Temptation, Desire, Predestination, and Grace – OH MY!

Temptationphoto © 2008 Cliff | more info (via: Wylio)

“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13, NASB.

I want to look at this verse from a slightly different angle. I’ve been listening through a series of lectures on the history of theology, and some major themes have emerged over the years. We have the doctrines of the trinity, the incarnation, grace vs. works, and predestination vs. free will.

I have always been mystified by the attraction of the issue of predestination and free will. Theology seems to obsess over it over all 2000 years of Christianity, and until very recently I could not have possibly been more disinterested. After all, if God predestines things, what is that to me? That is God’s business, and I have nothing to do with it. I can only control what I can do, so even if it ends up to have been predestined all along then how could I have known that? My thought was always, let’s stop talking about this, we can’t possibly know how it works anyway. I haven’t substantially shifted from this position really, but I do have some new thoughts about it all in relation to grace.

We usually think of ‘predestination’ in terms of time. God sees ahead and orchestrates events and then in a way controls what we will do, plans ahead how we will act. Somehow our acts in the future are predetermined.

Upon reflection I don’t really think that time is the primary factor in the question. The real question is, does God control us like puppets, or do we have some form of individual choice; are we really autonomous creatures at all? Has God cut the puppet strings, are we real boys and girls? At the heart of this question is another question – if we are free creatures, how does God interact with us? Can He influence us without transgressing our personal freedom? Can we be autonomous creatures and still have grace in our lives?

In fact, through history two distinct ideas about grace seem to have emerged, and they both hover around these wild notions about predestination and free will. One view of grace is that God chooses, despite merit, to save some people and damn others. That’s right, some ‘hyper-calvinists’ teach that God creates some people to be damned to hell forever no matter what they do. It’s like negative grace. If you think about it, if you believe so strongly in ‘grace’ in this sense that there is no human autonomy, such an idea is inevitable, unless you believe in universal salvation. In that case there’s no need for any of this. This view of ‘grace’ has very little to do with our behavior and everything to do with how we get into heaven at the end of it all.

The other view of grace is that it changes us, such that we have a distinct power to no longer sin. We are still under obligation to be virtuous, but grace empowers us to fulfill this. In fact, because we are predestined, we have “irresistible sanctification” – we can’t help but do right. So we have ‘grace’ to do works, and it is these works which in the end save us. If you continue in your sanctification, then it turns out that you were predestined to do that, and if not – then you were predestined to damnation. Don’t screw up past that mystical ‘non-sanctified’ point or you will prove to have been predestined to damnation! so much for ‘grace’, right?

I don’t really think any of these positions are quite correct. I believe we have introduced by an initiating faith into what Paul calls “this grace in which we stand.” (Romans 5:2)

“Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1, 2, NASB.

What this means is, having believed, we have ready at hand assurance. We can still be tempted, even errant. We stand in grace. Not a grace which ends if we don’t continue in “irresistible sanctification.” We have left the universe of earning wages and entered a universe of gifts.

Now, in the universe of gifts, there are still choices. We are still to strengthen, to cleanse, to build our desire. Our fallenness was all about desire for the forbidden, and our redemption is all about desire for the bidden. This is why temptation is always about an appeal to the desire. Fruit-checking lists such as Galatians 5:19-21 are really about observing the obvious arc of desire in a person’s life. Ultimately, worship is desire set right and idolatry is desire set wrong. Satan understands all of this, and appeals to the desire directly. God also appeals to our desire by offering us grace, and giving us an environment in which we have the opportunity to choose what is right because it is what we want. The temptation, the escape from temptation, works at this level. Consider this verse:

“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.” James 1:13-16, NASB.

See, the temptation is an appeal to the desire, to once again desire the forbidden. Doing the temptation is just the outworking of the real sin, the real flaw, which is desiring it in the first place. In other words, when ‘lust’ is conceived, when errant desire is born, it is inevitable that sin happens.

Here is the thing about our primary verse. Grace dictates that God allows the stage to be set, just as in the garden and just as with Job, for us to be tempted only to the point where our personal autonomy can honestly say yes or no to the desire. This is also possibly a contributing factor to the idea that the Holy Spirit led Jesus and leads others to the wilderness. There must be the opportunity for an autonomous choice to be made for the good. True evil doesn’t just want to kill us, it wants us to lust, to desire the forbidden. Thus, as Jesus, we are led to the wilderness to be tempted, to refine our desire, to freely choose the good. God allows temptation within certain limitations only because He wants the stage to be set for us to choose right, to desire holiness.

This is actually why I am not a calvinist. It is not that I dislike the culture or that I disbelieve in predestination. It is that, however predestination works, it is certainly a mystery, but we can be sure that it would never remove our autonomous freedom to choose the good. God seeks to lead us to the place where we honestly combine the aesthetic good and the moral good in our heart, and this could not happen unless we have the true freedom to act. If we start to postulate that it is God causing us to choose, directing our free will, we are playing God, and claiming understanding of mysteries which are really none of our domain. As Solomon says,

“He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11, NASB.

We are so crafted that we apprehend the infinite while being finite. We grasp and long to know the intricacies of God’s motives and acts, while knowing only what we see and do. We know there must be predestination without ever knowing how to plumb its depths. We know that every explanation, every theology, is incomplete no matter how clever. This is the essence of the nature of being human.

All of this does not mean that a perfection of desire becomes the new law we must submit to. Nothing could be more harsh, more killing. When by faith we come to stand in grace, we are completely absolved of the guilt of every iniquity, every sin, every errant desire. There is no division, we are forgiven all. We are born into and introduced to a desire for something far far greater than the little sins we once longed for. We are led to a perfection of desire because of grace, and allowed situations which test us to a certain point and no further. We are ever loved, ever accepted, ever led to greater gifts and pleasures. The heart which is being perfected by His genius and love is not tested and denied things and allowed to suffer want from any cruelty on His part, but to perfect the heart so to enjoy the immediate and greatest pleasures in the here and now. We are ever loved, and in our finiteness we are led on to the joy of a greater perfection, a perfection which is desired but not demanded. We are wooed and courted into a great and everlasting love.

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One Comment

  1. “Grace dictates that God allows the stage to be set…for us to be tempted only to the point where our personal autonomy can honestly say yes or no to the desire.”

    Well put.

    Here is C.S. Lewis on the time issue:

    “Another difficulty we get if we believe God to be in time is this. Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if He knows I am going to do so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise? Well, here once again, the difficulty comes from thinking that God is progressing along the Time-line like us: the only difference being that He can see ahead and we cannot. Well, if that were true, if God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them. But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call ‘tomorrow’ is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call ‘today.’ All the days are ‘Now’ for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday, He simply sees you doing them: because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not ‘foresee’ you doing things tomorrow, He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way–because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action tin you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already ‘Now’ for Him.”

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