Even the slightest acquaintance with life, and with our own hearts, confirms the fact of sin. The Bible teaches that man is fallen. He is a sinner. He sins against other men. But above all, he is a sinner in the sight of God.
David sinned in his immorality with the wife of Uriah. We could say that he sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba. But he also sinned against God’s law and, when he comes to confess his sin, he cries out to the Lord: ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight’ (Psalm 51:4, AV; see 2 Samuel 12:13).
Genesis 3 describes the origins of man’s fall into sin. All subsequent human experience only emphasises the universal reality of man the sinner (Romans 5:12-21). Sin is at the heart of humanity’s problems.
Furthermore, it separates between men and God (Isaiah 59:2). It incurs his anger (Psalm 7:11). In the normal way of things ‘the soul who sins shall die’ (Ezekiel 18:4,20) and ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23).
Because of sin, man is open to eternal condemnation. This is the context of the fifth petition of the Lord’s prayer. In Matthew’s account it is sin as indebtedness which is in view (Matthew 6:12), whereas, in the account in Luke, it is sin as doing wrong which is in view (Luke 11:4).
Whichever way you look at it, the focus is on the necessity of forgiveness for our sins. That is the issue here. Essentially, this is the most needful thing for man before God: to be forgiven.
We cannot but cry out: ‘forgive us our debts/wrongdoings’. The reality of our sin necessitates forgiveness from the Lord if we are to be right with him. On our part this will involve on the one hand an acknowledgement of sin, and on the other hand a forsaking of it. It involves confession and repentance.
Sin as transgression
On the occasion described in Luke 11, Jesus encourages his followers to pray: ‘forgive us our sins’. The word used for sin is the common word hamartia which literally means ‘missing the mark’, or falling short of the perfect standard.
We can readily understand this in relation to our knowledge, actions and perversity. It points to sin as wrongdoing. Many words are used for sin in the New Testament, but this is the most common. It is sin in terms of failure to keep God’s law.
Sin as indebtedness
On the occasion of the Sermon on the Mount, in the form of the prayer given there, Jesus uses the unusual phrase: ‘forgive us our debts’. The word used is opheilema, which literally means ‘debt’ or ‘obligation’.
How did the idea of ‘debt’ come to be descriptive of sin? Suppose you have a bank account, but there is nothing in it. Not unusual perhaps! But you write a cheque to pay a bill. What happens?
Apart from the bank manager being irate, you are simply creating or adding to your overdraft. Consider the sinner. He has no ‘balance’ with God. All his works ‘fall short’ of his standard.
They are tainted with that which is contrary to his will or falls short of his law. And every wrong (sinful) act only adds to his ‘debt’ before God. As a person who cannot repay an overdraft faces bankruptcy and sequestration, so the sinner found ‘in debt’ to God faces condemnation unless, that is, the ‘debt’ can somehow be paid off or cancelled.
In the case of the poor sinner, that is where the gospel comes in to the picture. There is forgiveness. How? Not through human merit or works — they only add to the ‘debt’. But through the grace of God on the basis of the work of Christ as a substitute for sinners!
And so Jesus invites us to ask for forgiveness. This, of course, is not just for the unsaved. Every day the believing soul needs to come to his Saviour with such a cry on his or her lips.
Clearly we are to seek forgiveness for our sin from the Lord. This involves recognising sin as an offence before God. There will be several things involved in such a request.
We are to confess our sins before him. John says that ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ but ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9). This is because we have ‘an advocate with the Father’ who is ‘the propitiation for our sins’ (2:1).
Confession of sin is one thing. There also must be repentance for it. If we are to expect forgiveness we must have a deep and heart-felt sorrow for sin and turn from it to the Lord.
What is repentance? ‘Repentance unto life’ (says The Westminster Shorter Catechism) ‘is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience’.
Such confession and repentance are constantly demanded by the Lord’s Word (Ezra 10:1; Psalm 32:5; 51:3; Proverbs 28:13; Job 42:6; Ezekiel 14:6; 18:30; Matthew 9:13; Luke 13:3,5; Acts 2:38; 3:19).
God’s forgiveness of penitent sinners is a pattern for their forgiveness of others. It is clear from the second part of the petition that believers are also to exercise a forgiving spirit towards others: ‘as we forgive our debtors’ (Luke 11:12); ‘as we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us’ (Luke 11:4).
No doubt the connection is this: how can we expect forgiveness with the Lord if we fail to exercise such an attitude towards those who have offended us? This is certainly the main point of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21 ff.).
The master delivered the unforgiving servant to the torturers (v.34). The lesson? ‘So my heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you from his heart does not forgive his brother his trespasses’ (v.35).
What is clearly implied in the prayer is the necessity for a forgiving spirit. The believer must always be prepared to forgive an erring or offending brother. The context of the parable of the unforgiving servant indicates this.
Jesus has taught the disciples how to deal with an erring brother (Matthew 18:15-20). Peter asks: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?’ (v.21). What seems reasonable? Seven times? Jesus replies: ‘seventy times seven,’ by which we take it that he is saying: there is no limit.
Every time your brother comes for forgiveness, you are to forgive him. If you have forgiven him before for a previous offence of the same sort, that is past and this is a new situation.
You must not hold grudges. You must not drag up again past offences which have been forgiven. The failure to apply this principle is at the heart of much trouble in Christian congregations and churches.
Conditions for forgiving?
This matter of forgiving others is, however, often misunderstood. It is important to recognise that the context of forgiveness is the expression of true sorrow and grief for sin.
This is the case with our forgiveness by the Lord. He looks for confession of sin and repentance for it. Clearly, such confession and repentance must be genuine.
In relation to our forgiveness of others, Jesus states the principle as follow: ‘Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and seven times a day returns to you, saying, “I repent”, you shall forgive him’ (Luke 17:3-4).
This must always be remembered, while at the same time there must always be a willingness to forgive a penitent erring brother — over and over again. Jesus himself provides an incentive in this connection immediately following the prayer as given on the Mount.
He says: ‘if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matthew 6:14-15).
What a wonderful truth is expressed by the psalmist when he sings: ‘there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared’ (130:4, AV). As sinful people that is what we need from the Lord.
It is a cause of gladness and wonder that there is forgiveness — from all sin, through the one who cried on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them’! He was there accomplishing the basis for forgiveness for all his people.
We know, consequently, that when we go to him with the words of this petition, and with a lowly and contrite spirit, there will be forgiveness for us. And if we would follow Christ, we will surely manifest a forgiving spirit.
That will always be encouraged by the thought of the basis and reality of the forgiveness enjoyed by the believing soul through the Lord’s wondrous grace.