Friday, 18 July 2014

Does God tempt us?

Here is the first of two sections of discussion of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4 from David Platt's new commentary (2013) on Matthew in the new Christ-Centered Exposition commentary series, published by Holman Reference (p. 66-67):
Matthew 4:1 says that Jesus was led "by the Spirit" to be tempted by the Devil in the wilderness.  But in what sense did the Spirit lead Jesus to be tempted?  Did the Spirit of God tempt Jesus?  The clear answer from Scripture is, "No."  God never tempts us in the sense of enticing us to evil.  James 1:13 says, "No one undergoing a trial should say, 'I am being tempted by God.'"  Instead, Satan is seen in Scripture as "the tempter" (Matt. 4:3).  Therefore, we can say that we are tempted by Satan (who is subordinate) for evil.  Only the Devil and demons tempt us to evil, but even their tempting, though directly attributable to them, is ultimately under the sovereign control of God.  Nothing happens in the universe apart from the sovereignty of God.
     There is a flip side to Satan's temptations in Matthew 4:  We are tested by God (who is sovereign) for good.  If we put the two points together we can say that temptation by the Devil (who is subordinate) toward evil is ultimately a part of a testing by God (who is sovereign) for good.  The book of Job teaches us that Satan is on a leash; he can do nothing that God does not allow him to do.  Now to be sure, when Satan tempts, he intends it for evil, but God uses these temptations to refine His children and to teach them His faithfulness (Jas 1:2; 1 Pet 1:6-7).  The apostle Paul experienced this when God gave him a "thorn in the flesh...a messenger from Satan" to torment him (2 Cor 12:7).  The purpose of the trial was so that Paul would know the strength and sufficiency of Christ (2 Cor 12:9-10).  Consider also Joseph in the Old Testament, who was sold into slavery and tempted in a number of ways.  God used these trials to bring about good - for Joseph and for his brothers who sold him into slavery (Gen 50:20).
     We can say definitively that God was not tempting Jesus, nor was He tempting Adam, Joseph, Israel, or Paul, toward evil.  For that matter, He will never tempt you toward evil.  Instead, in His sovereignty, God uses even Satan's temptations to evil in order to bring about good in your life (Rom 8:28).
While I agree overall with what Platt is saying here, there are some clarifications which I think need to be made.  Platt rightly points to James to show that we can never say that God is tempting us toward sin.  However, he then goes on to say that it is Satan who tempts us.  This is partially true, or it is entirely true but only part of the time.  There are many places in Scripture which clearly point to Satan as the source of temptation, not least of which is the first temptation which lead to the original sin of the garden, and of course also the very temptation story recorded in Matthew 4 where Satan directly tempts Jesus.  But it is important to note a couple of things to further clarify and qualify what Platt says here.

First, Satan is not omnipresent as God is.  In other words, unlike God who is everywhere present all the time, Satan is not.  Like all other angelic beings, obedient or fallen, he can only be in one place at a time.  Since many millions of Christians the world over experience temptation simultaneously, we cannot say that all that temptation is from Satan directly, even as a subordinate cause.  In fact, we cannot even say that all temptation is indirectly from Satan through his minions, his legions of fallen angels who rebelled along with him against the authority and glory of God.  The reason we cannot say this is because of the very James passage that Platt quoted a portion of.  This passage bears quoting at length:
Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.  (ESV James 1:13-15)
Now, Satan can and does certainly tempt people in accordance with their own desires, pressing those temptations on people from the outside.  But the second thing that needs to be mentioned here is the clear sense of this passage in James.  James tells us that the typical pattern of temptation is one of internal temptation.  We are tempted because we are lured and enticed by our own desire.  This is the normative pattern of the struggle with temptation.  Our temptations stem from within, from the remnants of our sinful natures, growing out of our own sinful desires, far more often then they are pressed upon us from outside.  The sin still living in us is most often the cause of our temptations, although that was not the case for Jesus who had no sinful nature.

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