The sixth petition of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:13; Luke 11:4) concerns something very intrusive in our life’s experience — temptation to sin. The previous petition has to do with forgiveness of sin, and so in a sense we are going back a stage to the source of sinning.
Temptation is the context of sin. Temptation arises, on the one hand, because we are fallen beings, and therefore prone to fall prey to inducements to sin; and, on the other hand, because the evil one, Satan and his hordes, are active in the world to lead people into sin.
In that connection there is a significant passage in the Gospels in which Jesus says to Simon Peter that Satan had ‘asked for him’. Why? So that he could sift him like wheat.
What hope did Peter have of overcoming that ‘sifting’? Christ says: ‘I have prayed for you’. To what end? ‘That your faith should not fail’ (Luke 22:31-32).
This tells us two important things: (1) the people of God face devilish opposition; and (2) through the Lord they will overcome.
In this fallen world, we are open to the devil’s attacks. He doesn’t make us sin. We sin by our own wills. But he will do all he can to trip us up. We are fallible and open to temptation, and he will not readily leave us alone.
He is subtle, and he is strong. Our warfare in this world is against the world, the flesh and the devil, against principalities and powers in heavenly places (Ephesians 6:11-12).
It is a striking thing that for every sin there is a temptation to sin. The people of God are in a dangerous spiritual environment, like a minefield. There can be no relaxation. Just when there seems to be some victory over sin they can so easily stumble.
This is why prayer is so important. This is why in this sixth petition we are encouraged to plead that we should not be led into temptation but delivered from the ‘evil one’. We must be ‘aware of his devices’ (2 Corinthians 2:11) and ‘resist him steadfast’ (1 Peter 5:9).
How can we do this? We resist him with the ‘whole armour of God’ (Ephesians 6:11-20).
Being led into temptation
‘And do not lead us into temptation’. Perhaps this sounds strange. But surely God does not lead us into temptation? Doesn’t James say that God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he himself tempt anyone (James 1:13)?
Isn’t it Satan who leads us in to temptation? We may resolve this ‘problem’ in one of three possible ways of understanding the phrase.
(a) First of all, we recognise that although Satan is the tempter instrumentally and does lead into temptation, yet even that is not apart from the overarching purposes of God, or outside his control.
So in praying these words we would be going straight to the one who controls all things for relief from temptation. We are aware, for instance, that the Lord’s permission was given for the ‘temptation’ of Job by Satan, and that Satan could not go further than the Lord allowed (Job 1).
Indeed, in one place God reminds Satan how Job held fast his integrity ‘although you incited me against him to destroy him without cause’.
(b) Another option is to read the phrase in this way: ‘Lord, do not allow me to be led into the way of temptation through which I may fall into sin; prevent me from going the way of temptation’. It is not clear, however, that the language actually allows this meaning.
(c) It may be, however, that the resolution of the difficulty lies simply in this, namely, that we are to understand the phrase as the statement of a negative that implies the opposite positive!
For example, one may make a statement such as: ‘I hope so and so isn’t hurt’. You mean, positively, ‘I hope so and so is, or has been, kept safe’.
So here the meaning would be: ‘Lead us not-into-temptation,’ or (rather clumsily) ‘Lead us into non-temptation’, that is to say, ‘Lead us away from temptation’.
Whichever way we take it, we are asking the Lord so to order things that we will not fall prey to temptations. We recognise the need of his grace in the face of life’s temptations. This fits in well with the second phrase of the petition.
Do not play with temptation
James established the link between temptation and sin when he wrote: ‘each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death’ (1:14-15).
In other words, there is a progression here. This is all the more reason to be aware of temptation and resist it steadfastly in the grace of the Lord.
In any drivers’ manual the rule is well settled for manoeuvring a car: mirror — signal — manoeuvre. Similarly, the believer must beware of this link: temptation — opportunity — sin.
Especially we are to watch pride, vanity and lust. We are to be aware that the ‘lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life is not of the Father but is of the world’ (1 John 2:16).
The person who has a ‘problem’ with drink should avoid walking by the public house. The person with a ‘problem’ of lust should avoid certain TV programmes or newspapers. But the list could be endless, for temptations are personal and manifold!
We are to pray: ‘deliver us from the evil one’. Some translations have ‘deliver us from evil’ (e.g. AV). John Calvin commented that ‘there is no necessity for raising a debate on this point, for the meaning remains nearly the same’.
Most commentators, however, prefer the masculine noun: ‘the evil one’. Either way, we are to pray for deliverance.
Believers have an enemy of their souls. The tempter was strong enough to bring down Adam in his innocence. Are we stronger than un-fallen Adam? We can be, but only with the Lord in our lives.
After reading John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the chief of sinners, Kenneth Macrae reflected: ‘Perusal of the book has made me realise in some measure the deadness of that state into which I have come.
‘I live as though Satan were a myth. Is it not high time to bestir myself out of this spiritual sloth lest I become a castaway? May the Lord have mercy upon me! We are not half aware of the reality of the work of Satan and of his extraordinary subtlety.’
Dr Lloyd-Jones wrote in much the same vein: ‘I am certain that one of the main causes of the ill state of the Church today is the fact that the devil is being forgotten’. The believer is to be aware of Satan’s devices and to be clad with all the armour of God: truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, the Word of God, prayer, ‘being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication’.
Our Lord was ‘in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). He was tempted in the wilderness by the devil for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11). The question is, how did he resist steadfastly?
(a) First of all, he was filled with the Spirit (Luke 4:1). Though we will not have the Spirit without measure as he did, yet we are exhorted to ‘be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18). He will give the Spirit (in this sense) to those who ask (Luke 11:13).
(b) In addition, he possessed a spirit of worship. During his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness we notice that he fasted (Matthew 4:2). Throughout his time on earth, he constantly gave himself to prayer and encourages us also (as in this prayer) to petition the Lord for strength to overcome temptation. That is a great tool against the wiles of the evil one.
(c) Thirdly, we notice how he used the Word of God. He answers the devil with the Word, declaring, ‘It is written!’ (Matthew 4:4,6,7,10). Familiarity with the Word is a great tool with which to resist the devil. We are to pray for deliverance, and adopt the God-given weapons to put him to flight!
A vital petition
If Christian witness is going to be effective, we must overcome temptation. The evil one must not get the upper hand. He must be resisted.
The people of God have to be vigilant, for the devil is going around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8).
The people of God must know their own hearts, and the constant potential there is for fearful sin. Consequently they must cry out ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’.
It is always an encouragement to remember, of course, that he who ‘was tempted as we are yet without sin’ is our great High Priest, who sympathises with us in our weakness (Hebrews 4:14-15) and intercedes for his own before the Father in heaven (Hebrews 7:25).
How much we owe to his intercession!