Is It Temptation or Sin?
“How do I know whether I’ve crossed the line in my mind between temptation and sin?”
This is a frequent question I get asked at our Harvest USA groups. While there could be mixed motivations for asking such a question, I believe the most common reason Christians ask this stems from a very legitimate desire to please their heavenly Father. At the core of our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God in Christ, we have been given hearts that long to hear our Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We know that sin displeases our Father. So how does God look upon us, when we wrestle daily, and frequently throughout the day, with desires, thoughts, and temptations that we know are not pure, good, or pleasing to God? Is God, at all times, frustrated and dishonored by our lives?
This is an extremely important question for the believer who wants to repent well of ongoing patterns of sin. Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
But if we think that all of our sincere efforts are only met with perpetual disappointment from our Father, then it will only be a matter of time before despair sets in. And eventually, we give up.
This is an especially significant question for men and women wrestling with same-sex attraction. They can struggle with great discouragement if every experience of same-sex attraction is classified as sin. But no matter what form temptation presents itself, these deep questions concern everyone.
We all know the pain of never measuring up to someone’s standards. It may be a child whose parents aren’t pleased with any grade below an A+, or an employee whose boss never gives them a compliment, or someone who never experiences their spouse’s delight in them. This hurts, and over time, it can be a crushing experience. So too, brothers and sisters wrestling with ongoing temptation want to know that God is pleased by their sincere efforts.
In light of these good desires to please God, how should we understand the nature of temptation and sin? This is the topic of much current discussion. My purpose here is not to throw my two cents into the conversation, since I believe a historic, reformed anthropology adequately reflects the biblical teaching on sin and temptation. My concern is more with the pastoral implications of this anthropology.
So, I will briefly summarize my understanding of sin and temptation, and then explain how this does not lead to despair in the Christian’s life, but hope!
It’s helpful to consider three categories when conceptualizing sin and temptation. This is our starting point to get to the place in answering the question I raised.
Temptation from without
This is temptation to sin that comes at you that has no genesis in sinful desires. Adam and Eve were tempted from without by the serpent. Jesus was tempted from without by the devil. When someone entices you to engage in sinful activity, this is temptation from without. It does not come from your heart but is seeking to tempt your heart to sin.
Temptation from within (indwelling sin)
This is temptation that arises from corrupt desires in your heart. James says that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). How are we to understand the moral quality of these desires? Are they neutral?
I don’t believe the Bible allows that interpretation. These desires are sinful desires, arising from the fallen, corrupted, sinful nature that we have all inherited from Adam. Another term for temptation from within is “indwelling sin.” A very important feature of indwelling sin is that it is not something consciously chosen or something that we willfully summon. And yet, it is still sin.
Voluntary (willful) sin
If temptation from within is not something we consciously choose, then voluntary sin is what we willingly engage in. This is what most people think of when they think of sin. They think of something that is willfully chosen. And indeed, much sin is of this variety.
We are presented an opportunity to sin that our hearts desire. Now we are left with a choice. Will we turn to Christ, or give in to our sinful desires? This is what James means when he says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:15). James is not saying the desire itself was not sin, but that sinful desires, often unbidden, give birth to willful sin.
At first, this might sound crushing to someone wrestling with sinful desires on a daily basis. Indeed, it should sober us to think of the overwhelming weight and pervasiveness of our sin. That sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives. Consider the call of Christ to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). I don’t believe there is a single moment of my life where I can say this was perfectly true of me. Pride and selfishness always infect even the purest motivations of my heart.
Sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives.
This must mean God is constantly disappointed in you, right? Wrong! It is for these very reasons that Christ came not only to die in my place for the sins that I continue to commit, but also to live the perfect life that I never could. We can never merit favor with God by our own righteousness—our own good intentions or efforts. This is why Christ’s active and passive obedience are required to earn our full salvation. Because no one will be accepted into God’s presence unless they have a record of proven, perfect righteousness. Christ alone has accomplished this, and by Spirit-wrought faith we are united to Christ in all of his benefits, including his justification becoming our own.
So, instead of crushing the believer’s heart, it should first of all greatly deepen our appreciation of the gospel—the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us! The more we come to grips with how bad the bad news really is, the more we come to worship, delight in, and love our Savior.
This understanding of Jesus-for-us is the answer to our concern that we can never please God even though we are saved, because indwelling sin stains everything we do. But the Bible gives us so many declarations that God delights in his people and is pleased by their obedience (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Is it perfect, sinless obedience, worthy of salvation? No. But every Christian can and does obey in ways that delight our heavenly Father.
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains this possibility of pleasing God so well in section 16.6:
Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
This is so crucial to understand! How are our sincere efforts to please God acceptable in his sight if they are not perfect? They are accepted by God “through Christ,” as God looks upon our imperfect works “in His Son.”
Here’s the answer, then, to the question: How do I know if I’ve crossed the line between temptation and sin? We are always crossing over the line between temptation and sin because we are fallen. We don’t just need the gospel to save us from God’s wrath, we need the gospel in order to do anything that pleases the Father.
This means, when you are wrestling with indwelling sin, temptations from within, you have the opportunity to please God! When you turn from corrupt desires that rise up from within your own heart, and you make war with your flesh, and submit to the Spirit leading you into the throne room of grace, you are met there by your high priest with sympathy and with delight!
Every Christian will battle with indwelling sin until they see Jesus face to face. This will be a daily, moment by moment battle. God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin. The ones who meet God and hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant,” are those who endured to the end. Who didn’t make peace with their sin, but continued to take up their weapons of warfare that we see so beautifully outlined in Ephesians 6.
God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin.
Brothers and sisters, you aren’t laboring in vain. Not only are your sincere, Spirit-dependent efforts accepted and rewarded in Christ, but they are also sowing seeds into greater and greater righteousness. You don’t “box as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26), but instead, you are being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
To learn more, watch Mark Sanders’ accompanying video, Can I Please God When I’m Not Perfect?