"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 KJV).
The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer seems simple enough, but simple things can sometimes be very deep. Everyone agrees that this is a difficult word from the Lord. It is hard to understand and even harder to apply. Our basic problem is quite simple: It appears that the Lord has drawn something into this prayer that does not belong there. We would understand this petition perfectly if it read, “Forgive us our debts,” and just stopped right there. That would make sense. We all understand that we need to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. We know that confession and repentance are part of what prayer is all about. What makes this prayer so frustrating is that Jesus seems to drag in something that doesn’t belong when he adds the phrase “as we forgive our debtors.” At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any necessary connection between the first part of the petition and the second part.
Grace or Works?
It seems as if Jesus is saying, “The way you treat other people is the way God will treat you.” On one level that thought is puzzling; on another it is profoundly disquieting. On still another level it appears to present a major theological difficulty. Not long ago I was invited to appear before our high school youth group for an event called “Stump the Pastor.” The teenagers were asked to write their questions ahead of time—and they were encouraged to be both creative and obscure. Several of the students excelled in the latter category by asking things like “Who or what was Ziv?” and “Who is listed as the seventh-to-the-last ancestor of Joseph?” But one question dealt with this very petition. It went something like this: “Why does Jesus say that we should pray to be forgiven as we forgive others? Why would Almighty God tie himself to what we do on earth?” I think that’s a very good question.
Because it is difficult, let me state my conclusion at the very beginning of this sermon. This verse means exactly what it says. The teaching of this verse can be given in one simple sentence: Unless you forgive, God will not forgive you. I repeat, this verse means exactly what it says. There is nothing hidden here; there is nothing tricky here. Jesus is saying that unless you forgive, you will not be forgiven.
Signing Your Own “Death-Warrant”
Augustine called this text “a terrible petition.” He pointed out that if you pray these words while harboring an unforgiving spirit, you are actually asking God not to forgive you. Ponder that for a moment. If you pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” while refusing to forgive those who have wronged you, this prayer which is meant to be a blessing becomes a self-inflicted curse. In that case you are really saying, “O God, since I have not forgiven my brother, please do not forgive me.” That is why Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great English preacher, said that if you pray the Lord’s Prayer with an unforgiving spirit, you have virtually signed your own “death-warrant.”
During one period of his life, John Wesley was a missionary in the American colonies—primarily in the area that would become the state of Georgia. There was a general by the name of Oglethorpe with whom Wesley had some dealings. General Oglethorpe was a great military leader, but he had a reputation as a harsh and brutal man. One day he said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” To which Wesley replied, “Then, sir, I hope you never sin.”
A few days ago I received an e-mail from a man who has wrestled at length with the issue of forgiveness in his own life. Looking back on his own life, he discovered a powerful connection between forgiveness and being set free from a debilitating addiction:
Your sermon reminded me that forgiveness is an act of the will, a choice that I make each time someone hurts me. That choice also has nothing to do with my “feelings,” whether or not I want to forgive, or “feel like” forgiving. Most alcoholics/addicts have a very hard time with this and it has been proven in hundreds of clinical tests that most of us with this problem have resentment at the core of our drinking. A case in point, when I joined AA I discovered I had a fierce resentment against my ex-wife. As my sponsor used to say, “Boy, she’s livin’ rent free in your head.”
One of the other pearls that he cast before this swine was that: “Having a resentment is like drinking poison and praying for the other guy to die.” The logic of that stupidity finally rang home with me. I guess prior to that the cheese had slipped off my cracker, but good.
The great danger was that if I did not forgive her, I could not be released from this prison and might drink again. Christ ordered us to do this. “If you keep my commands, you are my disciples. Then you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” This promise is conditional and doesn’t apply to me if I don’t keep his commands. Period.
Solution: I was told to pray for her every day and every time during every day that I thought of her for 90 days and to report to him every day what I had learned from this exercise. I discovered that somewhere between the 30th and 60th days, the resentment left me and for the most part has been gone ever since. When I think of her now, it’s mostly in gratitude for the good years and kids we had together and to remember how my own irresponsibility in drinking led to the demise of that relationship. Those were my own bad choices.
Since then, the Lord has restored what the locusts had eaten and then some. When the ugly specter of previous resentment returns, I have to pray for her again. Works every time … even though sometimes I have to pray for the willingness to be willing.
The Key Word
When we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we are asking God to forgive our sins according to the same standard we have used in forgiving the sins of others. There are 11 words in the text, but only one of them is important for our purposes. It’s the little word “as.” Everything hangs on the meaning of that word. “As” is the conjunction that joins the first half of the petition with the second half. When Jesus says “as,” he is setting up a comparison between the way we forgive and the way God forgives us. This text says that we set the standard and then God follows the standard. We establish the pattern and then God follows that pattern in the way he deals with us. When you pray this prayer you are really saying, “O God, deal with me as I deal with other people. Deal with me as I have dealt with others.” We are virtually saying, “O God, I’ve got a neighbor and I did some favors for my neighbor and my neighbor is ungrateful to me for all I have done. I am angry with my neighbor and I will not forgive him for his ingratitude. Now deal with me as I have dealt with my neighbor.” It’s as if we’re praying, “O God, that man hurt me. I am so angry I can’t wait to get even. Deal with me as I have dealt with him.” We set the standard and God follows our lead.
Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven. To refuse to forgive someone else and then to ask God for forgiveness is a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. You are asking God to give you what you are unwilling to give to someone else. The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer tells us you cannot have it both ways. Do you want to be forgiven? You must forgive others.
A Serious Word to the Unforgiving
But does the Bible really teach that God’s forgiveness of us is somehow linked to our forgiveness of others? Yes, indeed it does. Let’s go back to the words of Jesus. The fifth petition is in verse 12. Now drop down two verses. The Lord’s Prayer is over but Jesus is still speaking.
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (6:14-15).
I call one crucial fact to your attention: Jesus has just given us the Lord’s Prayer and the only part that he singles out for additional commentary is the fifth petition. All the others he leaves alone. I believe he offered further commentary because he knew that we would feel uncomfortable with this part of the Lord’s Prayer. He knew that we would try to wiggle out from under it. That is why in verses 14-15 he spells it out so clearly that no one can doubt it.
An “Unforgiven” Christian
As strange as it may sound, there is such a thing as an “unforgiven” Christian. This is not a statement about ultimate destinies. To be “unforgiven” in this sense means that the channel of God’s grace is blocked from the human side. In particular, it means that you have chosen to hang on to your bitterness and to forfeit your daily walk with the Lord. You would rather be angry than joyful. You have chosen resentment over peace. Your grudges have become more important to you than the daily blessing of God. You would rather live with the “hidden torturers” than experience the freedom of forgiveness. If you are a Christian—a genuine believer in Jesus Christ—unless you forgive you will not be forgiven. Why? Because God has already forgiven your sins 100% by the blood of Jesus Christ. How dare you, then, be unforgiving to someone who hurt you? That’s really the issue. How dare you be unforgiving after what Jesus Christ did for you on the cross?
What happens when we refuse to forgive? Here are ten consequences of an unforgiving spirit. (I compiled this list using material from R. T. Kendall, Waylon Moore, and Calvary missionary Bob Leland.)
1. Our fellowship with the Father is blocked.
2. The Holy Spirit is grieved.
3. Your prayers will not be answered.
4. God leaves you alone to face the problems of life in your own power.
5. The devil gains a foothold through your bitterness.
6. You force God to become your enemy.
7. You lose the blessing of God on your life.
8. You waste time nursing a wounded spirit.
9. You become enslaved to the people you hate.
10. You become like the people you refuse to forgive.
Our real problem at this point is not theological. Our real problem is personal. We don’t see ourselves as very great sinners; therefore, we do not appreciate how greatly God has forgiven us. But when your own sins seem small, the sins of others against you will seem big indeed. The reverse is also true. The greater you see the depth of your sin before God, the less the sins of other people against you will bother you. If you think you’re not much of a sinner, then the offenses of other people are going to appear in your eyes as big. Don’t talk about repentance unless you are willing to forgive your brothers and sisters. Unless you are willing to forgive, your repentance is just so much hot air and empty talk. True repentance always starts with a change of mind that leads to a change of heart that leads to a change (in this case) in the way we view those who have sinned against us.
How do we know when we have truly forgiven? What does forgiveness look like? The answer will vary depending on the person involved and what they did to you. Here are a few helpful guidelines (taken partly from Kendall and also from a list by the Puritan author Thomas Watson, as supplied by Waylon Moore):
1. Face what they did and forgive them anyway.
2. Don’t keep bringing it up to them.
3. Don’t talk about it to others.
4. Show mercy instead of judgment.
5. Refuse to speak evil of others.
6. Choose not to dwell on it.
7. Pray for them.
8. Ask God to bless them.
9. Do not rejoice at their calamities.
10. Help them when you can.
In giving this list, I do not mean to imply that we must do all ten things every time before we can say we have truly forgiven another person. The presence or absence of repentance plays a role as well. We would do well to take this list and dwell on it, think about it, pray over it, and ask ourselves some hard questions.
Needed: A Serious Moral Inventory
Jesus is telling us that there is a vital link between the way you treat other people and the way God in heaven is going to treat you. Let’s face it. We don’t like that. On one level we tend to think it would be good if we could hate someone for what they did to us and still have the blessings of God, still be filled with the Spirit, still walk in joy every day, still radiate the love of Jesus, and still have our prayers answered. We’d much prefer if we could just have our relationship with God insulated and encapsulated so we could treat other people any way we like. Jesus says, “No deal. You can’t have it that way.” Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven. This is a hard word, isn’t it? But it is a hard word of grace. Many of us desperately need to take a searching moral inventory and ask ourselves some serious questions:
Am I up to date on my forgiving?
Am I holding a grudge against anyone?
Do I harbor any bitterness against any person?
Am I talking too much about what others have done to me?
Have I forgiven those closest to me who have hurt me so deeply?
Someone says, “But I can’t forgive.” No, don’t ever say that. The word “can’t” is a cop-out. The issue is deeper than that. You won’t forgive. Don’t make excuses and don’t play games. If you are a true Christian, a genuine believer in Jesus Christ, if your sins have been washed away, then you can forgive. What God has done for you, you can do for others. There may be some people who won’t forgive. As long as you won’t forgive you’re better off if you never pray the Lord’s Prayer because unless you forgive you will not be forgiven.
And in all of this we have the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who when he was crucified—the innocent for the guilty—the just for the unjust—the righteous for the unrighteous—Jesus, who was murdered at the hands of wicked men, as he hung on the cross cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
A Place To Begin
Let’s wrap up this sermon with three simple statements of application.
1. You are never closer to the grace of Jesus Christ than when you confess your sins to him.
Are you laboring under a burden of guilt because of foolish things you have said or done? A sense of your own sin is a sign of God’s grace at work in your heart. When you cry out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” you will find that the Father will not turn you away.
2. You are never more like Jesus than when you forgive those who have sinned against you.
Do you want to be like Jesus? Become a great forgiver. Jesus was a forgiving Man. He came to create a race of forgiving men and women.
3. You will never fully enter into your freedom in Christ until you learn the freedom of forgiveness.
The two freedoms go together. As long as you hold on to your resentments, you are still chained to the past. You only hurt yourself. By refusing to forgive, you block off the channel of God’s blessing in your life. Although there is freedom in Christ, the unforgiving Christian knows nothing about it. He is still in bondage to the remembered hurts from the past. Until those chains are broken by a decisive act of forgiveness, he will remain a slave to the past.
I have said several times that this is a hard word and indeed it is. But it is also a cleansing word that cuts through all our flimsy excuses and leads us to a fountain of grace where we can be healed, made whole, and restored to a right relationship with our Creator. Our God freely forgave us while we were his enemies. Can we not do for others what he has done for us?
The word of the Lord remains. Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven.
Father in heaven, we thank you for the cleansing Word of God that cuts through all of our flimsy excuses. We praise you because that same Word of God is also able to make us whole and right in your eyes. O God, may we not fight against your work in us. Help us to become great forgivers that we ourselves might be forgiven, cleansed, and strengthened to walk closely with you this week. We ask it in the name of Jesus who made our forgiveness possible, Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.