And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Some of the greatest blessings in my life have taken place in nursing homes and hospitals. Today, I don’t spend as much time in them as I probably ought to. But years ago, I used to visit a dear widow in my church back home, Ollie Hines. I remember in particular that often the Lord’s Prayer would come up, and when she got to the petition, “And lead us not into temptation,” she would stop and comment that she didn’t understand why we should pray this, because, as she observed, God would never lead us into temptation. Being rather young and inexperienced in my understanding of the Bible, I don’t think I ever was able to offer her an explanation of the verse; indeed, her observation perplexed me as well.
She was not alone. Commentators on this verse to this day have spent a lot of time trying to sort out the difficulty of this petition. The difficulty comes in like this. The word behind “temptation” is the Greek word peirasmos, and could be translated either “temptation,” as it is in the KJV (and most other versions), or it could be translated “trials, testings,” (as it is the in GNT). If the former, then the difficulty is this. Temptation implies that someone is tempted to sin. But God, who is holy, does not tempt people to sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jam. 1:13-14). So if God does not tempt people to sin, why pray that he lead us not into temptation? Wouldn’t that be like praying that God not sin? It would seem blasphemous to do so!
So that has led some to say, “No, let’s not translate this as ‘temptation,’ let’s translated it as ‘trials.’” In this sense, we are praying that God not bring trials into our lives. But then, doesn’t the apostle James also tell us, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him”? (cf. Jam. 1:12). Doesn’t the Bible teach that trials, though they are hard in themselves, are meant to bless us by strengthening our graces and sanctifying our souls? Doesn’t James say, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness”? (cf. Jam. 1:2-3). So if we are to count it all joy when we meet trials – how is that consistent with praying that God deliver us from them?
However, these objections to the logical consistency of the text are merely superficial. The gospel of Matthew itself provides the explanation. Go back to the beginning of chapter 4, and you will read these words: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Here you have Jesus being led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness for the obvious purpose of being tempted by the devil. Now, at one level, you could say that God was leading Christ into temptation in the sense that the Holy Spirit was leading him to a place and a circumstance that he knew would be used by the evil one to tempt Christ to sin. Of course, with respect to God, the purpose of this experience was to try the character of his Son, to allow him to endure temptation, not so that he would succumb to it, but so that he would overcome it and thus be able to be a merciful and faithful high priest, able to sympathize with his people who endure temptation and give them grace to help in time of need. God’s purpose behind the peirasmos was holy. But the devil’s purpose behind the peirasmos was evil. He wanted to tempt the Son of God to sin. He wanted to sully the character of the spotless Christ. In other words, God led his Son into a trial and the devil tried to turn it into a temptation to sin. Peirasmos therefore can be both a trial and a temptation, depending on how we respond to it. As it comes from God, it is a trial, but if we respond wrongly to the trial – and God is not to blame when this happens – then it becomes a temptation to sin.
So here is what I think the Lord is telling us to pray. “Lead us not into temptation” is a prayer that God would not lead us into a trial or circumstance that would become a temptation to sin through our own weakness and the working of the evil one. Note that this petition is counterbalanced by the prayer, “but deliver us from evil.” Some have observed that these are really not two prayers, but one, the first saying negatively what the second says positively. To plead with God to lead us not into temptation is to pray that he deliver us from evil. It is interesting to note that “evil” could also be translated as “evil one;” indeed, some translations opt for this, or at least put it as an option in the notes. Thus, “evil one” would be a reference to the devil, and the prayer would be a petition that God not leave us in the hands of the wicked one, but deliver us from his solicitations to sin. It is either: “Lead us not into temptation so that the trial doesn’t lead to evil – deliver us from evil!” – Or, it is: “Lead us not into temptation so that we are left in the hands of the devil – deliver us from evil!”
This is consistent with the way James develops the theology of trial in the first chapter of his epistle. He begins by speaking of the benefit of trials, if we remain steadfast under them (cf. Jam. 1:3-4, 12). But then in verse 13 he warns against accusing God of tempting us to sin. Why would he do that? What is the connection between verse 13 and the first twelve verses? I think it is this: there are two ways you can respond to trial. You can remain steadfast under it and become spiritually complete (ver. 4), or you can wilt under it and sin. If the latter, we should be careful that we take responsibility for our sin; God may have sent the trial, but he did not force you to sin. This is the point of verse 13. The circumstances of the trial may be severe, but in the end the choice to sin is ours, and ours alone.
Interpreting the passage this way thus removes the objection that this is inconsistent with God’s character. But it also removes the objection that this is inconsistent with the Biblical commands to rejoice in our trials. For it is not trials in general that we are praying to avoid; we are praying against a wrong response to trials more than we are praying against the trial itself.
Before we go on to apply this text – to “improve” it, as the Puritans would have put it – I want to make one further observation. When we pray to God, “Lead us not . . .” with reference to the circumstances of our hearts and lives, we are implicitly acknowledging his sovereignty over our lives. We are confessing that God may lead us or lead us not into trials. He is not just up in heaven passively watching the decisions we make in our lives. He is guiding the paths that we take. He is the Good Shepherd that goes before us, and even if we wander off and stray he actively pursues us and brings us back to the fold. This is incredibly encouraging to me. We are not here to make it to heaven on our own. God is not just at the end of the race waiting to see if we’ll make it. He is leading us. He is with us to the end of the world. And when we make it to the end, it will not be our wisdom that we will praise that got us there; it will not be our holiness or strength of character. We will place our crowns at Jesus’ feet. He is the shepherd who led us there. We’re just dumb sheep. He leadeth us! As the hymn by Joseph Gilmore so beautifully puts it:
He leadeth me, O blessed thought!
O words with heav’nly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
O words with heav’nly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
However, the main thing that I think we ought to take away from this petition is that the Christian ought to maintain a continual opposition to sin in their lives. We pray that God would not only forgive our sins, but that he would not allow us to be brought into such a condition that sin will have dominion over us. We pray that God would not only deliver us from the guilt of sin but also from the grip of sin, from its power as well as from its penalty. We cannot pray for one without the other. We cannot believably ask that God forgive our sins as long as we are unwilling to root them out of our lives. The question then, is, how do we root sin out of our hearts and lives?
First, we need to start with what the Bible says about sin. It is no safe thing to start with “what feels right.” In fact, the Bible itself warns against that approach to ethics. If we go down the “follow your heart” approach that is so often advocated by the culture, we will inevitably go wrong. The reason is that our hearts, even if they have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, are not completely pure. We have sinful hearts, which means that we have deceitful, lying hearts. As the prophet Jeremiah put it, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). It’s why the Scripture tells us, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12). It seemed right to Eve to eat the fruit: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen. 3:6). Good for food, delight to the eyes, wisdom: who can argue with that? But there was one problem: God told them not to eat of the tree. That was the only reason. Adam and Eve probably would not have been able to come up with some scientific data suggesting that eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil gave those who ate it was bad for your health. The only reason for them not to eat it had to do with God’s command. Even so, you and I may find a dozen seemingly good reasons to do something that God’s word forbids; but if God forbids it, it is wrong. And just as Adam and Eve brought an innumerable host of evil into the world by a seemingly innocuous act, even so we should not be surprised if seemingly harmless sin brings incalculable harm once it is committed.
We need to be constantly reminding ourselves of Scriptural definitions of sin. Even if the world agrees that something is wrong, we should still not be satisfied with the world’s definitions of the boundaries of the sin and the ways to deal with it. We need to go back to the Bible. And if the world tells you something is right when God’s word says that it is wrong, you need to listen to God’s word and not the world.
A few weeks ago, here in Stephenville the tornado sirens went off several times. Now suppose a person went out in their yard, looked around, and saw a few clouds swirling around but no tornados and thus concluded that there was no danger. Such a person would have been foolish. There are probably expert opinions behind the decision to sound the sirens, and most of us are not experts when it comes to predicting tornados. It behooves us to take shelter when the sirens go off. Even so, you and I are not experts when it comes to evaluating the criteria for sin. We need to listen for the tornado sirens of God’s word and take shelter when he tells us to.
Second, we need to strive for universal holiness. In other words, we need to beware of striving against some sins while we leave others alone. In particular, we need to fight against the “small” sins as well as the “big” sins. We need to fight against the secret sins as well as the more public sins. We need to fight the sins that are our besetting sins as well as the besetting sins of others. It is the easiest thing in the world to strive against some sins. All of us have besetting sins, and with these sins we tend to be a lot more understanding and lenient. But we are not being serious about holiness unless we also strive against these sins as well.
We need to be especially careful about fighting those sins that no one else can see, and which are not obvious to others. There are some sins we can hide from other people with little problem, at least for a while. But if we are not serious about rooting them out as well as the others, then we are not serious about repenting of sin and pursuing holiness. We can sometimes convince ourselves that a little sin is okay because it is little. After all, we are sinners, we tell ourselves, and God will forgive our sins. Surely God expects it, doesn’t he? He loves us anyway, doesn’t he? Such thinking betrays a sickly soul. “Though we seem to have a zeal in other things, yet if one lust be indulged, we shall soon swerve from our duty. True obedience to God in inconsistent with the dominion of any one lust or corrupt affection” (Thomas Manton, Works, Vol 1, p. 211).
I had a friend who at one point lived in Africa. He would leave his plate out in the evening and let the one or two ants come by and pick the scraps off the plate, thinking this was innocent enough. He didn’t realize how seriously wrong he was until one night he awoke to his house full of these army ants. He barely got out of the house with his life. After getting outside and rolling in the dirt to get the ants off his body, he ran from his house to the nearest village. When he came back the next day, there was a column of ants going into his house and a column of ants going out of his house (carrying things off!). They did this for three days. You see, the one or two ants went and told their buddies. Even so, the one or two lusts that we cherish will go and tell their buddies, and you can be sure that they will come back and ransack your soul. The apostle Peter put it this way: “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).
Third, we need to set our hearts against sin. It is not enough to be satisfied with external holiness. This was the mistake of the Pharisees. It is much easier to deal with behavior, and even to modify wrong behavior, when the heart is still unchanged. A change of behavior might in fact be nothing more than another way to hide our sin. This does not mean, of course, that changing our behavior is unnecessary. It is just not enough. It is necessary, just not sufficient.
What I mean by this is that we not only should see a need for a change of behavior, but we also need to hate the sin. We need to set ourselves against it. It is said that to confess our sin means that we agree with God about our sin. We know that God hates it, and thus so must we. There are plenty of people throughout history who have come to see that they have sinned but who never really changed where it counted. Pharaoh admitted to Moses that he had sinned, but this was not accompanied by a change of heart. In fact, he continued to harden his heart. Judas admitted that he had sinned against the innocent blood, but that did not change the fact that he remained at the heart-level impenitent. He went out and hung himself and went straight to hell. Even so, it is possible to see that we have sinned, and even to feel some level of remorse for the sin. But if we do not from the heart hate the sin that we have committed, not because of the trouble it has brought or might bring, but because it is loathsome in itself and odious to God, then we have not truly repented of our sin.
It is really just not possible to remain neutral about sin. Therefore, if we don’t learn to hate it, it follows that we will continue to cherish it. And if we cherish it, we have not repented of it. The psalmist gives us the following exhortation, which we would do well to take heed: “O you who love the LORD, hate evil!” (Ps. 97:10). And the apostle Paul tells us that we are to abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good (Rom. 12:9).
The only way to do this, as indicated by the verses above, is by what Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” It is not enough simply to hate the sin, we must love Jesus Christ. It is only when he has won over our hearts that we will part with sin at the heart level. We must delight ourselves in the Lord (Ps. 37:4). It is a vain thing simply to try to see the ugliness of sin. We can only see the ugliness of sin when Christ has won our hearts. And the only way we can see Christ is as he is displayed to us in the gospel and in the Word. So as we seek to set ourselves against sin, let us not do so in a legalistic way but in a gospel way. Let us fall more in love with Jesus Christ. It is then that we will truly part with sin.
Finally, we need to actively put ourselves in the way of the means of grace. I just mean by this that we need to be consistently in prayer and in the word of God. We need to be in the company of godly friends who will hold us accountable and ask us the hard questions. We need to be under the preaching of the word. Sanctification and growth in holiness do not happen automatically; it has to be cultivated. We see that implied in this prayer. Part of the sanctification process is bound up in our prayer life. Here in this text we are told to pray that God would deliver us from evil, to make us into holy men and women.
There are so many reasons we can take not to do this. We can use our health, our schedule, our busyness, and our responsibilities, as reasons that we don’t have time to pursue Christ in the means of grace. But if you and I are not willing to do this, then we can expect to have little, if any, growth in grace. In the end, spiritual slothfulness will ruin us, and our excuses will be seen in the light of eternity to be like that of the sluggard who said there was a lion in the streets, and then went back to sleep. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard,” can be applied to spiritual sloths just appropriately as it can to physical sloths. Let us therefore bend our souls to seek our Lord in his word and prayer.
Why should I play with sin? It is sin that has caused all the evil in this world. But more than that, it is sin that put the sinless Son of God on the cross. My sin, your sin! Is that not reason enough to hate it? How can we say we believe in the atonement and play with sin? May we look to Christ crucified so that our sin will first of all be washed in his blood, and then so that as we behold him on the cross we lose any appetite that we have for sin. And let us say with Paul, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:14-15).