And Forgive Us Our Debts, As We Also Forgive Our Debtors.
“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Matthew 6:12
Before we begin: Which is more difficult for you: asking God to forgive you or forgiving a person who has sinned against you?
The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer seems simple enough, but simple things can sometimes be very deep. These are the words of Jesus: “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors." Everyone agrees that this is a difficult word from the Lord. It is hard to understand and even harder to apply. Our basic problem is quite simple: It appears that the Lord has drawn something into this prayer that does not belong there. We would understand this petition perfectly if it read, “forgive us our debts,” and just stopped right there. That would make sense. We all understand that we need to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. We know that confession and repentance are part of what prayer is all about.
What makes this prayer so frustrating is that Jesus seems to drag in something that doesn’t belong when he adds the phrase “as we also forgive our debtors.” At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any necessary connection between the first part of the petition and the second part.
Grace or Works?
It seems as if Jesus is saying, “The way you treat other people is the way God will treat you.” On one level that thought is puzzling; on another it is profoundly disquieting. On still another level it appears to present a major theological difficulty. Why does Jesus say that we should pray to be forgiven as we forgive others? Why would Almighty God tie himself to what we do on earth? I think that’s a very good question.
So this petition is puzzling, difficult, and one that bothers every sincere thinker. It makes you wonder what Jesus really meant. Is Jesus here teaching that God’s forgiveness is conditional? Is he teaching us that our forgiveness with God is somehow predicated on our forgiving other people? It would appear at first reading that that is indeed what he is teaching. If so, is this not teaching us that forgiveness is a work by which we gain God’s favor? What then happens to the great biblical doctrine of the grace of God? When it comes to forgiveness, who takes the first step-God or man?
Indeed, this is a difficult text of Scripture. Because it is difficult, let me state my conclusion at the very beginning of this message. This verse means exactly what it says. The teaching of this verse can be given in one simple sentence: Unless you forgive, God will not forgive you. I repeat, this verse means exactly what it says. There is nothing hidden here; there is nothing tricky here. Jesus is saying that unless you forgive, you will not be forgiven.
Augustine called this text “a terrible petition.”
He pointed out that if you pray these words while harboring an unforgiving spirit, you are actually asking God not to forgive you. Ponder that for a moment. If you pray “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” while refusing to forgive those who have wronged you, this prayer which is meant to be a blessing becomes a self-inflicted curse. In that case you are really saying, “O God, since I have not forgiven my brother, please do not forgive me.” That is why one famous preacher said that if you pray the Lord’s Prayer with an unforgiving spirit, you have virtually signed your own “Death-warrant."
There was a missionary in the American colonies-primarily in the area that would become the state of Georgia. There was a general with whom this missionary had some dealings. The General was a great military leader, but he had a reputation as a harsh and brutal man. One day he said to the missionary, “I never forgive.” To which the missionary replied, “Then, sir, I hope you never sin.”
When we pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors,” we are asking God to forgive our sins according to the same standard we have used in forgiving the sins of others. There are 11 words in the text, but only one of them is important for our purposes. It’s the little word “as.” Everything hangs on the meaning of that word. “As” is the conjunction that joins the first half of the petition with the second half. When Jesus says “as,” he is setting up a comparison between the way we forgive and the way God forgives us. This text says that we set the standard and then God follows the standard. We establish the pattern and then God follows that pattern in the way he deals with us. When you pray this prayer you are really saying, “O God, deal with me as I deal with other people. Deal with me as I have dealt with others.” We are virtually saying, “O God, I’ve got a neighbor and I did some favors for my neighbor and my neighbor is ungrateful to me for all I have done. I am angry at my neighbor and I will not forgive him for his ingratitude. Now deal with me as I have dealt with my neighbor." It’s as if we’re praying, “O God, that man hurt me. I am so angry I can’t wait to get even. Deal with me as I have dealt with him.” We set the standard and God follows our lead.
Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven. These are the words of C. S. Lewis:
No part of his teaching is clearer: And there are no exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins providing they are not too frightful, or providing there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own (Fern-Seeds and Elephants, pp. 39-49).
To refuse to forgive someone else and then to ask God for forgiveness is a kind of spiritual schizophrenia.
You are asking God to give you what you are unwilling to give to someone else. The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer tells us you cannot have it both ways. Do you want to be forgiven? You must forgive others. Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven.
But does the Bible really teach that God’s forgiveness of us is somehow linked to our forgiveness of others? Yes, indeed it does. Let’s go back to the words of Jesus. The 5th petition is in verse 12. Now drop down two verses. The Lord’s Prayer is over but Jesus is still speaking.
For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences.
But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences. (Matthew 6:14-15)
I call one crucial fact to your attention: Jesus has just given us the Lord’s prayer and the only part that he singles out for additional commentary is the 5th petition. All the others he leaves alone. I believe he offered further commentary because he knew that we would feel uncomfortable with this part of the Lord’s Prayer. He knew that we would try to wiggle out from under it. That is why in verses 14-15 he spells it out so clearly that no one can doubt it.
In case you doubt what I am saying, consider the story Jesus told in Matthew 18:21-35.
Then came Peter unto him and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times. (vv. 21-22).
That’s 490 times. The clunk you just heard is Peter dropping over in a dead faint. He can’t believe his ears. Then Jesus went on to give a parable: Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a king, who would take an account of his servants. And when he had begun to take the account, one was brought to him, that owed him ten thousand talents. And as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. But that servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. (vv. 23-26).
Once upon a time there was a great king who ruled a vast realm. He was a man of extraordinary wealth-perhaps the richest person in the entire world. He had a steward-a man who worked for him, a man who was in charge of his entire legal and financial affairs. The king said to the steward, “Take care of everything for me.” And the king went about his affairs, leaving everything in the hands of his servant. Evidently the king didn’t pay very close attention to what his servant was doing. While the king was otherwise occupied, his servant ran up a debt of ten thousand talents, which would be like $25 million. How do you run up a tab of $25 million? We don’t know how he did it, but he may have been running some sort of tax scam where he overcharged for taxes and kept the overage for himself. At length the day came when the king wanted an accounting. His CPAs ran the numbers, called the man in before the king, and delivered the bad news. “Your Majesty, this man owes you $25 million.” When the king asks, “How much money do you have?” the man answers, “I’m sorry, O King, but I’m broke.” That’s the second amazing fact of the story. First, he runs up his huge debt totally undetected, and then somehow he manages to spend it all. Wasn’t anyone paying attention? Not only did he steal that much money, he spent that much money. He is both sinful and stupid. This man doesn’t have anything with which to pay back the great debt to the king. So the king says, “You are going to have to pay me back.” The man falls on his knees and begs for mercy. He says something that again proves his stupidity, “Your Highness, give me time and I will pay back every-thing I owe you.” That’s crazy. He couldn’t pay back what he owed in twenty lifetimes. But something moved the heart of the king to mercy and compassion. The Bible says that the king forgave the man the $25 million debt when he could have punished him. Forgave him when he could have thrown him in jail. Forgave him when he could have had his life. He forgave him and this man who owed everything got up and walked away a free man. His debt had been wiped away.
But that’s not the end of the story.
But when that servant was gone out, he found one of his fellow servants that owed him an hundred pence. (100 pence would be like owing $5000 compared to $25 million. It’s a relatively small amount of money.) He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay what thou owest” he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.” (vv. 28-29).
Verse 29 is an exact replay of verse 26. This poor fellow who owes $5000 begs for mercy using exactly the same words the first servant had used before the king.
And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he paid the debt.
Now his fellow servants seeing what was done, were very much grieved, and they came and told their lord all that was done.
Then his lord called him; and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest me:
Shouldst not thou then have had compassion also on thy fellow servant, even as I had compassion on thee? (vv. 30-33)
That last phrase is really the point of this whole story. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on him just like I had mercy on you?” The answer, of course, is yes. The shocking thing was not that this man wanted the $5000 debt paid back. The shocking thing was that he was so unforgiving after having received such great mercy himself. What the king is saying is “I forgave your $25 million debt, couldn’t you have forgiven a measly $5000 debt?” This time the king is not going to be calm and he is not going to be conned a second time. This time the king is not going to believe some sob story. Verse 34 says “And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt.” The moral of the story is in verse 35. “So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.” Please note. These words are for Christians. This is a warning to genuine believers concerning what will happen to them if they refuse to forgive.
In order to understand the full impact of this story, consider this question: Whose forgiveness came first?
Answer: The king’s forgiveness came first. It’s in light of his great forgiveness that this servant’s unforgiving spirit is such a terrible thing. The king in the story is God, and you and I are like that unforgiving servant. We’re called in before Almighty God and when the story of our lives is read, there is a mountain of debt between God and us. It’s so high we can’t get over it, so wide we can’t get around it, so deep we can’t crawl under it. So we fall on our knees and cry out to God, “O God, have mercy on me, have mercy on me for Jesus’ sake.” God looks down at us and he says, “You don’t deserve it but for Jesus’ sake I will forgive you.” In one great moment of grace that mountain of debt is swept away and we rise, we can walk out of the confessional singing to ourselves, “Lord, We Lift Your Name on High.” And just as we are going out to the parking lot we see somebody who has sinned against us. Suddenly the joy disappears and we want to go over and grab them and choke them and say, “Pay me what you owe me.”
No wonder we’re so unhappy. No wonder we’re so frustrated. No wonder we can’t sleep at night. No wonder we have ulcers and back pains and headaches and all kinds of illnesses that come to us. No wonder we carry grudges. No wonder we are depressed and confused. It has happened to us exactly as Jesus said. We suffer because we who have been forgiven have harbored an unforgiving spirit. Jesus said, “When my children refuse to forgive others I hand them over to the torturers who will torture them day and night until they learn to for-give from the heart.” What torturers? The hidden torturers of anger and bitterness that eat your insides out, the torturers of frustration and malice give you ulcers and high blood pressure and migraine headaches, the torturers that make you lie awake at night stewing over every rotten thing that happens to you, the hidden torturers of an unforgiving heart who stalk your trail day and night, who never leave your side, who suck every bit of joy from your heart.
Why? Because you will not forgive from the heart.
The problem is, is that our problem is personal. We don’t see ourselves as very great sinners; therefore, we do not appreciate how greatly God has forgiven us. But when your own sins seem small, the sins of others against you will seem big indeed. The reverse is also true. The greater you see the depth of your sin before God, the less the sins of other people against you will bother you. If you think you’re not much of a sinner, then the offenses of other people are going to appear in your eyes as big. To paraphrase Matthew Henry, “He who relents is he who repents.” Don’t talk about repentance unless you are willing to forgive your brothers and sisters. Unless you are willing to forgive, your repentance is just so much hot air and empty talk. True repentance always starts with a change of mind that leads to a change of heart that leads to a change (in this case) in the way we view those who have sinned against us.
Jesus is telling us that there is a vital link between the way you treat other people and the way God in heaven is going to treat you. Let’s face it. We don’t like that. We’d much prefer if we could just have our relationship with God insulated so we could treat other people any way we like. Jesus says, “No deal. You can’t have it that way." Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven. This is a hard word, isn’t it? But it is a hard word of grace. Many of us desperately need to take a searching moral inventory and ask ourselves some serious questions:
Am I up to date on my forgiving?
Am I holding a grudge against anyone?
Do I harbor any bitterness against any person?
Have I forgiven those who have hurt me deeply?
Someone says, “But I can’t forgive.” No, don’t ever say that. The word “can’t” is a cop-out. The issue is deeper than that. You won’t forgive. Don’t make excuses and don’t play games. If you are a true Christian, a genuine believer in Jesus Christ, if your sins have been washed away, then you can forgive. What God has done for you, you can do for others. There may be some people who won’t forgive. As long as you won’t forgive you’re better off if you never pray the Lord’s Prayer because unless you forgive you will not be forgiven.
And in all of this we have the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who when he was crucified-the innocent for the guilty-the just for the unjust-the righteous for the unrighteous-Jesus, who was murdered at the hands of wicked men, as he hung on the cross cried out, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).