Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers understand what sin is, how serious sin is, and how great the grace of God, who offers redemption to sinners from sin and new life in Christ.
- David Dunham opened our series on sin with a look at sin and biochecmical brokenness.
- Zach wrote on overcoming a sinful theology of Lent and Fasting.
- Nick Batzig wrote on two dangers and three duties in confessing sin to one another.
- Dave wrote on indwelling sin, positional sanctification, and progressive sanctification.
- Dave wrote on living however you want a looking at Romans 6:1-2.
- Matt Perman wrote on the biblical evidence for original sin.
- Brian Hedges wrote on four thoughts on how sin does its work.
- Chis Poblete wrote on seven ways to wage war against sin.
- Matthew Fretwell wrote on the question, “Can sin exist in the Church?”
- Jason Helopoulos wrote on sin is no friend.
- Kevin Halloran wrote on serial killers, hiding sins, and the glorious hope of forgiveness in Christ.
- Mike Boling wrote on how to walk in the light and deal with the sin of hatred.
- Today Zach writes on despising and embracing temptation.
Jesus opens in Luke 17:1 with a simple statement. “Temptations to sin are sure to come.” Strangely enough, there was no follow-up offered by Christ as to what to do in those situations, and how to approach them. He simply condemned those through whom temptation comes and moved on. One has to wonder, if one of the apostles would’ve stopped him and asked, “What do we do?” how would Jesus have responded?
There is something all believers have in common in the quest to mortifying sin. It doesn’t matter what the avenue is; cheating, pride, lust, anger. The door of temptation always precedes the actual act of sin. Marital affairs, for example, don’t simply happen at once, but are ignited by the spark of temptation. Every man and woman steps through temptation’s door in order to get to the sin. Since this is true, it is also true that starting with a focus on the door to temptation standing outside our hearts is critical to killing our sin.
A general definition of temptation, according to British theologian John Owen, is “anything that, for any reason, exerts a force or influence to seduce and draw the mind and heart of man from the obedience which God requires of him to any kind of sin… it is a temptation if it causes a man to sin, gives him opportunity to do so, or causes him to neglect his duty.”1 Temptation is a Pandora’s Box of possibilities. It is an arsenal of weaponry that sits at the enemy’s disposal. Temptation preys on the heart of man. Overcoming it then is essential, since the Christian life is a matter of the heart. We must lock the enemy out of our heart, but how? Temptation must be despised and in its place one must find Christ to be our all-surpassing joy and delight.
Owen is one of the foremost theologians on the subject of sanctification. His paramount work, Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It certainly helps believers see what temptation is and how to deal with it. One of Owen’s central theses is that “temptation despised will conquer.”2 Owen’s premise on sin and temptation is clear: kill it, or be killed. Temptation must not be wrestled with or analyzed, but detested and dismissed.
Remembering Jesus’s words from Luke 17, we know temptation is inevitable. When discussing the Lord’s Prayer, Tim Keller takes an extra step in his book Prayer. He says that temptation is not only “inevitable but desirable.”3 Desirable? The Lord’s Prayer’s petition to “lead us not into temptation” seems to say the opposite. But, as Augustine observes, “The prayer is not that we should not be tempted, but that we should not be brought [or led] into temptation.”4 We certainly should avoid the entertainment and euphoria of temptation, but avoiding temptation wholly may be just as harmful.
How does one reconcile Owen’s view of despised temptation with Augustine’s view of embraced temptation? The two arguments seem to be contradictory. These views, however, actually complement each other. We can bury the shadows and raise the highlights of temptation all at once.
First, God is unable and unwilling to tempt (Jam. 1:13). When Satan comes to God on account of Job’s testing, it is Satan who devises the temptations. God ordains its happening, but certainly does not lure us into sin.5 All temptation is deception, as the Fall illustrates, and cannot be from God. The serpent entices Eve’s heart with the sweetness of full knowledge through the fruit. She then, after the serpent deceives her, exchanges the glory of God for a lie (Rom. 1:21-25). Christians are to flee temptation by realizing that acting upon it brings about sin. As Owen wrote, the difference between our temptation and Jesus’s temptation is that He only experienced the suffering component, while we additionally experience the sin component.6 Putting ourselves in temptation’s way is utterly dangerous.
How, then, can we turn our temptations into opportunities to glorify God, as Augustine and Keller suggest? By reorienting the purpose and opportunity temptation provides will help Christians see and savor the Father. Temptation is a means through which not only are able to not only see our corrosion, but the Father’s perfection. Temptation helps us see our Refuge (Isa. 25:4), Physician (Mt. 9:12), and Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11) with joyful intimacy. What better way is there to see God’s protection, medicine, and guiding made manifest in our lives? To make God our true Deliverer (Rom. 11:26), we must recognize we need deliverance. Temptation is a wonderful opportunity to be refined in fire, to give the Father control, and to see His providence firsthand. We should be thankful for these opportunities to see God move in mighty ways. Temptation, at its core, is necessary (Mt. 18:7).
To be able to rightly despise and embrace temptation, a couple things must take place. First, one must be firmly rooted in gospel truth. The door to our hearts will give way if we don’t fortify it with the only strength that can withstand temptation, with gospel truth. One must also be devoted to prayer. Prayer is the avenue through which we can communicate with the Father, making our requests known, and confidently approach Him. There is no magic in words or mantras, as such devices are imperfect. Yet, there is perfection in the Father. We grow in our knowledge of His attributes through prayer, and thus grow in our dependence on His work.
A popular verse in regards to endurance through temptation is found in 1 Corinthians 10:13. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.” It’s easy to read that verse and feel capable and able. But don’t let this verse be your “gym mirror,” something you see yourself in and start flexing. Let it instead be a “cosmetic mirror” that exposes and magnifies the flaws not easily seen by the naked eye. Here, Paul says we will not be tempted beyond our ability simply because he has a high view of Christ’s imputed righteousness. The grace of the Father is so deep, the love of the Son is so rich, and the work of the Spirit is so powerful, that no temptation can withstand such force. Paul is not exalting man, but the Triune God.
It all boils down to one critical truth: Temptation will win if we overestimate who we are, or if we underestimate who God is. The bad news is that we aren’t capable of defeating temptation. The good news is that Jesus defeated temptation’s ultimate victory through His death and resurrection, and a Day is coming when believers will never be subjected to such deception again. Jesus won the war so that we can win the battle, through mortifying our flesh and reveling in His victories. Until then, we must learn to despise its coaxing to come and dine, and instead embrace the opportunity to kill our sin and glorify Him in and through our lives.
- Owen, John. Overcoming Sin and Temptation. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. iBooks edition. 159.
- Ibid., 199.
- Keller, Tim. Prayer: Experiencing Intimacy and Awe with God. New York: Dutton, 2014. Print. 116.
- Quoted in Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Intimacy and Awe with God, 116.
- Job 1:6-12. Notice the language God uses with Satan. He tells Satan “he…is in your hand.” God then sets parameters for what Satan is and is not allowed to do and tempt with.
- Ibid., 186.