Jesus teaches us to pray, “Father in heaven…lead us not into temptation.” Temptation. What exactly is that? There is a lot of confusion out there because of this word.
Some churches will say things only count as sin if we actually do them with our hands. It is only murder if I physically pommel someone. It is only adultery if I actually do it. It is only stealing if I actually take it.
On the flip side, you have those who will say you have sinned even if you have simply thought about breaking a commandment. Because the thought occurred to you to punch your co-worker in the nose, you have already sinned.
Neither of these is exactly accurate, but the answer is not easy. It is notoriously difficult to draw a bold dark line between temptation and sin. The line is not bold and distinct, but, due to our sinful nature, it is foggy and hard to see.
We know that temptation is not sin. If you have the thought to break the commandments of God you are not sinning. But if you indulge that thought you are. Not just outwardly, but inwardly.
Jesus warns that anger and hate is as damning as real violence. Lust is just as sinful as fornication. Greed and jealousy is as deadly a poison as stealing. The fantasy of the mind is just as sinful as the actions of the hands.
In his commentary of the Lord’s Prayer, Dr Jeff Gibbs of Concordia Seminary helps to cut through some of this confusion by explaining that the word “temptation” indicates “combat with Satan and his forces and his ways”. In other words, temptation is spiritual warfare.
And so our sin when dealing with temptation comes not so much from our thoughts as it does from our position toward those thoughts. Are we fighting Satan and his temptations with the Word of God and prayer, or are we letting the devil have his way with us? Are we active or passive? Are we engaging in battle, fighting back, or do we lay down our weapons, throw up our arms, and surrender?
As we follow Jesus in this life we will be attacked by the devil. He will be set us with all manner of temptations to evil. Where ever we are weakest, there the devil strikes. I heard one theologian put it this way:
Imagine that you are transported to an island where you could do whatever you wanted. You could have anything your heart desired, and no one, not even God would ever know about it. There would be zero consequences for your actions and your wishes. What would you ask for? What would you do? Those are your greatest temptations. And that is where the devil will strike. That is where he will attempt to destroy you. (from Dr. Russell Moore)
This is the night of temptation for Jesus. Not only did He institute the Lord’s Supper, but He also went out into the garden to pray, and there He wrestled with His own human will and submitted it to God’s.
While we are not told that the devil was there in the garden, we can be sure that he had a vested interest in Jesus’ disobedience to God.
Jesus is tempted, but He does not sin. When His human nature is confronted with certain, torturous, death He has a very human response: He does not want to die! The temptation is to value His human will over the divine will of His Father.
How does Jesus wrestle with this temptation? Is He actively fighting or passively caving in? He fights. He wrestles. He drops to His knees and prays. “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Martin Luther follows this in the Large Catechism in his commentary on this petition. He says that these words, when we are beset with temptation, should be our mantra. They are to be our constant prayer: “Dear father, lead me not into temptation.”
More than that, Luther explains, these words are a club with which to bludgeon the devil. When he attacks, we fight back with this prayer. We beat him with this club, and eventually he cannot help but give in. The temptation will submit to God in this petition.
As fallen human beings we are not as ferocious in battle as we ought to be. Jesus never faltered. He never went passive. But we do. We do not always pick up the club of prayer. We do not fight back with all our might. We fall into temptation when we are attacked by the devil.
All this drives us into repentance. Our weakness, our passivity in the midst of spiritual warfare, drives us back to the one who did fight, the one who conquered, the one who on this night overcame His own temptations. We are driven to the one Man who broke the power of every temptation with His death and resurrection.
Jesus has taken the punishment for every time we have given into temptation. He has overcome that same punishment with His resurrection. And His victory becomes a guarantee to all who believe that one day temptations will be no more. We shall be resurrected completely free from their lure and power.
Until that day there is a battle raging. We are following our Lord Jesus from the font of baptism until the day of the resurrection. As we follow we will be attacked. We will be tested. We will be tempted.
Sometimes, probably more often than we care to admit, we will fall to that temptation. As I said, the line is foggy. It is difficult to see. If you think you have fallen, don’t debate the issue. When in doubt, repent. Jesus will forgive. That is the purpose for which He has come.
This petition is our club to beat back the enemy. We pray, relying not on our power or purity, but on our Father to bring us through. The words that Jesus teaches us to pray beat the temptation over the head until at last it submits to the will of God and leaves us alone.