We Believe in… The Forgiveness of Sins
The Apostles’ Creed
This morning we look at Westminster Larger Catechism Question 194, which asks, “What do we pray for in the fifth petition?” The first part of the answer states, “In the fifth petition (which is, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors)…” Today we consider what we mean by the word “debt.”
Both Matthew and Luke record Jesus giving the instruction we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” In comparing the two accounts, it is clear that each author is speaking to a different occasion in the teaching ministry of Jesus. Matthew’s version of the prayer is from the section of Scripture we know as “The Sermon on the Mount,” which is found in chapters five through seven of his gospel. Luke writes about a time when Jesus was praying “in a certain place,” and the disciples came and asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4). Clearly this is not the same event. The fact that two gospels place the same teaching of Jesus in two entirely different occasions should not trouble us at all. Jesus’ ministry with the disciples probably lasted for three and a half years. Like any good preacher both then and now, Jesus understood the importance of repeating over and over the important points of his teaching. In other words Jesus taught His disciples “The Lord’s Prayer” on at least two, and probably more often than that, occasions.
Noticing this fact is important because by comparing and contrasting the two different accounts of the same teaching, we can better understand what Jesus is and is not saying. The most significant difference between the two accounts occurs in today’s section of the prayer. Matthew records Jesus saying “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The word Matthew uses for debt is an old word, going back at least to Aristotle (384-322 BC), and is the common word for a financial liability, where you owe someone money or wages for something they did for you. Luke, however, records a time where Jesus, giving the same instruction on prayer and using the same exact Greek phrases throughout, says, “And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” Luke uses the same word “debtors” in the second part of the verse, but the first word is not debts, but sins. Luke uses the most common word for sin in the New Testament and thus has Jesus teaching us to pray to God asking Him to forgive us our sins even as we forgive everyone who is similarly and presently in debt to us.
Now if all we had was Matthew’s account, someone could argue that Jesus was not talking about serious transgressions of the law of God but he was only speaking of slight offenses where I did not render to someone everything that I owe to them according to the law of love. In other words we could limit Jesus’ instruction on prayer to two Christians who are doing good to one another, but only imperfectly, since there is always some lack in all of our good works. The application would then be something like: “You good Christian people, when you pray ask God to forgive you your real but imperfect love to Him – that you do not fully discharge your debt to love him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength – even as you forgive your faithful and loving brothers their real but imperfect love for you – that they do not render to you everything that they owe you in love.” Such an interpretation would seriously limit our application of Jesus’ instruction to only the smallest and really inescapable faults which we all will continue to have in this life, since we cannot be perfect until we die. This limitation would tempt us to see ourselves as much better than we are, even as we allowed ourselves to not forgive all those who really sinned against us!
However, when Luke gives us the same instruction from our Lord on prayer and uses the word “sins” we can no longer take that position. Now we must conclude that what we are talking about is not simply the lack in our good works that will always be there while we remain sinners; but these are real and actual sinful acts that we do to God and that others do to us. This is how we should come to God: confessing that we are sinners against Him. Not minimizing or hiding but confessing our sins, our moral and intentional evils, which we have done against Him. Unless we come to God speaking and sincerely meaning this confession, we cannot be forgiven, but if and when we do we always will be!