Several years ago, I read "Review of R. Pearsall Smith on 'Holiness through Faith'" by J. N. Darby (Collected Writings, Volume 23, pp. 184–211). Odd as it sounds to say, it was a major turning point for me.
I was struck by Darby's insistence that temptation is sin:
Temptation is used in two senses in scripture. We are tempted when we are drawn away of our own lusts and enticed, and we are tempted from without by the enemy. The latter the Lord underwent, the former of course never. All this is confounded by Mr. S. He says temptation is not sin. In the sense used by James, it is sin. In the other sense of testing or trying, it is not. (p. 190)I had grown up believing the old evangelical idea that "it's not sin to be tempted, it's only sin if you give in." After examining James 1:13–14, I had to admit Darby was correct. It is sin to be tempted. We are tempted when we are drawn away of our own lusts and enticed.
Of course it's not transgression when we're tempted: there is a difference between being enticed to sin and actually sinning. But it's still sin. If we hadn't lusts to draw us away, we'd never be enticed. The very fact that evil things entice us indicates there is something wrong.
The problem is that we are so careless and fail to distinguish between sins and sin. The former are specific transgressions: they are acts of sin. The latter is the principle that lives in us (Romans 7:17). Having the former means we're guilty, having the latter means we're lost.
"By law is knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). Not "sins", but "sin." Law does reveal specific sins, but the point of law is not to make us understand that certain things are sins, it's to make us understand that there is a principle of sin within us. It's to reveal that we are lost. The heathen understood their guilt (Romans 2:15), it doesn't take law to prove that. Law was brought in to show we're not merely guilty, but lost as well.
Temptation addresses not merely guilt, but also lostness. If we find ourselves tempted to sin, then James tells us we've already been drawn away of our own lusts. The believer who is tempted is the believer who has allowed his own lusts to draw him away (James 1:13–15).
And of course this touches on the person of Christ. There is an idea out there that Christ was tempted exactly like we are, by every sin that tempts us. The idea is based on Hebrews 4:15, but it's completely wrong. Christ was never tempted to sin in the sense that we are tempted to sin: He had no lusts to draw Him away. God cannot be tempted by evil things (James 1:13), and it makes Christ less than God to say He could be tempted by them.
What Hebrews 4:15 actually says is, Christ was "tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin" (NASB). The error here is in thinking "yet without sin" means "yet without sinning." It does not. It means there was no sin in Him to respond. "The ruler of the world comes, and in me he has nothing" (John 14:30). In tempting Christ, Satan proved that there were no lusts there to draw Him away. The temptation of Christ proved not that He didn't succumb to temptation, but that He was not capable of being tempted by evil things.
This is really the point of Colossians 3:5–7, isn't it? We're not to walk through this wicked world constantly struggling not to succumb to temptation. We're to walk through this wicked world like Christ did, unaffected by the sin around us. That's why we're told to put to death our members on the earth. If we find ourselves tempted by evil things, it proves that there is un-mortified flesh acting in us. It proves we have failed of the calling of Colossians 3:5–7. If we find ourselves drawn away of our own lusts and enticed, it means we haven't been putting to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:12–13).
So let's not fall into those subtle errors. Christ was tempted in all things like we are, but not by all things like we are. He was (and is) without sin, there were no lusts to draw Him away and entice Him. Let's not lower Him to the level of a sinner, saying He was tempted by evil things. And don't let's give ourselves a pass when we are tempted and think, "it's OK to be tempted, as long as I don't actually give in to that temptation." It's not: we are tempted when we are drawn away of our own lusts and enticed. When we find ourselves tempted by evil things, let's treat that like what it is – our flesh acting in its own lusts – and judge that before God.