For all their differences, Pope Francis and David Bowie have something in common—changes is a song sung by both of them. The latest change proposed by the pope concerns the wording of the Lord’s Prayer, specifically the sixth petition (Matt 6:13). Here’s how Anthony Esolen explains the pope’s logic: “Lead us not into temptation should be rendered as let us not fall into temptation, because a loving Father does not subject His children to evil.”
Esolen gives a few reasons why he thinks the wording should not be changed:
- The words in Greek are clear and their are no textual variants.
- The task of the translator is to render what the words mean, literally.
- All attempts to justify an alteration on linguistic grounds fail.
- The proposed change replaces translation with theological exegesis.
On the one hand, even if it isn’t accurate, the change isn’t that big of a deal. Dynamic equivalence translators do this sort of thing with the biblical text all the time—prioritizing the thought over the words, not demanding lexical fidelity, bringing out the perceived meaning above all. Still I think there are good reasons to keep the text as is.
Translators have offered various renderings of this verse over time:
The only difference between the pope’s suggestion and the most common translation (Tyndale’s) is related to the verb. Should it be “do not bring us into” or “do not let us fall into”? Active action or permissive consent? The meaning of the noun is significant as well—temptation. Of course the whole reason the pope is suggesting the change is because of what he thinks the correct words incorrectly imply (probably to the theologically unlearned). The New York Times reported that, to the pope, “the basic question… is whether God brings humans into temptation or whether ‘it is human weakness to surrender to the blandishments of the evil one.'”
The question comes down to linguistics and theology.
Linguistically there is no problem with the translation as it stands.
Before we can ascertain what the Bible means, we must first pin down what the Bible says. This is the most basic goal of translation. If we believe a text to be divinely inspired, word by word, then this becomes especially important. Luther, for all his desire to make his translation “a genuine folk Bible,” made use of the most scholarly aids available at the time, including Erasmus’ Greek text and Reuchlin’s work in Hebrew. For Luther and Tyndale, gaining access to the inspired words meant the overthrow of an entire system propped up by certain misleading translations (ex. “do penance” became “repent”).
Heiko Oberman describes Luther’s approach to the text:
The exegete should treat a difficult scriptural passage no differently than Moses did the rock in the desert, which he smote with his rod until water gushed out for his thirsty people….But for the biblical text to be really penetrated by it, the rod of faith must be wielded with the help of scholarly aids, particularly of linguistic research. Conceptual and grammatical clarity are and remain the basis and the regulating mechanism of theological exegesis.
Conceptual and grammatical clarity—this was the goal of the rallying cry, ad fontes, that resounded in the 1500s. Erasmus wrote to Pope Leo X that the goal of his 1516 Greek New Testament was to allow Christians to “draw from the fount rather than the muddy ponds and rivulets.” Dynamic translations, for all their beauty and benefit, often make interpretive decisions on behalf of the reader instead of giving the reader the words of the author as far as intelligibly possible. I don’t think translators must give us a “pitilessly literal translation” to escape being called traitors, but when the original words are clear and intelligible, our prejudgments must be judged by God’s revelation.
In his 1872 commentary on the Lord’s prayer, Edward Robinsons highlights the basic issue,
We must observe what the written language is, ascertain with what signification it was given, and employ it with its original meaning and intended application. Christ knew what was best for us to say; and it becomes us, as nearly as possible, to use the very words He commanded.
After citing early exegetes who “softened the harshness of this expression” in Matthew 6:13, Hermann Witsius (d. 1708) says,
But it is not consistent with modesty to take so much upon us as to venture to correct wisdom itself. We must not change the words of Christ, for which no mortal can substitute any that are more appropriate. But we ought to examine their true sense.
Not over-translating the Greek or Hebrew may at times lead to ambiguous or difficult texts. But the truth is not always so simple or insipid, and if we simplify it we may inadvertently reduce its full interpretive potential.
Barth, who was never known for his simplicity, once responded to a critic who claimed that “simplicity is the mark of divinity”:
He who is now concerned with truth must boldly acknowledge that he cannot be simple. In every direction human life is difficult and complicated….Men will not be grateful to us if we provide them with short-lived pseudo-simplifications. Does the general demand for simplicity mean more than a desire… that truth should be expressed directly, without paradox, and in such a way that it can be received otherwise than by faith alone?
So are the original words, “Do not bring us into temptation,” clear? Yes they are. The only two variables here involve the verb and the noun. The verb (eisphero) means “to bring into”. Besides the two instances in the Lord’s prayer, this verb occurs only six times in the New Testament. Every time it clearly indicates an active process of bringing a person or thing to a place. In these six instances, it is impossible to translate eisphero as “to let fall into” without rendering the passages unintelligible. An OT (LXX) test case is Song of Songs 1:4, “The king brought me into his chambers.” The suggested alternative would make this, “The king let me fall into his chambers.” Ouch! Some King.
Since the meaning of the verb is clear, we should let it stand in our translations.
Theologically there is no problem with the translation as it stands.
But of course, the only reason the translation of the verb is under scrutiny is because of its connection with the subject, God, and the object, “temptation” (peirasmos). This begs a theological question. But here again there is no foul. The Greek word for peirasmos can mean either trial or temptation. It doesn’t necessarily mean “enticement to sin.” God certainly tests and tries His people throughout the Bible. He tests, but He does not tempt. However, inherent in every test, there is a temptation, the most fundamental one being to not trust, believe, or obey God, or, in biblical language, to test God.
For God to test His people implies a situation of possible temptation. But this doesn’t necessarily lead to or equate sin. Jesus was tempted and was without sin (Heb 4:15). So for God to bring us into temptation doesn’t mean that God entices us to sin or that He causes us to sin. Notice what is not being said—that God is tempting us to sin. If God tempted us to sin, He would be unmasked as the devil. The New Testament is very clear that God tempts no one with evil (James 1:13) and that Satan is the tempter (Matt 4:1, 3; 1 Cor 7:5; 1 Thes 3:5). At most, this petition indicates that God may bring us into a situation in which there is temptation. He may bring us into the domain of temptation but not under the dominion of temptation.
Although God does allow us to be tempted, in His goodness and faithfulness He also makes a way out.
No temptation has taken you except that which is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow that you be tempted beyond what you are able, but will, with the temptation, also make the way out, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor 10:13)
1 Corinthians 10:13 is key to understanding the meaning of Matthew 6:13. N.T. Wright sees 1 Corinthians 10 as “a practical commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, particularly on its concluding clauses.” The thought embodied in this petition is, “don’t bring me into temptation in such a way that I fall into sin.” This is corroborated by the next half of the petition, “but deliver me from the evil one.” The threat here is the devil, the tempter, not God, the deliverer.
God doesn’t tempt us, but He may lead us into a place where there is temptation as a test or trial. If we aren’t in the sphere of temptation we should pray, “Do not bring me into temptation.” If we find ourselves already in a trying environment, we should pray, “Deliver me from the evil one.” God’s purpose is always good. Since there is no theological dilemma or contradicting verses, the wording of the prayer doesn’t need changing.
This petition implies God’s sovereignty and God’s grace. In fact, in all three of the last petitions of the Lord’s prayer we have a gracious revelation of the Triune God—our provider (Father), our redeemer (Son), and our deliverer (Holy Spirit). These three petitions find poetic resonance a thousand years before, in one of David’s psalms:
I am poor [forgive our debts] and needy [give us our bread]; O God, hasten to me. You are my help and my Deliverer [deliver us from the evil one]. (Psa 70:5)
Why would God let His people be tempted?
Still this leaves unanswered the question of why God would allow us to be brought into the domain of temptation.
John Gill (d. 1771) gives a typically effusive answer, which I quote at length:
We are not here taught to pray against temptations at all, or in any sense, for they are sometimes needful and useful; but that they may not have the power over us, and destroy us. There are various sorts of temptations. There are the temptations of God; who may be said to tempt, not by infusing anything that is sinful, or by soliciting to it; but by enjoining things hard and disagreeable to nature, as in the case of Abraham; by afflicting, either in body or estate, of which Job is an instance; by permitting and letting loose the reins to Satan, and a man’s own corruptions; by withdrawing his presence, and withholding the communications of his grace; and sometimes by suffering false prophets to arise among his people: his ends in them are on his own account, the display of his power, grace, wisdom, and faithfulness; on account of his Son, that his saints might be like him, and he might have an opportunity of exercising his power and pity; and on his people’s account, that they might be humbled; their faith and patience tried; might see their weakness, and need of Christ, and be excited to prayer and watchfulness. There are also the temptations of Satan; which lie in soliciting to evil, suggesting hard and blasphemous thoughts of God, and filling with doubts and fears; which are cunningly formed by him, and are very afflictive. There are moreover the temptations of the world, which arise from poverty and riches, from the men of the world, the lusts of it, and from both its frowns and flatteries: add to all this, that there are temptations arising from a man’s own heart. Now, in this petition, the children of God pray, that they may be kept from every occasion and object of sinning; from those sins they are most inclined to; that God would not leave them to Satan, and their own corrupt hearts; nor suffer them to sink under the weight of temptations of any sort; but that, in the issue, they might have a way to escape, and be victorious over all.
Augustine answers more briefly, from a different angle:
By tempting you, by drawing you out, [God] may reveal what is hidden in you. For within you lie things hidden even from yourself in whom they reside. These things are discovered, brought out into the open and exposed, only by temptations. If God should cease to permit temptation, the Master would cease to teach.
There are many beneficial reasons why God would allow us to experience temptation. Through them, God is manifested, man is exposed, and Christ is experienced. He wants us to know Him in His power, grace, and faithfulness, He wants us to see Christ in His tested yet perfect humanity as our prototype—the one in who’s image we are created and long to become—and He wants us to know ourselves in our utter frailty and undependability so that we would cling to Him, as children to their Father, and not brag like teenagers about our foolhardy independence. The whole thrust of the “second tablet” of the Lord’s prayer is to remind us that we are dependents, children.
If we confess our weakness God will often spare us the trial. If we are self-confident and proud, He will bring us into trial to expose and humble us. This is exactly what happened to Peter in denying the Lord (the Lord had reminded him to make use of this part of the Lord’s prayer, Matt 26:41).
The being and economy of God implied in this prayer.
This prayer is not merely a model prayer but also a revelation. Joseph Ratzinger says “we must strive to recognize the thoughts Jesus wished to pass on to us in these words.” What is the divine thought and deeper denotation of these words?
Watchman Nee points us in the right direction:
Although the Lord taught us to pray just these few sentences, we can see what God wants us to pray in these few thousand years. All of God’s desire and all that He is intent on accomplishing speedily are expressed through this prayer. This prayer shows forth God’s eternal will and God’s desire toward man.
All of God’s desire! To explore this, we need to see that the Lord’s prayer captures two of Luther’s critical insights—that we are “simultaneously just and sinners” and that in union with Christ there is a “joyful exchange.” Our unshakeable righteous position is seen in the first three petitions (vv. 9-10) and our lingering sinful condition is seen in the last three (vv. 11-13). The first three petitions reveal to what heights God has called us to participate in His cause, while the second three petitions reveal to what depths God has stooped to participate in our cause. The two movements—lifting and lowering—imply a joyful exchange. In these two movements we can detect the bidirectional movement of the whole economy of God—man’s exaltation and God’s humiliation—that in Christ God became man to accomplish redemption and impart His life into His chosen people so that in Christ man may become the same as God in life and nature but not in the Godhead for the bringing in of God’s kingdom and for God’s expression in glory. This is the fulfillment of Genesis 1:26 (image and dominion) through man’s full salvation.
Forgiveness and justification are implied in the second half, sanctification and deification in the first. Justification is first in terms of order (justification precedes deification), but deification is first in terms of intention (justification is for deification). Justification is first as basis and second as presupposition; deification is first as aim and second as consequence.
Augustine captures this twofold movement and relation:
He who justifies is the same who deifies because by justifying he made [human persons] into children of God: he gave them power to become children of God (Jn 1:12). If we are made God’s children, we are made gods.
The two words that indicate this process are forgive and Father. It is only through incarnation that God can forgive us. It is only through regeneration that God can become our Father. But Augustine equates regeneration with deification, since calling God our Father implies that we are the same as God in life and nature. It is only as such that we can cooperate with God to sanctify His name, bring in the kingdom, and do His will. Working with God requires this kind of ever-developing constitution.
The opening words, our Father, indicate the deep denotations of this prayer. This prayer reveals God for us, and us for God. “God is for us” (Rom 8:31). Paul states this at the end of Romans 8, a chapter on what the divine life will do in our tripartite being to conform us to the image of God’s Firstborn Son. God’s being for us involves much more than redemption. It involves His organic operation to make us the same as He is. Only as this is actually happening in us can we be truly for Him and work together with Him.
This can be seen in type in the Song of Songs. At the end of chapter 6, Solomon’s lover has become Shulammite (v. 13), his duplication (Shulammite is the feminine form of the Hebrew word Solomon). Only now, because she is one with him, can she work with him, as seen in chapter 7 (vv. 11-12). To work with the Lord we must become the same as Him. As justified and being deified sons we are enabled to participate in His need; as justified yet still sinful sons we need Him to continually participate in our need. Even at the end of the Song of Songs, the Shulammite, who has reached such spiritual heights (“beautiful as the moon, clear as the sun”, 6:10) is figuratively reminded that she is nothing more than a sinner saved by grace—”I awakened you under the apple tree: there your mother was in labor with you; there she was in labor and brought you forth” (8:5).
Witness Lee comments on this verse:
Here, at the consummation of her Christian life, the Lord reminds His lover that even now she is nothing—a sinner saved by the grace of Christ.
Temptation and debt remind us of our nothingness and neediness, but even though we confess this in the second three petitions, we boldly take up our standing and calling in the first three petitions, remembering that,
[Our God] is not a solitary God who wills to work and create, to fight and win, to rule and triumph alone….He does not will to be God without us, or to exist as such. He calls us to His side. He summons us to make His purposes and aims the object of our own desire. Hence He takes no account of our godlessness.
Because of what Christ has done, because God is our Father, and because the devil’s power is “only a pseudo power” we make our petition with joyful confidence.
The two great movements of the joyful exchange are the heart of what Paul outlines in the christological hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 and so Barth concludes a short section on the Lord’s prayer with this remark: “What we can and should pray is thus indissolubly united in the work of Jesus Christ.” The work of Christ is to unite God and man through incarnation, redemption, and resurrection for the Triune God’s glory and reign. Thus, in praying this prayer, Jesus “leads us into the interior dialogue of triune love”, that is into the good pleasure of the Triune God Himself. This prayer is much more than a how-to on prayer; it is a revelation of the being and economy of the Triune God. Seen in this light, this prayer is “all-inclusive.”
The Lord’s prayer crystallizes out of the Lord’s experience of temptation.
There is one more reason I think it is better to leave the standard translation as is. That is because it seems to me that what the Lord teaches us to pray in Matthew 6 is a crystallization of His own experience of being tempted in Matthew 4 (see chart).
Chapter 4 begins by telling us that “Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” Here it is—God bringing a person into temptation, but not doing the tempting. This should not only resolve the difficulty in the Lord’s prayer, but also cast light on it. The Son, as the second man, was led by the Spirit into temptation in obedience to the Father to overcome and humiliate Satan through the testing of his perfect humanity. Adam failed the test at the beginning of human history, Antichrist will fail the test at the end of human history, but Christ passed the test at the hinge of human history. Only He has fully entered into temptation and emerged fully victorious. That victory in His human living made possible His substitutionary death on the cross for us, who have so often experienced defeat in temptation.
The writer of Hebrews connects the Son’s past temptation with our current temptation. As our high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Christ is now ministering His perfected humanity (Heb 5:9-10) into us whenever we come forward to Him in prayer, so that He can bring us to perfection (6:1) for the corporate expression of God in humanity. Right in the middle of this thread of verses “the day of trial (peirasmos) in the wilderness” is mentioned, linking Israel’s historical failure with Christ’s historical victory “in the wilderness.” Because He was tempted in all respects like us, He sympathizes with the feeling of our weaknesses and desires to dispense Himself into us as mercy and grace. But it is our feeling of our own weaknesses that presses us to come forward to Him. And it is only as we continually come forward to Him in prayer (and, here, specifically through the Lord’s prayer) that He is able to save us to the uttermost.
For being tempted (peirazo) in that which He Himself has suffered, He is able to help those who are being tempted (peirazo). (2:18)
Do not harden your hearts as in the provocation, in the day of trial (peirasmos) in the wilderness. (3:8)
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted (peirazo) in all respects like us, yet without sin. Let us therefore come forward with boldness to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace for timely help. (4:15-16)
Hence also He is able to save to the uttermost those who come forward to God through Him, since He lives always to intercede for them. (7:25)
Incredibly, under the Father’s wise hand, temptation becomes an opportunity to experience the Lord’s high priestly ministry to save us to the uttermost! God may lead us into the sphere of temptation so that Christ has a greater opening in our being into which He can dispense Himself in His perfected and divinized humanity. By doing so He reproduces Himself in us so that His life of fulfilling the first three petitions is lived again in us. (see chart)
There are no good linguistic reasons for changing the Lord’s prayer. Theologically, changing the Lord’s prayer only makes sense if temptation/trial necessarily equals sin. But, as is shown in the case of Jesus, temptation itself is not sin. Furthermore, it is clear from Scripture that God does test His people for good and beneficial reasons, even though in every test there is the temptation to sin, i.e. for them to test Him. Even if we fall when tempted, God in His wisdom uses this to increase our realization of our need for Him. This realization strips us of our self-confidence and activates our latent longing as images of God to become more fully our exemplar, Christ. Now with greater feeling we come forward to our great high priest in prayer and He ministers Himself in His tempted yet perfected humanity into us. Through this dispensing He lives again in us to fulfill the first three petitions.
It takes the only wise God to turn the tables on the devil (the tempter) so that his only weapon (temptation) becomes an “ugly tool” in the hands of God to further His purpose and undo the devil’s works (1 John 3:8). In the final analysis, “The theological concept clearly to be seen here is that God Himself constantly directs history and that all events are subordinate to His saving purpose….The peirasmos of His people is a means to fulfill this purpose.”
1. Reading the introductions to the GNB, NLT, NIV, and others this is clear. One example will suffice: “The first concern of the translators has been… fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers.” (NIV)
2. Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, p. 305
3.ibid., p. 224
4. Erasmus, quoted by Jerry H. Bentley in Humanists and Holy Writ: New Testament Scholarship in the Renaissance, p. 124
5. I know there are limits to every kind of translation and even formal equivalent translations make concessions, but there is a big difference in their general approach. See Lelan Ryken, Understanding Bible Translation Differences, pp. 5-30
6. David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation, p. xvii
7. Edward Jewitt Robinson, How to Pray and What to Pray For, p. 117
8. Hermann Witsius, Sacred dissertations on the Lord’s Prayer, p. 355
9. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., p. 5
10. Luke 5:18-19; 12:11; Acts 17:20; 1 Tim 6:7; Heb 13:11
11. There are really three meanings because some interpreters distinguish between two types of temptation. Barth, for instance, differentiates the two in the following way. 1) Minor and provisional temptations, which are relative and bearable. God sends us these daily according to our age and state and these are necessary for our maturity. 2) The great, eschatological temptation. This is the “infinite menace of the nothingness that is opposed to God Himself.” It carries not merely a passing moral or physical danger, a momentary corruption, but “total fall, ultimate extinction….In it there is nothing good, nothing that can be of any use to us….This is not one temptation among many others, not one a shade more sad and somber, but it is the supreme temptation, whereby the impossible becomes possible.” (Prayer, pp. 59-61)
12. Abraham (Gen 22:1), through the law (Exo 20:20); at Marah (Exo 15:25); through manna (Exo 16:4); at Massah (Deut 33:8); the 40 years in the wilderness (Deut 8:2); through the remaining tribes in Canaan (Judg 3:1); Hezekiak (2 Chron 32:31); the nation of Israel (Jer 9:7).
13. John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, note on Matt 6:13a
14. Augustine, quoted by Thomas A. Hand in Agustine on Prayer, p. 48
15. Witness Lee says, “In the entire Bible, God is manifested, man is exposed, and Christ is unveiled” (Recovery Version, Deut 1:1, note 1). He demonstrates this in the book of Deuteronomy. The Lord’s prayer reveals the same three things.
16. see David Vincent Meconi, The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification. “An image for Augustine therefore not only comes from and resembles its model, but possesses an innate tendency to ‘become’ that other….It belongs to the nature of an image to strive to become the perfection upon which it is modeled….In the case of the human person, then, it follows that anyone who refuses to become like god remains false and becomes a riddle to himself. Movement must be made from remaining simply an image of and becoming and ever-increasing likeness to God” (40-41). “Where an existent reveals an image-model relationship, however, a longing for transformative communion is exhibited….The human person alone… [is] an imago that has been implanted with a nature longing to become God” (55). “The created image naturally longs to become its prototype” (70).
17. Joseph Ratzinger, says “The relationship between the two sets of petitions in the Our Father could be compared to the relationship between the two tablets of the Decalogue” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, p. 134). Watchman Nee, says something similar: “The Lord’s prayer is connected with the Ten Commandments” (CWWN 46:1307).
18. Peter likens trials to fire (1 Pet 4:12). Origen, commenting on Ezekiel 1:4, makes a connected point: “God removes evil from us in two ways, by Spirit and by fire. If we are good and attentive to his precepts, and we learn his words, he removes our evils by the Spirit [Rom 8:13]….But if the Spirit has not removed evils from us, we stand in need of the purification of fire” (Homilies on Ezekiel, 1.13). The implication is that if God doesn’t need to use the trial, He won’t.
19. Ratzinger, p.133
20. Lee, The Practice of Prophesying. “We must know not merely the text of the Scriptures in letters, but the deep denotations and spiritual significances of the Word of God” (30). Certainly the Lord’s prayer contains depths in every phrase.
21. Nee, CWWN 15:48
22. Barth, CD, III.4, 103-106
23. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 49.2
24. Ron Kangas, “Working with the Lord for His Body”. The Ministry Magazine 9.7 (2005): 266. “There are two criteria for us to work with the Lord for His Body. The first is that we need to become the same as the Lord in life, nature, expression, and function. This involves our constitution.”
25. Lee, Recovery Version, Song of Songs 8:5, note 2
26. Barth, CD III.4, 103-104
27. Barth, Prayer, p. 62
28. Barth, CD, III.4, 106
29. Ratzinger, p. 132
30. Lee, Life-Study of Matthew, p. 268
31. In his famous chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”, Dostoevsky says that the church has also failed this threefold temptation by accepting the devil’s offer. “We took from him what you so indignantly rejected.” (The Brothers Karamazov, transl. by Pevear and Volokhonsky, p. 257)
32. John Pester, “The Exhortation to Participate in the Fulfillment of the Eternal Will of God in the Epistle to the Hebrews: The Corporate Perfection of Redeemed Humanity.” Affirmation and Critique, XVI.1, (Spring 2011): 33-48
33. Lee, Life-Study of Job, p. 21
34. Heinrich Seesemann, Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6, p. 25