Temptation: The Immoral Conception

When does temptation become sin? Although sin is not temptation’s equivalent, it is its frequent result. Is it wrong to be tempted? Have I sinned if tempted? The answer depends on what is implied by “being tempted.” Luke says that Jesus, in the wilderness, was “being tempted by the devil” (Luk 4:2).[1] Moreover, the Holy Spirit led Him there so it would happen (Mat 4:1)! In the future, we hope to look at the Lord’s temptation in more detail, but suffice it to say for now that though He was, in fact, tempted, He did not sin (Heb 4:15), demonstrating that to be tempted in itself is not sin.

On the other hand, when someone says, “I was tempted to _____, but decided not to,” it is possible that while the desire was not acted upon, sin may have occurred in the mind. Take, for example, the temptation of Achan. He summarizes the experience in this way, “I saw … I coveted … I took …” (Jos 7:21). Did he sin upon seeing the forbidden things? Surely not. It would be most unwise for a soldier to advance in a battle zone with his eyes closed. It was not in seeing that Achan sinned but by how he responded to what he saw. Achan identifies correctly (though belatedly) when the tempting (what he saw) led to the sinning (“I coveted”). That is, even before he acted by taking, he sinned by coveting.

James, in his treatment of temptation, speaks in terms of bait and entrapment, of seduction and conception. He is careful to warn against accusing God of tempting any man to sin and states unequivocally that the one tempted is to blame for his own sin. As Owen writes, “A man shall see that it is God alone who keeps from all sin. Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength.”[2] James explains that “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” (Jas 1:14-15). James alludes to the allure of the bait and subtlety of the trap. Wuest renders it this way: “But each one is being solicited to sin when he is taken in tow and enticed by his own craving.”[3]

James’ imagery here is characteristically stark. The desire undenied and unimpeded will quickly result in an unholy conception, that is, the union of the seducing invitation and the craving response. If ever there is a need for contraceptive measures, it is here! As beautiful and awe-inspiring as are the growth of a baby in the womb and its long-awaited arrival, so grotesque and mutated are the insidious cell division and cancerous growth of heeded temptation’s resultant sin. From craving to conception to birth to full growth and then death, temptation’s awful work comes full circle. That seemingly small, even inconsequential moment results in a fully grown disaster!

This closely resembles the Proverbs 7 account, as a father warns his son of the treachery of sexual sin by his description of the adulteress who seduces “a young man lacking sense” (v7). The story culminates with this startling illustration: “With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life” (vv21-23). The powerful beasts, which possess great strength, and the bird, with its speed and skillful flight, are well-equipped to avoid or fend off danger, yet alike are caught in a deadly snare. So the strong young man is blinded by his passion and unwilling to consider the grave consequences that will befall him.

Solomon begins the proverb with a positive enjoinder and concludes with a negative warning. His first words urge his son to be equipped for temptation’s attack by keeping (to protect by guarding all around) and treasuring (to hide in a safe place)[4] his commandments and teaching. Almost certainly he had learned from his own father, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You” (Psa 119:9-11 NASB).

Solomon closes the proverb with a call for an attentive response and a moving plea, “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways …” (Pro 7:25). He recognized all too well that the war with temptation is not fought in a ring but is waged in and for the hearts of mankind. Solomon emphasizes that if wisdom does not occupy the place of intimacy in the heart, then temptation surely will (vv4-5).

In Eve’s case, she weighed in her mind the multiple promised benefits against the single stated consequence. God had spoken of sure death, but was it really that awful? What was death anyway? Just like Adam and Eve, you and I also demonstrate the result of not treasuring divine instruction in our heart every time we choose our desires over His directives. Tim Chaddick writes, “These moments of temptation can reveal spiritual reality. When we are drawn toward things that are anti-God, we need to look beneath the surface and ask the ‘why’ question. Why is that appealing to me? What do I hope to gain from disobeying God?”[5]

Where the temptation ends and sin begins is often a dangerously blurry transition and the slope so slippery that Paul earnestly cautions, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1Co 10:12). Let us foster the psalmist’s attitude: “With all my heart I have sought You … Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.”

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[2] John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 153.

[3] Kenneth S. Wuest, The New Testament: Wuest’s Expanded Translation of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961), 540.

[4] Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary of the Bible (Miklal Software Solutions, Inc., 1st edition, 2011).

[5] Tim Chaddick, The Truth About Lies (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015), 89.