TO UNDERSTAND TEMPTATION is to understand our tendency to sin; what Christian theology calls our “sin nature.” Detractors often argue that it is possible to go through your entire life without committing murder, adultery, rape, theft; without cheating on your taxes or watching porn. I agree. However, to suggest that we have the human capacity to not sin simply because we don’t commit the acts listed above is to misunderstand the nature of sin and the dilemma it causes. Sin nature is sometimes referred to as “the flesh,” which explains why it remains after conversion. Although we are redeemed through the atoning death of Christ on the cross, we remain in a physical body, vulnerable to fleshly needs and desires. Salvation grants full pardon from the wages of sin. Sanctification comes from progressive spiritual growth. As we mature in Christ, renewing our minds and bringing our flesh under control, we are increasingly able to deny the flesh and resist temptation.
Nelson’s Bible Dictionary on temptation: “an enticement or invitation to sin, with the implied promise of greater good to be derived from following the way of disobedience.”
The apostle Paul provides a prime explanation of this dilemma in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… so now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 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. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (Rom. 7:15, 17-20). I remember falling into the trap of using Paul’s dilemma as a loophole—if the apostle Paul struggled with doing the things he did not want to do, how is there any hope for me? So, I kept choosing to engage in habitual sin. Finally, I felt convicted by this and decided to do something. Habitual, premeditated sin and disobedience is what we are most able to wrangle. We take every thought captive to Christ, the first step toward tearing down strongholds (see 2 Cor. 10:3-5).
The website GotQuestions provides the following: “The sin nature is that aspect in man that makes him rebellious against God. When we speak of the sin nature, we refer to the fact that we have a natural inclination to sin; given the choice to do God’s will or our own, we will naturally choose to do our own thing.“(1)
James talks about how we will undergo testing of our faith. It is joyful, however, to meet trials of all kinds because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness, which leads to completeness, spiritual maturity. James adds, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 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” (James 1:12-14). Our efforts to resist temptation will be weak and ineffective unless they are powered by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God—the only effective path to renewing our mind (see Rom. 12:2). Paul wrote, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2-3). If our minds are filled with the wrong thoughts and images, we will inevitably give in to sinful lusts.
Paul tells us, “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 Cor. 10:13). Jesus is able to sympathize and relate with our weaknesses because He was tempted in every way we are in our daily walk yet He did not sin (see Heb. 4:15). It is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to avoid sin when tempted. As Paul said, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). It is not a sin to be tempted; we cannot avoid being enticed or pulled away from God. The key is what we do when this happens. Impossible as it seems sometimes to walk away, we can conquer the flesh by choosing to walk in the Spirit.
Jesus Was Tempted as We Are
The Passion Translation of the New Testament gives a remarkable version of Hebrews 4:15-16: “So then, we must cling in faith to all we know to be true. For we have a magnificent King-Priest, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who rose into the heavenly realm for us, and now sympathizes with us in our frailty. He understands humanity, for as a man, our magnificent King-Priest was tempted in every way just as we are, and conquered sin. So now we draw near freely and boldly to where grace is enthroned, to receive mercy’s kiss and discover the grace we urgently need to strengthen us in our time of weakness.”(2) Paul reminds us that we are able to overcome through the power and strength of Christ (see Phil. 4:13). When we think about sinning, we need to stop and tell ourselves, “This is not what Christ wants for me.” Speaking truth helps us fall in line with truth and withstand temptation.
Jesus spoke the truth in defense of Satan’s temptations by quoting the Word of God. According to Scripture, after being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the Judaean desert. Satan appeared to Jesus at the end of the 40 days and nights, perhaps thinking Jesus was at His most vulnerable. It is very important that we do not put the temptation of Jesus in the desert on a higher plane, or think His “grand” enticements don’t apply to us. Satan tempted Jesus on three levels: hedonism (appealing to the lusts and desires of the flesh over the Spirit); egoism (appealing to the lust of pride and power); and materialism (appealing to the lust of the eyes).
From The Message translation:
Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for a Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: ‘Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.’ Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: ‘It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.’ For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, ‘Since you are God’s Son, jump.’ The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: ‘He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.’ Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: ‘Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.’ For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, ‘They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.’ Jesus’ refusal was curt: ‘Beat it, Satan!’ He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.’ The test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs (Matt. 4:1-11).(3)
We must guard our hearts and minds and avoid sources of temptation. Jesus said, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). Most Christians do not openly decide to jump into sin, yet it is impossible to resist the flesh with the flesh. We should take all precaution against placing ourselves in situations that fill our mind with lustful passions and lead us into sin. It is crucial that we allow the Word to have influence over us, and not the world. Otherwise, we are open to anything Satan wants to throw at us. Moreover, Satan comes at us when we are most vulnerable. Remember, he waited until Jesus was forty days in the wilderness, without food or water, before beginning his temptation.
In Part 4 we will examine the principle of faith.
(1) “What is the Nature of Sin?” Got Questions Ministries, accessed May 26, 2022. URL: https://gotquestions.org/sin-nature.html
(2) The Passion Translation New Testament With Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon (Savage, MN: BroadStreet Publishing), 2020.
(3) Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress), 2006.
Unless otherwise specified, all Scripture references are taken from the ESV (English Standard Version).