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    The Lord's Prayer

    Forgive Us (Mt. 6:12)

    by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1999)

    Just as we need daily prayer for the food we eat, so, too, we need daily prayer for the forgiveness of our sins. The Church as a whole and Christian people as individuals are not distinguished from others by their perfection, though we may wish that it were so. It is our faith in Christ that distinguishes us from non-Christians. Faith in Christ means faith in His death and resurrection to save us from our sin. That faith is not something that we exercise once for all. It can not be represented by a point. Our faith in Christ begins at the time we first believe in Him and continues to the end. Part of that faith is repentance for sins and trust in God's saving mercy. As long as we are in this world, this aspect of faith is a daily necessity.

    Why allow sin?

    The daily need for forgiveness provokes a question. Why does God not sanctify us wholly upon our first act of faith? One would think that it would not only make the Christian life much easier and more enjoyable, but that evangelism would be greatly boosted as well. Why does God allow us to be so foolish and sinful?

    Part of the answer is that God sanctifies us from the inside out. This means that sanctification is concerned first of all with a change in our hearts, not merely with our outward habits. Now it may be that in some matters and for some people that change begins from the outside. But outward change is not the essence of sanctification. An outward change that involves no inward change may reflect God's work, but it is not yet a real change. Not until our hearts are changed is the work of santification truly begun.

    But when God sanctifies us, He does so by means that treat the sinner as a moral being. He allows us to fail in our own strength so that we can learn just how weak we are and how desperately we need His grace. When we have sinned and failed, we despise ourselves for our folly and sin. We confess that we have no hope but Him. We cast ourselves upon His mercy, and He accepts us. We are filled with gratitude. Thus, as we grow in our distrust of self and learn to despise our own sins, we also grow in gratitude to Him and His grace. He leads us to love Him by allowing us to learn who and what we are as foolish sinners and by forgiving us over and over until our love for Him is perfected. There is no other way to deal with persons that treats their personhood as real and that works to change them from the inside so that they cooperate willingly with the work of grace.

    As We Forgive

    This petition is unique in the Lord's prayer. It is the only one with an argument attached. We ask God to forgive our sins because we forgive those who have sinned against us. This is the kind of praying that we often see in the book of Psalms where David offers God reasons and arguments for the petitions that he urges. In such a short prayer it is remarkable that an argument is attached to this petition.

    But what is the argument? Surely we are not saying to God that our forgiveness of the sins of others merits His forgiveness of our sins! This gross distortion of our Lord's meaning has been taught, but the true meaning of the argument is seen in Christ's parable of the two servants (Mt. 18:23 ff.). The servant who was forgiven ten thousand talents meet another servant who owed him one hundred denarii and refused to forgive him. The point of the story is clear. The servant who had been forgiven a debt so huge it would have been impossible for him to repay had no understanding of forgiveness, no appreciation for the grace that had been shown to him. His utter lack of gratitude was manifest in his attitude toward others. Thus, he was not forgiven. Similarly, if we do appreciate God's grace and show our faith by our works, we can offer our repentance with the argument, "Lord, I have manifested my faith in your grace by forgiving others, continue to show me your mercy for I truly believe."

    Christ is very clear, both in the warning attached to the Lord's Prayer and in the parable in Matthew 18: If we do not forgive others, our sins will not be forgiven. Those who are saved by grace alone, must show gratitude for grace in their attitudes toward others and in their daily lives.

    How many times?

    Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who offended him, "Up to seven times?" (Mt. 18:21). In asking this Peter no doubt thought he was being generous. Among the Rabbis, some explicitly taught that a man could be forgiven three times, but no more. Peter had more than doubled the grace of the Pharisees! But the grace of Christ extends far more. Seventy times seven! Which is to say, however many times the sinner sins against us, we must forgive him. Indeed, if we did not, no family or organization could stay together. Is there a child that has only offended his parents seven times? Or is there a husband or wife who needs only to be forgiven three times?

    Daily forgiveness means daily confession of our sins. It means daily repentance. The Christian life is a life of repeated repentance and renewal. We will always be sinners in this life and will always need to be renewed in our faith and repentance.


    The essence of perseverance is daily repentance for our sins and trust in the grace of God to save us. Our Lord's instruction connects our perseverance with our helping other Christians to persevere, for that is part of what it means to forgive others. Jesus instructed the disciples to rebuke those who sinned against them not so that they could humiliate the person, but so that they could help reclaim the sinner from sin. To admonish a sinning brother is to seek a lost sheep (Mt. 18:12-15).

    When someone sins against us, we are to seek to be reconciled with that person in private. For brothers to be reconciled is so important, Jesus instructed us to leave our gifts before the altar and be reconciled to our brother first, and then make offering unto God (Mt. 5:23-24). If our brother will not listen to us, we are to bring one or more friends with us to deal with the problem. Again, the purpose is the reconciliation of brothers and the healing of the body of Christ (Mt. 18:16). In a difficult case, we may have to take it to the elders and argue matters at length (Mt. 18:17). If someone refuses to repent, even when confronted with the authority of the Church, then he is to be expelled. Even in this extreme case, however, the purpose is still that the sinner may be brought to the realization of his sin and repent (cf. 2 Thess. 3:10-15).

    As sinners who trust in the grace of God for our salvation, we can only delight in the repentance of other sinners. Preaching the Gospel to the lost is all about leading men to repentance. Taking communion weekly and renewing our covenant with God is also about repentance and faith.

    Repentance for sin, however, never means concentrating on sin. We repent of our sins in order to put them behind us, in order to forget them so that we can go on in the work of the Gospel. We cannot go on working together with others if we cannot forgive them, nor can we have God's blessing if we cherish our sins more than His kingdom. The prayer for forgiveness aims at the kingdom. We pervert the meaning of our Lord's prayer if we turn it into a prayer that focuses on sin and aims at humiliating the sinner. The Lord's Supper, too, involves repentance, but it is primarily a celebration of Christ's victory. As in the Lord's Prayer, in His Supper, we are confessing our faith in Him and renewing our oath to seek His kingdom.

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