One of the most persistent questions I receive when I explain our new righteous identity to friends is this, “How do I reconcile my label of righteous and saintly with my experience of sin. That is, if holiness is my new default mode, why is sin the first thing that crosses my mind when I face a moral situation?” Let me give you a small example, recently shared with me by a friend.
My friend was in the produce section of the local grocery store when she noticed an unattended cart complete with an open purse and wallet sitting on top. Her first thought was, “I could take that wallet and no one would know. I think I could get away with it.” Her question to me was, “If my new nature is so powerful, why is this my first reaction?” A legitimate question. My response to her was a question in return. “What did you do? Did you take the wallet?” She answered, “Of course not. In fact, I stood close by making sure no one else took it until the customer returned to her cart.” So was the thought sinful, but the action holy?
Based on the biblical progression of sin, I believe the first thought was not a sin at all, but only a temptation. What we do next in reaction to that thought is either a holy response or a sin. My friend’s first thought to steal the wallet was a temptation. The decision to stand guard over the wallet was a holy response.
The Bible explains it this way. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished it brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).
Do you see the progression? This is so important to understand. The temptation is not sin. The first thought is not sin. It has been drilled into us – due to a misapplication of Jesus’ words about sinning in our minds – that thinking these thoughts is a sin. But that is not the case.
According to these verses, the enticement brought by our own evil desires is a temptation, not a sin. Sin is what we do next with the temptation. When we resist the temptation, all is well. Is there is a path where temptation does lead to sin? Yes, and it comes when we fertilize, rather than resist, the temptation. James calls it “lust has conceived”. And what happens when lust has been fertilized and conceived? A birth comes next. In this case, the birth or bringing forth of sin. When lust has conceived, it brings forth sin. Conception, not just enticement, is required for sin to occur. It is following the temptation with a sinful action.
But Christ has given us, in our new identity, in our new “Christ living His resurrected life through us”, the power to resist the temptation. When we walk by the Spirit, we are making choices in line with our new identity, in line with the Holy Spirit who indwells us, and “we will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). We will not succumb to the temptations of the flesh.
This distinction between temptation and sin is so crucial to understanding how we experience our incredible freedom in Christ, our freedom from the power of sin. If you think of these initial thoughts as sin, you will feel discouraged and weighed down and view yourself as a sinner. You will have difficulty seeing yourself as a saint with the resurrection power of Jesus inside you. But if you see these reactions for what they are; temptations that you have the power to resist, you will experience the power and the joy of the Christian life.