The book of James gives us helpful insight into the source of temptation and its progression into sin. Then comes the warning that, left unchecked, “sin . . . brings forth death” (James 1:15, NKJV).
The passage begins with James’ teaching that God is not the source of temptation. God cannot be tempted by evil, and He does not tempt anyone to do evil (James 1:13). It is not God’s will that we sin. Then James explains where temptation actually comes from: “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14–15).
So, temptation occurs when a desire within us receives encouragement to act. The desire itself may not be sinful, but it can “bring forth sin” if acted upon. (Or, in the case of sins of the heart, the desire itself, allowed to linger, is sin. See Matthew 5:27–28.) Temptation is the first stage in the process James describes. Temptation bringing forth sin is the second stage.
The third stage is when sin brings forth death. This happens when sin is “full-grown,” indicating that death may not happen immediately (James 1:15). But it is sure to happen, unless something interrupts the process (see Romans 6:16 and Colossians 2:13).
The “death” James refers to seems to be eternal separation from God in hell. There is a sense in which death can refer to a more immediate, relational separation from God (see Genesis 3:8–10). And, of course, death can also refer to the cessation of physical life. But James’ reference is to sin that runs its full course—its ultimate end is death (see Revelation 21:8).
Sin brings forth death as a natural consequence. Death follows sin as surely as night follows day. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). God is life; rebellion against Him will naturally lead to death. In our natural state, we will reap the consequences of a sinful life: “Death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
Sin brings forth death as the only thing it can bring forth. In Paradise Lost, Book II, John Milton personifies sin as “The Snakie Sorceress that sat / Fast by Hell Gate, and kept the fatal Key.” Her son—she can only have one—is Death, “black . . . as Night, / Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell.” Jesus asked, “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16), and that principle of sowing and reaping is found throughout Scripture. We cannot expect to sin and receive blessing. If we allow sin to become full-grown, death will follow.
Sin brings forth death as part of the judgment of God. In “the day of God’s wrath, . . . his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). God keeps account, and His immutable law is that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, ESV).
James’ purpose in detailing how sin brings forth death is to show that God is not the author of temptation or of sin (James 1:13). Rather, God is the source of life. The contrast is made in James 1:18: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (NKJV). Sin brings forth death, but God brings forth life.
To the eternal praise of His glory, God has halted the process of temptation → sin → death. There is forgiveness available in Christ: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Ephesians 2:3–8a).
“The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b). Temptation may still bring forth sin, but sin, if cancelled by the blood of Christ, will no longer bring forth death.