Temptation Vs Sin

One of the paradoxes I face in my own life and a source of discussion in our community of believers is how to reconcile my label of righteous and saintly with my experience with 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 a temptation, not a sin.  Now the action we take next based on that thought is either a holy response or a sin.  My friend’s first thought about 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” (Jas 1:13-15).

Do you see the progression?  The temptation is not sin.  The first thought is not sin.  Sin is what we do next.  When we resist the temptation, all is well.  When we fertilize the temptation – “lust has conceived” – we enter into sin.  Our two enemies, the flesh (enticed by our own lust) and the devil (ruler of this fallen world) are the authors of temptation.  And if we “walk by the Spirit”, i.e. make choices in line with the Holy Spirit who indwells us, “we will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:16), i.e. not succumb to the temptations of the flesh.  Similarly, if we “resist the devil” (Jas 4:7), his temptations will not lead to sin.  (I realize this is way too short of an explanation of our spiritual enemies, but hopefully it is a helpful start.)

This distinction between temptation and sin is an important one.  If you think of these initial reactions as sin, you will feel discouraged and weighed down and find difficulty experiencing the power of your new nature.  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.

The Pacesetters

When our children were young, Rhonda came up with a child training idea that was golden.  We took our older kids aside and said, “Look, you are the pacesetters for your brother and sisters.  They look up to you.  They imitate your good behavior.  So we need you to join us in being a good example to your younger siblings.”

Setting up this expectation for our children accomplished at least two things.  First, our older kids became our partners in training our younger children by their positive example. They felt the respect of being singled out for some degree of maturity above their siblings.  Second, it helped to lessen sibling rivalry.  Their younger brother and sisters were no longer competitors, they were younger teammates; teammates that needed their encouragement.

Did it make our home life perfect?  No, we had plenty of the typical child training challenges.  But it sure made life better for the Lehman household.  Why?  Because we had set some positive expectations for our kids to live into.

Now we can debate all we want the pluses and minuses of instilling a positive self-image in children.  I am likely to error on the positive side and know it can be over done.  But on your Christian self-image there is no debate.  In God’s eyes, you are deeply loved, totally forgiven, fully pleasing, totally accepted, and complete in Christ.  This is who you are.  And the New Testament expectation is to walk in it.

Righteous Expectations

The New Testament writers often use the word picture of “walking” to describe living the Christian life.  Paul exhorts us to “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4), “walk according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4), “walk in good works” (Eph 2:10), “walk in a manner worthy of our calling” (Eph 4:1), “walk in love” (Eph 5:2), “walk as children of Light” (Eph 5:8), “walk as wise men and women” (Eph 5:15), “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Col 1:10), and finally, “walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory” (I Thess 2:12).  The Apostle John adds, “walk in the same manner as Christ walked” (I Jn 2:6) and “walk according to His commandments” (II Jn 1:6).  The Christian walk is summarized in Galatians 5:16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”

At the risk of presenting an ABC formula for living the Christian life, let me review some specific and practical steps for “walking in the Spirit”.  Step one:  set the expectation on righteousness, not sin.  The “walking” instructions of the New Testament are all positive commands to live basically according to the new nature we already possess.  And our righteous expectation of ourselves and others is the first step to success.

You may have heard the story of the fellow who volunteered as a substitute teacher for the kindergarten Sunday School class at the local church.  Upon arriving for his first day on the job, he encountered two boys wrestling each other rolling around on the floor.  As he tried to separate the miscreants, one of the boys recognized they had a new teacher.  The child stopped and announced to the volunteer, “Hi, my name is Billy and this is Freddy and we are a handful!”

Now how did this child know that he and his friend were a handful?  I doubt the five-year-olds came up with that expression themselves.  Obviously, some adult had informed them.  And just as obviously, Billy and Freddy were living into that expectation.  It may be a simple story but the connection with how we label ourselves and our fellow believers is a serious point.

What is the expectation for us?  In Ephesians 4:1, Paul instructs us to live according to our calling, according to the expectation of our calling.  Paul has just spent the first three chapters of Ephesians explaining our calling and then takes chapters four through six to show what living into that calling is like with “walk in a manner worthy of our calling (Eph 4:1) as the bridge that connects the calling to the walk.  What is our calling?  “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10).  You were created for righteousness.  May I encourage you?  Live into God’s righteous expectations.

Chief of Sinners

Whenever I teach on the topic of the provision and power of our new nature for living the Christian life, I usually encounter two objections which must be taken seriously.  First, how do we reconcile the New Testament teaching regarding the death of our old sin nature and our experience with besetting sins?  That is, if we have been set free from sin’s power, why do we encounter sin issues in our lives on a _________ (daily, hourly, minutely, secondly, you fill in the blank) basis?  The second objection is more specific.  If the “sinner” label is to be removed from our believer vocabulary – as I have suggested many times in this blog – why does the Apostle Paul call himself the “chief of sinners” (I Tim 1:15 KJV)?

The first objection has about twenty facets to it and may be difficult to address in a blog format, but we will do our best to tackle it shortly.  For now, I will take on the easier task of answering objection two; Paul’s self-identification as chief of sinners.

I Timothy 1:12-15 reads, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.  Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in my unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love that are found in Christ Jesus.  It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (I Tim 1:12-15).

If we take verse 15 by itself – and out of context – it would be easy to suggest that Paul is referring to his present status with the label “foremost of sinners” based on the present tense “I am”.  However, that assessment all changes when we look at the broader context.  Putting the entire passage together, Paul’s point is this:

Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (vs 15) and to prove it you need look no further than myself.  As sinners go, I am exhibit A (vs 15).  Why?  Because I was the worst.  I was a blasphemer and a violent persecutor of the church (vs 13).  But, incredibly, I received mercy (vs 13) and was saved even though, based on my former actions during my ignorant unbelief (vs 13), you could rightfully call me “foremost of sinners”.  Top sinner clearly refers to Paul’s actions in his unbelieving past.

Paul’s humility here is not in calling himself a currently rotten person, mired in sin, that Christ by His mercy somehow accepts anyway.  No, Paul’s humility in this passage is based on the richness of Christ’s grace to reach out to one who was a rotten person, mired in sin, and bring him salvation; not only salvation, but, as incredible as it sounds given his sinful past, put him into service as well (vs 12).  It is a false humility to refer to ourselves as “poor wretched sinners”.  It is not humility as all, but a rejection of all God provided in the New Covenant.  Humility is recognizing that we brought nothing to the table to earn God’s gift of salvation and the indwelling of His very Spirit.

In another outpouring of Paul’s humility he calls himself “the very least of the saints; i.e. holy ones” (Eph 3:8).  Even at his most humble, Paul calls himself a “saint”.  And we should follow his example, not just in our own lives, but particularly when we address our brothers and sisters in Christ.  You are indeed saints, holy and beloved.

Costume Jewelry or Tarnished Silver

How do we know “It’s In There!” – the raw ingredients for living the victorious Christian life?  We know because the Bible tells us so.  The Bible says:

  • You are holy and beloved. (Col 3:12)
  • The seed of God lives in you. (I Jn 3:9)
  • You have a new heart. (Ez 26:36)  Your old deceptively wicked heart has been removed.
  • Your new self is created in the likeness of God; in righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:24)
  • When you look in the mirror, you see a representation of the glory of the Lord. (II Cor 3:18)
  • He who has died with Christ has ceased from sin. (I Pet 4:1)
  • The time for sin is in your past. (I Pet 4:3)
  • God’s divine power has granted to you everything pertaining to life and godliness. (II Pet 1:3)
  • You share the divine nature. (II Pet 1:4)
  • You have a moral resemblance to Christ. (I Jn 2:29)
  • You are a new creation. (II Cor 5:17)
  • Your old nature died with Christ (Rom 6:6)
  • Holiness is your new default mode.  (All of the above and more)

Add to this the fact that the apostles’ exhortation to ethical behavior is always based on our new identity (Eph 4:1); not a new list of qualities to strive for or an ABC formula for spiritual success, and it all adds up to a fundamentally positive description of believers.   At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I keep getting up on my New Covenant soapbox and celebrating all that became new when we accepted Christ because the “miserable-sinner Christianity” that runs through so many Protestant confessional formulas and catechisms is still alive and well in the twenty-first century church.  (See the recommended article by Robert Saucy, “Sinners” Who Are Forgiven or “Saints” Who Sin?)

I am reminded of the word picture Dwight Edward’s uses for this issue in his book, Revolution Within, and I quote.  “Costume jewelry is essentially worthless metal covered with an attractive coating.  So many believers see themselves in that way – sinners through and through, yet covered by the blood of Christ.  Tarnished silver is a much truer image of who we are after conversion.  While we are covered by the infinite righteousness of Christ, we are also new creations in Christ (silver) clothed in an earth suit that is sin-saturated (tarnished).  The new you isn’t a sinner but rather a saint who struggles with the tarnish of sin.”

Is this talk of costume jewelry and tarnished silver and forgiven sinners and sinning saints just theoretical and theological splitting of hairs?  On the contrary, I think it has tremendous implications for how we live.  Let’s see if we can flesh out some of the practical implications next time.