Was Christ Tempted by Sin?
By Pastor Chalan Hetherington
The word in James 1:14 is actually ἐπιθυμίας (epithumias) which means lust, passion or denotes a strong desire and not the word epithumia (ἐπιθυμίᾳ).
James 1:14 reads: ἕκαστος δὲ πειράζεται ὑπὸ τῆς ἰδίας ἐπιθυμίας ἐξελκόμενος καὶ δελεαζόμενος, translated “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed”.
So it is not to be understood as “desire” in a “neutral way”, Moreover it is preceded by the word “own” and is therefore in the genitive singular, the word ἐπιθυμίας itself is always used in the negative sense.
I have listed all of its occurrences: John 8:44, Romans 13:14, Ephesians 4:22, 1 Thessalonians 4:5; 2 Timothy 2:22; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 2:12; James 1:14, 2 Peter 3:3; Jude 1:16; Jude 1:18; Revelation 18:14.
1. The doctrine of fallen man’s Internal and External temptation
We firstly need to establish that the Bible does indeed differentiate very clearly between these two aspects.
1.) Firstly there is temptation that comes to all of us, as it did to our Lord Jesus.
This is temptation from a circumstance or act due to God's plan and providence, though God does not do the tempting.
We read in Matthew 4:1 “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil."
We are also then told in v. 3 that Satan is actually called “the tempter”: "And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”
And later we see how Satan “tries to tempt” our Lord by suggesting various things to Him.
The same happened to Job as God allowed Satan the tempter to bring calamity into Job’s life.
Also in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 Paul says to the Thessalonian Christians: “For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labour be in vain”.
Again here we are told that Satan himself is called “the tempter” and Paul was concerned that Satan the tempter had by some means “tempted” these Christians.
On an applicatory level and by way of example, you can be tempted by someone to eat an unhealthy and unappetising food that you have absolutely no attraction or desire for.
You can accurately say “they tempted you but that you were not tempted yourself”.
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”
The word “Tempt”, from Chambers' Dictionary:
tempt verb (tempted, tempting)
1 to seek to attract and persuade someone to do something, especially something wrong or foolish.
2 to attract or allure.
3 (be tempted to) to be strongly inclined to do something. 4 to risk provoking, especially by doing something foolhardy • tempt fate.
ETYMOLOGY: 13c: from French tempter, from Latin temptare 'to probe' or 'to test'.
Thus far we have very briefly established the Biblical fact of “external temptation”.
2. Secondly the Bible also makes plain in many passages of Scripture that as sinful fallen creatures, the way that we are tempted in our own hearts “internally” is when we are drawn away by our own evil desires from within. Our own experience testifies to this.
James 1:14 “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed”.
The Lord Jesus Christ said in the Garden of Gethsemane upon finding the disciples asleep that they could have actively been doing something so that they would not “fall into” temptation.
He said “Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation” (Mark 14:38).
So when the Bible tells us that Christ was tempted (Heb 4:15), what does it mean? We know that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. The text reads:
“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin”.
It is at this point that we encounter our first danger. We must be very careful that we do not impute to Christ the experiences and feelings that we have as fallen creatures.
Our Lord Jesus was not a fallen creature. Too often when considering this issue men start not with the Bible, but with their own personal experiences with temptation (as fallen men) and reason back to Christ. This is fast road to disaster.
In Mark 7:20-23 our Lord Jesus said “That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.”
These sins are clearly not actions, but thoughts of the mind; our Lord makes clear that entertaining sin, is sin in itself! This is what He says defiles a man.
Since we know that Scripture does not contradict Scripture, and that Christ was without sin, how do we now square the fact that the brother of the Lord writes in James 1:13 that “God cannot be tempted with evil”, and yet the writer of Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Christ was tempted in all things like we are?
The answer is, of course, that Christ, did not have those “own desires or lusts” that James speaks of because He did not have the sinful nature that we, as natural men, inherited from Adam.
That is why the writer of Hebrews wrote under inspiration that although Christ was tested in all points like we are, yet He was without sin.
Again, before we recoil at this notion, we must be careful not to impute to Christ the experiences and feelings that we have as fallen creatures.
We must be absolutelty explicit: our Lord Jesus was not a fallen creature.
This is not to say that he did not have legitimate desires as a human, being as He was, fully man, but we need to be extremely careful what we call “legitimate” and “illegitimate" within the bounds of Scripture, and in the realm of His life. His desires were never sinful, because he conformed entirly and perfectly to God's will and moreover, He had two Natures; those of God and a man bound together in His sacred Person (which fact we will establish below).
Thus, He was tested in all the same “normative points” as we are, but He alone was the Seed of the woman, born of the Holy Spirit, yet always eternally God and most certainly not born of the seed of man as we are by nature.
Satan himself was forced to came after Christ to tempt Him precisely because Christ did not have sin dwelling within Him.
1) Satan had nothing that he could use to lead Christ to sin, and
(2) Christ would never lead Himself to rebel against the Father.
So while Christ may have been tempted by Satan to see if He would sin, He could not be led to harbour a desire to commit sin.
Sadly, this great truth has been attacked in recent years, even by some who would call themselves 'Reformed'. Perhaps the best known advocate of the opposite view is Mark Driscoll. Generally, the objection of such people is couched in these terms: “Isn’t it possible to say that as a man “made in the likeness of sinful flesh” Christ was exposed to powerful temptations, even to the most terrible sins, but that as the perfect last Adam He never succumbed? Would it not be equally heretical to suggest that Christ was not seriously tempted as to say that he did in fact sin? Would it not seriously undermine the doctrine of His true humanity? Surely both are unbiblical?”
However, if these “powerful temptations” or “desires” are seen as temptations to “succumb”, as that would mean our Lord was tempted to sin.
It can be stated without a shadow of a doubt that our Lord Jesus had no such “desires” (ἐπιθυμίᾳ, epithumia) or “lusts” (ἐπιθυμίας epithumias).
We frail men, on the other hand, are ever tempted by our “own lusts”. This is why James 1:14 makes crystal clear that the essence of temptation is that a man is "is drawn away of his own lusts and enticed”. Even if one wanted to use a Bible based upon Alexandrian text the fact of the matter is inescapable: the English Standard Version, hardly a translation renowned for its conservatism, reads: "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire".
It is vital to see that James makes the very clear statement that one's “own lust” is that by which a man is “drawn away...and enticed”.
In other words, the root of temptation is “desire or lust”; if there is no desire or lust there can be no inner temptation to give in to it!
Christ is able to sympathize with us in our temptations—not because He had the same sinful desires that we have, but because He was human and came face-to-face with the tempter.
Being truly and authentically human does not necessarily mean being sinful. To simply assume this is to make a grand and often ruinous mistake!
Christ was in all points tempted as we are, and yet without sin. Indeed, we are told that His one and only desire was to do the will of the Father. As He Himself says in John 8:29 - "And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him."
2. The Divine Nature of the God-Man Christ Jesus
Advocates of the new view may contend: “Isn’t it possible to say that inasmuch as Romans 8:3 tells us that Christ became a man made 'in the likeness of sinful flesh', it is not unreasonable to assume that He was exposed to powerful temptations, even to the worst sins?"
The relevant passage in full here reads:
“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." - Romans 8:3-4
In his fine commentary on Romans Dr William Hendriksen writes of this passage:
“In His incarnation the divine Son assumed the human nature, so that from that moment on He was two natures, the divine and the human indissolubly united, yet each retaining its own physical properties.
He took to Himself that human body not as it originally came from the Hand of the Creator (Behold it is very good) Genesis 1:31, but weakened by sin though remaining itself without sin.
Note: not in sinful flesh, but “in the likeness of sinful flesh"
- William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Baker), vol. IV, p.247
In no way does Romans 8:3-4 imply that our Lord had any “desire” contrary to God’s will or that he had the potential to “succumb” to sin, for that would clearly go against His Divine Nature which is indissolubly united with His human nature.
Concerning Hebrews 2:18 - “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” - Adam Clarke writes: “His mind, or human soul, being free from all sin, being every way perfect, could feel no irregular temper, nothing that was inconsistent with infinite purity”, while A.T.Robertson adds that “this is the outstanding difference that must never be overlooked in considering the actual humanity of Jesus. He did not yield to sin. But more than this is true. There was no latent sin in Jesus to be stirred by temptation and no habits of sin to be overcome. But he did have ‘weaknesses’ (astheneiai) common to our human nature (hunger, thirst, weariness, etc.). Satan used his strongest weapons against Jesus, did it repeatedly, and failed.”
Another vital text here is James 1:13: "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man".
The eminent John Gill writes of this verse—“He [man] may be tempted by evil men, and with evil things, but He cannot be tempted ‘to evil,’ (as the Ethiopic version renders it)…”
A.T. Robertson comments on the use here of the Greek word apierastos, (“cannot be tempted”)—“Verbal compound adjective ([negating beginning alpha] and peirazw), probably with the ablative case…
Only here in the New Testament. Hort notes apeiratos kakon as a proverb (Diodorus, Plutarch, Josephus) ‘free from evils.’ That is possible here, but the context calls for ‘untemptable’ rather than ‘untempted.’”
Christ experienced temptation but only because it was brought to Him, not because it was within Him. This is the vital distinction. He did not have the internal struggle against sin that a born-again believer has.
Anyone who cares to look more closely into the Greek may see:
PEIRASMOS, PEIRA, attempt, trial, experiment; PEIRASMOS, test, trial, tempting,
temptation; PEIRAW, try, attempt, endeavor; PEIRAZW, try, test, put on
trial, tempt; EKPEIRAZW, put to the test, try, tempt; *APEIRASTOS*, without
temptation, untempted. (Asterisks are my emphasis).
Now we have established the two aspects of temptation, and the Divine nature of Christ as well as His humanity,
we can be sure that Christ was without any sin, ever, in His thought life or in His deeds! But we mere men are much tempted by our “own lusts”.
It is also inconceivable to think that Christ was led by the Spirit “to put Himself in the way of potentially sinning” by being tempted by the devil!
James 1:13 “for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man”.