“And Forgive Us Our Trespasses . . .” (The Lord’s Prayer)
Today we continue our series on the Lord’s Prayer with the Fifth Petition, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” By the way, since this is the last of our Wednesday midweek services, and we’re only up to the Fifth Petition, you may be wondering how we’re going to finish out the Lord’s Prayer. Don’t worry. We’ll do the Sixth Petition, “And lead us not into temptation,” next week on Holy Thursday; the Seventh Petition, “But deliver us from evil,” on Good Friday; and the Conclusion, the “Amen,” on Easter Sunday. And so tonight, the Fifth Petition, “And Forgive Us Our Trespasses. . . .”
In some ways, this might be our favorite petition in the Lord’s Prayer. We really like the “forgive us” part. But as for the rest of it, maybe not so much. We don’t like admitting “our trespasses,” at least not when we have to get specific about them. And we really struggle with the “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But this is a prayer that our Lord Jesus would have us pray, and pray every day, so I think we do well to give this whole petition our attention, and not just to breeze by the hard parts.
“And forgive us”: That’s how the petition starts. And we really like this part. And rightly so. We rejoice that God is inviting us here to receive his forgiveness! Jesus has us pray this prayer because there is forgiveness to be had from our gracious God. This is good news! Our heavenly Father will hear our prayer for forgiveness.
What is forgiveness like? How does the Bible describe it? Well, in the Lord’s Prayer itself and in his teaching elsewhere, Jesus describes it as the cancelling of a debt. “Forgive us our debts,” he says. And in one of his parables, Jesus compares it to a master simply forgiving a huge debt that his servant owed him. That’s like it is with us and God. Every sin we commit–in thought, word or deed; in what we do wrong and in what we fail to do right–that’s like red ink going in our ledger book, on the debt side of our balance sheet. It adds up. And there’s no way we could ever pay it off. All our striving, all our struggling to straighten up and fly right–which usually doesn’t last too long anyway–all the good we think we can achieve, that will never get us out of the debt column.
Maybe you have had times in your life when you let your credit-card debt pile up. Four figures, five figures–$9,000, $10,000, $20,000–it can add up quickly. And the interest on your credit-card debt only compounds the problem. It’s an awful feeling. It’s like a black cloud hanging over your head. Now multiply that a few million times, and that’s what our debt before God is like.
So what does God do? He simply cancels our debt. He forgives it. But not by pretending it wasn’t there. No, the heavenly ledger books must be balanced. The debt must be paid, all of it. And so what God has done is to send his Son to pay the debt for us. This was a costly pay-off, very dear indeed. God’s own Son, our sinless Savior, Jesus Christ, took all of that accumulated debt, the sins of all people who have ever lived–a mountain of debt that reaches up to the heavens–and Jesus paid the full price for all of humanity. His holy precious blood, of indescribable value, of infinite worth–Jesus shed his blood for us on the cross of Calvary, and he cried out, “It is finished!” Tetelestai! The debt is paid in full!
That’s what forgiveness is like. It’s the cancelling of a debt, not holding someone’s sins against them. That’s what God does for us, for Christ’s sake. And here in this petition, Jesus would have us pray to the Father for that forgiveness whenever we’re aware of our sins. “Sins,” “debts” “trespasses”–the Bible uses different terms to describe our disobedience, each with its own nuance of meaning. “Trespasses,” for instance, brings out that when we sin we are stepping outside the bounds of God’s commands. But whether we call them sins or debts or trespasses, the key point is that we need forgiveness for them. And that God freely gives us for the sake of his Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.
So this is the part we like, the fact that God forgives us. Now we come to the hard parts. And first of all, that is that we actually admit and confess “our trespasses.” We don’t like to admit that. At least not in the specific. Oh, we may confess generally that we are “poor, miserable sinners”–as long as we move quickly past that and don’t stop and think about how we have sinned. But the truth is, poor miserable sinners do poor miserable sins. The thing to do with those sins is not to gloss them over or rationalize them or excuse them. No, the thing to do is to recognize our sins, name them, and call them for what they are. Agree with God on what he says about our sins: that they are damnable offenses, deserving his temporal and eternal punishment. Repent of those sins, confess them, ask God’s forgiveness, and ask for his help to do better. That all is packed into these words, “And forgive us our trespasses.”
By the way, notice the “and.” This means that this petition is connected to the one right before it, namely, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, as often as you can pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” that’s how often you can pray “And forgive us our trespasses.” In other words, every day. Jesus here is teaching us to pray for forgiveness every day, which means that we need God’s forgiveness every day, which means that we sin against God and our neighbor every day. So that’s why Luther is right when he explains in the Catechism, “for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” How we stand in constant need of God’s forgiveness! And God provides it. This is his promise to you today. Whenever you feel your need and you sense your sins, turn to God in faith and prayer, and seek the forgiveness he surely gives you.
Now we come to what can be the really hard part for us, which is our forgiving of others. Jesus built this right into the Lord’s Prayer when he adds, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And not just in the prayer itself. Right after the prayer, Jesus re-emphasizes this: “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Likewise, in other places in the New Testament, as we heard in our readings, there is this strong emphasis on us Christians needing to forgive those who sin against us.
Why is this? Because as Christians, freely forgiven by God, we live, we have our very life, by virtue of forgiveness. How then can we deny forgiveness to others? That would be an utter betrayal of the way God operates. Christ died for those sinners, too. Shall we not forgive those whom God has forgiven? We are children of our heavenly Father. We share in his character, which is one of grace and forgiveness and mercy. To not forgive those who trespass against us would be to go against God–indeed, it would be to place ourselves over God. And that is the way of unbelief.
So Jesus emphasizes the importance of forgiving others by building this right into the Lord’s Prayer itself. It is a daily reminder of our need to do this, and thereby we call to mind anyone whom we might need to forgive at any given time. And it is also an implied prayer for help. We’re asking God for his help in order to forgive those who have sinned against us.
Do you need this help? I know I do. I feel it when people I know have hurt me, done me wrong, perhaps have criticized me unfairly. And at the same time perhaps they have also criticized me fairly, to a certain extent. I need to own that and to receive that humbly and ask for God’s forgiveness and help to do better. My whole life, and your whole life, operates in the realm of forgiveness. You and I sin, and we need God’s forgiveness. Others sin against us, and we need to forgive them. If we forget about forgiveness, the whole thing goes to pot. Any marriage, any family, any congregation–we cannot live in peace without the constant giving and receiving of forgiveness. It is so basic to everything that is good and right and true in God’s kingdom.
Friends, this is why Jesus came: To win that forgiveness for us, by his death on the cross. And to teach us the importance of forgiveness in our daily walk as his disciples, that is, in humble repentance before God and in the practice of forgiveness among ourselves. All of this, then, is included in this wonderful petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”