This article is part of the Open Letters series.
That you are experiencing rounds of temptation is not as unusual as you might suppose. From the inception of the church believers have found this pilgrim way to be strewn with multiple temptations. You recall the words of James, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2–3). Peter indicates that the Lord can deliver us from temptations, “. . . the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment” (2 Pet. 2:9). Martin Luther warned, “Don’t argue with the Devil. He has had five thousand years of experience. He has tried out all his tricks on Adam, Abraham, and David, and he knows exactly the weak spots.”1 The Puritan John Cotton commented that temptation is like a beast that scares the Christian off the road from time to time. But the true Christian will get back on the road. In other words, if a person is tempted, commits sin, and stays off the road, that may mean that the person really does not know Christ. But the fact that you are concerned about the temptations is a good sign.
Or to put it another way—if the temptations are such that they become the doors through which you are marching in a headstrong way toward more sin, stoking your addictions with wanton exuberance, then you should fall on your knees and cry out for God’s mercy and deliverance. If, on the other hand, you are resisting temptations, you should fall on your knees and ask for God’s continued protection.
Do not be surprised. Persons who are living for the Lord represent prime targets for the evil one because they are doing damage to his dismal interests. Others he does not particularly need to disturb; they are already out of commission as effective Christians because they are egotistic, have high tolerance levels for sin, and are quite satisfied with their “no-risk” Christianity. Christians who know the Lord well are often more aware of their sin and spirit of rebellion than people who make no effort to submit to God’s will. As he approached death, John Calvin, of all people, complained that his heart had been cold toward the Lord during his life and asked for forgiveness. If Calvin’s heart was cold, my own heart must be arctic.
We often think of Martin Luther as a person whom God used in a remarkable way. But he was more than once overwhelmed by the evil one. Listen to his lament: “For more than a week [in 1527] I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.”2 He saw the evil one as a very personal figure, determined to undo him. This sensitivity helps explain the lyrics of Luther’s wonderful hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.3
The reason Luther had the confidence to pen these lyrics is that he knew that the devil had been defeated at the cross. Christ’s name could defeat him.
And yet the devil, already defeated, still tries to make us believe that he has power over us. But Luther believed that the devil’s machinations can be turned into a positive good. We begin the better to understand our faith, the power of the gospel, and the love of God—after we have been beset by temptations. Luther wrote, “If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen [assaults upon the soul], for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who was never subject to temptations.”4 Luther also argued that a person should expect to be tempted after having devotions. Apparently, the devil is especially worried when we have communed with the Lord.
In another passage Luther associates these challenges with the cross that Christians must bear. By that cross we learn faith and the power of the word. “Indeed, a Christian can no more do without the cross than without food or drink.”5
The Puritan John Cotton commented that temptation is like a beast that scares the Christian off the road from time to time. But the true Christian will get back on the road.
I must say that I became intrigued by the spiritual counsel of Martin Luther once I read comments like these. Luther seemed to have experienced the same kinds of temptations and struggles that I have personally encountered. His counsel regarding how to deal with them is so refreshing even though it is nearly five hundred years old.
Friend, there is so much more I would like to say about this topic. But there are some pressing school matters to which I must attend. Please do not be discouraged by the fact that you are becoming more aware of your own sin. On the other hand, if the allusions you were making in your letter refer to sins that you are not willing to forsake, then please be very careful.
Moreover, the cross that Christians carry is not too heavy. Jesus said, “My burden is light.” He gives believers the power to overcome temptations. Temptations are not to lead to a life of sin and depression. In this regard another comment of Martin Luther comes to mind: “A Christian should and must be a cheerful person. If he isn’t, the devil is tempting him. I have sometimes been grievously tempted while bathing in my garden, and then I have sung the hymn ‘Let us now praise Christ.’ Otherwise I would have been lost then and there. Accordingly, when you notice that you have some such thoughts say, ‘This isn’t Christ.’ . . . Christ knows that our hearts are troubled, and it is for this reason that he says and commands, ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’”6
Friend, I will be praying for you. Please remember Peter’s admonition: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).
Don and John
- Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, New York/Nashville, 1950), 363.
- Bainton, Here I Stand, 361.
- Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” in Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commissions Publications,1990), no. 92.
- Bainton, Here I Stand, 361.
- The Annotated Luther, ed. Mary Jane Haemig, vol. 4, Pastoral Writings(Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 415, Google Books, https://books.google.com/books.
- Martin Luther, Table Talk, ed. Theodore G. Tappert; vol. 54 of Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), 96.
This article is adapted from Letters Along the Way: From a Senior Saint to a Junior Saint by D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge.
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