STUDY 7B:THE THIRD CONCERN IN PRAYER: PART ONE: ‘FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS’ - II
Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2009
Here we continue to look at what we are asking God to do when we pray ‘forgive us our debts’.
 Forgiveness is God stamping on our sins:
Before Micah stated that God throws our sins into the sea, he wrote:
‘Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry for ever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us ...’ ( 7:18 -19a).
Then he said:‘you will tread our sins underfoot’ (.19b).
That is how we treat any insect that dares to walk on our floors. We stamp on it. We terminate it. We disempower it. We remove its ability to harm us and our families.
When God forgives our sins, he stamps on them, just as surely as we do the insect, disempowering them, terminating their ability to ever again separate us from him, removing their right to condemn us. When Jesus died on the cross he terminated sin’s tyrannical reign (Romans 5:12 -21), and rescued us from its devastating penalty. When our sins accuse us, when we are tempted to fear that God will or does reject us, when we allow our sin to rob our moments of the joy and peace of the salvation we have because of the death of Jesus Christ, then we are forgetting this image of forgiveness: God has stamped on our sins, he has disempowered them, by means of the death of Jesus. Though they exist, they can never again cut us off from God, they are as powerless as a flattened cockroach on the floor. That is forgiveness, and that is what we are praying here in this prayer.
 Forgiveness is God washing away our sins:
This concept of forgiveness frequently results in misunderstanding. When it is taken literally, instead of figuratively, it is understood to mean that God washes sin right of our hearts. The trouble is that every one of us sins after God has supposedly done this. Then the question arises “What happened?” Some conclude that the ‘salvation’ they thought they had received is a great hoax that simply doesn’t give what it promised. Some conclude that God failed to do what he promised. Some conclude that the failure is on their part: that they didn’t believe properly, or they didn’t repent properly, or say the right prayer when they came to Jesus. All of this ensues from taking this image literally.
As with the other statements of forgiveness which we have addressed at so far, we have here a visual image, a figure of speech. When God tells us that he will ‘purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1John 1:9; ‘cleanse’ in KJV), and when David prays ‘wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin’ (Psalm 51:2), they are referring to the fact that when God forgives sin he wipes it off our record. This is evident in Colossians 2:13,14, where Paul teaches that God ‘forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code ... that was against us,’ where in the Greek text the word cancelled means ‘wiped off or away’, as one wipes a white board clean, or deletes a file off a computer. Similarly, in Psalm 51:1 David prays that God will ‘blot out’ his transgressions. It is not that God washes sin out of our hearts and minds when he forgives us, but rather that the legal record of our sin is washed away or wiped off. God keeps no more record of it.
Let us be careful then that when we use this image of forgiveness that we do not expect for ourselves, nor promise to others, that God eradicates sin from our hearts and minds when he forgives us. It would be wonderful if this was the case - we wouldn’t need the commandments, we wouldn’t need all of the encouragements not to sin given to us by the New Testament writers, we would automatically always do the right thing, from the day of our conversion onwards. But that is not forgiveness, that is being just like Jesus - and that is something that is promised will happen to us, not now, but ‘when he appears’ (1John 3:1-3).
 Forgiveness is God covering our sins:
Psalm 32 begins:
‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.’
It is both important and helpful to realise that Hebrew poetry was written in parallel thoughts, not in rhyming words. Poets and song writers placed two or three similar thoughts after each other, each expressing the same idea but using different words or images, sometimes with each thought containing a deeper shade of meaning than the previous one. Here in Psalm 32:1 David firstly says ‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven’, then with the phrase ‘whose sins are covered’ repeats the same thought using different words, thus teaching us that when sins are forgiven they are covered. The same rhyming though occurs in Psalm 85:2:
‘You forgave the iniquity of your people
and covered their sins.’
Again in this image we understand that forgiveness means that God no longer sees our sins, they are removed from his sight, he no longer takes them into account. From the New Testament perspective we understand that what covers our sins is the blood of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
 Forgiveness is God hiding his face from our sins:
In Psalm 51:9 David prays:
‘Hide your face from my sins
and blot out my iniquity.’
Here we have yet another image teaching us that God no longer sees sins he forgives. He hides his face from them. He no longer looks at our sin, accusing us, judging us, condemning us. This not because he inadvertently overlooks it, or happens to blink his eye, but because, as we have seen before, the cross of Jesus Christ is his marvellous plan which at the one time upholds both his love and his justice. In this grand plan of salvation God took all our sin, put it all on his Son, and accused him, judged him and condemned him for all of our sin. For this reason, and only for this reason, it is his deliberate decision to overlook, or hide his face from, our sin.
 Forgiveness is God setting us free:
As mentioned above, one of the common New Testament words for forgiveness literally means to ‘take away’, and is used of the lifting of the barrier at horse races. Sin erects a barrier between us and God (Isaiah 59:2a). When God forgives us because of the death of Jesus Christ, he removes that barrier. Instead of our sin barring our access to the presence of God, forgiveness means we have free access into his presence. Instead of our sin holding us captive in the death of eternal separation from God, forgiveness sets us free to eternal life with God. Instead of our sin holding us bound to an unpayable debt, forgiveness releases us from that debt.
This concept of freedom is prophetically depicted in the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25:8-54. In every fiftieth year every debt was cancelled, every property forfeited because of non-payment of debt was returned to its owner, and every person sold into slavery because of debt was set free. All of these, while being very meaningful in themselves, symbolise the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ. The passage from Isaiah that Jesus read at Nazareth (Luke 4:16 -19; Isaiah 61:1,2), ended with ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’, which is an allusion to the Year of Jubilee. He then said: ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:21 ). In other words, with the coming of Jesus Christ the real Year of Jubilee comes - the year, or time, which the regulations of Leviticus 25 prophesied. Here, in Jesus Christ, is the ultimate freedom: not freedom from physical slavery, not freedom from financial bondage and debt, but the freedom of forgiveness of the sin that separates us from God, that holds us bound in an inescapable spiritual poverty and debt.
 Forgiveness is an act of God’s grace:
In Colossians 2:13 when Paul says that God ‘forgave us all our sins’ he uses a word that means ‘he graced over all our sins’. This teaches us that forgiveness is a gift. We do not earn it. We do not merit it. We do not deserve it. It is sheer gift: it is independent of anything we are or have done. It comes to us simply because God loves us. We cannot boast of it. We cannot increase it. We cannot diminish it. We cannot lose it. All we can do is believe it. Receive it. And stand in awe.
These then are images God gives us to ensure we understand the great thing he does when he forgives us. Rather than make us think that with a forgiveness like this it doesn’t matter if we sin, this forgiveness is so overwhelming, so unexpected, so undeserved, so absolute, so costly to our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, that we, with the Psalmist, ought constantly to pray:
‘If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O LORD, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared’ (Psalm 130:3,4).
It is with this humility, and this awe and reverence, that we pray this prayer ‘forgive us our debts’.
D. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF FORGIVENESS
As we have seen already, our sin separates us from God, barring and banning our entry into and acceptance in his presence. Write out these verses:
When men saw a vision or revelation of the glory of the Lord they were threatened/overcome with fear of death because of their sin:
Exodus 33:20-23: ‘ … you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live … There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.’
Exodus 40:34-35: ‘Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the lord filled the tabernacle.’
Isaiah 6:1-5: ‘… I saw the Lord high and exalted … “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” ‘
Ezekiel 1:28: ‘ … This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.’
Daniel 10:7-: ‘I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; the men with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless.’
Luke 5:8: ‘When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken.’
Acts 9:3-4: ‘As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground …’
Revelation 1:17: ‘When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead …’
As quoted above from Psalm 130: ‘If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?’ We are all excluded from the presence of God by our sin. None of us is qualified live with him. None of us is qualified to have our prayers heard. Only on the basis of forgiveness of sin – a forgiveness which is the result of his initiative, and comes to us as sheer gift – can we approach his holy throne. Here in this prayer for forgiveness, with its acknowledgement of our true guilt, and its intense focus on the Lord Jesus and his death, is the key to all praying, for here alone is the guarantee that all our other prayers, including our praise and worship, will be acceptable to God and heard by God.
A prayer in the Order of Service for Communion in the Book of Common Prayer is instructive:
‘We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord …’
Hebrews puts it this way:
‘Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess … Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (4:14,16).
‘Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful …’ ( 10:19 -23).
‘With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom’ ( 15:37 ,38).
There, on the cross, forgiveness was established, the barrier between man and God was ripped away. This we acknowledge, on this we depend, when we pray ‘forgive us our debts’.