As we Forgive our Debtors
This is the next instalment in our journey through the Lord's Prayer, unpacking how Jesus teaches his disciples to pray.
"forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Mt 6:12).
This is the first contingent part of the prayer. The plea for God to forgive our sin-debt against Him, is followed closely by this qualifying statement. It is essentially asking God to forgive us with the same measure that we have forgiven others who have sinned against us.
As Christians we understand that our salvation is very closely tied to the forgiveness of sin. Sin is what separates us and God, Jesus died in our place to pay our sin debt. Now our debt can be forgiven and be reconciled to God.
All of this is through the grace of God; He didn't have do any of it. He bestows this salvation through forgiveness on us because of His grace. Not because of anything that we could do to earn it or qualify for it. We access this gift through faith (and even the faith is a gift!).
"It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph 2:8–9).
So if salvation is gift of grace, and forgiveness is part of that gift, how can forgiveness be dependant on our ability to forgive others?
It certainly seems to be what Jesus says straight after the prayer where he goes on: "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Mt 6:14–15).
Well, let me offer an explanation on what appears to be going on here.
When God saves a person, he changes them from the inside out. Their heart was dead as a rock, and God made it alive though his Spirit. Now we have hearts that can love God and respond to Him.
While we still sin, we now have the ability to truly repent and reject sin, including sins like plotting revenge, hating other people and ungodly jealousy.
With God's Spirit in us, and a new heart beating for the LORD, we are called to be like God, to be holy as He is holy. Forgiving as He is forgiving. But when we start to demonstrate that we are unwilling to be forgiving or holy we rightly start to ask: "Are you really changed? Do you have God's Spirit and a new heart?"
The evidence of God's work in people's hearts can be seen in the outworking of their attitudes and actions. You will know what species a tree is by what fruit it bears.
When we make a practice of bearing bad fruit it is the Church's job to call it out, and if the bad fruit keeps coming, we're told to treat someone as if they are no longer a Christian, because the evidence speaks for itself (Mat 18:15–20).
I think this part of the Lord's prayer is touching on that same theme: the evidence of a forgiven Christian is that they forgive others. If there is no forgiveness coming from someone, we can safely know that they have not received forgiveness from God.
It is absolutely obnoxious to think that we could draw on the wells of God's infinite forgiveness but be incredibly stingy with giving any forgiveness away! It's a sign that perhaps we're not actually accessing God's forgiveness in the first place!
To place a claim on God's forgiveness but actually not forgive others is even called "wicked" in the potent parable on this topic in Matthew 18:21-35. Although God willingly forgives sin, he does not take away the obligations for how we are to live and act toward others in love, especially in light of what we have freely gained from Him.
It can be hard to forgive, especially when people have committed heinous atrocities against us, perhaps they have deliberately traumatised us, or shown no remorse for their actions. Yet, God calls us to to forgive none-the-less. We have committed great acts of sin and rebellion against God and he forgives those debts, now we must do the same for those who owe us reparations for their evil deeds toward us.
Whether or not someone asks you to forgive them is beside the point, because, we need to forgive them if they ask (Mat 18:21–22), so you basically need a heart of forgiveness primed to be able to give it when it is requested.
So Jesus taught us to ask for the Heavenly Father's forgiveness, in the same way we forgive others. This causes us to look to ourselves to see that God's forgiveness does not stop with us, but flows out to others too.
Father, please help us forgive others just like you forgive us.