Matthew 6:12,14-15

Matthew 6:12,14-15

12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.


The world yearns for forgiveness.  It is one of the fundamental needs of human beings.  John Stott recounts having a conversation with the head of a large mental hospital in England who told him, “I could dismiss half my patients tomorrow if they could be assured of forgiveness.”[1]  Perhaps that is so.

We want forgiveness, but we do not know what to do once we find it.  Some people simply cannot bring themselves to believe that they can be forgiven.  God offers it, but they refuse to believe that they can actually have it.  Other people have become so bound up with justice and the law that their hard, cold hearts do not even know how to process forgiveness:  the giving of it or the receiving of it.  I think here, for instance, of the legalistic Javert’s utter confusion and despair in Les Miserables when Jean Valjean, the man he has hunted for all those years, shows Javert mercy, refusing to kill him when he had the chance.  Javert’s suicide song, sung just before he hurls himself into the Seine, is a case study of a man who does not know how to receive forgiveness.  Even though he should be grateful, it throws his world into such disarray that he can no longer live.

Who is this man?

What sort of devil is he

To have me caught in a trap

And choose to let me go free?

It was his hour at last

To put a seal on my fate

Wipe out the past

And wash me clean off the slate!

All it would take

Was a flick of his knife.

Vengeance was his

And he gave me back my life!

Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!

Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.

I am the Law and the Law is not mocked

I’ll spit his pity right back in his face

There is nothing on earth that we share

It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man

To hold dominion over me?

This desperate man whom I have hunted

He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.

I should have perished by his hand

It was his right.

It was my right to die as well

Instead I live… but live in hell.

And my thoughts fly apart

Can this man be believed?

Shall his sins be forgiven?

Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,

Who never doubted all these years?

My heart is stone and still it trembles

The world I have known is lost in shadow.

Is he from heaven or from hell?

And does he know

That granting me my life today

This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching, but I fall

And the stars are black and cold

As I stare into the void

Of a world that cannot hold

I’ll escape now from the world

From the world of Jean Valjean.

There is nowhere I can turn

There is no way to go on….

Yes, human beings need forgiveness, but we do not know how to handle it.  We are not good at receiving it and we are not good at giving it.  Even so, Jesus linked both of these acts in the Lord’s Prayer, when He taught us to pray, “and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

I. Citizens of the Kingdom of God Daily Pray for and Rejoice in their King’s Forgiveness.

Let us remember that the Sermon on the Mount depicts how citizens of the Kingdom of God are to live in the world, and the Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer showing how citizens of the Kingdom of God are to pray.  The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

That is, we are to pray daily for forgiveness.  It is interesting to note that this prayer immediately follows the prayer for daily bread.  That means that all of these petitions must be daily petitions.  “Father, forgive us our debts today.”

The idea of sin as debt is fascinating indeed.  Charles Quarles has helpfully explained the Rabbinic background behind the idea.

Rabbi Akiba was fond of describing God as a great shopkeeper who kept an enormous ledger in which He carefully recorded a person’s debits (their sinful deeds) and their credits (their righteous deeds).  Akiba warned that God would send out His collectors to collect payment for the debts at the appropriate time whether or not the debtors were prepared to pay.  Akiba warned that God’s people needed to make sure they performed more good deeds than bad deeds.  These good deeds would add sufficient credits to their account and help ensure that the account was “in the black” rather than “in the red” on judgment day.[2]

What a terrifying idea, our salvation depending upon our doing more good than bad.  What a hopeless notion!  That is works-righteousness in its most horrifying form, and it leaves us in despair.  Fortunately, the good news of the gospel is that while sin is indeed debt, that debt has been paid by Christ Jesus.

Imagine owing more debt than you can possibly pay.  You earned the debt by selfishness and greed.  You bought more than you could pay for.  As a result, the authorities come to haul you to debtors’ prison.  They arrive at your door to take you in.  They ring the doorbell.  You move to open the door.  But just before you do, the Lord Jesus steps around the corner.  “I’ll get it,” He says.  He opens the door and meets your accusers.  “Yes, he is guilty,” Jesus says.  “He has taken on a great deal of debt.  But I am standing here in his place.  I will pay his debt.  I will pay all he owes.”

That is the good news of the gospel:  Christ paying our debt.  Paul put it beautifully in Colossians 2.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Jesus canceled our debt.  How?  By taking it and nailing it to the cross!  And in so doing, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame.”  Do you see?  Our creditors have no hold over us.  Our debt has been paid.  When the collectors call now, Jesus answers the phone.

This is the theological foundation for the prayer, “forgive us our debts.”  The certainty of forgiveness through Christ is what makes the prayer possible.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 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)

God is faithful.  He will always forgive.  And God is just.  He forgives on the basis of the work of Christ, who paid our debt.  So now we can pray:  forgive us our debts.

It is amazing how many people fantasize about winning the lottery or some large sum of money.  People dream of being able to wake up debt free, owing no man anything.  But the truly amazing thing is how easily we forget that Christ Jesus has offered precisely this to us.  Because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, we can wake up free men, no longer in debt.  Our sin-debt has been paid for.  We are now free!

II. Citizens of the Kingdom of God Realize They Cannot Ask for Forgiveness Unless They are Offering Forgiveness to Others.

I said earlier that human beings have trouble with these two ideas:  receiving forgiveness and giving it.  Jesus has actually caused these two ideas to hold hands in the Lord’s prayer:  “and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  Then, in verses 14 and 15, we read this:

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

How wonderful would it be if Jesus had stopped the fifth petition after the first part:  “forgive us our debts”?  What if there was a period after “forgive us our debts”?  Such a period would cause us a lot of joy because it would mean that we have Jesus’ permission to use the cross for personal gain without ever having the show the love and forgiveness of Jesus to others.  In our selfishness and in our flesh, we like that idea.  But a heart that has tasted the forgiveness of Jesus cannot then turn around refuse that forgiveness to another.  We ask for our debts to be forgiven “as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  Jesus said something similar in Matthew 5:7, when He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

The merciful receive mercy.  Those who forgive are forgiven.  It is a difficult word, but one we must understand.  To ask for forgiveness without giving it is to live as a vampire off of Christ, to use Dallas Willard’s jarring image.  To do such is to live parasitically off of Jesus, taking gifts from Him that we then selfishly hoard.

General Oglethorpe once haughtily proclaimed to John Wesley, “I never forgive!”  To which Wesley responded, “Then I hope, sir, that you never sin.”[3]  We must understand this.  There is something obscene about a forgiven man refusing, in turn, to forgive.  In Matthew 18, Jesus told a powerful story demonstrating this truth.

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

What an amazing and troubling story!  Have you ever done what the man in this story does:  receive forgiveness without offering it?  Jesus says that we will incur the anger of the Father “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”  Yes, “from your heart.”  This is not cheap, surface forgiveness.  This is heart-felt, genuine forgiveness.  It is letting go of your anger and hatred and offering to another the beautiful gift that God has offered to you.

And therein lies the answer to the question, “To what extent must I forgive?”  Here is the answer:  “To the extent that you have been forgiven.”  I assure you that this simple rule will insure that you never sin in this area:  forgive others no more or no less than the Lord Jesus has forgiven you.  That is all.  How much has Jesus forgiven you?  Forgive others that much.

Citizens of the Kingdom of God have lives forever altered by the radical forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  As such, they are freed to forgive others.  And when this happens, they are free to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

One of the most beautiful and moving depictions of forgiveness I have ever seen is found in the film “The Mission.”  If you have not watched “The Mission,” you really should.  The film is about an 18th century Jesuit missionary endeavor to reach the Guarani tribe that lived above the Iguazu Falls in South America.  A Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel, makes contact with the Indians after they kill a missionary who made an earlier effort to reach them.  Father Gabriel reaches out to the Guarani with love and forgiveness.

But the Guarani themselves have to decide whether or not to show forgiveness.  In the movie, Robert De Niro plays a slave-trader named Rodrigo Mendoza.  He is a swash-buckling, hard man who has started hunting above the falls, killing and enslaving some of the Guarani Indians that Father Gabriel and his brothers are trying to reach.  Rodrigo hunts, captures, and kidnaps the Indians of this tribe, selling them to Spanish plantations.

Early in the movie, after returning from a successful slaving expedition, Rodrigo returns to his home to find that his brother, Filipe, is having an affair with his fiance.  In a fit of rage, he kills his brother and immediately spirals into despair and hopelessness.  He is now a slave trader, a murderer, and the murderer of his own brother.  He feels lost.  He feels hopeless.  He feels beyond all hope and redemption.  Rodrigo believes he cannot be saved or forgiven.

It is at this point that Father Gabriel visits Rodrigo and offers him a path of penance.  He tells Rodrigo that there is a way he could demonstrate genuine repentance for his crimes and his sins.  Rodrigo tells Father Gabriel that he is beyond forgiveness.  Father Gabriel tells him that that is not the case.

Here is what Father Gabriel proposes, in essence, to Rodrigo:  take your armor, your swords, your weapons, and all the dressing that you wore as a slave trader.  Tie it to your back and climb the Iguazu Falls, presenting yourself to the Guarani Indians, the very Indians you have murdered and enslaved.  It is a daring proposal, and one that will mean almost certain death for Rodrigo, for surely the Indians will kill their persecutor when they see him.  But he is so broken that he agrees.

There is an exhausting and grueling scene in the movie where we see Rodrigo lugging his armor behind him, dragging it to and then up the Iguazu Falls.  He struggles.  He falls.  He gets back up.  One of the brothers, concerned that it is too much, cuts his burden loose.  Rodrigo, however, will have none of it.  His penance must be full.  He feels that he must pay for his sins.  So he goes back to his burden, reclaiming it, tying it once again to his weary shoulders.

The brothers accompanying him eventually climb the falls where they are met by the joyful Guarani.  They know these brothers as friends.  But then Rodrigo comes, pulling his burden of weapons.  They recognize him.  They recognize his cruel weapons.  They have seen him before.  He is the murderer of their children, the kidnapper of their sons and daughters, the slave trader who has sinned against them.  And here he comes, lugging his sins in tow.

The Indians see him and stand in confused anger.  One of the young Indians grabs a knife and runs to the now collapsed Rodrigo.  He grabs his hair, holding his head up, then places the knife to the neck of their persecutor.  Rodrigo waits for certain death.  The Jesuit brothers accompanying wait to see what will happen.  The young Indian yells at him menacingly.  Then he pauses, surveying the situation.  He speaks in his tongue to the leader of the tribe who speaks back.

Then the young Indian makes his move, but instead of cutting the throat of Rodrigo, he moves behind him and cuts the rope holding his burden instead.  He severs the rope, then pushes the tied bundle of armor and swords and weapons to the side of the cliff and then over the edge.

Rodrigo is stunned.  He cannot believe it.  He looks in disbelief at the young Indian, then at those around him.  Then he begins to cry.  He weeps.  He has been shown mercy.  He has been shown forgiveness.  He has been shown grace by the very people he persecuted.

The Indians are amused at seeing this powerful man weep.  So they laugh.  The Jesuits surround Rodrigo, laughing and embracing him as he weeps.  The Indians surround him too, laughing and pulling at his strange beard.  And then Rodrigo laughs.  He laughs with tears streaming down his face.

The Guarani were shown forgiveness by the Jesuits.  The slave trader is shown forgiveness by the Guarani.  It is grace, brothers and sisters.  It is a picture of heaven.

How often we carry our sins behind us, lugging our shame and our crimes.  We present ourselves before our judge, guilty and broken.  We expect death.  We deserve death.  But our great King does not give us death.  Our great King gives us forgiveness, life, redemption, salvation.  He cuts the burden loose from us.  He sets us free.

But how He cuts it loose from us is telling indeed!  He cuts it loose from us with His own hands, then He ties it to His own back.  He carries my sin.  He carries my shame.  He carries my crimes.  He takes them onto His back.  He takes them onto His shoulder.  He carries them, my sins, to the cross.  And there He pays the price for them, obliterating them in one great and shocking act of sacrifice.  He sets me free, and I can scarce believe it.

And now I am free to forgive!  I can share in this work of Christ by forgiving those who have wronged me.  I can show Jesus to people in how I forgive, in how I let go.

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”



[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1972), p.195.

[2] Charles Quarles, The Sermon on the Mount. NAC Studies in Bible & Theology. Vol. 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p.209.

[3] R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.189.


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