Well, as most of you know, maturing in our knowledge of the Bible means facing the hardest questions it raises. On the podcast, we’re working through three of those hard Bible questions, prompted by your reading in the first two chapters of 2 Thessalonians. Namely, is God present or is he absent in his eternal judgment? Second Thessalonians 1:9 seems to say he’s absent. We addressed that question in APJ 1801. Then many of you have asked about the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2. Who is it? That was a week ago, in APJ 1803. And now finally, the third question, one about God sending strong delusions into the world. Does he still do that today? If so, how so? And what does it mean? That’s a question raised by 2 Thessalonians 2:11. That one is on the table today.
Pastor John, on Monday, in that man of lawlessness episode (in APJ 1803), you read our text for today, 2 Thessalonians 2:11, that God “sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.” We’ve never addressed this text on APJ. But it’s been asked several times. Particularly from two listeners. Deborah asks this: “Pastor John, hello. Can you explain God’s providential work in 2 Thessalonians 2:11, and his sending of ‘a strong delusion’ on those who do not love or obey the truth? I stumble over this text. Thank you.” And David writes in to ask it this way: “Hello, Pastor John. Can a professing, nominal Christian who doesn’t think they’re saved ask God for them to be able to love the truth, when they’ve previously not embraced it in faith? Or would such a one be given to ‘strong delusions’ like we read about in 2 Thessalonians 2:11? In fact, what does that phrase even mean?”
So both Deborah and David are asking about the meaning of God’s sending a “strong delusion” on people at the end of the age, in connection with the man of lawlessness and the great deception that Satan worked through him just before the Lord’s coming. And David more specifically is asking about whether a person in the midst of this kind of deception can cry out to God with any hope of acceptance that God would enable him to love the truth, when in previous times he stiff-armed it.
Deception and Delusion
So let’s get the text in front of us. It really is a sobering text, and in some ways a surprising one in the way it talks about deception and truth and pleasure. At least, I’ve learned a lot about the nature of saving faith and the nature of deception in this text. So, here are the few verses:
The coming of the lawless one [that would be the final manifestation of antichrist just before the return of Christ] is by the activity of Satan with all power and lying signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception [of unrighteousness] . . . (2 Thessalonians 2:9–10)
Now, that’s not yet the strong delusion from God, but rather the deception from the lawless one, because we haven’t even gotten yet to God’s kicking in with deception. Here you have the Satanic deception for those who are perishing.
. . . because [that’s important, because this is happening before God’s strong delusion] they did not welcome the love of the truth in order to be saved. Therefore [and that’s crucial], God sends them a strong delusion so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thessalonians 2:10–12)
Refusal to Love the Truth
Now, let’s see if we can put some of these pieces together. It’s true that there are passages in the Bible that ascribe to God the right and the power to decide from eternity who will believe and who will not. But this is not one of those passages. This passage only traces unbelief back to the resistance of the human heart to welcome a love for the truth. Now that’s a strange phrase, “welcome a love for the truth.” But it’s a literal translation. Verse 10 says they are “perishing because they did not welcome a love [or ‘the love’] of the truth in order to be saved.”
In other words, this is a worse indictment than saying, “They did not welcome the truth in order to be saved.” They were not just resistant to the truth; they were resistant to a love for the truth. This is a love issue in the human heart. They didn’t want truth in their head. They didn’t want love for truth in their heart. They were totally resistant. It reminds us of Ephesians 4:18, where Paul traces unbelief down, down, down to the bottom of the human problem, which is not ignorance, he says, but hardness. This is what Ephesians 4:18 says: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from life of God because of the ignorance that is in them [and then he goes deeper], due to their hardness of heart.”
“They were not just resistant to the truth; they were resistant to a love for the truth.”
So here in 2 Thessalonians, Paul is describing that hardness as a refusal to welcome a love for the truth. It’s as if love for truth is being offered, and the human heart says, “No, no. Not only do I not want truth, I do not want to love the truth. I don’t want truth in my mind. I don’t want love in my heart.” And that condition — that deep resistance to truth, to God, to gospel, to reality, and to love for truth, and love for the gospel, and love for God — is described as the reason for both Satan’s deceiving and God’s deluding. It says that Satan, in the form of this lawless one, comes with “deception of unrighteousness for the perishing.” And then it says, “because they refused to love the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). And verse 11 says, “God sends a strong delusion” because they refuse to love the truth.
Now, Paul doesn’t explain how God does this — that is, how he sends this delusion. It may well be that God does it by means of removing all the barriers to that satanic deception. There are many places in the Bible where God governs the acts of unrighteous men and demons in order to achieve his righteous purposes. So this is not unusual. It’s as if God would say, “Okay, if you want to love falsehood and love unrighteousness instead of loving the truth, I’ll see to it that your delusion is overpowering.”
In other words, God gives them up to their own mind, just like Paul says in Romans 1:28. He says, “Since they did not approve of having God in their knowledge . . .” That’s so close to what 2 Thessalonians is saying. They refuse a love for the truth. They don’t want God in their knowledge. They don’t want to love God. Therefore, “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28). That would be a great delusion.
So their deception comes not only as their crime, but also as their punishment for the crime.
Our Pleasure in Sin
I said a minute ago that this text is surprising to me in the way it talks about deception and truth and pleasure. Looking at this idea of pleasure helps get at David’s question — his other question that we haven’t touched on yet about whether we can pray to God to deliver us from deception and delusion when up till now we haven’t welcomed the love of the truth. We’ve been resistant to it. Are we hopeless?
What’s surprising is the way pleasure figures into this text. Verse 12 says that the reason people are condemned is because they “did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” What an interesting contrast: believing versus pleasure. It’s full of implications. Back in verse 10, their deception is called “deception of unrighteousness.”
So I put it together like this. Their unwillingness to welcome a love for the truth was owing to their love for — that is, their pleasure in — unrighteousness. “I love it. I love it. I find pleasure in it.” This was their most basic condition: deep, deep heart love, heart delight, heart pleasure in unrighteousness. And since the truth stands over against unrighteousness, that more basic love for unrighteousness prevented them from loving the truth.
“At the root of our human condition is a strong pleasure in sin — a strong preference, gladness, delight.”
So, at the root of our human condition is a strong pleasure in sin — a strong preference, gladness, delight. Oh, how delectable is selfishness and self-exaltation and pride. Sin feels good at the depth of our being, and that pleasure in unrighteousness prevents a welcome of a love for the truth, and surprisingly prevents belief in the truth, as he says in verse 12.
Our Hope in the Sovereign Savior
So here’s David’s question. Can a person pray in that condition? Can a person pray for deliverance from deceptive bondage to pleasure in unrighteousness, which prevents love for the truth and belief in the truth? And my answer is yes. In fact, the bondage is so great that God is the only one who can cause a reversal of this dreadful bondage. That’s what has to happen. And so that’s how we ought to cry out in desperation for God to act in our lives and in the lives of those we love who are blind to this.
Remember in the book of Lamentations — oh my goodness, this is encouraging. Lamentations is the most horrible book in the Bible in one sense, because of the descriptions of the devastation of the apple of God’s eye, Jerusalem. It says in Lamentations 1:5, “The Lord has afflicted [Jerusalem] for the multitude of her transgressions.” So you would think this is hopeless. She’s under judgment. But here’s how the book ends: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!” (Lamentations 5:21). What a prayer! That’s the same way people pray in Jeremiah 31:18: “Bring me back that I may be restored.” Same thing in Psalm 80:3: “Restore us, O God.”
Ultimately, I don’t think it matters whether Satan is deceiving or God is deluding. It’s not hopeless to cry out, “O God, I cannot change my heart. It’s hard. It’s lifeless. It’s cold. And it takes pleasure in unrighteousness. O God, do anything — do whatever you have to do to take out my heart of stone. Cause my heart to find pleasure in your truth, your gospel, yourself. If you don’t do it, O God, I am undone.” I don’t think that’s a hopeless prayer.