As a middle schooler I remember sheepishly raising my hand and asking my Sunday school teacher the question: “Is it sinful to be tempted?” It was a genuine question arising not so much out of theoretical speculation, but out of the guilt and shame that often accompany daily temptations. My teacher quickly quoted the pithy proverb popularized by Martin Luther: “You cannot prevent the birds from flying in the air over your head, but you can certainly prevent them from building a nest in your hair.” I understood his point, and it’s a conclusion that many people have made: temptation is only sinful if we give in to it. But is that true?
Temptation is something that’s important to understand. As William Bridge once observed: “Satan tempts, and then he tempts a man to think it is no temptation” (Works, 1:162). A key part of the Christian life is to pray and watch against falling into temptation, so there’s few subjects as practical as that of temptation — its nature, power, and danger; and how to overcome it. And, in light of what the Bible teaches about it, I think the previously mentioned conclusion needs to be carefully challenged.
To be clear, there’s at least some temptations that aren’t sinful. After all, Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1). If falling under the subtle solicitations of Satan — great and powerful as they were — was sinful then Jesus cannot save his people from their sins. Our salvation depends upon the sinlessness of Jesus Christ. Thankfully, he not only resisted those temptations but could assert with all integrity that Satan “has no claim on me” (John 14:30).
But should we assume that because there’s some temptations that aren’t sinful, all temptations aren’t sinful? That doesn’t seem to me to be a warranted conclusion from the Bible. That’s because there’s different kinds of temptations. Some temptations — like those originating from the devil or the world — are external to us. But there’s also internal temptations that originate from our own hearts. Jesus has taught us that our hearts are filled with all kinds of sinful desires: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). Sometimes, temptations arise from those sinful desires. As James wrote: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). On this Richard Capel wrote that fallen man “carries the cause of all temptations within his own bosom” (Tentations, 2). The temptations that result from those sinful desires are not innocent temptations, but sinful. John Owen said: “When such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin” (Works, 6:194).
For instance, Jesus taught that adultery originates in the heart. That is to say, adultery exists as a desire or craving in the heart of a person. That’s not an innocent desire but is sinful. When a man or woman is enticed by that sinful desire it’s a sinful temptation even if it’s not acted on. Or, for example, hatred is a sinful affection of the heart. When someone is enticed by that affection to slander or gossip it’s a sinful temptation and a part of original sin that needs to be repented of. As Richard Gilpin observed: “In those temptations that arise from our own hearts, we are never without fault” (Demonologia Sacra, 325).
This highlights an important difference between Jesus and us. As WGT Shedd once wrote: “Christ’s temptations were all of them sinless, but very many of the temptations of fallen man are sinful: that is, they are the hankering and solicitation of forbidden and wicked desire. The desire to steal, to commit adultery, to murder, is sinful, and whoever is tempted by it to the act of theft, or adultery, or murder, is sinfully tempted” (Dogmatic Theology, 2:341).
That’s why we need to be careful in understanding what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). This doesn’t simply mean that Christ’s temptations never resulted in sin, it also means his temptations in their source and nature were without sin. There never was a sinful desire or affection in the heart of Jesus, and so all of his temptations were innocent. Again, as Shedd said: “He was tempted in every way that man is, excepting by that class of temptations that are sinful because originating in evil and forbidden desire” (Dogmatic Theology, 2:343).
It isn’t biblically accurate to say that temptation is only sinful when we yield to it. This minimizes the truth of sin and temptation. Nor is this a trivial point to make. Richard Sibbes sounded a note of caution when he wrote: “And in nothing the sinfulness of sin appears more than this, that it hiders all it can, the knowledge of itself.” The gospel doesn’t bid us to minimize our sin, guilt, and shame but to let them be exposed to the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. Again, as Sibbes said: “Were it not for temptations, we should be concealed from ourselves; our graces, as unexercised, would not be so bright, the power of God should not appear so in our weakness, we would not be so pitiful and tender towards others, nor so jealous over our own hearts, nor so skillfully of Satan’s method and enterprises, we should not see such a necessity of standing always upon our guard.”