The 4 Stages of Sin
In his landmark book, At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry, Steve Gallagher, the recognized forerunner in sexual addiction ministry, writes:
“Those who become bound up in habitual sexual sin – even if it is no more than masturbation and/or pornography – are actually addicted to a complex chain of actions. It all begins with temptation, moves into a person’s particular routine, peaks in the actual act itself and ends with the lingering, inevitable consequences. Compelling the person through this entire sequence of events is a driving lust. Thus, he is not merely hooked on the act itself but on the whole unfolding drama. The book of James reveals this process from a spiritual perspective:
“Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.” James 1:13-16
James reveals four distinct stages in the process of sin. Allow me to describe these for you, so you can understand what’s going on inside you.
The first stage in the process of sin is desire. You have the desire for sin lying latent in your own heart. It is part of your spiritual DNA. It is your desire. Therefore you must recognize it, own it, take responsibility for it, and not blame anyone else for it.
Notice in the Scripture the words “his own lust.” That says it perfectly. It is your own lust, your own desire that causes you to sin. If you didn’t desire it, you wouldn’t do it. No one outside of you is forcing you. The compulsion to sin comes from inside you. Jesus said so (Matthew 15:19-20) and here James agrees. It’s not the devil’s fault. It’s not someone else’s fault. It is certainly not God’s fault. The desire comes from your own heart.
Notice the words “carried away and enticed.” The first word is a hunter’s term that means to be ensnared in a trap. The second word is a fisherman’s term that means to be lured by bait. Satan knows what your flesh wants. He knows what you’ve fallen prey to before. He chooses the bait that you find attractive.
If I offered one of my friends some cocaine, the opportunity to get high right now, he might respond with great nervousness. He sees the powder. He remembers the high. He starts to twitch. His mouth waters. He wants it. I make the same offer to another friend, and there a totally different response. This friend has never taken drugs of any kind, and has absolutely no desire to start now. The lust lies within us. We are tempted when we want it. We are not tempted if we don’t.
The second stage in the process is deception. We believe the lies that we tell ourselves in order to give ourselves permission to move further. That is why James said very plainly, “Do not be deceived.” Deception is always a part of the process.
What are some of the many lies that are part of the temptation to sexual sin? They usually go like this: “Just this once.” “No one will know.” “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” “I deserve this.” “I can stop any time.” “God’s still blessing me, so it can’t be that bad.” “I can always ask for forgiveness later.” The biggest lie, of course, is that a holy God is not offended or that He is not right there watching the whole sordid episode, providing the way of escape that you are not taking. Temptation always looks good on the outside. That’s part of the deception.
Not only have we been deceived in the past, but we continue to deceive ourselves. After we’ve been in sexual sin for a while, we KNOW where it leads. We know the emptiness of the lie. We know the inevitable feelings of guilt, recrimination, condemnation. We know the end of the affair. But we lie to ourselves again, pretend that we don’t remember, and head right back down the spiral of degradation one more time.
“Then after desire has conceived it gives birth to sin.” What begins in your mind results in actions. It starts in your imagination, but moves into behavior. What you flirt with, you will fall for.
The best example from Scripture is King David. Having spied a woman bathing, he desired her. But if, at that point, he had turned his heart towards the Lord, confessed his desire as an offense against a holy God, it all would have been over in a moment. But he didn’t do that. He inquired about her. He was told that she was a married women. Imagine the lies he had to tell himself at this point to make it okay. He invited her over and took her to his chamber. The evil fantasy that was conceived in his heart gave birth to sin in his behavior. It always does. And it only got worse from there. It eventually ended in:
The inevitable result is always death. It was death for Adam and Eve. It was death for David. And it is death for us. Every time. It is death to our conscience, death to our sanctification, death to our relationship with God. Every time we die just a little more. Eventually, if we stay that way, it will be spiritual death for ever. The stakes are that high.
Allow me to take you to the verse just ahead of our passage in James 1:12. He writes: “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial (testing, temptation); for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” James is telling us throughout this passage that temptation and trial will come upon us often and in various forms. If we endure and persevere, we receive (the crown of) life, but if we fail, give in to the flesh, and pursue the sin, we receive death. Life or death; the choice is always ours to make.
It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the victory over temptation and sin. That is found in abundance throughout the blog articles. My purpose here was only to describe the process of sin. I do, however, want to leave you with one great word of encouragement, found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
"No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry."
1 Corinthians 10:13-14
Jim Lewis is a Biblical Counselor at Pure Life Ministries. He received a B.A. in Religion from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, FL and both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Dr. Lewis served as a pastor for 30 years.
Copyright © 2017 by Pure Life Ministries. Permission is granted to use, copy, distribute, or retransmit information or materials on this page, so long as proper acknowledgment is given to Pure Life Ministries as the source of the materials, and no modifications are made to such material.