The topic is prayer…well, for this post it’s forgiveness, but for the overall series, we are asking and answering the question “How should I pray?” by closely examining the Lord’s prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-13. If you need a refresher on this study, click HERE for a summary. Otherwise, let us continue the study on prayer by looking at the next verse in the Lord’s Prayer which focuses on the all-important and ever difficult topic of forgiveness.
The goal: By the end of this lesson, we should have the answer to three difficult questions concerning forgiveness.
The Lord’s Prayer
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
What debt do Christians owe?
Meaning: Do Christians need to ask God to forgive them once they have been saved by Jesus Christ?
The situation: Debt is obviously being used metaphorically. It’s not referring to money or material possessions that people owe God. Rather, the true debt that humanity owes God is the debt caused by sin in our lives. Humans owe God their very life because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Something has to die because of sin (Hebrews 9:22). As sinners, then, we owe God a debt.
But what about Christians? Surely my debt has been paid by Jesus Christ (e.g. 1 Peter 2:24; Romans 6:23)! After all, boiled down to its simplest purpose, Christianity is about forgiveness. It is about reconciling a sinful human soul to a gracious, but also holy and just, God. Asking Jesus to forgive you of your sins is how you became a Christian; it is how I became a Christian. There are passages such as Hebrews 10:12, which teach that Jesus was offered as one sacrifice for our sins forever. And again just a few verses later in Hebrews 10:14, which says that by the offering of Jesus, those who are sanctified (i.e. Christians) are perfected forever.
Scripture also teaches that we have an advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1), who is our constant defender. It makes clear that no matter what we do, Christ has paid for it and we are, therefore, pardoned from the guilt associated with any sin we might commit. As such, it is truth to state that all sins – past, present, and future – are forgiven for those who have trusted Jesus Christ as the savior from their sins. Christ has conquered sin once and for all in the life of a Christian. If the debt of humanity is sin, and the gift of God through Jesus Christ is forgiveness of sin…then surely all Christians are debt-free!
This is our premise, then: if we have professed faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, then our salvation is not what needs fixed. As such, instead of worrying about the status of our salvation, the real subject of our requests for forgiveness should center instead on the condition of our relationship with God; which from time to time needs to be cleansed and corrected.
Don’t take my word for it, listen to the words of Jesus in John 13:1-11… (Read picture below, click to zoom)
I hope you read the passage above thoroughly and also followed the story. In it, Jesus washes His disciple’s feet—an effort to teach service among other things—but in doing so, Jesus introduces some pretty deep theology. Here, Jesus emphasizes the need for all people to be washed by Him, which is a clear illustration of, and reference to, salvation. However, when Peter realizes that He must be washed to be with Jesus, Peter asks to be washed more thoroughly. Interestingly, Jesus tells Peter that once a person is washed (i.e. saved), then they do not need such a thorough washing, they simply need the dirt cleaned off their feet.
In a time of sandals and dusty roads, the literal walk of life made regular feet washing a necessity. For Christians, though, it is the figurative dirt from the walk of life that we need cleansed of. We don’t need to be completely re-washed (i.e. re-saved—as if we could; cf. Hebrews 6:1-6), but we do need to restore our fellowship with God by removing the sins from our life. The debt we have, then, is to restore our fellowship with God, by asking for forgiveness as sin creeps into our lives. Once we become a child of God, we shouldn’t live like we are children of Satan (cf. 1 John 3:1-10, Romans 6:1-2). So our debt is really a debt to live as God would have us to live.
To further this point, in Romans 13:8-10 the Bible specifically says that the debt a Christian owes is a debt to love. In fact, over and over in the New Testament, the overarching command is to love God and love others (seriously, it’s in there at least 17 times). So, in what way does love fulfill our debt? Because “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).
Get it? If we love God and love others, we’ll live a holy life, thereby fulfilling the law. Our debt is to love God, love others, and walk in the purity of that love. 1st Corinthians 6:19-20 goes so far as to say that God actually purchased us on the cross when it says we were “bought with a price.” Our bodies are not our own, therefore we owe God a life of purity. BUT!!!! When we fail to walk in love, when we mess up and sin (which we all do daily), then we need forgiveness. We need the dirt to be washed off our feet. We need God to “forgive us of our debts.” Our debt is a failure to walk in biblical love of God and love of others, and when we fail, we sin, and therefore need forgiveness. We need our relationship cleaned up so that we might resume walking in purity, like the children of God that we are.
If you’ve never known Jesus Christ as your savior, then the previous explanation does not apply to you, and you need the initial forgiveness of Jesus. You need to be saved from your sins, to have your sins “washed” away from you completely, as only He can. For a complete understanding of salvation, see the “Your Birth” section in THIS article.
But for people who have already professed faith in Jesus Christ, ask yourself if there are areas in your life that need cleaned up. Are their things in your life that are coming between you and God? If so, it’s time to confess them to God and get rid of them (1 John 1:9).
Answer 1: We owe a debt to love God, and love works no ill. Walk in love for God and love for others as biblically defined, and when you mess up, ask God for forgiveness.
What does forgiveness have to do with prayer?
But what’s the big deal? I mean, if I’m saved, then does it really matter how “clean” my relationship with God is? To answer this question, we could have a discussion about how a truly changed heart produces a truly changed walk (cf. Matthew 7:16, 20; 12:33; Luke 6:44; Romans 5:19–6:13; 1 John 2:29; 3:4-7; James 2:14-26; etc.), and that is certainly a valid course of study on this topic. But we’ll go a different route today because often times, theoretical studies don’t pack the same punch as practical lessons…(Read picture below, click to zoom)
That might not be where you thought the story was going, but hopefully you understand how absurd and brash a situation like this would be? To trash another person’s property and then have the audacity to ask them for money…any sensible person should be able to see how ridiculous that would be. And yet, have you ever considered how our prayers to God might seem when there is sin in our life? Think about it, all of creation is owned by Him, including you. 1st Corinthians 6:20 says, that you are to “…glorify God in your body, and in your spirit…” Why? Because, it says that both ARE God’s. He owns a Christian’s body and soul. Therefore, when we sin, we defile God’s property. If we would not have the audacity to ask a property owner for money after wrecking their yard…how do we feel about asking the owner of all creation for something while were in the middle of trashing what is His? We’re pretty brash, aren’t we?
So the natural next question is this: would you expect the property owner to give the vandal money? I wouldn’t. But wait a minute…do you expect God to answer your prayers? We usually do, don’t we? This leads to yet another question…if I have sin in my life, will God answer my prayer?
Disclaimer: Before I answer that question, let me say this, I believe 1st John 1:9 teaches that there is one prayer God will always answer, and that is the prayer of a sinner who asks for forgiveness. A sincere prayer for forgiveness will always be heard. Therefore, the following section is a discussion on all other types of prayer, but it is NOT referring to prayers that seek forgiveness.
With that understanding out of the way, what about our other prayers? What about if I have a friend or family member dying of a disease and I want them to be healed? What if I am unemployed, and I pray day and night for a job to be provided? Whatever your situation, you should ask yourself, if there is sin in my life, will God here my prayer?
I don’t want my previous illustration to stand alone in answering our question, because we could probably make up a story to lead to any answer that we wanted to. The story of the property owner and the vandal was simply meant to shine a light on our audacity. But now, I want to prove the truth and the effects of our audacity through scripture.
To begin with, in John chapter nine, we come across a story of Jesus healing a blind man. After the healing, the Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees in this instance) are determined to disprove the miracle. They ask the man for testimony, then refuse to believe his testimony (9:15-18). Next they summon his parents, who confirmed that the man had been born blind, but refused to answer how the man had been healed because they were afraid (9:19-23). The Pharisees then summon the man back and he declares that he’s already answered them, which causes a discourteous discourse between the man and the Pharisees. Eventually, the origin of Jesus’ power is brought into questioned. The Pharisees say that Jesus is a sinner, but the man argues that this is unlikely because Jesus is doing mighty works. To this point, the man states “…God heareth not sinners…” (9:31). In fact, he says, “but if any man be a worshiper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth.”
Now, we could argue whether or not this portion of scripture is recording doctrine or simply recording the statements of a man, but we don’t need to, because I won’t lean all of the weight of our discussion on this one passage. In fact, that’s why I introduced it first. I think it is a very telling verse, but the evidence only grows stronger from here.
Staying in the Gospel of John, John 15:7 says, “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” I do want to add a disclaimer to this verse. It isn’t saying we can ask for anything we want. It’s not an open invitation to request sports cars and mansions from God. See PART 3 of this study for that particular discussion. However, what this verse does show is that abiding in Christ, or continuing in Him, or walking with Him (however you want to phrase it), is a contingent ingredient to having our prayers answered. The Greek word for “abide” is meno (men’-o) and can be translated: to endure, to stay in, to remain in, to continue in, etc. The point of the verse is this, if you are walking with God, God hears your prayers. If we are not, then this verse leads me to believe, God does not hear us.
Think about that for a moment. If we are not walking with God, God might not hear our prayers. I hope you are beginning to see the relevance and importance of forgiveness when it comes to prayer; but let’s get even more scriptural support. Next, James 5:16b says, “…The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
Notice it does not say “the sporadic prayer of a proud sinner avails much.” No, it’s the fervent prayer of a righteous man. The first part of this, the fervency/frequency of our prayers, we have already covered in the “Therefore Pray” section of PART 1. So, we already understand that God expects prayer as part of a relationship with Him.
The second part, however, is that the prayers of a righteous man (person) will avail. This is key in our discussion. Does God hear your prayers if there is sin in your life? Does the property owner (of all things that exist) hear the vandal? The answer seems pretty clear—NO! He does not.
This is a portion I find so important, because I wonder how many times I have poured my heart out to God, and become frustrated with Him for not answering my prayers, when all along it was my fault that God did not hear me. I was nothing more than a vandal, who approached the owner of the property I had just destroyed, and asked Him for a favor. According to the verses we have just read, only a person who is walking right with God has a right to expect their prayers to be answered; not someone who is in willing rebellion to God.
So here’s the point…I emphasized the word “willing” in the sentence above, because let’s be real—we might complain that it isn’t fair for God to not hear us when have sinned, but it’s not as if God doesn’t give us a path to be heard. When we mess up, we need to do what question #1 of this post talked about—we need to ask for forgiveness. And know this, when we ask for forgiveness, God always forgives us (1 John 1:9). So if your prayers aren’t being answered, ask yourself if there is sin in your life. If there is, then it’s time for the vandal to tell the property owner he is sorry. Ask for forgiveness before you ask for a favor.
Is that really that unreasonable? I would expect it of a human; why shouldn’t God expect it? I mean, imagine our scenario again. Imagine that the man gets out of the truck and audaciously asks you for money with zero intentions of reconciling with you. If a person treated me that way, I would think they were a pretty poor caliber human being. So, is that how we should treat God? If we would think the vandal is foolish for asking for help before reconciling, then why would we ask God for help when we have sin in our lives? We have a debt to Him—we have sin. And yet, we foolishly come to God as ungrateful beggars.
Please realize, I’m not trying to put anyone down. I’m a sinner just like anyone else. This lesson is in the Bible for me, too. I’m actually quite troubled about the times that someone needed my prayer and I was too selfish to get rid of my sin before I talked to God. What if they really needed my prayers, but my sin prevented me from being heard? According to scripture, I was not heard, so they were not helped (at least not due to my prayers). I was a foolish vandal asking God for gas money while parked on His lawn. Are you a vandal asking for money? If so, it’s time to ask for forgiveness that your prayers may be heard.
I think the point has been made Biblically, but just in case you need or want more…
- Proverbs 15:29, “The Lord is far from the wicked: but he heareth the prayer of the righteous.”
- Proverbs 28:9, “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination.”
- Psalm 66:18, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”
- 1 John 3:22, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.”
- 1 Peter 3:12, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil” (cf. 3:7).
- 1 Timothy 2:8, “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.”
- Daniel 10:12, “Then said he unto me, Fear not, Daniel: for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words.”
Answer 2: Forgiveness has everything to do with prayer, because without asking for forgiveness from our sins, God might not hear us. We ask and we receive because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight (1 John 3:22).
Do we need to forgive others?
The final portion of verse 12 in Matthew 6 (The Lord’s Prayer) turns the attention away from the forgiveness that we should ask for, and focuses on the forgiveness that we should give. So, it says, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
In our prayers, God has an expectation for us to not only ask for forgiveness, but also to emulate the God who so willingly, graciously, and faithfully forgives us (1 John 1:9; John 3:16; Romans 10:9). In other words, we are to follow His example. If God forgives us, then who are we to withhold forgiveness from someone else?
In fact, this is exactly the lesson in Matthew 18:21-35…(Read picture below, click to zoom)
Seventy times seven does not mean, “forgive people 490 times, but not a single time more.” Rather, when Peter presents the already generous number of seven (seriously, have you forgiven anyone seven times for something?), Jesus multiplies it. His point is this: we are not to put a certain number on our forgiveness. There is no limit on forgiveness! How often do we forgive? As often as it is required…and it is always required.
The rest of the story is even more relevant to our discussion. In it we see a lord of a kingdom who is collecting the money owed to him, and a certain servant owes a whole lot of money. I’m not going to calculate the exchange rate here, but one thousand talents could not reasonably have been paid back by a common man. So, for the servant, it was a debt that could never be repaid…just like our sin debt. However, the lord of the land is moved with compassion and offers grace instead of judgment…just like God does for us when we accept Christ.
So the portion of the story that relates to us is, what do we do with the freedom that comes from having our debt forgiven? Do you emulate your king who paid for and forgave the debt that you could never have repaid? In light of such generosity from your king, do you forgive the relatively minuscule debts that others owe us? Remember, I’m not talking about money here, I’m talking about offenses. If we are called to love God and love others, then actions that violate Biblical love are an accumulation of debt. When people sin against you, they are violating the biblical precept to love you. They are in your debt. So, do you forgive them, as your king forgave you? Or do you harbor a grudge? Do you resent the people who have wronged you? Do you despise them?
Listen, I’m not saying that if someone steals your wallet, then you need to trust them to also hold your wife’s purse. This isn’t about trust, this is about forgiveness. The Bible doesn’t ask us to be walked on, and certainly doesn’t tell us to walk through life as foolish stewards (e.g 1 Thess. 4:11-12; Gen. 2:15). We are to be wise with the things we do, so we should certainly be cautious around people who have shown a propensity to sin in certain areas. If for nothing else, we don’t want to tempt them. So forgiveness is not about trust. It’s about removing hate from our heart, and loving others as God loves us (1 John 4:7-21); this is forgiveness. We MUST forgive, because if we don’t, then scripture is clear about our status – “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
A heart that cannot forgive is evidence of a heart that has not truly been changed (cf. 1 John 2:9-11; 3:11-16, etc.). It’s that simple.
This teaching doesn’t stand alone in scripture.
Colossians 3:13 says, “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”
God is our example. We were the greater debtors. Can we not forgive the lesser debts owed to us?
Coincidentally, I’m going to close this portion of our study on the Lord’s Prayer with the verses that come after His Prayer. Matthew 6:14-15 says, “14For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Failure to forgive is evidence of a heart that has not been changed, and it is sin. When Jesus taught us to pray like Him, He did not treat our forgiveness as an option or as something we should struggle with. No—in Jesus’ prayer, the forgiveness of a Christian is introduced as a given act of obedience. It’s introduced as something a true Christian will do. Jesus said for us to pray, “Father, forgive us, as we forgive others” (paraphrase). Forgiving others is a given; it’s assumed. It’s something we must do if we want the forgiveness that we seek.
Do you have people in your life that you need to forgive? Is it a failure to forgive that is the sin keeping your prayers from being heard? Are there people in your life who desperately need your prayers, but your prayers are falling on deaf ears, because your sin is debt that MUST be forgiven before our prayers can ever hope to be effective before God? Before you do anything else today, pray for forgiveness for anything in your life that is standing between you and God. If your sin is a failure to forgive your fellow man, then it’s time to forgive them. Let’s get our hearts right with God, that when we lift up our prayers to Him, we can be confident that He hears us.
To Be Continued…
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