“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”James 1.13–15
The first chapter of James teaches us that we are to consider the trials in life with joy. Why? Because through trials God is forming his people, growing their faith and dependence in Him, shaping them to be a testimony for him, to shine brighter in a dark world, and preparing them for eternity. James reminds us of how God provides wisdom in trials to those who ask him in faith. He provided wisdom in His Son, the Word, Jesus, and through his Word, the Bible, so that we can stand firm in the faith in the midst of life’s challenges. James teaches us that God tests His children to reveal and to strengthen their faith. Therefore, trials in this life are inevitable. But what James tells us next is that something else is inevitable in life AS we face trials— namely, the temptation to sin. A temptation is an enticement to sin and evil—to do that which is contrary to God’s law and his will.
What James wrote at the beginning of verse 13 is important to note and cannot be missed. He wrote, “Let no one, WHEN he is tempted…”. James did not write, “IF he is tempted…”, but, “WHEN he is tempted….”. And I do not think that any of us would disagree with him. We are all tempted to sin, and in the midst of life’s trials the temptation at times seems more intense. So, the inevitable question that James confronts next is this: If God places us in the inevitable trials of this life, and if temptation to sin in these trials is inevitable, does that mean that God is tempting us with sin? The answer…is no! And James wastes no time telling us that when he wrote, “No one, when he is tempted, says: “I am tempted by God”” (13a). James knew that some people might blame God for their being tempted to sin in the midst of life’s trials. What I pray we see in these three verses is not only why God does not tempt us to sin, but where temptation comes from in the first place, how it affects us, and what we are supposed to do when we are tempted. The point is that Temptation is not the trial. But in order to understand why temptation is not the trial, we need to do three things: consider its different origin, observe its deviated development, and then research the true response for dealing with it.
1. Consider the different origin
James wants us to begin by considering the origin of our temptations. It is different from the origin of trials. He says that no one can say when he is tempted, I am tempted by God, because God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one (13). James reminds us here that God is sinless. That is what makes God, God. He is perfectly and eternally holy and pure, and therefore cannot be tempted with sin. As a sinless being, then, God is also incapable of enticing others to sin.
Now before we continue to look at who really is to blame for our temptation to sin, let’s point out something I think James touches on here—namely, that we have a tendency to blame other people for our temptations to sin. We can trace this tendency all the way back to where our sin problem began, in the garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve sinned against God, they blamed someone else for their failures. Adam blamed God and his own wife, Eve, that God gave him (Gen. 3:12-13). Eve blamed the serpent. And on and on it went. Just like Adam and Eve, we blame other people, or our circumstances, for our temptations to sin. This is especially true in the midst of a difficult trial, aa so James wants to ensure us that God is not to blame for the temptations that come in the midst of them.
So, if God is not to blame for our temptation, then who is? Often, like Eve, we cast the blame on Satan, right? We all know that Satan likes to tempt God’s children. But Satan isn’t omnipresent, he can’t be in more than one place at a time. How could he possibly be to blame for everyone’s temptation? Furthermore, James doesn’t even mention Satan here. Instead, he says that there is no one to blame but yourself…no exceptions. In verse 14 it says that EACH person is tempted—not some persons, EACH person is tempted, when—again, not if, but WHEN, he is lured and enticed, by what? By HIS OWN desire (concupiscenza).
James says it’s an inside job! Your situation is not to blame for your temptation to sin. Your friends or colleagues or family members are not to blame for your temptation. Not even Satan is the one to blame for your temptation to sin, although he certainly likes to tempt us. Instead, temptation to sin is a result of our own desires that flow out of an ongoing struggle with our sinful nature.
I want to point out that not every desire we have is evil, but all of our desires have capacity for evil. It’s not sinful to desire love, peace, or intimacy, for example. But because we are sinful beings, with a corrupted nature, our flesh seeks to fulfill those desires through sinful means. In these verses James is talking about our evil desires to commit sin and where it comes from. He says our temptation comes from being attracted and seduced to satisfy our own flesh’s desire, or appetite; a hunger and a thirst for power, for intimacy, for independence, for pleasure in ways that are evil and contrary to the will of God. James paints a picture of what a fisherman does to attract and entice its prey with a lure.
Our sinful desires tempt us like the shiny lure of a fishermen attracts a fish. My grandfather was a fisherman for hobby, and still is in his old age. Some of my best memories with him are of the two of us fishing together. He had this old tacklebox that was filled with all kinds of different lures and I used to love looking at them. There were lures of various sizes and colors and smells (usually gross smells). Some of the lures were designed to appealed to the fish’s desire. Some of them looked like smaller fish, frogs or insects. Some would spin under the water, reflecting light in order to grab a fish’s attention, making it think, “Hey that’s something I like to eat!” Then there were other lures that were designed to agitate the fish, rather than seduce it. Some would buzz across the top of the water’s surface, making noises that would agitate the fish until it was enticed to bite the lure because it wanted the noise to stop. When the fish bit the lure, they were hooked, dragged out of the water and into our boat, taken to the kitchen, and prepared for our bellies.
This passage also reminds me of the days when we used to go deer hunting. Our work would begin months before the hunting season started by planting food plots with vegetables that deer love. We setup a container with a machine and a timer that would scatter corn and grains every morning and evening. We also bought big jars of peanut butter that we attached to the side of a tree, cutting a hole in the jar so that the deer could lick the delicious treat, which is definitely one of God’s blessings. Obviously, the deer would begin to visit our camp site and enjoy all of the treats we provided. By the first day of the hunting season, the deer’s daily routine included a stop at our camp. They were fatter and all we had to do was cover our scent, put them in the crosshairs of our rifles, and pull the trigger. The deer were not smart enough to recognize the distorted reality of nature in our camp, that it was filled with things that didn’t belong there. But they didn’t care because they were momentarily satisfied, until death.
That’s the image James is painting for us. Our temptations are like the hunter who sets out desirous bait for his prey, and then patiently waits to trap the prey in his snare. But James reminds us that the origin of these temptations is our own flesh. Not God! So, brothers and sisters, in the midst of your trial, in what ways are you being attracted to and seduced by your sinful desires? Before you bite, before you take the bait, consider its origin. We need to be like the fish or the deer that smells the scent of a human on the bait, realizes that something isn’t right, and refuses to take the bait. When we are being tempted by our own sinful desires, we need to remember that temptation is not from God, the giver of life. We need to remember that trials are not obstacles to our spiritual growth and development, temptations are. Why? Because they have different origins… and they also have different results.
2. Observe the deviated development
The next thing James helps us do here is observe the deviated development of temptation. Look at how James describes the deviated development of temptation. It begins with a sinful desire, then leads to a decision to act, then to bondage, and finally to death.
The first stage is a desire that attracts and seduces us. These are those moments when we are being tempted and begin to say to ourselves things like: “You deserve it!” “Just this once!” “You’ve got to learn to love yourself!” “It’s what you really NEED, isn’t it?”. It’s the moments when we are filled with self- pity because of the difficulties of our situation and we start the journey down the road of self-justification. Like the husband who doesn’t feel satisfied by his wife and justifies his sinful desire to be with another woman. It begins with the seduction of our sinful desires.
The next stage is a decision to act. In this stage is the decision to visit that inappropriate website; to write a flirtatious message in WhatsApp; to open your mouth to criticize others; to lie in order to avoid being caught; to take the cookie or candy that mom said you couldn’t eat; to cheat on your test because the professor was just too unreasonable; to remove necessary boundaries that protect you in your moments of weakness and place you in a compromising situation.
The next stage in development is committing the sinful act. This is when the decision to sin takes place. And it is usually this stage that we would consider the first, not the third. To be clear, the initial stage of temptation is no less of a sin than the act of sinning. Jesus said that even if we look at another person with lust, or hate someone in our hearts, that we are guilty of the sin of adultery or murder (Mat. 5,21-22 and 27 and 28).
Then the next stage in the development of temptation is bondage. Giving into to temptation doesn’t just let us get it out of our system. It keeps drawing us back for more and more because our satisfaction is only momentary. It is brief. Like the married man or woman who in the stress of life, solitude or unmet desires finally decides to commit adultery, for only a brief moment of pleasure. Or like the addict who starts with just one dose, and then finds himself needing more and more in order to attain the satisfaction he requires, until his body cannot take it any longer.
And that leads us then the final stage of temptation, death. Sin kills. It kills physically and spiritually. Paul wrote in Romans 6,23 that the wages of sin is death. Death is the logical conclusion in the life cycle of sin. Death is the fruit of what is being sown in sin. That’s the way it works. But it doesn’t kill us right away, does it? And it just doesn’t hurt us, does it? It can hurt other people. For just a brief moment of sin, relationships are destroyed. What began as a temptation and decision to visit a website, has now destroyed lives. How many faithful men of God have lost their marriages, their ministry, or their children as a result of their sins? Sin kills marriages. It kills careers. It kills family bonds. It can kill unity in the local church. Just this week we read about the tragic example of this in the life and ministry of the late Ravi Zacharias.
James uses this metaphor of childbirth here. The desire sows the seed to sin, the decision to sin leads to the birthing of a sinful act, the sin like a child grows and gets stronger until it leads to death. We aren’t talking about beautiful babies like our little Sara, Stelvio or Lydia. We are talking about an ugly baby, as if you were to give birth to a beast that will eventually eat you for coddling it, for caring for it, for helping it grow. One church father said this about the deviated development of temptation to sin:
“It stands in contrast to women in labor. For before they give birth, such women have great pain and suffering, but afterwards the pain goes away, leaving their bodies along with the child. But here it is quite different. For until we labor and give birth to our corrupt thoughts, we are happy and joyful. But once the wicked child called sin is born we are in pain as we realize the shame to which we have given birth, and then we are pierced through more deeply than any woman in labor.“-Chrysostom
The American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson said something similar:
“Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny. It begins in the mind.”
Actually, though, it begins in our hearts. God’s word says in Jeremiah 18,9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17,9).
Brothers and sisters, trials are from God and are meant to lead us from death to life. To help us grow in our faith, to grow in holiness, to grow in our testimonies for Christ. But temptation to sin has a deviated development that weakens our faith, bring us shame, destroy our testimonies for Christ, and lead to death. Temptation is not the trial. Observe it’s origin, it isn’t from God, but comes from our sinful desires. Consider its deviated development that leads to death, not life.
3. Search the only true solution
So, what are we do to do with this universal problem? What we have to do is research the only true response to this problem. We have to start at the root of the problem. James says that our temptation to sin comes from within us because we are sinful creatures. Paul said in Romans 7,
“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. …Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”Romans 7.18–19, 24
Paul knew that the response to this problem inside of us cannot come from within us, it must come from outside of us. In Matthew chapter 4 we read how Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted. But unlike us, Jesus was not tempted by sinful desires because he had no desire to sin. He was without sin (2 Cor. 5,21) because he is Immanuel, God with us, God in the flesh. His temptations in the desert were not sinful like ours because they came from outside of him, not inside of him. There is no other like him. Therefore, only Jesus can be the true response to our sin problem. Jesus, the Word of God, overcame Satan’s temptations with the Word of God. Jesus is the sinless one who suffered an undeserved death on a cross and died in the place of sinners, so that God might provide the true response to our sin problem—the death of death.
Death died because Jesus Christ lived. He rose from the grave! The puritan John Owen describes this as “the death of death in the death of Christ”. Through repenting of our sins and looking to him in faith, we move from death to life and we share in his resurrection. This transition from death to life happens through the regeneration of our hearts. It is the gift of God when he graciously provides sinners with salvation through faith in Christ and makes them his children. By God’s grace he fills his people with the Holy Spirit, who seals their adoption as His children and CUTS OFF the development of sin and death. In being united with Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s children are empowered to live by faith and wage war against the sinful desires of their flesh. Listen to how Paul describes this new reality for God’s children in Galatians 2,20.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”Galatians 2,20
The one true response to our problem with sin and temptation is God’s grace. It is faith in Christ that helps us die to ourselves and walk by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit in us. Christ died to free us from slavery to sin, so when temptation to sin comes along we are to recognize it for what it is and respond accordingly! That means we wage spiritual war against our flesh. John Owen has another famous phrase describing this war. He wrote: ”Be killing sin, or it will be killing you”. Owen was summarizing the Apostle Paul who wrote in Romans 8,12-17:
“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!””Romans 8,12-15
Or again when he wrote this to the Colossians,
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” .Colossians 3.5
So, what is the response to temptation? Faith in Christ, and a Holy Spirit empowered WAR against every sinful desire that comes from our hearts. We prepare for war by learning God’s commands. We prepare for war by discerning our sinful desires. We prepare for war in prayer and communion with God and his saints.
We wage war by the power of the Holy Spirit when we remember God’s promises and when we eliminate the things that tempt us. We wage war through prayer, self-denial and through confessing our struggles to our brothers and sisters in the church, that they might pray for us and encourage us in the battle against our temptations, and that we might grow stronger in our faith.
Brothers and Sisters, trials are inevitable. When they come, we will either endure by faith in God, or give into temptation and sin. In a recent interview, Pastor Timothy Keller was asked how he was doing in his fight against pancreatic cancer, obviously a major trial in his life. Keller’s response is a testimony of what we are talking about. He said, “I’m not fighting cancer, I’m fighting sin! I’m much more concerned about fighting my sin”. Brothers and Sisters, that is a response that come from knowing and experiencing God’s saving grace! But we still fail at times, don’t we? Remember, beloved, God’s grace is always available to us in Christ, to lift us up and to restore us. Let us conclude with this encouraging promise from 1 Corinthians 10,13:
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”1 Corinthians 10.13
Friends, if you do not have life in Christ, you have no way of escape. Your desires will lead you from death to death. That is the natural progression of sin’s development. It requires a supernatural solution that only God in Christ can provide you. Repent to the Father for your sins, trust in the Son, and by the Spirit move from death to life.
Church, as you face the trials of life in the city where God has placed you, may you be alert to the temptations that will surely come. And when they do, may you consider temptation’s origin—it is not from God. Observe its deviated development that only would lead you into bondage and death. Live by God’s grace through faith in the one true response to temptation, Jesus Christ. And walk in the power of the Holy Spirit to wage war against your flesh, that you might glorify God and make him known to others. Amen?