First and quickly the word. You may have, like myself, learned the prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses.” but I’m sure that 100% of you have Bibles that say “debts”. I had thought that the King James said trespasses, but when I looked it up, I was surprised that even the KJV says debts. Every modern English Version has “debt”, the their is not doubt that the word “debt” best expresses the version of the prayer in Matthew’s gospel. But it is a bit more complex. For the version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke uses a different word, translated “sins”.
So where did trespasses come from? It was brought into English usage through William Tyndale, who translated the first English edition of the Bible, and then distributed widely through the first Book of Common Prayer which predated the iconic. KJV by 60 years. So while the KJV was correct in translating the word “debts” a few generations of people had already memorized “trespasses” and it stuck. So are we wrong to pray “trespasses?” No.
Tyndale likely observed that Jesus immediately uses the word trespasses in Matthew 6:14 as a synonym explaining the term in 6:12, and so his translation made that connection clear. The idea is present in the passage, even if it is not the word used. In short, all three words are appropriate, so recite the prayer as you have memorized it, with confidence that you are praying as Jesus instructed.
The fact that the words are interchangeable reminds us that there are many different ways to describe what the Bible calls sin. The word trespass suggests a violation, a stepping over the bounds of God’s law. These are sins of commission - thinking, or saying or doing that which is forbidden by God’s law. Another word translated as sin suggests a missing of the mark, or a falling short of God’s standard. These are sins of omission - that we do not live up to a standard of perfection or holiness required of us by God. The word debt, however, goes beyond describing what we do, or think, or say, to describe our state before God. Because of the sinful things we do, we increase our moral indebtedness to the Holy God who created us.
Canadians know about personal financial debt. A report this winter revealed that household debt levels higher than any other country. Statistics Canada reported that the ratio of household credit-market debt to disposable income rose to 171.1 per cent last fall. We’re deficit spending. We borrow from one to pay off another. We put the balance for our loans on our credit cards and fold them into our mortgages. Many people simply feel they can never keep up or are a step from financial ruin. The word “debt” in the Lord’s prayer suggests that we are in a state of moral deficit spending. That we owe God our perfect love, our perfect allegiance, our perfect righteousness, yes we fall short, we cross that line daily. And so we say, I know I fell short today, but tomorrow I’ll make it up and do better. But tomorrow comes, and we’re no better than we were today, so we just add to that deficit. We have accumulated a debt of sin that we can never pay off. It bears down upon us, and so we do with our moral debt the same thing that some people do with our financial death, we deny it and ignore it and bury it until the collector comes and we have no choice but to face financial ruin. And the reality of life is that each of us will have to stand before God and give an account of what we have done in our life to love and glorify him, and we will all be crushed under the weight of our moral debt.
That is the prayer of “And forgive us our sins” - I recognize the weight of my sins and my need for the grace of God. This is the forgiveness offered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God has promised us that for the sake of the life of his son, he will offer to freely forgive any who come to him in repentance and faith. That through Jesus, death and resurrection, he has secured for us an eternal inheritance greater than the debt we owed. This is good news, you can be forgiven by God, completely removing the debt of your sin. This is grace greater than all of our sins. If you’re here today and you have not yet truly prayed, forgive us our trespasses, let today be a beginning of a new relationship with God in which you call upon God as a Father, and receive the salvation and forgiveness of the Lord.
When we sincerely turn to the Lord by a simple act of faith alone, he has promised to forgive forever the entire debt of our sin. We are released from that burden forever. Yet we still are taught to pray daily, “forgive us our debts” and are instructed to confess our sins to the Lord. If all our debts are paid in the cross, why must we continue to pray in this way?
Here we make a distinction between the judicial penalty of our sin and the relational impact of our sin. When we come to Christ as Lord, God forgives us the debt and the guilt of all of our sins. The judicial penalty of our sin is entirely satisfied in the cross of Christ. Romans 8:31 and following declares that this state of judicial innocence before God cannot and will not ever be be overturned.
Romans 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
God has judiciously declared us innocent in Christ by a sheer act of his grace though the work of his Son. I love the picture in these verses. Let’s set up the courtroom against the elect: Will God bring a charge against us? No - he’s the judge who has already declared us righteous. Will Christ argue against us? No! He’s not here as a prosecutor against us - he’s here in our defence, advocating for us. So, if in this moral courtroom God is on our side, than who can stand against us? This is why nothing can separate us from the Lord of God. The judicial penalty of our sin is entirely satisfied in the cross of Christ.
So if that is the case, why is it appropriate for us still to pray daily, “Forgive us our sins”? Because, while our sins are all judicially forgiven when we come to Christ, the relational impact of our sin must be addressed through daily confession/repentance. While God no longer counts our sins against us in a judicial manner, there are relational consequences to our sin, as God relates to us now as a father toward his children.
When we sin as Christian, it impacts our relationship with God. We no longer walk in intimate fellowship with Him. This affects our relationship with others as well - that which binds us together with other Christians - our relationship with God - erodes and may now even be marked by shame or slander or envy. We lose the joy of our fellowship with God and others. Look at how John connects the fellowship we share with God and with one another to joy:
1John 1:3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
1John 1:5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
And so we pray “Forgive us our debts” as Christians in the understanding that there are relational consequences to our sin, and so that we may continue to walk in sweet fellowship with God and with our brothers and sisters.
This link between our intimacy with God and with our brothers and sisters stands behind the second part of the petition: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The logic of the gospel is “Freely you have been given, freely give”. Matthew 18:
Matt. 18:21 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.
Matt. 18:23 “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 [this is more than the servant could make in 3000 lifetimes. One commentary said this was more than the entire coinage of a world power like Egypt at the time]. 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 [about 3 months wages], 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.”
Be careful here, notice that we are not told, “forgive others or else I won’t forgive you” but that the logic of this parable is that once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offence against God, the things others do to us seem much less, and who once receiving grace from the Father could ever justify withholding the same sort of grace from others.
Jesus taught us that grace and reconciliation should be an ongoing part of our worship, even our communal worship. Matt 5:23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
This is part of the examination that we each should do each time we come together for worship. 1 Cor 11:28 “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Examine if there is any unconfessed sin impacting your intimacy with God or any unforgiven sin keeping us from walking in fellowship with our brothers and sisters.
So how do we do this examination?
Pray that the Holy Spirit might search your heart revealing sins to be confessed. Pray the words to Psalm 139:23 “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” As the Holy Spirit brings sins to mind, pray, “Forgive us our debts.”
Use Scripture to Examine and Reveal Sin I only gave you the first half of Luther’s book, “A Simple Way to Pray”. In the second half of the book, he shares how he prays through the ten commandments, confessing sin.
“If I have had time and opportunity to go through the Lord's Prayer, I do the same with the Ten Commandments. I take one part after another and free myself as much as possible from distractions in order to pray. I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as, first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth, a prayer.
"I am the Lord your God, etc. You shall have no other gods before me," etc. Here I earnestly consider that God expects and teaches me to trust him sincerely in all things and that it is his most earnest purpose to be my God. I must think of him in this way at the risk of losing eternal salvation. My heart must not build upon anything else or trust in any other thing, be it wealth, prestige, wisdom, might, piety, or anything else.
Second, I give thanks for his infinite compassion by which he has come to me in such a fatherly way and, unasked, unbidden, and unmerited, has offered to be my God, to care for me, and to be my comfort, guardian, help, and strength in every time of need. We poor mortals have sought so many gods and would have to seek them still if he did not enable us to hear him openly tell us in our own language that he intends to be our God. How could we ever-in all eternity-thank him enough!
Third, I confess and acknowledge my great sin and ingratitude for having so shamefully despised such sublime teachings and such a precious gift throughout my whole life, and for having fearfully provoked his wrath by countless acts of idolatry. I repent of these and ask for his grace.
Fourth, I pray and say: "O my God and Lord, help me by thy grace to learn and understand thy commandments more fully every day and to live by them in sincere confidence. Preserve my heart so that I shall never again become forgetful and ungrateful, that I may never seek after other gods or other consolation on earth or in any creature, but cling truly and solely to thee, my only God. Amen, dear Lord God and Father. Amen.”
He goes through each of the 10 Commandments, meditating on the instructions, giving thanks, confessing sin, and asking for strength.
Pray Blessings Over Those Who have Wronged You. This is how to begin praying over the second part of the petition. When someone has offended or wronged us, we generally curse them as our enemies, but Jesus teaches us a better way.
Luke 6:27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
We are to bless those who curse us. When Martin Niemoller, a German pastor, was arrested by the Nazis in World War II, he prayed daily from his prison cell for his captors. Other prisoners asked why he prayed for those who were his enemies. “Do you know anyone who needs your prayers more than your enemies?” he replied. This is the prayer of a man who even though we was sitting in a prison cell, his soul was completely freed from bondage and debt. A rich man indeed.