Does the Lord's Prayer really say "lead us not into temptation?"

by Luke Wayne
1/8/2018

When Jesus disciples asked Him how to pray, He gave them a model prayer which, traditionally translated, includes a clause asking God to "lead us not into temptation." Some have often wrestled with this particular phrase, wondering why Jesus would urge Christians to pray this. Would God otherwise lead Christians into temptation? God doesn't lead people into temptation, does He?

This so troubled the modern Roman Catholic pontiff, Pope Francis I, that he declared the translation should rather be rendered, "do not let us fall into temptation." Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, similarly claimed in his supposedly divinely inspired translation of the Bible that the proper wording is "suffer us not to be led into temptation," or "let us not be led into temptation." These revisions, however, are based on personal discomfort with Jesus' wording rather than on facts. Whether we like it or not, Jesus definitely taught His disciples to pray "lead us not into temptation."

Preservation of the Text

Before we get into the correct translation, we first have to ask whether or not what we are translating is really what the gospel writers originally wrote. Has the text of the Lord's prayer been accurately preserved for us? The answer is clearly yes. The text of the Lord's prayer is independently preserved in both Matthew's and Luke's gospel, (Matthew 6:13, Luke 11:4). All of our many manuscripts of both of these texts preserve the exact same Greek wording for the phrase in question, differing only in minor spelling variations that have no impact on meaning. This wording is also preserved for us in very early Christian writings, such as the Didache (Chapter 8) and the writings of the early second-century martyr, Polycarp (Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 7), as well as numerous later church fathers, liturgies, hymns, and other writings. There is no doubt what the original text said. Our only question, then, is if we are translating that text correctly.

The Translation

It is worthy to note that the reading "lead us not into temptation," "do not lead us into temptation," or the like has been the near unanimous translation of all scholars throughout history. Ancient translations like the Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Peshitta preserve this meaning, as do classic reformation translations like those of Martin Luther and William Tyndale. It is the rendering of all the classic English translations like John Wycliffe's, the Bishop's Bible, Coverdale's Translation, the Geneva Bible, and of course, the KJV. It is also the reading of the great modern translations like the NASB, ESV, NKJV, NIV, HCSB, CSB, etc. Messianic Jewish translations like the TLV also translate it this way. Its even the rendering of classic Roman Catholic translations like the Douay-Rheims and modern Roman Catholic translations like the NJB and the various editions of the NAB carry the same basic meaning, though they render "temptation" as "trial." So, translators across cultures, centuries, languages, and theological perspectives have all grasped the Greek here the same basic way: we are to pray that God would not lead us into temptation.

The key Greek word here literally means "to lead" or "to bring." Consider the other places in the New Testament that this exact same Greek word is used:

"And some men were carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed; and they were trying to bring him in and to set him down in front of Him. But not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, into the middle of the crowd, in front of Jesus," (Luke 5:18-19).

"For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean,” (Acts 17:20).

"For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either," (1 Timothy 6:7).

"For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp," (Hebrews 13:11).

The revisionist translations simply don't work when applied elsewhere. Were the friends of the paralyzed man trying to find a way to suffer him to enter on his own? Of course not. They were trying to bring him in. Did the high priest merely allow blood into the holy place as an offering for sin? No, obviously he brought the blood into the holy place. The word here means to bring or lead. This is even further solidified by the grammar. As textual scholar Dan Wallace said:

"Not only is the Greek in both Matt 6.13 and Luke 11.4 textually certain (variants for 'do not lead us into temptation' are trivial amounting to minor spelling differences), but the syntax is clear. The verb in the petition “lead” is an aorist active subjunctive (εἰσενέγκῃς); with the negative particle, “do not lead” is the idea."1

So the proper translation is quite clear. The reason that some try to change it is not out of linguistic knowledge, but rather because they are uncomfortable with what they perceive to be the implications of Jesus' words or have their own theological agenda.

Historical Precedent for the Revision?

The modern Pope and the Mormon false prophet are not the first to raise this issue. There were, indeed, a few writers in the early church who also wrestled with this text in what, on the surface, appears a fairly similar way. The earliest and most notable of these was Tertullian. The first major church leader to write in Latin rather than Greek, this early-third-century writer commented:

"For the completeness of so brief a prayer He added—in order that we should supplicate not touching the remitting merely, but touching the entire averting, of acts of guilt—'Lead us not into temptation:' that is, suffer us not to be led into it, by him (of course) who tempts; but far be the thought that the Lord should seem to tempt, as if He either were ignorant of the faith of any, or else were eager to overthrow it," (On Prayer, Chapter 8).

At first glance, one might mistake Tertullian as agreeing with Joseph Smith that the text should be translated "suffer us not to be led into temptation." After all, the similarity in wording here is striking. But Tertullian does not believe that this is the proper translation. He rightly translates it from Greek to Latin as "lead us not into temptation." He then offers "suffer us not to be led into temptation," as an interpretation of the text, not as a rendering of the text itself. He goes on in the same passage to address the testing of Abraham and the temptation of Jesus. then, returning to the words of the prayer, he writes:

"The final clause, therefore, is consonant, and interprets the sense of 'Lead us not into temptation;' for this sense is, 'But convey us away from the Evil One,'" (On Prayer, Chapter 8).

In the passage, Tertullian is trying to explain the text in light of both the immediate context and the rest of Scripture. Yet he consistently translates the phrase as "lead us not into temptation." He understands the plain meaning to be "lead us not," thus creating the need for such explanations for those who might misunderstand Jesus' words in a ways that accuse God of tempting men to sin. Tertullian elsewhere comments:

"But in the prayer prescribed to us, when we say to our Father, 'Lead us not into temptation' (now what greater temptation is there than persecution?), we acknowledge that that comes to pass by His will whom we beseech to exempt us from it.  For this is what follows, 'But deliver us from the wicked one,' that is, do not lead us into temptation by giving us up to the wicked one, for then are we delivered from the power of the devil, when we are not handed over to him to be tempted," (De Fuga in Persecutione, Section 8).

So Tertullian paraphrases the meaning of "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one," as "do not lead us into temptation by giving us up to the wicked one, for then are we delivered from the power of the devil, when we are not handed over to him to be tempted." Thus, he recognizes that we are to ask God not to lead us into temptation, and he seeks to protect God's honor from those who might misunderstand God to be the actual tempter. He does so by rightly explaining that Satan does the tempting, but God does the leading, and it is God we are asking to lead us on paths where Satan cannot tempt or afflict us.

So while occasionally interpreting the passage in words the revisionists might like, Tertullian is quite clear that the text actually says, "lead us not into temptation." Tertullian himself translates it that way and seeks only to help the believer wrestle with the proper meaning. A few other church father's after Tertullian followed his lead, borrowing much of his language to interpret the text,2 but none of this offers any grounds to translate the text any other way than "lead us not into temptation," or something synonymous.

Joseph Smith versus Joseph Smith

It is worth briefly noting that, ironically, the Mormon prophet also provides his own refutation. Prior to his "inspired" translation of the Bible, Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Lord's Prayer in the Book of Mormon, which reads:

"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," (3 Nephi 13:12)

So, even Joseph Smith testifies that Joseph Smith was not miraculously translating the Bible.3

So then, does God tempt us?

But does this passage present us with a problem? I mean, if we are to pray asking God not to lead us into temptation, doesn't that imply that God otherwise might be the one to tempt us? How does that work, especially in light of the New Testament teaching elsewhere that God does not tempt anyone, (James 1:13)? Is there a contradiction here?

No, there is not. First of all, Jesus did not ask us to pray that God would not tempt us but rather that He would not lead us into temptation. Thus, the implication is not that God Himself might tempt us, but rather that He is the one guiding our lives and that we desire Him to lead us away from evil influences that might tempt us to sin. Indeed, the request to not lead us into temptation is followed by the phrase "but deliver us from evil." So both Jesus and James agree that it is not God who tempts us.

Secondly, the requests in the Lord's prayer are not meant to bring something to God's attention that He doesn't otherwise know. As Jesus says before offering the model prayer, "your Father knows what you need before you ask Him," (Matthew 6:8). Prayer is an act of worship and communion with God, not a means of making sure God does what we need Him to do. Indeed, the clauses of the model prayer are designed not to inform God but to transform us! When we pray "forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors," (Matthew 6:12), it is a reminder to us of our need to forgive. (Jesus says as much immediately after the prayer in verses 14-15). When we pray "give us this day our daily bread," (Matthew 6:11), it is a reminder to be content and trust God with the future. Likewise, when we pray "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil," we remind ourselves of the priority of avoiding temptation to sin and staying on the righteous path where God would lead us. We pray about these things because we need God's help. We are weak and cannot do them alone. But in praying about them, we keep them ever before our minds. It is a means God uses to conform us to His own will.

Finally, it should be noted that Jesus asks us to pray not to be lead into temptation right after He was lead into temptation on our behalf. Shortly before Jesus gives the model prayer, we are told:

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil," (Matthew 4:1).

Again, the devil is the one doing the tempting, but Jesus was led there by the Spirit. God purposefully led Jesus into temptation. Jesus faced the wiles of Satan on our behalf and came out victorious. By contrast, we are to pray in Christ's name that we, His people, not be led into temptation. If you change the words of Jesus as the Pope or the Mormon prophet propose, you disrupt the connection between Matthew 4 and Matthew 6 and thus miss part of the point! God does not tempt us and the Lord's prayer never implies that He would, but the careful wording Jesus chose in offering us a model for prayer has great importance that is lost by those who would seek to be wiser than Christ and change His words to suit their own sensibilities.