25. Forgive Us Our Debts (Matthew 6:12, 14-15)Related Media
And forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors… For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.
Matthew 6:12, 14-15 (NET)
When Christ gave us the Lord’s Prayer, he gave us our pattern and primer for prayer. We begin with the Lord’s name, kingdom, and will. Then we bring our petitions to the Lord and that of others. First, we ask for our daily bread. Though God is our King, he is also our Father. He cares for both our physical and spiritual needs. In the fifth petition, we ask for our Father’s forgiveness. In the final petition, we ask for spiritual protection—deliverance from temptation and the evil one.
In this study, we’ll consider the fifth petition—a petition for forgiveness.
Big Question: What does “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” mean, and what applications can we draw from this?
Our Need to Pray for God to Forgive Us
Interpretation Question: What does this petition tell us about the Christian’s relationship to sin?
When Christ calls for believers to pray for forgiveness of their debts, he is referring to their sins. In the parallel version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:4, the word “sin” is used instead. The word “debt” means “a failure to pay that which is due” or “a failure of duty.”1 All people are in debt to God because he is our ruler, and he has given us many commands and duties to fulfill. Primarily, we have been called to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Nobody has ever perfectly obeyed these two commands, which essentially summarize all other commands (Matt 22:37-40). We have put ourselves and our needs before others. We have put our entertainment, education, jobs, and friendships before God. We have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23) and, therefore, failed our duty—we are debtors to a holy God.
A Battle with Sin
The fact that Christ adds this petition to his ideal prayer means that we will always struggle with sin until we die or Christ returns, whichever happens first. Unfortunately, at times throughout history, the doctrine of perfectionism has been taught. This is the belief that after a person is saved, they can reach a point where they no longer sin. This seems to have been one of the perversions of the false teachers in the Ephesian church.2 In 1 John 1:8, John combats this by saying, “If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” A person who believes they have never sinned or that they are without sin is not truly saved. The truth of the gospel is not in them (cf. 1 John 5:13).
Therefore, Christ is implying through this petition that believers will never, during this stage of their redemption, be without sin. There will always be a battle between their flesh—their unredeemed nature—and their new nature. Galatians 5:17 says, “For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want.” Even Paul attested to this battle inside him; in Romans 7, he bemoaned how the things he wanted to do, he didn’t do, and the things he didn’t want to do, he did. He cried out, “Who can save me from this body of death?” (v. 24, paraphrase).
Because of this reality, believers must continually practice confession before God. We must confess our debts—the ways that we’ve failed God in thought and action. First John 1:9 says, “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” The word “confess” means “to say the same thing as.” Confession is simply agreeing with God that we were wrong—our thoughts and motives were ungodly, and our actions dishonored the Lord and hurt others. Included with confession is turning away from our sins. Second Corinthians 7:10 (ESV) says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” True confession brings repentance—a change of mind that leads to a change of direction.
This is necessary for our spiritual health, as we will always struggle with sin. When we confess, we will find peace, joy, and righteousness. When we hold on to sin, we will lack joy and peace, and be led into further sin. John Stott said this about confession, “One of the surest antidotes to the process of moral hardening is the disciplined practice of uncovering our sins of thought and outlook, as well as of word and of deed, and the repentant forsaking of them.”3
Though confession seems easy, it is not. Our flesh, worldly influences, and Satan fight against it. We have a tendency to not recognize our sins, minimize them, or, at times, even promote them as being righteous. However, true confession is seeing our sins as God does. He hates them. Our sins put his Son on the cross; they dishonor him, and they hurt ourselves and others. In order to have true confession, we must see sin as Gods sees it, by knowing his Word (cf. 2 Tim 3:16-17).
Sadly, instead of seeing sin as we should, our views often conform to that of our secular culture (Rom 12:2). Sin is acceptable, normal, and at times, even to be desired. We say, “Everybody illegally downloads, it’s not that bad.” “Everybody cheats on their taxes.” “Why would somebody not have sex and live with their mate before marriage?” Society embraces and promotes sin, which makes it harder for us to recognize certain actions and thoughts as sin and truly confess them.
God is holy, and he hates sin. Hebrews 12:14 (NIV) says, “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Our God is so holy, we can’t have a relationship with him because of our sin. It was his holiness that compelled him to send his Son to die on the cross for our sins (John 3:16). Christ paid our sin debt. He took all our sins—past, present, and future—and bore God’s wrath for them on the cross. It is for this reason that we can be saved and have eternal life. On the cross, there was a great exchange; Christ took our sins and gave us his righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). For those who receive him by faith as Lord, God imparts Christ’s righteousness to their lives and accepts them into his family—they become his forgiven sons and daughters (John 1:12, Eph 1:5).
Application Question: Why is it so hard to have true confession—saying the same thing as God does about sin? What factors make this difficult, and how have you experienced this difficulty in confession/repentance?
Two Types of Forgiveness
Interpretation Question: Why must we still confess our sins to God if he forgave them all when Christ died on the cross?
Because of Christ’s death, God forgave us judicially. Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Justification is a legal declaration. It means we are no longer guilty before God—we no longer have a sin debt. Christ paid it. However, the forgiveness Christ refers to in the Lord’s Prayer is not judicial, it’s familial. The Lord’s Prayer was not given to unbelievers. It was given to Christians—those who, because of Christ’s work, have been adopted into the family of God and are now his children (cf. Matt 6:9). This relationship can never change any more than a human father/child relationship. There can be distance between a father and a child. They might not speak to each other because of some evil. Parents might even “disown” their child. However, that doesn’t change their blood relationship. The father and mother will always be the biological parents. In the same way, at salvation, believers become children of God and that relationship will never change; however, because of sins on our part—not God’s—there is at times distance. Therefore, we need to continually confess our sins to God (and at times to others) to restore fellowship. Again, Christ is referring to familial or parental forgiveness, not judicial.
Since we’re so prone to sin against God, we must confess our sins all the time. When we do, God promises to forgive and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Proverbs 28:13 says, “The one who covers his transgressions will not prosper, but whoever confesses them and forsakes them will find mercy.” There is always mercy, forgiveness, and cleansing for those who confess.
Cleansing from Guilt and Shame
Confession is especially important when considering the guilt people often carry from their failures or the failure of others. People harbor guilt from divorces they experienced, sexual experiences (voluntary and involuntary), neglect of loved ones (or being neglected), etc. These leave deep wounds that the enemy often uses to condemn people. In his book Confess Your Sins, John Stott quotes the head of a large mental hospital as having said, “I could dismiss half my patients tomorrow if they could be assured of forgiveness.”4 People must understand that Christ bore our shame and guilt on the cross. After confessing our sins, those burdens no longer need to be carried. We must accept God’s forgiveness and his cleansing. Hebrews 9:14 says: “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God!”
Guilt and shame keep us from fully worshiping and serving the living God. When we accept Christ’s forgiveness, it allows us to serve him and others with delight and joy. He forgives and restores us. Therefore, we must reject the devil’s lies and condemnation.
Are there any sins that you have not confessed before God? David said, “If I cherish iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18, paraphrase). God will not hear our prayers when we are holding on to grudges, an ungodly relationship, or some other wrong heart motive or action. They hinder our relationship with him.
Have you accepted his forgiveness for your failures? Are you still accepting condemnation from the devil by harboring a defiled conscience? Accept God’s mercy, forgiveness, and cleansing. God is gracious. When we confess, he cleanses us from the sin we are aware of, and even sins we are not aware of. That’s the promise of 1 John 1:9— “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” Our God is faithful and abundantly gracious with forgiveness.
Application Question: What sins is God calling you to confess and repent of? How have you experienced condemnation from the devil over failures committed by you or to you? How can believers be set free from sin and condemnation?
Our Need to Pray for God to Forgive Others (Matt 6:12a)
And forgive us our debts
Interpretation Question: What does the “our” in “forgive us our debts” imply about how we should pray?
The “our” implies that we should pray for the forgiveness of others as well. How should this be done? This happens in two ways:
1. We should confess the sins of our communities, as we recognize how our sins contribute to the corporate debt.
Nehemiah prayed this way in Nehemiah 1:6:
May your ear be attentive and your eyes be open to hear the prayer of your servant that I am praying to you today throughout both day and night on behalf of your servants the Israelites. I am confessing the sins of the Israelites that we have committed against you—both I myself and my family have sinned.
In confession, we recognize ourselves as part of a community and that our sins have contributed to the corporate sin debt. Sometimes, our contributions may primarily be sins of omission (Jam 4:17)—meaning, we have not done the good we should have done. We have not shared the gospel as we should; we have not cared for the poor and needy as we should—we have been selfish. Therefore, we must come before God in confession—recognizing the sins of our peers and ourselves.
2. We should confess the sins of others, even if we have not participated in their sins.
Christ did this on the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Similarly, Stephen prayed this before he was martyred, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
Interpretation Question: What happens when we pray for God to forgive others? Does God forgive them based on our prayers?
Of course, we must recognize that God does not forgive people apart from their repentance. When Christ and Stephen asked for pardon for their enemies, it seems their prayers were petitions for God to be merciful and remove his judgment. These prayers would be in line with Abraham interceding on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) and how Moses prayed for God to not destroy Israel (Ex 32:10-11).
We should routinely intercede on behalf of others—asking for God to be merciful to them. Ezekiel 22:30-31 says that God sought for a man to stand in the gap but found none, so he destroyed the land. God is looking for people to cry out on behalf of friends, family members, cities, and nations. The whole world has accrued a sin debt and is under God’s wrath. Therefore, Christians should constantly intercede on behalf of others.
As we pray this petition, we not only ask for God to be merciful, but also that God might grant them repentance, so they’ll be restored to a right relationship with him.
Are you confessing the sins of your friends, communities, and nations? Are you asking for God to be patient and merciful, so others might repent? When we do this, we are like Christ and other godly saints before us. In response, God often removes his wrath, grants repentance, and brings cleansing.
Application Question: Who is God calling you to intercede on behalf of? How is he calling you to confess the sins of yourself, your community, and your nation?
Our Need to Forgive Others
And forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.…For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.
Matthew 6:12, 14-15
After asking for forgiveness of sins, Christ adds “as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.” It’s a condition for God forgiving us. In order for God to forgive us, we must forgive others. If there were doubts about the meaning of this, he essentially repeats it in verses 14 and 15. If we forgive others, God will forgive us. If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. In one sense, Christ adds both a blessing and a curse to this petition. When we forgive, we bless ourselves by paving the way for God to forgive us. If we do not forgive, we curse ourselves. Charles Spurgeon stated it this way, “Unless you have forgiven others, you read your own death-warrant when you repeat the Lord’s Prayer.”4 No doubt, many have repeated this prayer and yet held a death grip on anger and unforgiveness. In considering this reality, C. S. Lewis said:
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 provided they are not too frightful, or provided 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.5
This reciprocal promise is repeated in many other passages as well. In Matthew 5:7, Christ said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” James 2:12-13 says, “Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Our relationships with others are a picture of our relationship with God. Therefore, the way we treat others who hurt us reflects how God will treat us. We get a good picture of this in the Parable of the Merciless Servant (Matt 18:23-35). In this story, a master forgives a servant a great debt—one that he could never pay back. However, the servant had a fellow-servant who owed him money. When that servant asked for leniency, the forgiven servant threw him into jail. When the master heard about this, he was furious. He similarly threw the merciless servant into jail to be tortured. This is how Christ applied this parable to his disciples: “So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). God will hand us over to the torturers if we don’t forgive others from the heart.
Who are these torturers? No doubt, they represent the devil and his demons. In Scripture, we commonly see God hand people over to the devil, as an act of discipline. For the man having sex with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul told the Corinthians to hand that man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. By removing him from the congregation, Satan would have a greater ability to tempt and bring affliction. In 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul talked about two false teachers that he handed over to Satan. In addition, we have the story of Saul, who was given a tormenting demon because of his rebellion against God (1 Sam 16:14).
This discipline may show up in various ways. The Corinthians experienced sickness, depression, and even death because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper and the divisions which came from that abuse (1 Cor 11:18, 29-30). Therefore, we must remember that not forgiving others is a serious issue to God. When we harbor unforgiveness, we come under God’s discipline and open the door for Satan into our lives and relationships. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “‘Be angry and do not sin’; do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger. Do not give the devil an opportunity.”
It is good for us to remember that our horizontal relationships reflect our vertical relationship. If we are constantly in discord with others, it probably pictures the discord in our relationship with God. In Matthew 5:23-24, Christ told the disciples that if they went to the altar to offer a gift and realized that somebody had something against them, they should leave the gift, go make right with the other person, and then offer the gift to God. Reconciliation with others is more important than worship. In fact, unwillingness to reconcile spoils our worship, as God will reject it. He won’t forgive us, if we won’t forgive others.
Those who harbor unforgiveness will find leanness in their spiritual lives—they won’t get much from their devotions, sermons will be dry, and worship will be a burden. However, the person who forgives experiences God’s abundant grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Psalm 133 describes how pleasant it is when people dwell in unity—it’s like the oil on Aaron’s beard and the dew on Mount Zion. It’s there where God’s blessing abides, even life everlasting (v. 3). It’s when we’re walking in unity with others and not discord that we begin to experience the fullness of our eternal life.
Application Question: In what ways have you experienced spiritual dryness when in discord with others? How have you experienced spiritual abundance when walking in right relationships?
Proof of Salvation
In fact, it must be noted that a person whose character is consistently unforgiving and vengeful probably proves that they never have experienced God’s mercy and are not saved. If we have received mercy from the Lord, we will show it to others. As the Matthew 5:7 beatitude says, it is the merciful who receives mercy. All eight of the Beatitudes are characteristics of those who are part of God’s kingdom. They begin and end with “the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matt 5:3, 10). Only people with these characteristics are part of God’s kingdom. Therefore, true believers are marked and identified by being forgiving and merciful. They are the sons and daughters who turn the other cheek when slapped, and who bless their enemies instead of cursing them (Matt 5:38-48).
This doesn’t mean that true believers won’t struggle to forgive. They will. Often, we will forgive, and those angry feelings will come back. However, when they come back, we need to fight to forgive again. Mercy is a characteristic of those who are truly saved. If we are vengeful and unforgiving, we should question if we are really saved. Kent Hughes said it this way:
Let me extend the principle even further. If we will not forgive, we are not Christians! This is a frightening statement, but it is true, for when God’s grace comes into our hearts, it makes us forgiving. We demonstrate whether we have been forgiven by whether or not we will forgive. So if I refuse to forgive, there is only one reason—I am outside grace and I am myself unforgiven. These are hard words, but they are graciously hard, words especially needing to be heard by the religious person who can state all the answers, who attends church, who leads an outwardly moral life, but who holds a death grip on his grudges. He will not forgive his relatives for some infraction. He has no desire to pardon his former business associate. He nourishes hatreds, cherishes animosities, revels in malice. Such people had better take an honest inventory of their lives and see if they really know Jesus.6
Do your reactions to those who hurt you prove your salvation or put your salvation in doubt?
Application Question: How have you experienced this propensity to forgive and show mercy to others after following Christ? In what ways do you still experience a battle to forgive?
How to Practice Forgiveness
Application Question: How can we forgive others, especially when emotionally, we don’t want to?
1. We must try to understand those who have failed us.
There is always a reason people act the way they do. Often, it’s because of what others have done or not done to them. Getting to know others and their backgrounds will often help us be more merciful and forgiving.
2. We must remember our own sins.
Often, we hate the very things in others that we once struggled with. We must remember that we also struggled with lust, anger, lack of wisdom, immaturity, and many other vices. In addition, the weaknesses others struggle with might not be our struggles, but we certainly have our own. When we remember this reality, it will help us better minister to others. It has been said that until we see ourselves as the “chief of sinners,” as Paul did (1 Tim 1:15), we are not yet ready to minister. When we realize the depth of our own sin, not only will we forgive, but we’ll be better equipped to help others change.
3. We must learn to forget.
In Isaiah 43:25, God says, “I, I am the one who blots out your rebellious deeds for my sake; your sins I do not remember.” Certainly, God doesn’t forget in the sense that he can’t remember. God is omniscient. He forgets in the sense that he no longer holds it against us. We should do the same. Colossians 3:13 says, “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also forgive others.” This means we also should not hold people’s sins over them. In 1 Corinthians 13:5, Paul said that love holds no record of wrongs. To forget as God does, we can’t be historians—always condemning people by bringing up their past failures or playing their failures over and over again in our minds. We must practice a holy forgetting.
4. We must learn to love.
Romans 12:20-21 says, “Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head’. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
When we act in loving ways towards those who hurt us—like serving them—not only does it often overcome evil in their hearts, but it also overcomes evil in us. By acting in love instead of hate, we lead our emotions instead of allowing them to lead us. This helps us forgive those who have harmed us.
5. We must learn to pray for those who have failed us.
This corresponds with the last point. In Matthew 5:44, Christ said: “But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” Often, it is in the midst of praying for those who’ve failed us that God gives us a heart for them. He removes the bitterness and pain in our hearts and gives us grace to love them.
6. We must learn to forgive in faith.
We may not feel like forgiving someone, but forgiveness is an act of faith. We forgive because God commands us to and because we desire to not displease him or invoke his discipline. Therefore, we must choose to forgive those who hurt us and not hold their failures against them. Often, even when we forgive in faith, certain events may trigger bad memories and all the raw negative emotions. In those moments, we’ll have to forgive again in faith. This forgiveness might not be based on any merit of the person; it is based on obedience to God and remembering the mercy we’ve received from him.
Application Question: Share a story of God giving you grace to forgive someone who was especially difficult to forgive. Which principles listed have you found most helpful in forgiving others? Are there any other principles or practices that you have found helpful in learning to forgive?
In this life, we will never be free of sin. (1) Therefore, we must daily repent of wrong thoughts and actions that offend God and others. By doing this, we maintain and increase our spiritual health and vibrancy. (2) But also, because we live in a world full of sin, we will often get hurt by others and, in response, need to practice forgiveness. When we do this, we bring God’s blessing and forgiveness in our lives. When we don’t, we harm ourselves, as God will discipline us. (3) Finally, because of the rampant sin in the world, we need to constantly pray for others—asking for God to forgive, hold back his wrath, and grant them repentance. When we do this, we are like our Lord, who did the same. Therefore, seeking forgiveness and forgiving must be the continual discipline of believers. Lord, forgive us our debts, even as we forgive our debtors!
Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown
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1 Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 255–256). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
2 Sauer, R. (2014). 1 John. In M. A. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.), The moody bible commentary (p. 1976). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
3 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 393–394). Chicago: Moody Press.
4 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (p. 195). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
5 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 189). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
6 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 189–190). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.