One day, a man who hadn’t been in church for a while attended one. He walked in just as the congregation was confessing, using the words of this old prayer: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” He smiled and thought to himself, “Good! Sounds like my kind of crowd.”
That is indeed our type of crowd. We need to be honest about the type of people that we are. I can relate to what Martin Luther said: “We are in the land of debts; we are up to our ears in sin.”
The past couple of years, I’ve been able to spend a couple of weeks a year learning from one of the best preachers of the last century. He was named as one of the ten best preachers in America. On top of that he’s one of the most godly people I’ve met. Last year, he mentioned that he’s developing a greater sympathy for sinners. The reason? Because he knows himself. He said to us, ” If you knew me like I knew me you wouldn’t sit here and talk to me.” Of course the opposite is true too. If he knew us and what was in our hearts, he wouldn’t be talking to us either. He told us, “I believe in depravity.”
The longer we live, the harder it is to deny sin. This is especially true as we get to know ourselves better. We come today knowing that we have all fallen short of the glory of God.
Our sin has a way of keeping us from God. Whenever there is tension in any of my relationships, I have this tendency to want to avoid contact with the other person until the issue is resolved. Sin presents this issue in our relationship with God. When we sin, we know it. It leads us to want to hide from God, to cut ourselves off from him. Not exactly a bright thing to do!
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he realized that we would often come to God with dirty hands and hearts. Jesus never once approached God this way. Yet Jesus knew us well enough to know that this would be the norm in how we approached God. There might be the odd day that we come to God with nothing to confess – that we know of! – but that’s not the norm. Most of the time, when we come to God, we’ll have the issue of sin staring us right in the face.
So that leads to the question. How do we pray about our sin? Given that we are up to our ears in sin, as Luther said, how do we handle this issue? Denial and avoidance aren’t options. Jesus gives us another option for how to deal with our sins in our prayers. It’s found in the prayer that we’ve been looking at, the prayer that Jesus gave us as a model for all of our prayers.
Let’s read the prayer together and then focus on the area that has to do with our sins.
Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not to temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
The first part of this prayer deals with God – His character and His agenda. We’re now in the second half. Last week we looked at the request for God to provide all our needs, to rely on him daily to provide: “Give us today our daily bread.”
Today, we’re going to look at the next phrase, dealing with our sins. It says, “And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.”
There’s also a postscript to this petition. It’s the only comment that Jesus expands upon, perhaps anticipating that we would have questions about it. In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus says, “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
So here is how Jesus says to pray about our sins:
1. Request forgiveness
Every time we pray, if we model our prayers after this one, we pray, “Forgive us our debts.” The same prayer in Luke says, “Forgive us our sins.”
This phrase is one reason why many people refuse to call this The Lord’s Prayer. They say – correctly – “Jesus could never have prayed this prayer. He never sinned and never needed to ask for forgiveness. He knew us well enough, though, and he assumed – correctly! – that we would need to ask for forgiveness regularly.
God is not surprised by our sins. We’re probably more surprised by God about our sins sometimes. This isn’t to say that God doesn’t take our sins seriously. He does! The difference is that He isn’t surprised by them, and that he has made provision for them.
In some religions, every single action carries eternal and unbreakable consequences. In Judaism and Christianity, human actions matter deeply – but forgiveness is possible. Through the love of God, it can become actual. The Bible teaches us that God has taken care of our sins and extends perfect forgiveness to us through Jesus. Psalm 103 says:
The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will He harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
This is taught all over Scripture. We’ve received this forgiveness through Christ. Ephesians 1:7-8 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the richness of God’s grace that he lavished on us.”
There are really two parts of God’s forgiveness. The first type of forgiveness happens when we come to God in repentance and receive his forgiveness for all of our sins – past, present, and future. It’s the type of forgiveness that Peter preached about in Acts 3:19, when he said, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out…”
If you’ve responded to Christ in repentance and become His follower, you have experienced this type of forgiveness. All the sins you’ve committed, and even the sins you haven’t done yet, are already covered. This is the initial experience of forgiveness.
This isn’t the type of forgiveness Jesus says to pray for in this prayer. Besides the initial experience of forgiveness, there is the day-to-day relationship that we have with God that needs to be restored on a regular basis. It’s not that we’ve fallen out of our relationship with God. Our sins have still been forgiven, and God still calls us His children. But the sins that we commit daily do affect our relationship with God. Jesus teaches us to respond by coming regularly to God and praying, “Forgive us our sins.”
It’s like any human relationship that you have. When you hurt the other person, it’s not as if you’ve fallen out of relationship with them. You’re still married or you’re still friends or parents or whatever. But you have to deal with the issue, and when you’re wrong, you go to them and ask for forgiveness.
When we’ve wronged someone, it’s human nature to avoid them rather than to go and apologize. When we sin, the most natural thing to do is to hide from God rather than to go to him and ask for forgiveness. Jesus reminds us that there is no need to do so. We can go to him as often as we need to, without fear or reluctance, and ask for forgiveness. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
If that’s not enough, Jesus gave us a picture of how willing God is to forgive. It’s the picture of God as the father of the prodigal, the story he told in Luke 15. We all know the story of the prodigal son. What we sometimes miss is that the story could really be called the story of the running father. You’ll remember what happened when the son returned: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him.”
It’s no big deal to see a man run today. In Jesus’ day, the more respected you were, the less likely you were to even walk fast. Walking fast showed a lack of dignity. For a man of respect to run would be just as shocking as if I got up to preach in a bathing suit. It would be a total loss of dignity.
We have a running Father – one who shocks us with his willingness to forgive us. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins.”
But that’s not all. Jesus tells us something else about how to pray about our sins:
2. Extend forgiveness to others
Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Luke’s version says, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4). Jesus anticipated that we would have questions about this, so he added a postscript to the prayer in Matthew: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
This is shocking. It is here that the Lord’s Prayer is the most difficult to pray. Augustine called this the terrible petition. We are asking God here to restore our relationship, to put everything right between us, to the extend that we also forgive others. If we forgive others, Jesus says, God will also forgive us. If we don’t forgive others, God will not forgive us.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author of Treasure Island, used to pray this prayer with his family everyday. One day, in the middle of this prayer, he got up from his knees and left the room. His wife ran after him thinking that he was sick. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Are you sick?” “No,” he answered, “but I am not fit to pray the Lord’s Prayer today.” He took this seriously, and we should to. We can’t ask for God’s forgiveness unless we are willing to forgive those who have wronged us.
Let’s break this down a little. In Matthew, Jesus talks about “debts”. We usually think of this as referring to offenses or sins against us. It certainly includes this, but the early church believed that it refers to financial debts too. So if someone owes you money and hasn’t repaid you, Jesus says to offer before God to forgive them. The same goes for sins or offenses, according to Luke’s version. It applies whether we’re talking about money owed or some other offense.
At this point, I know that all kinds of objections come to mind. Why should I forgive someone who hasn’t asked for forgiveness? Why should God withhold forgiveness from me if I don’t forgive someone else? And most importantly, how do we forgive?
I want to briefly answer these, but let me start by saying that forgiveness isn’t about pretending that something didn’t happen. It’s not forgetting. It doesn’t gloss over an injustice or say that what happened was okay. It doesn’t even mean that there aren’t consequences for the wrong that has been done. Here’s what it means: It means that we don’t hold a grudge. It means that we don’t cherish bitterness or harbor a desire to harm them. Forgiveness is an inside job. It frees us from responding in kind, from continuing the cycle of bitterness, hatred, and retribution.
One if the questions that comes to mind is, “Why should I forgive someone who hasn’t asked for forgiveness?” Put a different way, it’s, “Why can’t I stay bitter against somebody until they ask me to stop being bitter?” There are times when the person who has wronged you dies, or never acknowledges the wrong. There are a few answers. One is that Jesus tells us that God’s forgiveness is related to our willingness to forgive others. The other reason is that we shouldn’t want that type of bitterness poisoning our souls. Forgiveness says, “What that person did is wrong, and I won’t gloss over it, but I will also refuse to be held captive by bitterness and resentment.” Lewis Smedes said, “We must begin to forgive, because without forgiving, we choke off our own joy; we kill our own soul.”
Another question is, “Doesn’t this turn me into a doormat?” Actually, the opposite is true. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you tolerate being wronged again. You can set up very clear boundaries, and yet still forgive what a person has done in the past. Forgiveness isn’t for wimps. Only a brave person can forgive. It takes a strong person. It takes someone who will say, “I won’t let sin have the final word. I’m going to throw a monkey wrench into the normal cycle of retribution and vengeance.” It’s a refusal to stay a victim.
Another question: Why would God make his forgiveness related to my willingness to forgive? What’s the deal with that? It is a bit of a surprise, and there are really a lot of ways you could answer. The bottom line is that it would be blasphemy to go to a holy God and ask forgiveness for our sins, and then, as unholy people, refuse to forgive those who have wronged us. If God who is perfect gives us forgiveness, who are we to withhold forgiveness to others?
It’s not that God’s forgiveness is conditional on our willingness to forgive. It is that our willingness to forgive is a statement of loyalty, a statement that we are not just going to claim the blessing of forgiveness but live it too. One man (N.T. Wright) says that forgiveness is like air. We can only inhale it once we’ve exhaled. We can inhale God’s forgiveness only when we exhale that same forgiveness on others.
Can’t God override my failure in this area, like he does in every other area? I don’t know about saying that God can’t, but it at least appears that he won’t. Our obedience in this area is crucial in our relationship with God.
The story that we read earlier this morning from Matthew 18 illustrates why this is so important, and also gives us a hint on how to forgive. You’ll remember that the one servant was forgiven ten thousand talents. There are all kinds of guesses on how much that would be worth today. Estimates vary wildly, but it is a number into the billions of dollars. It is an amount that would be impossible to repay. Amazingly, this man is forgiven this huge sum of money that he could never repay himself. This is a picture of how much God has forgiven us: he has freely forgiven a huge debt caused by our sins that we could never hope to repay.
This forgiven man goes out, and faces an opportunity to forgive himself. Someone owes him a hundred silver coins (denarii). We’re not talking about billions of dollars here, we’re talking about thousands, under ten thousand dollars. This man who’s been forgiven billions of dollars then turns around and refuses to forgive just a few thousand dollars. Not only does he refuse to forgive, but he chokes the man and puts him in jail – a harsher judgment than he himself would have faced if he hadn’t been forgiven the billions.
As a result, the man’s forgiveness is cancelled, and he is thrown in jail to be tortured. Jesus concludes, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
I did a bit of math and figured out the proportion of what the two amounts were that needed to be forgiven. The ratio of the first debt to the second is 600,000 to 1. The servant who was forgiven a huge debt could not bring himself to forgive a debt that was miniscule by comparison.
I did a bit of calculating this week and figured out that the distance between the earth and the moon is about 385,000 km. Let that represent the amount that God has forgiven us. He has forgiven us a debt that represents the distance from here to the moon.
If we use the same ratios as the story that Jesus told, then what we are being asked to forgive to each other is the distance from here to Eglinton. It’s nothing. It’s 0.6 km. Compared to God, who’s covered the distance from the earth to the moon, we’re asked to go just down the road. Jesus says, if you can’t be bothered to cover that distance, there’s really no evidence that you’ve grasped the magnitude of the forgiveness that God has offered you.
This really gives us a hint on how to forgive as well. It still isn’t quick or easy, and it still is a process. The key to forgiveness is to stop focusing on what others have done to us, and to focus instead on what Jesus has done for us. It’s to focus on how much God has forgiven you rather than on how much you are forgiving others. Every time you forgive someone else, you pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful God has already given you.
Don’t forget that Augustine called this the terrible petition. But it’s also a liberating one. I long for nothing more than for all of us to experience the liberation of being forgiven, and then the double liberation of being set free from the bitterness against others who have wronged us.
Pray about your sins by asking for forgiveness, and extending forgiveness to others.
Charlene is going to come up and lead us in a time of prayer on this theme.