God Is Always Good & Gracious in Our Trials
Passage: James 1:13–1:18
Sermon from James 1:13-18 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word (Part 4)
Delivered on May 1, 2016
13Let 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. 14But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17Every 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. 18Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
James continues his counsel to believers facing various trials. God wants us to be full of wisdom as we walk through trials—wisdom that will make us more like Jesus. God wants to build a moral fortitude in the church that won’t break under pressure, but remain steadfast in obedience. We’re only eleven years old, Redeemer, and more trials will come. But God’s word through James will help us remain steadfast in our allegiance to Jesus for more years to come…
One thing we need to understand is the connection between trial and temptation. In Greek, the vocabulary behind “trial” and “temptation” is the same. So when you see a shift from trials in verse 12 to temptation in verse 13, James isn’t so much moving on to a different subject as much as he’s still giving us a proper perspective on trials. He’s pointing out that every trial also brings with it temptation.
To this point we’ve only seen God’s purpose for our trials. God’s purpose for trials is to produce steadfastness, is to make us more like Jesus. The external pressures of trials—when we respond in faith and love for God—they make us more like Jesus.
But in the very same trials we also face temptation to sin. We also face internal enticement toward evil. Every trial that we face becomes either an occasion to advance in Christlikeness or an occasion to slide backward into sin. The question, then, in every trial is, how will you and I respond? Will we count Jesus worthy of our endurance? Or will we settle for lesser pleasures and blame God?
Apparently, some in the church are not responding very well to their trials. We see it there in verse 13. People are facing trial, and some of them are saying that the trial must be God luring them into evil. “I’m being tempted by God,” they’re saying.
Maybe you’ve experienced this. Maybe someone close to you has voiced this in a time of weakness or confession. The thought could express itself in a number of ways: “God is just giving me way too much right now!” Or, “If God wants me to stop doing ____, then he’s just going to have to make me!” Or, “Sometimes I wonder if God even wants me to stop this sin!” Thoughts like this—they each call God’s goodness into question: “I’m being tempted by God,” some are saying.
It sounds a bit like Adam, doesn’t it? God finds Adam in his sin, hiding in his shame, and he asks, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And Adam responds, “The woman you gave me…” Adam knows who made the woman.
We know who controls and governs all things in this world according to his will (Eph 1:9-11). We know who is sovereign even over the hardship and evil that comes to us—the cancer, the migraine, the loneliness, the separation, the sins of others, the persecution. We know who is sovereign: it’s God. Is God, then, at fault when trials become occasions for us to slide backward into sin?
James’ word to us this morning is basically, “Don’t go there, my beloved; God is always good and gracious in your trials; and he wants your salvation, not your destruction.” How do we know this?
1. Remember God’s Character
James’ first response comes from a right knowledge of God’s character. If anyone knows God as he really is, they cannot possibly charge him with tempting them toward evil. He points them back to the basics. Verse 13, “God cannot be tempted with evil,” he says. Everything about evil repulses God’s holy character. It’s impossible for evil to sway God’s character, his morality, in any way whatsoever.
It’s true that other places in Scripture require us to say that God permits evil for a time (e.g., Rev 17:17); that evil is never outside his control (e.g., Job 1-2); that he even plans evil events such as the crucifixion of his only Son (e.g., Acts 2:23-24; 4:25-26). But in all this, God can never be charged with committing evil himself. God is never the author or approver of sin. To state James’ point positively, God remains holy, separate from sin, devoted to what is good.
So that also means that when God brings trials into our lives, that his purpose can never be evil. It’s never his will that we fall into evil. Verse 13 also says that “he himself tempts no one [that is, tempts no one toward evil].” He’s not denying that God brings trials into our lives. He’s denying that God does it with evil intent. He can’t. It’s an impossibility for God to have evil intent in anything he does.
More than that, though, look at what verse 17 says about God’s character. “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.” If any gift is good or perfect, it comes from above; and that says something about God.
If you think back on Jesus’ teaching for a minute—Jesus said in Matthew 5:44-45, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.” James seems to be calling our attention to God’s generosity with this title, “the Father of lights.” He is the Father of the cosmic lights—like the sun, moon, and stars—which every day bear witness to his generosity.
Then, when he says, “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” he’s now saying that God is immutable, unchangeable in relation to that generosity toward his children. He’s not like people that we can’t always count on for good things. He’s not like people who grow tired of giving good things. He’s not like people who tend to give only when it’s convenient for them. God is immutable, and that includes his unchanging generosity toward us.
He’s not only holy and righteous; he’s also always trustworthy to give good things to his people. He said that he wants us to be perfect in verse 4, and here we see that he gives perfect gifts. Everything we need to endure trials—so that they become occasions for Christlikeness and not sin—God wants us to have it.
James’ words sound much like Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that’s not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” God’s desire in the trials we face is never our destruction, never our falling into the very things he hates.
2. Remember Our Fallen Human Nature
Well, then, where does temptation originate? James tells us in verses 14-15 that temptation originates with the fallen human nature. We are to blame if our trials end up becoming temptation toward evil. Later, in James 4:7, we do see that the devil is also involved in temptation. There are layers to temptation. But nobody submits to the devil’s temptations without wanting to. We have only ourselves to blame.
Verse 14 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” We shouldn’t think of just any desire. James has in mind our own rebellious desires. He has in mind the internal impulse to stray from Godward pursuits, to stray from Christ-exalting obedience. All of us who are born in Adam have rebellious, internal impulses. We have an inherent desire for evil. Even the Christian still wrestles against the desires of the old self, against fleshly appetites.
When we face the various circumstances of life, these rebel passions become the source of temptation. The words “lured and enticed [or dragged away]”—they paint a memorable picture of what happens with our rebel desires. If you’ve ever been fishing, what’s important when you bait the hook? You’ve got to hide the hook to lure away the fish into your trap. Same here. Temptation comes when our rebel passions want the bait. They lure us away from Christ toward whatever it is we’re wanting above Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it this way in his book, Temptation.
With irresistible power desire seizes mastery over the flesh.… It makes no difference whether it is sexual desire, or ambition, or vanity, or desire for revenge, or love of fame and power, or greed for money.… Joy in God is…extinguished in us and we seek all our joy in the creature. At this moment God is quite unreal to us, he loses all reality, and only desire for the creature is real;…Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God.… The lust thus aroused envelops the mind and will of man in deepest darkness. The powers of clear discrimination and of decision are taken from us. The questions present themselves: “Is what the flesh desires really sin in this case?”…It is here that everything within me rises up against the Word of God.
You’ve felt this before. Perhaps you felt your rebel passions leading you astray this week. Your fixation on some sinful pleasure makes you forget the superior pleasures at God’s right hand. The experience, the taste, the attractiveness looks so good for the moment; until it jerks your jaw out of place and leaves you to die.
Verse 15 plays this out a bit further, and basically shows us what happens if we don’t resist temptation. There’s a point where we can fight and resist, so that our rebel desires don’t ever conceive. And only the Christian who has the Holy Spirit can actually wrestle against wayward desires. Doug Moo writes that “Christian maturity is not indicated by the infrequency of temptation but by the infrequency of succumbing to temptation” (James, 76). If we take the bait and allow our desires to keep taking us away from Christ, then we are on the path of destruction.
Temptations will come with trials; the question is, “Will you allow it to take you into custody?” If you do, James says this: “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin.” What is sin? James defines sin in 2:9-11: sin is anything contrary to God’s will and anything that undermines love for neighbor. Sin is always understood first in relation to God and second in relation to others. When our wayward desires conceive, it gives birth to rebellion against God and hatred for other people. We dethrone God from our heart, and we exploit others as our servants.
Then he says, “and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” I take that to mean spiritual death in the present and eternal death at the final judgment. Death is both a present spiritual experience that sin causes—a cutting off from vibrancy with Christ; it’s also future condemnation for those who continue in sin without repentance. Notice, this is the opposite of verse 12. In verse 12, steadfastness to Christ will gain you the crown of life. In verse 15, giving-in to temptation will gain you nothing but death.
We need to hear this: when our wayward desires toy with various pleasures, we’re toying with death. My littlest girl knows she’s not supposed to go near the street. But she’ll try. And you can watch her mind working as she edges nearer and nearer to the edge of the driveway. And all along the way, she’s glancing back over her shoulder, while she takes another little step toward the street. She thinks it’ll be a thrill or relief or escape, without even realizing that she’s toying with death.
When people reach over to click on a link to pornography, or double-look at another woman with lustful intent, or daydream of what it’d be like in the arms of another husband. When people allow negative thoughts to turn bitter toward their brother, or fear what other people think of you over God, or place hope in the riches of this world, or consider fudging the truth just a little bit—we’re not just toying with a temporary thrill; we’re throwing away life with Christ for death.
The process here with desire, sin, and death reminds us of the initial rebellion of Adam and Eve: “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise [i.e., desire], she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate [i.e., sin]. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked [i.e., death]…” (Gen 3:6-7).
And they plunged us into the same rebellion. We’re accountable to God because in Adam we all sinned (Rom 5:12). Our spiritual state by nature is just as bad as theirs after the rebellion. We’re born with an inherent desire to rebel against our Creator, to follow our own desires into sin. And if that’s true, then how could any of us survive? How could any of us overcome temptation and sin? We’re all doomed to death…
3. Remember God’s Grace from Regeneration to Glory
Unless God’s grace saves us. How do a people like us with rebel passions inside—how do we overcome temptation and sin? The answer is that we can’t in our fallen nature. But God’s grace is able to change our nature. Verse 18 is probably one of the clearest examples of God’s good and perfect gifts to us. It says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
James doesn’t use this word, but the church has called this supernatural act “regeneration.” Regeneration is solely the work of God to create in the sinner new spiritual life in union with Jesus. God doesn’t just improve of a life that was present before; he gives us spiritual life that never existed before.
The Old Testament spoke of this in terms of getting a new heart. By nature we’re hardened toward God. Our wills are dead to God. We’re not inclined to listen to or obey his word. Morally speaking, we’re bent in on ourselves. But God has the power to summon new life into our soul, give us a new, humble heart that treasures Jesus and loves doing God’s will. The New Testament calls this the new birth, new creation, life from the dead, passing from darkness to light, and so on.
Basis = God’s own will
The basis of our regeneration is God—“of his own will he brought us forth.” It’s not something we do for ourselves. It’s a supernatural work that happens to us. We had about as much to do with our regeneration as Lazarus did with his life when Jesus called him out of the tomb—nothing. Many of us likely remember the glorious day when we chose to follow Christ. But what’s even more glorious about that day is that in and behind your choosing Christ is God’s choosing you. God brought you forth.
Means = word of truth
And the means he used, James says, is “by the word of truth.” Our regeneration wasn’t due to our works but to God’s will. And it also wasn’t done by our wisdom but by God’s word. James calls it “the word of truth”—which Ephesians 1:13 says is the gospel of our salvation (cf. 1 Pet 1:23, 25). It’s the word of God in the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ that gives life to people.
Consider with me the good news of Christ’s power over sin and temptation. That’s been our subject today. Our problem is that in Adam, we’re all born with rebel passions. We have an inherent desire to do evil. If humanity was ever to be saved, we must have another Adam, who was like us in our humanity but not like us in our fallen-ness.
Jesus is that new and greater Adam. He was born holy. Jesus was free of all sin. He was free of actual sin—all that he desired, thought, spoke, and did conformed exactly to the will of God. And he was free of all inherent sin—he had no internal impulse to sin. He wasn’t ever tempted by rebel desires within because he had none. No desire of his own would have ever conceived sin, because all his desires were constantly in tune with the Father.
Sure, Jesus felt the appeal of the sinful proposals to thwart his affections for the Father, to doubt his own Sonship, to abandon his mission—the loud cries and drops of blood in Gethsemane tell us that much. But never was he tempted by anything within himself. He wasn’t lured and enticed by his own evil desire (Jas 1:14). As Hebrews tells us, Jesus is one who, because of his likeness to us, has been tested every way, only without sin (Heb 4:15).
That qualifies Jesus to be the superior representative of a new humanity set free from the bondage of sin. That qualifies Jesus to be the sacrifice for your sins—by his blood you are cleansed. That qualifies Jesus to become your great High Priest who is able to sympathize with your weakness and give you exactly what you need to overcome temptation. That qualifies Jesus to be victorious over the devil’s temptations, so that anyone united to him by faith shares in the same victory—“you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one,” John says (1 John 2:14).
That’s good news to preach to yourself when you’re facing temptation, or when you fall into sin. That’s good news for anybody in here that needs rescue from rebel passions, rescue from sin, rescue from death. Trust in the one who has no rebel passions to save you. Trust in the one who never sinned but died for sins to save you. Trust in the one who died your death and then rose again to save you.
Victory over temptation and sin comes not by self-sufficiency but by the sinless Savior. He is the good news; and this is the word of truth that God uses to create in us new spiritual life—from beginning to end.
Goal = firstfruits of new-creation glory
And speaking of the end, James also develops the goal of our regeneration: “that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” That is to say, the church is an outcropping of the new creation. God created the church to display his purposes in restoring the cosmos. As Mark Dever has stated it more recently, “There’s one place we should look for the firstfruits of heaven on earth: the local church. It’s where we catch the first glimpses of heaven’s springtime blossoms.” What’s God’s goal for you, believer? New-creation glory.
When trial comes into your life and you’re tempted to question God’s goodness and give-in to sin, remember his grace in regeneration. He made you alive and set you on a trajectory for new-creation glory. That’ll keep you going when everything in you just wants to quit in trial. God’s grace doesn’t stop with making us a new creation; it will bring us into the new creation. The end of your regeneration isn’t sin and death; it’s a new morality that reflects the glory of a new creation of which you’re already a part.
So, to sum up where we’ve been, we can say this. The conclusion that says in trial, “I am being tempted by God,” is wrong. First, because it misrepresents God’s character—he is holy and immutable in generosity toward us. Second, because it fails to admit the sinfulness of man—we are responsible for our rebel passions. And now third, because it forgets the grace of God toward his people. It loses sight of who he’s made us to be, the firstfruits of a people who will one day be without wayward desires in a new creation full of passion for God’s glory.
Never blame God or find fault in him in our sin
So, let me now close with just a few exhortations based on where we’ve been. First, we must never blame God or find fault with him in our sin. If we fall into sin, we have only ourselves to blame. And that’s important to remember in an age where it’s very common for people to blame everything else for their sin except themselves. Our stance must be one of brokenness and humility over our own sin. Christians should be the first to take responsibility for their sin, and not place the blame elsewhere—like on God or on the circumstances or people he brings into our lives.
And by doing this, we will be setting before others a true picture of the fallen human condition. Our brokenness over our own sin and over the church’s sin will help others see that man is truly fallen and in need of a Savior. If we’re accountable for our rebel passions and our sin, then we need someone to save us—enter the gospel.
Put to death our rebel desires
Second, we must put to death our rebel desires. The puritans used to talk about mortification and vivification as crucial parts of the Christian life—putting to death sin and walking in godliness. John Owen would say, “Always be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” The apostle Paul says it this way: “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” (Rom 8:13).
James highlights the need for Christians to fight with all their might not to give-in to their rebel desires. And from some of the experiences I’ve had giving-in to my own wayward desires, from some of the pain I’m walking through right now as a pastor seeing the effects of sin in people’s lives and marriages and parenting and health, we cannot grow apathetic in our fight against sin. All that sin brings is death. If we truly grasped that death and a loss of experiencing more of Christ’s beauty—if we knew that stood behind every evil impulse, what might our fight against sin look like?
Preach the word of truth to yourself and others
Third, preach the word of truth to yourself and others. If you’re wondering how to put to death your rebel desires, this is the answer. We don’t just say No! to temptation. We must also set our minds on the truth of God’s word. We must fight with supernatural wisdom, not human wisdom. We get that in the Bible.
We see here that God uses the word of truth to bring new life—and how I wish I had the time to develop this even more from Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones coming alive at the word of God and the Spirit’s breath. How does God summon new life into dead people? How does the Spirit awaken faith? He does it with a word, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
God’s word gives new life. Don’t neglect to give yourself to it often. Don’t listen to the flesh that will pack your day so full that you’re not giving time to the word of truth. Don’t be lured away from your study of his word by the latest text message or Facebook update. Find ways to make it part of your steady diet. Memorize it. Wield it like a sword. And then speak it into the lives of others. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.
Exhort each other as a community
Lastly, we must exhort each other as a community. Look at verse 16: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” We shouldn’t deceive ourselves by thinking that God isn’t good, or that God won’t provide. He’s holy and unwavering in his generosity toward us. But look more closely at the exhortation: “Do not be deceived, my beloved…”
What’s driving this exhortation? Love. Love for the brothers and sisters. Listen to Alec Motyer comment on verse 16: “Note how the addition of beloved strikes the note of urgency. The rich love which links believer with believer prompts concern for spiritual warfare, and issues in a call to be clear-headed and open-eyed as to the realities of the situation.” Does our love for one another prompt concern for spiritual warfare? If it doesn’t, how much are we loving one another?
The Lord’s Supper is a great place to remember Christ’s concern for all his people. And it’s a great place to remember how much Christ’s concern for all his people should also become our own.
More in James: Living the Implanted Word
October 9, 2016Gospel Truth & the Church's Role in the Saint's Perseverance
October 2, 2016A Church Filled with Righteous Words: Praise, Prayer, Confession
August 28, 2016The Need for Patient Endurance