The Lord's Prayer
Forgive Us (Mt. 6:12)
by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith
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
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
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
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