The Testing Ground

Furnaces are like gigantic crucibles used to heat metals in order to separate the dross from what is pure. The children of Abraham spent time in the fiery furnace of Egypt and had to be rescued from it. They hardly emerged unalloyed, for as Joshua 24:2,14 make plain, in their heathen state they were idolatrous like their forefathers (cf. Gen. 31:19,30,34; 35:2, etc.). Thus they were subjected to further testing and purging under the law in the wilderness and beyond. So even at this preliminary stage of our brief study we can assume that if the pilgrimage to the heavenly city is the goal of life (Heb. 13:14), a path to perfection (Heb. 6:1; Phil. 3:12-14), its inevitable companion is testing.


Genesis 1 suggests that the world as a whole is a testing ground for man made in the image of God. There we are informed that man’s basic calling is to exercise dominion and to put all created things under his feet with a view to gaining not merely earthly but ultimate heavenly glory and honour. In this man was following in the steps of God himself who when he had finished his work of creation entered his rest. Truly could it be said that if the earth was God’s footstool, heaven was his throne (Isa. 66:1). The implication is, as Psalm 8:5f. suggest, that if man exercises his rule successfully his reward will be glory and honour in the presence of God.

In Genesis 2:16f. an even more personal note is sounded. There God promises Adam (and hence mankind transgenerationally) on pain of death not to eat of the tree of good and evil. The implication of this is that if he who has been created naturally mortal (cf. Rom. 1:23) from a naturally temporal and corruptible earth is obedient, he will gain eternal life (cf. Rom. 7:9f.). In the event, however, first Eve, who is also seduced by the devil, then Adam is disobedient. Under the pressure of temptation, they both give way to their fleshly passions over which they were meant to exercise control or dominion (Gen. 3:1-6). In effect, they worship creation rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25, cf. Dt. 4:19). The inevitable result of their surrender is loss of fellowship with God, curse and death (Gen. 3:17-19).

Outside the Garden, the womb or nursery of the race from which he has been ejected, Adam’s task of dominion is by no means abrogated. Rather, in the wider field of operation his problems are exacerbated by personal sin (Gen. 3:17-19). He now has to contend with an element of alienation both from God and the ground from which he derived. This point is underlined first by Cain (4:11f.) and then by Lamech who seeks relief from the toil of his hands through Noah, his son (5:29). Again, at a later stage in the history of man Eliphaz the Temanite complains that man is born to trouble (Job 5:7, cf. 3:17), and Job himself claims that man’s service on the earth is like the days of a hired hand or a slave (7:1f. ESV). Having complained about the brevity of life (7:6ff., cf. Gen. 6:3), he then wonders why God, the watcher of mankind, constantly tests him (7:17-20).

The Pattern

Thus the pattern established by our first parents is followed by all their posterity. All the children of Adam are faced with the task of subjecting creation to their dominion, but even as they make the attempt sin is always crouching at the door (Gen. 4:7). As Peter is to suggest much later, the devil is constantly prowling like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). Since they are made in their fleshly image (Gen. 5:1-3) and conditioned as all children are by parental example and influence (cf. Ex. 20:5f.; Rom. 5:12), they succumb inexorably to temptation just as their parents did. (1* In case the reader has missed the point I am implying here that the traditional dogma of original sin erroneously based on Romans 5:12 is fallacious. All men and women in their fleshly weakness sin in their own right, cf. Ps. 106:6, etc. and though they may suffer, Num. 14:33, they cannot, as Deuteronomy 24:16, etc., indicates, be punished for the sins of their parents. See further my essays relating to original sin.) In light of this, the list of deaths set out in Genesis 5 hardly comes as a shock. As Adam had been warned, the wages of sin is death not life. Genesis 6:11-13 indicates that universal moral corruption results in universal physical corruption. Sin invites the judgement of the flood and death is inevitable. In this situation only an act of grace on the part of God can bring redemption. Thus the covenant with Noah, who alone of his generation found favour with his Maker, is established.

Noah and the Heathen

Why is grace shown to Noah? Was he not also tested and found wanting like all his contemporaries? He was indeed, but he believed God (cf. Gen. 6:8; 7:1) and was, as the Bible later makes clear, accounted righteous by faith (Heb. 11:7). As God’s dealings with Adam had made clear, righteousness stemming from obedience was the absolute prerequisite or condition of life. Once that righteousness proved incapable of realization by men, the only option was faith in God who would provide his own or what Luther called an alien righteousness. So far as Noah was concerned, he proved his faith when he obeyed the divine command to build the ark. The consequence of this, in the perspective of Peter, was that he was saved by baptism (1 Pet. 3:20f.).

With the development and the extension of the race (cf. Gen. 6:1), the test of life on the earth continues. The call of ‘ungodly’ idolator Abraham (cf. Rom. 4:5) to the obedience or righteousness of faith is made plain (cf. Gen. 15:6). The patriarch responds to the call of God to venture into the unknown and to walk blamelessly (Gen. 17:1). Abraham’s faith was great but it was severely tested – most dramatically when he was called on to sacrifice his son Isaac, the hope of future blessing. James underlines the fact that Abraham completed his faith by his works (2:22). He was tried and proved true. He would become a blessing to the world as he had been promised.

The Israelites, the Wilderness and the Promised Land

In Paul’s thinking, the result of the test of life among the heathen in general brought failure on a massive scale. Though the evidence of the wrath of God against those who transgressed natural moral law was clear, nonetheless all broke it. All failed the test (Rom. 1:18-32). But in the grace of God Abraham’s posterity under Moses were rescued from the fiery furnace of heathen Egypt and given the covenant of law. This also, like the commandment given to Adam, proved to be a test of life as Exodus 15:26, 16:4 and especially Deuteronomy 30:19f. indicate. However, in the very shadow of Sinai, the people lapsed back into idolatry (Ex. 32). Indeed, the journey through the wilderness was in many ways a tale of catastrophe indicating the failure of the people to abide by the commandments in the wilderness and beyond (Dt. 8:2,16). The consequence was that all the older generation who wished to return to the fleshpots of Egypt from which they had been rescued perished on the way to the Promised Land. While the law promised life (Lev. 18:5, etc.), it brought death to all who refused to act in faith. Only Caleb and Joshua of the older generation survived the pilgrimage. Even Moses himself proved a casualty. Just as he only glimpsed the glory of God (Ex. 33) so he only viewed the Canaan from a distance. Yet, like Abraham, as a man of faith he died in faith not having received what was promised but had greeted it from afar (Heb. 11:13, cf. 11:39f.).

Of course, the children of those who left Egypt were like Adam and Eve who initially knew neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39) and were not accounted guilty as their parents were (see especially Number 14:3,29-33 which, along with Ezekiel 18, etc., in my view proves conclusively the non-imputation of Adam’s sin). Thus the promise made to Abraham was fulfilled in them. They entered their promised rest under the leadership of Joshua, but their problems were by no means over. Their rest, like the earth itself, was only temporary. Their journey or pilgrimage was by no means complete as Hebrews 3 and 4 especially make clear. The land they entered had to be conquered. It was not merely a question of dispossessing the inhabitants of the land and inheriting the good things prepared by them (Dt. 6:10f.) but the Canaanites themselves as potential thorns in their eyes had to be dealt with (Num. 33:55f.). To a degree they were but not completely, and the adoption by the Israelites of their idolatrous customs led to disaster, eventually to the exile or a metaphorical return to Egypt which they had been forbidden to contemplate (Dt. 17:16).

Throughout the Old Testament the prophets inveigh against the sins of the people, urge repentance and return to the law (cf. Isa. 8:20; Jer. 6:16; Mal. 4:4). But their message falls on deaf ears. This leads inexorably to a demonstration of the wrath of God and to exile (Zech. 7:11-14). Even after the exile, though the crudities of idolatry may have been tempered, the people as a whole fail the test and remain faithless (Mal. 2:10,14, etc.). They even put God to the test as their forefathers had done in the wilderness and apparently escape (Mal.3:15). The scenario sketched by Moses (Dt. 9:7,24), Samuel (1 Sam. 8:8), Ezra (9:7), Malachi (3:7) and others (e.g. 2 Chr. 30:7) seemed to be set in stone – a reflection of the death-dealing ministry of the law (cf. 2 Cor. 3:3,6). Little wonder that it was recognized that all human beings sin (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 130:3, etc.). As Stephen was to say at the start of the Christian era, the people received the law as delivered by angels but failed to keep it (Acts 7:51-53). For all that, though the writing was on the wall (Mal. 3:2f.; 4:1, cf. Mt. 3:12), the test was to be extended even into the Christian era (cf. Mal. 4:2f.; 2 Pet. 3:9).


Cur Deus Homo (Why did God become man)? asked Anselm. According to the author of Hebrews, apart from the fact that the chosen people of God all broke it, the law made nothing perfect (7:18f.), so Jesus became man as the second Adam not to offer sacrifices but to do the will of God (Heb. 10:5-9). By doing so he sanctified his people (10:10,14). In other words, Jesus came into the world as man to accomplish what the first Adam and all his posterity failed to do, that is, to inherit (eternal) life and incorruptibility (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10). To do this, however, he had to exercise dynamic dominion throughout his earthly career, undergo the test of life by keeping the commandments and remain permanently untarnished by sin. At his baptism, having kept the written law, Jesus was acknowledged him as God’s Son. (2* Acknowledgement is not adoption but it provides the foundation of Christian adoption with which it corresponds in the order of salvation. See my essay Following Jesus.) Having fulfilled all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) by giving his life for his unrighteous fellows (1 Pet. 3:18), his accomplishment on their behalf was confirmed by his resurrection. And on his return to his Father he was crowned with glory and honour as the one who was made perfect as the pioneer of their salvation (Heb. 2:9f.). In sum, Jesus conquered the world (John 16:33), the flesh (Rom. 8:3) and the devil (John 14:30). He had stood the test to perfection (Heb. 7:28). (3* I take it that the world that Jesus conquered was much more comprehensive than the one that the first Adam confronted in the Garden, cf. Rev. 5:1-5. It surely comprised his total environment, which included not merely the recalcitrance of a corruptible creation but the hostility of the devil and his mignons as well, cf. Rom. 8:37-39. It needs to be quickly added that his victory did not involve a reversal and redemption of the earth’s corruptible constitution which is apparently demanded by those who like Augustine believe in Adam’s “Fall” from so-called initial righteousness and a universal curse. Jesus himself as flesh was part of creation’s natural corruption. He daily grew older! And like the rest of us, though he did not personally succumb to decay, as flesh he nonetheless had to undergo transformation when he ascended, John 20:17; 1 Cor. 15:50-56; Phil. 3:21.)


During the time of the new covenant dispensation inaugurated by Jesus, while on the one hand those that have not embraced him as Saviour continue to be tested as they are called to come out of heathen or even Jewish darkness (cf. 2 Cor. 3:15) into the light (Acts 26:18, cf. Col. 1:13; 1 Thes. 1:9f.), on the other hand Christians themselves are still tested by the world, the flesh and the devil. Dominion still has to be exercised even if in principle both the flesh and the world have been crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24; 6:14). What is earthly in us has to be put to death (Col. 3:5) and justification must be followed by sanctification. So far as the flesh is concerned, its desires may be as imperious as ever, as they were in Jesus’ own case (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:15), but they can be controlled by the power of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16; Rom. 8.) in a way that they were not under the law (cf. Rom. 7). Not without good reason does Paul urge his Roman readers not to make provision for the flesh and gratify its desires (13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11). In other words, just as God tested the state of heart of the Israelites who came out of Egypt and found them wanting (Dt. 8:2,16, etc.), so the genuineness of our faith as Christians is under daily duress in countless ways (Gal. 5:16f.; 1 Pet. 1:6f.; 2:11, cf. 4:12; 2 Cor. 8:8). Needless to add, we are comforted by the presence of the Spirit and the knowledge that Christ has died, has risen again and intercedes for us as the right hand of God. We have his promise that he will be with us to the end of the age. And in recognition of and response to this, we persevere in faith (1 Pet. 1:5; Heb. 10:39) believing that he who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6).

At the end of the day, all human beings are tested in such a way as to reveal their true character. Those who refuse as men and women made in the image of God to nurture his likeness (2 Cor. 3:18) prove their affinity with the animal creation (Eccl. 3:18) which lives on bread alone, though even that is provided by God (Ps. 104:21, etc.). Since they pander to the flesh and refuse to put to death what is earthly in them they live by instinct (2 Pet. 2; Jude). In the end, however, their inheritance is the inevitable decay of the flesh (Gal. 6:8) and the corruption of their portion in the temporal world (Ps. 17:14; Luke 12:13-21; 16:25, etc.). By contrast, the spiritual inheritance of the saints is eternal (Heb. 9:15).


The glorious message of grace etched in the Bible is then that in Christ, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27), we are more than conquerors. Nothing in all creation can finally separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:37-39). Despite the many trials in which God tries our faith (1 Thes. 2:4; Heb. 12:5-11), we are enabled to stand the test and receive the crown of life promised to those who love him (James 1:12, cf. 2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Pet. 5:4,10; Rev. 2:7,10f.; 3:21).

Thus we come out of the great tribulation of life on earth (cf. 1 Pet. 1:6f.; James 1:3) washed by the blood of the Lamb (Acts 14:22; Rev. 7:14; 22:14). When we do so, not only will our tears be wiped away but so will the former things that prompted them and caused so much pain (Rev. 7:16f.; 21:1,4; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). The contrast between earthly corruption and heavenly glory could hardly be greater (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17).