Here James warns of a deadly slippery slope: ‘lust’ – ‘sin’ – ‘death’. He maps out our potential slide in this stark, concise, statement, from its deceptive hazardous edge, through complacent sinful descent, to deadly perilous bottom.
He begins with the deceptive hazardous edge: our ‘own lust’ drags us away and entices us. We all have this inherent inner corruption, a force that drives us to disobey God – our sinful nature. If it captures our mind’s focus and we toy with its ideas they entice us. This is temptation. James warns us that it’s the seed from which sin is born. If we allow our minds to dwell in temptation, once we’ve played with such thoughts long enough, a tipping point occurs: evil desire conceives and ‘bears sin’. We’ve all been there, thinking about sinful possibilities, strangely blind to the danger; then suddenly, before we know it, we’ve done wrong, we’re over the edge and half way down the slope, in sin.
There’s a sense in which temptation itself is not sinful, but the cliff edge is ill defined at this point. We endanger ourselves by suggesting temptation is okay. It’s difficult to define at what point temptation turns into sin. Jesus was tempted and yet was without sin, but that was externally, by the devil. He didn’t have an internal sinful nature. James insists that with us it’s our ‘own lust’ ultimately doing the tempting – that’s hardly okay! Moreover, some ‘tempting’ thoughts such as coveting and sexual lust are sins in themselves, before any actual sins of inappropriate acquisition or physical adultery occur. It’s certainly a big mistake to think that temptations are acceptable, or they’re safe, or to dwell in them.
Further down James’ slippery slope is the complacent sinful descent. If sin is repeated it tends to become habitual – part of our way of live. If we rest in such sinful ways, not fighting to get out of them, things tend to get worse as time goes on. Our sinfulness grows and matures. Eventually, James warns, when it becomes ‘full grown’, it ‘brings forth death’, the slope’s deadly perilous bottom.
There are three parts to death: spiritual, physical and eternal. While we are still physically alive at least, we can be helped by James’ warning. If we consider the slope in reverse it shows God’s way out to a different maturity, not mouldering in sin and death, but full of the Holy Spirit and life.
First God must make us spiritually alive. James puts it like this: ‘he brought us forth by the word of truth’(James 1:18). This is the ‘“born anew”’(John 3:3&7) of John, born physically, then spiritually.
Once that has happened, a good start is to turn away from specific sins, the opposite of sliding complacently into more, picking them off one by one, as we climb to the top of the slope.
However, we soon discover the mortal enemy remains within us. Near the top our ‘own lusts’ battle against our good intentions, pushing us back down. Paul describes this in Romans, concluding passionately ‘What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death?’(Romans 7:24). His immediate answer is ‘God through Jesus Christ’(Romans 7:25), who provides atonement, but he elaborates ‘those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace’(Romans 8:5-6). He is warning us, like James, that giving the sinful nature airtime in our minds is a deadly peril. The answer is to stay well back from this hazardous edge of temptation, filling our minds with the Spirit’s desires. Of course we will have some failures, and it’s important to acknowledge the battle, as John admits ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’(1 John 1:8). But the key is to engross ourselves in the things of God, as Paul encourages the Philippians ‘whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you.’(Philippians 4:8-9)