Results tagged “Temptation” from Reformation21 Blog

Keeping Desire and Temptation in Their Place


In the history of theological debate, one of the most important steps towards doctrinal clarity involves getting the terminology right. The ancient church sorted through the Trinitarian debate by clarifying the distinction between "essence" and "person." Likewise, the Reformation haggled over the proper meaning of "righteousness" and "justification."

A similar need has now arisen in 21st century, as Christians respond to the sexual challenges of postmodernity. In this case, the key terms are "desire" and "temptation." We need a clear understanding of these biblical terms in order to address the matter biblically, especially when it comes to heated debates regarding same-sex attraction (SSA). For instance, the question is raised as to whether a same-sex attracted person must mortify his or her desires. Likewise, denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) have wrestled over whether a person may soundly self-identify as a "gay Christian."

As these matters are debated, the two sides often speak of "desire" and "temptation" in differing ways. When it comes to SSA, we frequently hear, "There is nothing sinful about being tempted." Defenders of an SSA identity assert, "Even Jesus was 'tempted in every way' (Heb. 4:15), just as we are."

These arguments, however, often involve a category confusion between "desire" and "temptation." A key verse here is James 1:14. The prior verse denies that God is the source of temptation to sin: "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God'" (Ja. 1:13). James then adds: "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire" (Ja. 1:14). A study of "tempted" and "desire" in this verse will help us keep the concepts straight.

The Greek word for temptation is peirasmos, or in its verb form peirazo. If we consult the standard Greek dictionary, we find that is basic meaning is that of "testing." According to Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich (BAG), peirazo means "to make a trial of" or "put to the test." Likewise, a peirasmos is a test or trial. Peter uses its to say: "you have been grieved by various trials" (1 Pet. 1:6). These trials may have various features, including trials that God wills for the blessing of his people (never to incite them into sin, as James insists). The same word is translated "tempted" or "temptation," when the trial involves an inducement to sin. Matthew 4:1 uses a form of peirazo to describe Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. The key feature of this biblical word for "temptation" is that it is an event rather than a disposition. Temptation is something that happens outside a person, rather than inside.

A proper definition of temptation helps us to understand what it means that Jesus "in every respect has been tempted as we are" (Heb. 4:15). The writer of Hebrews was not indicating that Jesus had an inner turmoil over disordered or sinful desires. The reason that Jesus was tempted as we are, "yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15), is that his desires and affections were perfect and holy. Yet Jesus suffered under temptation in a variety of sinless ways. For instance, his hunger was tormented when Satan tempted him to misuse his divine prerogative (Mt. 4:3). Likewise, Jesus' patience and his holy will suffered when "the Pharisees and Sadducees came, . . . to test him" (Mt. 16:1). 

To say that Jesus was tempted is not to say that he struggled with inward sinful desires. It is certainly a false analogy to posit - as has been done in the SSA debate - an analogy between a person's inward struggle over same-sex attraction (or any other sinful desire, for that matter) and Jesus' struggle with temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus' torment over temptation involved what was going to happen to him rather than sinful desires in him.

James' second key word in James 1:14 is desire. He insists that temptation leads to sin when one is "lured and enticed by his own desire." The Greek word here is epithumia, which has a standard translation of "desire, longing, or craving" (BAG). While the word can be used in a neutral or even positive sense, its overwhelming use in the New Testament is that of sinful desires and cravings. Whereas temptation is an event happening outside us, desire is a disposition acting within us. When we find that sinful desire is operating within us - in a fleeting sense or as a settled disposition - the Christian's calling is to repent of desire while seeking the inward cleansing that God provides by his grace (1 Cor. 6:9-11). James writes that it is desire which conceives and "gives birth to sin" (Ja. 1:15), so sinful desire is the prime target of the inward mortification that is so necessary to a Christian's sanctification.

If we keep desire and temptation in their proper biblical place, this will help us to focus where James and the rest of the Bible directs our attention. We have, in general, little to no control over temptation - external events that may incite us into sin. Neither do we control our desires, such is the plight of our fallen state! But we do have the means of grace to apply to our sinful desires through faith, trusting God's power and mercy to work inward change in coordination with our active, faith-driven effort. These sinful desires encompass the entire lexicon of the fallen condition, including greed, pride, hatred, and lust. In many cases, these desires are tightly woven into our character in ways that we may not even understand. 

How wonderful it is, then, that we are loved by a God of supernatural grace, with power to heal, cleanse, and make holy. For many of us, the grace of mortification will play out slowly and painfully over a long course of life, with many discouragements along the way - those who struggle with same-sex attraction often chronicle this struggle, to which we should respond with loving encouragement in the Lord. But struggle we must, seeking to keep desire in its place - which is to say, in the grave where Jesus died to put an end to sin.

The trouble is not with temptation itself, but with the sinful, disordered desires within, which is why the grace of God commands us:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  In these you too once walked, when you were living in them.  But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth (Col. 3:5-8).

Richard D. Phillips (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, South Carolina. He is a council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and coeditor of the Reformed Expository Commentary series.

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Of Fire Extinguishers and Temptation


In the state of New Jersey, in order for a certificate of occupancy to be issued, a fire extinguisher is required to be placed within 10 feet of the kitchen in every single or two family dwelling. We have one mounted on the wall just around the corner from our stove and oven. I know where it is. I know it is charged. I know how to use it, though I've never used one. But if the need ever arose, it is there to stop a fire from getting out of control and destroying my home. I'm glad it is there.

While I am glad the fire extinguisher is there, I never actually think about using it. I have never started cooking with the thought, "How far can I go in burning my meal before I need to pull that fire extinguisher out?" Never, not even once, have I started sautéing my vegetables and thought, "I'm just going to leave these here on high, because if they go up in flames, I've got the fire extinguisher." And yet, I frequently encounter this attitude when it comes to sin.

When I worked with college and high school students, the question I often got from guys in dating relationships was, "How far is too far?" How far, physically, could he go before it was sin? That is like asking, "How far can I burn my food before I need the fire extinguisher?" How many drinks can I have before it is too many? How much skin can I see on screen before it is too much? How flirtatious can I be with a co-worker before it is too far? How much can I take before it is considered stealing? How much can I say before it is gossip? We don't want to outright sin. But we frequently want to toe the line as closely as possible.

In Mark 10, the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce. "It is lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" Jesus responds by asking what Moses commanded. They reply with what Moses allowed. Did you catch the difference? Did you see how the Pharisees wanted to toe right up to the line? They answered by looking at a passage in Deuteronomy 24 that allowed for divorce in particular circumstances in order to protect the woman. It was a provision in the law to account for man's sin. It was not a license for sin. The Pharisees failed to understand this fundamental point, so their answer centered on what Moses allowed, not on what Moses commanded.

Moses' command goes all the way back to the created order. In Genesis 1 & 2, God created man and woman. He created them to complement one another. They fit together. Tangentially, for those who argue that Jesus does not address the issues of same-sex marriage, they are wrong. Jesus explains the nature and purpose of marriage by looking at the fundamental and essential order of male and female. Moses, as the author of Genesis, commanded the order and nature of marriage by pointing out the priority of one's spouse over other relationships. He highlighted the one flesh nature of marriage. And implicitly he condemned the violence that divorce does to that one flesh. The law did allow divorce because of the hardness of man's heart, but the law, through Moses, commanded, "what therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."

The Westminster Divines understood the weaselly nature of our hearts. We want to get right up to the line. We want to see how far can we go before we need the fire extinguisher. Before providing the biblical grounds that allow for divorce, they warn, "Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage..." (WCF 24.6). Yes, there may be circumstances that warrant divorce. But our sinful hearts will want to figure out and "study arguments unduly" so that we can get as close to sin as we can without getting singed.

Divorce is common enough that we have all been touched by it. And yet it is not so common, thankfully, that all have personally struggled with it. But I believe this fire extinguisher principle applies in a number of more common situations. There is the clear command of God's Word and then there is what we want to argue is allowed. The allure of toeing up to that line is strong. Yet James 1 gives us an important warning. "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). James describes a dangerous slide that leads to a deadly end. Perhaps when we are toeing up to the line of sin, we are not exercising Christian liberty, but we are intentionally enflaming a desire for sin. The result of that is not good. We would never go to the kitchen with the intention of getting as close as possible to the point of needing the fire extinguisher. We know it isn't right. But sometimes we do treat sin that way. And sin will get out of control and destroy a home quicker than a fire. Better to follow what God commands than to toe the line of sin.

Donny Friederichsen is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Short Hills, N.J. He serves as the editor for the Gospel Reformation Network.

Being Pence-ive about Dinner with the Ladies


Adultery among any people group is a serious and dreadful act in this fallen world. In fact, in an increasingly fatherless culture where divorce is becoming more and more the rule rather than the exception, one would argue that this is empirically verifiable. When a pastor, who is supposed to be the undershepherd of the people of God commits the sin of adultery, however, it is especially egregious and brings deep shame upon the Gospel, ruins his local congregation, and is an assault on the purity of Christ's Church.

I was ordained to pastoral ministry last November. It was, at the same time, the one year anniversary of my own mentor's departure from the ministry. This man left ministry because of his serious, adulterous moral failings. That same year another prominent minister left his church in Florida for similar reasons. Earlier that year a flood of pastors (and laymen) suffered the consequences of having their families broken apart because their online marital infidelity was exposed in the sight of the world. If there is anything that I learned from that flood of nightmares that took place around me leading up to my ordination, it was that no one is above sin. No one is so strong as to be immune to falling into temptation.

Earlier this week Vice President Mike Pence made news when it was revealed that, as a rule, he doesn't dine alone with a woman who isn't his wife, nor does he attend events with alcohol unless she's by his side. This revelation was met roundly with ridicule, mockery, and in some quarters accusations of misogyny--sadly, even among quite a number of fellow believers on social media.

As soon as I saw the headlines, I realized that if the world thinks Pence is weird, to quote my favorite version of the Joker, "Wait til they get a load of me." The fact is, this sounds not only like my own life and practice, but also like many (if not most) of my friends in pastoral ministry. After all, we've watched innumerable ministers fall like dominoes, as their families fall apart and their decades long marriages come to an end. All I can think is, "Why would we not seek to be as careful as possible in order to preserve the honor of Christ, as well as our wives and families?"

Does this mean that a pastor who has a policy similar to this can't have godly and mature relationships with sisters in the Lord? Does it mean that we are not allowed to foster friendships with the opposite sex? Certainly not. Anyone who draws such a conclusion, I suspect, is working with more of a caricature than real life. There are many practical things that a pastor can put in place, generally exercising common sense (e.g. having windows in his office, keeping others nearby when he has meetings, letting his wife know when and where he is meeting with another woman, etc.).

Women are ultimately not the problem. Women are not de facto the enemies of married men. Rather, all men are easily seduced by their own hearts. James tells us that: "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire" (James 1:14). When a man (like Mike Pence) does his level best to never be in isolation with another woman, he isn't necessarily saying something about the woman; he is saying something about his own heart. He is functionally saying, "I am not always strong. I am never self-sufficient. I don't want to give a place for sin to happen, or for others to even think that a sin has happened."

I recently preached a sermon in which I compared the sin of Judas (which was premeditated and extremely well thought out) to the sin of Peter (which was spontaneous and unexpected). In contrast to Judas, Peter was shocked by his own sin. Why did Peter swear over and over again that he would rather die than deny Jesus? Because at the moment, he wasn't planning to deny Jesus. Just because we aren't premeditating a sin doesn't mean that we aren't capable of or liable to commit it. Peter learned that lesson the hard way.

I am not suggesting that all men (or, even all pastors) must take the same steps as Vice President Pence. I am, however, insisting that men who make a similar course of action their policy not be accused of wrongdoing by those who do not. For some, what the Vice President does may be considered too careful. For some it may be seen to be above and beyond what they consider reasonable. Some may even mock such men and tell them that they are "scared" or "afraid" or "insecure." It's never possible to completely stop people from putting a nasty spin on your decisions to safeguard the church, your life, or your family. However, I've witnessed enough men, in my own life, who have become statistics--men who are still shattered by the sin in their own lives--that I refuse to treat anyone who exercises such care with disdain or disrespect.

Adam Parker is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church in Pearl, Mississippi. He has an Mdiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and is the Associate Editor of Reformation 21.
"This chapter contains a most memorable narrative." Thus Calvin introduces his readers to Gen. 22, that text which records God's instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, the long-awaited fulfillment of God's promise and source of Abraham's profound joy.

Calvin's subsequent comments on this "narrative" are remarkable when considered against the backdrop of pre-Reformation reflection on the text in question. Given the rather astonishing divine imperative issued to Abraham in the text -- an imperative which, at least on the surface, appears to contradict God's own prohibition of murder as embodied in both natural and revealed law -- Gen. 22 had figured prominently in medieval debates about the relationship of God to good (and vice versa), the relationship between God's will and God's character vis-à-vis God's law, and so on. Showing noteworthy restraint, Calvin denies such medieval disputes so much as a nod when he meets God's commandment to Abraham in Gen. 22.2 to "take your son, your only son, whom you love -- Isaac -- and ... sacrifice him." Calvin chooses, rather, to focus on the extraordinary nature of the test Abraham is thus set, and the extraordinary nature of the faith Abraham subsequently evidences as he endures that test. All this, for Calvin, towards the end of establishing an example of patient faith and confidence in God's providence for believers today. Indeed, no chapter in Calvin's entire commentary on Genesis contains more frequent reference to the need "for every one of us to apply... to himself" the "example" of virtuous activity encountered in the biblical narrative.

Calvin identifies multiple layers to the test that Abraham, at God's initiative, is set in this text. At the most basic level, Abraham faces the loss of his son, and that by "a violent death," an abhorrent prospect to any good parent. But aggravating the pain of this prospect is the reality that Abraham has only recently lost his other son, Ishmael. Indeed, when God refers to Isaac as Abraham's "only son" (vs. 2) in this text, Calvin reckons that God purposefully "irritates the wound recently inflicted by the banishment of his other son." Abraham's divinely dictated course of action is made even more dreadful, of course, by the fact that Abraham himself is the intended author of the violence awaiting his remaining son. "It was sad for him to be deprived of his only son, sadder still that this one should be torn away by a violent death, but by far most grievous that he himself should be appointed as the executioner to slay him with his own hand."

Calvin judges the ingredients of Abraham's agony mentioned thus far rather trivial -- or in his words "mere play, or shadows of conflict" -- in comparison to two further, more critical components of Abraham's distress. There is, first of all, the reality that Isaac embodies God's promise of redemption to the world. Thus God's command to "slay him" must have seemed to Abraham a requirement "not only to throw aside, but to cut in pieces, or cast into the fire, the charter of his [own] salvation, and to have nothing left for himself but death and hell." Abraham is essentially ordered to assume the role of humankind's salvation slayer.

But most painful of all the to Patriarch in Calvin's estimation was that God's commandment to slay Isaac seemed so obviously at odds with God's promise of redemption through Isaac, and thus raised questions for Abraham about the character and intention of God Himself. This, Calvin judges, is what ultimately constitutes the core of the "labyrinth of temptation" in which Abraham finds himself. "God, in a certain sense, assumes a double character, that, by the appearance of disagreement and repugnance in which He presents Himself in his word, He may distract and wound the breast of the holy man.... It was difficult and painful to Abraham to forget that he was a father... by becoming the executioner of his son. But [this] was a far more severe and horrible thing; namely, that he conceives God to contradict Himself and His own word." In sum, Abraham faced not only the loss of his own son and his salvation, but also the God whom he had come to trust and love over the course of the preceding decades. That God now threatened to prove an adversary, if not a capricious monster.

Calvin rounds out his consideration of Abraham's anguish by noting that God bids Abraham slay his son not in Abraham's back yard, but on a mountain three days' journey from his current location. "The bitterness of grief is not a little increased by this circumstance. For God does not require him to put his son immediately to death, but compels him to revolve this execution in his mind during three whole days, that in preparing himself to sacrifice his son, he may still more severely torture all his own senses." Calvin compares this "delay" between God's command and its intended fulfillment to being "stretched upon the rack," thus referencing one of early modernity's most notable forms of torture, made (in)famous by the Spanish Inquisition.

So how does Abraham find his way through and out of this "labyrinth of temptation"? In Calvin's judgment, Abraham's faith throughout this trial (and thus also his obedience) is sustained less by God's word of promise (regarding his progeny and mankind's salvation) and more by his convictions regarding God's wisdom, mercy, and providence. God's commandment to him, to all appearances, contradicts and annuls God's promise to him, and so renders God's promise unsure footing, as it were, for his faith. Abraham does of course speculate that God might (immediately) resurrect Isaac after his sacrifice, and so yet fulfill his promise to and through Isaac, but he has no certain word from God regarding this. In the final analysis, then, Abraham simply and doggedly maintains his confidence that God knows what he is up to, and that God's sovereign government of this world and its affairs is informed by infinite wisdom and mercy, no matter circumstances that point to the contrary. "His mind must of necessity have been severely crushed, and violently agitated, when the command and the promise of God were conflicting within him. But when he had come to the conclusion, that the God with whom he knew he had to do could not be his adversary, although he did not immediately discover how the contradiction might be removed, he nevertheless, by hope, reconciled the command with the promise, because being indubitably persuaded that God [is] faithful, he left the unknown issue to Divine Providence. Meanwhile, as with closed eyes, he goes whither he is directed."

The biblical narrative of Abraham's trial and obedience ultimately, then, provides Calvin opportunity to reinforce a point that he has made previously in his Genesis commentary; namely, that in the journey which is the Christian life, our faith must occasionally look to and lean upon God's character rather than a particular word of divine promise. Abraham illustrates this point in a unique fashion, since his particular dilemma is not that he lacks a divine word, but that he finds that word in (apparent) contradiction to itself. The lesson Calvin thus discerns in Abraham's trial is most pertinent in our day. Too often in times of uncertainty and testing in life we are more prone to manufacture a divine word of promise than to lean upon God's character and sovereignty and move forward in faith. Thus we become an oracle to ourselves, glossing our own prophetic promises to ourselves as divine, when what God actually requires from us is not absolute certainty about our steps forward, but confidence that his sovereign purpose and love surround us as we take those steps.

Or as Calvin more elegantly puts it: "Many things are perpetually occurring to enfeeble our purpose: means fail, we are destitute of counsel, all avenues seem closed. In such straits, the only remedy against despondency is to leave the event to God, in order that he may open a way for us where there is none. For as we act unjustly towards God when we hope for nothing from him but what our senses can perceive, so we pay Him the highest honor, when, in affairs of perplexity, we nevertheless entirely acquiesce in his providence."

The Adversary and the Intercessor

I love the hymn "Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners" - but one line makes me uncomfortable every time I sing it: "Jesus! What a strength in weakness! Let me hide myself in him; tempted, tried, and sometimes failing, he, my strength, my vict'ry wins." Sometimes failing? How about many times...often...frequently? I need the strength of Jesus every day because I am incredibly weak and full of sin. My heart is covered with more than enough nooks and crannies on which Satan can get a handhold through temptation to pull me down.

Recently, the words of Jesus to Peter in Luke 22:31-32 have been a source of great comfort to me in my struggle against sin and temptation: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." In these verses we see two prayer requests - Satan's demand to shake us to pieces, and Jesus' intercession to uphold us when we fall. We see as well the ministry that results due to the prayer of Jesus. In the experience of Peter's denial of Jesus and his repentance, our hearts find hope.

Several things stand out from Jesus' opening words to Simon Peter - "Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat..." First, notice that Satan's request is violent: he desired to sift the disciples (the "you" in Luke 22:31 is plural) like wheat, shaking them through a sieve, as it were, breaking them to pieces, and bringing them to ruin. Just as he was permitted to assault Job and his family violently, so Satan is allowed to afflict the eleven, and Peter in particular, with grievous effect. He seeks to devour us as well, and so we must be watchful (I Peter 5:8). Second, recognize that God at times grants Satan's requests and accedes to his "demands," at least in part. Though the Scriptures are clear that God is never the source of sin or temptation (James 1:13-15), yet it is plain from the disciples' experience following these words that the sovereign God, while not allowing Satan to "have" His elect ultimately, is willing to give us over to Satan's temptations. This is a sobering reality, and in part should lead us never to be surprised when we fall into grievous sin. To be sure, we ought never to be satisfied in or content with our sin, for which we are always responsible - yet we shouldn't be surprised by it either. Third, never forget that Satan must ask permission of God to tempt and try us. We see this reality in the experience of Job (Job 1:6ff.), and here in the life of the disciples. Satan does not have absolute, sovereign sway over us, but is limited - he prowls about like a roaring lion, yes, but he is a lion on a leash. There is comfort in knowing that Satan cannot do to us whatever he might wish, but must submit to the will of our loving heavenly Father.

We also find incredible hope in the fact that while Satan our adversary desires our harm, Jesus our Priest intercedes for us: "...but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail." If the shaking of Satan is terrifying, even more assuring is the praying of Jesus! Jesus prays for Peter in particular (the pronoun here is singular), knowing that he will bear the brunt of the devil's assaults, and must rise to lead the weary band of disciples after the resurrection. He prays that Peter's faith will not give out totally. If Peter were left to his own strength and pride, surely he, like Judas, would fall and never get up again. But He who always lives to intercede for the saints (Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:34) knows and can sympathize with our weaknesses, since He has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He knows our peculiar sin struggles, and knows how to pray most pointedly in our time of need. The prayers of Jesus are effectual, and they are fervent. Therefore "the righteous man falls seven times, and rises again" (Proverbs 24:16). Our hope in time of temptation is not found within ourselves, but in the heavenly throne room, where the Lord rebukes the accuser, clothes us with His righteousness in place of our sin, and empowers us to walk in His ways with greater and greater delight every day (see Zechariah 3:1-7).

That brings us to the final thing Jesus' words to Peter teach us: when we are tempted and actually fall, the prayers of Jesus on our behalf drive us to repentance and ministry to others in their time of weakness (cf. I Samuel 12:19ff.). "And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." Jesus' words prophesy not only Peter's denials, but his reaffirmation of faith (see John 21); and they lay out his mission of encouragement, reinforcing, and helping the weak (cf. I Thessalonians 5:14). God's purposes in allowing Satan to sift us like wheat are many. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, "The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends" (WCF 5.5). One of the "sundry other" goals of God in leaving us to ourselves is to equip us with patience, understanding, and ability to support those who would fall around us. He equips us for ministry through our own failures. He turns our evil to good.

Are you tempted, tried and frequently failing? Hear Jesus: though God allows Satan to shake you, Jesus is praying for you, that your faith will not fail. So when you fall, get up, and turn your trial against your enemy, using it for the good of those around you, and the glory of God.

A Virtual Reality Check


Just a few weeks ago, the Oculus Rift started shipping out its Kickstarter units. These virtual reality (VR) headsets have been anticipated for years, especially since Facebook bought the parent company in 2014. At the risk of using a tired word, this new technology will likely become disruptive. So it behooves Christians to ready their minds for this revolution. How should we think about virtual reality?

Like any technology, virtual (or augmented) reality devices offer incredible benefits, yet pose dangerous risks if used wrongly - that is, without concern for real reality, other people, or holiness to the glory of God. In a fallen world, there are always tradeoffs, and since fallen image bearers will be the agents utilizing these headsets, as well as creating the digital content, platforms and experiences, there will be opportunities for both good and evil.

The good that VR devices offer is most apparent in the area of connection and communication. Mark Zuckerberg, announcing Facebook's purchase of Oculus VR, pointed in this direction: "This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures...Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home." Facetime is great - but what if I could feel like I was actually in the room with you? What if I could immerse myself in the world of those who had suffered, as the New York Times did with its video "Displaced," about three young girls forced from their homes by war? New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein suggests, "What is that connecting to characters, to individuals, is one of the real unique qualities of virtual reality." This technology can be used to increase our empathy, our knowledge of the past and the present, and our relationships with loved ones far away.

As Zuckerberg mentions, it seems virtual reality will also become a staple of education, entertainment, gaming, and medicine, not to mention news media information delivery, home buying, travel experiences, research, military training and battle, and whatever else the creativity of man can come up with. Virtual reality devices, then, are one more expression of our obedience to the cultural mandates to subdue and exercise dominion over the earth God created (Genesis 1:28).

Yet these devices must be used with care - not only because of the motion sickness they sometimes cause, but even more because of the spiritual threats they can pose to the unprepared. We will soon be able to communicate in new ways, to be sure. But at what cost? Ironically, the same technologies that connect can also isolate us from relationships. If you are concerned that the members of your family are all staring at their screens instead of engaging one another in conversation, how much more when they are all wearing their VR goggles immersing themselves in their own reality? A television can keep us from true communication, to be sure, but at least everyone often watches the same thing together. Perhaps the technology will advance to enable multiple goggles to share an experience, but it seems more likely at the current time to detract from family cohesiveness rather than contribute toward it.

Along these lines, the use of VR devices for video gaming will only amplify the struggle for those who are already inclined to idolize this hobby to the expense of their family and real reality. A husband who is addicted to an online universe on a screen for hours on end today will tomorrow be able to put on his goggles and be even more disengaged from his wife and children. Not all will succumb to this temptation, but it will be present.

One of the clear possibilities for temptation is in the area of sexuality. The New York Post has termed our day "the Golden Age of masturbation." VR devices will present all manner of opportunities to experience virtual sex, enjoying by yourself (or with an illicit partner) what God has created to be enjoyed with your spouse, and only with your spouse. Are our youth prepared for Satan's attacks through this new tool?

More foundational than even relationships and sexuality are the effects of virtual reality on core aspects of our humanity. As these devices become more accessible, real reality may become less appealing, and the temptation to avoid or escape the difficulties of this life will beset us. The 2009 movie "Surrogates," starring Bruce Willis, is a dystopian vision of how virtual reality can enable us to shut out the real reality of embodied life, living in the here and now in a particular place around particular people. Gnosticism is alive and well in 2016, and the desire to escape our finitude and our bodies is palpable. This is not to say that every desire to do the impossible is wrong. For someone to travel virtually to a place that they will never be able to see actually, or for someone who is wheelchair bound to be able to experience riding a roller coaster, is a rich blessing of human ingenuity and labor. Yet are we aware of the ways in which our technologies can lead us to forget that we are "frail children of dust, and feeble as frail"? That our Savior in the body could only be at one place at one time? That an embodied state is of the essence of our humanity, now and in the age to come?

As with all technologies, we must exercise self-control and sobriety. Paul's words in I Corinthians 6:12 apply well: "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything." May the Lord grant us wisdom to use virtual reality for His glory.


Navigating Dangers and Temptations in Ministry

Throughout my twenty-plus years of following Jesus Christ and serving in His church, I have repeatedly seen pastors disqualify themselves for ministry. The moral failures of such ministers have led to confusion, pain, and even a crisis of faith for many. Of course, there are those who occupy a very public ministry who fail, but I have seen just as many, if not more, who crash and burn in smaller local churches. I have witnessed, first-hand, as denominational leaders, pastors, and Sunday School teachers entangled themselves in sin that could have been avoided. And whenever I see this happening, I am simultaneously saddened, frustrated, and scared. As our church continues to raise up, install or send ministers into pastoral ministry, I find the need to address this issue all the more pressing. Not merely the failure of public ministers, but the danger we all face as leaders. Do not be deceived, we are all tempted in ways that can bring far greater destruction to the glory and honor of Christ (not to mention to our family and church members) than we could imagine. The question is, how do we navigate the treacherous waters of such dangers as we seek to serve the church?

There is no simple policy that we can implement to protect us. No promises we make to our wives, nor any programs we install on our computers will save us. Only Jesus saves. But there are four principles that should guide us through the dangers and temptations connected to ministry. In fact, these principles are not only for leaders, but for all of God's people.

Stay Humble

"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).

The real danger of sin and temptation is not so much in the world as it is in our own hearts. Every one of us is capable of grievous sin and rebellion. James reminds us that we are tempted not only by outside influences, but by our own desires which ultimately give birth to sin (James 1:14, 15).

The problem is not that we are ignorant of this truth, but that this theological truth has not sufficiently taken root in our hearts. We agree that it is theoretically possible to fall, but we don't believe it will actually happen to us. We convince ourselves that, for whatever reason, we are beyond the risk of losing our marriages and ministries. We aren't. You aren't. Knowing and embracing the frailty of our own souls is key to depending on the grace of God in all of life. Knowing that we must "take care" lest there be in any of us an evil, unbelieving heart" leads to humility. (Heb 3:12) And it is the humble who know their need of Christ's preserving grace and their hope in the midst of trials and temptations. Be humble, or you will fall.

Stay Safe

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:15-16).

The answer to avoiding sin is not in policies and protocols, but there is wisdom in arranging our lives strategically to avoid unnecessary temptation. 

One of my pastor friends never travels alone when speaking in other locations. He brings another man with him for mutual encouragement and accountability. This brother is a trustworthy and godly man, but he knows his heart and the world well enough to protect himself from even the possibility of danger. Another pastor friend of mine doesn't spend time alone with women who are not his wife. However, life doesn't always cooperate with our protocols, and he found himself in a situation that required him to drive a young lady home. Again, this is a godly man, and let's assume this was an upright lady. Nevertheless, in this situation he immediately phoned his wife to tell her what was happening, but she was unreachable. So he called me to let someone know. 

Staying safe doesn't mean avoiding all danger or secluding ourselves from real-life ministry, but it does require careful, thoughtful living. Living carelessly in the world with a sinful heart will eventually lead anyone into unnecessary temptation and potentially into ruin. I have seen men fall, but I have also seen men falsely accused. A humble heart will encourage us to stay safe.

Stay Honest

"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another..." (James 5:16).

The person who cannot be honest with himself or others is the one who will live out a superficial faith that cannot weather the storms of temptation. We must know our own weaknesses, tendencies, and desires. Knowing our fruit sins (complaining, for example) is good, but discovering the root sins that feed the fruit sin (in the case of complaining, namely, the pride by which we convince ourselves that we deserve better) is more helpful to knowing ourselves and where we need to exercise care. 

Staying honest must go beyond ourselves to include others. Honesty with our spouse, friends, and leadership is one of the means God has given us to curb sin and kill temptation. As repenting, believing saints, we are called to confess our sins to one another, and encourage one another lest we find ourselves hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Staying honest is both personal and communal, and it protects us from pretending we are okay when we are not, and performing as if all that matters is what is going on with us externally.

Stay Close

"Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (James 4:8-10).

The true essence of keeping ourselves from the danger of sin is staying close to God by faith in Christ. This is the ongoing work of communion, or abiding in Christ (John 15:1-5). Those who are actively seeking the things above, where Christ is, are those who are not distracted by the enticements of the flesh or the devil. 

Staying close to God is found in the exhortation to "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:23). John Flavel once helpfully explained what it means to keep our hearts in his classic book, Keeping the Heart. He wrote, "By keeping the heart, understand the diligent and constant use of all holy means to preserve the soul from sin, and maintain its sweet and free communion with God."

We can preserve our souls from sin and maintain an experiential closeness to God through "all holy means", or what is commonly called "the means of grace." The ministry of the word, prayer, corporate worship, etc. are the means by which God exposes our sin, shows us our need for Christ, and increases our faith. Those who wander from God's means are far less likely to run to Him in their hour of need.

Christians fall (Prov. 24:16). Pastors fail. But much of our trouble can be avoided by remaining humble, living carefully, maintaining honesty, and drawing near to God. May His grace abound in each of us and protect us from the danger in the world, and the more subtle dangers that lurk in our hearts.

Joe Thorn is the founding and Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL, and the author of Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself (Crossway/ReLit). He was a contributor to The Story ESV Bible and The Mission of God Study Bible. Joe is a graduate of Moody Bible Inst. (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv). Joe blogs at He and his wife Jen have four children. You can find Joe on Twitter at @joethorn.
When we are tempted to sin, to what or to whom do we look? The standard answer, which is appropriate, is Christ. We look to him, the great healer and physician, the alpha and omega of our faith, by faith. That lens through which we look to Jesus (i.e., faith) is that intangible reality whereby we receive and rest upon Christ alone for our salvation. Unfortunately, however, our faith is not always strong. It wanders during times of temptation. 

I am sure we all desire to use our faith to look to Jesus during those times, but sometimes our faith is weak. Additionally, during those times of temptation we cannot see our faith nor observe the Christ of our faith, which can be a problem. It might be easier if we could purchase two pounds of faith at the grocery store and place it on our dining room table to remind us of the reality to which it points, but we cannot. It might also be nice if someone could pour a cup of faith for us to jar our minds back to the reality of a crucified and risen savior, especially during times of temptation to sin, but that is not going to happen.

Thankfully, God understands the weakness of our faith. It is an intangible reality that wavers like the waters of the ocean. It sways like the wind during the spring time. Therefore, due to such inconsistencies, the Lord God almighty provided us with tangible realities that grant an objective meaning free from oscillation. In particular, one of two corporeal realities the Lord gave was baptism.

According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, baptism is "a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord's" (WSC 94). This is the objective meaning of baptism. It does not change.

What does this have to do with temptation to sin?

When we are tempted to sin, look to our baptism. Our baptism provides our identity. In the midst of temptation, our faith can waver to the point of feeling nonexistent. It will, then, be extremely difficult to use that same mediocre faith to trust in and rely on the promises of God free from anything tangible. 

Our baptism declares that God has placed his triune name upon us and we are his. He is for us and not against us. In baptism, we are ingrafted into Christ and made a partaker of the benefits of a gracious covenant. 

According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, baptism also announces the "remission of sins by [Christ's] blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life" (WLC 165).

This is who you are. Although the strength of your faith may vary, the announcement of who you are in Christ, as depicted by your baptism, does not. In fact, one of the blessings of baptism is that its reality is demonstrated tangibly. That is, although you cannot see your faith (you may observe the product of it), you can see and feel your baptism. Allow the certainty of the streams of water poured over your head remind you of the certain and sure promises of Christ your savior and your identity in him! 

This ought to help you during times of temptation. When the trees of temptation are standing around you, it is hard to recognize the streams of faith that should lead you out of the forest to Christ. Therefore, look to your baptism. The promises are God are tangibly revealed therein. You felt it; you touched it. And just as sure as you felt those waters of baptism, remember what God did for you and has said about you. When you are tempted to sin, therefore, look to your baptism.

But, pastor, I have a question. Doesn't looking to your baptism require faith to believe the promises signified therein during times of temptation?

Until next time...

Evidence of malevolence

If you wanted evidence of the cruel intelligence and brutal vindictiveness of the Adversary, ask a preacher about the coincidence of his preparations and temptations. You will begin to understand why it was that Luther flung an inkpot at the devil while seeking to translate the Scriptures.

Is he seeking to preach on humility? Opportunities for pride will present themselves. Is he seeking to demonstrate that the true believer's assurance lies, in part, in a development in vital piety and progress in the battle against sin? Be sure that he will be battered with temptations to sins new and old which would rob him of his own sense of peace. Self-control? He will fight with lusts within and without, with gluttony and with laziness. Family life? He will argue with his wife. Patience? Other drivers will prove particularly incompetent on the roads. A peaceable spirit? Annoying people will get involved. Love for the saints? Someone will be obnoxious. Vigour in service? He will fall sick or be tempted to fritter away his time, leading to battles against doubts and despondencies legitimate and illegitimate. Often in the very act of preaching he will be assaulted by blasphemies, lusts, distractions, the very presence of which are calculated to rob him of his assurance, his power, his concentration, his credibility - real temptations to real sins which, if even the temptations and his struggles against them could be seen for a moment, might seem entirely to disqualify him from his office. And if things seem at any point to improve, the voice of pride is quick to suggest that this is down to his plans, his labours, his gifts: "Didn't you do well?"

Alongside of this, in a more generic sense, every effort to reform his own life or to promote increased holiness or zeal in the church will be met with countless distractions and intensified opposition against him and against the church as a whole.

Every high point he seeks to conquer for the Lord Christ he finds more stoutly defended than he ever imagined, and the more intently he pursue his goal the hotter the battle becomes.

In part, this is due to a heightened awareness of sin. As he unpacks the issues, as he studies the strategy and tactics of the enemy, he becomes more conscious of the ways and means employed to contend with the saints. He finds increasing evidence of certain sins in his own life because he is increasingly aware of what to look for; he finds exposed his lack of holiness in a particular area because he is more attuned to what ought to be present. He becomes more conscious of outcrops of sin and lacunae in holiness among the congregation precisely because he is increasingly sensitive to the contours of godliness that ought to be present.

However, this is also because of heightened aggression. Whether in himself or in others, he finds that there is a real battle taking place in the life and service of the Christian, a battle in which he himself is called both to take a prominent part and to set an example. He finds in his own experience as both sheep and under-shepherd the evidence of malevolence, the marks of a cruel will opposing every effort to press on in order that he might lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of him (Phil 3.12). He is left in no doubt that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6.12).

So, let us not underestimate the reality of this spiritual warfare, nor its specific and aggressive manifestations, not least in the life of the man whose particular duty it is to explain, apply and model the godliness which God requires, personally and corporately.  Do not expect the ministry to be a life of ease, but a life of perpetual and increasing striving against sin and for godliness. Pray for your pastors and teachers, that they might withstand in the evil day, and having done all, might stand (Eph 6.13), and so help you to stand also.

Amidst all this evidence of malevolence, where is the evidence of grace? It is right there, in the fact that the preacher is still wrestling, still preaching, still striving, still standing and even renewing his strength so that - contrary to all he deserves and all he might expect and despite all the opposition he faces - he mounts up with wings like eagles, he runs and is not weary, he walks and does not faint (Is 40.31).