Temptation: An Inside Job

If we have been saved from sin’s power, why is temptation still so tempting?

An Evil Accomplice

Many are the gripping accounts of an infiltration, heist or coup whose success was owing to “an inside job.” It is upon that key “inside contact” that temptation, too, is dependent for its every success. Importantly, this is precisely why Satan had no hope of inciting the Lord Jesus to sin in the wilderness. Satan probed in vain for something, anything, within the heart of Christ that might respond to his wiles. Of Satan the Lord said, “He has nothing in Me” (Joh 14:30 NKJV), that is, nothing that would give the adversary a foothold (an “in”) or point of compromise that might stimulate the awakening of an inner desire necessary for temptation’s insidious success. John, among the very closest of all the Lord’s friends, affirmed this of Him: “In Him there is no sin” (1Jo 3:5 NKJV).

On the contrary, the tempter does find within us an ally which is always willing to collaborate with him in his sinister schemes (1:8). Thank God, as believers we are “free indeed” from sin’s power. We eagerly anticipate being freed once and for all from its presence (3:2). While this will be our future reality, it is not yet our present. Because of this, sin (or the sin principle)[1] within still makes its ugly presence known.

The religious men of Jesus’ day were rather OCD about hand sanitizing but had no interest in heart washing. This is why He likened them to beautifully whitewashed tombs but full of the putrefied stench of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Mat 23:27). He taught that “what comes out of a person is what defiles him. 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. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mar 7:20-23 ESV). While an external temptation works to incite a response, it is the sinful tendency at man’s core that is ultimately responsible for the commission of sin. Temptation draws its power right from within our own hearts! James reminds us that God is not to blame for temptation’s attacks, but rather “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas 1:14 ESV).

A Noncompliant Tenant

In the last part of Romans 7, Paul grapples with the disconnect between the healthy desires of a believer and his contradictory actions, as a man with a lingering propensity to sin. The imagery Paul utilizes here evokes something of the present-day tension that exists between landlord and tenant rights. While tenants decry the lack of maintenance and exorbitant rent increases, landlords protest legislation which makes it difficult to evict or gives no power to curb the unruly behavior of problematic renters. The latter is the problem Paul highlights. In verse 17 sin is pictured as an unwelcome tenant, intent on wreaking havoc and destruction on its dwelling, while Paul as landlord has no power to evict it because the law, while good in itself, is not able to subdue it. And yet, the relationship is far from simplistic, as Paul confesses that, in a way, he is his own unwelcome tenant. Both competing influences exist within the believer himself at present. Every believer who has agonized over his own propensity for sin still, in the face of a Spirit-induced desire to “live godly in Christ Jesus,” has felt Paul’s deep lament: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24 ESV).

We want to be clear that Paul is not subscribing to the doctrine of the dualism of the soul.[2] It is not that we have separate souls within us but separate competing desires. While even an unbeliever can experience this tension, the believer’s struggle is more intense still. He recognizes that no amount of attempted law-keeping can defeat the fleshly desires of the heart. A regenerated person has more than just a conscience that tells him what is good; he now possesses divine life through the Holy Spirit which empowers him to carry it out. This does not mean it will happen without a fight. Paul says, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal 5:17 ESV). Tim Chaddick writes, “There is a violence to the Christian life, but it’s not with other people or nations. It’s a war with sinful desires within our own selves.”[3] Temptation reveals a very real war being waged (Rom 7:23) within every true believer.

It might appear that Paul is attempting to shirk his responsibility when he says, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (v20). What has been termed “original sin” (because we are infected by it from conception) was not, of course, present originally at creation but invaded the human race in Genesis 3, and has been indwelling ever since. While we eagerly await the final eviction of that evil inner accomplice, we can trust in God’s faithful meantime provision through the Holy Spirit in the face of temptation’s seductive threat. In Romans 8, Paul lifts the despairing believer’s heart, “because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son” (Rom 8:2-3 HCSB).

While sin is still insistent, its commission is no longer inevitable for the believer (Rom 8:12). God will not rest until we are made finally and fully free (vv15-23) and temptation’s onslaught is forever silenced.

[1] That is, the propensity still resident within us to commit sin.

[2] As proposed by several mainstream philosophers before Paul’s time (Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon and others). Their explanation for the same tension Paul observes within himself was that we have two (or more) souls, one which is good and another evil, so accounting for the contradictory desires within us.

[3] Tim Chaddick, The Truth About Lies (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015), 115.