The Sovereignty of God and the Sin of the Believer

A Note on 1 Corinthians 10:13

No temptation has overtaken you but what is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but will make with the temptation also the escape so that you can endure. (1 Cor. 10:13, my translation)

Would it be correct to argue from this text, as some do, that since believers do in fact sometimes succumb to temptation, it is solely due to their own self-determination and not at all due to God's sovereign disposal of events? If this were a valid argument at least two things would follow which in my judgment are contrary to other New Testament teaching.

Baseless Confidence

1) Believers can no longer have confidence that they will persevere to the end in faith and so be saved. One must persevere in faith if he is to be saved (1 Cor. 15:2; Col. 1:23; Mk. 13:13). But many temptations arise in life that threaten faith and call the reality of God and of redemption into question. What assurance does the believer have that he will endure and so be saved? Ac­cording to the above argument he can have scarcely any assurance because the point of that argument is to limit the influence of God on the believer to the extent that whether the believer yields to temptation or not is finally determined by the believer and not God. The point of the argument is to make God wholly an offerer of power, not an efficient executor of that power in the believer. Therefore, since the believer is ultimately self­-determining, his perseverance in faith and consequently his sal­vation is ultimately determined by himself. That results in the decline of confidence, since for all he knows he may encounter some temptation tomorrow that he will not endure; he may make a shipwreck of faith and be lost.

All this follows, I think, from the consideration that every temptation is an allurement to forsake our reliance upon and joy in the mercy of God and to rely upon and find more pleasure in other things. The argument for self-determination asserts that what the believer delights in most is determined not by the Holy Spirit who dwells within him but somehow by the believer's own sovereign will. As fickle as our desires are from day to day and year to year, how do I know whether in a few weeks I might desire something else more than thepure milk of God's kindness (1 Pet. 2:2-3)? That the believer should have greater confidence than this follows from the second implication of the argument I stated at the beginning.

Undermining Scripture

2) The second implication of the argument for the believer's self-determination is that Philippians 2:13 then becomes false. Paul says there that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This bold declaration of God's sovereign control of the believer leads Paul to say two other things. It leads him to an expression of confidence: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And secondly the sovereign control of God over believers leads Paul to command the believers to work out their salvation (Phil. 2:12). Note well, it is not the believer's work which grounds and initiates God's work. The very opposite is the case: you work, for God is already at work in you to accomplish what he wishes.

The desires of the believer for righteousness are due to God's openingthe eyes of his heart (Eph. 1:18) so that he can see its irresistible glory. Every act of Christian obedience is a gift of God (Gal. 2:20; 1 Cor. 15:10). Every act of love is caused by the Lord (1 Thess. 3:12). We are his workmanship, his pot of clay, his poem, and all our good deeds have been prepared for ages (Eph. 2:10). This is just another way of saying that all enduring of temptation is the result of God working in us to will and to do his good pleasure.

Given the natural condition of man apart from the Holy Spirit, he will yield to sin invariably; he is the slave of sin (Rom. 6:17, 20; 8:3-8). Therefore every instance of turning from sin to righteousness is due to the irresistible work of God, who transforms the mind and heart so that the believer prefers righteousness over sin. I conclude, therefore, that no Christian determines ultimately whether he will overcome a temptation to sin. God determines that.

God's Design in Man's Sin

It follows that when a believer gives in to temptation, desiring sin more than God, it is because God has allowed sin or the flesh to gain the ascendancy for the moment. He does not cause the sin in the same way that he causes the obedience. The obedience he brings about by a positive influence of renewal because he delights in holiness for its own sake. Sin comes about in the believer's life only by God's permitting man’s natural tendencies to reassert themselves temporarily. And he does this not out of any delight in sin but out of a delight in the greater end which will be achieved. We may not always understand his designs but we need not doubt his wisdom and power and mercy to bring us through to glory in the end. It is very probable that if God did not allow us to taste the power of sin from time to time we would start to feel self-confident and would not appreciate so intensely our redemption. Thus thanksgiving and praise will abound to God in greater measure because he has brought his people through struggles and failures to perfect victory in the end.

Now we may return to 1 Corinthians 10:13 to see if it comes into conflict with these things. If we analyze what is really happening in temptation it will become evident, I believe, that there is only one thing that provides "escape" from or endurance of temp­tation, namely, some kind of evidence that God is preferable to the sin we are being tempted with. Perhaps some promise or threat or command comes to our mind from the Bible, as it did with Jesus when he was tempted. Or perhaps we recall an experience we have had of God's kindness. Maybe a friend will speak a word of encouragement about God's glory and beauty. In any of these ways, and many others, evidence comes to us that God is to be desired more than sin. This evidence is the escape available to us.

1 Corinthians 10:13 declares that God will never leave himself without a witness to his superiority over all sinful allurements. But the text does not promise that God will in fact keep a Christian from yielding to temptation. It promises that the sufficient cause of obedience will always be given in the hour of temptation, namely some evidence that God is more to be desired than sin. Whether a Christian will own up to the truth of this evidence, that is, whether the evidence will move him in fact to prefer God in this trial is not discussed in this text. The promise has an implicit if-clause: You can endure any temptation if you want to badly enough. You will not be tempted beyond your ability if you are relying upon and delighting in God more than what you are being tempted toward."

The important thing to notice is that this text does not deal with the more basic theological question concerning why I choose to rely on God at one time and on something else at another time. Therefore, the text cannot be used to prove that the reason I do this is my own inalienable power of self-determination. Romans 12:3 would, on the contrary, suggest that God regulates how much reliance on him I have. But that we can save for another time.

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org