At first sight, the fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer presents itself as a straight bargain. We beg God to forgive us our debts (Luke says “our sins”; the Book of Common Prayer, “our trespasses”) as we forgive our debtors. In teaching us this prayer, Jesus rightly presumed that no man can go through life without committing sins or hurting others. So, in debt to both conscience and God, we now confess those sins and ask for His compassion.
I. IMPLICATIONS OF THIS PETITION
What, then, are some of the implications of this petition?
1. Divine forgiveness presumes an admission of guilt. Some say “trespasses,” others say “debts,” and both words are correct; the oldest manuscripts used both. In either case, the admission of guilt is the stamp of nobility. All of us have done things we shudder to recall; hence, the petition acknowledges that “our debts” are ours exclusively and cannot be ascribed to another person. It is in vain to blame others for our failings. Our temptations are not our sins, and our tempters cannot sin for us. Further, our debts are ours inseparably. Many tickets include the words “Not Transferable,” meaning we are not allowed to hand them to someone else. Who can blot out memory or change the past? The Lord made us; to Him we must go. There is only one who can say, “Put that on my account.” But, to be forgiven, we ourselves must forgive, and this costs more, for he who pardons must assume the punishment. The price is high. The assumption of our sins sent Christ to the cross. But we collect our promised amnesty as we cancel out the wrong done by us. We pay not as victims but as partners in crime, and we draw the funds on God.
2. Divine forgiveness cannot be earned. To think of the Lord’s Prayer as a kind of quid pro quo prayer is, of course, to completely misunderstand it. On any count, it is likely that I am guilty of worse sins than is my fellow-creature—a great plank is in my eye while he has a speck of sawdust in his (Matt 7:3). We cannot earn divine forgiveness. However, as we shall note, divine forgiveness and human forgiveness are inextricably linked.
3. Divine forgiveness and human forgiveness are inseparable. Queen Elizabeth I, angry with her rival, said, “God may forgive you, but I never can.” According to Jesus, the queen was quite deliberately asking God not to forgive her (Matt 6:14–15), for the “unforgiving, unforgiven dies.” Thus, Barclay argues, the literal meaning of this petition is, “Forgive us our sins in proportion as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” The implication is clear: if we pray this petition with an unhealed breach, an unsettled quarrel in our lives, we are asking God not to forgive us. According to George Herbert, refusing to forgive someone for what he or she did “breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven.”
“Wilt Thou forgive the sin where I begun Which is my sin, though it were done before? Wilt Thou forgive those sins, though which I run, And do run still; though still I do deplore? When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done, For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive the sin by which I have won Others to sin? And made my sin their door? Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun A year or two; but wallowed in, a score? When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done, For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; Swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son Shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore: And having done that, Thou hast done, I fear no more.”
—John Donne (1573–1631)1
4. Divine forgiveness can be refused. This clause states a hard fact. If we refuse to forgive, we so harden ourselves that the forgiveness of God cannot reach us. We grow an impenetrable callous of the soul. We hurt ourselves far more than we hurt the other person, just as Saul hurt himself by kicking at the goad (Acts 26:14, Moffatt). We are made that way, just as the gears of a car are made: not to be forced. Force them, and you achieve nothing but a bad noise and a bad smell. So Jesus states that when we refuse to forgive one who has wronged us, we automatically shut ourselves from the forgiveness of God. So important is the principle that this clause, alone of all the clauses of the prayer, has an explanatory addition in verses 14–15. And a long parable, the parable of the unforgiving servant, is devoted to its illustration (Matt 18:23–35; see also 5:23–24).
5. Divine forgiveness has creative and healing power. This positive and creative side is illustrated in the life and example of Jesus and His followers through the ages: “Father, forgive them,” He prays for His murderers. Stephen prays a similar prayer for his murderers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Augustine argues that “if Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have had Paul.”2 We may add, “If Stephen had not forgiven . . .” Each succeeding century provides its examples of the healing, creative power of forgiveness. In the words of Mark Twain, “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
6. Divine forgiveness has a civic message. How can we expect to be forgiven if, with regard to our debtors, we insist on a pound of flesh? Here, then, the Lord’s Prayer holds a civic message. It makes it our moral duty to keep the peace, to settle things harmoniously and gladly between our neighbors and ourselves. The golden rule of doing to others as we would have them do to us is thus raised to a new dimension. Our prayer makes it part of our overall account with God.
“The truest joys they seldom prove, / Who free from quarrels live; / ‘Tis the most tender part of love, / Each other to forgive.”3
During World War II, Coventry Cathedral was completely destroyed. In the reconstruction of this building, two remaining charred beams were formed into a cross, beneath which are inscribed two words: “Father, forgive.” Not three words—“Father, forgive them”—but two. For we all have a share in the sin of the world and in its shame. While the New Testament uses five different words for sin, the one translated “debt” means what is due but has not been paid. Sins represent duties that have not been met, making us guilty and liable for punishment. Therefore, we—all of us— need the forgiveness of God.
“Forgive us our debts.” The gospel is in these words. Here, in the Master’s Prayer, given for the perpetual use of all men, is mention of sins belonging to all and of forgiveness ready for all.
1 His name is pronounced “Dunn.” The whole poem turns on the pun on his name.
2 Augustine, Sermon 315.
3 John Sheffield.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.