John Newton's Letters

Lead us not into temptation

July, 1776
Dear sir
That I may not weary you by a preamble, I oblige myself to take the turn of my letter from some passage of Scripture; and I fix upon that which just now occurred to my thoughts—a clause in that pattern of prayer which He who best knows our state, has been pleased to leave for the instruction of his people in their great concern of waiting at his throne of grace; Mat. 6:13, "lead us not into temptation." This petition is seasonable at all times, and to all people who have any right knowledge of themselves, or their spiritual calling.

The word temptation, taken at large, includes every kind of trial. To tempt, is to try or prove. In this sense, it is said, the Lord tempted Abraham—that is, he tried him; for God cannot tempt to evil. He proposed such an act of obedience to him, as was a test of his faith, love, dependence, and integrity. Thus, all our afflictions, under his gracious management, are appointed to prove, manifest, exercise, and purify the graces of his children. And not afflictions only, prosperity likewise is a state of temptation; and many who have endured sharp sufferings, and came off honorably, have been afterwards greatly hurt and ensnared by prosperity! To this purpose the histories of David and Hezekiah are in point.

But by temptation we more frequently understand the wiles and force which Satan employs in assaulting our peace, or spreading snares for our feet. He is always practicing against us, either directly and from himself, by the access he has to our hearts, or mediately, by the influence he has over the men and the things of this world. The words which follow confirm this sense: "Lead us not into temptation—but deliver us from evil," or from the evil one, as it might be properly- rendered here, and in 1 Jo. 5:19. The subtlety and power of this adversary are very great—he is an over-match for us; and we have no hope of safety—but in the Lord's protection.

Satan's action upon the heart may be illustrated by the action of the wind upon the sea. The sea sometimes appears smooth; but it is always disposed to swell and rage, and to obey the impulse of every storm. Thus, the heart may be sometimes quiet; but the wind of temptation will awaken and rouse it in a moment; for it is essential to our depraved nature to be unstable and yielding as the water. And when it is under the impression of the enemy, its violence can only be controlled by Him who says to the raging sea, "Be still, and here shall your proud waves be stayed." The branches of temptation are almost innumerable; but the principal may be reduced to the several faculties of the soul (as we commonly speak), to which they are more directly suited.

He has temptations for the understanding. He can blind the mind with prejudices and false reasoning, and ply it with arguments for infidelity, until the most obvious truths become questionable. Even where the Gospel has been received, he can insinuate error, which, for the suddenness and malignity of its effects, may be properly compared to poison. A healthy man may be poisoned in a moment; and if he is—the baneful drug is usually mixed with his food. Many, who for a while seemed to be sound in the faith, have had their judgments strongly and strangely perverted, and prevailed upon to renounce and oppose those truths they once prized and defended. Such instances are striking proofs of human weakness, and loud calls to watchfulness and dependence, and to beware of leaning to our own understandings. For these purposes he employs both preachers and authors, who, by fine words and fair speeches, beguile the hearts of the unwary. And, by his immediate influence upon the mind, he is able (if the Lord permits him) to entangle those who are providentially placed out of the reach of corrupt and designing men.

He tempts the conscience. By working upon the unbelief of our hearts, and darkening the glory of the Gospel, he can hold down the soul by the number, weight, and aggravation of its sins—so that it shall not be able to look up to Jesus, nor draw any comfort from his blood, promises, and grace. How many go burdened in this manner, seeking relief by performing duties, and perhaps spending their strength in things not commanded, though they hear, and perhaps acknowledge, the Gospel? Nor are the wisest and most established able to withstand his assaults—if the Lord withdraw, and give him permission to employ his power and subtlety unrestrained. The Gospel affords sufficient ground for an abiding assurance of hope; nor should we rest satisfied without it: however, the possession and preservation of this privilege depends upon the Lord's presence with the soul, and his shielding us from Satan's attacks; for I am persuaded that he is able to sift and shake the strongest believer upon earth.

He has likewise temptations suited to the will. Jesus makes his people willing in the day of his power; yet there is a contrary principle remaining within them, of which Satan knows how to avail himself. There are occasions in which he almost prevails to set self again upon the throne, as Dagon was raised after he had fallen before the ark. How else should any, who have tasted that the Lord is gracious—give way to a repining spirit, account his dispensations hard, or his precepts too strict—so as to shrink from their observance, through the fear of men, or a regard to their worldly interest?

Farther: he has snares for the affections. In managing these, he gains a great advantage from our situation in a world which does not know God. The Scripture gives Satan the title of god of this world; and believers learn, by painful experience, how great his power is in and over the people and things of it—so that to be steadfast in wisdom's ways requires unremitted efforts, like pressing through a crowd, or swimming against a stream. How hard is it to live in the midst of pitch and not be defiled? The air of the world is infectious. Our business and unavoidable connections are so interwoven with occasions of sin, and there is so much in our hearts suited to them, that unless we are incessantly upheld by Almighty strength, we cannot stand a day—or an hour. Past victories afford us no greater security than they did Samson, who was shamefully surprised by enemies whom he had formerly conquered.

Nor are we only tempted by compliance's which are evil in themselves. With respect to these, perhaps, conscience may be awake, and we stand upon our guard; but we are still upon Satan's ground; and while he may seem to allow himself defeated, he can dexterously change his method, and come upon us where we do not suspect him.

Perhaps our greatest danger arises from things in themselves lawful. He can tempt us by our nearest and dearest friend, and pervert every blessing of a kind Providence into an occasion of drawing our hearts from the Giver! Yes, spiritual blessings, gifts, comforts, and even graces—are sometimes the engines by which he practices against us, to fill with vain confidence and self-sufficiency, or to lull us into formality and indolence.

That wonderful power which we call the imagination, partakes largely of that depravity which sin has brought upon our whole frame, and affords Satan an avenue for assaulting us with the most terrifying, if not the most dangerous, of his temptations. At the best, we have but a poor command over it. We cannot, by an act of our own will, exclude a thousand painful, wild, inconsistent, and hurtful ideas, which are ever ready to obtrude themselves upon our minds: and a slight alteration in the body, in the motion of the blood or nervous spirits, is sufficient to withdraw it wholly from our dominion, and to leave us, like a city without walls or gates—exposed to the incursion of our enemy!

We are fearfully and wonderfully made; and, with all our boasted knowledge of other things, can form no conception of what is so vastly interesting to us—the mysterious connection between soul and body, and the manner in which they are mutually affected by each other. The effects we too sensibly feel. The wisest of men would be accounted fools or mad, were they to express in words, a small part of what passes within them! And it would appear that much of the soberest life—is little better than a waking dream! But how dreadful are the consequences, when the Lord permits some hidden pin in the human machine to be altered! Immediately a door flies open, which no hand but his can shut—and the enemy pours in, like a flood, falsehood and horror, and the blackness of darkness; the judgment is borne down and disabled, and the most distressing illusions seize us with all the apparent force of evidence and demonstration.

When this is the case in a certain high degree—we call it a mental derangement. But there are various degrees of it, which leave a person in the possession of his senses as to the things of common life, and yet are sufficient, with respect to his spiritual concerns, to shake the very foundations of his hope, and deprive him of all peace and comfort, and make him a terror to himself. All the Lord's people are not called to navigate in these deep waters of soul distress; but all are liable. Ah! if we knew what some suffer—whom Satan is permitted to tyrannize in this way, surely we should be more earnest and frequent in praying, "Lead us not into temptation."

From some little sense I have of the malice and subtlety of our spiritual enemies, and the weakness of those barriers which we have to prevent their assaults—I am fully persuaded that nothing less than the continual exertion of that Almighty Power which preserves the stars in their orbits—can maintain our peace of mind for an hour or a minute.

In this view, all comparative difference in external situations seems to be annihilated. For as the Lord's presence can make his people happy in a dungeon, so there are temptations, which, if we felt them, would instantly render us incapable of receiving a moment's satisfaction from an assemblage of all earthly blessings, and make the company of our dearest friends tasteless, if not insupportable.

Ah! how little do the mirthful and the frivolous think of these things! How little indeed do they think of them—who profess to believe them! How faint is the sense of our obligations to Him, who freely submitted to the fiercest onsets of the powers of darkness, to free us from the punishment due to our sins; otherwise we must have been forever shut up with those miserable and merciless spirits, who delight in our torment, and who, even in the present state, if they get access to our minds, can make our existence a burden!

But our Lord, who knows and considers our weakness, of which we are so little aware, allows and directs us to pray, "Lead us not into temptation!" We are not to expect an absolute freedom from temptation; we are called to be soldiers, and must sometimes meet with enemies, and perhaps with wounds. Yet, considering this prayer as provided by Him who knows what we are, and where we are, it may afford us both instruction and consolation.

It calls to a constant reflection upon our own weakness. Believers, especially young ones, are prone to rest too much in grace received. They feel their hearts warm; and, like Peter, are ready to please themselves with thinking how they would act in such or such a state of trial. It is as if the Lord had said, Poor worms, be not high-minded—but fear and pray, that, you may be kept from learning by bitter experience—how weak your supposed strength is. It sweetly intimates, that all our ways, and all our enemies, are in the hands of our great Shepherd. He knows our path. We are short-sighted, and cannot tell what an hour may bring forth. But we are under his protection; and if we depend upon him, we need not be anxiously afraid. He will be faithful to the trust we repose in him, and will allow no temptation to overtake us—but what he will support us under and bring us through. But it becomes us to beware of carnal security and presumption, to keep our eyes upon him, and not to think ourselves safe a moment longer than our spirits feel and breathe the meaning of this petition.

It implies, likewise, the duty of watchfulness on our part; as our Lord joins them elsewhere, "Watch and pray." If we desire not to be led into temptation, surely we are not to run into it. If we wish to be preserved from error—we are to guard against a curious and reasoning spirit. If we would preserve peace of conscience, we must beware of trifling with the light and motions of the Holy Spirit—for without his assistance we cannot maintain faith in exercise. If we would not be ensnared by the men of the world—we are to keep at a proper distance from them. The less we have to do with them—the better; excepting so far as the providence of God makes it our duty in the discharge of our callings and relations, and taking opportunities of doing them good. And though we cannot wholly shut Satan out of our imaginations, we should be cautious that we do not willfully provide fuel for his flame; but entreat the Lord to set a watch upon our eyes and our ears, and to teach us to reject the first motions and the smallest appearance of evil.

I have been so intent upon my subject, that I have once and again forgot I was writing to you, otherwise I would not have let my paper run to so great a length, which I certainly did not intend when I began. I shall not add to this fault, by making an apology. I have touched upon a topic of great importance to myself. I am one among many who have suffered greatly for lack of paying more attention to my need of this prayer. O that I could be wiser hereafter, and always act and speak as knowing that I am always upon a field of battle, and beset by legions!