Temptation Is Not Sin
Updated: Mar 17
The sanctified are sometimes in heaviness through manifold temptations if need be. Now don't infer, if you see them so, that they are not holy. Christ had his sorrows, and knew what it was to resist even unto blood, striving against temptation to sin; and the servant need not expect to fare better than his Lord. The truth is, these trials are useful--they are but for a moment, but they prepare for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. Sorrows endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning. Under the pressure of the temptations the soul is in an agony, and cries out "Help, Oh Lord, help," and He comes forth and scatters the insulting foe, and the soul bounds up like a rocket, giving glory to God.
Charles Finney – Christian Warfare
In his sermon entitled “Christian Warfare”, Charles Finney teaches that it is incorrect to say that the Christian battles with sin on a regular basis, rather, the truth is that the Christian habitually overcomes sin, but there is a constant battle between his will and temptation. Temptation feels like sin, and too often, Christians feel like they have sinned when instead they have only been tempted. Is it a sin to be tempted? Some make the claim that we are born with a corrupt and sinful nature that is the cause of our temptations, so temptation shows us how sinful we are. I disagree. The Lord Jesus never had a sinful nature, yet he was tempted in every way we are according to the scriptures. People have wondered if the Lord Jesus could have sinned, and of course the answer is in the very fact that he was tempted. If it was impossible for him to sin, then it would have been impossible for him to be tempted. It would be appropriate to say that Christ cannot sin in a sense. When we say that Christ cannot sin, we should be careful to explain it in moral rather than constitutional terms. The Lord cannot sin in the sense that he is completely committed to holiness and thus he “cannot sin” in the same way most of us “cannot” go on a murdering spree. It is morally reprehensible, and we would say we cannot commit such an act. But are we constitutionally able? Yes, of course. Adam and Eve were not created with a sinful nature, yet they both gave in to temptation. In this we see that a sinful nature is not necessary to explain the universality of temptation, or even sin.
In these examples, the subjects were able to be tempted, not because they had a nature inclined toward sin, but because humans have constitutional appetites and we are placed in a world that is suited to meet those appetites. Temptation involves the enticement to satisfy those appetites in a forbidden way. When we cross the lines that God has drawn for the lawful gratification of those appetites, we have given in to temptation and sinned. For example, God has created men and women for the mutual benefit of one another. There is a lot to unpack in that statement, but for our current purpose, I would like to point out the fact that God made the female form to be appealing to men. Many men, including married Christian men who are committed to their wives and holiness, suffer under needless condemnation, because they feel tempted by the female form. Some godly men have likened this temptation to the pull of a magnet. It feels like their eyes and minds are drawn to women. Of course, ungodly men do not feel this temptation because they merely follow their eyes and minds into sin with no resistance.
It is natural for the female form to be appealing to men, and temptation does not stop with marriage. But temptation is not sin. Temptation, in the context involving a married man, becomes sin when a man pursues a woman other than his wife, when he views pornography, when he dwells on sexualized thoughts for the purpose of sexual stimulation and gratification, or when he seeks out opportunities to fix his eyes on a woman. This is a matter of the heart, or the will. It is not a sin if a woman walks by a man and her looks appeal to him. But a man must make the decision to direct his attention elsewhere, knowing his susceptibility to crossing God’s boundary visually and/or mentally. Not that a mere thought is a sin. Some people think they sin daily because an inappropriate thought comes to mind, but unless these thoughts are being pursued for the purpose of self-gratification, they are not sin. They are suggestions, but a man can dismiss these suggestions and refrain from sinning.
In listening to some people, many seem to have a different standard for visible sin (such as adultery) and sins of the thought life. What happens is people are told they have sinned because of the occurrence of a thought, when in fact this is not the case. Let me give an example. James tells us that… “every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” Let us apply this to the temptation of Eve in the garden. God created Adam and Eve with an appetite for knowledge and pleasurable things, and he put objects in their environment that could appeal to their minds and their eyes. He gave them ways of fulfilling these appetites lawfully, but he also created the opportunity for them to fulfill them unlawfully. In order for there to be virtue in obeying God, disobeying God must be a possibility. That is what real love is – a choice, not something where we do not have the capacity to do otherwise. The Bible says: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” Eve saw that the tree was good for food. Had she sinned at this point? No, certainly not. Eve recognized that the fruit was pleasant to the eyes. Was this sin? Again, the answer is no. She even felt desire for the object because of its ability to make her “wise.” But did this mean she sinned? No again. But then she “took” the object and did eat. She consented to indulge in what was forbidden and in doing so she sinned. Eve saw, she recognized, she even experienced desire…but if she would have stopped there, she would not have sinned.
There is another well-known example of temptation in the Bible in the account of King David and Bathsheba. We know that David saw a physically appealing woman. It was not wrong for him to recognize that. We know that it stirred his appetite for sex. Was that sin? Not according to James. Because of David’s sexual desire, he was drawn away and enticed, but he had not yet committed his will to the forbidden indulgence. David then no doubt deliberated, envisioning the scenario in his mind. He was in the clutches of temptation. What if he would have rejected this thought, and instead fled like Joseph when Potiphar’s wife took hold of him? Would David have sinned? Not according to James’ definition of temptation and sin. So, when did David sin? He sinned when he “took” Bathsheba. Though his appetite was not unlawful, his means of gratifying it was. This is not all, however. Truthfully, he sinned before he ever touched the woman. The moment he committed his will to “taking” her, his desire conceived and sin resulted. When taking her became his intention, he sinned. God judges not only our actions but the thoughts (not mere mental visualizations or images – but intentions) of our hearts. Even if a man does not commit adultery with a woman in the flesh, he does so if he lusts after (covets) her. The moment he purposes to commit adultery, he has already committed adultery in his heart, before the deed ever occurs.
So how does this relate to the idea that mere thoughts are sinful? People sometimes claim that they had a “sinful thought” because they visualized something that would be deemed inappropriate. Does a mere thought, in the sense of a mental visualization of something forbidden, constitute a sin? Or is this a temptation? If we fail to apply the above definition and examples to the question, we cause married men to think that because: 1) the female figure is pleasurable to their eyes that the men are sinful - even though they choose to redirect their attention; and because 2) sexual images and suggestions occur in their minds, that the men are sinful - even though they choose to fight these images off and not dwell on them; and because 3) their sexual desire can be stirred and they feel like they want to “take”, that the men are sinful - even though they make the wise choice to flee the temptation. That is unfortunate. The flesh wants to be gratified, and it makes no distinction between that which is holy and that which is unholy. But our minds are made up of three parts: 1) Desires and feelings, 2) our intelligence or intellect, and 3) our decision-making faculty, or the will. Asa Mahan describes these differences well in his book called “Doctrine of the Will.” Our desires, feelings, and appetites may pull us in one direction, but these are not sin. Our intellect informs us that certain decisions, though they may bring temporary pleasure, will only result in pain and sorrow. Thus, our wills are influenced by our appetites and our intellect. A man will choose intelligently out of his love for God and his wife, or he will side with his appetite and give in to the sinful pleasure. Of course, the beauty of the one-man-one-woman relationship is that the man can choose intelligently and fulfill his appetite by finding pleasure in his wife. This is God’s way.
As Finney stated, temptation does not mean that a man is not holy. Furthermore, as we resist temptation it increases our virtue and our will is exercised and strengthened. We run to God and plead for his help in the battlefield of the mind. We all brag on David because he slew the Philistine giant, but seldom do we hear teaching about the giant that slew David. There are many good men and women who teach on this subject and we can find their material on websites and in bookstores. I want to join them in offering help and encouragement to both men and women as they trek through life. Understanding is needed. Repentance is required. Mercy and forgiveness are essential. Excuses must be shunned. Responsibility must be taken.