The Lord of Temptations

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:13-18)

Centuries of religious tradition has insisted that God cannot be the author of sin. I have refuted this in a number of places. There is the assumption that for God to be the direct metaphysical cause of all evil would compromise his righteousness. I have demonstrated that this is baseless and unintelligent, and to deny that God is the author of sin is also to deny his sovereignty and providence. In fact, it is an attack on his very being and position as God.

For every event, whether good or evil, there must be a metaphysical cause. If there is no cause, then that event would itself be God; however, we are not talking about God, but about what happens in his creation. If the cause is not God, then it must be something else. And if it is something else, then that event and its cause are outside of God’s direct control. This is a form of the heresy of dualism, that there are two or more ultimate forces at work in the universe, perhaps one to rule over good and the other to rule over evil. It is a pagan philosophy, and it is the inevitable result of the doctrine that God is not the author of sin.

All kinds of arbitrary assumptions are smuggled into the discussion. Some people think that for God to “author” sin is for him to “commit” sin – that is, for God to cause evil in the metaphysical sense would be for him to perform evil in the moral sense. But this assumption is destroyed just by clearly stating the matter like this. It is obvious that the two belong to two different categories of actions and events. In addition, since God is the one who defines good and evil, for him to commit evil, he must first define something as evil for him to do, and then go ahead and do it. In other words, unless God disapproves of himself, then whatever he does is righteous by definition. It is not up to theologians to define evil for him, and to say that even though he is God over all things, he must not directly reign over evil, but that God must be God only over good, and Satan must be God over evil, to rule over a realm that God himself cannot touch. Such a doctrine is blasphemy of the highest order. We insist that God is the author of all things; therefore, God is the author of sin.

Some people make the objection that if God directly controls all things, then this becomes the doctrine of pantheism. This objection saves us time because it immediately exposes their lack of intelligence and their inferior ability as thinkers, so that we will know not to take them too seriously from now on. The objection stems from the absurd principle that God is identified with what he controls, so that if God directly controls all things, then he is identified with all things, which is pantheism. Since this assumption is arbitrary and unjustified, we dismiss the objection simply by exposing and rejecting the assumption.

The people who advance the objection is then left with an unhappy dilemma. That is, since they assume that God is identified with what he controls, then they must either deny God direct control over any part of his own creation, or they must affirm that God is identified with whatever he has direct control over. Thus they must either affirm that God has no direct control over anything, or that God is identified with at least part of his creation. Either option would make them non-Christians. In their attempt to advance a clever objection against God’s total sovereignty and direct control over all things, they have become pagans and heretics.

The unbiblical and irrational tradition that God cannot be the author of sin underestimates his power and necessity when it comes to the existence and operation of creation. It seems people think that God is just a very good person, and the devil is a very bad person. But the difference is much greater than this. God is not only the opposite force in the same category with Satan, but he is in a different category altogether. He is the direct and necessary power in and through all things. Satan himself depends on God’s direct and constant power to cause his every thought and every movement. Without God, nothing can exist or continue to exist, and without him, nothing at all can happen, good or evil.

James cannot be trying to distance God from the existence of evil, or to say that God is not the author of sin, because the point would not make sense here when the explicit context concerns hardships and temptations. As I will demonstrate below, it would not make sense, first, because the point would not be consistent with what the rest of the Bible teaches, and second, because he would not succeed in making the point this way – this would not be the way to do it. In other words, if James is attempting to somehow “exonerate” God from evil, the rest of the Bible shows that God does not need to be exonerated, and that even if he needs to be, he could not be exonerated by what is stated. If God appears to be “guilty” for the existence of evil, and of temptation, this text does nothing to nullify this. But there is nothing wrong with James. The real problem is that the passage has been misused – he is not asserting what people make him out to say.

God has always been revealed as one who leads people into temptations. We acknowledge that there are differences between a test of hardship, a test of obedience, and a test of enticement. Although it appears that the last kind is the most relevant, it is appropriate to include all of them in this discussion for two reasons. First, they are not completely separable, since, for example, a test may have to do with whether a person will persist in obedience even in the face of enticement. This would describe the temptation that Adam and Eve experienced. Second, and supported by the first reason, even a test of hardship or of obedience may be what it is precisely because it appeals to a person’s desire, even evil desire, so that to pass the test or to successfully endure the trial involves a measure of self-control, or a denial of one’s desires. Therefore, all kinds of tests are relevant to the text in James, so that God’s control over these other kinds of tests can also be cited to illuminate the discussion. Nevertheless, the inclusion is not necessary, but only serves to produce a fuller explanation, since we will see that God controls even the test of enticement and leads people to face them.

Consider the testing of Abraham (Genesis 22). God told him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The child was the fulfillment of divine promise. There was no good reason for him to perish; indeed, the Scripture says Abraham believed that if he had sacrificed Isaac, God would have raised him from the ashes. Here the point is that God instituted the test and created the opportunity for Abraham to sin. And even though he believed that the child would have been raised from the dead, Abraham would have sinned if he had allowed his desire to exempt his son from the ordeal overwhelm his desire to please God. In any case, God alone instituted the test and led the patriarch to the potential rebellion. Abraham did not conceive it. Satan was absent from it.

In 2 Samuel 24:1, the Bible says that God incited David to sin by taking a census. Then, in 1 Chronicles 21:1, it says that it was Satan who incited David to do it. Oddly, while considering the passage in James, one commentator writes that 1 Chronicles 21:1 reveals the “real cause” of 2 Samuel 24:1. Depending on what he has in mind, this is at least a careless remark. If God is the one who directed Satan to incite David to sin, then how is God not in some sense, and in a better sense, the “real” cause? Given the commentator’s theology, he should perhaps say “immediate cause.” However, I would still disagree with the use of “immediate” cause. Just as we all live and move and have our being in God, Satan himself cannot be the immediate cause of anything so as to leave out God’s direct causation. In this sense, God is the only direct or immediate cause of any object, thought, or event, whether good or evil. Creatures are at best the relative, the apparent, the perceived, or the descriptive cause. It follows that when it comes to metaphysics, there is no such thing as a “secondary cause” – the words “secondary” and “cause” are both misleading. The term can at best refer to a relative or apparent cause, a perceived relationship between two objects or events, but which can never serve as the metaphysical explanation. It is best to abandon its use.

So the commentator is mistaken in calling Satan the “real” cause if he at least acknowledges that it was God who directed Satan to incite David to sin. But if by “real” he refers to the metaphysical cause, then it is even worse. This would mean that either 2 Samuel 24:1 has no place in the Bible, in which case the commentator has denied biblical inerrancy, showing that he is an unbeliever and has no authority to teach Christians what the passage in James means, or it would mean that he makes Satan the metaphysical explanation for God, in which case the commentator has disowned God and has turned to worship Satan. Either possibility would make his opinion on James worse than useless. Rather, we say that 2 Samuel 24:1 is the explanation for 1 Chronicles 21:1, and God is the metaphysical explanation for Satan.

Deuteronomy 8:2 says, “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” It was God, not someone else, who led them through the desert to test them, to reveal whether or not they would keep his commands. In other words, God led them through situations in which they could – and seemingly more often than not, did – disobey his commands. Then, in Deuteronomy 13, Moses says that when a false prophet announces a sign or miracle that indeed takes places, but then tells the people to worship a false god, “The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.” What is the commentator going to say, that a false prophet is the explanation for God, that the false prophet is the “real” cause? With so many morons like this throughout church history to defend God’s honor, atheists and skeptics are hardly necessary – theologians do their work for them well enough. No, God is the explanation for false prophets. He controls false prophets and uses them to test people.

In 1 Kings 22, the Lord asked, “Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?” An evil spirit answered, “I will entice him….I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets.” The Lord said that the spirit would succeed. Then, the prophet Micaiah explained, “So now the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you.” The demons and false prophets enticed Ahab because God had “decreed disaster” for him. It is not Satan’s activities that explain God’s decree, but God’s decree that explains Satan’s activities. In 1 Samuel 2, when Eli warned his sons about their sins, verse 25 says, “His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the LORD’s will to put them to death.” Thus God controls men’s evil choices. He can make a person believe anything, think anything, decide anything. God is the explanation for evil, both for the temptation and for the surrender to temptation. He rules over all things – he controls the tempter, the temptation, and the tempted.

Jesus himself was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). It is true that Jesus endured temptation for our sake; however, it remains that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus to the temptation. If it is wrong as a matter of principle for God to lead anyone into temptation, then it would have been wrong for him to lead Jesus to temptation. But there was nothing wrong with this, and God has been leading his people to temptation since the creation of humanity. This is so much the case that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he said they were to say, “Lead us not into temptation,” because God is the one who does it. Then he added, “Deliver us from evil,” or the evil one, because it is God who orders Satan to incite evil.

Returning to our text, how does all of this fit with verse 13, which says that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone”? The verse is true, and it is consistent with the rest of Scripture. In the other passages we have just examined, although God decrees sin and evil, he does not become the tempter to entice the people, but he sends evil spirits and false prophets to deliver the actual temptation. Again, this does not distance God from sin and evil, since “in him we live and move and have our being,” and he must be the direct energy that propels all sin and evil. Nevertheless, as I have explained, God does not become identified with what he creates and what he causes. When God creates a stone, he does not become the stone. When God destroys a planet, he himself is not destroyed. Those who are desperate to oppose the biblical teaching of absolute divine sovereignty assert that this doctrine amounts to pantheism, but when they make this assertion, it becomes an assumption in their own system, requiring them to either accept at least a partial pantheism to preserve some control for God, or to deny God any control at all in the universe. Either option would make them non-Christians. But we are undamaged simply by rejecting the stupid assumption. God is not the same as what he creates, causes, and controls.

So God directly controls all aspects of temptation, but he himself is not the tempter. He does not tempt people in the sense that Satan tempted Eve and the Lord Jesus. He does not speak and instruct people to do wrong. In fact, it is impossible for him to be the tempter because of his very own nature – since he is the one who defines right and wrong, whatever he tells someone to do would be the right thing to do. If he had told Eve to eat the fruit, then it would have been right for her to eat it. There would have been no temptation, since by telling her to eat the fruit he would have lifted the original prohibition. But if he had directed and caused Satan to say it, then it would have been a temptation. And that was what happened with Eve, with David, with Ahab, and so on. Likewise, if he had told Jesus to turn stones into bread, it would not have been a temptation; in fact, if it had come as a statement or command, Jesus would have had to do it in order to perform the Father’s will.

Therefore, God is the author of sin, but he is not the tempter. It is obvious that this does not in any way distance God from evil, but it only specifies his relationship with it. So we must assume that when James stresses that God does not tempt, it is not his intention to distance God from evil. This becomes even more clear when he does not name Satan as the tempter, but turns the focus to a person’s evil desire, which is the spiritual and psychological factor that moves him to succumb to temptation. If James is interested in identifying the tempter, why does he not point at the devil? Scripture portrays him as such in Genesis, when he tempted Eve, and in the Gospels, when he tempted Jesus. And later in the letter, James shows that he is conscious of the devil when he writes, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (4:7). If his intention is to identify the tempter, especially in contrast to God, this would be the place to do it. But he does not mention the devil here because he has a different purpose.

Thus to assert that God is not the author of sin on the basis of verse 13 misses the point of the text, and such a misuse ends up robbing the students of Scripture of its valuable instruction. If James wishes to distance God from evil, even if this is possible, what he writes here would not be the way to do it. One can complain that, even if God is not the author of evil, and even if he is not the tempter, why does he permit evil, and why does he permit temptation? If it is indeed necessary to distance God from evil in order to exonerate him, the only way to do this in a meaningful sense and to an adequate extent is to dethrone God, and to set up Satan as a competing force who directly controls evil. But if Satan is free from God’s direct control, then Satan himself is another God, even if we can still say that either one is God at all. For this reason it is so dangerous and blasphemous to deny that God is the author of sin. It is not that we are especially interested in connecting God with evil, but that we are especially interested in affirming that God is truly God, that he wields direct control over all things, and we must insist that this control includes evil when people attempt to deny it, as if to do God a favor.

All of this is to remove false religious traditions so that we may read the passage and learn what it really teaches. Satan was the tempter in Genesis, and when he spoke to the woman, he appealed to her evil desires: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (3:6). James is not talking about metaphysics, and he is not trying to identify the tempter. He wishes to make us take responsibility and confront temptation. This is not accomplished by blaming God’s sovereignty. The divine decree is not something that we can dictate or negotiate with. And it is not done by blaming the devil as the tempter, either. We have no sovereignty over the devil, and we cannot stop him from being the tempter. However, we are responsible to examine our desires, and if they make us susceptible to temptations, we must resist them. We ought to be always aware of our thoughts, motives, and desires, to cultivate those that keep us on the way of righteousness, and to annihilate those that would draw us away from God and into the way of rebellion and transgression. This is the way to master temptations.

Our desire gives birth to sin (v. 15), but God’s truth gives birth to our renewed spirits as believers in Jesus Christ (v. 18), so that “we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Of course, Christians are the firstfruits not in a chronological sense, since other things in creation were made before us, and our conversions occur at different points in time. Rather, we are the firstfruits of all he created in terms of rank, honor, and priority. This brings to the fore the difference in status between Christians and non-Christians. We are the firstfruits because God has birthed us into the Christian faith, but even though others are humans like us, they are not converted, and thus are not the firstfruits. Christians, therefore, are an entirely superior brand of humanity. No wonder James writes, “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (v. 16-17). What an insult it is, if all we take from the passage is the false inference that God is not the author of sin. What a pathetic doctrine. What a weak theology. James is not interested in this.

Christians, do not be deceived. Do not remain in bondage to religious traditions that claim to reverence God and to defend his righteousness, but are in fact filled with unbelief, arrogance, and that impose man-conceived limitations on God that he has never placed on himself. Do not accept anything less than what the apostle tells us. If God has given spiritual birth to you by the gospel of Jesus Christ, then he has made you the firstfruits of creation. He is your Father. He is not your enemy. God is the Lord who controls temptations, and for the same reason, he is also the Lord who teaches you to overcome them and to increase in faith in the process. Therefore, when you face hardships and temptations, do not become bitter and use his sovereignty against him, but examine your own thoughts and motives. The way to deal with temptations is to affirm God’s goodness and to confront your urges, wants, and ambitions. If you learn to master and destroy your evil desires, then you will put an end to sin before it has the chance to conceive. This is what God told Cain, but he did not listen, and killed his brother (Genesis 4:6-7).