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The Christian Life: Prayer

Do You Forgive In Order to Be Forgiven?

Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Does "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" mean that we are saved by this work? No, Jesus had something else in mind: God's anger with an unforgiving spirit.

Part seven of an nine-part series. Read part six.

Does the petition, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" mean that we are saved by this work? No, Jesus had something else in mind: God's anger with an unforgiving spirit.

In our study of the model prayer given to us by our Lord, we have now come to the phrase that deals with the issue of sin in the life of the believer: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." In Luke chapter eleven, on a different occasion when Jesus taught this model for prayer, it is, "forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us." Let me suggest to you that an appropriate theme or key-word for this phrase of the prayer is confession.

Legal Terminology

The Lord Jesus employs legal language here, but it is language that must be properly understood. The word that is translated "debts" here is opheilemata, a word that denotes a legal debt, and it is used here as a metaphor for sin. That becomes clear as we look at verses 14 and 15 immediately after this model prayer, where Jesus expresses the same idea but uses the word "trespasses", which is a different Greek word (paraptomata) that actually means sin or transgression.

However, we would look at this passage in a wrong way if we were to think that the legal language Jesus uses here has to do with our justification ─ the once-for-all blood-payment of our sin debt on the cross. Jesus has something else in view, and this comes home to us in the phrase that follows: "as we forgive our debtors."

How are we to understand this phrase? How are we to understand Jesus' statement immediately following this model prayer that "if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses"? Is Jesus saying that the remission of our sin-debt ─ our justification before God ─ is conditional on our work? Not at all.

The Context

We must keep in mind the context of this model prayer ─ the Sermon on the Mount. One of the great emphases of Jesus' discourse was the fact that the Jews had largely ceased to look upon sin as God looked upon it. Jewish religious leaders had, over many years, built up a set of complex interpretations of the Old Testament law which added many man-made regulations to God's. They had also stipulated innumerable technicalities for circumventing the law, as though man could escape God's holy standard by creating his own loopholes. This body of man-made regulations came to be known as the Mishnah. Jewish religious leaders also developed a complex set of commentaries on the Mishnah, which became known as the Gemarah. In the centuries after Christ's time on earth, the written forms of the Mishnah and Gemarah were combined in a single work known as the Talmud.

What did Jesus say about all of these efforts to to place burdens on men that God never intended, and to escape the intent of God's law through technicalities? In various places in the Gospels, He condemned them in the strongest terms (see, for example, the entirety of Matthew chapter 23). In the Sermon on the Mount in particular, Jesus pointed the people back to the true intent of the law: to bring man face to face with the sinfulness of his heart. We see this especially in Matthew chapter five. Particularly germane to our present discussion is the fact that Jesus said that the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" encompassed not only the act of murder, but hatred of one's brother (Matthew 5:21ff).

A Whole Bath Once, Foot-Washing Repeatedly

God the Father's remission of His children's sin-debt through the blood-payment of Christ on the cross is total, complete, and permanent. Many statements of Scripture, such as John 3:18 and 5:24, Romans 8:1, and Ephesians 1:7, affirm this. But Scripture also teaches that the Father chastens His blood-bought children when they disobey Him (Hebrews 12:5-11). The purpose of such chastening, as the writer to the Hebrews says, is to produce "the peaceable fruit of righteousness in those who have been trained by it" (12:11).

What Christ's model prayer has in view is the fact that the Father's children are to confess their sins in order to obtain day-to-day and moment-by-moment cleansing from sin's defilements (1 John 1:9). It is like a washing of the feet rather than a complete bath. As Jesus stated it in John 13:10, "He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean, and you are clean." Believers have had the "full bath" of redemption by the blood of Christ once for all. But we need the "foot washing" of cleansing from the daily defilements of sin.

The petition, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" is not a plea for a repetition of our redemption by the blood of Christ, but a plea for cleansing from the pollutions of sin as we walk in this world. One of the chief sins we must avoid, and seek forgiveness of when we commit it, is the sin of not forgiving others who ask forgiveness. Jesus said,

Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, "I repent," you shall forgive him. (Luke 17:3-4)

In another account, Peter asked:

"Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22).

God's Anger With an Unforgiving Spirit

Scripture shows us repeatedly that an unforgiving spirit is a great offense in the eyes of God. Jesus elaborates on this in the verses that follow the account above, as He sets forth the parable of the unjust steward (Matthew 18:23-35). The steward owed his king a huge and un-payable debt (in 2011 currency, the amount mentioned would be over $220 million). The steward begged to be released from his insurmountable debt, and the king, moved with compassion, did so.

But the forgiven steward then went out and accosted a fellow servant who owed him a comparatively miniscule amount (less that $400 in 2011 currency). He grabbed him by the throat and demanded that he pay every penny. When his fellow servant likewise begged that this debt be forgiven, the steward showed no mercy. He who had been forgiven a huge debt would not forgive a small one.

When the unjust steward's king heard of it, he was angry with him and severely chastened him. The language and the context indicate that the debt which the king then made the unjust steward pay (verse 34, cf. verse 35) was not his original insurmountable debt (a picture of salvation), but a debt befitting his unforgiving spirit toward his fellow servant.

Do You See Sin as God Sees It?

First John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The word "confess" in that verse means, literally, "to say the same thing the Father says about our sin" ─ that it is a violation of His holy law, the the Father is the one offended in every offense, and that the sin must be repented of.

One of the things that most deeply offends our forgiving Father is the unforgiving spirit of many of His children toward others who have committed offenses against them, but are repentant and seek their forgiveness. We who have been forgiven an insurmountable sin-debt by our Father, the One who is truly offended in all the offenses of the universe, must forgive others of offenses against ourselves ─ offenses that are, even at their worst, miniscule in comparison to the great weight of mankind's accumulated offenses against God.

And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. (Mark 11:25)

Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)

And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Next: The Most Misunderstood Petition of the Prayer

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