Tempted From Without, Yet Without Sin

Fallenness is inherently a moral quality.

For humans to be born “fallen” is for them to be born in iniquity and conceived in sin, to stand as the inheritor of original sin, means that by nature we are “altogether averse from that [spiritual] good, and dead in sin” (WCF 9.3). It means that we are born with an “original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil…” (WCF 6:4).

 

“…real temptation could not come to Jesus from within but only from without…” – Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:315

Back in 2015 Sam Alberry and Denny Burke sat down for a Q & A Session at Boyce College engaging issues of ministry to the LGBT community. It is a very pastorally sensitive and nuanced dialogue and I am immensely appreciative of the overwhelming majority of its content. However, I think one of the problems inherent in the way Sam Alberry initially wanted to frame the issue of temptation in the dialogue[1] is the fact that (as often is the case in this sort of discussion) he allows a great deal of equivocation with regard to the term “temptation”–especially as it appears in the Scriptural texts.

Denny Burk helpfully pointed out how we have to be extremely careful when we speak about Jesus’ temptations in comparison to ours because they are of a qualitatively different character. That qualitative difference is that his temptations are χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας, without sin (Heb 4:15). That raises the question then of how our sin interfaces with the nature of our experience of temptation and what it might look like to be “tempted” and yet be sinless. Yet, none of us has the experience of temptation without sin in the exact same way as Jesus, because we are born in sin.

Alberry speaks of homosexual desire in terms of fallenness, and yet wants to say that the temptation arising from it itself is not sin. As he says in the dialogue, “My temptations come because I am fallen, but I can’t repent of my fallenness…”

But fallenness is inherently a moral quality. For humans to be born “fallen” is for them to be born in iniquity and conceived in sin, to stand as the inheritor of original sin, means that by nature we are “altogether averse from that [spiritual] good, and dead in sin” (WCF 9.3). It means that we are born with an “original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil…” (WCF 6:4).

This is the matrix of fallenness in which our temptations occur, but it is emphatically not the matrix in which the temptations of Christ occur. He is χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας, without sin. His virginal conception and birth under the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit ensures that he is unimplicated in the original sin inherited from Adam and instead “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (Heb 7:26).

Within Christ there is no inclination to evil, no aversion to spiritual good, no disability to obey the law of God. And this raises the question then of how the nature of Jesus’ “temptation” interfaces with the description of temptation outlined in James 1:13-15.

When interpreting that passage and bringing it into dialogue with our understanding of Jesus’ temptation, and consequently the implications we want to draw out of Jesus’ experience about what it means for us to face temptation without falling into sin, there is a common tendency to lapse into a stereotypical hermeneutical trap: the word/concept fallacy.

That is to say we assume that simply because the same base Greek verb πειράζω (which nearly universally is translated as “temptation” in English versions) is used to describe Jesus’ experience in places and fallen humans’ experience in others, therefore that must mean that it is speaking of the exact same concept and dynamic.  For instance there is an allurement to assume what is occurring in a text like Matthew 4:1when Jesus is tempted (πειρασθῆναι) by the devil must be informed by the same dynamic of “temptation” James describes in our experience. But, as the word/concept fallacy would teach us, just because the same words are being used in both James 1:13-15 and Matthew 4:1 does not mean that their conceptual meaning is exactly the same in both occurrences. They have the same semantic domain, but the conceptual specifics and meaning of the words in each respective context is a function of their usage in context.

And so, then the question is whether or not James is describing a phenomenon of “temptation” that we can univocally cut and paste onto Jesus experience in Matthew 4.

One of the controlling ideas for how we interpret what James is getting at in James 1:14-15 is the warning James gives in James 1:13 – “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” James is engaging in a bit of theodicy. He is warning us not to cast off the responsibility of our temptation upon God by pointing to how God’s agency is not actively involved in our temptation. His point then as he moves into his statements in James 1:14-15 is that, as Dan McCartney observes, “the abilities to tempt and to be tempted are rooted in an evil capacity within the person. It is this capacity within that is of concern to James in 1:14… Things start with ‘one’s own desire (τῆς ἰδίας ἐπιθυμίας, tēs idias epithymias), which places responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the individual…”[2]

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