In his discussion on the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Thomas Watson notes that God does not lead anyone into temptation in the sense that he doesn’t tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). God doesn’t entice or encourage his creatures to sin. As Watson says, “He permits sin, but does not promote it…What king will tempt his subjects to break laws which he himself established?”
God, however, does test or try his people. In the KJV, Genesis 22:1 says that God "tempted" Abraham, but Watson carefully points out that “tempting there was no more than trying.” There is, therefore, a very important distinction between testing and tempting. God tests but does not tempt. To be sure, some tests that God gives include temptation. In the test, we are tempted to sin but we need to understand that God is not the one tempting us or enticing us to sin. Rather we are tempted by what has been called the trinity of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil.
God tested Adam in the Garden of Eden but it was Satan who was tempting him to disobey. God tested Abraham by telling him to go and sacrifice his son Isaac but Abraham would have been tempted to put his son above God by his own sinful desires. James says that each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Watson says that our own hearts are the greatest tempters and that everyone is Satan to himself (quisque sibi Satan est). Abraham, however, did not fall into the temptation. By faith, he passed the test (Heb. 11:17).
God also tested Israel in the wilderness to know what was in their heart, whether they would keep his commandments or not (Deut. 8). Israel was certainly tested when they had no water and food. But God was not tempting them to complain and disobey. Rather, they were tempted to sin against God by their own sinful hearts. And, unlike Abraham, they fell into the temptation. In Deuteronomy 13, Moses says that false prophets who perform signs are divine tests designed to see if Israel will love God with all of their heart. God tests, the false prophets tempt. “He permits sin but does not promote it.”
Since God does not tempt us, what then does “lead us not into temptation” mean? To enter into temptation means to sin. We see this in Mark 14:38 where Jesus warns his disciples to watch and pray so that they may not enter into temptation. Jesus is not saying to watch and pray so that they won’t be tempted at all. He is saying that they are going to be tempted and that they need to watch and pray so that they don’t sin.
Thus, when we pray “and lead us not into temptation” we are asking God to enable us to overcome the temptation. We are asking him to keep us from sinning and to enable us to stand firm on the day of trial and testing. Thomas Watson says, “The meaning is, that God would not suffer us to be overcome by temptation; that we may not be given up to the power of temptation and be drawn into sin.” This is confirmed by the second clause of the sixth petition: “but deliver us from evil.”
The Lord’s Prayer, therefore, does not teach or imply that God tempts his people. God tests his people but he does not tempt them. We are tempted by the world, the flesh and the devil. Formidable foes to be sure, but defeated ones for those who are in Christ. So, pray and “take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Eph. 6:13).”