Debating with the Devil
Three Critical Principles We Learn from Jesus' Response to Temptation
When we compare the temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 against Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4, we discover a number of fascinating contrasts. I have written about some of them here:
Beyond these, we should also notice that Jesus’ manner of responding is just as important as the content. Unlike Eve, Jesus does not enter into a dialogue with Satan, debating and reasoning with him about the boundaries and limitations of obedience. In Satan’s debate with Eve, the point of contention almost seems to revolve around the question, “How much could I do before sinning?” (Gen. 3:1–5).
In stark contrast with this, Jesus utters hardly anything in his own temptation beyond the words of the Bible: “It is written….Again it is written….Be gone, Satan! For it is written….” (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). The only time Jesus adds new words to the Scriptures, he directly commands Satan to leave his presence.
What should we learn from our Savior’s posture toward temptation?
The Danger of Entering into Temptation
First, we should discern from this just how dangerous temptation is. The Puritan John Owen (1616–1683) has an invaluable treatise about this subject, called Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It. In it, he gives an incisive definition of what it means to “fall into temptation” (1 Tim. 6:9).
While Owen observes that all of us (Jesus included) must be tempted, he carefully shows that it is a different thing to enter into temptation. Jesus warns us explicitly about the dangers of entering into temptation twice: (1) when he teaches us to pray that God might “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13), and (2) when he urges us to “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41).
Owen writes this:
When we suffer a temptation to enter into us, then we “enter into temptation.” While it knocks at the door we are at liberty; but when any temptation comes in and parleys [“discusses (especially with an enemy)”] with the heart, reasons with the mind, entices and allures the affections, be it a long or a short time, do it thus insensibly and imperceptibly, or do the soul take notice of it, we “enter into temptation.”1
So, Jesus’ temptation was significantly different from ours. He was tempted, but he did not enter into his temptation in the way that we do. That is, Satan truly presented Christ opportunities to sin, but our Lord’s mind and affections were not in the least entangled in the temptation.
Again, Owen writes:
It is true, our Savior was tempted; but yet his temptations are reckoned among the evils that befell him in the days of his flesh—things that came on him through the malice of the world and the prince thereof. He did not willfully cast himself into temptation, which he said was “to tempt the Lord our God” (Matt. 4:7); as, indeed, willingly to enter into temptation is highly to tempt God….Christ had only the suffering part of temptation when he entered into it; we have also the sinning part. When the prince of this world came to Christ, he had “no part in him” [John 14:30]; but when he comes to us, he has so in us….We never come off like Christ. Who of us “enter into temptation” and is not defiled?2
Matthew vividly depicts how Jesus is utterly unmoved by his temptation in the way that Jesus speaks virtually nothing except Scripture in response to Satan.
By contrast, Eve talked a great deal as she contemplated the temptation before her. With each turn in the conversation, we can see her entering more deeply into this temptation—considering, contemplating, and calculating whether she might, after all, eat the forbidden fruit. When we get to this point, we have already lost the battle, regardless of whether we are able to resist the fullest expression of our sin.
Jesus refused to give sin any such ground. We must seek to do likewise.
Satan is Relentless
Second, we should brace ourselves with the recognition of how utterly relentless Satan is when he tempts us. We should not celebrate when we succeed for a moment, since Satan is endlessly undeterred. John Calvin writes, “God intended, I have no doubt, to exhibit in the person of his Son, as in a very bright mirror, how obstinately and perseveringly Satan opposes the salvation of men.”3
In this, we should remember that Satan is so blinded in his stubborn rebellion as to believe that he can cast Almighty God from his throne. How much more will he stubbornly, relentlessly come after us when he knows that he very frequently will succeed in leading us to succumb to temptation?
Because of Satan’s relentless attacks, we must keep all the more clarity about the fact that we cede the upper ground by reasoning with him. Satan cannot be reasoned with, and reasoning with him gives him more rope that he will use to hang us.
Make No Provision for the Flesh, but Take up Scripture
Third, we must see how Jesus makes absolutely no provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14). Jesus does not try to accommodate sin, to compromise with sin, or to coddle sin. Rather, he flatly rejects it utterly from beginning to end.
Instead, Jesus takes up the provision of the Word of God. As John Calvin writes, “Christ uses Scripture as his shield: for this is the true way of fighting, if we wish to make ourselves sure of the victory. With good reason does Paul say, that, ‘the sword of the Spirit is the word of God,’ and enjoin us to ‘take the shield of faiths’ (Ephesians 6:16,17.)”4
Reasoning with Satan betrays an open posture toward following his schemes and designs. Jesus admits no discussion, but declines the temptation with a decisive appeal to Scripture. By this, Jesus intimates that God has spoken, so that nothing more needs to be said. This is a closed posture toward temptation—the only godly posture toward sin that we can take.
In view of temptation’s danger, Satan’s relentlessness, and the gracious provision of Scripture, let us stand firm against the devil’s lies.
As the Apostle Peter writes:
 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,  casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.  And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:6–11 ESV)
John Owen, “Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It. The Danger of Entering into It. And the Means of Preventing That Danger with a Resolution of Sundry Cares Thereunto Belonging,” in Overcoming Sin and Temptation, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 160.
Owen, “Of Temptation,” 183.
John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 1 (1848; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 210.
Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 1:214.