Forgive Our Debts

On average, each US household with a credit card carries $8,398 in credit card debt. Total U.S. consumer debt is at $13.86 trillion. That includes mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and student loans. As serious as financial indebtedness is, you have a bigger debt problem, according to Jesus in Matthew 6:12. You have a debt to God which you cannot pay.

Forgive us our debts. Your debts come between you and God. Pray about the basic problem of your sin. Sin (Luke 11:4) involves missing the mark or standard that God has set. It is an offense against the holiness of God. Sins, or trespasses (Matthew 6:14,15), emphasize sin as crossing the boundary, or straying from the path, see Isaiah 53:6. It views sin as breaking God’s law. Your basic problem is not your finitude or your humanity, but the fact that you have sinned against God. You, like David, are involved in sin from birth, because you are sons and daughters of Adam. Like David, recognize that at its heart sin is rebellion against God. That is why David says, “Against you only have I sinned.” “[Jesus] speaks of ‘the human heart’ as the place from which proceed evil thoughts and all kinds of crimes. He teaches his disciples to pray for forgiveness of their debts as well as for their daily bread (Matt. 6:12)…. Jesus’ preaching is based on a view which denies to the man principally the attribute of ‘good’ and characterizes him rather as ‘evil,’ as a sinner, a debtor before God.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 222). Jesus, of course, was sinless. He taught his disciples to pray this prayer, but it is not a prayer that he prayed. Your sins make you a debtor. Sin has a penalty, a punishment attached. You are liable to that punishment. The wages of sin is death, Romans 6:23. That includes not only physical death, but also the pain of eternal separation from God in hell. The penalty must be paid, either by you, or by someone else. This prayer for forgiveness of your debts implies the need for a substitute to make that payment.

Recognize that you have offended the holiness of God. Be aware of the holiness of God, Isaiah 6:1-5. He is your Father in heaven. You have the right and privilege of coming to him. But don’t let that freedom lull you into ignoring his perfect holiness. Christ didn’t pray this prayer himself, he is perfectly sinless. But he instructs you to pray it. Even as God’s covenant people you fall so far short of the perfect obedience he requires, that you need daily to ask sincerely for forgiveness. Recognize that you cannot pay the penalty. Every sin deserves God’s penalty, which is death, Romans 6:23; Ezekiel 18:20. That was true for Adam, and it is true for us in him and because of our individual sins. You are unable to rectify the situation yourself, Isaiah 64:6. A good effort is not enough. God doesn’t grade on a curve.

Find forgiveness as you are united to Christ. Plead for grace! Ask God for mercy, for forgiveness. The only basis for this request is the atoning work of Christ. It is through that work that you address God as Father. It is on the grounds of that work that God forgives your debts. Christ paid the penalty for your sin. He supplies the righteousness you lack. You cannot pray this prayer without seeing Christ’s work in your place. The only way to be forgiven is to be united to Christ in his death and resurrection. As you think of the incarnation, keep in mind the cross and the empty tomb. Be assured that God does hear and answer this request! David, confessing the depth of his sin, concludes Psalm 51 with the assurance of forgiveness. Listen to the repeated echos of God’s mercy as you read the Psalms. There is no sin too great for God to forgive a repentant sinner.

“True repentance strips sin of all that is accidental. It resembles an inner chamber where no one and nothing else is admitted except God and the sinner and his sin. Into that chamber all the great penitents like David and Paul and Augustine and Luther have entered, and each one in the bitter anguish of his soul has borrowed the words of the psalmist: ‘Against thee, thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clean when thou judgest.’ A repentant sinner acquits God and condemns himself….

“The fact of sin, while as such irrevocably accomplished, yet so far as the guilt is concerned must be undone, if God is to remain the God of sinner. Here the truth taught by Jesus leads directly to Paul’s doctrine of atonement and justification. To the heart that has had the Sermon on the Mount interpreted to itself by the Holy Spirit there is no other solution and refuge than the cross underneath which Paul found shelter. To such as hunger and thirst after righteousness the flesh of the Son of man is meat and his blood is drink, indeed.” (Geerhardus Vos, “Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness,” in Grace and Glory, pages 37–38).

Make us able to forgive. You do not earn God’s pardon. Salvation cannot be bought. Forgiveness is gracious, unearned. You cannot bargain with God for it. Forgiveness begins with God, not with you.

Have a forgiving heart. Yet, God works in you, and as he forgives, he changes you. Salvation is all of God, yet there is no salvation without trust in God. You are to work our your own salvation because God works in you both to will and to do, Philippians 2:12,13. Just as Hebrews has strong warning passages, not to deny the perseverance of the saints, but rather to encourage them in perseverance, so your forgiving is part of your covenantal life before God. Thus, in this prayer, God forgives as you do. There is an inseparable connection between God forgiving us and our forgiving our brothers, Matthew 18:35. You are forgiven as you are united by faith to Christ in his death and resurrection. If you are united to Christ, you must, in turn, reflect his forgiveness.

Your forgiving others is a response of covenantal gratitude and obedience. If you are forgiven, you must forgive. The refusal to forgive is the height of ingratitude, Matthew 18:23ff. God commands you to forgive. Do it! You have been forgiven far more than you ever forgive. A concept that is not here is that of forgiving yourself. Rather, rest in the complete forgiveness that God provides in Christ. Your forgiving is part of God’s reassurance that you are living as his covenant people. By nature we are selfish. Only God’s grace can make you forgive. Your forgiving is a reflection of God’s grace. If you are forgiven, you bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Forgive us, Lord, and enable us to forgive, for you have forgiven us so much! As Geerhardus Vos put it, “To such as hunger and thirst after righteousness the flesh of the Son of man is meat and his blood is drink, indeed.”

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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