Given our weakness, why would God ever “lead us . . . into temptation”?
Martin Luther provided one answer: Unus Christianus temptatus mille—“One Christian who has been tempted is worth a thousand [who have never been tempted].”
God works in our lives through temptation. That was true of the Lord Jesus. For him, temptation was a learning process. So for us, times of temptation can be means, not of destruction, but of sanctification. That is why, although Christians may experience the burden of various temptations, they can still rejoice, because they know God has purposes in and through them (1 Pet. 1:6).
But for what purposes? God may lead us into temptation to show us our sin and to chasten us for it.
This is part of the meaning of the strange (to us) parallel passages in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles in which God and Satan are both said to have incited David to number Israel:
Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (2 Sam. 24:1)
Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. (1 Chron. 21:1)
Which was it? Those who approach Scripture with their own logic, rather than allowing Scripture to disclose its own (God’s) logic, will draw one of two conclusions. Either we emphasize one text to the exclusion of the other, or we simply admit we have a contradiction, and that one author deliberately—even if for “good” reasons—contradicted the other.
Scripture presents us with a different logic.
Don’t Divide Up Responsibility
We tend to think of events in which both God and human beings are involved as being done by one or the other. If both God and humans are involved, we tend to “divide up the responsibility.” One of the most common illustrations is the way people have thought and spoken about salvation: God does so much, perhaps 90 percent, but there is something God does not—indeed cannot—do: believe for you. You must do this—the last 10 percent. So salvation results from God’s grace (90 percent) plus your faith (the extra 10 percent).
But this isn’t how Scripture views things. God’s grace is 100 percent operative in bringing us to Christ; we are 100 percent operative in coming to Christ. God’s activity does not minimize our responsibility. But what we do contributes nothing to our salvation, since faith is entirely receptive. Theologians have a more technical way of saying this: God’s absolute sovereignty over all things does not abolish, but actually establishes, secondary causation (i.e., our actions in history).
God’s grace is 100 percent operative in bringing us to Christ; we are 100 percent operative in coming to Christ.
These two verses in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles widen the field of action a little. Here, taking the statements together, God, Satan, and David are all involved in one and the same action. We should not try to resolve the tension by saying, for example, that God was 20 percent involved, Satan 20 percent involved, and David 60 percent involved since he actually did the numbering. No, all three parties were totally involved in the event, each operating within their own sphere.
Another way of looking at this event is to see that David’s life (like Job’s before him) served as the arena in which the antagonism between God and Satan was played out. In one and the same act of the king, the purposes of God and the desires of Satan coincided—but with entirely different ends in view. God acted in his covenant judgment and exposed the sin of David and his people in order to both cleanse the nation and bring the king to deeper levels of repentance (and how he needed that!). Satan, on the other hand, was seeking to destroy the people of God. Even though David sins, God’s motives are holy and his goals are righteous. Nor should we lose sight of the fact, as Luther again said, that the Devil is God’s Devil.
A more straightforward example is found in the Gospels. Satan demanded to have Simon Peter to sift him like wheat (Luke 22:31). Demanded him from whom? The words are reminiscent of the Old Testament scene in the book of Job, where Satan appeared before God to contest Job’s faith (Job 1:6–12). Did something similar happen in Peter’s case? Had Satan said to God, “Let me have him for an hour, and you will see he is nothing!”
God may lead us into temptation to show us our sin and to chasten us for it.
This was a direct challenge both to Christ’s ministry and to his work in Peter’s life. Yet God had acceded to the demand, because he had his own purposes. Satan preyed on Peter; Jesus prayed for Peter. And in the wake of his failure, he remembered his Savior had predicted it (Matt. 26:75); his heart was broken and emptied of its self-relying pride. Chastised, he was later restored by Jesus at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:15–19). Filled with the Spirit, his first sermon became the most fruitful one he’d ever preach (Acts 2).
These experiences, John Owen says, are like the barks of the sheepdog that the shepherd sends after erring sheep. The dog’s pursuit makes the sheep ready to listen to the shepherd’s voice.
Thus when we’re tempted, we discover the truth about ourselves. We learn to think less of ourselves and more of our Savior. So it was for Job who confessed, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). So it was for David. When brought out of the “pit of destruction” into which his soul had fallen, the “new song” in his mouth was praise to a faithful God (Ps. 40:2–3).
This is an adapted excerpt from Sinclair Ferguson, Maturity: Growing Up and Going On in the Christian Life (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2019), 124–26.