Jonathan Edwards on Temptation
18th Century Theology
April 20, 2006
Sin and temptation are two unfortunate elements that we face daily in our Christian walk. In Jonathan Edwards sermon Temptation and Deliverance, Edwards argues, “Tis our duty not only to avoid those things that are themselves sinful, but also, as far as may be, those things that lead and expose to sin.” Although we are a people bought with the blood of Christ and we are dead to sin and alive unto God, we still battle the temptations of the world. Temptation knocks at the door of our hearts and each day we must ready ourselves to fight it. In Temptation and Deliverance, Edwards proves why we should avoid the things that lead to sin, he identifies the things that lead and expose to sin, and gives a warning for those who are prone to sinful desires and ways. Edwards also provides effective ways to fight the sin that so easily besets us and the reasons why we should pursue a life of holiness.
In Temptation and Deliverance Edwards speaks of sin as “an infinite evil, because it is committed against an infinitely great and excellent being, and so a violation of infinite obligation.” Sin is a deceptive device that Satan uses to bring us false promises that lead to death. Edwards says, “The power of sin is the false promise that it will bring more happiness than holiness will bring.” As Christians, we must fight sin and temptation regularly and we effectively do this by hoping in the promise that we will find our satisfaction in God and his holiness. In order to fight temptation we must have faith in God’s promises. Both Edwards and Piper stress the importance of a certain type of self-love when hoping to have victory over the greatest temptation. This self-love is not the negative type as we would think of it in modern terminology or even how it would have been considered in Edwards’ day. Edwards states, “Self-love, as the phrase is used in common speech, most commonly signifies mans regard to his confined private self, or love to himself with respect to his private interest.” This type of self-love is selfishness and it only desires to satisfy the self without regard to its effect on others. The kind of self-love that Edwards is referring to is that which seeks God within self-love. It must embrace God and all of mankind. In True Virtue, Edwards explains his definition of self-love:
If there could be a cause like self-love determining a person to benevolence towards the whole world of mankind, or even all created sensible natures throughout the universe, exclusive of union of heart to general existence and of love to God- not derived from that temper of mind which disposes to a supreme regard to him, nor subordinate to such divine love it cannot be of the nature of true virtue.
Edwards says that unless self-love flows out of a love for God, we do not have true virtuous self-love. In Charity and Its Fruits, Edwards describes the goodness of self-love by stating:
It is not contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy man’s love to himself and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity. That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is, and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being.
Edward’s views self-love as the root of where our happiness lies. We want to be good to ourselves and find happiness and the only way achieve happiness is to find complete satisfaction in Christ. We are unable to be satisfied in Christ when we are looking to sin to satisfy us. In order to be truly happy and satisfied, it is necessary for each Christian to battle the temptations that threaten to separate us from Christ forever and the contentment we find in him.
In Temptation and Deliverance, Edwards uses the Biblical character Joseph and the temptation he faced in the household of Potiphar to illustrate the sin that besets us as well as the reasons Joseph had to fight sin. The first thing that Edwards notes is the greatness of the temptation. Joseph had risen to a level of high accomplishment in the house of Potiphar. After being sold by his brothers as a slave, God elevated him to a level of high status. Each day, however, his job brought to him the temptation of Potiphar’s wife who seduced him “day after day”. (Gen. 39:10) Joseph was in his youth, a time when temptations of this sort are even stronger in one’s life. There were many reasons why Joseph could have given into the temptation. One in particular is that she was his mistress and he was commanded to obey her. Joseph was wise, however, and knew the proper way to fight the temptation. Genesis 39:12 says that “He left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.” Joseph avoided her and refused to be in her presence. He did not concern himself with the power she held over him and the ability she had to terminate his position of power. Joseph only looked to the Lord to guide him and satisfy him. In Genesis 39:11-12 the situation comes to its ultimate peak. Verses 11 and 12 read, “One day when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house were there in the house, she caught him by the garment, saying, ‘lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand and fled out of the house.” (ESV) It would have been easy for Joseph to give into the temptation since the act could have been committed in secrecy, but Joseph fled and got away from her as fast as he could. Edwards proceeds in his discussion to tell why it is that we should avoid things that tend to sin.
Edwards notes the importance of Joseph being intone with his heart and its proneness to wander. The scriptures tell us that our hearts are extremely and desperately wicked and they betray us to sin. Joseph did not allow himself to be in the presence of temptation and hope that he would not give into it. He did just the opposite and got himself out! He removed himself completely from the sight of temptation because he knew that he could not trust himself to not sin. A side note that Edwards makes before entering the discussion on why we should avoid the things that lead to sin is that sometimes, like Joseph, we must be put into situations that involve temptation. Edwards says that “because it is impossible that persons may be called to expose themselves to temptation; and when it is so, they may hope for divine strength and protection under the temptation.” Edwards says when men are called to duty, they should not run but stay because as Proverbs 10:9 says, “They are always safest in the way of duty.” When we walk uprightly we can be sure that God will provide ways to escape temptation or else deal with it with his strength. The primary focus of Edwards’ discussion is focused towards persons who needlessly expose themselves to temptation.
Edwards gives specific reasons why we should avoid the things that tend to lead to sin. We should be careful to not do things that needlessly expose ourselves to temptation. Rather, we should do the opposite as Joseph did and use the greatest amount caution to escape anything that might lead to evil. Because sin is committed against God, it is the greatest of all evils. There can be no greater evil than the sins we commit against the one who created us. It is our duty as children of God to take careful precautions to give nothing but honor and glory to God with our lives. Edwards points to several verses in scripture that warn us to be cautious. An example is Joshua 22:5 which reads:
Take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the Lord charged you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your soul.
So we can conclude that we must not put ourselves in the midst of temptation if our goal is to avoid and conquer temptation.
We should have a keen sense of the wickedness of sin and we should hate and fear it more than death and the devil himself. With an understanding of sin’s wickedness we should shun and abhor it. In Temptation and Deliverance Edwards says the following about sin:
Every sin naturally carries hell in it…the least sin does not necessarily bring until ruin with it, this is owing to nothing but the free grace and mercy of God to us, and not to the nature and tendency of sin itself. But certainly we ought not to take the less care to avoid sin, or all that tends to it, for the freeness and greatness of God’s mercy to us, through which there is hope of pardon; for that would be indeed a most ungrateful and vile abuse of mercy.
Edwards points to the fact that we must avoid sin out of regard for our own temporal interest. Because of the love for our own temporal lives, we avoid things that would bring any amount of harm or destruction upon us. Sin and temptation only bring upon us things that are harmful so we should avoid not only things that are destructive to our temporal lives but more importantly our spiritual lives which could lead to destruction of our eternal lives.
Aside from protecting ourselves, we are careful to never commit any act that would bring destruction on our earthly friends or to bring any dishonor to their name. We should be even more careful to never do anything that might taint the reputation of God to others or that would hurt him in any way. If we have a true and sincere love for God, we will only hope to honor and glorify him in all that we do.
Edwards speaks of the fact that we also seek to have God’s providence towards us knowing that he has our best interest in his hands. Our behavior towards God should be fearful and reverencing of the holy one who the Bible says holds our very breath in his hands. We seek God’s best for us and hope that he will keep us in the safety of his wings, yet we deliberately place ourselves in the pathway of destruction.
Prayer is another reason why would should avoid temptation. In the scriptures we are taught to pray that we might not be led into temptation so why then do we drive ourselves in the midst of it? If it is the earnest desire of our heart to honor God with our lives and to not sin, we must choose to run from the very sight of temptation.
Edwards has a few other reasons why we should avoid temptation that are similar to the points described above. We must avoid temptation because we represent the name of Christ and his name is so holy that not one sin should be associated with it. Out of a love for the life that God has given us, we must practice using it in a way that honors God and looks to preserve our temporal and eternal lives so that we may use them for God’s glory.
Edwards next describes how to identify the things that lead and expose to sin. Edwards begins by saying that, “he cannot avoid sinning, as long as he has such a corrupt heart within him.” Are we then supposed to shun ourselves so that we might not sin? While we cannot do this sufficiently we can take simple steps that help deter us from sinning. First, Edwards talks about the issues that border along the lines of sin. We sometimes refer to these as “gray areas”. Edwards uses the example of children bordering a cliff as they are standing on slippery ground. The best thing for the parent to do would obviously be to pull the child away from not only the cliff, but the slippery ground as well. We must keep ourselves from the edge and desire to live in the closeness of the safety net of God’s heart and truth. Lust is the evil that entices us to enter these slippery grounds thus proving to be our greatest enemy.
Second, the things that linger in the mind and promote lustful thinking lead us to sin. Not only do they promote sin but Proverbs 24:9 says, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery.” We gratify our sinful appetites by feeding on thoughts that lead to more temptation and eventually sin if the thoughts are not initially sinful in and of themselves.
Third, Edwards mentions the importance of experience. Wisdom comes with those who have experienced the wickedness of life. We can learn from them if we listen and are careful to avoid the things that led them into temptation and sin. As well as learning from others experience, we can observe others behavior too. Edwards speaks of certain practices that in his opinion, led to sin. He states, “Thus we may determine that tavern-haunting and gaming are things that tend to sin; because common experience and observation show, that those practices are attended with a great deal of sin, and wickedness.” Edwards says that people that do these sorts of things are the most likely to fall into great sin and we can learn from them by our observation of them so that we can be sure to avoid these types of activities.
Edwards fourth way to find what things lead to sin is their own personal experience. Men can know their own hearts and identify the types of things that stir up lust within them. We must watch our hearts and not place them in any type of situation that we have learned, from past experience, will be harmful to our spiritual lives.
Lastly, Edwards speaks of the things that are contrary and that would not be upheld by religious beliefs or practices. These things seem somewhat easy to identify therefore, not much time is spent discussing these by Edwards. Anything that might cause a decay of religion in an individual’s life should thus be avoided and abstained from. Anything practiced in secret, usually tends to carry questionable content which one could conclude would lead to temptation. With these guidelines laid out by Edwards, it is quite evident to see the types of things that lead to sin and we they should be avoided. Clearly, we must choose to avoid all ways of talking, acting, and company that would lead us to sin. Time and time again throughout the Scriptures are lists of what things we should avoid such as Ephesians 5:3-5:
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness or foolish talk, or crude joking, which are out of place but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
These verses define the behavior that marks the life of an enemy of Christ. We, as Christians, bear Christ’s name and so we must live like Christ by imitating him in all that we say and do.
Fearing God is a reason why we should avoid temptation as well. When we understand and fear the wrath of God we might be more apt to think about the way we live our lives. Perhaps one way that the fear of God is instilled in us is by realizing the greatness and power of God. In Edwards’ most well-known sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, he speaks of the destruction that persons who choose to disregard God’s ways will face. As Joseph we must realize that our hearts are wicked and will easily lead us astray. There is nothing good in us and therefore we must solely place our trust in Jesus to save us and make our lives pure and holy in his sight. In order to come to this stage, however, we must be aware of the state we are in before God graciously chooses to save us from the destruction before us. Edwards says that we are always exposed to destruction and that we stand in slippery places in which we can fall at any time. At any point God can choose to let go of us and let us slip off these slippery places into everlasting destruction. Not only because of his mercy does he choose to keep us safe in his arms and keep us from sliding into destruction. Edwards says that only “the mere pleasure of God” is what keeps men from destruction. With God holding all the power in the universe, nothing that men can do will overcome his powerful ways. We are nothing in comparison to him and we deserve to be cast into hell. Before our salvation we belong to Satan but God has power over Satan and can choose to hang on to us. Just as prior to our salvation when Satan keeps our hearts but God chooses to hang on to us for a certain amount of time, God can give us strength to fight the temptation that Satan uses to destroy us. Christ loves us and gave his life for us. We were destined to hell but in his great love he saved us and gave us mercy when justice would have pronounced us guilty. Edwards speaks of the wrath of God for those who do not choose Christ. In Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Edwards describes God’s wrath:
The wrath of God is like great waters that are damned for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till and outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose.”
This wrath is the condemnation that God pours on sinners who have not been made clean through his blood. We as Christians have been made clean, set apart and made holy. We must live to the calling by which we have been called and fight the sin and temptation that Satan uses to corrupt us. We must honor God who has so graciously saved us from slipping into destruction and live lives that reflect his holiness. It is our duty to fight this temptation and avoid all the things that might lead us in to sin. Sin’s power is deceiving and will only lead to our destruction. God has the power to save us and he gives us the power to flee from these temptations. Holiness is what we must strive for in our Christian walks and in order to obtain holiness we must, with all of our strength, fight temptation. We can look forward to one day being completely perfect and free from all of the temptations that are around us on earth. While we are still on earth, however, we have to do as Joseph did and run from temptation. We must get away from and treat it as more evil than Satan, hell, and all the wickedness in the world. We must look to Christ to satisfy us and give us the desires of our heart. Author and Pastor, John Piper has made his mark on the Christian community today by writing on Christian Hedonism. The phrase marking the life of a Christian Hedonist is that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” When we look to Christ for our happiness, we will find nothing but joy and delight. We will be completely satisfied and most of all, he will be glorified. The pleasures of sin only last for a moment but the pleasures we find in Christ when we do his will are eternal.
If we want to find eternal happiness we must not indulge in our sinful appetites we must, indulge in our appetite for Christ. In Piper’s book Faith in Future Grace, he quotes Hillsdale College professor Don Westblade who says for us to satisfy our appetites, “Men ought to indulge in those appetites, to obtain as much of those spiritual satisfactions that lie in their power.” To maximize the splendor and glory of God and to find lasting happiness, temptation and sin must be defeated. We must indulge our spiritual appetites in Christ alone and it is then that we will be complete and he will be all glorious.