Was the Pope right when he changed the wording of the Lord’s Prayer?
Here is the headline in the June 7, 2019, edition of USA Today: “Pope tweaks temptation phrase in Lord’s Prayer.” Instead of “Lead us not into temptation” he wants Catholics to pray, “Do not let us fall into temptation.” This caught my attention, as you might expect. Five days later, on June 12, John Piper wrote an article in response to the Pope’s action entitled, “Reading the Bible Upside Down: Why the Pope Changed the Lord’s Prayer” (www.desiringgod.org.).
In his article, with which I am in total agreement, John points out that the major problem with what the Pope has done is to determine what being a good father is independently of Scripture and then make Scripture conform to one’s preconceived notion. He writes:
“My point here is not whether God ‘leads us into temptation.’ My point is: We should learn whether he does or not from Scripture, not from our prior notions of what good fathers do. Our notions are finite, and distorted by sin and culture. We must continually refine them by what the Bible teaches.”
My aim in this brief article is more exegetical in nature. I contend that when we take a closer look at the text, we discover that the Pope has articulated a problem that is not in the words of Jesus.
So, how do we reconcile the notion of God leading us into temptation with what James wrote: “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” (James 1:13)?
If we interpret the word “temptation” to mean a trial or test to which our faith is often subjected, we must acknowledge that God does indeed lead us into such an experience (see 1 Cor. 10:13; James 1:2-4; consider the experience of Abraham). And are we to pray for escape from those tests which James said we are to consider “all joy” (1:2), tests that the Lord employs to cultivate in us perseverance, proven character, and hope (Rom. 5:1-5; 1 Peter 1:6-7)?
I’m persuaded that the best way to interpret this petition is by addressing both parts: not only the “lead us not into temptation” (v. 13a) but also the “deliver us from evil” (v. 13b; more literally, “the evil one”). The strong adversative “but” implies that what we desire in the second half of the verse is the antithesis of what we seek to evade in the first half. In other words, rather than leading us into temptation we ask God to deliver us from the evil one. The second half of the petition defines positively what the first half states negatively. The temptation into which we ask God not to lead us is synonymous with the activity of “the evil one” (the definite article is present) from whom we desire to be delivered. “Evil,” then, is not evil or temptation in general, but specifically Satan himself (“the evil one”) who aims to seduce us into sinful wickedness.
To the Pope’s credit, he does acknowledge this as being our Lord’s point. He writes: “It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.” So, there is a sense in which the Pope has, at least in part, rightly interpreted what Jesus meant, but it does not require that we alter the words that our Lord spoke.
D. A. Carson suggests that perhaps this is an example of litotes, a figure of speech in which a point is made by negating its contrary. He writes:
“’Into temptation’ is negated: Lead us, not into temptation, but away from it, into righteousness, into situations where, far from being tempted, we will be protected and therefore kept righteous. As the second clause of this petition expresses it, we will then be delivered from the evil one” (The Sermon on the Mount, 70).
Another possibility, similar to the one posed by the Pope, is suggested by Robert Stein. He believes that behind the words “lead us not” is an Aramaic expression which “rather than asking God not to lead the Christian into temptation, is asking him not to allow him to succumb to temptation” (Difficult Passages in the Gospels, 73). Thus, whereas Stein takes the word “temptation” in its negative sense, he understands the petition to be a request that God enable us to resist it when it comes. “Let us not succumb to temptation,” therefore, is the preferable way of interpreting the prayer. Stein also believes that this interpretation of the expression is compatible with the second half of the request:
“In both petitions the believer is seeking God’s aid in times of trial and the request is made for divine deliverance from trial or evil. If it is understood as a request that God not permit the believer to succumb to temptation, this petition in the Lord’s prayer no longer poses any difficulty” (73-74).
Regardless of which view one embraces, our Lord was instructing us to pray that our heavenly Father would guard us against Satan’s efforts to cause us to sin. In other words, “lead us not into temptation” means “deliver us from the evil one.”
Before I close, there is one more thing to be noted. The USA Today article closes by pointing out that the Pope “also reportedly approved changes to The Gloria from ‘peace on Earth to people of good will’ to ‘peace on Earth to people beloved by God.’” I think the Pope is right on this one (although he likely thinks that such “people” are all people universally considered).
The angelic chorus in Luke 2:14 declares: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” Perhaps a better translation would be, “those on whom his favor rests.” The angels are not proclaiming the merits of all mankind, but the sovereign grace of God! The point is that true peace is the experience of those who are the saving focus of God’s distinguishing love. The angelic emphasis is on God’s free choice of his people and the peace he sovereignly bestows on them through the redemptive sufferings of his Son.
Those on whom God’s favor rests, his elect, delight themselves in the peace that Christ alone makes possible. Our response must be no other than that of the hosts of heaven. Let us join with them in singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”