Every Christian reflection on sanctification must wrestle with the reality of lingering temptation to sin. More pointedly, every Christian struggles with the reality of temptation, not as an abstract idea but as alluring call to stray from the narrow gospel road of life.
A deepening understanding of the New Testament’s vision for holiness, spiritual conflict, and the resources available in Christ can help believers overcome temptation. This essay examines the New Testament background for overcoming temptation, historical perspectives, and biblical hope for holiness.
The New Testament’s vision for the Christian life is decidedly Christocentric and Christotellic—only Christ can redeem those whom are lost and God intends for those whom Christ redeems to look increasingly like Jesus. Thus in Romans 8:28–30, Paul can claim that the Father has foreknown and predestined believers “to be conformed to the image of his Son,” and the echoes of image-bearing present in the Bible’s opening chapters (Gen 1:27–28) are clear. Jesus is the final Adam and believers image him. Why has God chosen this purpose? So that Jesus “may be the firstborn among many brothers,” a reason that bespeaks of his preeminence and worthiness. Elsewhere, Paul envisions Jesus as the benchmark of spiritual maturity into which believers are to grow (Eph 4:9–16), a standard simultaneously humbling (every failure reminds us that we still have growing to do) and helpful (we have direction in what holiness looks like). Paul also encourages Christians that genuine internal transformation is possible by “beholding the glory of the Lord,” but clarifies that spiritual transformation is not done in the believer’s own power but “comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2Cor 3:17–18). John adds an eschatological dimension: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1Jn 3:2–3).
Understanding this Christ-oriented trajectory for sanctification is especially helpful for believers with respect to facing temptation. Because Jesus endured temptation victoriously, those united to him by faith may also overcome it.
The author of Hebrews expresses great hope in this regard: “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:14–16). The motif of Jesus as the believer’s high priest is important in this epistle and it is so encouraging for Christians facing temptation. From Aaron forward (Lev 16:3), Israel’s high priests, regardless of their piety, had to offer sacrifices to atone for their own sins before they could intercede on behalf of Israel’s penitent. More decisively, every earthly high priest died, thus leaving the intercession to another, generation after generation. Not Jesus. His perfect obedience vindicated, he “always lives to make intercession” for believers and he has no need to offer sacrifices for his own sin (7:27).
What Hebrews makes clear in summary form, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke narrate and amplify: Jesus overcame temptation. A summary of these pericopes illuminates key facets of Jesus’ victory. First, God ordained Jesus’ temptation as Matthew states plainly, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1; cf. Luke 4:1 where Jesus is “filled” with the Holy Spirit). Second, Jesus endured temptation for the entirety of the forty days (Luke 4:2, cf. Matt 4:2). Third, the devil was the personal agent of temptation and targeted Jesus’ temporal circumstances (being hungry after fasting) as well as his broader kingdom mission (exchanging the path of suffering for power). Then, Jesus’ response to each temptation demonstrates knowledge of, reliance on, and confidence in Scripture (he always responds to the devil’s temptations by citing Scripture). While echoes of Adam’s and Israel’s temptations are present in these narratives, believers must celebrate Jesus as the hero who overcomes temptation so that he can remain the spotless Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.
Historical Perspective on Temptation
In every age, Christians have reflected on Jesus’ temptation and its relevance for believers. In the ancient church (ca. 100–650), these reflections took on a distinctively imitative approach. Early on, the desert mothers and fathers (ammas and abbas) prized self-imposed seclusion to face intense temptation. In the 4th century, Athanasius (c. 296–373), the great defender of Christ’s deity, gave the Western church the Vita St Antoni (Life of Saint Anthony), a purportedly historical recounting of a great Egyptian monk who imitated Christ by withdrawing to the desert to face and overcome temptation on behalf of the church. This model eremitic prayer flourished in late antiquity and, with communal and local variations, persisted into the medieval period.
Some of the most enduring and deeply theological (and practical) reflections on temptation come after the Reformation from Anglicans and English Puritans of the 16th–17th centuries. One helpful approach is the practical theology of Thomas Brooks (1608–1680), whose sermons-turned-book in Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices considers a dozen ways in which Satan tempts Christians and offers manifold biblical remedies to overcome such attacks. The oft-jailed Baptist pastor John Bunyan (1628–1688) included reflections on battling temptation in his allegory Pilgrim’s Progress by way of personification in the Porter Watchful and by naming watchfulness against sin as one of the neglected duties of those who fall away from the faith. Probably the most enduring Puritan work on fighting temptation is that of pastor-scholar John Owen (1616–1683).
During the 20th century, many evangelicals rediscovered Owen’s writings through the Banner of Truth reprints and Volume 6 of Owen’s Works seems to be recommended perennially for his three insightful treatises on resisting sin and temptation. Owen’s treatise Of Temptation, published originally in 1658, provides just over seventy pages of Scripture-soaked, detailed exegesis and theological reflection on how temptation arises and prevails within Christians, as well as how Christians are to resist and overcome its influences. Where Owen excels is offering a morphology of temptation from concept to ensnarement to fruition.
Biblical Hope for Overcoming Temptation
In their experience as sojourners and strangers on earth, Christians will face temptation. Being tempted is not yielding to temptation. The gospel provides tempted believers great hope. First, it proclaims a Savior who has faced and defeated temptation. Then, it proclaims invisible realities for those who trust the victorious God-man. Christians are those whom God has (1) declared not-guilty, (2) decisively adopted, (3) been born from above and thus (a) given new hearts and (b) new inclinations, (4) indwelled fully by the Spirit of Christ, (5) crucified and buried with Christ, (6) raised and seated with Christ, and (7) receive the ongoing merciful intercession of Christ and the Holy Spirit. These theological realities show how fully God works within the individual Christian, yet his kindness extends to gathering and knitting/building believers together into one new community, reminding one another that we do not face temptation alone. God gives this community further resources to overcome temptation: Scripture, fasting, prayer, watchfulness, and confession being distinctively powerful.
Christians live by faith in Christ (Gal 2:20), that is, they take him at his word that they are indeed united to him so that his crucifixion is their crucifixion, his resurrection life is their life, and so forth. Such faith is God’s gift (Eph 2:8) and hearing the Word strengthens this faith (Rom 10:9). Like Jesus, believers must rely on Scripture in times of temptation as an anchor that moors them against the pull of sin’s tides. This trustworthy word encourages believers that Christ has faced the same temptations as them (Heb 4:14–16) and overcome. Every temptation believers face is part of the common human experience and God is so meticulous in governing his world that even in every temptation he will make a way to escape it (1Cor 10:13). Believers take comfort in this truth: God knows how to rescue them from temptations (2Pet 2:9) and further, that by submitting themselves to God, Christians may “resist the devil” and set him to flight (Jms 4:7).
The disciplines of fasting, prayer, watchfulness, and confession are God-given means whereby believer’s fight temptation. Fasting, never popular, and regrettably ignored, trains believers to deny themselves the normal comforts of eating and contentment for a season, so that they might seek God more intensely, express remorse and lament, humble themselves, and prepare for seasons of temptation. When believers fast, they follow the example of their Lord (Matt 4:2), who steeled himself during temptation by fasting, but also his expectation, that in his temporal absence his followers would fast (Matt 9:15) as they await the bridegroom’s return. Fasting trains believers to resist natural and lawful urges so that when they face illicit promptings, they have trained themselves to say “no.” Ironically, a neglect of fasting leaves Christians spiritually emaciated in times of temptation.
The discipline of watching is clearly biblical (cf. Matt 26:41, 1Cor 16:13, Gal 6:1, Eph 6:18-19, 1Pet 5:8, 2Jn 8, among others) but appears quite infrequently in contemporary treatments of spiritual disciplines. Among the English Puritans, however, the practice received ample attention (see the bibliography for key works). In modern military/security phrasing, the older English “watchfulness” is an equivalent to “situational awareness,” a proactive posture whereby one pays active attention to themselves and their surroundings. Seasoned and gritty bodyguards practice situational awareness to prevent confrontations wherever possible rather than to pick them. This martial language captures well the biblical disciple of watching, which is to maintain vigilance or be in a state of constant readiness, recognizing the lurking threat of temptation. To adapt a phrase from 19th century Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892), the believer’s “self-watch” is vital, but by itself, vigilance is only part of the believer’s response to temptation.
Prayer, intentional and devoted prayer, is another of God’s appointed means for resisting temptation and is the counterpart to watchfulness. Prayer acknowledges our spiritual weakness and dependence on God, and prayer before, during, and after times of temptation reinforce the Christian’s dependence on God’s mercy and power. Christ’s admonition to “Watch and pray” in Matthew 26:41 points to preemptive prayer that petitions an all-wise and all-powerful God to spare faithful disciples the pain of temptation. Paul’s exhortation to pray “at all times … with all perseverance” (Eph 6:18-19), positioned after the itemization of the Christian’s armament for spiritual battle, indicates the place of disciplined prayer in preparing and steeling those engaged in conflict with unseen spiritual forces (cf. Eph 6:12) to wield the armor well and to stand strong in battle. Such prayer is often private and personal, but the believer who desires to overcome temptation will increasingly offer such prayers with others.
Confession is an interpersonal discipline with a beautiful promise: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jms 5:16). Contextually, James extols prayer in all circumstances, such as in times of suffering, times of joy, and times of sickness. He draws the conclusion that because God chooses to show particular mercy in times of physical illness through prayer (5:15), believers ought also to confess to and pray for that they may receive spiritual healing from their sins. While James addresses the culmination of temptation (yielding to sin), his admonition to interpersonal confession and prayer seems appropriate for earlier stages of temptation (eg. Allowing sinful thought to linger, devising schemes to see sinful thoughts turn into actions, “entering into” temptation, etc.).
All believers long for diminishing struggles with temptation. This longing helps explain, in part, competing theologies of sanctification that have emerged at various points in the church’s history, some of which offer enticing promises of simple solutions to the believer’s fight with sin. The 16th century Reformers, magisterial and radical, differed with one another as to the precise role of faith in one’s growth in holiness, so it is unsurprising that their Protestant heirs continued this debate. During the 18th–19th centuries, evangelists, pastors, and lay-teachers offered optimistic visions of holiness in which sin, and thus temptation to sin, might be disposed of quickly via an exercise of faith. As this article has expressed, faith is indispensable in the Christian’s war with temptation, yet as Anglican Bishop J. C. Ryle (1816–1900) aptly observed, “Surely the Scriptures teach us that in following Holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and works as well as faith.”
- Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices
- John Downame, The Christian Warfare: Against the Devil World and Flesh
- John Owen, Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of it, The Danger of Entering into it, and the Means of Preventing Danger, in The Works of John Owen, Vol. 6: 87–151. This work is also available in a modernized form in John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor, eds. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006; 2015), 141–223.
- Richard Rogers, Seven Treatises: Containing Directions, Out of Scripture, Leading to True Happiness
- C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots
- Charles Spurgeon, The Minister’s Self-Watch
- Brian Hedges, Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018).
- Russell Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).
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