When we become Christians we receive the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. All our past sins are forgiven (Acts 22:16; 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21). However, this does not mean that sin will no longer be a problem for us. The apostle John wrote this to Christians: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). John's words indicate that Christians will sin again even though we have been forgiven of our past sins.
The Bible teaches that Satan does his best to get us to sin. The apostle Peter wrote, "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8). I've often wondered why Satan wastes his time if a Christian can't sin so as to be lost. Peter here clearly says that Satan walks about seeking whom he may devour. If it is impossible for a Christian to fall from grace then it is impossible for Satan to "devour" him. Either a Christian can fall from grace or Satan is the stupidest being that has ever existed. Satan may be many things, but he is not stupid. He would not waste his time if he could not affect the salvation of a Christian. The book of First Peter was written to Christians, not unbelievers. Thus, we must conclude that it is possible for Christians to fall from grace and be lost even though our past sins have been forgiven. Sin is still a problem for Christians.
If we are to overcome Satan and remain faithful to God and ultimately receive the riches of glory He has prepared for us, we must continue to overcome sin in our lives. We do this in two ways: First by sinning less and less, and second by knowing what to do when we do sin.
The apostle John wrote, "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1). The fact that John said that he wrote to them "so that you may not sin" shows that the Holy Spirit, who inspired John to write this letter, knew that Christians still sin and are still held accountable for sin. He pointed out that if we do sin we have an advocate with the Father. An advocate is someone who pleads the case of another. Jesus is the advocate who pleads our case before the Father when we sin.
Since Christians still have a problem with sin and since we are held accountable for our sin, we need to be concerned about overcoming sin. To overcome sin we need to understand how sin develops and what steps we can take to stop it before it becomes a problem for us. James teaches us how sin develops and what we can do to overcome it.
THE FIRST STAGE: "TEMPTATION"
James said, "each one is tempted." Temptation includes two things: desire and enticement. ". . . each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed." We all have natural desires as human beings. Desire is not necessarily bad, provided we fulfill that desire in a lawful way. Most of the time the word translated "desire" ("lust" KJV) is used in the Bible to indicate an unlawful desire or a desire for something that we should not desire.
The word "enticed" is an interesting word that the fishermen who are reading this article will appreciate. The word literally means "to lure by a bait." When a fisherman puts his lure into the water, he does so to entice the fish to take the hook. That is what Satan does to us. He places the desire before us (the bait) hoping to get us to "take the hook." He does this by giving us the opportunities to fulfill our unlawful desires. We might put it into a simple formula like this:
Now we may have a strong desire for something, but if we don't have the opportunity to fulfill that desire, we will not be tempted. This ought to tell us something about overcoming temptation. If we stay away from those people or places that give us opportunity to fulfill unlawful desires, we will never give in to temptation because there will be no temptation. If you have problems with alcohol, and you go to places where you have the opportunity to drink, then you're going to have a hard time keeping from sinning. If you have problems with illegal drugs, and you associate with those who use drugs, you're going to have a hard time keeping from sinning.
When I think of avoiding sin I think of Joseph (Genesis 39). You will recall that when Potiphars' wife tried to seduce him, he ran away. One of the great lessons we learn from this is that when you have the desire, and the opportunity presents itself to fulfill that desire, there is no shame in running away from the opportunity. If you get away from the opportunity, you will not be tempted. Joseph got away from the opportunity and did not sin.
One thing we should point out
is this: Even though unlawful desire and opportunity is present, it is not a sin
to be tempted. Jesus never sinned one time (2
Corinthians 5:21) yet the Hebrew writer says that ". .
. He was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews
4:15). It is not a sin to be tempted. It is a sin to give in to the
THE SECOND STAGE: "WHEN DESIRE HAS CONCEIVED"
James tells us that the second stage is giving in to the temptation. "Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin" (James 1:15). James uses the figure of human conception here. We all know when conception takes place in human beings. A baby is produced when the male seed connects with the female. James is telling us that sin is produced when desire is connected with opportunity and we ACT and YIELD to the temptation. Thus sin involves the added step of some sort of action on our part. Again, we could put this in the form of an equation:
The third stage involves the consequences of sin. ". . . and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:15). We all know that some sin can result in physical death. But the death that James speaks of here is spiritual death or separation from God. This separation occurs first in this life (Isaiah 59:1-2). When we give in to temptation and sin we are spiritually separated from God. If we die physically in that state, we will then experience the "second death," which is eternal separation from God (Revelation 21:8). The second death is not ceasing to exist, it is eternal separation from God. Putting this all into a final equation we have:
As you can see by looking at
the formula, the only way to overcome sin is by stopping its development at any
one of the four points leading to death or final punishment. Let's next
examine how this is done.
HOW TO OVERCOME SIN
First, we must CHANGE OUR DESIRES. Since this is where sins begins, it is the best place to stop it. Bear in mind that it is a part of Christian growth to change our desires. Paul wrote, "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Romans 12:1-2). When Paul talks about the transformation that takes place in our lives, he speaks of it being accomplished by the "renewing of" our "mind." What we have in and on our minds must be something new and different than what we had before. There is no doubt that sin begins in the mind (Matthew 15:19). If we can change our minds then we can change our lives. We must work on changing what we desire. When we make this change, we can overcome sin because we will no longer desire whatever Satan used in the past to tempt us to sin.
Paul put it like this: "And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24). To crucify the flesh simply means that we have killed the fleshy or unlawful desires. Our minds are no longer primarily on the physical but on the spiritual. Our desires are for those things that benefit us spiritually rather than those things that will fulfill unlawful physical desires.
But how do we change our desires? By the written word of God. The Psalmist once wrote, "Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You!" (Psalm 119:11). The word of God hidden in the heart or embedded in the mind will make us change our desires. The word of God is powerful (Hebrews 4:12). Too many have bought into Satan's lie that God's word is a "dead letter." The Hebrew writer said that it is "living" and "powerful." He shows how powerful it is when he speaks of it being "sharper than a two-edged sword" and that it divides that which otherwise cannot be divided. The word of God has the power to change your thoughts. It has the power to change your desires.
Do you remember how Jesus overcame the temptations of Satan (Matthew 4:3-10)? He didn't depend upon Himself, any human being, or some direct empowerment of the Holy Spirit. In each case he depended upon the written word of God. In each case He responded to Satan's temptation by saying, "It is written..." Jesus knew what we all ought to understand, and that is, when we have the word of God hidden in our hearts (embedded in our minds), we can overcome temptation.
It is the written word of God (the Bible) that changes our desires. As we read of God's love, longsuffering, and mercy, it changes our desire from serving self to serving Him. As we read of sin and it's consequences and the price that was paid to rid us of sin, it changes our desire to sin to a hatred of sin. As we read of the great sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross, it changes our desire to please ourselves to a desire to please the One who made such a sacrifice for us. The more we study the word of God the less desire we will have to sin. God's word will help us change our desires.
Another thing we can do to overcome sin is to LIMIT OUR OPPORTUNITIES. Remember, we are tempted only when there is BOTH desire and opportunity. So while we work on changing our desires, we must limit opportunities to fulfill wrongful desires. We can and must avoid situations that might excite unlawful desires. David said, "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes . . ." (Psalm 101:3). David knew what setting wicked things before his eyes could lead to. Remember the account of David and Bathsheba? (2 Samuel 11). Here is an example of how unlawful desire and opportunity can lead to sin. It not only led to the sin of adultery, but murder as well. Finally David's little baby boy died. David could have overcome the temptation to sin and thus avoided all the terrible consequences if he had simply turned around, went back into his room and forgot what he saw. If he had done so he would have stopped temptation in its tracks. But that's not what he did, and it led to untold misery for him, and for everyone else involved.
In Job 31:1, the Bible sets forth a great principle that ought to be considered and followed: "I have made a covenant with my eyes; Why then should I look upon a young woman?" This verse ought to be something that is put into practice especially by the men who are reading this article. When he speaks of "looking" upon a young woman, the implication is that this is a lustful look, and something that should not be taking place. If we go to movies, watch TV programs, look at magazines and books or things on the internet that promote evil things like pornography, if we go to places that cater to such things or associate with people who practice such things, then what could we expect but to give in to temptation? We need to make a covenant with our eyes and avoid these kinds of things as much as possible.
We also must avoid people whose evil behavior encourages us to sin. Again, David is a good example: "My eyes shall be on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me; he who walks in a perfect way, he shall serve me. He who works deceit shall not dwell within my house; he who tells lies shall not continue in my presence" (Psalm 101:6-7). David knew the dangers of associating with evil people, so he made up his mind that only those who were faithful and walked in a perfect way would dwell with him and serve him. He would not let those who worked deceit or who lied continue in his presence. Paul adds this warning: "Do not be deceived: Evil company corrupts good habits." (1 Corinthians 15:33). Our association with those who are evil will corrupt us. Sometimes we have to give up friends who have an evil influence on us. Sometimes that means giving up friends who we may have come to be very close to or who we may love. But, if that's what it takes to live a pure and faithful life, that's what we must be willing to do.
All of us know that it is impossible to remove every possible evil influence and our association with every person who may encourage us to do evil. In that case, we must learn to EXERCISE SELF-CONTROL. Remember, sin occurs when we yield in ACTION. If we can control ourselves so as to not yield, then we can overcome sin.
How does a Christian learn self-control? Self-control is one aspect of the "fruit of the Spirit." Paul wrote, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23). The fruit of the Spirit is the opposite of the works of the flesh. The fruit of the Spirit comes from the Spirit's teaching. It all goes back to the written word, the Bible. We cannot overcome the flesh without taking the Spirit's word into our hearts (minds). Remember Paul said, "And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24). The only thing that can get us to change our passions and desires is the word of the Spirit (the Bible).
In light of Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:13, the Christian really has no excuse for yielding to temptation. Notice: "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." God always provides the way to escape whatever temptation we face. If you read through the Bible and look at all the people who gave in to temptation, you will find that in every case there was always a way to escape. The problem was that many people did not look for the way of escape. So, we must look for the way of escape because there is always a way of escape.
But what happens if we fail - if we give in to the temptation? We ought to be so thankful that we serve a loving, merciful and forgiving God. However, in recognizing that God is loving, merciful and forgiving, we must not overlook the fact that He is also just. Because of His nature He can not tolerate sin in the lives of His people. Sin separates us from God's fellowship and protection. If we continue to live in sin, to live in rebellion to God's will, we cannot expect forgiveness. We must repent of our sins, which means we must make up our mind to turn away from sin. If we are not willing to repent of our sins, God will not forgive us. If we are willing to turn from our sins and meet God's conditions of forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9), He will forgive. At any time, a Christian can be forgiven of sin by confessing it, repenting of it and asking God's forgiveness in prayer.
If you notice carefully, you can see that at each of the four points in the development of sin, God is willing and able to help us overcome sin. He helps us control our desires by providing His word to renew our minds. He helps us limit the opportunities to sin by giving us the way of escape. He helps us exercise self-control through His word being in our minds. He helps us obtain forgiveness when we do sin through the blood of Jesus Christ when we repent, confess our sin and pray for forgiveness. Isn't the grace of God wonderful?
We did not comment on verse twelve of James chapter one. But as we end our lesson may the promise found herein help us to overcome: "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him."