Sermon by Alistair Begg
Sermon given on Sunday, December 1, 1993
Temptation is the enticement to sin and is rooted in our own evil desire. Outside forces do not compel us to engage in sinful or evil behavior, but the desire within our own hearts draws us into a disobedient realm. While the devil serves as a source of temptation, the decision to indulge in our desires is internally conceived. Alistair Begg explains that acting on temptation is an “inside job” and warns us to be vigilant against its enticement.
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 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. But 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.
James 1:12-15 — English Standard Version
A couple of years ago, I was playing golf in Scotland with one of my friends, and in the course of the round of golf, we were speaking about just about everything. A young man, very successful in business—I’ve known him since he was a sixteen-year-old youth; I married him to his wife; I watched him develop and grow, and not only in terms of his physical stature but also in terms of his business acumen.
By the time we were playing golf together two years ago, he had risen to the absolute top of his profession within the context of the United Kingdom, highly successful and probably ten years my junior. In the course of it all, I asked him, “How do you do on business trips?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, how do you handle going in and out of those hotels, being away from your wife and your children?” “Oh,” he said, “it’s okay.” We talked a little bit about that and how important I found it to make certain precautionary moves in relationship to those things. And as we spoke, we covenanted with one another, in a kind of awesome way, that if ever we were tempted to let our wives or our families down or our testimony down, that we would immediately contact one another, and if we failed to contact one another, that we would take a 3-wood and do something harmful to the other person with it. That doesn’t sound particularly Christian, but that was what I said; I think I said something like, “If you ever mess up, I’ll take this 3-wood and crack you on the side of the head with it!”
Well, in a strange turn of events that I won’t go into, my wife suggested the other day that I ask this fellow and his wife to send something from Scotland—a medical supply that was important for somebody who was undergoing radiation treatment. And so I called the home and asked if they would send this particular thing. And I have sisters and family there; it was an interesting thing my wife would even suggest that I call this person, but I did, being a good obedient husband. And as a result of that, within about a week the supplies came, and with the supplies came a note from the wife, in which she said, “X has told me that he can no longer tell me that he loves me completely, because he has a strong affection for another girl. Please help me.”
So a week ago yesterday, I sent him a fax. It needed to be cryptic, because it was going right into his office. It said, “Dear X, you remember what I said I’d do if ‘this’ ever happened?” I got a fax back from him; I’m not going to tell you the story. That’s not why I’m here this morning. But suffice it to say that this guy, despite all of his background, despite all of his convictions, despite all of his protestations, proved to be no stronger than necessarily you or I may prove to be in the face of an amazing onslaught of temptation.
And I want to take the moments that I have this morning to speak to you about temptation. I only decided to do this as I was driving in the car last night. I was asking the Lord to give me something that was fresh to me, that was on my heart, that was moving my spirit, that was in challenging me, so that I didn’t come in to you students and give you a bunch of old material that was like a big bucket of porridge that’s been lying around for fourteen years that I decided to turn a Bunsen burner under. And you know that, because you’ve had enough of them—but not from your faculty, I know, but maybe from some others.
The source of my material is James chapter 1, and I’m going to read a couple of verses, from verse 12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the [victor’s crown, the life] God has promised to those who love him. 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’s] 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.”
When we come to faith in Jesus Christ and the bonds of sin are broken in our experience and we are transferred from death to life, we’re indwelt by the Spirit of God; we’re placed within his family; we are redeemed; we are changed; we are born again; sin no longer reigns in our lives, but it remains in our lives. And consequently, in the words of the Westminster [Confession of Faith], the Christian, from the point of conversion through to the point of seeing Christ and being made like him, is involved in “a continual and irreconcilable war”—that we are not, upon redemption, moved onto some level of ease whereby we are exempt from the rigors of sin and from the attacks of the Evil One and from the subtle tendencies of our own hearts. Murray M’Cheyne, the Scottish Presbyterian who died at the age of twenty-nine, on one occasion in addressing his congregation said to them in a rare display of honesty, “I have discovered that the seed of every known sin dwells in my heart.” Charles Bridges, writing in the earlier era, said, “The narrow way was never hit upon by chance, neither did a heedless man or woman ever live a holy life.”
And one of the things that has been striking me most forcibly as I seek to make my own way through my Christian pilgrimage—as I follow after Christ, and as I listen to the things that are being said, and as I observe the tendencies and drifts of our culture—I’m fearful that there is a prevailing notion that is beginning to become widespread in the present generation, and it is an unbelievable naivety as it relates to the question of indwelling sin. A kind of willful stupidity that has more to do with how we feel than it has to do with how we act—that lives with the notion that, somehow or another, “It’s all going to be okay because it’s all going to be okay,” or “It’s all going to be fine because that was a wonderful service I attended the other day, and I think I’m going to be able to live on the strength of that for some time. It’ll be able to keep me buoyant. I feel strong as a result of it.” And when we begin to position ourselves in that way, we lay ourselves open to great danger.
Now, the issue of temptation is something that the Scriptures are replete with warnings about. Let us say that temptation, this morning—for want of a succinct definition—is an enticement to sin and evil. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about temptation. It is the enticement to sin and to evil. Not simply to do things which are wild and unthinkable, not to enter into spheres of activity that are just way beyond our imagining, but even to take good things which God has given us and to use them or to misuse them in a way that sins against God—in the way that C. S. Lewis highlights in Screwtape Letters in his fourth letter to Wormwood. Writing to this apprentice devil, Screwtape says, “All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy”—namely, Jesus—“which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways … which He has forbidden.” Great subtlety! “What we can do,” he says, “is to induce the servants of the Enemy, Jesus, to take things which he has given to them, at times, or in ways … which He has forbidden.” So, for example, the enjoyment of food becomes the sin of gluttony. The beauty of marriage becomes the ugliness of adultery. The desire to provide for one’s family becomes unashamed greed. The enjoyment of companionship with someone of the opposite sex becomes the sin of fornication, and so we could go on.
God Is Not the Source of Temptation
Let’s allow the Scriptures to say three things concerning temptation this morning. I’m going to go through them briefly. Number one, from verse 13, God is never and cannot be the source of temptation. That’s what he says in verse 13: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’” There’s an inescapable logic here in James’s statement. He doesn’t go into philosophical discussions of the problem of evil, but he builds this statement on the character of God. God is incapable of tempting others to evil because he himself is absolutely insusceptible to evil. Tempting others to evil would require a delight in evil of which God is incapable.
“Oh, but,” says a bright spark out there, “doesn’t it say that God tempted Abraham? Doesn’t it say that God tempted others?” Well, depending on the translation of the Bible that you’re using, it may well say that. Another translation may say that God “tested” Abram. But here’s the distinction; here’s the explanation for the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation”: God’s tempting or testing, unlike the devil’s, is a test in which he does not desire the candidate—namely, you or I—to fail but to succeed. When God brings us into an experience in our lives of testing, when we experience tempting which he allows, God’s purpose in that is not our failure, but it is our benefit.
In direct contrast to that, the Evil One’s antagonism towards us is always to bring us down, always to defeat, and always to discourage and to destroy. So the first thing about which we need to be very clear when we think in terms of temptation is that God is never and cannot be the source of an enticement to evil.
Temptation Begins with Our Desires
Secondly, in verse 14, temptation begins with our individual desires: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire…” What is James suggesting here? That all our desires are evil? No, clearly not. We have all kinds of desires which are not evil. But as a result of the fall, all of our desires have an amazing unhappy potential for evil. So even God-given capacities and God-given desires—because we live in a fallen world and because although in Christ sin no longer reigns, it remains—even our best desires, our God-given appetites, have the potential for evil.
And there is no time in your life, young person, when we will be exempt from temptation, except when we see Christ and we’re made like him. I want you to know that this morning, because I’m now gonna be forty-two, and life is rolling by me. I guess I had the notion when I sat where you sit and listened to old men like me talk that, presumably, the only way they could talk as they did was that they had passed some kind of magical point on the spiritual pilgrimage, and they were now beyond all these heinous realms in which I was living as a student. Well, that was pure stupidity on my part. I know that now because I’ve lived through those phases, and here I am this morning to tell you that I agree with M’Cheyne: I’ve discovered that the seeds of every sin reside in my heart, and that if I’m not clear about the nature of temptation and how to deal with it, I’m as susceptible as the next fellow. And I don’t want to be, “end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.” All right? I don’t want to end up another statistic in the news page of Christianity Today. “But let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he falls.”
So let’s be realistic. We are tempted when we are pulled away by our own evil desires. God says to Cain in Genesis 4:7, in a graphic verse, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Wonderful picture! A telling picture. Good picture to keep in mind: it is crouching at the door ready to pounce as an assailant. And, says God to Cain, “It desires to have you, but you must master it.”
We’re tempted to explain away our propensities for evil on the basis of the devil (“The devil made me do it”), or on the basis of our peers (“Oh, my friends are a dreadful bunch”), or on the basis of heredity (which may or may not be true, incidentally), away on the basis of heredity, or on the basis of environment. But what does the Bible say? “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire…” His own evil desire. In other words, there are propensities that are unique to you, and they are unique to me. There are certain things that we share in common, but there are areas in your life that you know about and I don’t know about and I don’t need to know about. But the fact that you know about them, and the Spirit of God puts his hand upon them, even in a message like this this morning, is significant for you. In the same way that we all have different faces and we all have different capacities and gifts, so there are certain things that may be particularly prevalent in our experience.
For all of us, the temptation to disobey God, the temptation to discouragement, to give up, to chuck it—and if you’ve made it successfully through all these terms here, and you’ve never been tempted to chuck it, you ought to stand up in a prayer meeting and give that testimony, because people are gonna be all ears. You’re not old enough to remember Neil Young’s song “Out on a Weekend,” but it starts, “Think I’ll pack it in, buy a pickup, take it down to LA.” Sometimes I’d play that thing and I said, “That sounds jolly good to me. I’d like to run for it. I’d like to buy a pickup! Pack it in and head for Los Angeles.” Doesn’t that sound not bad?
The temptation to chuck it, the temptation to indulge our evil desires, all of these things emerge from inside of us. Jesus made that perfectly clear. Mark chapter 7. You know these verses before you turn to them. “After he had left the crowd”—verse 17—“and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean”? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.’ … He went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him “unclean.” For from within’”—from within—“‘out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean.”’” Every sin is an inside job. You understand that? The devil comes and entices you to evil, but every time you and I sin, it’s because we made the decision to sin, on the inside. We open the door. We face the crossroads. We decide. And every temptation that comes to us comes when, by our own evil desire, we are dragged away and enticed by it.
I’ve never been a fisherman, and I’m not planning on becoming one. I’ve burned the back of my neck on Lake Erie, sitting out there on one of those boats, waiting for the amazing events to happen, which never did. I’ve sat by the side of rivers in Scotland, just falling asleep, wondering what this thing is supposed to be about. I’ve obviously never had the call to fishing! And furthermore, I can’t believe how dumb fish are. (I’m probably gonna get a letter from somebody who’s in charge of the “Save the Fish and Protect the Fish of the Universe,” in which case, just send it to my office. Don’t hand carry it; just send it there. I’ll look forward to getting it when I get back.) But if you think about it, presumably it must be that these fish have never seen these huge, big, dangling things, right? I mean, there’s enough of them in there that they never saw one, because if they saw the thing, or if their mother told them, “Look, when you go down there, you may come on one of these huge things. It’s swinging around. It shines and it sparkles, it’ll make you make you go for it, but as soon as you see it, buzz off!”
“Yes, Mom, got it!” And then they come, and it comes, and then they go for it. Tears them just a little bit, and they get out, say, “Oh, that’s what my mother was talking about!” And they go around the corner and under a couple of rocks, then they come back and say, “Man, it looks good! I like how it looks! My mother can’t be right. I mean, after all, she never lived in the twentieth century; at least, she doesn’t look like she did! I mean, she can’t be right. I don’t think so.” And so they wrap their big mealy mouths around the thing, and they get hooked, despite all they were told and all they knew. If the bait is attractive and appealing enough, they’re prepared to endure the hook, ’cause they’re so stupid!
But you’re not much brighter than the fish. Think it out! And neither am I, because if the bait is of attractive enough nature and appealing enough, we’re tempted to convince ourselves that there is no hook at the end of it. But young people, the hook is there. And it may leave marks on your life, if you swallow it, that time will never erase. You may be forgiven, you may learn to forget, but once hooked, you’ll live with it.
Giving in to Temptation Leads to Death
When we are tempted, never say, “God tempt us,” because he can’t tempt to evil. Secondly, recognize that temptation comes about when we are enticed—verse 14—by our “own evil desire.” And thirdly, realize this: that temptation succumbed to leads eventually to death. In James 1:12, James has given a process that leads to life, and now in verse 15, he gives a process that leads to death.
Inner craving demands action, which either has to be acted on or resisted. We understand that in the physical realm, don’t we? You open the refrigerator door. You’ve got an inner craving. You’re not sure what it’s for, except it is for food. You pull the door open. They’ve made it so that it immediately lights up and looks very attractive. Half of you says, “I really shouldn’t eat any of this junk.” And then someone says, “It’s not junk; there’s a lot of good things in here you can kill yourself with.” And so the battle goes on. Battle goes on! And the light is there, and the cartons are attractive, and the cheese looks good, and all that stuff. And the inner craving has to be acted upon. You either grab it and you eat it, or you close the door and you walk from it.
The process is here. “Sow a thought…” Did I tell you this before? “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”
When you go back to your rooms later on today, you turn to 2 Samuel 11, and you watch this process enacted in the life of David. David sees Bathsheba. At that point, he made a tactical error. He should have got down from his vantage point and taken off. But instead of doing that, he allowed a bare thought to become a strong imagination, to become a delight in evil, to become an action, to become a road that leads to death.
How to Deal with Temptation
Now, in the final five minutes that I have, let me give you three practical words concerning how to deal with temptation. Let me give you three words. How should I deal with temptation? Number one, immediately. Immediately. The time to deal with temptations is in their beginnings. Desires and passions grow as rivers do. They are like rust, which left to itself, eats away unceasingly. You have to appoint the moral sentries for your life.
The great contrast between 2 Samuel 11 is found in Genesis 39 in the story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar. Remember? And Joseph was determined to deal with every encroaching advancement of sin. And he dealt with it not in relationship to how the situation would make him feel, nor did he deal with it in relationship to who would know or who wouldn’t know, but he dealt with it in relationship to what sin would do to God. “How can I do this dreadful thing,” he says to Potiphar’s wife, “and sin against God?” Are you dealing with stuff immediately when it rears its ugly head? Or are you playing with it, like the fish playing with the bait?
Secondly, deal with it ruthlessly. Ruthlessly. That’s what Jesus was teaching in Matthew chapter 5. He says, “You know, if you got a problem with your eyes, you’d be better to pull one of your eyes out and go into heaven with one eye than go into hell with two eyes. You’d be better to chop one of your hands off and go into heaven with one hand than go into hell with two. You’d be better to remove one of your feet and hop into heaven than lumber into hell.” That’s kind of ruthless talk, isn’t it? I mean, that’s radical. The children’s chorus gets it good, doesn’t it?
Oh, be careful, little feet, where you go.
Oh, be careful, little feet, where you go.
There’s a Father up above,
And he’s looking down in love,
So be careful, little feet, where you go.
Immediately. Ruthlessly. And finally, consistently. Consistently. It’s a daily battle. It’s a sixty-seconds-a-minute battle. Oh, we have the power and the energy of the Spirit of God within our lives. We’re not going to neglect that, nor should we diminish it in any way. It is essential; we work out what he works in. [Philippians] 2: working out our own “salvation with fear and trembling.” But nevertheless, this is what it means: it means the refusal to allow our eyes to wander, our minds to contemplate, our affections to run after anything which draws us away from Christ, at the first indication of its attraction.
I spoke to this guy’s wife on the phone yesterday afternoon, and she’s three and a half thousand miles away. And she said, “Don’t I remember you saying to X that you told the guys in your pastoral team that if ever they were looking forward to a counseling appointment with a girl who was coming to see them, that they ought to have somebody else take the counseling appointment?” I said, “That’s right, I said that. And we hold one another to that.” Why? Because sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must master it immediately, ruthlessly, and consistently.
And loved ones, the decisions that you are making in these areas this morning, and the commitments that you make to follow through in your afternoons and in your evenings, not only will affect your pilgrimage but the pilgrimage of others around you, and eventually your spouse and your children after you. So I encourage you to think the issue out, do not be discouraged; remember 1 Corinthians 10:13: “God will not suffer you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but he will with the temptation provide a way of escape.” So be realistic, be encouraged, and be good.