STUDIES IN THE LORD'S PRAYER
Copyright © Rosemary Bardsley 2002
STUDY SEVEN: FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS
The third concern in prayer is our spiritual well-being; the first part of this concern is our need for forgiveness.
A. IN THIS PRAYER WE ACKNOWLEDGE/CONFESS THAT WE ARE DEBTORS AND SINNERS
Here we admit to God that we, in ourselves, apart from Christ, are in debt: burdened down with the guilt and penalty of our sins. Here, every time we pray this prayer, we are reminded that it is only through his mercy, and never through our merit, that we can stand in his presence, accepted, today. This 'confession' of sin is far greater, deeper and more significant than the common perception of 'confessing our sin' that focuses on a (daily?) itemization of those sins we have recognized and remembered.
It includes acknowledgement of:
Biblical teaching about the consequences of sin:
' ... for when you eat of it you will surely die'
' ... he must not be allowed to ... take from the tree of life ... and live for ever'
'See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction ... '
'your iniquities have separated you from your God; you sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear'
'The soul who sins is the one who will die' See also 18:30-32
' ... whoever does not believe stands condemned already ... '
'The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men ... '
' ... sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned '
'the wages of sin is death'
' ... cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law'
In these references we understand the heavy consequences and penalty that are upon every human being. Our prayer for forgiveness acknowledges the rightness of God's verdict and penalty.
Biblical examples of acknowledgement of sin:
'I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes'
'Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord" '
'For I am about to fall, and my pain is ever with me. I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin.'
'For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.'
'For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done this evil in your sight ... '
'Do not bring your servant into judgment, for on one living is righteous before you.'
'O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens ... '
'Let us lie down in our shame, and let our disgrace cover us. We have sinned against the Lord our God, both we and our fathers ... we have not obeyed the Lord our God.'
' ... we acknowledge our wickedness and the guilt of our fathers; we have indeed sinned against you.'
'we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets ... '
'take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: "Forgive all our sins ... " '
'I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
'He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' '
Notice in the above references that acknowledgement or confession of sin is non-specific; it does not focus on details; it involves no itemized lists of individual sins. Instead these references express an overwhelming recognition of sinfulness and unworthiness in the presence of the holy God
B. IN THIS PRAYER WE ACKNOWLEDGE THAT GOD IS MERCIFUL
In asking for forgiveness we are also expressing our faith in the mercy - the undeserved loving kindness - of God, whereby he chooses not to punish us as our sin deserves, but rather to cancel the debt of our sin. Without this expectation, this hope, any prayer for forgiveness is meaningless and futile. Only those who know God as merciful can have the boldness to pray this prayer. Here we acknowledge and trust the
Biblical teaching on the mercy of God:
'I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion'
'The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin'
'The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion ... '
'All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth ... ' KJV
'the Lord's unfailing love (mercy) surrounds the man who trusts in him'
'the earth is full of his unfailing love (mercy)'
'the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love'
'I will trust in God's unfailing love (mercy) for ever and ever ... '
'You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love (mercy) to all who call to you. Hear my prayer, O Lord; listen to my cry for mercy.'
'I will sing of the Lord's love (mercy) for ever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness know through all generations'
'The earth is filled with your love (mercy), O Lord'
'Return to me ... for I am merciful'
'Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail'
'in you the fatherless find compassion'
'I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity'
'God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ ... '
'he saved us ... because of his mercy'
'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.'
'The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.'
1 Peter 1:3
'In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope ... '
C. WHAT GOD DOES WHEN HE FORGIVES
When we ask God to 'forgive our debts' we say the words so easily, thinking little of their meaning or their cost. Yet forgiveness is an immense concept, its implications reaching into our every moment. It is an incredible, unexpected, undeserved act of God, with a liberating, motivating impact on our lives.
So that we can understand this grand truth, the Scripture uses various images to portray the many faceted meaning of forgiveness that is given to people with genuine faith in the Biblical God. These images are:
- Forgiveness is God throwing our sins behind his back.
- Forgiveness is God cancelling our debt.
- Forgiveness is God nailing our sins to the cross of Christ.
- Forgiveness is God removing our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.
- Forgiveness is God throwing our sins into the deepest sea.
- Forgiveness is God stamping on our sins.
- Forgiveness is God washing away our sins.
- Forgiveness is God covering our sins.
- Forgiveness is God hiding his face from our sins.
- Forgiveness is God setting us free.
- Forgiveness is an act of God's grace.
A study on these images of forgiveness can be accessed on this website in the series Words of Salvation. It is important that you go to that study now to fill our your understanding of these Biblical concepts.
These 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. Consider:
- Genesis 3:22-24: 'And the Lord God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.'
- Exodus 26:31,33: 'make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman. ... The curtain will separate the Most Holy Place.'
- Leviticus 16:2: ' Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.'
Even 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 has been quoted 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.
One of the prayers 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 and on this we depend when we pray 'forgive us our debts'.