This phrase, “and lead us not into temptation,” has been the source of much debate over the years, and for good reason. The question of whether or not God causes us to sin, or at the very least intentionally places us in circumstances where we are tempted to sin, is one with huge implications for the holiness and goodness of God. This can seem especially challenging for those of us who believe in God’s complete sovereignty over all things, including all evil and sin and sickness. If we conclude simply that God does not do the tempting himself, but allows, and even leads, his people into temptation (or trials, as the Greek word in this verse can be rendered), does that not make the sovereign God culpable in some way for our sin?
I could bring up a number of theological positions on this, or attempt to delve into the philosophy of causality; but instead, let’s look at the Scripture text at hand as well as some associated ones to see if any clear answer(s) can be found.
James 1:13-15 make it very plain that God is not the source of our temptations, but rather we are “lured and enticed by [our] own desire.” James goes so far as to state emphatically, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God.’” In other words, temptation ultimately comes from unfulfilled desires within us. Yes, if we are “in Christ” we are new creations and have been given new hearts that are inclined toward God; but, because we live in a corrupt world in these “bodies of death” (the “flesh” that Paul talks about extensively in Romans and his other Epistles), we still struggle and strive to live as people set free from sin.
Jesus even juxtaposes these concepts of spirit and flesh when he warns the Disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” These passages seem to indicate that temptation is internal to us and arises from the weakness of our flesh. While Scripture is clear that God is not the one who tempts us, the question raised by Matthew 6:13 remains: does God “lead us” into circumstances or places where we will be tempted?
There are instances, such as in the book of Job and where Jesus tells Peter that Satan had asked and been granted permission to “sift [him] like wheat” that the devil is allowed (with limitations) to put God’s people through trials and temptations. Even more clearly, Matthew tells us in chapter four the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil” (emphasis mine). While Jesus’ circumstances and purpose were unique, His intentional temptation shows us two things: God was not the source of the temptations, the devil was; yet, God the Spirit explicitly led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Therefore, God’s Word reveals to us that God does, in fact, in His sovereignty allow and even enable his people to be tempted.
Now, before we jump to any conclusions about God’s character and culpability as an active agent in our sin, consider these things:
First and foremost, read the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 10:13 where he says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” This verse really defuses any argument we may form. The bottom line is that God, in his sovereignty, allows us to be tempted, but also in his sovereignty restrains the tempter and graciously provides “a way escape” for us so that giving in to temptation and sinning is not our only option.
However, pay attention as well to the words in the verse that immediately follows, where Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” We have a responsibility to take an active role in the avoidance of temptation and sin. We can’t just pray that God will lead us away from temptation and do nothing ourselves to combat it, and then blame God when we fall into sin. Paul admonishes Timothy to “flee youthful lusts.” He doesn’t tell him to remain in compromising circumstances and just pray for God to help him. He says, “flee!” In other words, take action!
Because God is sovereign over all things, including the Devil and sin, and because God “works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose,” we can find our answer (and hope) in that God uses temptations – and even our sin – to bring about sanctification and holiness in our lives. For the unsaved, sin leads only to the “heaping up of wrath,” judgment and death (consider also 2 Peter 2). For God’s children, His elect, sin can lead us to repentance and a greater love and appreciation for what Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross – “he who has been forgiven much loves much.”
So, what do we do with “and lead us not into temptation”? Two final thoughts.
The first is that we can view this as a way by which we, in our prayers, acknowledge those things that tempt us and are the “sins which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1). This helps us in our “fleeing” as we identify and call out sin in our lives for what it is. The second is that we can see Jesus creating a contrast here between temptation and deliverance from evil. His statement is hyperbolic in way. Rather than being led away into a situation where sin is lurking we should seek deliverance from evil – something on the polar opposite side of the spectrum. It’s similar to when Jesus said that we should “hate” our father, mother, brothers and sisters compared to how much we love him. He’s not advocating that we actually hate our families, but rather that our love for him would be so great, even extreme, that it makes our love for our families appear to be on the same side of hate on a scale depicting levels of our love.
Thus, our prayer and desire should be to abhor and shun evil so much in order to obey and love our Father in heaven that everything else be viewed as temptation and illicit desire. We need to have a passion for holiness so intense that we are willing to give up any earthly pleasure, activity or relationship to pursue God. That’s what loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength looks like. Sound impossible? Yes, but it’s our calling – “Be holy as I am holy.” It’s only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to live in a way that’s pleasing to him; and, thanks be to God, we have forgiveness through Jesus Christ when we fall short of this calling.