What Does It Mean To “Tempt” God?

What Does It Mean To Tempt God

Jesus said unto him, Again it is written, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Mat. 4:7)

William Perkins
The Combat Between Christ and the Devil Displayed
Point 3 of the Second Temptation
Works, vol. 1, pp. 133-138.

Jesus said unto him, Again it is written, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Mat. 4:7; cf. Deut. 6:16). Here is the third general point in this conflict: to wit, Christ’s answer and repulse made to Satan’s assault, taken, as the devil’s temptation was, from a text of Scripture; for He says, “Again it is written”; where yet He means not to oppose Scripture to Scripture, but to confute the abuse of Scripture by Scripture; after this sort, as if He had said to Satan, It is true indeed that God has made many worthy promises of aid and protection to His children in His Word, yet they shall not be performed to those that presume to tempt God, as you would have Me to do.

Scriptures are sufficient to expound themselves.

From this dealing of Christ with Satan, we may observe that the Scriptures of God are sufficient in themselves, truly to interpret and expound themselves. The devil alleging Scripture did wrest it from the true sense; this our Savior Christ shows by alleging another text out of Moses [Deut. 6:16], which being applied to the place which the devil abused, does show the true meaning thereof. So Ezra, expounding the law unto the Jews, “read distinctly in the law of God, and (as the words do signify) gave the sense by Scripture, and caused the people to understand” [Neh. 8:8]. Much more then at this day may the Scriptures be thought sufficient for the expounding of themselves, since to the canon thereof since Ezra’s time there is added the whole New Testament by the hand of God, wherein the deep things of God are plainly revealed.

The Church of Rome cannot away with this, that Scripture should be sufficient to expound itself. And therefore against it they reason thus: That which must expound Scripture, must have judicial power to determine of the sense thereof; but the Scriptures have no such judicial power, for they are but a dumb letter, and therefore no sufficient judge to determine of their own sense and meaning. Answer. The Scriptures have judicial power to determine of their own true sense and meaning, for they speak evidently, to all that are enlightened by God’s Spirit, and thereby made able to know what the Scripture says. We know a man may speak to his friend not only by word of mouth but also by letter, and thereby express his meaning sufficiently; even so, though God speaks not now unto His church by created voice, yet by His written Word He speaks sufficiently for the clear manifestation of His will and pleasure concerning them; and therefore it is a shameful slander and blasphemy against the Scriptures to call them an inky letter and dumb judge. And let them show, if the Scripture be not, where is that speaking judge who has judicial power to expound the Scripture. Indeed their answer is that the church is this judge, and that we must consult at her mouth for the true meaning of the Scripture. Answer. The church has a ministry and dispensation committed unto her, in the execution whereof she delivers the meaning of the Scripture unto God’s people, but that is not from any judicial authority committed unto her, to determine of the sense of Scripture of herself; but only by comparing Scripture with Scripture, and expounding one place out of another; even as the lawyer gives the sense of the law, not from any judicial power given unto him above the law, but by observing the words with the scope and circumstances of the law. But here I would know, if the church must needs be judge, by what means must she determine? They answer, by the rule of faith; the consent of councils and fathers; and if these fail, then by the pope. Answer. By their rule of faith, they understand, unwritten traditions, that is, such truth beside Scripture, as has been kept by tradition from hand to hand since the primitive church. But these are mere forgeries, and shame it were to subject the truth of God to the device of man; if these be made judge of Scripture, then shall the faith of the church depend upon the “wisdom of man,” and not upon the “power of God,” a thing abhorred of the apostle (1 Cor. 2:5). The only rule of faith is the Scripture, and true faith will admit no other judge beside the Scripture to determine of that whereon it must depend. Secondly, for their consent of fathers and councils, that is no sufficient means to determine of the true sense of Scripture. For their several errors and contradictions one to another, and many times to themselves, show that they wanted the immediate assistance of the Spirit. And the same is true of the pope, as might easily be proved at large, by their gross ignorance and errors. And therefore it remains that the true judge and expounder of Scripture is Scripture itself, as Christ Himself by His practice shows in this place.

The place alleged by Christ is this commandment of God unto His people, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” [Deut. 6:16]. For the understanding whereof we must search out three things: first, what the tempting of God signifies; secondly, the manner how God is tempted; and thirdly, the cause and root thereof.

What the Tempting of God Means.

For the first, to tempt God signifies, to make trial and experience of God, and to prove whether He be so true, just, merciful, provident and powerful as His Word reports Him to be. Thus did the Israelites often tempt God, as the Lord says, “When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works” [Ps. 95:9]; which latter words show what it is to tempt God, even to seek to have proof by His works whether He be such a one as His Word says He is.

If any shall say we are commanded, “to taste and see how gracious the Lord is” (Ps. 34:8), yea the Lord bids His people “prove him” (Mal. 3:10). Answer. Those places do sufficiently expound themselves, for David’s taste and sight is by the grace of true faith and affiance, for in the same verse he pronounces such blessed; and in Malachi the Lord bids them prove Him, but yet in their way of obedience in providing for His sanctuary according to His ordinances. Therefore we must know for the second point, that every trial of God is not simply evil, but that which is needless, when without warrant from His Word we presume upon Him beyond the means of His ordinary providence. Thirdly, the root of this sin is an unbelieving heart, whereby a man doubts of the truth of God’s Word, of His power, presence and providence. “The Israelites tempted God in their hearts” (Ps. 78:18); there is this sin. The manner how follows, “in requiring meat for their lusts, etc.,” not contenting themselves with God’s present providence; the root and ground whereof is set down, “because they believed not in God, and trusted not in his help” (v. 22). When a man doubts of the fidelity of his servant, he will lay something in his way, as a piece of silver, his purse, etc., to try him withal; so when a man begins to doubt of God’s goodness and fidelity towards him, he will easily be brought to make needless trial of Him by some work of God beside His ordinary providence. The meaning then is this, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God,” that is, you shall not make any needless trial of God’s goodness, mercy, power or providence, from a distrustful heart in the truth of His Word.

We Tempt God When We Demand the Time, Place, or Manner of God’s Help.

Here yet further for our instruction we are to know that God is tempted five ways, as the Word of God does manifest: first, when a man shall appoint unto God, either the time when, the place where, or the manner how God shall help him, and perform His Word unto him; herein he seeks experience of the truth and power of God. Thus the Israelites tempted God in the wilderness when they wanted water, saying, “Is God among us or no?” [Ex. 17:7]. God had promised to be with them in all their journey to Canaan, but that they will not now believe unless He will show His presence by giving them water in that place. And so likewise they tempted Him in the want of food, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” (Ps. 78:19). The consideration whereof must teach us in all our petitions which we make unto God for the accomplishment of His promises unto us, to beware of limiting God, as the Jews did, by prescribing unto Him time, place and manner for the accomplishment thereof [Ps. 78:41], but wait with patience His good leisure. For he that believes will not make haste, but will “commit his way to the Lord” (Ps. 37:5).

We Tempt God When We Demand a Sign from Him.

Secondly, God is tempted when men require a sign at His hands. Thus the Pharisees tempted Christ: “Master, we would see a sign of thee” (Matt. 12:38), meaning thereby to be certified whether He were the Messiah, and Luke says, “they tempted him” (Luke 11:16). And thus do all those tempt God, which refuse to embrace the doctrine of the gospel, because they cannot see the ministers thereof confirm the same by miracles. Thus do many papists plead against our religion, embracing rather the mystery of iniquity, because it is confirmed unto them by lying wonders; not considering that the truth which we profess was once sufficiently confirmed to be the truth of God, by His own testimony thereunto in signs and wonders through the hands of the apostles. Question. Is every asking of a sign a tempting of God? For Gideon asked a sign when he was to be a judge and deliverer of God’s people (Judg. 6:17). And so did Hezekiah to be assured of the lengthening of his days (2 Kings 20:8). And yet we read not that God charged them with tempting Him, but did condescend to their requests. Answer. There be two causes in which we may require a sign of God and not tempt Him: first, when God commands a man to ask a sign at His hands, so might Ahaz have asked a sign of God, for his assurance of victory according to God’s promise [Isa. 7:11–12], yea he is blamed for not asking it when the Lord commanded him. Secondly, a man may ask a sign of God, when it serves for the necessary confirmation of an extraordinary calling, or of some special promise of God made to man; in this case did Gideon ask a sign of God for the further confirmation of his extraordinary calling to be a deliverer unto God’s people. And so did Hezekiah for his further assurance in the lengthening of his life, by an extraordinary promise, fifteen years. But outside of these cases to ask a sign of God is to tempt Him; as the Pharisees did, who would prescribe unto God what kind of miracle they would have, even a sign from heaven, not contenting themselves with those miracles which Christ did ordinarily work among them.

We Tempt God When We Continue in Sin.

Thirdly, a man tempts God when he goes on in any sin against God’s commandments, for hereby he makes needless trial of God’s justice, mercy, and patience. The Lord says of His people, “they tempted him ten times, and have not obeyed his voice” [Num. 14:22]. “The people murmuringly say, they that work wickedness are set up, and they that tempt God are delivered” (Mal. 3:15), where working wickedness and tempting of God are all one. Which serves to admonish us that with all speed we break off the course of our sins by repentance, for while we continue in sin we tempt God, and so lie open to all His judgments, depriving ourselves of the guard and protection of God’s holy angels, nay they will become our enemies, and instead of protection, execute God’s heavy vengeance upon us.

We Tempt God When We Impose the Ceremonial Law on the Church.

Fourthly, they tempt God that impose upon God’s people the religious observation of legal ceremonies abolished by Christ: “Why tempt ye God (says Peter) to lay a yoke on the disciples’ necks, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). This is to make trial of God’s power in the saving of His people. Whereby we may see how wicked and damnable the Romish religion is, which wholly stands in the observation of ceremonies, partly heathenish, and partly Judaical, whereto when men submit themselves, they do nothing else but tempt God.

We Tempt God When We Neglect the Ordinary Means of Preservation.

Fifthly, they tempt God, that refuse or neglect the ordinary and necessary means of their preservation, either for body or soul, as he that being to go over a water, will leave the bridge which is the ordinary way, and adventure dangerously through the water. For herein he seeks a needless experience of God’s power; so do they also that neglect or condemn God’s holy ordinance for the saving of men’s souls in the ministry of the Word. Now to this kind of tempting God does Christ apply this commandment in this place; as if He should say, “When God has afforded unto men an ordinary means for their help and safety, they are not to refuse the same, and to seek for safety from God extraordinarily. I am now in a dangerous place I confess, upon this pinnacle, yet there is some ordinary way to get down as stairs or ladder; and therefore unless I would tempt ‘the Lord my God,’ I may not cast Myself down, and thereby seek for extraordinary preservation, as you persuade Me.” Thus also they sin that go into places of great danger without a calling; so Peter sinned in thrusting himself into Caiaphas’s hall, a place of temptation, as by lamentable experience he found too true. Thus David’s three worthies sinned in adventuring upon their enemies’ host, for the fetching of a little water out of the well of Bethlehem; and therefore when it was brought unto him, “David would not drink thereof, but poured it out for a sacrifice unto the Lord” (2 Sam. 23:16).

Here some may ask whether they do not tempt God that adventure to climb on high places, to stand on spire steeples, to run on the ridge of high houses, and to go on ropes a great height from the ground. Answer. Men may do such things in a twofold estate, either having a lawful calling thereto, as carpenters and masons, who are to work upon high buildings; now they without tempting of God may climb and stand on high and dangerous places; or else having no lawful calling thereto, as they who use to do such things to make known their activity, or only to afford delight and admiration unto others for their private gain and advantage. Such tempt God fearfully; for Christ was better able to have cast Himself down from this pinnacle, and have preserved Himself without hurt, than these men are to save themselves in their adventures, and yet He refused so to do, because He would not tempt the Lord His God. Thus much for the meaning of this commandment.


The doctrine for instruction hence, is to be gathered from this command applied to the text which the devil alleges, and it is this: whosoever looks for the accomplishment of God’s promises unto him, must be careful to walk before God in the ways of His commandments, and in the works of his calling with all good conscience. God indeed has made many gracious promises in His Word, of blessings temporal and eternal, but they that tempt God shall not find the comfort of them. Men’s sins hinder these things from them; God’s goodness is to be seen and tasted in the ways of faith and obedience. God has promised the guard of His angels to His children while they keep themselves in their ways; if therefore you would have this protection, you must keep yourself in those ways that God would have you to walk in. Also in the riches of His love God has made a promise of everlasting life with freedom from eternal perdition, to those that believe in Christ (John 3:16). You therefore that would enjoy the comfort of this promise to your immortality and life, must get true faith into your heart and thereby live all the days of your life. The same may be said of every promise of God pertaining either to soul or body; the fruition of them does depend upon the practice of some part of obedience, which if you do neglect you do but presume in making title to the promise. Peter tells Simon Magus plainly, “he had no part with them in the gifts of the Spirit,” while his heart retained a purpose to live in sin (Acts 8:21). Break off therefore the course of sin, and inure [accustom] yourself to the practice of obedience, so shall God’s promises be sweet unto your heart; and the more you proceed in obedience, the more comfort you shall find in God’s gracious promises. But if you do lay hold on sin, the comfort of the world will depart from you. And thus much for the second temptation.


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