Prayer – Forgive Us, Our Debts

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in ministry, and one of the lessons I am continually working to help others implement into their own lives and relationships, is the lesson of forgiveness. Seeking for and freely offering up forgiveness. Dr. Bill Bright, the founder of Cru, once taught me that the 12 most important words in marriage are: I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Those 12 words can radically transform even the most difficult marriages. They can heal the most painful hurts. Forgiveness is powerful.

The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for forgiveness. The petition is that God would “forgive us our debts.” The disposition of the one praying is to be “as we forgive our debtors.” The object of our prayer is our “debts” and the requested action is that these debts be “forgiven.” And then this same action is required of us toward those around us.

First, a note about the physical and spiritual needs of the human. We are to pray for our physical needs. The fourth petition is for our “daily bread.” We have real physical bodies that have real physical needs. We should not neglect those needs. However, we need to acknowledge that we also have real immaterial souls. These souls also have needs. And far too often we are much more preoccupied with the physical rather than the spiritual needs of our lives. The fourth petition deals with the physical. The fifth and sixth petitions deal with spiritual. Without neglecting the former, we must acknowledge that the prayer emphasizes the latter by a 2:1 margin. Having our daily bread is nothing without forgiveness. A belly that is full and a soul that is empty is a truly impoverished life.

The fifth petition deals with our “debt.” To understand what is meant by “debt” we need to understand that God is our Creator. All that man is and all that man has comes from God. À Brakel notes, “It is for this reason that man is obligated to exist for God with his entire being – not only as a matter of gratitude, but on account of an obligation to God by virtue of the covenant of works, established with the human race in Adam, whereby salvation was promised on condition of obedience – a covenant to which man has fully committed himself.”[1] Sin against God is a debt owed to God. And sinners are debtors. Thomas Watson explains that this is the worst kind of debt for several reasons. Man has nothing with which he can pay God. He has no righteousness and therefore has no way to repay God. Man has sinned against an infinite majesty. If you destroy a doodle on a scratch piece of paper, it is no big deal. If you destroy a Rembrandt, it is a big deal. Also, man’s sin has been multiplied. It is sin upon sin upon sin. There is no denying this or shifting the blame. Man is in debt to God and deserves not just a debtor’s prison but the eternal fires of hell.[2]

But God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins (1 Jn 1:9). God’s justice will not allow the debt of sin to go unpaid. But God’s mercy has provided a way of forgiveness through the substitutionary atonement in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “For while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of this Son” (Rom 5:10). “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18).  Jesus paid the debt that you and I could not possibly pay. Through this divine exchange our sins are lifted away, covered up, blotted out, scattered like a cloud, and cast into the sea.

This petition also presupposed a particular disposition in the life of the person praying. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” If the prayer read “…because we forgive our debtors” then we could assume that our forgiveness of others merits God’s forgiveness of us. But it does not read that way. Our forgiveness does not merit forgiveness. Forgiveness is a grace of God brought about only through the blood of Jesus Christ. Neither are we able to grant perfect forgiveness or absolution from sin. Only God can offer that. But some sins, particularly those of the so-called second Table of the Law (i.e. Commandments 5-10), are committed against God and man. Sins committed against God and man need to be forgiven by God and man. Man’s forgiveness is but a poor reflection of divine forgiveness. But just as divine forgiveness is necessary for a relationship with God, human forgiveness is necessary for healthy and life-giving relationships with other people. Thomas Watson describes the unforgiving spirit as an “obstruction in the body” or “bowels which are shut up.” The person who is unwilling to forgive is like one whose colon is impacted such that excrement can no longer pass. The person who is unwilling to forgive is literally full of it. But the Lord’s Prayer calls on us to seek forgiveness from God and to freely give forgiveness to others.

[1] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.556.

[2] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 211 ff.