v. 12 “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
This verse is best considered in light of these verses that immediately follow The Prayer:
14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Jesus declares that our capacity to receive God’s forgiveness depends directly on our capacity to forgive others. We need no further proof that our salvation can only be realized in the context of community. There is no middle ground: God’s grace either flows through us or it doesn’t flow in us. [For more on this, read 1 John where the apostle is adamant that those who love God must—by definition—extend that love to others.]
His Father’s great mission is the redemption of humanity. God’s justice won’t allow him to simply overlook our trespasses against him and others. He won’t let evil go unchecked and unpunished forever. So rather than allowing us to receive the punishment our sins warrant, God steps into history in the person of Jesus and pays our debt “in full” on the cross (John 3:16). Notice that sin is referred to in accounting terms: it’s a “debt” that requires payment. It’s as if God holds the “mortgage” on our debt but then chooses to pay it off himself.
Why would God do something so audacious?
In order to demonstrate both his impeccable justice and infinite love.
In order to show all of creation that he alone is worthy of our eternal adoration.
In short: to glorify himself so that we might, in turn, praise him.
You and I are spiritually bankrupt. Even our best efforts are tainted by sin, so we can never accrue enough righteous credits to offset our unrighteousness. In the Old Testament, God provided for his people to have their sins covered by the shed blood of innocent animals. In the New Testament, Christ’s sacrificial blood not only covers our sins, it also cleanses them. The assets in Jesus’ account not only offset our debts, they also enrich us beyond all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). This is what makes Christianity different from every other religion–our God is both judge and justifier:
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)
But forgiveness is not free; it cost God his one and only Son. We can’t earn his forgiveness; rather, we receive only it by grace through faith. Forgiveness comes from God, is accomplished through Christ, and is received by trusting what he has done. It’s a free gift, unmerited and unearned, miraculous and transformative. Until we understand the magnitude of God’s love and mercy, we will remain unchanged. Not that our forgiveness of others will come automatically and naturally, but being truly forgiven can’t help but eventually make us true “forgivers.” If we can’t become conduits of forgiveness, it’s a good bet that we haven’t actually experienced saving grace.
In verse 12 of The Prayer, Jesus invites us to continually repent of our sins and experience God’s forgiveness. But we do not come as criminals to a judge; rather, we come as beloved children to their Father. Reminded of our own sins and receiving his forgiveness; we now extend that same grace to those who have sinned against us.
In Matthew 18:23-31, Jesus offers a sobering parable of servant who owed a king an amount equal to twenty years of wages. Because the servant was unable to pay this impossible debt, the master ordered that the man, his wife, his children, and all he owned be sold. The debtor threw himself at the king’s feet, begging for more time to make things right. Rather than simply extending the loan, the master had extravagant mercy and cancelled the man’s debt altogether. Upon his release, the man came upon a fellow servant who couldn’t repay an amount equal to 100 days wages. Instead of demonstrating similar compassion, he had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. His fellow servants were outraged and reported back to their master everything that happened:
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:32-35)
When we refuse to forgive others, we condemn ourselves to the torment and prison of our own anger and bitterness. But when we learn to forgive the sins of others—no matter how large or small–we open the cell door from the inside and walk out into the freedom that his forgiveness has purchased. The more we realize the magnitude of God’s forgiveness in Christ, the more extravagant we will become in extending his grace and mercy to others.
Maybe someone has harmed us in some unimaginable way. Perhaps we’ve been abused or injured in a way that seems unforgiveable. The first step toward wholeness is not acknowledging their offense against us, but rather confessing our offense against God.
How can that be? The truth is that I will never have sufficient grace to forgive others until I admit the magnitude of my own trespass against God and what it cost the Father to forgive me. I must gaze upon Christ’s cross, his crown of thorns, his bloodied and beaten face, the nails in his hands and feet, and be overwhelmed with the truth that he did all this to forgive me.
This is what it cost God to forgive me—and to forgive the man or woman who has sinned against me. In that moment, I not only receive Christ’s forgiveness to settle my account with God, but also receive his sacrifice to settle their account with me. Only then will I be able to forgive others as I have been forgiven. And why in the world wouldn’t I?