Rev. Jonathan Mahtani, pastor of the Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan

Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Matthew 4:7

Take heed and harden not your heart,

As did your fathers, nor depart

From God to follow in their ways;

For with complaints instead of praise,

With doubt instead of faith confessed,

They put His mercy to the test. (Psalter 254, st. 4)

Beloved young people of the church, beware of the devil who brings strong temptation to tempt God.

Imagine this scene: The devil, as an angel of light, flies you to Jerusalem and sets you on the pinnacle of the temple. There he whispers, “Go to the edge of that precipice. Cast yourself down, for God will send His angels to bear you up.” Have you heard that temptation to tempt God before? Not only have you heard it in reading about Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness recorded for us in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, but have you not discerned the same devil tempt you in a similar manner? Be not naïve, but rather be wary of the temptation to tempt God! Let Jesus’ response reverberate in your soul: “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

To tempt God is to put God on trial. Psalter 254 poetically and clearly explains the heart of tempting God: “They put His mercy to the test.” To tempt God is the human attempt to force God’s hand of mercy against His revealed will. In the temptation of Jesus referred to above, the devil lured Jesus to jump from the temple pinnacle. This was not to get Jesus to commit suicide but to put God’s mercy to the test. In risking His life, Jesus would have been attempting to manipulate the hand of God to save Him with angels. Jesus refused to tempt God.

Jesus’ example connects us to another example. While Jesus resisted tempting God, the church of Israel succumbed. In Exodus 17, we find Israel, graciously redeemed by the blood of the Passover Lamb and delivered from Egypt through the midst of the Red Sea. God had already opened wide His hand of mercy to provide the church with food and drink. But at Rephidim (a.k.a. Massah, meaning “Temptation”), we find the church striving with Moses, threatening to stone him. And “They tempted the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Ex. 17:7b). With those words in their hearts, they tempted God. Knowing full well God’s mercy, they put God on trial. They attempted to force God’s hand of mercy by challenging Him to prove Himself.

Tempting God is serious sin. While every sin deserves the infinite wrath of God in hell, Scripture shows us that some sins are worse than others. To tempt God is not a sin of ignorance. It is what Scripture calls the sin of presumption. The heart, having tasted God’s mercy in Jesus Christ and knowing full well God’s mercy, now proudly and rebelliously treats the merciful God as a slave to manipulate, to challenge, to put on trial. As though entitled to God’s mercy, the evil heart demands of God to prove His mercy by saving according to man’s timing and way. Indeed, to tempt God is as bad as it sounds.

Scripture repeatedly warns us against this sin of tempting God. Numbers 14:22 says that the church tempted God ten times in the wilderness. Psalm 78 bids the church afterward to learn from “history’s light,” exhorting fathers to warn their children not to tempt God (Ps. 78:18, 41). Paul reiterates this call in the New Testament. “Neither let us tempt Christ, as the sons of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents…. Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (I Cor. 10: 9, 11). “Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah” (Deut. 6:16). With abundant admonishment, God calls His people not to sin so grievously by tempting Him.

And yet, we tempt God. First, we might tempt God regarding our physical health and safety. Similar to jumping off the temple pinnacle, if we needlessly risk or neglect our bodies, we tempt God. For a name or for a high, Christian young people live “on the edge.” They leap into danger as though they are indestructible. And as the Israelites said, so they might say, “Is God among us? He will save me, will He not, even when I put myself in harm’s way?” Likewise, neglecting the care of the body is also a manner of tempting God. Reformed Christians who immoderately smoke, vape, drink, or unreasonably circumvent doctors and medications, may rationalize this neglect with the hyper-spiritual claim that this is to trust God. On the contrary, this is to tempt God. Another example pertains to the physical health of others in the church. When the church knows the real danger of abuse in her midst, and then takes little to no action for the protection of Christ’s lambs, we tempt the Lord. We put His mercy to the test.

Secondly, we might tempt God regarding our spiritual health and safety. To stand on a proverbial precipice and presume upon God’s mercy by throwing ourselves into spiritual danger is to tempt God. Do you struggle with drunkenness? Then do not hang out with those who encourage the sin. Do you struggle with pornography? Then do not look at a screen without accountability. Do you struggle with bitterness? Then stop listening to and reading material that is full of slander. To pray, “Lead me not into temptation,” and then cast yourself into it is not only foolish hypocrisy but also to tempt God. Whenever we intentionally cast ourselves into spiritual danger while claiming God’s preserving care, we tempt Him.

Likewise, the neglect of spiritual responsibilities while presuming upon God’s grace is to tempt Him. For example, God has revealed that while prayer is not a condition, He will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray. To neglect prayer, presuming that God will give His grace and Holy Spirit no matter what, is to tempt Him. Additionally, God has shown that His gracious covenant promises are to children of believers, yet He fulfills His promises in homes where parents faithfully instruct these children. Parents tempt God when they insist on God’s mercy as they neglect their children’s spiritual care. Another example demands the reminder that while repentance is not a prerequisite for salvation, God shows us that we will enjoy the peace of His forgiveness only in the way of sincere repentance. To insist by doctrine or life that God has already forgiven you while you remain impenitent is to tempt God.

The creedal warning against the sin of tempting God is about the means of grace:

Wherefore, as the apostles, and teachers who succeeded them, piously instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to His glory, and the abasement of all pride, and in the meantime, however, neglected not to keep them by the sacred precepts of the gospel in the exercise of the Word, sacraments and discipline; so even to this day, be it far from either instructors or instructed to presume to tempt God in the church by separating what He of His good pleasure hath most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is His work advanced; to whom alone all the glory both of means, and of their saving fruit and efficacy is forever due. Amen. (Canons of Dordt, III/IV, Art. 17).

If preacher or teacher communicates with his instruction that God will mercifully grow and preserve His people spiritually even when they intentionally separate themselves from the preaching of law and gospel in the church, that is to tempt God. If member or young person lives his life imagining that God will mercifully save even when he purposefully neglects the means of grace in a true church of Jesus Christ, he tempts God.

To tempt God is grievous sin deserving destruction. When the Israelites tempted God in the wilderness, He sent fiery snakes to destroy them (Num. 21:7; I Cor. 10:9). God’s Word threatens: “Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest” (Ps. 95:8-11). Each of us must repent, for each of us is guilty of this sin. While turning from this sin, believe in Jesus Christ. Turn to Him who was cursed for us that we might be blessed. Turn to Him who endured God’s wrath that we might enter His rest. Turn to Him who though tempted never tempted God, and whose perfect obedience is judged as our own. For Jesus’ sake alone, God forgives.

For Jesus’ sake, He gives repentance and faith to hear that forgiveness. And for Jesus’ sake, He gives His Spirit to resist the devil’s temptation to tempt God. So the child of God cries, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins” (Ps. 19:13a).