We’re continuing on in our study of the Lord’s prayer, remembering that when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray in Luke 11:2 – the Lord’s prayer is what he taught them. And so as we learn to pray the Lord’s prayer we’re learning how to pray.
Last time we started into the second section of requests that have to do with our needs and concerns. And we saw how to pray for daily bread is to pray for what we need of food, clothing and shelter to sustain us day by day.
Today we have before us the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer. And it comes to us in two slightly different forms:
- “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” – Luke 11:4
- “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven those indebted to us” – Matthew 6:12
[Notice that Luke has “sins” for “debts” in the first phrase. Also Luke has “for” instead of “as” in the second phrase, although the meaning is basically the same. Finally, whereas Matthew has “we have forgiven” past tense (aorist), Luke has “we ourselves forgive” or “are forgiving” which is present tense. A different emphasis.]
Alright, let’s dig in and see what we can learn from this –
First, this request is all about relationships
It deals with our relationship with God and also our relationships with all other people. And the focus is on maintaining right relationships. So, really, every time we pray this prayer we’re checking in to make sure that we’re right in our hearts and lives with God and others.
- Each time we can pause and examine our relationship with God. What needs to be taken care of? Is God close? Is there some barrier that I’ve erected?
- And each time we can pause and examine our relationships with others. Specifically, am I holding a grudge? Is there bitterness? Do I have wrong feelings and attitudes toward someone else?
We need to maintain our relationships with God and others.
I’ve already told you that of all the things Jesus could have chosen as the most important things we can pray for; our most important needs – he chose this as one. So this is a real priority. First keeping up with our relationship with God and then with others. And as we’ll see in a minute the two are interconnected.
This request assumes we will not be perfect
We will fail at times in our commitment to God and in our relationships with each other.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not an excuse to sin, you know, “we’re going to fail anyway, so why try?”God has given us everything that we need for a life of godliness – 2 Peter 1:3. There’s no lack from God’s end in terms of his power and grace given to us.
But, the fact that this request is in the prayer shows us that we do still fail, we still struggle, we make mistakes, we choose to do what is wrong, we often take the easy way – that is not God’s will for us. Like daily bread, we need regular grace and forgiveness in our lives. Again, we see that this prayer is supremely practical and connected to our real life experiences.
It teaches us something about the meaning of sin and forgiveness
In both versions, the word “debt” is used to talk about sin. (Luke also uses the word sin and Matthew in 6:14-15 uses the word trespasses to make sure we get that debt here means sin). Jesus is using a financial metaphor for sin and forgiveness. This was not uncommon in that day (also Matthew 18:23-35).
It goes like this – because God created us, we owe God everything. We have obligations to God. Specifically we owe God honor and obedience as his servants. When we don’t give God what we should, we incur a debt to God, which is what sin is.
This same idea is true in our relationships with each other. We owe each other to treat each other well. And when we don’t give this to someone we incur a debt to that person; we have sinned against them.
Forgiveness, then, is the release of this debt by God or another person. And indeed the word “forgiveness” in Scripture means “to release” someone from an obligation – whether legal, financial or moral. Have you ever had a financial debt you couldn’t pay? One with disastrous consequences? Can you imagine having it forgiven? Well that’s what sin and forgiveness is like. That’s the picture this request uses.
Next, even though it may appear that all we’re doing here is asking for forgiveness from God, biblically . . .
Asking for forgiveness assumes confession and repentance
In other words, asking for forgiveness is part of a series of actions that lead to finding true forgiveness from God – all of which are necessary to be forgiven.
The assumption here is that if you’re asking to be forgiven you are acknowledging that what you did was truly wrong, which is confession. And you are committing to not do it again, which is repentance.
But yet we do sometimes simply want the benefits of forgiveness – peace and relationship, without the hard work of confession and repentance. But this doesn’t work!
- 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Notice the connection between forgiveness and confession.
- 2 Chronicles 7:14 says, “If my people who are called by my name (talking about the the people of God here or the church today) humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Notice the connection here between forgiveness and repentance – turning from our wicked ways as God’s people.
To ask for forgiveness without confession and repentance is presumption upon God’s grace, and we should not expect such a request to be received by God.
We’re not just asking for ourselves, but for all the people of God
This is a corporate prayer, “forgive us,” not just “forgive me.” This may seem a bit strange to us, but it was common in biblical times to think and act this way. They had a stronger sense of community and communal identity.
Here are a couple of examples:
- Daniel says in Daniel 9:20 – “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel . . .” He confesses his and his people’s sins.
- Nehemiah prays in Nehemiah 9:33 – “we have acted wickedly” – talking in context about things that other Israelites have done, not what he has personally done.
So when we pray this request, we pray for forgiveness for ourselves, but also for God to forgive all of his people who turn to him in repentance. We’re asking, “God have mercy on your people. Forgive, heal and restore.”
Here I would just mention, that yes, Jesus could pray this prayer request. Some say that we shouldn’t call the Lord’s prayer the Lord’s prayer because Jesus couldn’t pray this petition since he was sinless. But he could pray this petition for us.
Finally, if we don’t forgive others, God will not continue to forgive us
Jesus makes crystal clear that our relationship with God is interconnected with our relationship with others. That’s why this request for forgiveness from God has the additional phrases:
- “as we also have forgiven those indebted to us” – Matthew 6:12
- “for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” – Luke 11:4
The “as” and the “for” point this out. God will forgive us, but we must also forgive others who sin against us. There’s a connection. And every time we pray this we’re reminded of it.
In Matthew, this point is emphasized with an additional comment at the end. Jesus says this in 6:14-15 – “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Let’s note here that we’re not earning our forgiveness by forgiving others. Jesus doesn’t mean that if we forgive someone first, then God has to forgive us. We do something and then God is obliged to respond.
No. To pray this prayer is to have already first received God’s grace. That’s why we can say, “father.” We’re God’s child by grace. God’s grace always comes first. We don’t earn it. (Also in Matthew 18:23-35.)
But this petition does teach us that those who receive mercy from God, have to pass it on to others. And if we cut off mercy to others, it will be cut off from us by God.
This is a common theme in the teaching of Jesus:
- Mark 11:25 – “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
- Luke 6:37 – “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” To judge or condemn is to withhold forgiveness from others. If we do this we will be judged and condemned by God (see also Matthew 18:35). But if we forgive others, God will forgive us.