The second portion of the prayer creates an interesting contrast compared to the first portion of the prayer. The first table focuses on God’s strengths and his power. However, the second portion of the pray turns to our weaknesses and the dependence of God in our lives. The fifth petition, ‘forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors,’ shows one of our most significant weaknesses, but more importantly, our dependence on God. We do not neglect God’s glory in the second portion of the prayer but show more of God’s attributes and actions. We will be looking at this petition, showing what it reveals to us about God and ourselves.
We owe a debt
Firstly, we owe a debt to God because of our sin. God created man and man rebelled against him, man disobeyed God. Many times, we know when we are in debt, either personal debt or even as a nation. Debt is never silent; the bank will remind you if you owe them, the debt collectors will take everything you have if you owe them enough. However, many of us do not think about the debt which we owe to God for our sin and rebellion. Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and that we “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). We sin against other people, but even sin against another person is a greater sin against God as they are made in his image (Gen 1:26-27). David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and murdered her husband Uriah, however in his confession of sin, he states, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). We owe God the debt of our life for the rebellion we have against our creator. This debt is unpayable through good works, karma, refinancing, or negotiation. This debt is only payable through death.
When we say the Lord’s prayer, it is interesting to hear how different people say it, “your” or “thy,” but the common difference is in the word “debt/debtor” or trespasses/trespass.” Different traditions use different words. Generally speaking, Reformed and Presbyterians use the word debt, and others use the word trespasses. The Matthew account of the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:12) gives the word, “ὀφείλημα” (opheilēma) which is best-translated debt (Cf. ‘Due’ Rom 4:4). The root word is used in Matthew 18:24-35, speaking of the servant who owed a debt to his master. The Luke account of the Lord’s prayer (Luke 11:4) uses the word, “ἁμαρτία” (hamartia), which is best-translated sin, then Luke uses the same root word as Matthew for “indebted to us.” The word trespass is used when translating the Greek word, “παράπτωμα” (paraptōma), which is used in Matthew 6:14-15. Trespass is more slipping or falling, as a result of carelessness rather than intentional disobedience. John Wycliffe, the morning star of the Reformation, translated the word “debts” (actually “dettis”) in 1395. William Tyndale translated it “trespasses” (actually “treaspases” in 1526. The Book of Common Prayer (1549) used Tyndale’s translation, while the King James Version (1611) used Wycliffe’s translation. Ultimately this is not an issue of Church discipline; we all change the prayer; for example the conclusion is common but not in the Bible. However, I have two choices I would always prefer to use the Bible as a reference rather than tradition.
We Need Forgiveness
A debt is owed and therefore needs to be paid, that is the definition of debt. We can pay the debt only through one-way blood, meaning life. Hebrews 9:22 states, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” Christ came and proclaimed that we must “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). How do we escape the wrath and curse of God, which is found in the debt we owe? To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ and repentance unto life, is the answer given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC 85). The WSC continues to explain the faith (Q&A 86) and repentance (Q&A 87). WSC 87 states, “repentance unto life is a saving grace, (Acts 11:18) whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, (Acts 2:37–38) and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, (Joel 2:12, Jer. 3:22) doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, (Jer. 31:18–19, Ezek. 36:31) with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience. (2 Cor. 7:11, Isa. 1:16–17).”
We owe a debt unto God, and we need to have an awareness of our sin, and an expression of sorrow for our sin and need to confess our sin to God and seek his forgiveness. The Westminster Confession of Faith also explains, “Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but every man has to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly” (WCF 15.5). We seek forgiveness when we become Christian (Justification), but we also continue to walk in repentance throughout our Christian Progress (Sanctification). The Lord’s prayer is not a once and for all prayer, just as we are dependent on God our Father for daily bread, we should continually confess our sins to God and one another to show our dependence upon him for our forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a magic formula or set routine that, if you do these things, you are forgiven, that is, works-based or merit-based theology. Terry Johnson says, “God is not a forgiveness machine.” We seek forgiveness because God is merciful and gracious.
We can have forgiveness.
Forgiveness is one of the significant differences between many religions that it is not through rituals, offerings, repayment plans, but through God and his mercy, we are saved. One of the simple yet profound statements in the apostle’s creed is the belief, “I believe in… the forgiveness of sins.” Out of all the fundamental doctrines the early church thought to include in the creed, the forgiveness of sins made the list. Generally, the format consists of commentary of Biblical doctrines founded upon God’s word. I pray I am always Biblical. The following section is just Bible verses without commentary. Please spend time meditating and considering God and his attribute of mercy. A great article can be found here on the Apostles’ creed statement, “The Forgiveness of Sins.”
Hebrews 4:16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Ephesians 2:4-5 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
Psalm 86:5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.
Lamentations 3:22-23 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Nehemiah 9:17 They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.
Deuteronomy 4:31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.
Daniel 9:9 To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him
Psalm 103:4 who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
Psalm 118:29 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
Matthew 26:28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
There are many verses you could read about God’s mercy. The exceptional understanding in the fifth petition is we ask for forgiveness because God is able and willing to forgive us. We might not feel like we are worth forgiving, and that is true, that’s what makes it grace and mercy. We are undeserving; we are unworthy; we are unable to pay back our debt. This should move us to gratitude. We often think of merit, not mercy, goodness, not grace, works not compassion, deeds, not devotion. We need forgiveness, but the greater truth is that God is forgiving. God forgives us not by wiping sin away but by paying the price for us (Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23; 1 Pet 2:24; Eph 1:7; Gal 3:13; 1 John 2:2; Is 53:5; Heb 9:12). Even makes you think of the great hymn, “Jesus Paid it All.”
We are to be merciful
The final point is that we are to be merciful because God is merciful to us. The fifth petition includes an interesting statement, not a petition, “as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:14-15 expands on this truth we pray. We should take this warning very seriously. We are merciful not as a means of earning our salvation but out of gratitude to God for his mercy he showed us. The parable of the unforgiving servant is excellent to consider, Matthew 18:21-35. The master shows great mercy to the first servant who owes him 10,000 talents; however, the first servant shows no mercy to the second servant who owes him 100 denarii. It is always hard to convert payments into today’s currency. One hundred denarii were about four months’ wages. One talent was about 100 denarii. The first servant owed 10,000 more to the master. The difference is astonishing, and it would take the first servant about 3,333 years to pay back his master. The 100 denarii is not a couple of pennies, but the 10,000 talents are phenomenally more. We have been shown great mercy from our Father in heaven. We should be gracious to others because we know as sin against us is sin against God, our creator. We should be merciful and forgive others as God has forgiven us (Matt 5:7, 6:14-15; Col 3:13; Luke 6:37; Jude 22-23). We might even need to pray for more faith because this is a difficult task (Luke 17:3-5).
A brief note;
This often can be used by people to manipulate a situation to enable them to continue to use or abuse people. Forgiveness is not forgetting the past or neglecting responsibility. Forgiveness does not then mean the civil authorities should not be involved, or there are no consequences to our/their actions. Forgiveness requires wisdom and discernment. If you have someone in your life who has hurt or abused you and you would like to talk to me more about how we might be able to apply God’s word to help you forgive them but also seek wisdom to help not lead them into temptation, or place yourself in danger please reach out to me I would love to pray with you and open God’s word together.