The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer and its explanation in Luther’s Small Catechism brings us to two places at once. We’re brought down into a valley and up a mountain. It is simultaneously the lowest and the highest point of the prayer. In fact, as we pray each line of the Lord's Prayer, God brings us to an ever more humble place. He causes us to recognize what we lack.
During this downward humbling descent, God also raises us up as he reveals how he has given us what we need.
In order to call on God as our heavenly Father, we must first receive God’s tender invitation and encouragement to believe. In this, we are humbled by the recognition that our prayer is only possible by the act of faith God works in us, not by our own work or power. Jesus, in teaching us this prayer, lifts our head to our Father in heaven.
In petitioning that God’s name be kept holy among us, we humbly acknowledge that we need God to cause his word, the gospel, to be preached in truth and purity in order that we may believe. And so, God sends a preacher to raise us up.
In asking for his kingdom to come among us, we are humbled further as we recognize our need for our heavenly Father to send his Holy Spirit, “so that by grace we believe his holy word,” that is, the gospel. So he sends his Spirit to raise up faith in us.
Praying for his will to be done among us humbles us even further as we pray against ourselves. We admit that we can’t, by our own will, protect or sustain the gift of faith. And so, God’s good and gracious will carries us up again “when he breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature… and when he strengthens and keeps us firm in his word and faith until we die.”
The fourth petition humbles us further still as we recognize that all the material goods we have are not the result of our work and power, but are gifts from God. Despite God’s invitation to believe, his provision of a preacher to proclaim the gospel, his sending of his Spirit through his word to work faith in us, and his good and gracious will to protect and sustain us in that faith, we easily forget that he is the giver. In spite of our forgetfulness, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone… even to all evil people.”
After all that, we’re brought even lower as we pray, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Luther explains: “We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that he would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.”
Luther lays it bare for us. To pray for God to forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, is to pray for God to forgive us for all those times we fail to fear, love, and trust in him, and instead put our hope in the gifts he’s given us. We also pray that, having received his forgiveness and all that we need by his grace, he frees us to forgive others.
These simultaneous opposing movements are nothing less than the law and gospel of God at work in us. It is the drowning of the old self and the rising of the new self. Luther speaks of this in the fourth chief part of the Small Catechism on Baptism. It is the death and resurrection that Jim Nestingen says are built right into each petition of the Lord’s Prayer. This death and resurrection shine through in the fifth petition more than in the others.
The forgiveness of our sins on account of Christ is the foundation of the Small Catechism.
The forgiveness of our sins is the root from which all the previous petitions spring forth. God’s name is kept holy among us only through the proclamation of the forgiveness of our sins. We receive God’s kingdom among us, and Christ rules his kingdom, by the forgiveness of sins. God’s good and gracious will is that our sins are continually forgiven. It is only through faith in Christ crucified for sinners that we acknowledge God as the giver of all that we need and receive his gifts with thanksgiving. The forgiveness of our sins is the basis of the forgiveness we bestow on those who sin against us.
The forgiveness of sins serves as more than a foundation for the Lord’s Prayer. Wilhelm Löhe points out, “Forgiveness of sins is presented in the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Chief Parts, for it is the overarching theme of the Catechism.” The forgiveness of our sins on account of Christ is the foundation of the Small Catechism.
Though the first chief part, the Ten Commandments, does not present the forgiveness of sins, it shows us the sin that God in Christ forgives. Luther's explanation of the third article of the Apostles' Creed teaches that God daily and richly forgives all our sins. This is good news since Luther reminds us in his explanation of the fifth petition that we daily sin much.
In his explanation of the second question of baptism, “What benefits does baptism give?” Luther writes that baptism works the forgiveness of sins. Albrecht Peters describes the fifth petition, this return to God’s forgiveness, as a "crawl back again into baptism.”
This petition is proof that the Christian life is not a practice in perfectionism.
Luther writes of the fifth chief part that, “Confession has two parts. First that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness.” In addition, he tells us that we’re to receive this declaration of forgiveness “as from God himself.”
In the sixth chief part, on the sacrament of the altar, Luther delivers the sentence that best teaches us how to understand the forgiveness of sins in our life. He writes, “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
Jesus gave us this petition for forgiveness knowing full well that we would need it. This petition is proof that the Christian life is not a practice in perfectionism. Rather, it is a life of dying and rising, lived under the cross of Christ, in the continual forgiveness of our sins. This forgiveness, so lavishly poured out on us, overflows onto our neighbor.