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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

forgive us as we forgive others

I suppose that the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”—or, as put another way, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—has made liars out of more people than any other line in human history. But don’t blame Jesus for that. We should mean what we say if we choose to pray the Lord’s Prayer. And Jesus did not say we had a choice; He said, “This, then, is how you should pray.”

Jesus regarded this as the most important petition in His prayer. “Forgive us our debts” is obviously a plea for forgiveness from God. But then comes the following line (or possibly the big lie): “as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This petition is both a plea for forgiveness and a claim that we have already forgiven those who hurt us. In Luke’s version of the account, Jesus says, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4). There the verb forgive is in the present tense; when we pray in that manner, we are claiming that we are forgiving everyone.

We should mean what we say if we choose to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

I have prayed that this teaching will make a difference in the lives of those who read it. That means I have prayed for you. I have a suspicion that there are many reading this book who do not necessarily need this teaching—and there are some who need it desperately. I don’t want you to have pseudoguilt about this issue. I don’t want to cause anyone to feel condemned or threatened. But if you can take this word and apply it, I believe this teaching can make a difference in your life.

When you pray this petition, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” you are asking God to forgive all of your sins. The word translated “debt,” or “trespasses,” comes from a Greek word that simply means “what is owed.” It is used interchangeably with the word sins. Just after the prayer is finished, Jesus goes on to say, “If you forgive men when they sin against you . . . ” Jesus intended the meaning of sin when He said the word debt. It means “what is owed to God,” and because you owe Him pure obedience, falling short of that means you are indebted to Him. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask Him to wipe that debt from our records.

When you pray, “Forgive us our debts,” or “Forgive us our trespasses,” you are asking God to let you off the hook. To “forgive” comes from a Greek word that means “to let be” or “to send away.” For example, “to let be” would mean that God would not do anything to punish you; He would just let you stay as you are and wipe away what you owe. “To send away” means that your sins would be cast away from you and you would not be liable for them; instead of your having to pay, God just lets the debt go.

Walking in the light means following without compromise anything God shows you to do.

This line, however, is not a prayer for salvation. It is not what we call the “sinner’s prayer,” which is summed up in the words “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” and is essentially the way a person comes to Christ. (See Luke 18:13.) If we pleaded for salvation on the basis that we had already forgiven others, then our salvation would be conditional; we would deserve it if we had forgiven others and not deserve it if we hadn’t. That is, it would be as if, once we had forgiven everyone, God would say, “OK, now I will save you.” But then we could only maintain our salvation as long as we continued forgiving everyone. If we ever stopped, then we would lose our salvation. So if the Lord’s Prayer were a prayer for the non-Christian to pray, it would be a prayer for a conditional salvation—based on good works.

On the contrary, these words constitute a prayer that only a believer—one who can truly call God “Father”—can pray.

R. T. Kendall, Total Forgiveness: When Everything in You Wants to Hold a Grudge, Point a Finger, and Remember the Pain - God Wants You to Lay It All aside (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2010).

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