoning death of Christ. The longer brought-forth sin is not resisted, but instead is thought about, desired, and relished, the more guilt is incurred (and the greater the likelihood of the lust returning for gratification).
Finally, James considers the growth of the newborn sin, saying, ‘When it is finished…’ which does not mean when it is over, but when it is fully developed or grown up. This third stage represents the climax of sin and guilt. The purpose of James (writes Calvin) is to show us the perverse root of our sin, and not to teach, as Rome does, that wicked and abominable lusts are not sins if there is no consent. It is never true that inner temptation is innocent and morally neutral.
The most recent and high-profile promoter of this ‘morally neutral’ view is a youngish Anglican minister who has written several popular books and speaks at large gatherings endeavouring to convince evangelical people that homosexual desires, or same-sex attraction, are basically innocent and morally neutral. Those who have them should not be told they are sinful, but accepted as believers walking with the Lord. Indeed, they should be appreciated and applauded for remaining celibate.
This is obviously contrary to biblical doctrine and a calamitous way of helping those experiencing same-sex attraction. In blunt terms it is heretical, overturning fundamental facts of the Fall, of the nature of sin and of sanctification. Whether we are speaking of homosexual or heterosexual lust the words of Christ apply:
‘And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man’ (Mark 7.20-23).
We also note the Lord’s words in Matthew 5.28 –
‘But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’
From the very first rising of wrong desire there is sin.
Such writers as the one just referred to have two ‘proof texts’ for their (Catholic) opinion that temptation is not sinful. Both involve obvious misuse of the text. The first is the words of the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Forgive us our sins… and lead us not into temptation.’ From these words they claim that sins need forgiveness, but not temptations, which need only deliverance. But as any child can see, the Lord was making a very different distinction, namely, we must seek forgiveness for sin which is already committed, but deliverance from temptation which has not yet begun. You can hardly ask forgiveness for things that have not yet occurred.
Thus the idea that temptation is morally neutral rests on a distorted reading or a wresting of the words of Christ.
The other mistaken text used to justify the notion of morally neutral temptations comes from Hebrews 4.15, which reads –
‘For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.’
It is claimed that because Christ, who was sinless, was tempted in all kinds of sin, then temptation cannot itself be evil. But this is a rather foolish interpretation of the passage. It is true that Christ was never tempted from within, for he did not have a sinful nature. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of a virgin because it was impossible for the Holy One to inherit a sin-nature. Obviously, then, in his case all temptations, of every kind, were hurled at him from outside by Satan and no doubt by the demons of darkness. By that route he had every evil thought and proposal thrown at him, but without sin. Our unique Lord cannot be claimed as a proof for the moral neutrality of the human sinful nature.
To illustrate temptation from outside, imagine you are walking along a country road with someone, and you pass a cottage shrouded by trees. At the gate there is a table bearing a box of apples, with a box for payment. To your surprise your companion says, ‘Let’s help ourselves without paying; no one will see.’ Immediately you insist it is out of the question. This is quite clearly a temptation from outside, and you are wholly innocent.
But if a suggestion comes from within, driven, for example, by greed or pride, or hatred or temper, or jealousy, or uncleanness such as pornographic desire or same-sex attraction, it is from our sin-nature and is corrupt and to be fought. On no account must it be regarded as innocent until put into action. That will lead to it being entertained in the mind with complacent acceptance, and perhaps even ‘enjoyed’ in some way.
Sometimes people fume in temper in their thoughts, and it gives them a form of satisfaction, justifying their sinful feelings against another person. Sometimes unclean thoughts are rolled around the mind and desired. Even if not acted upon, guilt is incurred and all sinful thoughts entertained in this way will probably return with ever-increasing frequency and strength. In 2 Peter 2.14 we read of some who claimed to be believers but whose sins of unclean desire had multiplied because their thoughts had been ‘exercised’ (literally gymnasticised), with increasing repetition.
Here is the perfect summary and solution of the matter in Romans 7.22-25 –
‘For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members [my bodily parts and passions], warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? [ie: the old nature constantly throwing up sinful desires and thoughts.] I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.’
Then follows the glorious encouragement of Romans 8, promising the power and help of the Spirit to those who mortify the deeds of the body.
The cruellest counsel we can give to each other is, ‘Don’t worry about temptation; your temptations are neutral; they do not incur guilt.’ The kindest counsel we can give is – ‘Fight those temptations! Give them no hook to hang their coat on; no opportunity to stay and to multiply!’ James exhorts, ‘Do not err, my beloved brethren’ (James 1.16).
From a short Metropolitan Tabernacle Prayer Meeting address
 Article IX, framed under the direction of Thomas Cranmer reads: ‘Original sin…is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man…and this infection of nature doth remain in them that are regenerated…and although there is no condemnation for them that believe…concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.’