No matter how holy people think themselves to be, they are still tempted. James teaches that we lust and desire. Our actions result from our sinful thoughts, and our sinful thoughts arise from our sinful desires:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:1–4)
As Christians, we know we should avoid temptations, but we can all too easily give in to them anyway. We are all like alcoholics who, after admitting we have a problem and getting help, struggle to abstain from alcohol for the rest of our lives.
Jesus taught that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). The Scribes and Pharisees were the holiest men in Israel. They had mastered going through the motions. From the outside they looked clean and holy, but inside they were defiled. They were dirty rotten sinners.
Like the Pharisees, Christians are still sinners in both thought and deed. This fact may shock us, but this really is basic Christianity.
In past worship services (and some still today), there was a congregational prayer called the Confession of Sin. In this prayer, the Christian confessed not simply sinful acts but also sinful thoughts, intentions, and desires. Christians confessed that they were, by nature, sinners. In our age of self-esteem, this may sound like a strange worship practice. But to our forefathers in the faith, this was ordinary. Their reasoning was simple: Scripture teaches that confession of sin is an ordinary Christian prayer. The Apostle John taught:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8–9)
The good news is that our sinful natures do not account for the whole story. Even though we are still sinners, our righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, but not because God sees in us a good heart. When we trust in Jesus for our salvation, Jesus’ righteousness is counted as our own.
God the Father justifies us because he sees Christ’s good works and proper motivation. God counts Christ’s works as our own. As Scripture says, “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
In this life Christians will continue to experience temptation. Temptation should remind us that we are still sinners. Without the righteousness of Christ counted as our own through faith alone, we have no hope. This should help Christians to accept people for who and what they are. We ourselves are still like them, even if we look all cleaned up on the outside.