Two weeks of teaching on trials from James 1 no doubt leaves us with questions. But what is unique about the questions that have surfaced this week is they touch on core issues that are not only difficult to answer, but seemingly impossible. Frankly, some of these questions get to matters that have no answer fully comprehendible by our finite mind or fully communicable by our limited vocabulary. I get tongue tied thinking and talking about them.
Which is why I have appealed, more than usual, to outside voices and sources in this post. Lord willing, with the aid of people smarter than me and the wisdom of the ages past, we can offer some bit of insight to these questions and the core issues to which they are tethered.
1. What is the difference between tempting and testing? Since the same root word is used in the New Testament for both concepts, this is an important question. In a nutshell, the difference is in the source and the response. God does test us to grow us, but if we respond wrongly, then that very situation may be used by the enemy to tempt us to sin. Admittedly, this is difficult to balance, but I think we see the difference in the examples of Job and Jesus. John MacArthur explains:
“When ‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’ (Matt. 4:1) it is clear that both God and Satan participated in the testing. God intended the test to prove His Son’s righteousness, but Satan intended it to induce Jesus to misuse His divine powers and to give His allegiance to Satan. Job was tested in much the same way. God allowed Job to be afflicted in order to prove His servant was an ‘upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil’ (Job 1:8). Satan’s purpose was the opposite: to prove that Job was faithful only because of the blessings and prosperity the Lord had given him and that, if those things were taken away, Job would would “surely curse Thee to Thy face” (v. 11).”
2. If God doesn’t tempt us, why does the Lord’s prayer say ‘ Lead us not into temptation….?’ This statement, the first negative one in the Lord’s Prayer, is a prayer for protection, much like many of the Psalms. It is a prayer rooted in the reality of life by the Christian who knows full well God won’t tempt him to sin, but yet also knows all too well that he himself will want to sin. It is with this mix of emotions that we are to pray for God’s protection from sin and Satan (literally, “the evil one”). This is a petition that manifests the believer’s deep longing to avoid the destructive power of sin.
D.A. Carson suggests it is a way to say something positive by saying something negative, what is known as a litotes (a figure of speech in which a negative statement is used to affirm a positive sentiment). John Piper adds that this prayer “teaches us to pray…that the temptation does not take us in. Don’t lead me into temptation. Deliver me from this evil that is set before me.”
Psalm 141:4 gives an example of this: “Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies!” Surely God would not point someone’s heart towards evil, yet David prays in this way. Why? It is the cry of the human heart that is fully aware of its frailty and sinfulness, and yearns for God to be its sole deliverer, help, and portion. Essentially, it is a humble prayer for God’s protection.
3. James 1:13 says God can’t be tempted by evil. Did Jesus experience temptation by evil? Yes, Jesus the God-Man did experience external temptation from Satan. He did not sin, however, but rather obeyed perfectly all the way to the cross. Jesus did not, however, ever experience internal temptation brought about by his own desires.
Notice I used the words “external” and “internal.” Here’s why—the phrase “God cannot be tempted” is used in this passage in relation to how we are tempted from within: by our own evil desires. In other words, internally. Since God has no such thing as evil desires, he cannot be tempted in this way—from within. Neither does Jesus, for that matter. His temptation from Satan was external, not internal.
The point James is making is that God’s character does not even allow for the possibility that God could sin because there is no sin in him. And the same is true for God the Son. Even though Jesus was tempted by Satan, there is no possibility that he could have ever been tempted from an internal desire gone astray.
Attached to this is the issue of the impeccability or peccability of Christ—could Jesus have sinned (but simply didn’t), or was it impossible for him to sin? Answering this isn’t the point of this blog, but for those who want to look further into this topic, click here.
4. How would you describe God’s sovereignty over sin (e.g. Joseph sold into slavery, the crucifiction of Christ, etc…)? We know God didn’t tempt Joseph’s brothers or the Roman soldiers, but did God merely use those sins for good or did he ordain them to happen? Let me take a stab at the last question first. Yes, God ordained them, and yes, God used them. Yet, he is not responsible for the evil associated with them. How can this be? Plainly, I don’t know. As hard as it is to comprehend, even the devil is God’s devil (props to Martin Luther).
So when you ask me to “describe God’s sovereignty over sin,” whew, what a task! Frankly, I can’t very well. Do I believe that God is fully in control of all things good and bad? Yes. Do I understand how he does that? No. Are there examples in Scripture of God doing this? Yes. Can I explain them well? No.
Others, however, have. (Yeah!) R.C. Sproul discusses it here, and I especially like one part:
Since God is sovereign over all, everything that happens is grounded in His plan. David commanded a census because the Lord ultimately planned that he do so, but Satan was used as the secondary cause to incite David. God ordained David’s sin, but He is not to blame for the temptation, for Satan did the tempting. In this case we might say the Lord “allowed” Satan to tempt David in order to clarify the point that God does not stand behind evil deeds in the same way that He does behind goodness. But make no mistake, John Calvin tells us, God’s decree of evil is not “bare permission — as if God sat in a watchtower, awaiting chance events, and his judgments thus depended upon human will” (Institutes 1.18.1).
That God rules over Satan without Himself being guilty of sin is a hard truth, but it is also comforting. It tells us that what we suffer from the Devil, his demons, and all evil is not purposeless but will lead to our good and God’s glory.
In the end, Scripture provides us with the confidence that since God is intrinsically perfect in every aspect of his being (character), even when he does seemingly difficult things, they must be perfect, for he can do no imperfect thing (conduct). And you can insert any character trait into that sentence and it come out the same on the conduct side. For instance, since God is intrinsically loving in every aspect of his character, even when he does seemingly unloving things, they must be loving, for he can do no unloving thing. Or, since God is intrinsically just, even when he does seemingly unjust things, they must be just, for he can do no unjust thing. You get the picture.
So I fall on God’s character when living with the tension of God’s sovereignty and man’s sinfulness. I don’t always understand how he orchestrates it all, but I am fully able to rest in the fact that he is. Perfectly. Sovereignly. Fully. Completely.
For a pertinent, practical piece on this I wrote a while back, click here.