Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Matthew 6:12 ESV
Our study of the Lord’s Prayer continues with the petition for God to forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors. In many ways, this supplication is the natural plea arising from a belief in the forgiveness of sins as we saw in the Apostles’ Creed. Since the petition contains two clauses, we will organize our study as such as well.
FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS
Jesus is clearly teaching us here to ask forgiveness for our sins, which can be seen in Luke’s version of the prayer. Yet here in Matthew, Christ uses a much more generalize word meaning debt. Why is this?
Sin is very much a debt. In fact, sin is the debt. For many today, debt is a moderate inconvenience. Mortgages, student loans, credit cards, car payments, and the like can very quickly become burdensome, yet they rarely compare to the seriousness of debt in the first century. For the people of Jesus’ day, owing a debt was often a life or death matter. If you could not pay back your debt, it was not sold to a collection agency; instead, you were thrown into prison, where you would wait until your family managed to pay your outstanding debt. If your family could not pay, you would die in prison, which given that ancient prisons were not known for their humaneness, was probably sooner rather than later.
In Luke 7:36-49, Jesus’ feet are anointed by a sinful woman while in the house of a Pharisee named Simon. Upon seeing this scene, Simon said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (v. 39). Jesus then responded to Simon with the following parable: “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both.” Then turning to Simon, He asked, “Now which of them will love him more?” (vv. 41-42). At that time, one denarius was the average daily wage of a laborer. Both debts were, therefore, significant, but the one who owed five hundred denarii obviously had the more significant debt. So that was Simon’s answer.
Notice, however, that Jesus assumes that both men in the parable will feel love for the lender who forgave them. Forgiving and canceling a debt was a tremendous act of mercy. Indeed, so gracious was the pardon that it would be almost unthinkable not to feel love toward the forgiver. Jesus then applies the parable’s meaning to the forgiveness of sin, saying, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (v. 47). If a monetary debt being forgiven elicits love for the forgiving lender, how much more the forgiveness of sin!
Sin, after all, is the grand debt. Nothing is more serious, and nothing has consequences more severe. Our sin is a rebellion against God, against the almighty Creator. Our sin is a declaration of our own divinity, a pronunciation that we know better than He who alone is omniscient. Sin is, at its core, an offense against God, and by sinning, we become indebted to Him. This debt, however, is not financial but moral. This moral debt is essential to our understanding of justice. When we hear of a criminal needing to pay his debt to society, we mean that justice must be done. The crime must be met with its proper retribution. Indeed, our sense of guilt over sin often involves the painful reality that we deserve a consequence for our actions.
What then is the just consequence of sinning against God? It is eternal damnation under the wrath of God. Of course, many today view the idea of an eternal hell as an outdated conception. They question how sin could ever be severe enough to warrant an everlasting punishment. The reality, however, is that the justice of an eternal hell is dependent upon the worth of God Himself rather than in the severity of our sin. Each sin, no matter how small, bears an infinite price tag because it is against the Infinite One. We can see this principle by imagining different scenarios and consequences of lying. First, if you lie to a complete stranger, the repercussions are likely to be quite limited. Next, if you lie to a close friend or spouse, a significant breach in trust will have been made that will require much time to heal. If, however, you lie while under an oath in court, you’ve committed the crime of perjury. The importance of the one who is sinned against directly shapes the gravity of the sin’s penalty. When we sin against the eternal God, the price is rightly eternal as well.
What hope do we have of paying off this debt? In ourselves, we have none. What hope could we who are finite ever have of giving recompense toward our infinite debt? Such a thing is impossible. We cannot make ourselves right before Him. Even if we committed a single sin but then walked in obedience for the rest of our days, our obedience would not outweigh of sin. We earn no bonus points for obedience because obedience is our basic duty. The angels in heaven do not receive applause for having never sinned. They are simply fulfilling the purpose for which they were made, and theirs is the joy of God’s presence, not the damnation reserved for Satan and his fallen. “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
How then are we to be forgiven by God? Thanks be to God; Jesus has paid our debt in full! Through His life, death, and resurrection, Christ has ransomed His people from the penalty of their sins. He alone was able to work this miracle since He alone is both God and man. Being entirely human, Jesus was able to stand in our place, to offer Himself as our representative and our substitute. Being entirely God, Jesus’ death was wholly sufficient for paying our eternal debt since He is the Eternal One. Rightly, therefore, is our salvation, the forgiveness of our sins, said to be in Christ alone. We have no other hope of redemption. Either Christ’s death paid our debt once for all, or we are still under the condemnation of our sin. These are the only options set before us. It is good news, indeed, that Christ Jesus died and rose again to cleanse us entirely of every sin.
Yet if the gospel teaches us that Jesus died once for all our sins, why then does Jesus teach us to pray repeatedly for forgiveness? Salvation, as many theologians have noted, occurs on three fronts: past, present, and future. Whenever we first confess Jesus as our Lord and Savior and begin following Him as His disciple, we are justified, meaning that we are immediately made right before God. This act of justification is both encompassing and effective. He who is justified is a child of God, and he cannot be removed from his Father’s hand. Yet the reality of our justification is not seen fully until we are glorified, meaning that we are free from our present, corrupted bodies and from sin. The sorrowful reality is that many participate in the joys of Christian community without ever truly being justified. These are “Christians” who either deceive themselves into believing their own profession (see Matthew 7:21-23) or appear to fall away from the faith (see 1 John 2:9) although in reality they were never truly saved.
Between our justification and glorification lies our every day walk with Christ called sanctification. If justification is the establishment of the spiritual reality of our salvation and glorification is the completion of its physical reality, then sanctification is the daily invasion of our spiritual reality into our physical one. Take, for instance, Paul’s statement to the Galatians that he had “been crucified with Christ” so that it was no longer he that lived but Christ living in him (2:20). Yet Paul also claimed to “die daily” both in his constant readiness to give his life for the gospel and his continuous mortification of sin (1 Corinthians 15:31). Similarly, we know that we are fully justified upon our first act of repentance of sin before the Lord, yet our justification is evidenced through our continual readiness to repent over our present sins. Indeed, the great mark of a true Christian is not sinlessness but repentance. The true disciple of Christ knows that the Father has already forgiven all His sins by the blood of Christ, so he runs to the Father in repentance whenever he commits sin.
The prayer forgive us our debts, therefore, a reminder of the gospel. It’s a confession that we are indebted to God and a humble, yet confident, plea in Christ for forgiveness. And since we have all been forgiven an eternal debt, may we love our Lord with an eternal love.
A FORGIVING PEOPLE
The petition, however, does not end there; instead, Jesus adds as we also have forgiven our debtors. Such a statement should rightfully shock us and perhaps cause us to nervously shuffle our feet. After all, does it not appear that Jesus is conditioning our forgiveness upon our readiness to forgive others? These are weighty matters, so let us tread delicately.
R. C. Sproul rightly notes that “if God forgave me in exact proportion to the manner in which I distribute forgiveness to other people, I would perish” (82). None of us could bear such a condition. We would all fall hopelessly short and remain in our sins. Thankfully, this is not Jesus’ meaning. Instead, Christ is noting that we cannot be recipients of God’s grace without also being givers of grace ourselves.
Jesus gives a powerful parable to illustrate this very principle in Matthew 18:21-35:
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Again, the purpose of Jesus’ parable is not to teach us that God will forgive us exactly as we forgive others but rather that a characteristic of those forgiven by God is their forgiving nature. Because the world is full of sin, we will perpetually wrestle with forgiving those who sin against us, and the task is not easy by any stretch of the imagination! However, we pray for our own forgiveness to God in order to give perspective to those who have sinned against us. As I noted previously, one denarius in Jesus’ day was worth about a day’s wage. A talent, however, was a weight measurement of about 75 pounds. The debtor of the parable, therefore, was owed one days’ worth of wages from his fellow servant, while he owed about 200,000 years’ wages himself. Or as one commentator notes:
The combined annual tribute of Galilee and Perea just after the death of the representative Herod the Great came only to 200 talents (Jos. Ant. 17.318; Jeremias 1972:30); the tribute of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea came to 600 talents (Jos. Ant. 17:320). This fact starkly reveals the laughably hyperbolic character of the illustration: the poor man owes the king more money than existed in circulation in the whole country at the time!” (458-459).
Yet when we consider our eternal debt against God that has been forgiven us, the prospect of us withholding forgiveness from another person is even more absurd than the parable describes. Such a practice is simply inconceivable for the Christian. We cannot receive infinite grace with one hand, while denying finite grace with the other. The forgiven must also be forgivers.
As we pray, therefore, for our own forgiveness, we also pray for strength to forgive those around us. By grace alone we are saved, and by grace alone can we extend grace to our debtors. In this way, gospel is our only foundation for obeying the great commands to love God and love our neighbors. In Christ, our account is settled before God, and He enables us to settle them before men as well. May we never forget this glorious truth!