This past Sunday, in our sermon series Teach us to Pray, we looked at this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Now this phrase of this prayer would be really wonderful if it stopped at “Forgive us our debts.” That’s how most of us pray, if we’re honest. The Bible tells us we enter life with a debt–a massive gap between us and God (Romans 3:23; Romans 5:12, among others). Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection erased paid that debt and offers reconciliation with God. Anyone who has put their faith in Christ can pray this prayer with hope, knowing his debt has been forgiven.
But the prayer doesn’t stop there. Jesus says that we’re to pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This word “as” is not just a fill-in word here. It’s a real Greek word, hos that means , wait for it, . . . as. So Jesus is saying exactly what we think He is saying, “Forgive us our debts in proportion to the way we forgive our debtors.” And just to be sure we understood what Jesus is saying, Jesus comments on this verse in verse 14—the only additional commentary he offered on any of these requests in the Lord’s Prayer—with this:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, Matthew 6:14 (ESV)
Jesus talked like this over and over again. He is communicating some very hard truths here. They are difficult to swallow. He seems to be saying to us this: you are only forgiven as much as you forgive. Augustine called this a “terrible petition” because in this, we are really praying for God to withhold his forgiveness of us in proportion to how we forgive others. Charles Spurgeon said of this passage that to pray this, without practicing forgiveness is to “sign your own death warrant.”
What exactly does this passage mean? I think it can have several implications.
First, it can mean that if you have no ability, no desire to forgive others, perhaps you have not been forgiven yourself. One of the effects of the gospel is that it softens our heart and causes us to forgive, to let go of grudges. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” The mark of a true believer is his ability to forgive. Not that you’re not struggling with forgiveness. Not that you don’t wrestle with it. I like what Kent Hughes says by way of explanation in his Preaching the Word commentary on Matthew:
I am not referring to those who find that bitterness and hatred recur even though they have forgiven the offender. The fact that you have forgiven and continue to forgive is a sign of grace. We are not talking about people who are struggling with forgiveness. It is those who have no desire to forgive who are in soul danger. There may also be some who have been recently offended and are still in emotional shock and so have not been able to properly respond with forgiveness. The point is: If we are Christians, we can and will forgive!
These are hard words by Jesus, but words needed for those who perhaps may act religious, who have gone through the motions and think they are close to God yet have not been truly regenerated. One way to test your heart is to see if you are willing, able to forgive. This was the case of the Pharisees. They were religious. They kept the moral law. They were the conservatives of their generation. And yet Jesus said their hearts were like open graves. They couldn’t forgive.
And yet we know it can’t be saying that the way to get to Heaven, the way to earn God’s forgiveness of us is by forgiving. It’s not teaching a “works-based” salvation. It’s not saying, to earn favor with God, go forgive people. The point of this passage really is saying that as you are forgiven, so you forgive. A great parallel passage is in Matthew 18 and the parable Jesus shared of a king who forgave a man who owed a tremendous debt and then could not forgive the man who owed him a little one. To quote my friend, Ray Pritchard, “it was the king who first forgave.”
This is how the gospel begins in us. First, we’re forgiven by the king and then we forgive. We can’t ever forget the ordering of these two things. If we are to believe the gospel, we have to say that we can’t truly forgive until we’ve been forgiven. We don’t have the power. Romans reminds us that God “sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts by faith.” The gospel is the wellspring of forgiveness. This is what Paul means when he tells the Ephesians in 4:32: “Even as Christ forgave you, so also do you.” You forgive as you’ve been forgiven.
Secondly, this is a diagnosis of a Christian’s heart. We know Jesus’ primary audience is his disciples, who, by virtue of faith in Christ’s coming death and resurrection, will receive forgiveness. This is why they can call God abba to begin with. The gospel restores us to that intimate relationship with God. So in this phrase He asks us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” He is saying that we will feel and understand the full weight of God’s forgiveness of us as we forgive others.
In other words, God has forgiven us in Christ, but we often don’t fully enjoy that grace, we can’t rest in it, because we are committing the sin of unforgiveness.
At the same time, this prayer diagnoses the reason Christians hold grudges and can’t forgive. Why? Because they’ve forgotten the debts they’ve been forgiven of God. It again relates to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18 about the King who forgave an enormous debt of one man, who then couldn’t forgive a smaller debt. Jesus is speaking to us, saying, “I’ve forgiven you the equivalent of trillions of dollars, say several times the national debt and you can’t forgive your brother five bucks.”
The reason we don’t forgive, the reason we harbor it in our hearts, is simple: We’ve forgotten the gospel. Forgiven people forgive. The problem is that we, like the Pharisees, often think God forgave us because we were already pretty good to start with. This pride keeps from forgiving others. This is especially a problem of longtime Christians. We hear the gospel and get converted and then we think we have to “move past it.” We don’t see ourselves the way God saw us before we came to Christ. We see ourselves as deserving of His mercy and grace. We don’t realize the great huge debt God forgave us.
That’s why I love Paul’s declaration that he was the “chief of sinners.” In other words, Paul looked around and said this, “As bad as others are, I’m worse. I’m the worst. God needed more grace for me than anyone else.” And that attitude kept Paul in the flow of God’s rich grace and able to forgive others.
You will not experience the full weight of God’s forgiveness of you until you learn how to forgive others. And you will not learn how to forgive others until you understand the full weight of Gods’ forgiveness of you.
Our forgiveness of others demonstrates how much we understand how much God has forgiven us. Our ability to forgive others tells God what we think of the gospel. If we think it was cheap, then we’ll forgive others cheaply. But if we see the cost, then we’ll forgive deeply
To pray and to live out this prayer is to be in the rhythm of repentance and forgiveness of the Christian life. We are constantly in need of repentance and constantly called to forgive. You will find this spiritual rhythm over and over in the Scriptures. It is the way of grace. And every relationship we have depends on this: repentance and forgiveness are the oil of human relationships.
This concept can radically change your marriage. If you recognize that you are a sinner in need of your spouses’ forgiveness and that your spouse is a sinner in need of forgiveness. So often Christians forget this principle and they let their relationships sort of harden and calcify. They’ve forgotten the gospel in their marriage and this is why there is bitterness, anger, and detachment. Marital intimacy depends on the gospel, this life cycle of repentance and forgiveness.
This concept also radically can alter your parenting. You as a parent must constantly ask your children for forgiveness and you must constantly forgive them. And on and on it goers throughout all of our relationships. This is why Jesus mentions this in the same context as our need for bread. Because a tranquil heart, right with God and man, is as vital as bread.