Welcome to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast with John Piper. First up this week is a question about the original sin committed by Adam and Eve. It’s an insightful follow-up question to something you’ve said. “Hello, Pastor John, and thanks for taking my question. My name is Alex from Dallas. According to your sermon at Passion 2017, you said the ultimate essence of evil in the garden of Eden was not eating the fruit. You said they lost their taste in God, so they sinned before taking a bite. Can you explain this please? I thought there was a difference between temptation and giving in to sin.”
Let’s clarify two things. One, the difference between the essence of sin on the one hand and sinful actions of the body on the other hand. Two, let’s clarify the difference between temptation and sinning. It seems like those are the two levels of Alex’s question.
The Essence of Sin
First, there’s a difference between the essence of sin and the outward act of sinning. The essence of sin is not what muscles do; it’s what the heart does. By the heart I mean the inner faculty of willing and desiring that give rise to actions.
If some very strong person took hold of your arm against your will and, by force, caused you to stab somebody while you resisted with all your might, you would plead that you did not commit wrong. But if your heart moved your arm to stab somebody, you would have done wrong and you know it.
“The essence of sin is not what muscles do; it’s what heart does.”
The essence of sin is not the movement of the physical members of your body, but the desires and purposes of the heart. External muscular movements are morally evil only insofar as they are expressions of an evil heart.
When Adam and Eve used their biceps and triceps and hand muscles to reach for the forbidden fruit and then used their jaw muscles to bite it, those outward acts of the muscles were evil precisely because they were expressions of a heart that had lost its taste for the superior satisfaction of God and had become dominated by desires for something more than God. That sinful condition of the heart preceded the muscles and their movement and the biting. That was the point that I was trying to make.
Jesus Was Tempted
Now the second clarification. Alex seems to think that that distinction that I just made somehow contradicts the distinction we usually make between temptation and sin. Let me try to give a couple biblical glimpses of how to understand temptation and its relation to sinning.
First, we know from Luke 4:2 and Matthew 4:1 that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the devil. It said explicitly he was tempted. We know from Hebrews 4:15 that though he was tempted, he did not sin.
Now my conclusion, therefore, just from those few facts, is that Satan’s temptations are very often external offers of pleasure, which, if we embrace them, would be sin. But hearing and seeing the offer is not sin. In Adam and Eve’s case, there were things about the tree and the fruit that offered pleasure. It’s an objective offer, and Satan was boosting it.
“Ordinarily, we understand temptation to be the external offer of a pleasure, which, if we embraced, would be sin.”
Perceiving that external objective offer is not sin. Jesus saw it; he heard it. Adam and Eve saw it; they heard it. Perceiving the offer of pleasure — which, if we embraced it, would be sin — is not sin.
Jesus did not embrace it. He thrust it away by the word of God. Adam and Eve tasted and embraced it, savored it, preferred it over God, and acted on it. In savoring it, the offered pleasure became so compelling that the desire for it was greater than the desire for God. At that point, the essence of sin had happened in their heart. Then the muscles kicked in and made it visible.
Now I’d like to just stop right here because I think that’s a relatively simple, straightforward distinction between temptation and outward sinning. But as is so often the case in Scripture, James won’t let us stop here. He makes things more complicated. We’ve got to deal with James 1:13–15 because James presses in. Let me read what he says. He’d defines temptation differently than what I have just said. Here’s what he says:
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.
Wow! That’s complicated. Here’s what James seems to be doing. He’s digging down into the heart to analyze what happens between the external offer of pleasure that I’ve called temptation and the moment when our internal desire becomes pregnant with a preference for that pleasure.
I think James realizes that there are often good desires in the heart that do correspond to the desire being offered in temptation. These are not yet sinful. For example, if somebody offered you $1,000 to lie to the police about something you had seen and your wife and children were starving because you couldn’t afford food, then you would feel a desire for $1,000 that could buy food. “Oh, yes, I want $1,000 to buy food for my family.”
That desire that you feel in that moment need not be sinful — even though it corresponds to the evil pleasure being offered you — because you draw a line. You draw a line. When that desire starts to cross over to a preference for the bribe more than trusting God in his way, you cut it off. You cut it off with the word of God. You put it to death with the word of God.
God Can’t Be Tempted
I think that’s exactly what Jesus did. The Bible says he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten for forty days. Good grief, he was hungry, and Satan offered him bread. No doubt Jesus felt a huge desire for bread. In other words, his desire corresponded to the pleasure that was being offered in the temptation, but Jesus never allowed the desire to become a preference for bread over the will of God.
“There are often good desires in the heart that do correspond to the desire being offered in temptation.”
Now what James says is that each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. I think he means that this alluring and enticing at some point crosses the line into sin. He describes it as becoming pregnant — pregnant with sin because that’s what you give birth to. You give birth to what you’re pregnant with. It gives birth to sin.
The reason I think this is because he says God cannot be tempted. Well, wait a minute. We know Jesus was tempted. James is defining temptation to include the point of allurement and enticement that crosses over into sin. That’s why God cannot be tempted in that sense. Jesus couldn’t be tempted in that sense.
Temptation or Sin?
Here’s the upshot. Sorry to make it so complicated, but that’s just what we’re stuck with as God is entrusting us some glorious things here in his word. Ordinarily, we understand temptation to be the external offer of a pleasure, which, if we embraced it, would be sin. This is the ordinary use of the meaning of temptation.
We may experience desires that correspond to that pleasure, which are not yet sinful, like Jesus’s hunger in the wilderness. Sometimes the New Testament understands temptation to include the crossing of the line between an innocent pleasure that we experience — that we have or that we desire — and the preference of that pleasure over God and God’s will. And, therefore, how vigilant we should be.