When Desire Destroys

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

James 1:12-18 | February 28 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
February 28
When Desire Destroys | James 1:12-18
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Our text this evening comes from James, chapter 1. Read verses 12 through 15, James chapter 1.

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 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. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

I want to do something a little bit different with this evening’s sermon. In January, when I was preaching through the Lord’s Prayer, we looked, of course, at “lead us not into temptation” and that sermon was directed at personal, practical application, how was Jesus tempted, how do we need to be on our guard against temptation, and we will hit on some of those same things, but I don’t want to cover the same ground.

Tonight I want us to look more deeply at a proper theological understanding of sin and temptation. So if this sermon seems a little bit more systematic theology, that’s intentional. In fact, the first, well, I say half, but it’s really the first 4/5 of the sermon, is going to be trying to understand a proper theology of sin and temptation, a Reformed understanding of the doctrine of sin and in particular how it deals with verses 14 and 15, and then the end of the sermon we’re going to come back and we’ll sketch out the argument in these verses and what it means for us.

So you can think of part one, the long part, as a systematic theology of sin and temptation, and in particular how to make sense of verses 14 and 15, and then the second part exegesis moving toward application.

One of the things that’s behind this is the PCA study committee that I was on last year. If you haven’t seen it, don’t do it now, but you can Google “PCA sexuality study committee,” and there was appointed a study committee to look at issues, in particular of same-sex attraction and how we understand that dynamic in the life of the Church and how we understand marriage. It’s not that the PCA was waffling on how to understand biblical marriage, but some of the particular theological nuances and how we care for people who have that particular sin struggle was really the impetus behind this study committee, and I was one of the seven members on it and other people you may know. Tim Keller was on it, Bryan Chapell was on it, Derek Halvorson was on it.

So there were seven of us, and you can look later if you haven’t seen it before, and you can read, like Presbyterian study committee reports, it’s 40 or 50 some pages, but the heart of it are 12 statements which covers about five or six pages at the beginning, and you could read through that in maybe 15 or 20 minutes, and that really gets to the heart of some of these theological distinctions that we want to make tonight.

We are venturing forth into the digital age. I have a slide for us tonight. This is crazy. We are going to look at, just quickly, to try to get our theological bearings, chapter 6 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Of course, we have as our theological standards under the authority of Scripture always, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

Chapter 6 deals with the fall of man, sin, and the punishment thereof. There are six articles. We’re just going to look quickly at them.

Here’s the first. “Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.”

So this is the first sin in the garden, and what we see here is not a bare permission of God, but rather a willing to permit that this sin would happen.

Article II: “By this sin, they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.”

So our first parents fell and they became corrupted, what’s sometimes called total depravity. That’s the language there, “in all the parts and faculties of the soul.” In medieval, ancient, modern philosophy, they all deal with these faculties. Your will, your knowledge, your affections. They distinguish differently among the faculties, and this is saying contrary to Roman Catholic medieval doctrine which said your higher faculties are not tainted by sin, just your lower appetites, this says all of your faculties are tainted by sin.

Article III: “They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation.”

When you hear the language of original sin, that can be a reference to the original sin, the first sin in the garden. But usually as a theological concept, original sin refers to the results of that sin, that all of us have by way of ordinary generation, that means by being born into this world in an ordinary way, so Jesus Christ is excepted from that, virgin birth, but by ordinary generation.

And notice the Confession says there are two results, original guilt and original corruption. So the sin of Adam imputed, that means reckoned, counted, credited to us, so that we participated in Adam. He was the head of our fantasy football team, and when he fumbled the ball, so did we. So we inherit from Adam that original guilt and that original pollution, corruption of nature.

Article IV: “From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed actual transgressions.”

This is a little bit confusing, but it’s a very important distinction in Reformed theology. The difference between original sin and actual sin. You can see the distinction there at the beginning and the end, and it’s going to come up in one of the later Articles. Actual means sin that comes forth by an act of the soul. Actual doesn’t mean, well, the other kinds of sin aren’t actually sin. Think “act.” There’s the original sin, the guilt that we inherit, the corruption we inherit, and then there are the sins that come from our own acts, and those acts may be external, but they may be internal. What you feel is a kind of act. What you think is a kind of act of your soul. So there’s a distinction between original sin, actual sin.

Article V, there’s just six of them.

Article V: “This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly called sin.”

This is what we call “indwelling” sin. So even though a Christian is regenerated, born again, you have a new nature, you’re not completely eradicated from that presence of sin in your life. This is indwelling sin. And notice at the very end, it says “all the motions thereof.” We’ll come back to that in just a second. All the motions thereof are truly and properly sin. We’ll see why that’s an important line.

And then Article VI: “Every sin, both original and actual,” so there’s the distinction again, “being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.”

In other words, both original sin, what we inherit from Adam, that guilt and corruption, and actual sin, the acts of our own souls, both of those are deserving justly of the Lord’s wrath and the Lord’s punishment.

Now I want to come back. You can turn those slides off, but I want to come back to that line that I mentioned, “All the motions thereof,” all the motions of our indwelling sin, “are truly and properly sin.” This is an important point.

The 10th commandment forbids coveting. The word translated “covet” is simply the Hebrew word, and in the Septuagint, the Greek translation, the Greek word for “desire.” The New Testament describes our fallen desires, “epithymo” in the Greek, as sinful desires, ignorant desires, fleshly desires.

You do not have to act upon a desire for that desire to be condemned by God. Think of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, that you have committed adultery in your hearts. Okay, you haven’t acted outwardly, but yet it is an act of your soul, a sinful desire. A desire for an illicit end is itself an illicit desire. That’s really important.

If you desire something, or someone or in some way or in some proportion, that you ought not to have, that’s illicit and a desire for an illicit thing is itself an illicit desire.

Often when we talk about desires, and in particular if we think about one of the relevant controversies in our day, same-sex desires, we have to struggle with, well, what do we do with desires when they feel unbidden? If you talk to someone who has same-sex attraction, almost always they will describe an experience whereby their desires were not, in their experience, freely chosen. That is, the testimony is normally, especially if they grew up in a Christian context, that they wanted to be rid of those desires.

So what do we do with desires when you feel like I didn’t wake up wanting these sorts of desires? Can unbidden, unwanted desires still be sinful desires?

Well, take it out of the realm of same-sex attraction and just think about all sorts of desires. Isn’t it the case that every one of us, if we’re honest, you have unbidden desires. You have desires of wrath and anger. You have illicit sexual desires for someone of the opposite sex who’s not your spouse. Any manner of desires that you don’t wake up saying, hmm, I’d like to feel lust today, and yet there it is. It’s unbidden. It doesn’t feel consciously chosen.

And yet one of the hallmarks of Reformed anthropology is that sin can be both an unchosen bondage and a willful rebellion at the same time. Calvin calls it “a kind of voluntary servitude,” a kind of voluntary servitude. And this is true for all people, not just those with same-sex attraction. We all have disordered desires that arise in us unbidden. And Calvin’s argument was they feel to you as if you have not consciously made a choice to engage them, and yet there they are.

How we describe involuntary, disordered desires is a major difference between Roman Catholic theology and Reformed theology.

So, let me introduce you to a word, maybe you’ve heard of, maybe reminding you, it’s an important word in the theological tradition. It’s called “concupiscence,” concupiscence. I won’t ask you how to spell it, but I have it right here.

According to Catholic teaching, quote, this is from the Catholic Catechism: “The inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, is left for us to wrestle with but it cannot harm those who do not consent.” Elsewhere the Catholic Catechism says, “Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin. It unsettles man’s moral faculties and without being in itself an offense, inclines man to commit sin.” That’s the Roman Catholic view.

In other words, they say because of the Fall, we have disordered desires. Sure, you shouldn’t want those things, the desires are not right, but the Catholic understanding of concupiscence is that it does not become sin for you apart from a consenting act of the will. So Catholic teaching says I have this desire, I didn’t ask for this desire, but it’s here and it’s disordered, it’s a fallen desire, but it’s not a sinful desire until I consciously in my will say “yes,” I say yes to this desire which has come up and welled up within me unbidden.

The Reformed tradition has uniformly disagreed with that understanding of concupiscence. In fact, there’s all sorts of, in the Middle Ages, all sorts of rather shameful extremes, and not saying that Catholic teaching would want these extremes, but of monks and others who would entertain certain lusts because they said, well, that’s just concupiscence, and I haven’t really consented to it in my will and put themselves in very dangerous situations.

Here’s the Reformed theologian Bavinck. He says, “The Reformation spoke out against that Catholic position, asserting that also the impure thoughts and desires that arose in us prior to and apart from our will, are sin.”

Here’s what Calvin says: “Concupiscence,” he uses the Latin word, “should be called not merely weakness, as the Roman Catholics did, but sin.” Calvin says, “We label sin that very depravity which begets in us desires of this sort. We accordingly teach that in the saints, until they are divested of mortal bodies, there is always sin, for in their flesh there resides the depravity of inordinate desiring which contends against righteousness.”

This is a very important point of Reformed anthropology, that we have these desires, they don’t feel like we chose these desires. Catholic teaching says until you in your will you volitionally consent, they’re not sin. Reformed theology has always said, no, they are in themselves sin.
Remember the line in the Westminster Confession: All the motions thereof are truly and properly called sin.

That is a line specifically against the Catholic teaching of concupiscence. They’re sin in themselves.

Now, with that in mind, look at James, because on the face of it, James 1:14-15 might seem to be more along the lines of what I just described as the Catholic teaching. On the face of it, this passage seems to indicate that it’s possible to be tempted by evil desires without sinning. Isn’t that what it says? Verse 14: Each person is tempted when he’s lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it’s conceived gives birth to sin.

So it looks like you have all of these lustful desires that entice you to bad things, but until it comes out of you, then it’s not sin.

Well, not surprisingly, our Reformed forebears have understood this passage quite differently. Here, let me read from Calvin. He says, “It seems improper, and not according to the usage of Scripture, to restrict the word sin to outward works, as though indeed lust itself were not a sin, and as though corrupt desires, remaining within and suppressed, were not so many sins. But as the use of a word is various, there is nothing unreasonable if it be taken here, as in many other places, for actual sin. And the Papists ignorantly lay hold on this passage, and seek to prove from it that vicious, yea, filthy, wicked, most abominable lusts are not sins, provided there is no assent; for James does not show when sin begins to be born, so as to be sin, and so accounted by God, but rather when it breaks forth.”

So what Calvin is saying, I think correctly, is that the word “sin” here is not a demarcation between, well, that’s not evil and that’s not evil. No, the word “desires,” “epithymo,” is almost always in the New Testament used of those warring desires of the flesh. So it’s not that verse 14 describes something that’s not wrong and that it only becomes wrong in verse 15, rather verse 15 is speaking of sin as it comes to break forth in its external manifestation.

So we could, to use the theological categories, talk about verse 14 as the power of remaining indwelling sin, and then verse 15 as that actual sin, that act, that consent of the will. The word “sin” is used in different ways in Scripture, and here in verse 15, sin is a reference to the breaking forth, the demonstrable category, of outward manifestation of sin.

And remember, you’ve heard this several times from the fine sermons that have gone before, that the word “temptation” is used in different ways in this chapter. The word for “tempts,” “peirazei”, and “tempted,” “peirazetai,” in verses 13 and 14, is the same word used in noun form earlier in verse 2, translated as “trials,” “peirasmois.” So same word, same Greek word, you can look it up, it is, in noun form or verb form, and in verse 2 it’s “trials,” and in verse 13 and 14 it’s “temptation.”

So there are some of these trials/temptations which come to us in the form of morally neutral trials of suffering. And then there are others that come to us and arise from within us as sinful desires. This is how we make sense of verse 13: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,” okay, God doesn’t tempt, “for God cannot be tempted with evil and He Himself tempts no one.”

Well, how can we say God cannot be tempted with evil? We know that Jesus, He was in the wilderness being tempted? What we have here is temptation as a desire for an illicit thing welling up within you, that’s one kind of temptation. And in that way, as we saw earlier in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus was not tempted. He did not have sinful thoughts. He did not have fleshly desires. He was tempted not internally, that’s what it means “God cannot be tempted,” but as the incarnate Son of God He was tempted externally, with the temptations of verse 2. Same word. The “trials” kinds of temptations.

This parsing of sin and temptation can be somewhat thorny, which is why Reformed theologians have typically explained these issues with a lot of careful nuance.

So here again, bear with reading a few sentences, this is John Owen, another great Reformed thinker, and how he talks about temptation. You’ll notice once again he is looking at this pivotal text in James 1.

Quote: “Now what is it to be tempted? It is to have that proposed to man’s consideration, which if he chose, it is evil, it is sin unto him. That is sin’s trade: Epithumei – it lusts. It is raising up in the heart, proposing unto the mind and affections, that which is evil; trying as it were, whether the soul will close with its suggestion, or how far it will carry it on.”

Now up to that point in Owen’s sentence, you may think well, that sounds a little bit like the Roman Catholic idea. You get these thoughts, these desires, and you have an opportunity to choose it or not, but Owen goes on, and he says: “Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, it is sin.”

Do you see how these theological categories are coming here? When you have these desires that come up from within you, it is of an act of your own soul such that it is sin. Key to Owen’s understanding is the distinction between indwelling sin, arising from within, perhaps even unbidden, and then actual sin. Later Owen describes this tempting proposal as “this power of sin to beget figments and ideas of evil in the heart.” He says, “Every man is tempted, every man is beguiled or deceived by his own lust or indwelling sin, which we have declared to be the same thing.”

So Owen explains that temptations in James can be taken in two ways: Either passively, that’s James 1 verse 2, trials, same word there, that’s passively, they’re coming at you; or actively, as in James 1:13-14. Roughly speaking then, passive temptation is that which entreats us from without, while active temptation is that which arises from within.

So Christ suffered a real temptation, but it was a temptation that befell Him in the form of trials and the devil’s entreaties, not a temptation stirred up from disordered desires. Owen says Christ had only the suffering part of temptation, we have also the sinning part.

So if you want to think of a category, you can think of over here “passive, without, suffering, trials,” and over here “active, sinning, indwelling, desires.” Those are the two categories.

Again, how to think of an analogy, analogies are imperfect, but it might be the difference, I’ll just use myself as a sinful example, as one who could have sinful desires and lusts, if I were to walk along a beach where people are not dressed in oversized sweaters and things come into my eyes and there are desires, sinful desires, that arise within me, unbidden, those are the motions which the Confession calls “truly and properly sin.”

Now if earlier in the day, a bunch of my friends say, “Hey, you want to go to the beach?” and you want to go there and you want to, these aren’t good friends, these are, you know, friends I used to have or something, “and we’re gonna go to the beach and you know what we’re going to be able see there and it’s gonna be great and we’ll set up shop and just think of all the things that we could see.”

Well, at that point, there is not something to see, that could be experienced as an external temptation, from without. There it is, I know that saying yes to that, that in itself is not doing sin, but there it is, and if I were to acquiesce to that external temptation, but the fact that they have raised that to me is not the same kind of temptation as being on the beach, walking around, seeing things, being stirred up in body and soul, in ways that I ought not to be.

It’s the difference between trials, entreaties, temptation from without, and temptation from within. So if you just think about what is one of the most difficult issues of our day, and that is how to understand same-sex attraction, one of the ways and reasons that we’re reticent to say that same-sex attraction is, and all the motions thereof sinful, is because it sounds as if then we’re placing an impossible burden upon people who have that sin struggle, that all the time, they’re constantly dealing with sin.

I would say one of the responses to that is to say that if we’re honest, all of us, in our hearts, we are always, constantly dealing with sin. It’s just the fact that we probably aren’t very honest with all of the illicit, unbidden desires that we must fight against all the time.

Now of the important things with this passage in James, even though these epithumei, these desires, are in themselves sinful, they come at us and there is moral space. That is to say, a desire for something sinful and doing the sinful thing, acting upon it, and then living in it, each of those stages are rightly called sin, but there’s moral space between them. That is to say, each successive stage is worse.

That’s important, because I remember talking with elders before, not here but elsewhere, and dealing with someone who had an adulterous affair and really needed to be disciplined, and an earnest brother on the session said, “Well, I struggle with adulterous thoughts in my own heart, so shouldn’t all of us be disciplined?” Well, that’s an admirable bit of humility, but there is moral space between those sorts of desires, that presumably he was repenting of, fighting against, and an action taken upon those desires. Each step of the way is successively worse.

So as desires, these temptations that come from within, that we don’t feel as if we’re welcoming or wanting, what we are most responsible for is at that moment of temptation to fight them, to put them to death, and that is the burden of James’ logic in verse 12 through 15.

So, I said that was 4/5 of the sermon. We’re coming to the last 1/5, to look at with that Reformed understanding of sin and temptation, zeroing in on verses 14 and 15. Let’s now see the exegetical argument here.

Look at verse 12. James starts with the encouragement: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life.”

So this is very much connected to what follows. What follows is a discourse about sin and temptation. And so the opening line is the encouragement, “if you fight this sin and temptation, if you are steadfast under this trial, trials from without, trials from within, if you stand firm, then you receive the crown of life.” So this is going to be a call to stand firm, to be steadfast. We’ve talked in the first part of James about those external trials of suffering, now here is the internal trial of warring desires.

So verse 13. You need to fight. “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.”

In other words, don’t blame God. Don’t say, “God is doing this to me.” You fight against sin, you don’t make excuses for sin.

And then he gets to the progression: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” There’s stage one.

Stage two: “Desire is conceived, gives birth to sin.”

And stage three: “Sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

So there’s a progression: Desire, sin, death.

And what I’ve wanted to make sure we understand that is each of those stages are truly and properly called sin, but sin here in James is that external manifestation, that acting out: Desire, sin, death.

And James uses an analogy that we can all understand. That progression from desire-sin-death, is like embryo-baby-adult. Something is there and it’s conceived, there’s something going on in your heart, and then there is the giving forth of life to that.

Now blames James that he’s using something we like, babies and embryos and relating it to sin, but you understand, embryo/baby, and then you let it grow up, becomes an adult. When that’s sin, that’s bad. Every step of that way, desire-sin-death, is sin. Sin inside, sin outside, sin overall. Each step is worse than the last. The process is not one that moves from innocence to sin, but one that moves from indwelling sin, from the affections to the will, and finally to the outworking of sin in the life and death of the person.

And what James wants to lay upon us as a righteous burden is fight the battle where you are. Fight it at its easiest point. Don’t wait until it’s grown and strong and rampaging through your life.

Some of you have sins like that, or you know people with sins like that, and by God’s grace they can be slayed, but much easier to defeat that monster when it’s small, or even before it has seen the light of day.

John Owen describes the process like this: One, the mind is drawn away. The mind starts thinking of things that it shouldn’t be thinking about. Two, the affections become entangled. So your mind is thinking of things, and then your affections start inclining toward it. Step three, the will consents to actual sin. The mind wakes up, oh, that’s an idea, I could look there, I could flip on that, I could get revenge, I could steal that money. Then your affections start to get entangled, oh, I kinda like that. You start daydreaming about it. Then step three your will consents to it. Now you’re wanting to act upon it. Step four, Owen says, sin is brought forth into view and now what started as an act of your mind, entangled in your affections, then a consent of the will, now becomes visible. Finally step five, the stubborn course that finishes sin and ends in death.

What God wants us to learn in particular from these verses is to fight the battle of sin where it is. Right now. Right now. It will never get easier to fight sin in your life than right now. Don’t say, “I can nurture this, I can handle it for a little while. Later I’ll get back to that sin.” Yes, later, really? When the sin is more grown up? When the sin is stronger? No, do not wait until later to fight the sin that is warring in your life, whether right now, it’s at the step of your mind, your affections, your will, your actions, or the stubborn pattern of your life.

Where is it? Be honest with yourself. Maybe you’ll be honest with a friend or a family member, but at least between you and the Lord, sometime this week, have a quiet moment, ask the Lord, is there sin I’m not seeing? Is there sin that I’ve been too friendly to? Sin that I have been nurturing and coddling and taking to soccer games and feeding and giving birthday parties? When I should be putting the sin away.

My 4-year-old, Tabitha, I like to tease her, that’s what good dads do to their kids. One of the things I tease her is I’ll say, “Well, how’s my 3-year-old this morning?” She says, “I’m not 3.” Tabitha, if you’re watching, I know you’re not 3. She says, “I’m not 3, I’m 4.” I say, “I don’t know. I eat 4-year-olds.” And then she says, “Well, uh,” and she’s a smart little girl, and she says, “Well, I have gluten.” And I say, “Oh, boy, that’s really… Are you sure?” So we go back and forth and she’ll, I say “I eat 4,” “Okay, I’m 3. All right? You know I’m really 4.” And I’ll tell her, “Tabitha, I don’t know. I don’t want you to be 4. I want you to be 3. You’re not allowed to get any older.”

I’m sure you’ve thought that, said that, to your kids, “You’re gonna stay a little girl forever. I want you to start having birthdays backwards.” And of course we know that, for better or worse, and it’s some of both, we cannot stop our children from growing up. We are powerless to do so. Doesn’t matter, they will grow up. As long as the Lord gives them life, they grow up.

It is not so with sin. You do not have to let your sin grow up. We will read in the verses ahead that we have been endowed with gifts from the Father, verse 17. We have been born again by the Word of Truth, verse 18. We have been given the Spirit that we might be a kind of first fruits of His creatures. There is power, in other words, power within you as you are joined to Christ.

So this is the singular exhortation for you: Do not let sin grow up. Don’t coddle it, don’t entertain it, don’t wait for it to get a little bit older. Do not let sin grow up from sin inside to sin outside to sin over your life. Let us not excuse ourselves in thinking that these desires I have for illicit ends, for sex and wrath and covetousness, these things are just temptations. They are temptations. They’re temptations to greater sin. They are in themselves, all the motions thereof are truly and properly called sin, expressions of indwelling sin. And even if they come to you unbidden, you did not welcome them, you did not invite them, you are not glad that they are there, that’s very good, send them home. Do not throw a party, do not let them grow up.

There is power for us in Christ. For we have been crucified with Christ. We think of that as an exhortation, and in a way it is, kill the sins, but it’s also a statement of fact: If you belong to Christ, you have been crucified with Christ along with the sinful desires.

So God is not asking you to be something other than you are. He’s asking you to live out what is already true of you in Christ. Stop sin before it grows up and takes over our lives.

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we thank You for the blood of Jesus to forgive us. We thank You for the Spirit of Jesus to empower us. We thank You for the example of Jesus, who withstood real temptation, knew what it was, unlike sin, unlike us, did not sin, and we pray, Lord, that You would give us grace right now at this moment, in this hour, the rest of this day, to be honest with our sin, put to death those desires warring within us, and we pray that we would live our lives in Your power unto Your glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.