The following is the eighth part of a series written by one of our members, David Carrico. Previous parts can be found at the links below:
“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:9-12
We have arrived in our meditations at a sentence that I think we all too often gloss over when we read and interpret this prayer. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Well, right away, we have to deal with that word “debts”. It is loaded with such a financial connotation in English that some translators use the word “trespasses” instead, which really isn’t much clearer in meaning and is definitely a less elegant translation. But either way, most people read the idea of sin into “debts” or its equivalents. We’ll get back to that.
So what does the word “debts” really mean? Up to this point, Jesus has been talking mostly about God and our relationship with Him. Has he all of a sudden switched gears and started talking about our financial situations?
But to understand what’s really going on here, we’re going to have to dig into a bit of Greek. Bear with me. I’ll try not to dig any deeper than I have to.
The word that’s translated as “debts” is derived from the Greek word opheil¢, which can mean an amount that is owed, an obligation that is owed, or a service which is due to someone else—a duty, in other words. And it is this last meaning that really seems most to be in play in this verse—specifically the lack of performance of a duty.
So the verse could really be read as: Forgive us where we have failed you, just as we forgive those who have failed us.
As part of creation, we have a duty to God. Because we are among those ransomed by the blood of Christ, we have a duty to Christ. And all sin, from the least unkind thought that momentarily crosses our minds to the most horrific and grisly of murders that could be committed, is a failure of our duty to God.
“But wait,” you ask, “as believers, as sons and daughters of God, aren’t we already forgiven?”
Yes, insofar as we are talking about justification. Any and every sin that we commit, whether before we come to know Jesus as Savior or afterward, is forgiven us at the exact moment we establish that relationship with Him. So when (not if) we sin as believers, nothing we do can ever endanger our personal salvation.
But that does not mean that there is no effect of our sinning. Sin in our lives has the potential to become a barrier between us and God. Paul gives a warning about that in his first letter to the Thessalonian church.
Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
The indication is that not abstaining from every form of evil, not keeping away from sin, can and does quench the presence of the Holy Spirit of God in our lives.
So yes, if we do not regularly confess our sins before God, pretty soon we’re comfortable with them, we don’t notice the increasing weight of the sins, and we don’t notice when our relationship with God becomes dim and dismal. That is why the first part of the verse in the prayer asks God to forgive us where we have failed in our duty to him.
But why is the second part of the verse there? Why are we supposed to pray about how we forgive those who have failed us? After all, if they’ve sinned against us, haven’t they also sinned against God, and shouldn’t they be dealing with Him? Well, that’s true as far as it goes, but it’s not that simple.
Do you remember what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments?
And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ “This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40
The last sentence of this quotation is a figure of speech that basically means that everything in the Old Testament ties to one or the other or both of those commandments. That was a revelation to me the day that I first realized it. Think about it: every one of the Ten Commandments derives from one or the other of those two commandments. Every law in the books of Moses derives from those two commandments. (And actually, they are quotations themselves: see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.) Every instruction from the prophets of God derives from those two commandments. And today we can see that every teaching in the New Testament also resonates with them. For example:
“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. John 15:9-12
This very clearly tells us that as children of God, we are to have vertical relationships with Him, and horizontal relationships with those around us. And just as the vertical relationships should be based on and filled with agape (love), so the horizontal relationship should also be based on and filled with agape.
Okay, but what does that have to do with “…forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors…“?
Here’s where we get to the part that always seems to get brushed over when we read or teach this. Focus in on this.
This is relating God’s forgiveness to how we forgive others. To paraphrase it in more colloquial modern English, this verse is saying “God, You forgive us where we have failed you just as much (or as little) as we have forgiven those who have failed us.”
And before you start thinking that this is something crazy that came out of David’s feeble and twisted mind, look at this:
“For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. Matthew 6:14-15
Jesus says this just a couple of sentences after the phrase we’re meditating on here, immediately after He concludes the prayer. That is not coincidental. Those two passages are absolutely directly related. I believe that Jesus is teaching us that the clarity of our daily relationship with God is directly related to the clarity of our daily relationship with those around us.
If we desire to know God; if we desire to have the closest possible relationship with Him; if we desire to know His cleansing forgiveness on a regular (daily) basis so we can experience that closeness; then we must first forgive. If we want to experience God’s forgiveness of our failures, then we must first forgive others when they fail us in any way.
Because a hard, harsh, and unforgiving heart is not one that can know God. If we add to our failures by failing to forgive others in a Christ-like manner, then we have in that moment taken a step away from God; and with each succeeding step of unforgiveness our relationship with God gets dimmer and more dismal. We’re still saved, but we don’t know the joy of our salvation any more, and we have placed ourselves in the position where God is much more likely to discipline us than bless us.
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This may actually be one of the most important parts of the prayer, and yet it is the one usually least emphasized. But nothing that Jesus teaches is unimportant, and so it is with this sentence. It is vitally important to our being able to draw close to God, which should be one of our chief aims as Christians. But to do that, to forgive others, we may have to voice another prayer along with it: “And change me, Father, so that where I have not forgiven I can now forgive.” That might just be the second most important prayer of your life.
Grace and peace to you.