Praying the Saviour's Way (VI)
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by Timothy Cross
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12).
The forgiveness of sins is a basic fundamental of the Christian Faith. Christians are a forgiven people. ‘It is on the foundation of the remission of sins that our salvation is built and stands. This remission is, in fact, the door of approaching God and the instrument which holds and keeps us in his kingdom’ (John Calvin, Truth for All Time, p.45). The gospel affirms that ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3), and in doing so procured the believer’s eternal forgiveness. ‘In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace’ (Ephesians 1:7). Because of the atoning blood of Jesus, God the Father is able to say ‘I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more’ (Hebrews 10:17).
Christians Need Forgiveness
If Christians are a forgiven people – which they are – why does the Saviour urge us to pray regularly to God for forgiveness? The answer is simple. It is because Christians still sin. Writing to Christians, John wrote ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). Our propensity to sin will be with us throughout our lives, as salvation does not eradicate our fallen nature and bring instant sanctification and sinless perfection. When Christians sin, they do not forfeit their salvation, but when a Christian sins their conscious enjoyment of their salvation is lost. Sin – described here as a moral debt to God – spoils our close fellowship with God. The way to restore that fellowship is to be honest with ourselves and God and to confess our sins of thought, word and deed to Him. ‘If we confess our sins He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). The basis of this daily forgiveness is still the atoning blood of Jesus. A Christian never progresses beyond the cross. ‘The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us (lit.‘carries on cleansing’) from all sin’(1 John 1:7).
‘And forgive us our debts ...’ The Lord Jesus was speaking here of our need for daily forgiveness – the forgiveness necessary to restore the communion with God which is our new birthright, but which our sins spoils. It is a matter of our state as Christian before God rather than our standing with God. Our standing with God never changes if we are Christians. He has adopted us into His family, never to cast us out. Our personal enjoyment of being in God’s family though may vary. Confessing our sins keeps us in the enjoyment of the highest blessing of all – communion with God our Maker. This petition is a prayer for restoration.
Forgiven and Forgiving
The full petition of Matthew 6:12 reads ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ The Saviour reiterated the second part of the verse a little later in verses 14 and 15, where He says ‘For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’
These verses need careful interpretation. A surface reading may lead us to think that the ground of divine forgiveness is our human forgiveness of others. This though cannot be, as the unanimous teaching of Scripture is that God forgives us solely on the basis of His grace – His undeserved kindness and unmerited favour to sinners who deserve nothing but His wrath. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any many should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8,9). The Saviour is thus not teaching that human forgiveness procures God’s forgiveness, but rather that human forgiveness is evidence that God’s forgiveness has been received. A forgiving spirit towards others does not procure God’s forgiveness of us, but it is an evidence that we have been recipients of the saving grace of God. The Apostle Paul was one with His Master here, as Paul wrote some years later ‘be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Ephesians 4:32) and ‘as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive’ (Colossians 3:13).
When we realise our debt to and the cost of God’s forgiveness – how He has written off all our debt, by sending His Son to pay it in full at Calvary – it is highly inconsistent, if not hypocritical for us to hold grudges against others for the hurts and harms they have caused us (c.f Matthew 18:23 ff.). It takes grace to forgive others the hurts they have caused us. And Christians profess to be the personal recipients of the saving grace of God.
And so, with an intimate knowledge of our fallen human nature, the Saviour instructs us to pray ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Matthew 6:12). Our condition is such that we will need to pray this petition as often as we need to pray for daily bread. It is only in glory that we will cease to pray it, when we will be saved to sin no more.
In summary, in this petition we are asking God that He would:-
Be pleased for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us poor sinners our transgressions, nor that depravity which always cleaves to us; even as we feel this evidence of thy grace in us, that it is our firm resolution from the heart to forgive our neighbour (Heidelberg Catechism).
Read previous chapters of Timothy Cross's Praying the Saviour's Way:
Last Update: 2016-09-01 12:11