The fifth request found in the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). There is so much packed into that one seemingly-simple request, that we will need to unpack its meaning and application over the course of more than one study. (So consider this as part one of a two-part study of this particular request in the Lord’s Prayer.)
Perhaps the first thing that we should learn from this request and its inclusion in the model prayer that the Lord Jesus taught us to pray is that we actually need forgiveness. If we need to ask for forgiveness, that necessarily means that we are sinners, doesn’t it? In fact, Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (KJV). How many have sinned? All. How many have therefore “come short of the glory of God”? All. Every last one of us.
And in this request our sins are referred to as “debts.” Sin puts us in debt to God. Being in debt to another person is bad enough, but being in debt to God should be a sobering thought for anyone! What every person owes to God as his or her Creator is obedience – perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience. But ever since the fall of mankind in Adam’s sin (Genesis chapter 3) we have all failed to obey God, and have transgressed his holy law in more ways and more often than we can even begin to comprehend. Our debt of sin is un-repayable by us. It makes our ever-mounting national debt seem like chump change in comparison. And so we desperately need forgiveness.
What is forgiveness? The word “forgive” in Matthew 6:12 has the idea of sending something away or removing it. It brings to mind the imagery of the “scapegoat” found in Leviticus 16:7-22. There we are told that two goats were to be used as a sin offering – one goat would be killed as a sacrifice to the Lord (v.15), while the other goat (the scapegoat), after having the sins of the people confessed over it, would be sent away into the wilderness (v.21), bearing the sins of the people far, far away, never to return.
Those two goats together picture for us the work of Jesus Christ on the cross in both making atonement for sin, and in carrying our sins far away from us. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (KJV). The reason that we can ask God for forgiveness of our sins is only because the debt of our sin has been paid in full by the only one capable of paying it – through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And forgiveness is not something that we just need to ask for from God at the beginning of the Christian life, but will continue to be an ongoing (even daily!) need in the lives of all believers. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that in this life we will never outgrow our need to continually ask God for forgiveness. (And so the Lord’s Prayer clearly rules out any idea of perfectionism!)
Praying for the forgiveness of our sins should also be a regular part of both private and corporate prayer (i.e. praying with other believers in groups as well as in public worship). After all, it does say, “forgive us our debts,” not just ‘forgive me my debts.’
I sincerely hope that you know the joy and peace that only come through the forgiveness of sins, and which is freely offered to you through faith in Jesus Christ. There is nothing else in this world that can relieve a troubled conscience like the knowledge that, in Christ, a holy God has freely forgiven all of your sins!