, ,

III.  [What it is to “tempt God” in the Christian life]

Thirdly, as it is a point of God’s power to help without means: so has he in his wisdom appointed means: there be degrees, whereby we ascend to the effect: they are as a pair of stairs. Where these are, we must use them; but when he offers us a strange sign, it is scrupulous & foolish niceness to refuse it.[1] As, when God bad Ahaz aske a sign, Is. 7. 12. and he would not for tempting God, he was too precise, he was but an hypocrite[2]. Moses asked a sign & had it[3], and God was well pleased with it. And so did Gideon also, to assure himself of delivering Israel by him, Judges 6. 36[4].

In great, weighty, and extraordinary callings, it was allowable to request a sign: but when there is no need, or when there be otherwise sufficient, as Matt. 16. 1 where many miracles were daily done before their eyes, and where (though they had never so many more) yet they would not have believed on him. Such were the Scribes and Pharisees, that for every trifling occasion, must have a sign from heaven[5]. Thus, to grate upon God’s omnipotent providence, is saucy malapertness.[6]

For ordinary matters, there be ordinary means to serve our turns: and for extraordinary, there be extraordinary ways and means reserved, that we need not let fall our trust in matters corporal, we all confess there be means, as they which will not work, may not eat, 2. Thes. 3. 10.[7] In warfare there is no victory to be hoped for, without fight, building of ramparts, and making of darts and shields, 2. Chron. 32. 5.[8]

Only in spiritual matters we think to do well enough, though we never put too our endeavor; we lay all upon God, and trouble not ourselves. There is but one degree or step in all Christianity; it is no more but out of the font to leap straight into heaven; from predestination, we leap straight to glorification: it is no matter for mortification, there be no such mean degrees[9]. But Saint Paul tells us, it is so high, that we had need of a ladder, in which be many steps: insomuch, as he puts a How shall to every step, Rom. 10. 14. How shall they call on God on whom they haue not beleeued? &c. There must be calling on God, believing on him, hearing his word: there must ordinary means.[10]

And there is a ladder of practice, as well as of speculation or contemplation 2. Pet. 1. 5[11]. Join virtue with your faith, & with virtue knowledge, and with knowledge temperance, and so patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love: if these things be in you, you shall not be idle and fruitless in the knowledge of Christ: for he that hath not these things, is blind: he goes blindfold to the wood, and may chance hop beside heaven, or step besides the ladder[12].

A great many say as Balaam did, O let my soule dye the death of the Righteous: but they care not for living the life of the righteous[13]. He went but blindfold, he knew not the Angel that stood with a sword drawn in the way, but would have gone upon it, if his ass had been so foolish[14]. A great many think that presumption, in being secure of their salvation, is good divinity [good theology][15]. Balaam thought he went well, when he went on the point of a naked sword[16].

So, one enticed by the flattery of a harlot, thinks he goes to a place of great pleasure: but he goes as one that goes to the slaughter, & as a fool to the stocks Proverbs7. 22[17]. Those whom it pleases God to have partakers of his kingdom, he puts them in mind to remember their Creator in the days of their youth, before the evil days come[18]: he gives them the grace of timely repentance, and suffers them not to defer it till the last cast, and then to think that with the turning of a pin (as it were) they shall with a trice be in heaven, with Elijah in a whirlwind[19].

Augustine saith, We may in some cases advise men to have great hope that they shall be saved: but in no case give them warrant of security[20]. So, in Ephes. 5. 6. This we know, that no whoremonger nor vncleane person, hath anie inheritaunce in the kingdome of heauen. Let no man deceiue you through vaine words, he that doth righteousnesse is righteous[21], and hee that doth vnrighteousnes, is of the diuel. 1 John 3.7[22].

Now therefore to neglect the hearing of the word, or when he comes to hear it, to clap down in his place without desire or mind to bear it away, thereby to be bettered in his life; and without purpose after by meditating on it, to chew it, and so to kindle a fire within himself, whereby it may be digested, and turned into the substance of the mind: this is to tempt God[23]:

So, also to bear a greater countenance, and make more show of holiness than indeed is in one, is to lay a greater yoke on himself than he need as Act. 15. 10 is a tempting of God[24]. Again, he that sins must look for evil to follow, Psal. 91. 10[25]. He therefore that sins, and yet thinks to escape punishment tempts God[26].

They that by often experience have found, that such and such things have been to them occasions of sinning, and yet will presume to use the same again, tempt God[27]. And those which set up their Idols in their heart and put the stumbling block of iniquity before their face, Ez. 14. 3[28] & yet think not they sin, such tempt God. He that comes to ask forgiveness of God and will not perform the condition in the Lords prayer, that is, Forgive others, tempts God[29].

Generally, he that seeks for good of God, & will not perform that which he is to do; or does evil, thinking to escape scot-free, without endeavoring to avoid or resist it, both these tempt God: and to these two may all other be referred[30].


God has appointed ordinary means for the spiritual life of the Christian. These are like the steps of a staircase or the rungs of a ladder. If we would progress, we must take the steps.

God is not bound by the ordinary means. And in extraordinary cases, God may even supply extraordinary evidence. But to demand an extraordinary sign when ordinary means will suffice is to tempt God.

A practical application of this might be demanding God provide an extraordinary sign when it comes to making an ordinary decision. Someone might ask themselves, “Should I take this job?” This is an ordinary decision. Wisdom, experience, advice are sufficient to make this decision. But it is not uncommon for people to look around for mystical signs as evidence from God.

If you want to eat, get a job. If you want success in battle, prepare for war.

Demanding and seeking such extraordinary signs would be to tempt God.

When it comes to spiritual matters, we are even more likely to “tempt God.” God has provided well-established means to repent, to grow in grace, to mortify sin. But it is easy and common to tempt God here. A person may think, I have been baptized, my work is done. God will get me to heaven. They want to jump from the font (the source, the beginning) to heaven (the end) without any steps in between.

But the Scripture is clear that this life from repentance to glorification is to follow a pattern. We move from faith to virtue, from virtue to knowledge, from knowledge to self-control, and so on.

There are two basic patterns for those who seek to avoid the steps of the Christian life. One is to seek the good ends of God without practicing the steps to proceed. For instance, one can seek forgiveness of sin, but refuse to grant that forgiveness to another:

Matthew 6:5–15 (ESV)

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

                        “Our Father in heaven,

                        hallowed be your name.

            10          Your kingdom come,

                        your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

            11          Give us this day our daily bread,

            12          and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

            13          And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

This is to tempt God: to seek the end without the appointed conditions.

A second way to tempt God is to live in unrepentant sin: I will sin without seeking to mortify sin and think that God will forgive me my sloth. I will do evil and think God will ignore it, or perhaps even reward. That also is to tempt God.

[1] We are to use the ordinary means which God has appointed for our good. But, when God does something unexpected (a strange sign), we may and should make use of that unexpected situation.

[2] Isaiah 7:10–17 (ESV)

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!”

This refusal by Ahaz sounds like he is not tempting God and thus is behaving as Jesus did when tempted by the Devil. Calvin explains as follows:

And Ahaz said. By a plausible excuse he refuses the sign which the Lord offered to him. That excuse is, that he is unwilling to tempt the LORD; for he pretends to believe the words of the Prophet, and to ask nothing more from God than his word. Ungodliness is certainly detestable in the sight of God, and in like manner God unquestionably sets a high value on faith. Accordingly, if a man rely on his word alone, and disregard everything else, it might be thought that he deserves the highest praise; for there can be no greater perfection than to yield full submission and obedience to God.

But a question arises. Do we tempt God, when we accept what he offers to us? Certainly not. Ahaz therefore speaks falsehood, when he pretends that he refuses the sign, because he is unwilling to tempt God; for there can be nothing fitter or more excellent than to obey God, and indeed it is the highest virtue to ask nothing beyond the word of God; and yet if God choose to add anything to his word, it ought not to be regarded as a virtue to reject this addition as superfluous. It is no small insult offered to God, when his goodness is despised in such a manner as if his proceedings towards us were of no advantage, and as if he did not know what it is that we chiefly need. We know that faith is chiefly commended on this ground, that it maintains obedience to him; but when we wish to be too wise, and despise anything that belongs to God, we are undoubtedly abominable before God, whatever excuse we may plead before men. While we believe the word of God, we ought not to despise the aids which he has been pleased to add for the purpose of strengthening our faith.

John Calvin, Isaiah, electronic ed., Calvin’s Commentaries (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998), Is 7:12. Jerome comments on this passage:

To a casual onlooker he made it appear that he did not have a problem of too little faith, but rather was possessed of such deep faith that he did not want to ask for evidence. To do so, he alluded to Scripture, but like others before and after him, he took the scriptural statement out of its context. His allusion was to Deut. 6:16, where testing (or tempting, AV) the Lord was forbidden. However, the sense of that passage is of a demand for proof arising from doubt and rebellion. Such a testing is indeed repugnant to God (so also the NT: Matt. 16:4; Mark 8:12; Luke 11:29); but a testing of God which grows from faith and, out of faith, dares to rest its weight upon God, that testing God invites (so 2 K. 20:8–11; Mal. 3:10; cf. also Ps. 34:7 [Eng. 6] for a different expression of the same thought). It is obviously not belief which prompts Ahaz’s statement. If it were, he would not have continued with the plans for an alliance with Assyria. Rather, it is unbelief which gives rise to his announcement, an unbelief profound enough that it will not even permit evidence that it is wrong.

John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 206.

[3] Exodus 4:1–9 (ESV) Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’ ” The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand— “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” Again, the Lord said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. “If they will not believe you,” God said, “or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”

[4] The Angel of the Lord came to Gideon and told him that Gideon would deliver Israel from the overwhelming oppression of Midian. Gideon seeks to confirm that he understands the command he has received and that God in fact will do this wholly unexpected thing (using Gideon to deliver) Israel.  Gideon laid out a “fleece” a sheepskin on the ground overnight. He first asked that the skin be wet with dew but the ground be dry; and it was so. He then asked that the fleece be dry and the ground be wet.

[5] Despite Jesus having performed many public miracles, the leaders of Israel (Scribes & Pharisees) demanded a “sign from heaven.”

[6] Irreverent back-talking,

[7] An example of an ordinary means is that you want to eat, you need to work to get the food: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” 2 Thess. 3:10 (ESV) God can feed us by means of a miracle, but that is not the ordinary means.

[8] 2 Chronicles 32:5 (ESV)

He set to work resolutely and built up all the wall that was broken down and raised towers upon it, and outside it he built another wall, and he strengthened the Millo in the city of David. He also made weapons and shields in abundance.

[9] Andrews notes that the Christian life proceeds through various steps: Romans 8:28–30 (ESV)  “28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” There are some who in spiritual things think that there is no need for “ordinary means” to progress. We are predestined and walk into heaven. If there is any “work” to be done, it is all of God and nothing of us. But the Scripture is different. For example, we are called to mortify (put to death) our sins: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Romans 8:13 (ESV)  

[10] Paul shows that the Christian life progresses by steps, as if up a ladder. We can see the steps on the ladder when Paul uses the phrase “How shall” to make each step of the passage:  “14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” Romans 10:14–15 (ESV)

[11] This is not the only “ladder” in Scripture. Peter sets out another ladder which looks more to the internal workings of a human being (“speculation”): 2 Peter 1:3–8 (ESV) “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

[12] If you do not take the ordinary steps laid out in Scripture, you like someone walking blind. You are hoping to hop into heaven, but you won’t find the ladder which takes you there.

[13] Balaam was a prophet for hire: He was retained by the Moabite King to curse Israel, but was unable to do so. In one place he says, “

                  “10             Who can count the dust of Jacob

or number the fourth part of Israel?

                                    Let me die the death of the upright,

and let my end be like his!”

Numbers 23:10 (ESV). Andrews notes that Balaam wants the death of the righteous, but is unwilling to live the life of the righteous.

[14] As Balaam began on his trip to curse Israel, his donkey stops at something Balaam cannot see. Balaam becomes angry and tries to force the donkey to proceed. Only then does Balaam finally see what the donkey saw: an angel with a sword standing in the way.

[15] Many people think that a presumptuous security in their salvation is good theology. In our culture, this would be someone who “said a pray”, raised a hand, or was baptized, and there was nothing more to their Christian life.

[16] Balaam thought he was going well until he saw an angel with a sword ready to kill him.

[17] The foolish young man who turns into a prostitute thinks he is merely going to have a good time.

Proverbs 7:21–23 (ESV)

                  21               With much seductive speech she persuades him;

with her smooth talk she compels him.

                  22               All at once he follows her,

as an ox goes to the slaughter,

                                    or as a stag is caught fast

                  23               till an arrow pierces its liver;

                                    as a bird rushes into a snare;

he does not know that it will cost him his life.

[18] Ecclesiastes 12:1 (ESV) “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’”

[19] The ordinary work of God in our lives is the work of hearing, believing, repenting, mortifying, worshipping, then coming to glory. But there are some who presume upon the goodness of God and think that they live as they wish then turn on a dime (a pin) and like Elijah, a chariots of fire and a whirlwind will take them to heaven.

[20] We can hold out the hope that you can be saved: this is a good promise and offer of God. But we cannot give them any assurance that they are saved (outside of the promise of God and the necessity of repentance and belief). God can save anyone. But those who live a life contrary to repentance can have no security of salvation.

[21] Ephesians 5:5–6 (ESV)  “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”

[22] 1 John 3:7–8 (ESV) “Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

[23] Here is how you tempt God: Fail to come to hear the Word preached. Come to the sermon, but don’t pay attention. Don’t take what you have heard with you; and then don’t meditate upon it so that it will work in you, “kindle a fire.”

[24] To make a show of holiness, when it is a show and not a reality, is another way to tempt God. Acts 15:6–11 (ESV) “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’”

[25] If you live like the Devil and want to claim the promise of God’s protection you tempt God:

Psalm 91:9–11 (ESV)

                                  Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—

the Most High, who is my refuge—

                  10               no evil shall be allowed to befall you,

no plague come near your tent.

                  11               For he will command his angels concerning you

to guard you in all your ways.

If “you have made the Lord your dwelling place.”

[26] Punishment follows sin. The one that sins and thinks he will escape all consequences is tempting God.

[27] Sin often proceeds by habit: There is a cue for the sin, “an occasion,” and then the sins follows. For example, in Proverbs 7 the young man goes out alone, in the dark, past the house of the harlot. He walks to the match and then the fire follows. The person who repeatedly returns to the occasion which leads to his sin, and then is “surprised” that sin follows is “tempting God.” See, Proverbs 4:23–27 (ESV)

                  23               Keep your heart with all vigilance,

for from it flow the springs of life.

                  24               Put away from you crooked speech,

and put devious talk far from you.

                  25               Let your eyes look directly forward,

and your gaze be straight before you.

                  26               Ponder the path of your feet;

then all your ways will be sure.

                  27               Do not swerve to the right or to the left;

turn your foot away from evil.

[28] Ezekiel 14:1–5 (ESV)

Then certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.

[29] The person who asks forgiveness of God and refuses to forgive others, as is stated in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:14-15), tempts God.

[30] There are basic ways in which one tempts God: First, the person who seeks good from God and then refuses to do that which God requires (forgive me, but I will not forgive others). Second, the person who does evil and then expects God to at least ignore it. He develops this a bit one: the one who sins and yet refuses to do anything to avoid the temptation which leads to the sin.