From the beginning, Satan has been peddling the lie of “something better,” something outside God’s nature and God’s will. When our desires are enticed by such temptations, we are on a road to death. Alistair Begg teaches us to take personal responsibility for not letting our desires grow into sin, reminding us that the antidote to temptation is a deep-seated conviction of the unchanging goodness of God.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read from the Bible in James chapter 1, following on from this morning. We were in verse 12, and so that means that tonight we’re in verse 13. That’s the great advantage in working consecutively through the Bible. It means that at least you know where you have to go next, and it also means that you can’t skip the hard parts, and it also means that no one will ever think that you chose a particular section just because of them—unless they’re egomaniacs or something. So, we’re at James 1:13. I think it’s page 854 in the church Bibles, or 845—one of the two—and you may use them if you care to.
“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 is 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.
“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does[n’t] change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
We’ll keep our Bibles open and just pause and ask God’s help:
What we don’t know, please teach us. What we don’t have, please give us. What we are not, please make us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I think that verse 16 is probably the fulcrum of the section that we have just read—or, if you like, if a fulcrum is what I remember it to be from school, it is the balancing point, isn’t it? It’s the point at which the teeter totters and the totter teeters. And verse 16, set as it is right in the heart of this little section, five words in Greek, six words here with the apostrophe in the word “don’t,” seven words without the apostrophe: “Do not be deceived, my dear brothers.”
I think—and I hope to show this to you—that this statement at the heart of this really is the key to our understanding what James is teaching on this matter of temptation. We said this morning that he makes the shift from trials, which we have seen come in all kinds of forms—they’re not uncommon, they’re not unusual, they’re not obstacles to our spiritual growth—and in these trials, God’s purpose and plan for us is that we might be able to stand up to the tests and that we might come through them. When it comes to the matter of temptation, then we discover that while God uses trials to test his workmanship—namely, ourselves—to test us in order to prove us, to prove that what God is fashioning is actually reliable, God does not operate in the same way when it comes to the issue of temptation.
Now, let’s just define temptation, simply so that we’re not in any doubt. Let us define temptation as an enticement to sin and evil. What is temptation? Temptation is an enticement to sin and evil. And evil is simply that which is contrary to God’s law and God’s will. We needn’t, at least in biblical terms, debate the nature of evil, insofar as it is that which runs at countermotion to what God has declared for his people in his Word, in his will, and in his law.
So James, as a pastor of those to whom he writes, as a faithful shepherd, is issuing the right kind of warnings and the right kind of leadership. He doesn’t, you will notice, in verse 13, enter into a philosophical discussion on the problem of evil or the origins of evil, and I’m not going to either. There’s no reason for me to if he doesn’t. What he does, you will notice, is state quite categorically that God is not in the business of tempting his children. God is not the author of temptation. God does not tempt us to sin. If God were to tempt us to evil, then that would require a delight or a capacity for evil in God which is absolutely impossible. And that is what he’s saying there: “God cannot” himself “be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.”
So having set that aside in a matter of a few words, James then goes on to explain the source of temptation. If God is not responsible for tempting us, then what is the process that is involved in temptation? And in doing so, he is providing instruction and he is providing encouragement so that we might be forewarned and so that we might understand this process and so that we might be enabled, in believing God and in trusting his Word, to resist all and every enticement to sin.
We’ll work through the verses as simply as we can, noticing first of all, in verse 14, that temptation begins with our individual desires. “Each one,” each individual, “is tempted when”—notice the phrase—“by his own evil desire…” Now, James is not suggesting there—the Bible is not suggesting—that every desire on our part is evil. He is using the adjective “evil” in order to describe a particular kind of desire that is related to the issue of temptation itself. But we should note that because we live in a fallen world, although not all of our desires are evil, all of our desires have the capacity for evil. So, for example, the desire for food has the capacity for gluttony. The desire for marital fidelity has the capacity for adultery. The desire for the enjoyment of sexual fulfillment within marriage has the capacity for fornication outwith the bonds of marriage. Each desire in itself may not be evil, but because we live in a fallen world, all of our desires have the potential for evil.
Now, the reason he points this out, I think, is fairly straightforward; I’m sure you would agree. “Each one is tempted … by his own evil desire.” Because what he’s doing here is he’s cutting the ground out from underneath us when we are instinctively wanting to blame our desires, our temptations, and our corruptions on other people. From the very beginning, in the garden of Eden, we find that both Adam and Eve try and pass the buck. God comes to Adam, and he says, “Adam, what do you think’s going on here?” What does he say? “This woman that you gave me… It’s not my problem, it’s hers.” He comes to Eve and he says, “Eve, we have a problem here.” She says, “This serpent that came into the garden…” And it is absolutely basic, endemic, in the lives of people—even in our children! When we want to confront them with responsibility when they’re at their tiniest, they find the capacity to explain that, really, it’s not their problem.
And so, as we grow up, as grown-up little ones, we blame other people; we blame our environment; we may even blame, like Tom Sawyer did, the devil himself. If you’ve read Tom Sawyer lately, you’ll remember that he explains to his Aunt Polly, “The devil made me do it. It was the devil that made me do it.” And Aunt Polly grabs him by the ears and does all kinds of things to him in order to make it clear, “Tom Sawyer, you can’t escape in that way.” And that’s what James is saying first of all: “Don’t deceive yourselves,” he says. “You cannot, in this issue of temptation… None of us can escape the fact of personal responsibility.” We cannot escape the fact of personal responsibility.
Now, the notion of each individual’s own evil desire is significant, insofar as not everyone is tempted in the same way, to the same extent, by the same things. For example, I cannot conceive of a circumstance where I would be tempted to steal tickets for an ice hockey game. That doesn’t say anything about my ability to resist the temptation to become a thief, but it simply says that I have virtually zero interest, as best as I know it, in ice hockey as it exists. I recognize you may regard me as a philistine for such an acknowledgment, but then the charge fits me. But for someone else, two of those tickets for the Detroit whatevers or the Montreal somethings may represent a significant attraction.
You say, “Well, that’s a fairly trivial illustration.” Well, yes, I think it probably is. But nevertheless, the notion of attraction which drags us away and entices us is what James is referencing here in verse 14. In the English Standard Version, it uses the verb “lures”—“lures”—not “dragged away.” It reads “Each [one] is tempted when he is lured and enticed.” I think that is the word—and I should have taken time to check it—but I think a lure has something to do with fishing, does it? It’s a fishing word. So you actually use lures. What I know about ice hockey is just slightly lower than what I know about fishing. So I’m on very dangerous territory with this analogy. But I’ve seen it in some of these shops where they sell beef turkey, which is another thing I have zero interest in, incidentally. People who chew on that stuff deserve to spend their life at ice hockey games, or fishing. But I’ve seen those big metal things, all gaily colored and everything, and I think I saw the sticker next to them, which said they were lures, and what they do is they lure fish. They have some enticing capacity to them.
Now, this is the picture here, and it speaks to the issue of our own individual desires, which we find ourselves lured to, dragged away towards, and enticed by. Now, the way in which we can recognize this in us is when it happens, we will discover that when our minds go into neutral, they will go back to those things that are very attractive to us. That is why, incidentally—and I have no more to say about this—that is why the lure and the enticement of pornography in young boys becomes such a significant thing at a later point in their life, because they are lured by such a thing, they are enticed by such a thing, they are dragged away by such a thing. And when their minds go into neutral, they are driven back to images which their tiny minds cannot fully process or manage. And some can speak to that in a way that they would rather not.
Now, if we continue the thought in verse 14 of this fishing analogy—and I’m not sure I can speak with any authority about what goes on in the mind of a fish. In fact, do fish have minds? I should have checked. I don’t know. But let’s assume for a moment, for the sake of the analogy, we’ll assume that fish have minds. And so it’s not inconceivable that when Mrs. Carp sent off Freddy Carp on one of his first trips by himself, she warned him, “If you get out there, you may very quickly find that there are these things that are dangling in front of you that are gaily colored, that they have all kinds of enticements in them, and you may be tempted to go after them. But,” says Mrs. Carp, “don’t, whatever you do, do that! Because the attractive nature simply conceals the dreadful impact that you will find if you are tempted to take the bait, swallow the lure, or whatever it is.”
And so Freddy goes off. And as he swims around, he sees one, and he remembers what his mother says, and he swims away. But he’s got it in his mind now. And he says to himself, “I definitely shouldn’t bite that thing, but there would nothing wrong with just going back to have another little look at it.” So he does a 360 and comes around and looks at it again. And the second time he looks at it, it looks even better than the first time. And he begins to wonder whether his mother had his best interests at heart, or whether she knew something that was fabulous that she didn’t want him to know, and that she was hiding it from him and somehow or another wanted to deprive him of what it would be to become a fully fledged, lure-swallowing fish.
Well, forget the fish now. Let’s just talk about ourselves. These kind of preoccupations, if we’re honest, we understand. These kind of attractions are offered in our society in multiple ways in order that we might by our own evil desires be lured, dragged away, enticed, preoccupied, and ensnared by them.
It’s no different, really, what James is saying, from the little routine statements that I’ve made a hundred times, and can now for the hundred and first, because I figure there’s always someone who hasn’t heard this and wants to write it down: Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny. But it begins in the mind. Every sin is an inside job. Temptation cannot be laid at the feet of God. Temptation cannot be ascribed to our environment, ultimately, or to someone else, or their predicament, or their initiative, whatever that might have been. Everyone, says James, “is dragged away and enticed” by their “own evil desire.”
And in verse 15, he follows it up, and he sets down the cycle. In verse 12, this morning, we saw that there is a cycle that leads to life: persevering under trial, standing the test, and a crown of life. That’s cycle one. Here in verse 15, cycle two. And this cycle takes us down a path that ends in death: “After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
Now, James would have known the stories of the Old Testament, wouldn’t he? It’s not hard to imagine that James has in mind, in this very cycle, David’s sin in 2 Samuel 11. We won’t go all the way through it, but let me remind you of it: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army,” and “they destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.” Nothing wrong with that. But “one evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace,” and “from the roof he saw a woman bathing.” So far, not a problem, right? It’s okay. The women bathed on the roofs. This is not Cleveland in March. And “the woman was very beautiful.” Now, that’s getting to be a bit of a problem. “And David sent someone to find out about her.” Oh, this is a problem. And “the man said, ‘Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?’” And “David sent messengers to get her.” And “she came to him, and he slept with her.” And you know the rest of the story. It’s the story of James 1:15: “After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
You see, the real danger zone, or the intersection to be avoided, is this intersection: the place where desire and opportunity meet. Where desire and opportunity meet is a dangerous intersection. One without the other, you can probably handle it, but the two together, you’re gonna be a dead man. When desire and opportunity coincide, it is often the location of disaster.
When Sinclair Ferguson preached here on May 9, 2004—which I’m sure you all remember—he preached on this passage in the evening. And I took notes, and you may have taken notes as well. And I wonder if your notes are as good as my notes. I wonder, do you remember how he described the process, how he described this cycle? Because he gave us six words, and these were his words. He said that the cycle of temptation goes along these lines: number one, attraction; number two, deception; number three, preoccupation; number four, conception; number five, he said, was subjection. Subjection.
And what he meant by that was this: that when you get yourself into that situation, you very quickly become enslaved, consumed, addicted. At first, it’s just an attractive proposition that your uncle or your grandmother told you to stay away from. But what do they know, those old people? Before you knew where you are, you were deceived by the very circumstances. You became preoccupied by it. Sin was conceived. And now you’re subjugated.
And his final word was the word desperation. Desperation. And I remember he said, “When the cycle gets to this point, we despair on account of our circumstances. And confronted by our failure, we’re told by Satan that we might as well give up completely, because we’re in such dire difficulty that there is no way back.”
That’s why I say to you that verse 16 is the fulcrum. What does James say? “[Do not] be deceived, … dear brothers.” “Don’t be deceived by this kind of nonsense, brothers and sisters.” In the words of the Sunday school song, “When Satan says there’s no way back, the answer is, there is a way back.” And the songwriter puts it in these terms:
There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that’s wide open that we may come in:
And it’s at Calvary’s cross, that’s where we begin,
When we come as a sinner to Jesus.
That’s the message of the gospel.
You see, Satan, who is a flat-out liar, who is a deceiver, who is a murderer, who’s the father of all liars, who is a con man extraordinaire, who is the one who will tell you ninety-nine true things so that the hundredth thing that he tells you, which is false, you may swallow because he’s told you so many true things before he tells you the lie—Satan wants us to believe that there’s a whole selection of wonderful treats and experiences, and God doesn’t want us to have them. That’s what he wants us to believe—that somehow or another, God is keeping the good stuff from us; that if we were to go down Satan’s road and down Satan’s avenue, then we would discover all the things that we’re missing out on account of God’s law and God’s will and God’s purposes and so on.
Isn’t that his approach in the garden of Eden? Well, how did he appeal to Adam and Eve? He appealed to Adam and Eve on the basis that there was something better than what God had given them to enjoy. Isn’t that what he said? “You know, this is a nice place. But if you only tried this, then you will yourselves become as gods. This will be the ultimate experience. This is what God doesn’t want you to know about.” “Do not be deceived.”
The antidote to that lie, to those lies, he provides for us—James does—in verse 17 and verse 18. And I point this out, and we’re through. What is the antidote to the lies of the Evil One such as I’ve just outlined? Well, the answer is in verse 17: it is to enjoy a deep-seated conviction of the absolute, unchanging goodness of God. It is to enjoy a deep-seated conviction of the absolute, unchanging goodness of God. And we need look no further than this little Table that is set before us right now. For here in these emblems we have the expression of God’s infinite and unchanging absolute goodness: “He who did not spare his own Son, but [freely] gave him up for us all—how will he not also, … with [Christ, freely] give us all things?”
God is good all of the time. “As for God, his way is perfect.” “There is a way that seems right to a man, and the end thereof is death.” And the Evil One makes the road to death and to oblivion as attractive as possible. And in contrast, the idea of meeting with the people of God, and singing the songs of the people of God, and reading an old book with leather covers, and hanging around with some folks that you don’t really like and don’t want to spend time with and so on, that just seems like such a drag. And over here is all of the opportunity and all of the fun and all of the greatness.
That’s the lie. Now, the only way that you will ever discover a conviction about the unchanging goodness of God—and me too—is to go and seek it out, to read his Word, to ponder his character, to meet with his people, to love his law, to obey his will, to serve his purposes.
And finally, we can do no better, if we’re going to be victorious over the challenges of temptation, than to marvel again at the wonder of his goodness to us, in verse 18, in his redeeming love: “Every good and perfect gift is from above”; it comes “from the Father of heavenly lights, who does[n’t] change like shifting shadows.” And then it’s almost as if James says, “And let me just take it right to the top of the list. Think about this: he chose to give us birth through the word of his truth.” “He chose.” “He chose,” unprompted by anything in us—unprompted by our goodness; unprompted, actually, even by our badness. “He chose to give us birth.” How does he give us this birth? “Through the word of [his] truth.” Romans 10: “Faith come[s] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” That’s why the Bible is so important, because the Bible is the means that we come to salvation, and the Bible is the means whereby we grow to salvation, and the Bible is the means whereby God, in enabling us by his Spirit, brings to completion the work that he has begun.
“He chose to give us birth.” How? “Through the word of his truth.” Why? So “that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” It’s an Old Testament picture. The firstfruits of the harvest in the Old Testament belonged utterly to God. The firstfruits of the harvest were set apart in their entirety for God. The farmer went out, brought the stuff home to his wife, and said, “Here is the beginning of the harvest, and all of this is set aside for God. And after this has been set aside utterly and for God, then we will go back, and we will deal with the rest of the harvest, but not until.” That is the picture that James uses.
“He chose to give us birth through the word of [his] truth.” Why? In order that we might be holy. In order that we might be utterly set apart to God. In order that he might rule and reign in our lives. In order that he might be sovereign over our thinking and over our morals and over our finances and over our family relationships and over our private thoughts.
In Jesus—in Jesus—we’re delivered from the dominion and the reign of sin. Delivered from the dominion and the reign of sin. That’s why that great hymn, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” which nobody ever sings except about once a year, by Augustus Toplady, has that magnificent couplet in it: “Be of sin the double cure; cleanse me from its guilt and power.” The Christian life is not an insurance policy which secures our eternal destiny and then leaves us on our own to try our best to obey rules and regulations and keep ourselves. The work of God’s grace and goodness in our lives not only cleanses us from the penalty of sin but enables us to deal with the power of sin. “Cleanse me from its guilt and power.”
And the Westminster Confession helps us by reminding us that we as Christians are involved in “a continual and irreconcilable war,” on three fronts: against the world, against the flesh, and against the devil. And the devil comes along and says, “Wouldn’t you like some of that? Wouldn’t you like some of this? Wouldn’t you like some of the next thing?” And he appeals to that which is inside of us, because although sin no longer reigns, it remains—hence the pool of temptation, hence the influence of these attractions, hence the potential for preoccupation and enslavement. And none of us is immune. None of us is immune! There’s not a man or a woman in this room right now that says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Yes you do! Yes I do!
M’Cheyne died at the age of twenty-nine as the minister of St. Peter’s in Dundee, and he said at the age of twenty-six, “I have discovered that the sins of every sin known to man reside in my evil heart.” Thank God for his honesty. He was the pastor! And I know exactly what he meant. And anyone who thinks I don’t doesn’t understand a thing. And since I know about me, I know about you. And God knows about us all. And he, in Jesus, breaks the dominion of sin in our lives. We do not have to be suspended by the influences of temptation. We do not have to be held in the grip of such enslavement. We cannot live in perfection, but we can live in increasing victory. Otherwise, the message of the gospel is a farce, the power of the Holy Spirit is a ridiculous notion. And clearly it is not.
One final word from 1 Corinthians 10. You remember the wonderfully encouraging note that Paul gives when he warns his readers there in Corinth about having a big head and being so cocksure of yourself and thinking that “this is something that the person next to me needs to hear, but definitely not me.” And you remember how he says that all “these things” that he’s preceded the chapter with, all “these things” that happened “happened … as examples”—1 Corinthians 10:11. They “were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” And then verse 12: “So, if you think you[’re] standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” And then someone says, “Well, goodness gracious, I think I will fall. I think I’m about to fall. I think I’m about to collapse. I think I’m absolutely powerless to be able to do anything about this.” Not so! Look at verse 13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” Promise! Categorical promise.
Be honest: Any time that you or I succumb to temptation, can we honestly say that we succumb to it because it was the only possible thing we could do? No! That there wasn’t an opportunity to walk out? That we didn’t get a message—a text message on our phone—just at that exact moment, from our Aunt Mabel in Wisconsin, saying, “Hope you’re having a good evening”? And it was like, “Wow! What is she doing phoning me up just at this moment?” Da-ding! Big temptation! Aunt Mabel’s text message: way of escape. Headlights on the driveway, when you’re seventeen with your girlfriend. Here they come. Whoooop! “They’re home!” Whoooop. They go away; it was just somebody who was lost, reversing. It’s not your folks. Ding-ding! Way of escape.
No, God is faithful in all of this.
So, if we’re going to be serious, then we have to deal with temptation—honestly, immediately, ruthlessly, consistently. That’s another whole sermon, which we’ll leave for another time.
Honestly. Immediately. If you got a leaking roof, get it at the beginning. Don’t wait until you need forty-five buckets in your bedroom to try and deal with it. Get somebody up there to fix it the first time you see the spot on the ceiling, right? Unless you want the ceiling to come down. It’s the same thing with temptation. Deal with it immediately.
Deal with it ruthlessly. That’s what Jesus said: “It’d be better to go into heaven with only one hand than to go into hell with two hands if your hand offends you. It would be better to go into heaven with just one eye than to go into hell with two eyes if your eyes are the source of your offense.” I mean, it’s a graphic metaphor, isn’t it? But it says deal with it ruthlessly.
And deal with it consistently. Sometimes we think if we’ve had one little victory with temptation—and I said there was another sermon for another time, but now I’m preaching it—but sometimes when we’ve had a little victory with temptation, then we get hammered the next time around. I mean, just a simple way, where you think, “We’re done with pies for the month of March,” you know? “No, no, I’m not having dessert.” “Oh, okay, fine. Sorry I mentioned it. Would you care for some?” “Yes!” “And would you care for some?” And while you’re watching it go away from you, you’re like, “Oh, man. Whoo! Whoo! Well, no, I’m not having pies. No, no, not in March I’m not. No.” And then she comes around, and before the hostess leaves, she goes, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a piece of pie?” “Oh, go on then!” Isn’t that it? Because you felt so good about saying no the first time, you got hammered on the second time around. The devil’s very clever. Gotta deal with it consistently. If it’s no the first time, it’s no the second time, it’s no every time.
The phrase that we hate to hear and we never want to say as it relates to temptation is this: “I don’t know how I could have done that, but…” “I don’t know how I could have done that, but…” Yes, we do know how we could have done it, and we do know how we may do it. And we thank God for his faithfulness, for his forgiveness, for his open door of welcome when we come in penitence to him, and for the reminder that in each of our lives, our Christian experience is a series of new beginnings and fresh starts.
And that’s actually one of the reasons for gathering around this Table as we do. Because this Table has been set out expressly for sinners who know two things: how great my sin is and how wonderful my Savior is. If you know that you’re a great sinner and you know that you have a great Savior, then let us come around this Table and eat with a sense of gratitude to God for his redeeming goodness.
Let us pray together, just briefly:
Father, grant that everything that is of yourself may find a resting place in our minds and anything that is untrue or unhelpful or unwise may be banished from our thinking. Turn our gaze to Christ now, in these final moments of our time together today, that our hearts may be drawn to him, that we may find our security and forgiveness in him, and that in our expressions of fellowship with one another we may be a help and not a hindrance as we look out on the week that lies ahead. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Genesis 3:12–13 (paraphrased).
 2 Samuel 11:1–4 (NIV 1984).
 E. H. Swinstead, “There’s a Way Back to God.” Lyrics lightly altered.
 See Genesis 3:1–5.
 Romans 8:32 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 18:30 (NIV 1984).
 Proverbs 14:12 (paraphrased).
 Romans 10:17 (KJV).
 See Exodus 23:16. See also Nehemiah 10:35.
 Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (1776).
 Westminster Confession of Faith 13.2.
 Robert Murray M’Cheyne, quoted in Andrew A. Bonar, Memoirs and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), 201.
 Matthew 18:8–9 (paraphrased). See also Mark 9:43, 47.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.