And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” – Mark 11:25
So far we’ve said there are two nouns which are repeated in the common recitation of The Lord’s Prayer: heaven and kingdom. But there’s also a third word, a verb, which you could argue appears twice; its repetition necessary to the simile it sets up.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.– Matthew 6:12
I want to focus on the word forgive today, so try not be distracted by whether or not you prefer debts or trespasses.
A few of the translations play around with the verb tense on this, but they are fairly unanimous in keeping the word forgive. (Exception is The Jubilee Bible: “And set us free from our debts, as we set free our debtors.”)
- And forgive us our debts, as we also forgave our debtors. (DLNT)
- and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (ESV and others)
- And forgive us our debts as we forgive those who owe us something. (Voice)
- Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. (Message)
There are several petitions in this prayer — for daily bread, to not be led into temptation, to be delivered from evil — but the request for forgiveness is conditional. The best example of a conditional promise is 2 Chronicles 7:14
if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
There God is telling his people that if there is a drought, or if there is a plague, if they do X first, God will do Y.
This is also reminiscent of Matthew 10:8, but in the reverse.
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. (NLT)
In this case it is implied that God has already done Y and now invites you to be an agent of X being received by someone else.
But we can’t twist that into a principle that would apply here as God saying something like, ‘I’ve already forgiven you so now you can freely forgive others.’ Rather, the text would point to something closer to, ‘If you want to experience my forgiveness, you’ll have to know first what it like to have forgiven others.’
There is of course the grace which goes before; what is termed prevenient grace. GotQuestions.org defines it as
a phrase used to describe the grace given by God that precedes the act of a sinner exercising saving faith in Jesus Christ. The term “prevenient” comes from the Latin and means ”to come before.” By definition, every theological system which affirms the necessity of God’s grace prior to a sinner’s conversion has a type of prevenient grace. The Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace is a type of prevenient grace, as is common grace.
Romans 5:8 reminds us that in terms of big picture forgiveness, what we experience when we come to Christ for the first time, God has already made the way; the pardon and peace is there, we just need to claim it:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Back to our primary text.
The Message version of the Lord’s Prayer verse is probably the best as it would indicate an ongoing process, a chain of grace, where we are constantly experiencing forgiveness ourselves, and meting out that forgiveness to others.
There’s also a sense here that, ‘you know (hopefully) what it is like to forgive someone for something, so you know how God forgives you.’
Again, while we’re looking at a New Testament text, Jesus was teaching this prayer in an Old Testament world. We’ve been using BibleStudyTools.org for this series, and the entry for the Hebrew word Callach meaning both ready to forgive and forgiving makes reference to Psalm 86:5
For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.
God’s predilection for forgiveness is something he is ready to do. But how long do we keep forgiving people who owe us (debts) or have injured us (trespasses)? Jesus answers that in Matthew 18:22
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
The NIV rendering of Luke 17:4 is even more explicit on the degree of forbearance being demanded of us:
“…Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Paul echoes this in Colossians 3:13
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Proverbs 19:11b reminds us that the quality of forgiveness is an essential part of our character:
…it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense
Finally, James 2, 11-12 reminds us that it is essential to be an agent of mercy if we wish to experience it ourselves:
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Jesus tells a parable about a man who received immeasurable forgiveness but failed to do the same for one who owed him a lesser amount. May that never be said of us.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Scriptures all NIV except where indicated
Darlene Merenick is a Canadian singer who died all too young a few years ago. I was able to hear this song performed live several times.