Forgive Us Our Debts
Forgive Us Our Debts
St. Matthew 2:12, 14-15
by William Klock
A few years ago I was on a plane flight and ended up sitting next to a psychiatrist, who was on his way home from a friend’s wedding. We got to talking about the similarities between his work and my work, and he mentioned that the wedding he had been to was in a Lutheran church and that it had included a service of Holy Communion. He told me how, as part of that service, the congregation had read a confession of sin and had heard the absolution pronounced by the minister as part of the liturgy. It’s not dissimilar from our own. And this man next to me on the plane – who wasn’t a Christian – told me that if his patients participated each week in that sort of confession and absolution he’d be out of a job. He mentioned that probably seventy-five percent of his work was with people that needed nothing more than to feel that they had been forgiven for the things they had done. And yet he said that it put him in a moral quandary to have to be constantly assuring people of forgiveness. They hadn’t done anything to offend him. What they really needed was to be forgiven by the people they had offended. And even if they got that, there was still something lacking. And he said, “You know, most people believe in God. If they could simply confess their sins the way those people at the wedding did, and hear a minister tell them that God forgives them, most people would probably be happy.” This man didn’t believe in God, but he did hit the nail on the head. We live in a fallen world where sinful men and women have been separated from their Creator and their hearts cry out for real forgiveness and assurance of it. The Gospel is the message of that forgiveness, but without the Gospel message, we go looking to assuage our guilt in other ways: we tell our problems to psychiatrists or we get caught up in good causes, trying to tip the balance toward the good, because we know the bad side is weighed down by our sins.
We’re all in need of forgiveness and that’s why what we come to in the Lord’s Prayer this week so important. Jesus tells us to pray in this fifth petition:
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
I want to talk with your today about forgiveness. But we need to understand one thing here first: in these verses in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is talking about the kind of forgiveness that God gives his disobedient children – to his children whom he has already redeemed by the blood of his Son. We need to understand that before this kind of forgiveness is possible, we first have to have received the other kind of forgiveness that makes us God’s children in the first place.
Jesus isn’t talking about the same kind of prayer for forgiveness that we make when we first put our faith and trust in him for our salvation. That’s the prayer in which we accept Christ’s death as the one sufficient sacrifice for our sin – past, present, and future – and it’s something we do once for all. You see, if that’s the kind of prayer Jesus is talking about here, then we can have no real security before God; we wouldn’t be able to say with St. Paul, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” We wouldn’t be able to say with the Psalmist, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
No. What Jesus is talking about here is the kind of forgiveness that God gives once we’re already trusting in Christ for our salvation. This is the forgiveness that comes repeatedly – daily – and that restores us back to fellowship with God each time we stumble and fall. This is the forgiveness through which God picks us up, dusts us off, encourages us, and sets us back on our way.
You see, we all need to understand that when a sinful man or woman becomes a Christian, they don’t stop being a sinner. The Holy Spirit puts a new nature in us – and that new nature doesn’t sin. That new nature will lead us along the path of holiness if we’ll let it lead us. The problem is that we still have the old sinful nature with us – at least this side of eternity. And that old sin-nature drags us off-course and gets us into trouble over and over, breaking our fellowship with God. We’re already redeemed once and for always, but the sins we continue to commit throw up a wall – a wall between our unholiness and the perfect holiness of God.
Scripture tells us that the way to restore that fellowship – the way to tear down that wall – is to confess our sins to God and to ask for forgiveness and cleansing. If we don’t do this, we’re warned that we’ll lose the joy of our salvation, but we’re also reminded that if we do ask God’s forgiveness, we’ll enter increasingly into deeper joy and fellowship with him.
But it doesn’t end there. This principle should make a difference in how we deal with others; because we can never experience the fullness of God’s forgiveness towards us, according to Jesus, unless we extend the same forgiveness to those who have wronged us. If you jump down to the verses 14 and 15, just after Jesus’ model prayer, he tells us:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
I struggled with these verses for a long time. I thought Jesus was saying that somehow God was waiting for me to earn his forgiveness by forgiving those who have wronged me – and I couldn’t square that with what I already knew: that we can’t earn God’s forgiveness.
What Jesus is really getting at, though, is the point that we can’t truly ask for forgiveness until our hearts are right in regard to others. And here’s an important spiritual principle. It took me way too long to figure this one out. You see, God doesn’t work by halves. What I mean is that God will never allow us to come to him confessing half of a sin while we hang onto the other half. Have you ever done that? You ask God to forgive something that you’ve done, but what you come to him with is really only part of the sin. Maybe you confess the sin you’ve fallen into, but you still hold onto the thing that got you there in the first place. God doesn’t work that way. With him it’s all or nothing. So if we confess our sins, that confession has to also involve a forgiving attitude toward others.
It’s important that we make ourselves right with others before we come to make ourselves right with God. Sometimes that means we’re the ones who have done the wrong and we need to ask for forgiveness, but sometimes we need to seek out the person who has wronged us and offer them our forgiveness. Followers of Christ are never allowed to hold onto those offences or to hold grudges. This is why Jesus stresses that before we bring our offerings to God, we need to make sure we’re right with our brothers and sisters – and this is why the Prayer Book stresses that we need to be right with each other before we come to the Lord’s Table – and why it instructs the priest to refuse communion to those who, as it says, are at enmity with each other. Jesus tells us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” And that means that we need to model our own forgiveness on God’s. If God has forgiven us, we have no business refusing to forgive others.
That’s the hard part. But what Jesus tells us here is also good news, because when we come to Jesus confessing our sins and looking for forgiveness, we can be sure that he really does forgive. How? Well, we can be sure in the only way that we can be sure of anything else of a spiritual nature. How can we be sure that the death of the Lord Jesus was the one sufficient sacrifice for our sins? Because God says so. He says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). How can we be sure that once we have believed on Jesus Christ we will never be lost? Because God says so, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). How can we be sure that God will forgive our sins when we come to him to confess them? Because God says so. St. John says in his first epistle, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
There’s no greater promise than that, and we can be absolutely sure of the forgiveness of our sins because that forgiveness is based on the faithfulness of God. Is God not faithful to his promises? God has promised to forgive, and he never breaks his promises. And on top of that we can take comfort that he is just in his forgiveness. The Lord Jesus Christ has paid the full price for our sins. On the basis of that fact, the justice of God requires him to grant us full forgiveness. Full forgiveness! It’s a wonderful truth, because it means that God has made provision in advance for our daily (and sometimes hourly) cleansing from sin and that his faithfulness and justice are the guarantee behind those promises.
Now, we might ask, “Why does God assure us in advance of his full forgiveness?” Well, he does that to keep us from sinning. If you look again at that passage from 1 John, you’ll see that no sooner has he written, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), then he goes on to say, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). In other words, God’s telling us that the truth that will most keep us from sinning is the very promise that we will be forgiven by God if and when we do.
Donald Barnhouse gives a great illustration of this. He had been holding some meetings on a college campus when he was approached by one of the young professors. The man told him a sad story. During World War II, before he had become a Christian, he had lived in Paris and had made some really poor choices in friends. He’d fallen into some serious sin. After he returned home he became a Christian and fell in love with a very nice Christian who was madly in love with him. But he was afraid to tell her that he loved her, because he feared that his tendencies toward those old sins might cause him to sin again and wound the heart of the girl he now loved. He wanted to know what he should do.
Dr. Barnhouse writes that he prayed silently for a moment, and then after he had assured himself that this man was in fact a believer, he advised him to share the story of his past life with the girl. If they were to live their lives together, he said, there should be no barriers between them. And more importantly, her knowledge of his weaknesses would help him whenever temptation met him.
Then Dr. Barnhouse told him a story about two other people who had found themselves in similar circumstances. The man had lived a life of great sin, but had been converted, and eventually came to marry a fine Christian woman. He had confided to her the nature of his past life, and as he shared with her, his wife had taken his head in her hands and drawn him close, kissing him, and saying, “I want you to understand something very plainly. I know my Bible well, and so I know the subtlety of sin and how sin works in the heart. I know you’re a thoroughly converted man, but I also know that you still have an old nature, and that you’re not yet fully instructed in the ways of God. The devil will do anything to wreck your Christian life, and he’ll send temptations of every kind your way. And the day may come when you fall to that temptation and sin. If that happens, the devil’s going to tell you that it’s no use trying, that you might as well give in and just keep sinning, and that above all else you’d better not tell me, because it’ll hurt me. But I want you to know that here in my arms is your home. When I married you I married your old nature as well as your new nature, and I want you to know there is full pardon and forgiveness in advance for any sin that may ever come into your life.”
As he told this story to the professor, the young man’s eyes lit up and he said reverently, “My God! If anything could ever keep a man straight, that would be it.”
You see, God has given you full provision in advance for every sin that will ever come into your life, and he’s done it to keep you from sinning in the first place. Don’t forget that there is nothing in you that can ever astonish God or take him by surprise. He knows what you are. Even more so, he has recommended his love to you on the basis of the fact that it was while you were yet a sinner that Christ died for you.
I want to make one final point from these verses in the Lord’s Prayer and that’s about “debts.” Here in Jesus’ prayer “debts” refers to our sin, and the verse is a prayer for forgiveness. In this sense, by means of confession and God’s forgiveness, we cease to become debtors to sin.
Once we’ve come to God and confessed our sins and received his forgiveness, we become debtors in another sense. We become debtors in the sense we see in Romans 1:14-15. St. Paul says there, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” You see, God’s forgiveness makes us debtors on two levels. First, we become debtors to God. We were nothing before him. We were going our own way. We were serving ourselves. We had no understanding of spiritual things. But God came to us first in Christ Jesus to redeem us from sin and then in the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to his truth and to lead us in his way. Because of these things we are debtors to God to serve him with all of our heart and soul and mind and to carry out his purposes in this life.
But God’s forgiveness also makes us debtors to men. As we come to his Table, consider that if you have known God’s forgiveness; if you have come to him confessing your sins and your need for his Son to be your Saviour, in doing that you have confessed that you know the Gospel. If you have come to his Table, eating the bread and drinking the wine, having your sinful body made clean by his body and your soul washed through his most precious blood, then you’ve declared your knowledge of God’s forgiveness. Dear friends, if you know the Gospel and if you know God’s forgiveness, you have a debt to the world to declare the message of Good News of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. What Christ offers us here at his Table, each of us who comes to receive, has an obligation to proclaim to our friends, and family, and neighbours as we go out into the world. Remember that Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much is given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48).
Please pray with me: Our Father, you have forgiven us much. You have given us the redemption we can neither merit nor earn. Through the blood of your Son, Jesus Christ, you have forgiven our sins, restored us to your friendship, and made us your sons and daughters by adoption. We deserved death, yet you gave us eternal life. Father, remind us daily that we can come with confidence before your throne to confess the wrong we have done. But keep before us always the great mercy you have shown, that we might be moved to share your love and mercy with those around us. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.