The Pressure of Temptation

The Point:  God won’t tempt me, but He will provide a way to resist temptation.

God and Temptation:  James 1:13.

[13]  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.  [ESV]

[13]  Between verses 12 and 13 James performs another of his lightning changes of direction. In verse 12 he pronounces a blessing on the one who remains steadfast under trial. But when we come to the related verb for trial in verse 13, it refers no longer to the outward, circumstantial trial, but to inner enticement to sin: what we speak of as temptation. Typical of his approach, he does not warn us of this change of meaning; he plunges us into it. In other words he writes to us in exactly the same way as experience comes to us: the same circumstances which are, on the one hand, opportunities to go forward are, on the other hand, temptations to go back. Every circumstance we meet, therefore, requires a decision: will we persevere and go on with God, or will we listen to the voice which suggests the easy way of disobedience and disloyalty? But where does that voice come from? James teaches us where the blame for temptation does not lie [13] and where it does [14-15]. The command that, in the thick of temptation, no one must say I am being tempted by God is all too necessary. It is a short step from saying that God uses our circumstances to saying that He ordains them – a step that the Bible would, in any event, encourage us to take, for this is its view of the power of God, and of the nature of our life and experiences in this world. But there is an additional and impermissible step. Suppose in any given experience of trial I give up trying, I listen to the tempting voice and come a spiritual cropper, is it not then all His fault? Did He not put me there? Was it not by His will that I found myself cornered by temptation which proved too strong? In reply to this James says two things. First, God cannot be tempted with evil. The divine nature is of such unmixed holiness that it is impossible for Him to be enticed to plot to harm us. There is nothing within His whole nature to which that or any other temptation could appeal, or which would respond to that or any other base suggestion. Secondly (and consequently) he himself tempts no one. He is of such unmixed goodness in His attitudes and actions that there is no room in motive, will or deed for that which would bring disaster, great or small, on any of His people. To be sure, He places tests in our pathway. Indeed, it is even possible to say that He never gives any gift without, at the same time, providing some test regarding our use of His bounty. When He gave Solomon wisdom, He gave him also wealth and reputation, the very things which would put his wisdom to the test and reveal whether he would use it for God or for himself [1 Kings 3:12-14]. But there is never an ulterior motive in all this, for His holiness offers no lodging-place for evil within His nature; neither is there the least impulse to trip us up, for His goodness forbids that He should seek our hurt. When He tests, it is so that we may pass the test and inherit the blessing. When the reverse happens, the blame lies elsewhere than in the God of all grace.

Temptation and Desire:  James 1:14-15.

[14]  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. [15]  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 

[14-15]  The blame lies, in fact, in ourselves. The tempting voice is the voice of our own sinful nature. The upward path is demanding: it consists of a test, a response of endurance and persistence resulting in adult maturity. It is demanding, but it ends in fullness of life [1:2-4]. By contrast, the downward path is easy. Desire arises within us [by his own desire]; it gives birth to sin; and sin produces death. The word James uses for desire does not necessarily have a bad meaning. The translation “lust” in some of the older versions is too strong a translation for this word. The problem is with the human sinful nature so that what emerges as a desire proves to be an avenue into sin and death. Thus we are lured and enticed. Lured means “to drag off” and points to a dominating and directive power within our desires. While enticed expresses the magnetism of desire, the hypnotic attraction of bait for a hungry animal. It is the word normally used for a fish being attracted to its death by the bait on a hook. There is within us a deep well of dominating and alluring desires; there is within us the fatal weakness which guarantees that we will fall short of God’s glorious intentions for us. This is what James describes by the word sin, the child of desire. Our ability to produce deceptive desires is thus linked with our inability to live for the highest and to achieve the best. No wonder that the process thus begun and continued ends in death. In 1:2-4 James has presented us with a sequence: testing, steadfastness, maturity. Here in verses 14-15 James introduces us to a sinister replica: desire, sin, death. In verse 4 there is one sort of maturity: that you may be perfect and complete; in verse 15 another, full-grown sin. James uses two verbs in verse 15: conceived … brings forth which are used in the birth process. The act of procreation leads to conception, conception to gestation, gestation to birth. Once the process is set in motion it takes over; it has an inevitability about it. The end is implicit in the beginning. Let us then but entertain the desire which conceives sin, and we have admitted death and disintegration into our experience. Through endurance and perseverance we come to the wholeness that is ours in Christ; through desire and sin we forfeit that wholeness and instead embrace death.

How to Deal with Temptation:  James 1:16-18.

[16]  Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. [17]  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. [18]  Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.  [ESV]

[16-18] At this point comes the warning call of verse 16: Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Note how the addition of beloved strikes the note of urgency. The rich love which links believer with believer prompts concern for spiritual welfare, and issues in a call to be clear-headed and open-eyed as to the realities of the situation. Present within is the great and inescapable foe of progress with God, the subtle and insinuating power of our sinful and fallen nature. Verse 17 comes with an abruptness worthy of the abrupt James. This verse comes as the solution of the problem. According to verse 12, there is a way forward into life. It consists of making the right choices in the moment of trial and temptation, enduring and, since the crown comes to those who love God, keeping alive the glow of love for Him in our hearts, come what may. It means making our decisions out of love for Him; holding on through thick and thin for love’s sake. But, according to verse 14, this is impossible. We have a nature (heart) which gives rise to desires, insistent and alluring, leading to sin and death. However are we to step forward to life when the whole thrust and pull of our nature is to sin and death? How are we to love and keep loving God when our hearts are springs of death-bearing desires? To these questions verse 17 replies: Every good we need is in, and from, Him. James traces this basic position out in three steps. First, he explores the bounty of God [17a]; next, his changeless nature [17b]; and, thirdly, one particular and utterly basic way in which the bounty of the changeless God has operated towards us [18]. The duplication of the word gift emphasizes that God is a superb Giver [see 1:5]. In giving, God is inexhaustible (every … every): He gives everything that could possibly be needed; He gives everything, holding nothing back. In giving, He is simply beneficent, for in His character everything He gives is good. And in giving, He gives exactly  what is required: His gifts are perfect. The word here for perfect is the same as in verse 4, but now carries the significance of that which reaches its mark, matches its objective. We need loving hearts if we are to walk on into life. We can, of ourselves, only offer defiling hearts; but every need is fully underwritten by the endless and exactly appropriate gifts of God. Furthermore, in this giving, He is changeless. There is no way in which we might come to him in our need and find that He is unwilling, unable or unavailable. The source of every perfect gift which comes to us to meet our needs is the Father of lights. The counterpart of the truth that God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one [13] is that He is wholly light – pure, clear and luminous with goodness. And with Him there is no variation or shadow due to change: He never changes His position; He never alters either the fact or the intensity of His outshining goodness. We now come to verse 18, the heart of the matter. James’ argument runs like this. A steady persistence is necessary if we are to make headway to maturity and life. Amongst other ways in which we are to show ourselves durable, there is the maintenance of a heart of love to God [12]. But this very heart is itself a central foe of righteousness, because of its contagious sinfulness [13-15]. About this we must see to it that we are in no doubt [16]. But there is a solution to our dilemma: from heaven we may expect absolutely every needed good thing, coming to us by divine gift [17]. And in particular there is one thing God has freely chosen to do for us: He has brought us to birth by His word with the intention that we should be specially His, and notably holy [18]. James looks back to the teaching of the Lord Jesus, who spoke to a baffled Nicodemus about being born again [John 3:3-8] or born from above. Here indeed is the new start presented in its most vivid terms. Earthly life originated with human parents, who bequeathed to us human nature in all its fallen hopelessness and helplessness. But there is another birth, coming to us, irrespective of the age we have reached in human life, and wholly apart from our own or any other human agency: a birth of the Spirit [John 3:5-8]. With this new birth there comes new life, new energies, new prospects and, above all, a new relationship with God, by whose will the birth has come about. We turn then to see what James teaches about this great topic.

At the heart of verse 18 lie the words, he brought us forth. This makes it plain that James is not speaking of a natural birth, with human parents, but of a supernatural birth, with a divine Parent, the Father. Around this center James groups three other truths: (1)  the ground of this new and supernatural birth is the Father’s will. James gives great emphasis to of his own will in his sentence structure. To this extent the new birth and natural birth are analogous: the decision is that of the parent, not of the child. Birth is something that happens to a child as a result of decisions and actions made by others, the parents. Spiritually and doctrinally, the new birth (or birth from above) belongs with all those passages of Scripture which unveil the secret story lying behind our conversion. From the point of view of God’s decision, the Lord Jesus made the stark affirmation, You did not choose me, but I chose you [John 15:16]. Yet many of us remember with great clarity the day, hour and even the approximate minute when we chose Him! But since we are taught that no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him [John 6:44], and that the very faith we exercise when we believe in Jesus is the Father’s gift to us [Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29], we learn that behind our choice, making it possible and making it real, is the wonder that He first chose us. This is what James refers to when he says, Of his own will he brought us forth. The decision was His; so also, as we shall see, was the action which implemented the decision. Our conscious experience of conversion, of committing our lives to Christ, of receiving Him into our hearts – all this was consequent upon His decision and action, and derivative from it. Having made His decision, the Father, secondly, implements it. (2)  James tells us that the means the Father used to bring about the new birth was the word of truth. Typically, James does not elaborate what he means by this, and we must appeal therefore to what other passages teach in order to give ourselves a lead. As we have seen, there is a clear link between James and Jesus, in that both speak of a supernatural birth and the start of new life in us. The Lord Jesus went beyond the need and the fact of the new birth to elaborate on the means: He spoke of the mysterious and powerful action of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit proceeds on a mission from the Father to those whom the Father has willed to bring to the new birth. It is in a way parallel to this that James refers to the word of truth: it is his way of describing the life-giving agent used by the Father to impart new life and bring about the new birth. For clarity’s sake, it helps to link this with two other passages. In 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 Paul contrasts those who know the gospel and know Jesus Christ as Lord with those whose eyes have been blinded by the god of this world. Paul explains the fundamental difference in verse 6: For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In other words, He draws a parallel between the word of God acting as His agent in creation, and God’s use of His word in bringing new life through the gospel. Turning to 1 Peter 1:23, we read that you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. Peter thus matches what James says: the word is the agent in the new birth. But he also takes us a little further in our understanding of James, for he defines the life-giving word: this word is the good news that was preached to you [25]. James’ word of truth must therefore be the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation [Eph. 1:13]. If this is so, then the Father uses the powerful word of the gospel in two ways: first, He speaks it, inwardly, to our dead souls, imparting life, bringing us to new birth; secondly, He presents the same word of truth to us as a preached gospel, to which the new life within us makes a personal and believing response. This is one of the most glorious truths in the whole Bible. It teaches us that salvation is truly all of God: for until new life is imparted we are dead in the trespasses and sins [Eph. 2:1], and as totally unable as anything that is dead to respond to God in repentance and faith. If anything is to be done, He must do it; if any blessing or change is to come to us, it must come from outside; if any agency is to be at work, it must be other than ours, for we are dead, and our only activity is to increase in corruption. Here is the greatness of the divine mercy, the sufficiency of the divine strength and the depth of the divine condescension. He has come right down to us in our death; He has raised us up into life; and it is all due to a rich mercy prompted by a great love [Eph. 2:1,4-5]. It is no more possible for us to be agents or contributors to our new birth than it was for us to be so in our natural birth. All the work, from initial choice to completed deed, is His – and so is all the glory. But there is something else as well: inherent in this great truth of the new birth is the security of our salvation. Were salvation to depend on my choice, it would be as uncertain as my will which fluctuates, blows hot and cold, and reflects my divided, fallen nature. But it is His choice: of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth. And until His will changes, His word alters or His truth is proved false, my salvation cannot be threatened or forfeited. (3) We move on, now, to the third truth which James links with the fact of the new birth. Just as natural birth looks forward to life, so the new birth has a forward look to the fulfillment of a purpose our Father has in mind: that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. James is here drawing on an Old Testament regulation which required the presentation to the Lord of the first of the crop. Three ideas found their focus in this offering: (a) out of all that belonged to the Lord, this was specially His; the rest remained to be used in the ordinary purposes of life; (b) the firstfruits had to be the best, and were set apart as holy to the Lord; (c) the offering of the firstfruits was an annual reminder that the Lord keeps His promises to His people, bringing them from slavery, giving them a homeland, providing for them in it. We can now easily see why James can speak of the church as the Lord’s firstfruits. The Lord brings people to the new birth to be a demonstration to all that He keeps His promises (in this case, the covenant promise to take and keep a worldwide people for Himself); the people who are the firstfruits are specially for Him, and notably holy.

Questions for Discussion:

1.   What does James say is the cause of sin? Why is God not the cause of our sin? Note the progression that James describes in 1:14-15. Compare this to the progression he described in 1:3-4. Each progression is dealing with a particular life situation. James is saying that when we turn this life situation over to God and trust in Him, the situation becomes a test of our faith and results in spiritual growth. But when we do not trust in God but rather give in to the lure and enticement of our sinful desires, then the situation becomes a temptation which results in sin.

2.   What does verse 17 tell us about God? How do these attributes of God enable us to resist temptation?

3.   Look at the structure of verse 18: What is the cause, means, and purpose of God’s actions concerning our salvation.


4.   What did firstfruits  mean in the Old Testament?  What does it mean that believers are designed by God to be His firstfruits?


James, Dan McCartney, ECNT, Baker.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J.A. Motyer, Inter-Varsity.

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