Keeping Desire and Temptation in Their Place

We need a clear understanding of the biblical terms "desire" and "temptation" in order to understand them, especially when it comes to heated debates regarding same-sex attraction.

For many of us, the grace of mortification will play out slowly and painfully over a long course of life, with many discouragements along the way – those who struggle with same-sex attraction often chronicle this struggle, to which we should respond with loving encouragement in the Lord. But struggle we must, seeking to keep desire in its place – which is to say, in the grave where Jesus died to put an end to sin. The trouble is not with temptation itself, but with the sinful, disordered desires within….


In the history of theological debate, one of the most important steps towards doctrinal clarity involves getting the terminology right. The ancient church sorted through the Trinitarian debate by clarifying the distinction between “essence” and “person.” Likewise, the Reformation haggled over the proper meaning of “righteousness” and “justification.”

A similar need has now arisen in 21st century, as Christians respond to the sexual challenges of postmodernity. In this case, the key terms are “desire” and “temptation.” We need a clear understanding of these biblical terms in order to address the matter biblically, especially when it comes to heated debates regarding same-sex attraction (SSA). For instance, the question is raised as to whether a same-sex attracted person must mortify his or her desires. Likewise, denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) have wrestled over whether a person may soundly self-identify as a “gay Christian.”

As these matters are debated, the two sides often speak of “desire” and “temptation” in differing ways. When it comes to SSA, we frequently hear, “There is nothing sinful about being tempted.” Defenders of an SSA identity assert, “Even Jesus was ‘tempted in every way’ (Heb. 4:15), just as we are.”

These arguments, however, often involve a category confusion between “desire” and “temptation.” A key verse here is James 1:14. The prior verse denies that God is the source of temptation to sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God'” (Ja. 1:13). James then adds: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Ja. 1:14). A study of “tempted” and “desire” in this verse will help us keep the concepts straight.

The Greek word for temptation is peirasmos, or in its verb form peirazo. If we consult the standard Greek dictionary, we find that is basic meaning is that of “testing.” According to Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich (BAG), peirazo means “to make a trial of” or “put to the test.” Likewise, a peirasmos is a test or trial. Peter uses its to say: “you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). These trials may have various features, including trials that God wills for the blessing of his people (never to incite them into sin, as James insists). The same word is translated “tempted” or “temptation,” when the trial involves an inducement to sin. Matthew 4:1 uses a form of peirazo to describe Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The key feature of this biblical word for “temptation” is that it is an event rather than a disposition. Temptation is something that happens outside a person, rather than inside.

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