Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.' " Matthew 4:7
Question 105 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the First Commandment?” In the sixth part of the answer, it says, “The sins forbidden in the First Commandment are… tempting of God; using unlawful means, and trusting in lawful means; carnal delights and joys; corrupt, blind, and indiscreet zeal… .” Last week we looked at the evidence for the resurrection. This week we consider the sin of putting God to the test.
In both Testaments of the Bible the same word can be translated “tempt” or “test.” That is, because depending on the perspective, the same trial can be described as a test or as a temptation. Thus, the gospels all record that it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit’s purpose was to test or to prove Jesus’ (human) character. Satan’s purpose was to corrupt Him to sin. In His human nature Jesus had to prove Himself, so He was subject to testing and tempting, though His divine nature could not be. The Scriptures explicitly teach that God cannot be tempted and does not tempt anyone (Jam. 1:13). God never seeks to corrupt someone into sin. God hates sin and He would always have the sinner to repent (Eze. 33:11). He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked would repent (Eze. 18:23). The fact that God has ordained some things that He does not have pleasure in was the subject of previous articles and is grounded in His sovereign determination to show His glory, to His elect, for their good. It is this same sovereign power and goodness of God that assures us that He will never tempt any man to evil, though He may test men for His glory and the good of His elect.
However, though God may rightly test us, it is always wrong for us to test God. Here is where the words test and tempt for all practical purposes lose their shades of distinction. For a man to try to test God is an attempt to corrupt God. It is the same thing as tempting God. This is because God would have to allow His character to be called into question in order to submit to the test; and with man as the judge! As said earlier, it behooved Jesus, in his human nature, to submit to testing from God and prove His sinlessness. However, God would have to compromise His own glory to allow Himself to be so subjected. Thus, Jesus refused to test God’s care of Him by throwing Himself from the temple as Satan suggested, for it is a great sin for men to call God’s character into question by putting God to the test (see Heb. 3, 4); even as it is a great act of condescension on God’s part to the weakness of man’s faith when He actually invites man to test Him (Exo. 4; 2 Kin. 20:9-10; Mal. 3:10). Conversely, on those rare occasions when God does invite man to test Him and man does not, it is a terrible sin! Thus, God’s stern rebuke of Ahaz when he refused to ask God for a sign in Isa. 7:10-13.
The remaining items in today’s list can all be categorized under this overarching sin of tempting God. To use unlawful means of grace in order to seek God’s blessing and favor is to tempt God to move against or apart from His Word. Ultimately it is trusting in our works or our sincerity before God to earn His favor. For if we sought His favor through grace we would never presume to use what He has not first given to us for that purpose. Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 are sobering examples of what God thinks of using unlawful means to worship and serve Him. Yet to put our trust IN lawful means, rather than the God who graciously gives us those means, is to replace God with His gifts. For to turn a God-given means of seeking God into the end for which we seek is to make an idol. And when we take God’s gifts & make idols of them we provoke Him to anger and tempt Him to destroy us. This is what Israel did with the sacrifices, prompting God to say He hated their offerings (Isa. 1).
Finally, when we choose or desire carnal delights and joys rather than the joy of the Lord, it is as if we have tested God and found Him wanting, and so we seek our joy in sin rather than in righteousness. This is a great affront to God, provoking of Him to anger. Consider again Hebrews 3-4 where Israel is said to have tempted God for forty years as they craved the melons and meat of Egypt rather than delighting in the holiness of God and being satisfied with the manna, thereby bringing repeated judgments upon themselves. So also, when our zeal is not for righteousness in accord with God’s commandments, we test God’s patience with us and forfeit His blessings. Thus, Israel at the borders of Canaan refused to accept God’s Word of judgment and out of misplaced zeal tried to take the land without Him and suffered great defeat (Num. 14). May God grant that we trust in Him, take Him at His Word, humble ourselves before Him, and never put Him to the test!