Is Temptation a Sin?
About the Guest
Is being tempted to sin, a sin? Authors Denny Burk and Heath Lambert explain that while some sin is external and comes from the outside, like wanting that piece of cake our doctor told us to forgo, other sins are internal and stem from our own desires. Jesus never desired something that was forbidden Him, but we do. If you desire sin, then the desire itself is a sin. Jesus, however, came to bring life, and to transform our desires into godliness.
Denny BurkDenny Burk (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Ethics at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Burk edits The Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and speaks and writes extensively about gender and sexuality. He is the author of What Is the Meaning of Sex? and coauthor of Transforming...more
Heath LambertDr. Heath Lambert is the Executive Director at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. ACBC is the largest biblical counseling organization in the world with counseling training centers and certified counselors in 29 countries. Dr. Lambert also serves as the Associate Pastor and Executive Pastor for Discipleship and Family Life at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. Dr. Lambert is a faculty member at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and their undergraduate instit...more
Denny Burk and Heath Lambert explain that while some sin is external and comes from the outside, other sins are internal and stem from our own desires.
Is Temptation a Sin?
Bob: What do you do when the things you believe are not popular? Heath Lambert says, “You keep believing the truth.”
Heath: Christians are being hammered every day about two things. Number one—the statement that “Homosexuality is sinful.” The other things Christians get hammered on is: “You say people can change, and they can’t.” The reality is—Christians have to hold the line that both of those claims from the culture are false. The gospel message is that: “Homosexuality is wrong and sinful.” The gospel message is that “Jesus Christ can change you by His grace.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, May 18th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. So should we expect that a Christian, who experiences same-sex attraction, will change?
And if so, what do we mean by change? What will that change look like? We’re going to spend time thinking about that together today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re going to try to tackle something that many of our listeners have probably heard that may not be true. They may have heard this at church, and you’re saying it may not be true; right?
Dennis: That’s exactly right. Dr. Heath Lambert and Denny Burk join us on FamilyLife Today. Denny, Heath, welcome back.
Denny: It’s good to be here. Thank you.
Heath: Thank you very much.
Dennis: They’ve written a book called Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change. What we’re going to do here, for a moment—because both you guys are pastors / you’re authors—I’m going to pull you back away from the specific topic of cultural clashing that we’re dealing with today, homosexuality.
I just want to talk about something that I don’t know that we’ve ever really talked about, here on FamilyLife Today, directly; and that is sin. We’ve mentioned it—it gets all kinds of mentions around here.
Bob: I think it’s gotten a few mentions.
Dennis: Yes, yes; but here’s my point—since childhood, I was taught that temptation is not a sin. It’s clear—at least I was taught—in James that it’s the idea of what gives birth to sin. It is not the temptation that is a sin. But you guys come along and write a book where, as you unpack your book, you’re really dealing with the issue of desire. As you deal with desire, you have to deal with temptation. So I’m going to ask you both, point-blank, “Is temptation a sin?”
Denny: Well, most of the time people ask that question because they’ve been reading their Bible.
They know Hebrews 4:15—which says, “Jesus was tempted in every way as we are yet without sin.” So clearly—there you have it / right there in Scripture—that Jesus experienced temptation, and there’s no sin in that. We want to say, clearly, up front: “Not all temptation is sin.” What we’re arguing is—that some temptation can be sinful. The reason that we say that is because, just because all of Jesus’ temptations were sinless, doesn’t mean that every possible temptation would be that way.
People kind of look at Hebrews 4:15 that says, “He was tempted in every way as we are yet without sin.” People focus on “as we are,” and we think about our own experience. We think about how oftentimes we feel desires welling up in our hearts for things that God forbids to us, and we experience those desires / those temptations to do the bad thing.
So we look at Hebrews 4:15 and we say, “That’s a temptation I’m feeling; therefore, it’s not sinful.”
Then we project that back onto Jesus. That’s the wrong way to do it—our experience of temptation is not the measure of things. Jesus’ experience is the measure of us. The text says, “He experienced temptation just like we do except without sin,” meaning that whatever Jesus experienced—let’s take His temptations in the wilderness with the devil himself—at no point in those temptation experiences did Jesus desire something contrary to His Father’s will—ever.
How do I know that? Because the text says, “He was tempted in every way as we are except without sin.” That’s not our experience of temptation. We often leap over the moral space between not desiring evil and desiring evil. That’s what the James text is really all about, which says that: “Each of us is tempted when he’s carried away by his own desires.”
Those desires drag away / pull away, and those desires give birth to sin—which means that sometimes our own desires, themselves, become the temptation.
The question is: “Are the desires that we experience—are they always sinless?” Of course, James is teaching us that they’re not. Sometimes we have sinful desires. Those desires become a temptation to us and give birth to a sinful deed.
Bob: So I’m trying to get my arms around this. I’m thinking: “I’m at the Cheesecake Factory, and I’ve just finished lunch. They say, ‘Do you want this S’more Cheesecake with the toasted marshmallow on top?’”
Heath: “Yes!” [Laughter]
Bob: That was my immediate response too; right? I hear you saying that temptation to want that might be a sin or might not be a sin. Is that what you’re saying?
Heath: I think the key—and it’s really helpful for me is to think about external versus internal.
There is the kind of temptation that is not sinful—is the kind of temptation that is purely external. So to change the analogy a little bit—let’s say that you leave the room and there are two $20s on the table. In some sense, that’s an external temptation. But if I have no internal desire for it, then I don’t need to repent that Dennis and Bob left $40 on the table. That’s just there, and it’s not a problem for me. When it becomes a problem is when, internally, I begin to want something that is not mine and I take it.
The external temptation, which is not sinful, created an internal temptation, which is sinful and that led to a sinful behavior. Then that disposition of my heart can begin—not just to respond to external temptation—but can begin to conjure up its own kind of temptation. So maybe the next time you’re in here, my heart might start to desire, “Boy, I hope Dennis and Bob leave 40 more dollars on the table.”
Now, my heart has created its own kind of temptation. The issue is external versus internal. We don’t repent of external temptation. We repent of internal temptation—we really want bad things.
Denny: Think about what that means in terms of Jesus. Jesus never desired something that His Father had forbidden Him. John, Chapter 5, says that Jesus says, “I can only do what I see my Father doing,”—which means that: “When you think about the Father’s will and My will, they’re always in lock-step. They never go apart. I never desire something that is evil.”
So what that means is—that Jesus never violated His own command. In
Matthew 5: “Don’t commit adultery / Don’t desire adultery,”—He never looked at a woman lustfully—which means that He is sitting there with the woman at the well; right?—this Samaritan woman / He’s alone with her. She tells Him that she’s made herself sexually available to five different men.
There’s no indication that this is an issue with Him at all. Maybe there was a bait to lust—the text doesn’t say. He never looked at any woman or any man in any way with any disposition that was sinful at all. He always looked at people the way that He was supposed to look at people.
Our problem is—is that we don’t do that. We are constantly feeling things. I’m not just talking homosexual temptations—sometimes, you see a person at church and you’re like: “That person’s weird. I don’t like them.” You’re feeling things about people that you ought not be feeling, but they still come quite naturally to you. Just because they’re natural though doesn’t mean that it’s right. But here’s the thing—you’re feeling those things—maybe, a sinful attitude / sinful desires. Jesus never had those kinds of feelings. You don’t want to project your own experience of temptation back onto Jesus.
Bob: So when Jesus—Matthew, Chapter 4—He’s with Satan in the wilderness. Satan says: “Look at all the kingdoms of the world. I’ll give You these if You’ll bow down to me.
“Forget the cross way of get”—because Jesus knows God’s plan: ‘I’m going to get this anyway,’ —You can get it through the cross or just bow down to me.”
Denny: That’s a bonified temptation; right? Temptation always contains two elements—it contains a test and an enticement. The testing of temptation is some kind of experience of depravation or suffering; okay? Then there’s the enticement, which is the invitation to do the evil.
Bob: So if Jesus is there, and He hears that, and He thinks to Himself, “You know, there’s part of Me that would sure like to skip the cross.” You’re saying He wouldn’t even have had that thought.
Denny: What we’re saying is—is that both the test and the enticement were coming from Satan, not from His heart. That’s what I’m saying.
Denny: But our experience of test and enticement is not always like that. Sometimes, test and enticement emerges from within.
Jesus did not have a sinful nature, like we do, so that it produced these tests and enticements to sin—that He did just not have that within Him. So they were produced outside. Now, that doesn’t mean that, when Satan said “Turn these stones into bread,” that Jesus felt no hunger—of course, He did / He did feel hunger. He felt a real test—there was nothing wrong with being hungry; okay? It’s not wrong to be hungry.
It is wrong to fulfill a natural desire in a sinful way, which is what Satan was tempting Him to do; but that enticement didn’t come from within / it came from without. What James 1 is teaching us is—that, oftentimes, our temptations are emerging as a result of our own sinful desires. When a sinful desire is the temptation, yes—you have to repent of that.
Dennis: Okay so both of you guys are raising young families. You have children ten and under. How are you teaching your children just about the practice of how to deal with desires that well up within them and to deal with them in a healthy way, from a spiritual standpoint?
Denny: Well, I had this conversation this last week with my nine-year-old, who disobeyed us in a certain way. I asked her, “Why’d you do that?” She said, “I don’t know.” How many of you have heard that from your kid: “I don’t know why I did that,” “I don’t know why I did that,”—which means: “I know that I wasn’t supposed to do that, and I did it anyway. Why did I do that? I don’t know why I did that.”
I actually sat there with my daughter— she’s nine. I thought, “We’re going to look at Romans 7 together. We’re going to talk about what it means to be a sinner and what it means to appeal to the grace of Jesus for help with that.” We just opened up to
Romans 7 —she’s a believer / she’s been baptized. I just said: “Listen, Sweetie; sometimes you do bad things because you have a sin nature. You’re going to feel some things that feel natural to you sometimes, but they’re still wrong. It’s an occasion for repentance.”
So we just had the conversation, sitting right there.
That’s how you have to talk to your kids. Don’t back away from those moments—press into those moments and use them.
Heath: James, Chapter 1, which we’ve been talking about—in verses 14 and 15, it says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire, when it’s conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin, when it’s fully grown, brings forth death.” So that sin and that death backs up to your desire. That teaches us, as Christians—it teaches parents a very practical question that we ask our kids all the time: “What do you want? Sin begins with an ‘I want.’ What do you want?”
So when my son pushes his sister over or when one son takes a Lego® from another son, we say, “What do you want?” The answer is, “Well, I wanted that Lego.” “You wanted that Lego so badly that you’d sin to get it, and sin when you didn’t get it. You wanted that Lego more than you wanted to show care to your brother.”
This actually gives a very practical parenting tool—we can help our children identify what they’re wanting and those desires, when they disagree with what Jesus tells them to desire, is exactly where they need to seek the grace of Jesus.
Dennis: When they fail, they need to understand: “That’s what Jesus Christ came to do—
Heath: That’s what forgiveness is for.
Dennis: —“to forgive them.”
Heath: That’s right.
Dennis: So a lot of times, these things that get in our way, as parents—and their distractions / our kids are not obeying—they’re arguing about who’s going to sit in the front seat as we go to school, day after day after day—we need to use those as an opportunity to talk about what’s taking place in their hearts and how “This is why Jesus Christ came. He came to save us from ourselves and our sinful desires.”
Heath: We’ve tried to create in our home just an environment of safety—that: “If you want something that you’re not supposed to want, you come talk to Daddy / you come talk to Mommy.” We’ve talked about this with all kinds of things. We talk about immodesty a lot in our house because there’s immodesty everywhere.
We just have a rule: “We don’t look at immodest people in our house.” Our ten-year-old son knows about the concept of, for example, pornography. He’s never seen it—by God’s grace—but he knows about it. If you asked him what pornography was, he would say it’s, “When people take pictures of immodest people.”
My son has absolutely no idea why anybody would want to look at pictures of immodest people; but I know the time is going to come when he will understand why, and he might have that desire himself. We just have an agreement that, if he ever wants to see immodesty /as soon as he wants to see an immodest person, he’s going to come and talk to Daddy about it.
So when we create these conversations about desire and we create this openness in our home, it creates all kinds of parenting opportunities that you want because the kids are going to go get information about their desires from someplace. We ought to want it to be from us.
Dennis: Well, I feel like we’ve unpacked the concept of temptation/desire enough that we can now go to your book and apply it to the issue of homosexuality, which is how you really unpack it in the book, Transforming Homosexuality. Explain why this subject that what we’re talking about here applies to the issue of homosexuality, as we train our children, as we relate to people in the marketplace, as we deal with family members, as we have friends at work. Share with them the why behind that.
Denny: Because homosexuality, like every other sin, begins in our desires. That is where the ground is being contested among some people who are Christians today. We want to say, “Listen, you can’t exempt homosexual desires from that which God is intending to transform by His grace.” So we want people to repent of homosexual behavior, but we also want them to repent of homosexual desire.
When you feel yourself experiencing a desire for sinful sex—whatever it is—that’s an occasion to turn from that, which means you repent—that’s what that is. The only things we repent of are things that are sinful. So what the Scripture teaches is that, when you’re trying to analyze your own desire, the issue is: “What is the object of the desire?” If you desire something God forbids, then the desire itself is a sin, even if it’s a slight desire.
Dennis: What I want listeners to understand is—when we come to a subject like homosexuality, you guys are challenging people to deal with the lust—to deal with the desire, the drive, the lure—that is within them at the point it occurs and not allow it to germinate.
Heath: The reason this is so important is—not just because it’s true and not just because it’s practical—but because Christians are being hammered every day about two things:
Number one—the statement that “Homosexuality is sinful,”—I mean, the culture just cannot abide that. So Christians get hammered on that. The other thing Christians get hammered on is: “You say people can change, and they can’t. You’re born this way. It’s fixed. It’s unchangeable.” The reality is—Christians have to hold the line that both of those claims from the culture are false. It is not true that homosexuality is right, and it’s not true that homosexuality is unchangeable.
The gospel message is that homosexuality is wrong and sinful, and the gospel message is that Jesus Christ can change you by His grace. Understanding that temptation and desire is where all this begins helps us get the Christian message right. If we don’t get that right, we’re going to be the people who are only negative all the time. We’re going to sit around saying: “It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. Quit!” But we’ll have no clue how to help people quit.
The fullness of the Christian message is: “It’s wrong, and Jesus can change you. The way He will change you is when you repent from the desires out through behavior.”
Denny: And one thing I would want to clarify—because we haven’t talked about this yet—but there’s a whole section in the book on “Myths about Change.” One of the myths is that change equals heterosexuality. What we mean by that is that, when we talk about change, we define change in terms of holiness. Holiness, in this area, would mean you can put off desires that are sinful. That does not necessarily mean that heterosexual desires are going to emerge in their place. For some people, they do; for some people, they don’t.
But guess what? Holiness doesn’t require the emergence of those. In fact, the absence of heterosexual desire in Scripture—just look at Matthew 19 / 1 Corinthians 7—often, the absence of heterosexual desire is treated as a gift.
It may be a special gift for a special vocation. So we don’t want to imply that you have to become heterosexual to become holy. What we mean by that is: “God can transform sinful desires—to eliminate them and make them diminish over time.”
Dennis: I hope what listeners are catching here is that this is not an aspect of following Jesus Christ, where we’re trying to slam people who fail, because we’re failures too. We’re all broken / we all need a Savior—He came to redeem us from that brokenness. Jesus came to bring life. He didn’t come to bring all of these boundaries to confine us and put us in a cage like a bird. He came to give us life as He designed it.
In the Bible I was reading the other morning, I noticed there was a footnote. This is unusual, but it had Leviticus 18. I hadn’t read this in a while so I just kind of, in a naive way, turned to Leviticus 18.
I began to read that and I thought, “This is God giving life.” There are these warnings in the passage, and I’m not going to go over them here on the radio. I’d encourage a listener to just pick up their Bible, open it to Leviticus 18, and read all the way to the end of the chapter. By the time you do get to near the end of the chapter, God clearly speaks about a matter of homosexuality. He does not describe it in positive fashion—it’s negative. I’d really forgotten it in there—trust me, I really had.
I know a lot of people are using Leviticus 18 today to talk about this; but I was like: “Jesus came to bring life. He’s warning us about those things which take life from us.”
I had this thought—I thought: “You know what? Christianity is a remarkable statement of belief in God. We do not present a popular message. It is, in fact, counter-cultural; but who else in the culture is talking about sin? Who else is talking about turning away from it?—not just this sin—but other issues: like modesty, like selfishness, like spousal abuse. Who else is defending people?—from a matter of saying, ‘This is a moral issue that our God has spoken out about; and He wants to bring life, not death.’”
I just think families today—they need to be rallying around each other, opening the Bible, reading it, let it speak, and then talk about how you apply it to your lives. If you wonder what you believe about this subject of homosexuality, get a copy of Transforming Homosexuality because—like any other sin / like any other form of brokenness—
—it is why Jesus Christ came to redeem us, and to save us from our sins, and to get us into heaven as His children.
Bob: The book is really pointing us to the idea that: “If you want to deal with a wrong desire, like homosexuality, let’s deal with it at the root level, not just at the behavioral level. Let’s get down to the desire level and really get to where it thrives.”
Bob: Again, we have copies of the book, Transforming Homosexuality, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online to FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. You can order a copy of the book from us—we’ll get it out to you. Again, online—FamilyLifeToday.com—or give us a call at 1-800-”F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Well, “Happy anniversary!” today to Wayne and Tamela Foley, who live in Carrollton, Texas. Twenty-five years ago today, the Foley’s got married, back in 1991—their silver wedding anniversary.
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Now, tomorrow, we have got some strong words—mostly for dads. It comes from our friend, Voddie Baucham—that’s coming up tomorrow. Hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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