What did Jesus mean when he said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?” Will we not be forgiven if we don’t forgive? And for that matter, why do translations have “debts” when we pray “trespasses”? This message is the first of two parts on forgiveness – why we do forgive and how we do it.
From time to time, we see an actor on TV or in a movie say, “I can never forgive that!” From time to time, we hear a friend or acquaintance say the same thing. Perhaps we have said it ourselves: This thing is so heinous and hurtful, so intentional, it does not deserve to be forgiven – can’t be forgiven!
When people say that kind of thing, it is clear that they feel justified in not forgiving. They feel righteous. But Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We’ll go into that in just a moment but, before we do, I just want to point out that Jesus’s wisdom diverges from the wisdom of television writers, friends, and family on this issue. Jesus teaches his people forgiveness while society at large teaches its people resentment. Who do you think is wiser?
This message is for all of us who pray the Lord’s prayer. More specifically, it is for all of us who know that we need mercy. And it is for all of us who have been wronged and injured – whether last week or years ago – and whose lives have been damaged by that wrong. That surely includes each of us.
Years ago, a woman came to me for pastoral advice. She had done something she knew was wrong and had sensed that her self-destructive behavior was somehow rooted in the sexual assault she had suffered as an adolescent. Here’s the thing: she was around 70 at the time.
For nearly six decades, her life had been dominated by the sin committed against her. It had affected her relationship with her husband, her kids, with men, with God. She was wounded and had not experienced the healing available to her. One step in that healing – and there are others – would have been to forgive.
But does Jesus really want this disciple of his to forgive her assailant? Yes. Perhaps you don’t believe that. Perhaps you don’t believe it is even possible for a person to forgive something like that. But that is because you do not understand forgiveness in the way Jesus understands it. We will look at that more closely next week.
This dear woman was hardly the only person in our church family whose life has been harmed by unforgiveness or whose unforgiveness has manifested in disruptive behavior. You have suffered offenses just as real as hers and, in some cases, just as hurtful. Some of us have been conformed to the image of our injury rather than to the image of Christ. Instead of Christ being our life, as he intends, our injury has become our life—God help us. (He has.)
We have all been wronged. We have all been hurt. But let’s not forget that we have all done wrong and we have all caused hurt. We have sinned, and we have been sinned against. Some of the people we have sinned against sit at our dining room table, and some sit around us in this room. And some of the people who have sinned against us are those same people. God knows that we will be shaped to the image of our injury unless we are forgiven, and we forgive.
I suspect that a principal reasons for the church’s ineffectiveness in our day (and at other times in history) is that Christians don’t forgive each other as Jesus taught us to do. God will not – cannot – bless or even condone our unforgiveness. We become human storage units filled with anger, evil thoughts, and resentments. Mistrust abounds. We can’t work together. The church is incapacitated. This principal difference between Jesus’s people and others, which should shine like a beacon in the darkness, has been shut off—and we’re the ones who pulled the switch.
Unforgiveness is an obstacle to what God wants to do in our lives and church. Unforgiveness dams up the current of God’s love in our midst. We must not allow that to continue. If you are a genuine disciple of Jesus and think that you cannot forgive, you are mistaken. You can forgive; it is possible (though I don’t say it is easy).
We have a lot to get into, and we should begin with what Jesus actually said. When we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we often use a word that is not actually in the prayer. Jesus gave two version of this same prayer, one to the crowds on the mountainside in Matthew 6 and one to his disciples in Luke 11. In Matthew 6, he told people (literal translations now) to “…pray thusly … forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In Luke 11, he said, “When you pray, say …forgive us our sins for we also forgive all who owe us.”
If Jesus used the words “debts,” “debtors,” and “sins,” how did we end up with “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer? Trespasses slips into the prayer from verses 14 and 15, which form Jesus’s own explanation of the request. But in the actual text of the prayer, Jesus uses the word “debts.” It could be translated, “cancel our debts.”
What is he talking about – “cancel our debts,” “forgive us what we owe”? What debts? I pay cash on the barrelhead. I’ve had a credit card now for about twenty years and have never paid a cent of interest. What is Jesus talking about – “Forgive us what we owe”? I don’t owe anyone anything.
Or do I? Do I owe my wife something? I think I do. Do I owe my parents something – the people who brought me into the world (they didn’t have to), fed me, clothed me, educated me, worried over me, provided me with a thousand things to keep me alive and well? What about my church family, who has loved me, forgiven me, encouraged me, and made it financially possible for me to serve Christ in the way I do?
And what about my God? He is the life-giver. He made me. He knew me while I was still in my mother’s womb. He gave me gifts to use so that I could do good in this world. He gave me family, sons and daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. He gave me a world suited to my existence, a mind, sensations, feelings. He gave me a conscience. He gave me a Savior and gave me his Spirit.
To say, “I don’t owe anyone anything” is to utter as great a falsehood as has ever been spoken. I have lived my entire life by the mercy and pity and gifts of others – most of all God. “It is because of the Lord’s great compassion that we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:22).
Unless you see this truth for yourself – and we have been diabolically brainwashed not to see it and will only see it by the work of the Holy Spirit – you will never be as free and joyful as God intends you to be. You are alive only by the pity of God; you are under obligation to the God who through Christ made you and redeemed you; you are obligated not only to God but to myriads of people for the life you have and the benefits you have experienced. Only those who own this truth can pray, “Forgive us our debts” with any sense of urgency or receive that forgiveness with any sense of gratitude.
Unless you grasp this truth for yourself, you will only pray for forgiveness when you have done (or fear getting caught doing) something that is clearly wrong. The rest of the time, you will think that there is no sin for which you need forgiveness or – in the way Jesus put it – no debt that you owe. Me? I don’t own anyone anything.
In the Bible, sin is conceived in different ways. Early on, it was conceived as a burden one carries. Sin was not thought of as an abstract concept but a real thing, an evil thing, which weighs us down and causes us and others trouble. St. Paul spoke of it as “sin living in me,” which sounds like some scary science fiction movie. St. Peter, sticking to the image of sin as a burden or weight wrote, “He himself bore” – he carried – “our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). He took the burden that was crushing us and that we could not carry.
Later in the Old Testament, and throughout the New, sin is described as a debt. When we sin, we withhold what we owe – our lives, our love, our goodwill – from God and others. We act as if we owe nothing to anyone except ourselves. We think of ourselves as “self-made men” and women – which is ridiculous on so many levels – the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul. And thus, like Adam, we defraud God and people. Humanity lives (and dies) in Adam’s sin and the result is a world that bears a crushing weight of isolation, anger, mistrust, and malice. It is not the world God made; it’s the world we’ve made.
If that is what sin is like, what is the forgiveness of sin like? J.D. Greear explains that forgiving “somebody means that you are agreeing to absorb the cost of the injustice of what they’ve done. Imagine,” he says, “you stole my car and … wrecked it, and you don’t have insurance and/or the money to pay for it. What are my choices? …I could haul you before a judge and request a court-mandated payment plan. …
“But I have another choice. I could forgive you …. What am I choosing to do if I say, “I forgive you”? I’m choosing to absorb the cost of your wrong. I’ll have to pay the price of having the car fixed.” (Or bear the burden of not having it fixed.)
He goes on to say: “You have no debt to pay—not because there was nothing to pay, but because I paid it all. Not only that, I’m choosing to absorb the pain of your treatment of me. … I’m choosing to give you friendship and acceptance even though you deserve the opposite.
“This is always how forgiveness works. It comes at a cost. If you forgive someone, you bear the cost rather than insisting that the wrongdoer does. And that is what Jesus, the Mighty God, was doing when he came to earth and lived as a man and died a criminal’s death on a wooden cross.
Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts” – cancel them – “as we also forgive our debtors.” It is about this line of the prayer – and only this line – that Jesus adds an explanatory note. These are verses 14 and 15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
I can think of no verse that has received the old theological brush-off more often that verse 15. We assume that Jesus didn’t mean what we hear him saying – we have no place for this in our theological system! But if you have to choose between your theological system and Jesus’s own words, you’d do well to choose Jesus’s words. If we don’t understand them, let’s admit it, but let’s not write them off as meaningless. Jesus meant something by them, and we’d better take them seriously.
I think that people brush this off because they hear Jesus saying that people merit forgiveness by forgiving others in a sort of quid pro quo arrangement. But Jesus says nothing here about meriting forgiveness—or meriting anything. We do not merit forgiveness by forgiving. It is not a matter of cause and effect.
A millennium ago, people believed that having lice was good for one’s health. They based that on the observation that people who didn’t have lice – and in the Middle Ages everyone had lice – usually got sick. But the real reason was that lice are extremely sensitive to a host’s body temperature. Before a person realized he had a fever, the lice had already left in search of another host. The absence of lice did not cause the sickness but resulted from it.
When we hear Jesus’s words and conclude that God won’t forgive us because we won’t forgive, we are making a similar kind of error to the one our ancestors made. Our lack of forgiveness does not cause God not to forgive; it indicates that we are not in a forgivable state. A person who refuses to forgive others has not seen nor repented of his or her own sin – and as such is not forgiven. People who don’t forgive are people who think they don’t need forgiveness.
But sometimes it is not that we refuse to forgive; it is that we assume that forgiveness is not possible. Why even think about something that can never happen? How many marriages have ended in divorce and resentment because Christians assumed that forgiveness was impossible? How many siblings have endured lifelong separation for the same reason? How many churches have been ruptured because Jesus’s own people did not believe him when he spoke about forgiveness? But forgiveness can happen. It does happen.
It is possible to enter and live in the mercy of God. It can envelop us, and we can begin to bring others into it. Relationships can be healed. Forgiveness can be extended and received. Every sin and trespass and unmet obligation – from sibling unkindness to marital unfaithfulness to murder – can be forgiven. Jesus’s people are able to do that. The life, energy, and drive that enabled Jesus to forgive the people who were killing him is in you if you are his. If you are not his, forgiveness will remain out of your reach; but if you are, forgiveness is possible.
I’ve known Christians to forgive the person who sexually abused them. And Christians who have forgiven the spouse who was unfaithful to them. And forgiven a fellow Christian who damaged their reputation through lies and rumors. And forgiven a family member who cheated them out of their inheritance. And on and on.
Randy Frazee stopped in at a church member’s business and saw a picture of the man and his wife prominently displayed on his office wall. He said, “Nice picture.” But when he turned to the man, he saw that his eyes were welling up with tears, so he asked him what was wrong.
This was the man’s answer. “There was a time in our marriage when I was unfaithful to my wife, and she found out about it. She was so deeply hurt and injured she was going to leave me and take the kids with her. I was overwhelmed at the mistake I had made, and I shut the affair down. I went to my wife in total brokenness. Knowing I did not deserve for her to answer in the affirmative, I asked her to forgive me. And she forgave me.
“This picture was taken shortly after that. When I see this picture, I see a woman who forgave me. I see a woman who was willing to stand with me … So, when you see this picture you say, ‘Nice picture.’ But when I see this picture, I see my life given back to me again.”
That woman – injured to the core of her being – was able to forgive her husband. She bore the weight of his sin, absorbed the price of his infidelity, and gave him back his life, their marriage, and their kids. Christ makes that possible.
When 16-year-old Shannon Ethridge was on her way to school one morning, she hit and killed a woman named Marjorie Jarstfar, who was riding her bicycle along a country road. The guilt and shame ate Shannon alive. She was on the verge of committing suicide three or four times. The person who saved her from that was Marjorie’s husband Gary.
He forgave her. He asked that all charges against her be dropped. He bore the cost that she should have paid. He simply asked that Shannon follow in his wife’s godly footsteps. He told her, “You can’t let this ruin your life. God wants to strengthen you through this. In fact, I am passing Marjorie’s legacy on to you.”
Many such stories can be found in the history of Jesus’s people, and in the history of our church. They may be less common now because even Christians have bought into the societal narrative of resentment and revenge, but they still happen. Forgiveness – both receiving it and extending it – is possible. It is possible for you in your situation.
If you belong to Christ but don’t believe that you can forgive, you are almost certainly thinking that forgiveness is something it is not. You can forgive; God will help. We will explore how that happens next week.
 J. D. Greear, Searching For Christmas (The Good Book Company, 2020), p. 52-53
 Randy Frazee, from sermon preached 6-24-01, “Uncommon Confessions”