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.