Perhaps you have heard someone try to explain a theology of temptations. Sometimes it seems like the rubics cube of all theological endeavors. On the one hand every good Calvinist knows that God is absolutely sovereign over each and every temptation. At the same time, Calvinists are extremely careful not to lay the temptation itself at the feet of God. How to line these truths up in their proper place is not so easy. But we have Scripture to guide us. James 1:13-15 explicitly says:
Let no one say when he is tempted, â€œI am tempted by Godâ€; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.
So how are we to explain the dilemma of knowing that God is in absolute control of temptations and yet affirm that He Himself tempts no one? I think the answer is also found in James 1. In the second and third verses of chapter 1, James exhorts us to “count it all joy when we fall into various ‘trials,’ knowing that the ‘testing’ of your faith produces patience.” Note that James does not say in verse 13-15 that God does not “try” or “test” anyone. He says that God does not “tempt” anyone. But the really interesting thing is that the same word used for “try” and “test” is the word our English translators translate “tempt.” Have they given it an improper gloss? I think the translators are correct because the context determines the translation. There is, however, a reason why the same Greek word is used for two different concepts. This, I believe has great implications for explaining the question at hand. In order to deal adequately with this subject we must adopt a biblical theological approach that brings us back to the first trial and temptation. In fact, this is precisely what Geerhardus Vos does in Biblical Theology.
As he came to discuss the pre-lapsarian revelation, and a explanation of the trees of the Garden, Vos noted:
There is a difference between probation and temptation, and yet they appear here as two aspects of the same transaction. The close interweaving reflects itself even in the use of identical words for trying and tempting, both in Hebrew and Greek . We may say that what was from the point of view of God a probation, was made use of by the evil power to inject into it the element of temptation. The difference consists in this, that behind the probation lies a good, behind the temptation an evil, design, but both work with the same material. It is of course necessary to keep God free from tempting anybody with evil intent [cf . James 1:13]. But it is also important to insist upon the probation, as an integral part of the Divine plan with regard to humanity. Even if no tempter had existed, or projected himself into the crisis, even then some form for subjecting man to probation would have been found, though it is impossible for us to surmise what form.1
In short, the devil took the commandment, which was a probation for Adam and Eve, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and turned it into a temptation. God actively orchestrated the trial, thus making the “test” a gift from His hand. And while we know that in his decree for all of the outworking of His plan for His creation He was working through the agency of the evil one, the Scriptures are clear that God Himself cannot be tempted with evil, neither can He tempt anyone. Satan always seeks to take trials and make them into temptations. We must always be on guard. Whether it is in regard to some tragedy in our lives (i.e. cancer, the loss of a loved one, financial difficulties, etc.) or whether it is in regard to the withholding of some particular object (i.e. a job, a car, a home, a companion, an individual who is not our spouse), God is orchestrating the trial to grow us in grace, while Satan is working to lead us into sin. We must not confuse the two. We must remember how the tempter worked in the Garden, in contrast with how our loving heavenly Father worked.
Of course, this finds further significance in the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. At every point in the test that the Father gave the Son, that great serpent of old was there trying to get Him to sin. And yet, we know, that for our sakes He was tempted in every way, yet without sin. We have a Savior who went through the probation, which was made into a temptation, so that He might bring us out into the rich fulfillment of all the blessings that God has promised to those who obey. He did this for us, and, by God’s grace, He has not left us ignorant of Satan’s devises.
1. Vos, Geerhardus Biblical Theology (Grand Rapdis: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948) p. 33