It is the deep longing of every Christian to be like Jesus, to imitate the one who perfectly obeyed God and perfectly fulfilled all righteousness. We long to be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This is our longing because this is our purpose. According to Calvin, God means to “bring our lives into harmony and agreement with His own righteousness, and so to manifest to ourselves and others our identity as His adopted children.”
One of the means God uses to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ is temptation. Though we must never seek or desire it, still we have the confidence that God redeems the crucible of temptation to refine his people, to remove their sin, and to instill his righteousness within them. While we would never choose to be tempted, still we see how God uses it to accomplish his good purposes within us. We do not become conformed to Christ apart from temptation, but through it.
We are now well advanced in our series, “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness.” These are instructions for the Christian to live a life that is pleasing to God. We have come now to the fourth rule for growing in godliness: Watch for temptation.
No Christian wants to be tempted, yet every Christian will be tempted. In fact, every Christian will inevitably endure times of grueling temptation, when the opportunity to sin and even the desire to sin are nearly overwhelming. The Bible promises that temptations will arise from within and from without, for the Christian’s great enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil—are arrayed against us, each attacking with its own weapon of sinful desire. Each day and each hour, we find our hearts stirred for those things God forbids. Such is life as sinful people in a sinful world.
If we are to endure and resist temptation, to come out of temptation refined and not ruined, we must take an offensive posture against it. We do this by watchfulness, by praying against temptation, and by studying our hearts for the first signs of its stirrings.
Christ calls us to be watchful. He tells us to prepare for the temptation that will inevitably come against us by praying against both the Tempter and his temptations. Complacency here is the height of folly, the height of arrogance.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he told them to plead, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Of course, the sinless God would never tempt his people to sin, “for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Yet God does test our faith, and at times these tests expose inner weaknesses that generate the opportunity and desire to sin. Even then, these temptations are not God’s fault but our own, for “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). Still, we are to “count it joy” when we meet trials and temptations, knowing that these tests product steadfastness and that steadfastness, in turn, causes us to grow in spiritual maturity (James 1:3-4). Every temptation is an opportunity to resist, to obey, and to grow in conformity to Christ Jesus.
Thus, we are to pray each day that God would keep us from temptations that might overwhelm us. John Stott summarizes the petition in this way: “Do not allow us so to be led into temptation that it overwhelms us, but rescue us from the evil one.” Jesus instructed his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). They did not pray, they did enter into temptation, and because of their lack of watchfulness, they fell into terrible, avoidable sin. If only they had strengthened themselves with prayer, they might have held fast! Those who will not pray against temptation cannot expect to endure it. “Therefore, stay awake” (Matthew 24:42a)!
At times, temptation will seem to come from nowhere and overwhelm us, like a tsunami sweeping over shore. But more commonly, temptations follow established patterns and take advantage of known weaknesses. We prepare ourselves to endure and resist temptation through the watchfulness of self-examination, which involves knowing our sinful inclinations and how we have succumbed to temptation in the past. When water comes to the desert, it flows through established stream beds, even if they have long since run dry. In the same way, temptation tends to follow established patterns, to take advantage of deep-rooted habits. Peter warns, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
To maintain watchfulness, we must first know our individual inclinations to sin. Such self-knowledge comes from looking deep within, for sin does not begin with our actions, but with our hearts. Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). The heart is the seat of our emotions and desires, our spiritual control center. And it is from the heart that sin springs up, for what the heart desires, the hands soon perform. Whenever our hands turn toward sin, we know our hearts have already turned. So we must go to the source. We must first know our heart’s sinful inclinations and its patterns that have led us to sin in the past.
Then, like guards in a tower watching for the smallest sign of the enemy’s approach, we must watch for the least stirrings of temptation, the smallest opportunity for sin. We must watch our thoughts, knowing that our imaginations are often engaged long before our bodies. When evil thoughts arise, we must immediately turn our hearts to what is good and true and pure and lovely (Philippians 4:8). We must watch our eyes, refusing to see what might arouse temptation, and our ears, refusing to hear what is crass and unfitting (Ephesians 5:1-13). We must guard ourselves from environments where temptation can rush upon us (Genesis 39:7-10). Through it all, we must be realistic and self-aware. Because of God’s grace, we are strong enough to endure some kinds of temptation. Because of our depravity, we must—at all costs—flee from other kinds temptations that can quickly ensnare us (1 Corinthians 6:18, 10:14).
All the while we must plead for God’s help, for we are too sinful and too self-interested to have the clear sight we need. Without his help, we cannot always identify evil thoughts, and we cannot adequately guard our eyes and ears. Without his help we may not even be able to recognize a temptation as it rushes toward us. But God knows even the deepest secrets of the heart and exposes them through his Word (Psalm 44:21). As we prayerfully and meditatively approach God’s Word, we find that it “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Thus, we watch in prayer, and we watch in self-examination. We watch against anything that might tempt us away from godliness, away from conformity to our Savior.
Even as we endure temptation, God offers us his kind assurance that no sin is more powerful than his grace. “No temptation has overtaken you that is 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” (1 Corinthians 10:13). While we must be tempted, yielding to those temptations is never inevitable—not if we watch against them in prayer and self-examination. It is God’s desire and delight to preserve us from the consequences of succumbing to temptation and to grant us the benefit of enduring them. Christian, watch! Watch for temptation, for most sin is committed precisely because we did not watch.
The “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness” are drawn from the work of Thomas Watson. Here are the words that inspired this article: “Watch your hearts: it was Christ’s watch-word to his disciples, Matt. xxiv. 42. ‘Watch therefore;’ the heart will precipitate us to sin before we are aware; a subtle heart needs a watchful eye; watch your thoughts, your affections; the heart hath a thousand doors to run out at: O keep close sentinel in your souls! Stand continually upon your watch-tower, Hab. ii. 1. When you have prayed against sin, watch against temptation; most wickedness in the world is committed for want of watchfulness; watchfulness maintains goodness, it is the selvedge which keeps religion from raveling out.”