We end our week together talking about trials and temptations. It’s a sobering topic, but one relevant to each of us at some point, maybe with some of you right now. We start with what we know for sure. God tests us. He does. That’s clear in texts like James 1:3–4 and 1 Peter 1:7. But then comes the question: Does God ever tempt us? James 1:13 says no, God never tempts us. But what really is the difference between being tested and being tempted? Here’s a sharp Bible question from a listener named Mike: “Dear Pastor John, in APJ 694 you said that the word for ‘temptation’ and the word for ‘test’ are the same word in the Greek, peirasmos. So how are we to understand the differences in meaning of the two words in passages where it talks about God testing us (James 1:3–4; 1 Peter 1:7), and then in James 1:13, where it says, ‘God does not tempt anyone’? How do we put those together?”
That is an utterly crucial question. We so need to get that clear, for God’s honor and for our own peace of mind. So let me set the stage as best I can so that everybody can get on board with what the problem really is as Mike has presented it here.
Trials, Tests, Temptations
In 1 Peter 1:6–7, it says, “Now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials [and the word there, peirasmos in Greek, could be translated ‘temptations’ or ‘testings’], so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
And then, similarly, in James 1:2–4, it says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet [testings or temptations or] trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And then in James 1:12, he adds this amazing promise about the outcome of tested faith. He says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial [same word], for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
Now, all these testings are merciful trials from the hand of God in the way he disciplines and purifies and stabilizes and preserves his children. We know that Jesus tested his disciples (John 6:6). We know that God tested Abraham (Hebrews 11:17). So we set the stage for this problem first by establishing from 1 Peter and James that God does indeed test people. He does. He “tests” people — and the word there, peirasmos or peirazō, is the same as the word for “tempt.” There’s the problem. He puts us through trials.
Now, the second part of setting the stage for the problem is to observe that in James 1:13, James uses the same word for testing, peirazomai, and we translate it “tempt.” He says, “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.” It’s the same word as the word for “test.” So, that’s the setting of the stage.
Here’s the double problem:
When James says, “God tempts no one,” the word tempt is the very same word in Greek for test, and we know God does test people.
He says that God cannot be tempted, and yet we know that Jesus was tempted (same word) in the Gospels in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:1, the Holy Spirit drove him out to be tempted. And Jesus is God in the flesh.
So, James expects us to make a distinction in the meaning between the testing that God in fact does bring into our lives righteously, and the tempting that God never does, even though he uses the same word for both of them. He expects us to make that same distinction in order to show that God is never tempted himself and yet Jesus, who was God, was in some sense tempted.
Now that’s the challenge that Mike sees in these verses and is asking about, and he’s right to see them. I’ve seen them for years and wrestled over and over again with how to understand this. James is not tripping up here. He knows exactly what he’s doing, since he puts the two words together back-to-back in two sentences. It’s not like he forgot that ten years ago he used the word one way.
Four Steps of Temptation
I think the key to solving both of these problems is found in the next two verses (James 1:14–15) and the way James carefully defines temptation. It’s probably the nearest thing we have to an analysis of temptation in the Bible. He is talking about our experience of it and how God doesn’t experience it and doesn’t perform it. Here’s what he says in James 1:14–15: “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.” So, there are four steps in this process of what James is calling temptation.
There’s desire, which may at first be innocent. In fact, I think, at first, most of them are innocent.
There’s the desire becoming an enticement and an allurement across a line into sinfulness and sinful craving and sinful desire: like the desire of hunger, which is innocent, crossing the line into gluttony; or the desire of natural sexual appetite, which is innocent, crossing the line into lust; or the desire of your paycheck — it’s not wrong to want to be paid so you can pay your bill — crossing the line into greed. That’s the second step.
Then there’s the act of sinning itself, in which the sinful desire is put into action.
And then finally, when that pattern of sin goes on without repentance, it results in eternal death.
God Is Not Tempted
Now, I think the reason that James says God is not tempted, even though Jesus was tempted, is that the innocent desires like hunger, or the desire for sex, or the desire for our paycheck are the beginnings of being drawn toward what could be a sinful desire of gluttony, lust, or greed. And in that sense, the awakening of that desire is a kind of temptation, but it has not become a full-blown temptation. For example, in the life of Jesus, he hungered (an objective allurement toward bread) when he was fasting, but it didn’t cross the line into an evil desire of rebellion or disobedience or undue craving for what God had told him not to have. In fact, none of Jesus’s desires in his whole life ever crosses the line into evil desire, and therefore never gives birth to sin.
“None of Jesus’s desires in his whole life ever crosses the line into evil desire, and therefore never gives birth to sin.”
So, we can speak of him being tested or tempted in the sense that he’s presented with objective allurements, like bread when he is hungry, so that he experiences hunger or desire, and in that sense, temptation, but it’s never taking him captive by allurements and enticements that cross the line into sinful desires.
God Does Not Tempt
And in the same way, I would say, God does not tempt, because — now this is really delicate, so listen carefully — at that point in the human life where we cross the line from experiencing objective allurements (say, like food: you smell a steak or see an ice cream cone), at that point of a legitimate desire crossing the line into sinful desire (like the second helping, or something the doctor told you shouldn’t have, or something that’s really part of gluttony or lust), at the point of crossing that line, the Bible ordinarily describes God’s action as handing us over or giving us up (Romans 1:24, 26, 28) — giving us up to our lust, giving us up to a debased mind.
In other words, God is not described as the positive, creative, active agent at the point where our desires become sinful. If you’re going to involve God by providence here, which I do, his action is a negative action, in the sense that he hands us over, he lets us go, he gives us up to our sinning at that point.
So I don’t think James is contradicting himself. I think he expects us to make a distinction between temptation understood, on the one hand, as objective allurement that need not involve sin, and temptation understood, on the other hand, as the movement of that allurement across a line so that the desire becomes sinful. And the line between desire as a thankful, God-dependent desire and desire as an assertive, self-indulgent desire is crossed when the temptation happens, which he is saying God never experiences and God never performs.
“Our faith in God and our love for God are being tested with every temptation.”
And if we step back and ask the question of why the New Testament would use the same word for testing and temptation, perhaps part of the answer is that every test really is a kind of temptation. And every temptation really is a kind of test. Our faith in God and our love for God are being tested with every temptation. And every test, if we do not act in faith, can result in our falling into temptation. So when James says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life” (James 1:12), that same promise applies to resisting every temptation as well.