Monday, December 7, 2015

The Lord’s Prayer, Part 4 – Matthew 6:12, 14, 15


And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. . . .  For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.

I’ve grown up in the church, and so I’ve heard a lot of prayers offered over the course of my life.  And one thing I’ve noticed is that most people at some point ask for God’s forgiveness in their prayer.  But I really don’t ever remember hearing anyone pray for it as our Lord tells us to do here (unless they are explicitly reciting the Lord’s Prayer): there is no “as we forgive our debtors” part of the prayer.  The fact is that many times I’ve asked for God’s forgiveness at the same time are harboring bitterness in my heart toward someone else, or perhaps even scheming for revenge.  And yet the second part of this petition is not just put there to fill up space, as verses 14 and 15 make very clear.  If we do not forgive others, we cannot expect our heavenly Father to forgive us.  Therefore, this petition puts at the forefront two massive realities with which we have to face and which we need: God’s forgiveness to us and our forgiveness to others.

We cannot relate to God any other way than on the basis of grace.  And God expects us to deal with others in the same way he deals with us: on the basis of grace.  We are to do to others as God has done to us; in some sense, this is just a specific application of the Golden Rule.  God comes to us with the Gospel, and the Gospel tells us that God saves us not because he liked what he saw in us, but because he loved us unconditionally and gave his only Son to die for us to take away the ugliness of our sin.  The Gospel is the story of what God has done in Jesus to give us eternal life.  The response called for is one of faith and repentance, but this faith and repentance do not make us worthy of God’s forgiveness.  God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).  It is not faith itself that makes us worthy; it is Christ that justifies.  We are justified by faith not because faith is somehow merit-worthy, but because by faith we lay hold on Jesus Christ who is worthy.

In the same way, we are to relate to others on the basis of the Gospel.  We do not wait for someone to become worthy of our forgiveness.  Jesus forgave those who crucified him, and we don’t know if they ever repented or not.  In the same way, Stephen forgave those who were stoning him to death.  David forgave King Saul when he sought him out to kill him.  Jesus, Stephen, and David didn’t wait for those who had hurt them to become worthy of their forgiveness.  They forgave them on the basis of grace.  They lived out the Gospel to others.  We are called to do the same thing.

If we profess to embrace the Gospel, then this prayer in its fullness – both parts – ought to be part of the warp and woof of our approach to God and others.  When we say we believe the Gospel, we are professing a need of unmerited, unconditional grace.  And as those who receive such grace, it is only fitting that we show unmerited, unconditional grace to others.

Now some may wonder why those who believe that they are fully and finally justified and forgiven of all sins in Christ should pray this prayer.  Why ask for the forgiveness of sins?  Haven’t we already received this in Christ?  Why doesn’t the prayer say, “And thank you for forgiving our sins”?  Isn’t that more appropriate? 

This is a good question, because this is not what you might call a “Sinner’s Prayer.”  This is a prayer for someone who is already a disciple of Christ and who already relates to God as Father.  So this is not the prayer of someone looking to be justified.  This is the prayer of someone who is justified; at least, it is the prayer of someone who thinks of themselves as in the category of the justified.  Moreover, this is a prayer for every day.  Remember, this is right after the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Verse 12 is connected to verse 11 by the word “and,” indicating at least that the request for forgiveness is no less a daily thing than asking for bread.  So does this mean that justification and forgiveness is something we have to keep going after?  Do we lose the favor of God every time we sin and go back into a state of condemnation unless we ask for forgiveness?  What about Romans 8:1 – “There is therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

So let me give you three reasons why it is right for us to ask the Father daily for forgiveness.

1. Though it is true that the believer does not fall in and out of grace (cf. Rom. 5:2), yet sin is still sin and still offensive to God whether or not we are saved.  Sin “is still the violation of a holy law, an affront done to a holy God, an inconvenience upon the precious soul; it brings a blot upon us, [and] an inclination to sin again” (Thomas Manton, Works, Vol. 1, p. 180).  God hates the sin in the believer.  It grieves him.  It is therefore right for us to go to God the Father and ask for the forgiveness of our sins.  Just as we recognize the necessity of asking the forgiveness of those we have sinned against, we should recognize the necessity of asking for God’s forgiveness when we sin against him.  When a child sins against a parent, the parent does not kick the child out of the family, but that does not mean that an apology is not appropriate.  Indeed, for the harmony of the home it is necessary for parents both to model this as well as requiring it.  In the same way, when we sin against God, it is appropriate for us to go to him and beg his forgiveness.

2.  It is right for a saved person to ask for God’s forgiveness because this is an essential element to repentance.  The Bible makes it very clear that repentance is not something you do just at the beginning of your Christian life.  It is something that ought to mark all of your walk with God.  Jesus put it in terms of daily taking up your cross and following him.  But there is no repentance apart from contrition.  Unless we have poverty of spirit and mourn over our sins, we have no right to say that we have repented. 

The apostle John put it this way: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).  This confession of sins is part of walking in the light and fellowship with Jesus Christ who cleanses us from all sin (v. 7).  Indeed, if we are not willing to confess our sins “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (v. 8).  In other words, if we sin against God but use our justification in Christ as a reason not to humble ourselves before God and to repent of our sins, then we are deceiving ourselves.  That is, we are deceiving ourselves if we think we are having fellowship with God.  If we are not daily coming before the Lord and with brokenness over our own debt to God asking for his forgiveness, then we really know nothing of God’s forgiveness.

This is all to say that begging for God’s forgiveness is an inevitable consequence of being saved.  It is right to ask for forgiveness because this is part and parcel of what it means to daily repent of our sins.  You are not going to be growing in holiness if you are just rejoicing in your justification; you need to be coming to the throne of grace for mercy.  A justified man is going to keep coming back to the Father asking for the forgiveness of the sins that he commits every day.

3.  It is right for a saved person to ask for God’s forgiveness because in this act we are gladly forced to look anew to Jesus Christ as our only hope and help.  In the same way, it is right for us to ask for daily bread because in asking for daily bread we are reminded that God is sovereign over bread, and that he cares not only for our souls but for our bodies also.  When we petition for the Father’s forgiveness, we are reminded of the Gospel.  We are reminded that we don’t relate to God on a merit basis but on a grace basis.  We are reminded that our sins are purged, not because of a prayer that we pray but because Christ bore our sins in his own body on the cross (cf. 1 Pet. 2:24).  We are reminded that our hope for eternal life does not hinge upon our righteousness but upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  And we need to be reminded of this.  We need to be reminded of this not only because we need the assurance and the comfort that this affords but also because by constantly looking to Christ we become more like him and model his character to others. 

So what then are we asking for?  If we are not looking to be justified again, for what are we praying when we ask God to forgive our sins?

First of all, we are asking that God shine the light of his fellowship upon us.  This goes back to 1 John 1.  There, John writes that he wants his audience to have fellowship with God.  The only way for this to happen is to walk in the light, and this includes not only doing what is right but also confessing our sins and looking to Christ.  Sin still separates us from the Father in the sense of fellowship.  A holy God will not comfort his people in their sins. 

Fellowship with God is something a child of God wants and must have.  If you do not care about your relationship with God, then it is probable that you do not have one.  God’s people want to walk with God, want his fellowship: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps. 84:1-2). 

The second thing we are asking is that God remove his hand of discipline from us.  God loves us, and as a loving Father he disciplines his children (Heb. 12:5-11).  This is not a bad thing, because God’s discipline often is that which brings us to repentance.  This is what happened to King David: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.  Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found” (Ps. 32:3-6).  David was silent about his sin until God’s hand of discipline came upon him.  Then when he came and asked forgiveness, God granted his request, withdrew his hand of discipline and restored the fellowship that David had with him.

But our Lord does not stop with “forgive us our debts;” he goes on to add, “as we forgive our debtors.”  How is this connected to the previous request?  As Thomas Watson points out in his exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, the word as does not suggest equality but imitation.  We are not asking God to forgive us in the same way we forgive others, but we are asking God to forgive us as we imitate him in forgiving others.

You see, when God brings you into his family, he not only gives you the family name, but he also gives you the family likeness.  The apostle Paul tells us that when we are renewed by grace we are made into a new man, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24, ESV).  God chooses us before the foundation of the world so that we will chose him back.  We love him because he first loved us; in other words, his love for us produces our love back to him.  God implants his character in us so that we reflect his character to others.  We shine, not our own light, but the borrowed light of God’s work of grace in our hearts.  And it is therefore presumptuous for anyone to say that they know God when they are not willing to forgive others.  God forgives; we are to imitate him in forgiving others.

This is therefore a condition for forgiveness.  But it is a condition, not in the sense that our forgiving others is a ground of God forgiving us, but in the sense that a forgiving spirit is the inevitable evidence that we have been renewed by the Spirit of Christ.  In other words, no one has any right to claim that they have been forgiven by God when they retain an unforgiving spirit against another person.  Our Lord makes this very clear in verses 14-15.  If you don’t forgive others, God will not forgive you. 

This is the point of the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23-35.  In that parable you have a servant who was pardoned a ten thousand talent debt, but then goes out and throws a guy into prison who owed him one hundred pence.  Jesus likens this guy to those who claim to be forgiven by God but who refuse to forgive others.  But he doesn’t end the analogy there.  There is also an analogy between the punishment the servant received and the punishment those will receive who do not forgive: “And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due to him.  So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Mt. 18:34-35).  I really can’t think of anything worse than that.

It therefore behooves us to practice forgiveness.  If you have no other reason to forgive someone who has deeply hurt you, then let this supply your motivation.  Now it is true that the justified do not go in and out of God’s favor.  But it’s important that we don’t let that reality undermine the seriousness of what Christ is saying here.  What he is saying is that you have no claim to the Father’s forgiveness in any sense if you do not forgive others.  In other words, I don’t think he means you will just lose your fellowship with God if you don’t forgive others.  Especially in light of Matthew 18, it is clear that he means you do not have the forgiveness of God in an absolute sense if you are unwilling to forgive others.  You are not a saved person if you are not a forgiving person.  That’s what he is trying to tell us. 

What then does it mean to forgive others?  It means that we are to imitate the way God has forgiven us.

First of all, since we are imitating God, it means that our forgiveness proceeds on the basis of grace, not on the basis of merit.  If you are waiting for someone to merit your forgiveness, then you cannot pray this prayer.  “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).  God didn’t wait for you to get your act together before he forgave you.  If you are to forgive as God forgives, you must forgive on the basis of grace.

Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t hold each other accountable for our actions.  But it does mean that any spirit of bitterness or revenge is completely disposed of in our words and actions towards each other.  It means that the gospel flavors everything we do and say, even to those who have hurt us, even when they remain unrepentant.  It means that we call them to repentance with patience and kindness and forbearing.  How did Paul put it?  “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.  Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire one his head.  Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21).

Second, it means that since we are imitating God, our forgiveness must include great sins as well as little offences.  You are not off the hook in forgiving someone just because what they did to you was really bad.  There is no sin against you that is as great as the most insignificant sin that you have perpetrated against God.  Besides, if I refuse to forgive someone, I am sinning against God.  In other words, if someone sins against me, they have but sinned against a man; but when I withhold forgiveness, I am sinning against God, and therefore I have committed an even greater sin.  How then can I expect God to forgive me when I will not forgive them?

Third, since we are imitating God, it means that our forgiveness is going to go beyond words into action.  God sent his one and only Son to die for the sins of men.  He made an unimaginable sacrifice to love the unlovely.  Even so, we must forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us.  Thomas Watson defines “gospel-forgiving” in this way: “When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them.” 

A good summary of forgiveness that I have seen is this: to forgive another of an offence against me means that I will not dwell on it, I will not use it against them, I will not bring it up to them or hold it over their head, and I will not speak of it to others.  This is just the way God treats us.  He does not dwell on our sins, use our sins to shame us or manipulate us or bring them up over and over again.  He doesn’t invent subtle ways to remind us of them.  Rather, he puts them away forever.  I love the way it is put in Micah 7: “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy.  He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue all our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (v. 18-19).  That is how we are to forgive.

Fourth, it means that since we are imitating God, our forgiveness must come from the heart.  God does not just forgive in word only.  Nor is his forgiveness begrudgingly dispensed.  It is dispensed freely from his heart.  David describes God in Psalm 86:5 in this way, “For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.”  Our Lord tells us that God’s judgment will surely fall upon us “if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”  Now that may seem impossible, especially if the sin against you is great.  But we are not talking about something that is the product of nature.  We are talking about a forgiving spirit that is the product of grace, the result of the working the Holy Spirit in your heart.  We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

I know that some think that forgiving others when you can get them back is a sign of weakness.  But in fact the opposite is true.  To fail to forgive is to be overcome by evil, as Paul puts it.  In other words, it is a sign of weakness not to forgive!  On the other hand, when we forgive we are imitating God.  Nothing lifts the character of a person up more than that.

How do we get like this?  How do we become forgiving people?  Let me end with some practical suggestions.

First, we need to see our own sin before God and to find his forgiveness in Jesus Christ by placing our faith in him and by repenting of our sins.  If we do not understand our own need of grace, we are going to be less likely to bestow it upon others.  Essentially, what the New Testament tells us to do is to bestow what I’m calling Gospel forgiveness; but you can’t do that unless you have yourself first embraced the Gospel.  And the amazing thing is that no matter how great our sins, God calls you to watch them sink into the depths of the sea as you commit yourself to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  This is where we must start.

Second, we need to get and retain humble hearts.  “A proud man thinks it a disgrace to put up with an injury . . . ‘Be clothed with humility.’ I Pet. 5:5.  He who is low in his own eyes will not be troubled much though others lay him low.” (Thomas Watson, Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer).  Ultimately, it is our own pride that keeps us from being willing to forgive others.

Third, we need to “see God’s hand in all that men do or say against us.  Did we look higher than the instruments, our heart would grow calm, and we should not meditate revenge” (Watson).  Joseph did not seek revenge on his brothers because he recognized that though they meant it for evil, God meant it for good (Exod. 50:20).  Augustine said, “He that injures me shall add to my reward; he that clips my name to make it weigh lighter, shall make my crown weigh heavier” (quoted in Watson).  This is the way our Lord dealt with those who mistreated him: “who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23).

May God grant that we live out the Gospel in our homes, among our friends and family, in our church and in the world by granting forgiveness to those who sin against us even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven us.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Matthew 6:11 – The Lord’s Prayer, Part 3


Give us this day our daily bread.

Can you pray this and mean it?  “Give me this day my daily bread.”  It’s true that even in the US, people go hungry.  But the fact of the matter is that for most of us, we struggle much more with eating too many calories than with eating too few.  According to the CDC, more than one-third of Americans are obese.[1]  It’s also why, according to one article, dieting has become a “national pastime.”[2]  In this article, Kay Uzoma writes, “approximately 45 million Americans diet each year and spend $33 billion on weight-loss products in their pursuit of a trimmer, fitter body.”  We’re not worried about having daily bread.  We’re worried about having too much daily bread!

Another challenge to this part of the Lord’s Prayer is the fact that, unlike people in first century Judea, we are not paid day-to-day but rather week-to-week, or more likely, month-to-month.  Thinking about today’s bread is simply not on our minds as long as we have a job.  Add to this the fact that there are safety nets in our society that help people who lose their jobs, and the relevancy of this prayer might seem for many simply to fade away. 

Someone might also argue that this prayer is simply too unspiritual.  Why would our Lord care about this anyway?  Isn’t praying about bread too earthly?  Aren’t we supposed to pray for our souls and the souls of others?  If we spend time thinking and praying about material things, won’t we be in danger of becoming materialistic?

The fact of the matter is that it is both relevant and necessary to ask the Lord to give us our daily bread.  Nor is it unspiritual to pray this prayer.  Though it is true that the Lord’s Prayer focuses primarily on what we could call spiritual priorities, nevertheless, right in the middle of this prayer is a request that God fill our bellies as well as our souls with his benefits.  The saints have always looked to God not only for spiritual strength but also for physical sustenance: “The young lions do lack and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good thing” (Ps. 34:10).

It should be noted at the outset that praying for bread is not the same as praying for a Cadillac or praying for a little extra money so you can take that marvelous vacation.  Commentators on this verse have noted that this is a prayer for one’s necessities.  The prayer for bread is not just a prayer for the stuff we use for sandwiches: bread stands for basic needs.  Thus, this is not just a prayer for material things.  It is a prayer for physical needs.  Our Lord is not instructing us to ask the Father to enrich us with large bank accounts.  This is no prayer that God would allow us to win the lottery!  Rather, he is instructing us to ask the Father to sustain us physically while we are on this earth.  Thus, the apostle Paul would write to Timothy, “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Tim. 6:8).  To crave for more than this is to put one in danger of covetousness, which puts one in danger of “destruction and perdition” (1 Tim. 6:9).

You see this also in the fact that we are taught to pray for “daily” bread.  Commentators spend a lot of time debating what is meant exactly by this phrase: the precise meaning of the Greek word (epiousios) is rather difficult to determine since it is used in no other place outside of the Bible.  But it seems that all the meanings given to it come down to the same thing.  Whether it should be translated “bread for today” or “bread for tomorrow” or “bread necessary for existence,” it is clear that either way our Lord is teaching us to pray that God provide the needs of the present.  As he will say later on in this chapter, “Take therefore no thought for tomorrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Mt. 6:34).  Bread for today is something that is necessary; we simply cannot go long without food, and this is what we are to pray for.

In fact, the way our Lord teaches us to pray is an implicit warning against covetousness and the desire for earthly security.  We were never meant to be burdened down with the cares of this world.  “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:4).  That really is hurtful to our souls.  In fact, our Lord puts it down to the reason why his word does not prosper in the hearts of many.  In the Parable of the Sower, he likens the seed which falls on thorny ground as the hearer of the gospel but “the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful” (Mt. 13:22).  Thomas Manton, in one of his sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, said, “Christ would teach us that worldly things should be sought in a moderate proportion; if we have sufficient for a day, for the present want, we should not grasp at too much.  Ships lightly laden will pass through the sea, but when we take too great a burden, the ship will easily sink with every storm.”[3]

That doesn’t mean that it is ungodly to be rich.  But we are not to set our heart upon wealth: “If riches increase, set not your heart upon them” (Ps. 62:10).

But the theology in this prayer is not meant only to warn against greed.  It is also full of encouragement for the saint.  In fact, behind this simple and plain request for daily bread are some really great and weighty realities about God and his relationship to those who belong to him. 

1. First of all, this petition teaches us that all that we have comes from God.  It is easy to forget this, especially in the West with the abundance that we have.  It’s also easy to get into the mentality expressed by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie Shenandoah:

“Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed, sowed, and harvested it, we cooked the harvest, and it wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.  We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway for this food we’re about to eat. Amen.”

What this “prayer” doesn’t reckon with is the reality that if God hadn’t sent rain, all the clearing, plowing, and sowing wouldn’t have done any good; it certainly wouldn’t have gone any further.  It also doesn’t reckon with the reality that God can strike any person down at any moment, that our health and strength and problem-solving skills are gifts from God and that even with rain he wouldn’t have had the intelligence to properly cultivate it and get food from it apart from the grace of God.  In fact, God warned the ancient Israelites against this very mentality: “Beware that thou forget the Lord thy God . . . for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:11-16).

It is true that we have to work for our food (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8).  But it is also true that God is sovereign over every atom in the universe, and that it is by his providence that we can earn a living and put food on the table.  Moreover, it is not only right to pray to God for bread because he is sovereign, but also because it belongs to him.  “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).  “Every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.  I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.  If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 50:10-12).

God is sovereign over bread.  That is true not only when we have plenty but also when we have little.  And this is why this is such a precious truth.  This prayer is proof that the sovereign God cares about the physical and material needs of his children.  We need to remember this in times of plenty and in times of scarcity.  In times of plenty we need to remember that these are gifts from his hand, and pointers to the greater good that we have in him.  And in times of scarcity, we need to remember that he has not forgotten us.  He loves you and he will take care of you.  He can take our little and make much of it.  God’s provision doesn’t mean that the provision will come in the amounts we think are necessary, nor from the places we think it ought to come.  But it does mean that God will take care of you.  “A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked” (Ps. 37:16).  “Better is little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble therewith” (Prov. 15:16). 

As a child, I saw this kind of faith in action in my parents, and especially in my dad.  He was (and still is) in business for himself and so if he didn’t get the work done, it didn’t get done.  And he did work hard.  Nevertheless, there were lean times.  And in those times, my dad would lean on the Lord.  He wrote a song based on Psalm 78:19 (“Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?”), the chorus of which went like this: “Yes I know He’s able to furnish a table in this cold, hard, and barren wilderness.”  I remember growing up hearing him sing that song many times and I thank God today for parents who believe in a sovereign God.

Those who do not accept this vision of a sovereign God can at most hope for some kind of serenity to accept what they cannot change; however, the believer in the God of the Bible knows that his/her faith is in a God who can change anything at any time, who will change all things in the age to come, and who will be with them in the present in any circumstance.  We know the grace that is sufficient and that gives us strength in our greatest weakness.

2.  A corollary of the truth that all comes from God is that God doesn’t just care about the “big events” of life – he cares about the mundane things like daily bread.  We are to bring everything to God in prayer.  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7, ESV).  Are there things that are weighing you down and causing you anxiety but which you do not bring to God in prayer because you think they are insignificant to God?  Surely, the Lord’s Prayer should teach us that nothing is insignificant, and nothing too mundane to bring to the Father.  Right after praying for God’s kingdom to come is a petition for bread.  Let us therefore not think it below God’s notice to bring everything to him in prayer.

3. Another truth that follows is the reality that God isn’t just about the future.  Though it is true that our hope is located ultimately in the future, the fact is that we are told to trust God for the here and now, for the present.  We are to pray for daily bread.  This not only indicates that we are to pray daily, but that we are to pray that God meet the present demands upon us with his present provision.  We not only need future grace, we also need daily grace.  Our Lord isn’t just concerned about how we end, he’s also concerned about how we get there.  God isn’t just waiting for us at the end of our earthly journey; he is present every step of the way.  As Psalm 46:1 put is, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” 

4. The follower of Christ is in covenant with God, and God has covenanted not only to save our souls but our bodies as well.  “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20).  “What?  Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?  For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19, 20).  He will not forsake what he came to redeem.  Bread, as much as the forgiveness of sin, is a covenant mercy. 

You see this clearly in passages like Ps. 136:25.  Throughout this Psalm, God is praised for his steadfast love that endures forever.  And the psalmist gives many instances of this, including the great redemptive events in the history of Israel.  But then he ends like this: “Who giveth food to all flesh: for his mercy endureth forever.”  It is covenant love and mercy that gives us bread. 

You see it later in Matthew 6.  “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? Or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?  (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.  But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt. 6:31-33).  Here is a promise, given to us by a promise-keeping God.  It’s interesting that often we argue that we need to get our finances up to a certain point and then we can start really serving God.  But here Jesus inverts the argument and tells us to serve God first and then our finances will be taken care of.

This means that we can appeal to heaven for bread not only on the basis of our relationship to God as creature to creator, but also on the basis of our relationship to God as child to Father.  The ground for our prayer for bread is the blood of Jesus Christ.  It is more than common grace to which we are appealing, it is saving grace.  We therefore need fear no reprisal from the Father for bringing before him our daily needs.  We have a right to an audience with him, not on the basis of our goodness or merit, but on the basis of Christ’s atonement and his merit.  It is not only okay to pray this prayer, it is right.

However, there are some objections to this view of God’s provision.  One is from experience: it doesn’t seem that everyone who asks for bread gets it.  There are millions in the world who go hungry, and surely of these some of them have to be praying for bread and not getting it.  Doesn’t this just mean that the Lord’s Prayer is just another pie-in-the-sky?

In response to this, I would first point out that this prayer is more aptly titled “The Disciple’s Prayer.”  This is not meant to be put in the mouths of just anyone.  “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is his delight” (Prov. 15:8).  This prayer belongs properly to those with whom God is in a saving relationship.  The fact of the matter is that though God often does rain upon the just and the unjust, and dispenses common grace to all men, he does not owe one thing to them, not even bread.  Sin and rebellion against God merits only eternal punishment.  The only ones who have a right to pray for bread are those who are in a saving relationship with God as Father through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.

But then someone might come back and say, “But it seems to me that even many who call themselves Christian go hungry.  What do you say to that?”

To this I would respond that the Bible recognizes this possibility.  For example, Paul writes to the Romans, quoting from the Psalms, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35).  Notice that Paul’s words imply that famine is a possibility for the believer.  They cannot separate us from the love of Christ, not because the believer can never be hurt by them, but because “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37). 

Here is the bottom line: God will provide for his people all that they need for their good and his glory.  And when we pray for bread, we are not praying for bread apart from this consideration of God’s name, kingdom, and will.  Sometimes it is for our good and God’s glory that we endure persecution and homelessness and hunger and nakedness.  In fact, it happened to Paul: “in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Cor. 11:27).  And yet this was the same Paul who would write to the Philippians, “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). 

How do you reconcile that?  Here is how Paul did it: in speaking of God’s answer of no to his request that he be delivered of the thorn in the flesh, he wrote, “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.  Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).  Paul endured physical deprivation at times gladly because at those times God came in with sufficient grace.  Paul didn’t see physical lack as a sign that God had abandoned him; rather he rejoiced in those times because it was then that he experienced God’s grace in a fuller measure.

We must always be reminded that as this prayer begins with God’s will being done, therefore all our requests must be submitted to God’s gracious and good will.  As our Lord himself prayed, “Not my will, but thine be done,” even so must we pray.  And this includes the prayer for bread. 

In the end, we don’t pray to inform God, because he already knows our need.  And we don’t pray to manipulate God, because he already loves his children.  We pray because we are his children, and it is natural and right for us to express our need for God and our dependence upon him for everything, for the needs of our soul and for the needs of our body.  And it pleases our Father when we do this, just as it pleases me when my children express their need for me.  So may we go to the Father in prayer through Jesus Christ, and continue to find mercy and grace to help in time of need.



[1] http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
[2] http://www.livestrong.com/article/308667-percentage-of-americans-who-diet-every-year/
[3] Manton’s Complete Works, Vol. 1 (republished by Maranatha Publications), page 166.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Lord’s Prayer, Part 2

[This message was delivered on Easter Sunday, 2015]

Matthew 6:9-10.  Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Every Lord’s Day is a remembrance of our Lord’s death and resurrection.  He rose on the first day of the week, and it was this consideration that led the early church to set aside this day as the day to gather and to worship the crucified and resurrected and living and returning Christ.  But on this day, we give it special consideration, for it was at this time of the year that our Lord was crucified and raised from the dead.  And it is fitting that we do so, because apart from the resurrection of our Lord, our religion is meaningless.  The apostle Paul put it this way, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).  The reason is that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith if futile and you are still in your sins” (v. 17).  In fact, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v.19). 

Here is what the Christian religion teaches: it teaches that it is possible to have all one’s sins forgiven.  All of them!  And it teaches that on the basis of this forgiveness one can have eternal life, an increasing, never ending, life of joy, glory, and peace in the presence of the God of the universe.  But it also teaches that the only way forgiveness can happen and thus the only way we can have eternal life is through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.  Apart from him none of this is even remotely possible.  That’s why Paul said what he said to the Corinthians.  He would never have been able to imagine a Christianity without an atonement.  And he would never have been able to imagine a Christianity without an empty tomb.

Now what does this have to do with the Lord’s Prayer that we are considering this morning?  First of all, as we noted last week, this prayer is a God-centered missionary prayer.  It is not simply a prayer that in some abstract sense God’s name may be sanctified.  Nor is it just that God’s name may be hallowed in our own hearts, though that is certainly implied.  Rather, it is a prayer that God’s name may be hallowed among all the peoples of the earth.  In fact, you cannot want to sanctify God in your own heart apart from wanting him to be sanctified in all the nations.  David prayed the Lord’s Prayer a thousand years before when he wrote this Psalm:

May God be gracious to us and bless us

                And make his face to shine upon us,

That your way may be known on earth,

                Your saving power among all nations.

Let the peoples praised you, O God!

                Let all the peoples praise you!  (Psalm 67:1-3, ESV)

But how can this happen?  It cannot happen apart from the supernatural work of the Spirit of the risen Christ.  It is in virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection that we die to sin and rise to newness of life (cf. Rom. 6:3-6).  And no one is going to hallow God’s name in their hearts until they have died to sin and risen to newness of life.  This prayer, like every other aspect of the Christian life, has its roots in the death and resurrection of our Jesus Christ.

Another link that this prayer has with Easter Sunday is its insistence that the Christian religion is inherently concerned with historical realities.  One of the things that led C. S. Lewis to embrace the Christian religion after so many years of atheism was ironically the very thing that led him away from it to begin with.  One of the things that caused Lewis to reject the faith of his parents was the presence of so many mythologies.   It seemed to him that Christianity was just another mythology.  But then he saw that there had to be something that made these myths plausible, and that behind these myths was a reality.  Lewis came to see that this reality ultimately is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  He wrote, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

You see the same thing in this prayer.  You see this connection between the supernatural and the historical.  Now this is anathema in our generation.  People are perfectly content to talk about the supernatural or the historical, but they never want to talk about them together.  But when we pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven,” we are not praying something just to make us feel good.  We are praying that God’s kingdom will come in a very real and concrete way in this very real and concrete world of ours.  And this is not some vague expression of a desire that the United Nations get its act together and bring about world peace.  This prayer is rooted in the realistic and Biblical conviction that real world peace is only attainable when Christ returns and puts down all opposition to his rule.

We can sum it up like this.  The reason we can pray this prayer with any confidence is because Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  He has gone to receive the kingdom, and he is coming again to establish it in its fullness.  But in the meantime, his kingdom is already spreading; he has sent the Spirit so that men and women will hear the gospel with new hearts and embrace Christ as Lord and Savior.  And when they do that, they will hallow his name, they will submit to his rule, and they will begin to follow his will as the rule of their lives rather than their own.  And all who have experienced this for themselves are going to want other to experience it as well, and thus this prayer is a true expression of one who has experienced the reality of Christ’s resurrection and wants others to experience it as well.

Let us then consider each of these petitions in more depth.  I am going to consider them together, because I believe that to pray for one is to pray for the others.  Or, one might argue that the second two petitions are implicit in the first.

First of all, let’s consider the first request: “hallowed be thy name.”  What does it mean to hallow God’s name?  The word used here is often translated by the verb “to sanctify.”  For example, it is used in a similar fashion in 1 Pet. 3:15, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” [ESV, “honor the Lord God as holy”].  To sanctify something or someone meant to set them apart for a holy purpose.  With respect to God, it means to recognize God’s holiness, his supremacy above all created things, and to see that he is worthy of our worship, our obedience, and our trust. 

When we pray that God hallow his name, we are simply asking that God himself will be seen to be holy.  In Biblical language, God’s name stands for all that he is.  This is more than just the expression of a desire that people not blaspheme.  It is much more than that.  It is asking that people will see God’s glory and transcendence and supremacy above everything else.  This is more than a prayer for pure lips; it is a prayer for a pure heart with respect to God.

I’m going to take the next two petitions together.  They are: “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”  What many people think when they speak of God’s kingdom is some future, earthly millennial reign of Christ.  And though I do believe that God’s kingdom is ultimately future, there is no reason to believe that it is only future.  For example, when Jesus spoke about the kingdom to the Pharisees, he said this: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! Or, lo there! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21).  Though there are different ways to interpret the meaning of “within,” it at least means that the kingdom of God was a present reality even during the earthly ministry of Jesus.  There is both a present and a future aspect to the kingdom.

You can see this also in that the gospel is called the gospel of the kingdom (cf. Acts 28:31).  The gospel is not a message primarily about some future millennial reign; it is the message that Jesus is Lord and Savior.  It is not about one who is going to be a king sometime in the future; it is about Jesus who is king even now.  “The Son of David holds his throne, and sits in judgement there.” 

Thus, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” we are not just praying for Christ’s return.  We are praying for that; but we are praying for more than that.  God’s kingdom is God himself ruling over his own people in Christ.  So this prayer is a prayer first of all that God would establish his rule in people’s hearts worldwide, and then a prayer that this rule would find its ultimate consummation in the return of Christ. 

And thus, when we also pray “thy will be done,” we are essentially praying for the same thing as when we pray for God’s kingdom to come.  We do his will as we bow to his authority and sovereignty in our hearts.

Whereas the first petition has reference primarily to the holiness of God and his transcendence and supremacy, these last two petitions have reference primarily to the sovereignty of God and his right to rule over us.  In the first petition we are praying that God would overcome our blindness and help us to see his glory; in these, we are praying that God would overcome our rebellion and help us to submit to his rule. 

But they also complement one another because you will never submit to the Lordship of one whose glory you do not see.  There is the story of Alfred the Great, that, due to certain reverses of fortune, he had to go incognito for a while, and so he went about as a commoner.  At one point, as he was resting in the home of some peasants, the lady of the house treated him as she would any other servant.  She of course did so because she didn’t recognize that it was her king in her midst!  In the same way, until we recognize the glory of God in Christ, we will never truly submit our hearts to his lordship and seek his will for our lives. 

But this also goes the other way.  We cannot say that we have truly seen the greatness of our God if we treat him with contempt; if we do not love him and keep his commandments.  Here is the great test.  Is our theology real or is it something we hold only in an intellectual sense?  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” said our Lord (Jn. 14).  To love God for who he is, as he is revealed in Scripture, this is the proof that we have seen his glory.  But the proof that we really love him lies in our obedience.  An unholy man has no idea of the holiness of God.  If he did, he would repent and turn from his sin.

This prayer is fitting because we and everything else exists to glorify God.  We were created to give glory to God: “Fear not: for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west . . . even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him” (Isa. 43:5, 7).  We were redeemed to give glory to God.  The refrain of Paul in Ephesians 1 is “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (ver. 6, 12, 14).  Thus, when we pray this prayer we are praying that God would put things right, that things be as they ought to be.  To pray this prayer is more fundamental, more important, than praying for food on the table, or even air to breath.  It is a prayer that we be what we would have been in an unbroken, sinless world, and that we will be through grace, in the world to come.

But this prayer is needful because sinful men and women do not glorify God (cf. Rom. 1:21-25), do not submit to his rule and will.  Now if we do not see the glory of God it is not because God is not glorious.  It is because we have become blind to God’s real beauty (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3-6).  Sin is destructive.  It blinds us.  It is like a disease that takes away one’s ability to taste good food.  So sin takes away our appetite for God.  It is a spiritual leprosy that takes away our ability to feel the pain that sin is causing in our life, so that we keep on with our destructive habits unaware of the fact that our bad habits and attitudes and desires and thoughts are slowly eating away at our true self and turning us more and more into a disfigured monster, and finally into a dead one.  So when we pray this, we’re praying that God would help us to see more and more of his glory and to take away the sin that prevents us from seeing it; and to pray for the lost that God would no longer allow their eyes to remain blinded by the master of this world.

And so this petition is hope-filling.  The very best thing that could ever happen to us is to hallow God’s name, to see and to savor his supremacy, and to bow to his authority. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

This is not a prayer that we glorify God’s name as Pharaoh did – through his sin and therefore through his destruction (cf. Rom. 9).  There are two ways God’s name will be hallowed in us: God will either be glorified in our destruction, if we do not see his glory, or he will be glorified in our salvation, if we know the true God and his Son (Jn. 17:3).  But you don’t pray this prayer if you have not seen the majesty of God.  God is either your ruler or he is your rival.  You don’t root for your enemy.  If you want God’s name to be hallowed it must be that through the mercy of God your blindness has been taken away and through grace you have come to see the worth of Christ.  This is the prayer of someone who has been saved.

The fact that our Lord puts this prayer in our lips means that grace has come into the world to save, to take away blindness and to give us hearts that have the unspeakable privilege to see the glory of God – not second hand, like someone looking at a photo of an Alp, but like someone who is actually standing on the top of an Alp and experiencing it in person.

When we pray this, we are praying that God would make us more and more into the kind of person who does hallow God’s name.  This is not just a prayer that God do something objective to us.  This is especially a prayer that God do something in us.  And so we are thus praying that God would take away those attitudes and habits that cause us to enjoy this world above God, and especially that we would not embrace anything that is in opposition to the enjoyment of God in the soul. 

And then we are praying that God would do this to others around us.  Like the apostle John, we pray that the fellowship we have with the Triune God may be shared by our friends (1 Jn. 1:3). 

I think praying this prayer with any reality will have at least two effects upon our lives.  First of all, it will orient us away from ourselves and our petty interests to see our present lives in light of God’s purposes.  It will kill the worldliness that is so apt to drain our affections from kingdom work and its priorities.  The main thing at home, or in the office, with our family or friend, is to glorify God.  We need this prayer to remind us of this, because there are a thousand things, pressures, distractions, that will turn our lives into a godless affair.  Why do we miss opportunities to share God’s word?  Is it not often because we do not have the mindset, “Thy kingdom come”?  Why do we allow work to consume us to the point of squeezing prayer and Bible study out of our lives?  Is it not because we do not hallow God’s name as we ought?

In particular, it is not our name that we need to be so concerned about.  It is not what needs defending.  And it is not our little kingdoms and causes that should have the main allegiance of our heart, but rather the kingdom of Christ and its mission in our time.  And finally, it is not our will that is so necessary, though often we think that if everyone just did what we thought was best, everything would turn out alright.  We need to have our hearts thrilled rather with God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will.

And then I think the second thing this will do is to orient us away from the merely present and to cast our eyes to the future.  God’s kingdom is here, but it is primarily future.  And when we pray for God’s will to be done in earth as it is in heaven, though this does not exclude an earnest desire for this reality to take place in the here and now, yet we cannot pray this without also praying for the time when this world will be rid once for all of sin.  And this is one of the most needful things.  We need to be looking for the return of Christ.  When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it is not only with an eye to the past for what our Lord has done for us, but also with an eye to the future, “till the Lord come.”  We need to be looking to the future, because that is where our reward is.  It is not now, and if we look for it now, we will become discouraged.  In this world we will have tribulation.  But we can be of good cheer, because Christ has overcome the world – not in the sense that he will save us from the tribulation now, but in the sense that he will bring us through the tribulation to eternal life.

And we need to remind ourselves that of all else that will happen, we can be assured that God’s name will be hallowed, his kingdom will come, and there is coming a day when his will shall be perfectly followed in every corner of a renewed heavens and earth.  Thus, this is not only a prayer that God will do something in us and others, but also a reminder of God’s promise that he will complete what he has begun in us.  It therefore ought to greatly encourage us and fill us with hope and joy when we pray this prayer in faith.

 

The Heart of the Matter: The Breastplate of Righteousness – Eph. 6:14

The idea of righteousness has fallen on hard times in our culture and even in the church.   These days, for many Christians the goal...