In the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the verb “forgive!” is imperative, indicating both the gravity of the offenses we commit against God and the anguish over committing them. These offenses are of such magnitude that only the Father can forgive them, for he has a Father’s heart. The matter is taken up with him urgently, incessantly. The imperative shows that the petitioner won’t take “no” for an answer. It is a plea that won’t let go unless it is assured of complete forgiveness. The petition allows us to give a full and desperate confession of sin. One hears the echo of David’s prayers.
For I know my wrong-doing, and my sin is always in front of me. I have sinned against You, and You only. I have done what is sinful in Your eyes (Ps 51:3,4, NLV).
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin (Ps 32:5).
Every single thought and act arising from our sinful human nature requires heartfelt contrition. They are offenses toward God’s holiness, utterly despising and denying his existence and goodwill toward us. These include a soul-loathing of God’s commandments and the expressed directions of Scripture for our lives.
The petition does not reduce sins into simple misunderstandings or pretext-laden explanations. The Greek word translated “trespasses, offenses, or debts” refers to a debt owed, emphasizing the ensuing obligation to repay. In this sense, the meaning of “sin” adds to the emphatic and imperative “Forgive!” The plea’s urgency is because there’s no possible way I can repay the debt I owe as a result of my offenses against God and my neighbor. In the prayer, we do not only plea for forgiveness for our acts, but who we are at the root: sinners, characterized throughout by our sinful human nature. Thus, not even with our very lives could we ever repay for our offenses against the holiness and honor of “Our Father in heaven.”
Jesus read the hearts and minds of sinners and realized the need to gather all those pressing feelings into the simple prayer, “Forgive us our debts!”
The Father’s response is not only immediate, but at the cross, he anticipated our plea, and through Christ’s sacrifice, our sins were forgiven. If we want to see evidence of our Father’s answer to the fifth petition, we need only to look at the cross and the empty tomb.
He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross (Col 2:14, CSB).
Christ offered the totality of his holy being, and the entire debt of our sins fell on him, not only for our trespasses but for our innate sinful human nature. “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
The petition has a second part: “as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus’ parable of the two debtors contains his own best explanation of how these two phrases of the petition relate to each other: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Paraphrasing Matthew’s report, a king wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One owed the modern equivalent of $2,000,000,000 USD. Since he couldn’t pay, the king ordered to sell him and his entire family into slavery and impounded his goods until the debt was paid. But the servant fell on his face, begged for mercy, and promised to repay every cent. The king had compassion. He did not just reduce the debt to a payable amount but wiped out the entire amount. But the forgiven servant had a co-worker that owed him about 100 days of labor at minimum wage. He also begged for mercy and time to repay. But the forgiven servant would not have it and had him thrown in jail. That didn’t sit well with the other servants who went and told the king, who suddenly had a new name for the guy: “You wicked servant.” The king saw that everything the servant had done was wicked. He had put on an Oscar-winning performance for mercy and tried to take the king for a fool. The king saw who he really was and withdrew his forgiveness, then threw him in jail until he paid his two billion! “So also my heavenly Father will do to you unless every one of you forgives his brother or sister from your heart” (Matt 18:23-35).
The point of the parable and the petition is to have us flee to Christ and confess our unforgiving hearts.
But can anyone really forgive from the heart?
We would, of course, wish to re-write the parable according to our own idolatrous heart seeking applause for its pious life. We would think that we not only ask forgiveness from our hearts for an unpayable debt, but also that after being forgiven we would search out our debtors and forgive them from our hearts. But the point of the parable and the petition is to have us flee to Christ and confess our unforgiving hearts. We must see our capacity for forgiveness as the Roman officer saw his capacity for belief: “Lord, I forgive, help thou my unforgiving spirit!” “Lord, I am not completely sincere in my plea for forgiveness, and even less do I forgive others from my heart.” For both sincerity and heartfelt forgiveness, we must flee to Christ, and by faith, see him as our perfect substitute in the petition for forgiveness.
Martin Luther understood from the Scriptures that the sin-bearing Christ was also the forgiveness-seeking Christ.
Now, that Christ has sin is testified by the Holy Spirit in Psalm 40:12–13: “For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head” (NIV). Then Psalm 41:5 says, “I said, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you’” (NIV). (1)
When he became sin for us, he prayed from his heart, “Have mercy on me, Lord,” “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” For he was all: sinner, supplicant, debt payer, debt paid, and forgiver. He alone was able to plead with complete and perfect sincerity on my behalf: “My Father, forgive me, the sinner, even as I have forgiven from my heart all those who have offended me.” We are indeed complete in him, and in him alone do we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”