And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
What a mess in Christendom this verse has caused! If we read further the dilemma becomes even bigger, for in verse 14 and 15 it says, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” People see it in its plain sense and that sense would tell us that God’s forgiveness of us is based on our forgiveness of others. Yet we know, beyond any doubt, that God asks one thing of us, faith, and that is the only condition of salvation. So how are we to understand this verse?
As they say, context is everything, and in this case, context does explain a great deal. This verse is taken from what is usually termed the Lord’s Prayer. As far as we know, the Lord himself never prayed this prayer. How could he who knew no sin ask for forgiveness? Instead, this prayer was what Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them as John also taught his disciples (Luke 11:1). It might be better termed John’s prayer, since evidently it was patterned after what John was teaching to his disciples. But this is a minor point; the major point is that we know from Matthew that these verses were from the Sermon on the Mount, one of the first sermons that Jesus was ever to preach.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is clearly offering himself as king to Israel, an offer that ultimately the nation was to reject. Jesus then turned to the highways and byways to offer himself to Gentiles. Even the term, Gentiles1, according to Easton, came to be a term of contempt. When Jesus was rejected as king, he went to the most contemptible people possible, at least in the eyes of many of the Jews. Therefore, the Sermon on the Mount must be looked at for what it is, a kingdom offer to the Jews, with the rules set up for such a kingdom. Most (over 90%) of these rules are repeated frequently in other places in the New Testament, and when they are, we can be confident of their direct application to us. But it is not so with this particular verse.
Evidently, part of the rules that Jesus was setting up for Israel was to show the importance of forgiveness. Indeed, we are told to extend forgiveness to others in many places in the New Testament, but never again is it made conditional on our salvation. I believe it is best understood as a rule to be given to Israel, had they accepted their King. Chafer says, “No objection could be raised against the declaration that 1 John 1:1-2:2 is the central passage in the Scriptures on household forgiveness, and it is far from accidental and of more than passing significance that in this context neither by precept, nor by example, nor by implication is asking constituted any part of the believer’s obligation when in need of forgiveness.”2
I am perplexed by those who might think we are to forgive before we can be forgiven. Such a concept is foreign to the Scripture! Instead, we are told to forgive others, “even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Eph 4:32). There is no denying that forgiveness of others is a vital part of the spiritual walk before God; there is every denial that our forgiveness is in any way connected to our merit—that is, that we have to forgive before we can be forgiven. A lack of forgiveness, especially to other Christians, causes no end of problems for our Christian house, and it is a sin that needs to be confessed when the believer.
But there is another sense in which it is the duty of the Christian to seek to forgive. I have seen hurt so grievous to Christians that that hurt dominates all of their thinking. The hurt is so deep that the Christian cannot walk through the day without many times thinking of their pain and suffering. Listening to their description of the pain and hurt of someone who has sinned against them, and I can see why they are so angry, and I often find myself wondering how they survived the ordeal at all. Precisely because the hurt is so deep and grievous, forgiveness must be given. Remember that Stephen, our first martyr, gave us the example as he was stoned to death, crying out to God, “Lord, lay not this charge against them.”
It is easy of course to say that one must forgive, and I can imagine the grieving saint objecting that he just doesn’t know how bad I was hurt. The Scripture is full of commands for us to follow that we have little strength to even begin to follow, but he has nonetheless given them. For example, who can really follow the command of our Lord to love one another as I have loved you? It is a command that we have no hope of following, if we were left to our own devices. It is only by the very power of God in us that we can follow it. But that is precisely the point: we have been given the Holy Spirit, so that God does in us what is not possible for us to do.
The Christian who would walk with his God can be severely impaired by previous sins of others; and forgiveness must be given, and not at all because of repentance on the part of the sinner. Often times I see old men and women, with their parents long deceased, but they are still harboring grudges and hurts, even while their parents are on the other side of the grave. Release has to happen in the lives of those who were hurt, and that is not possible without forgiveness. Thus, confession must be made as the Christian is made aware of his lack of forgiveness, and the very power of God must be allowed to do that which the person cannot. Chafer poses the problem beautifully: “How may a heart of compassion be secured at all? The answer is that all sin must be confessed and that a forgiving heart is then possible only through the enabling power of God.”3
But what of the Christian who will not go this far, perhaps lacking the faith to believe God will indeed help? Such a Christian is merely compounding sin upon sin, for is he not claiming that his problems, no matter how significant, are bigger than God can take care of? Such a Christian ought to question himself and not God. The Christian who will confess, and indeed, ask of God for the power to forgive, will find his life newly empowered through the Spirit.
1. Gentiles (Heb., usually in plural, goyim), meaning in general all nations except the Jews. In course of time, as the Jews began more and more to pride themselves on their peculiar privileges, it acquired unpleasant associations, and was used as a term of contempt.
In the New Testament the Greek word Hellenes, meaning literally Greek (as in Acts 16:1 Acts 16:3 ;18:17 ; Romans 1:14 ), generally denotes any non-Jewish nation.
These dictionary topics are from
M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition,
published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain
2. Chafer, L. (1947). The Christian's Sin. In Systematic theology (Vol. 2, p. 339). Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press.
3. Chafer, L. (1947). The Christian's Sin. In Systematic theology (Vol. 2, p. 340). Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press.