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In this post I am continuing a series on the Lord’s Prayer. What follows are my teaching notes on the text in Matthew. I hope the blog’s readers will find it helpful.

Introduction: When tempted by Satan, Jesus reminded him that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4, citing Deut. 8:3). In the Lord’s Prayer, He reminds us that man lives not only by daily bread, but by daily forgiveness from God.

Quote: As D.A. Carson has put it:

The first three petitions stand independently from one another. The last three, however, are linked in Greek by “ands,” almost as if to say that life sustained by food is not enough. We also need forgiveness of sin and deliverance from temptation. (EBC, Vol.8, p.172)

Quote: Thomas Watson elaborates on this same point:

As soon as Christ had said, ‘Give us daily bread,’ he adds, ‘and forgive us.’ He joins the petition of forgiveness of sin immediately to the other of daily bread, to show us that though we have daily bread, yet all is nothing without forgiveness. If our sins be not pardoned, we can take but little comfort in our food. As a man that is condemned takes little comfort from the meat you bring him in prison, without a pardon; so, though we have daily bread, yet it will do us no good unless sin be forgiven. What though we should have manna, which was called angels’ food, though the rock should pour out rivers of oil, all is nothing unless sin be done away. When Christ had said, ‘Give us our daily bread,’ he presently added, and ‘forgive us our trespasses.’ Daily bread may satisfy the appetite, but forgiveness of sin satisfies the conscience ….

Daily bread may make us live comfortably, but forgiveness of sins will make us die comfortably. (The Lord’s Prayer, first published as part of A Body of Practical Divinity, 1692)

While keeping in mind that daily forgiveness is just as important as our daily bread, let’s examine more closely the way Jesus wants us to pray for this forgiveness.

NKJ Matthew 6:12 “And forgive us our debts [opheílēma], as we forgive our debtors [opheilétēs].

Several questions come to mind as I read this verse: 1) What are the debts Jesus says we need to have forgiven? (What does this term debts mean?) 2) In what sense are our debts forgiven as we forgive our debtors? (Does this imply that we earn forgiveness by first forgiving others?) We shall seek to answer each of this questions in our attempt to understand what Jesus is teaching us.

I. What are the debts Jesus says we need to have forgiven?

As most of us are no doubt already aware, the Bible can sometimes describe sins as debts and the forgiving of sins as the forgiveness of a debt. It is figurative language that was well understood by first century Jews. This is why Jesus uses it in this passage and also why – on another occasion when He taught His disciples to pray in a similar fashion – He could refer to debts and sins interchangeably:

NKJ Luke 11:4a “And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted [opheílō] to us.” (Italics mine.)

This metaphorical way of picturing sins as debts is also reflected in one of Jesus’ better known parables:

NKJ Matthew 18:21-35 “Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. 28 But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, “Pay me what you owe!” 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. 35 So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.’”

Quote: Thomas Watson asks the question, “Why is sin called a debt?” and offers this helpful answer:

Because it fitly resembles it. (1) A debt arises upon non- payment of money, or the not paying that which is one’s due. We owe to God exact obedience, and not paying what is due, we are in debt. (2) In case of non-payment, the debtor goes to prison; so, by our sin, we become guilty, and are exposed to God’s curse of damnation. Though he grants a sinner a reprieve for a time, yet he remains bound to eternal death if the debt be not forgiven. (The Lord’s Prayer, first published as part of A Body of Practical Divinity, 1692)

Watson also goes on to ask the question, “In what sense is sin the worst debt?” to which he gives several answers that are worthy of consideration:

(1) Because we have nothing to pay. If we could pay the debt, what need to pray, ‘forgive us’?….

(2) Sin is the worst debt, because it is against an infinite majesty….

(3) Sin is the worst debt, because it is not a single, but a multiplied debt. Forgive us ‘our debts;’ we have debt upon debt….

(4) Sin is the worst debt; because it is an inexcusable debt in two respects; [1] There is no denying the debt. Other debts men may deny. If the money be not paid before witnesses, or if the creditor lose the bond, the debtor may say he owes him nothing; but there is no denying the debt of sin. If we say we have no sin, God can prove the debt…. 2] There is no shifting off the debt. Other debts may be shifted off. We may get friends to pay them, but neither man nor angel can pay this debt for us. If all the angels in heaven should make a purse, they cannot pay one of our debts. In other debts men may get a protection, so that none can touch their persons, or sue them for it; but who shall give us a protection from God’s justice?

Indeed, who “shall give us a protection from God’s justice”? We know that it is Jesus Christ alone who can pay the debt, “in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14).

II. In what sense are our debts forgiven as we forgive our debtors?

At first glance, one might be tempted to think – as some have thought – that Jesus is teaching that we can somehow merit forgiveness from God through our forgiveness of others, especially given Jesus’ explanation of this petition in verses 14-15:

NKJ Matthew 6:14-15 14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

But does Jesus really intend to say that we merit God’s forgiveness through our our forgiveness of others? That our forgiving others is somehow the cause of God’s forgiving us? Four considerations militate against such an an understanding of Jesus’ teaching here:

First, the form of request the petition for forgiveness takes rules out merit, so that our forgiveness of others cannot be the cause of God’s forgiveness of us.

When Jesus tells us to ask the father to “forgive us our debts,” He uses the Greek verb aphíēmi, which means “to remit a debt” and also “to forgive a sin” (i.e. in the same manner as one would remit a debt). But to remit a debt is to show grace! No payment is required! If God were dealing with us in accordance with works righteousness, He would demand payment of the debt from us.

Thus, Jesus cannot be saying that God will cancel our debt while at the same time saying we must pay it bit by bit! Such a reading of the text would be absurd.

Second, we must distinguish between the initial forgiveness of our sins when we are justified and the ongoing need for confession and forgiveness in our daily lives.

1) Jesus clearly intends this prayer for those who are already believers and thus already justified and forgiven through Christ.

Recall the opening address of the prayer in verse 9, in which Jesus tells believers to address God as “our Father.”

2) Jesus clearly intends this as an ongoing, daily prayer (sanctification), not as a once for all prayer for salvation and forgiveness (justification).

Recall verse 11, in which Jesus clearly indicates this is to be a “daily” prayer (and see also Luke 11:3, “Give us day by day our daily bread”).

This distinction between initial forgiveness and our ongoing need for forgiveness may be found elsewhere in scripture as well. For example:

Initial forgiveness: NKJ Romans 3:21-24 “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus….”

Ongoing forgiveness: NKJ 1 John 1:8-2:1 “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. 2:1 My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

Third, we must distinguish between our forgiveness of others as the cause of God’s forgiveness of us versus our forgiveness of others as the evidence of our having been forgiven by God.

NKJ James 2:14-17 “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

As many Reformed theologians have correctly asserted over the centuries, “We are saved by grace through faith alone, bu the faith that saves is never alone.” Genuine saving faith always results in a changed life that produces fruit in keeping with repentance (as John the Baptist would say it, Matt. 3:8), and one of those fruits will always be a forgiving heart.

Quote: John Stott gets it right when he says:

This certainly does not mean that our forgiveness of others earns us the right to be forgiven. It is rather that God forgives only the penitent and that one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit. Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offence against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If, on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offences of others, it proves that we have minimized our own. (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p.149-150)

Fourth, we must distinguish between deserts and capacity. Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness of our sins is the just deserts of our having forgiven others. Rather, He is implying that our forgiveness of others affects our capacity to receive God’s forgiveness. This is also consistent with the teaching of the rest of Scripture. For example:

NKJ Psalm 66:18 “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.”

So also, when Jesus teaches us to pray daily, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” He is also giving us a daily reminder that we need to confess our sins to God and to be forgiven by Him. And He is giving us a daily reminder that our relationships with others always affect our relationship with God! We will be hindered in our fellowship with God and will not experience His forgiveness fully if we do not forgive others. But as we see a forgiving spirit within ourselves, then we will be all the more assured of God’s forgiveness. For, if God can enable us to forgive those who harm us, then we know with certainly that God Himself can and does truly forgive us!

Conclusion: I will conclude simply by repeating the admonition of the Apostle Paul, one which I hope we will now see in a new light:

NKJ Ephesians 4:32 “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.”

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