Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.
“The Christian lives through forgiveness.” So writes J.I. Packer. It is true of course. Where would we be if not for forgiveness of sins? How could we go on if we remained under sin’s penalty? How could we bear to address God in prayer if Jesus had not born our sins on the cross? Since the greatest problem men and women face is their own sin, it follows that their greatest need is forgiveness.
The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is, “…and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Sandwiched in between the petitions for daily sustenance and spiritual protection is the request for forgiveness.
Keep in mind that Jesus gave this model prayer to his disciples. It is a prayer for Christians to pray. The petition to be forgiven of sin has perplexed some who have supposed that since Christians stand forgiven of all their sins, any prayer requesting forgiveness is redundant and unnecessary. But Jesus teaches us to continue to offer petitions for forgiveness. This is because we continue to sin. Yes, we stand fully justified before the Lord, the penalty of our sin having been dealt with through the dying of Christ. Nevertheless, there is a difference between our having been fully justified and our current state of being daily sanctified; that is, growing in likeness to Christ. As Christians being sanctified we are to daily confess our sin and petition the Lord for mercy just as we ask him for daily bread.
The words “debts” and “debtors” are key to our understanding of sin. Unlike many of the more contemporary therapeutic definitions of sin, the Bible makes it clear that sin belongs to moral and theological categories. Sin is fundamentally lawlessness. To sin is to rebel against God, to break his law. The Bible variously depicts sin as wickedness, evil, defilement, filth, rebellion, and pollution. When Christians sin, either by doing what God forbids (sins of commission) or refusing to do what God commands (sins of omission), then it is needful for them to cry out in repentance and plead for their Father’s mercy. Again, from J.I. Packer: “Unless Christians come to God each time as returning prodigals, their prayer will be as unreal as was that of the Pharisees in Jesus’ parable.”
Notice that Jesus trains us to pray that our experience of the Lord’s forgiveness would coincide with our willingness to forgive those who have offended us. What would be our present state if the Lord dealt with our sins in the same way that we deal with those offenses committed against us? The lesson seems clear: Forgiven people become forgiving people. Those who have been shown great mercy by God will show great mercy to others.