“Forgive us our debts…”
Bishop Ryle’s book, Holiness was first published in last quarter of the
nineteenth century, reprinted in 1956 and has remained in print ever since.
Surprisingly, it opens with a chapter on sin. The opening sentence has always
struck me as an example of how to ensure that a book will never be read: “He that
wishes to attain to right views about Christian holiness, must begin by examining the vast
and solemn subject of sin. He must dig down very low if he would build high.
A mistake here is most mischievous. Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to
wrong views about human corruption. I make no apology for beginning this volume of
papers about holiness by making some plain statements about sin.”
He was, and remains right, of course. Sin is the crucial issue in any consideration of
the Christian life. Go wrong here, and everything else bends out of shape. Entertain
light views of sin and light views of holiness will be the result. To take sin less
seriously than the Bible takes it is to fall into one of sin’s most treasured
qualities: deceitfulness (c.f. Heb 3:13). That’s why the church is taken up
with all sorts of things other than a consideration of sin. The issue of today is
self-worth, not self-condemnation. One popular TV preacher has caught the mood of the age
by his oft-repeated slogan, “Don’t tell people they are sinners; it destroys
their self-esteem.” Karl Menniger encapsulated the mood in a book he wrote in
1973, entitled “Whatever Became of Sin?“
There is something inherently negative about sin. Its what sin is ѕ a want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of Godѕ to cite the Shorter Catechism. There is the story of a little boy
who was being quizzed by his father on the sermon that had just been preached. “What
did the preacher preach about?” the boy was asked. “Sin!” came the reply.
“And what about it?” continued the father. “He was against it!” the
boy said. It is interesting that Paul puts it this way, too. “the grace of
God…,” he tells us, “teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness”
(Tit 2:12). In fact, the Bible has many terms for sin, each one a picture word: sin
is law-breaking, deviation, coming short, rebellion, pollution and missing the target.
David, for example, seemed to ransack the Hebrew dictionary top find ways of expressing
what he had done in his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the judicial murder of her
husband, Uriah, that followed it. In the great psalm of repentance that is David’s
expression of grief in having hurt God in his behaviour he puts it this way:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your
great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my
sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are
proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother
These five verses struggle to keep with the richness of the Hebrew vocabulary, but they
contain no less than nine key words, three about sin, three about the nature of God and
three about forgiveness. The word “sin” translates a Hebrew word which basically
conveys the idea of failing to hit the target or of coming short. The word
“iniquity” goes deeper. It has the idea of fault of character lying behind
the fault of conduct. It is a distorting, a bending out of shape. The third word,
transgression,” is stronger still, having the idea of a willful rebellion, of knowing
that a thing is wrong but doing it nevertheless. This is not a sin of ignorance, but what
the Puritans might have called “high-handed” sin. Three words reveal how God
deals with sin: “blot out…wash away…cleanse.” These words convey
the deep-seated character of sin and express the idea that sin essentially separates us
from God. Finally, three words about forgiveness: “mercy…unfailing love and
compassion.” The vocabulary of grace is equally rich. “Mercy”
signals the unmerited aspect of forgiveness, “unfailing love” is perhaps the
richest word in the entire Bible, enriched by covenant-theology that speaks of God’s
commitment to do as he promises, no matter what, and “compassion,” a reminder
that at the very heart of God lies a love that is not detached and cerebral, but
passionate and flowing.
“Forgive us our sins” the fifth petition asks (Luke 11:4), or, as the
Lord’s Prayer seems to have been given at least twice in Jesus’ ministry, in the
more familiar rendering of Matthew’s account: “Forgive us our debts”
Sin is an on-going concern of the Christian life. Forgiven sinners are not done
with sin forever, ѕ not yet! Sin is a debt we owe
to God! Some wag once said that in a capitalist society such as ours, sin is best thought
of in terms of a debt! We have failed to give to God what we owe: whole-hearted,
unswerving obedience. Every failure to perform renders us culpable. In the words of
Cranmer’s Prayer Book: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have
The Bible motivates obedience by reminding us of our indebtedness: there is an ought
that must be fulfilled, an obligation that must be met.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we
ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”
“Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated
to obey the whole law.” (Galatians 5:3).
Some Christians balk at this. They suggest that because we are sons of God there is no
obligation. In fact, obligation creates entirely the wrong impression of God. We are to
relate to him as children do their earthly fathers. It is a relationship of trust and
love, they suggest. True, but this implies that obligation and love are mutually
contradictory, which they are not. I love my wife, but does that mean I am not obligated
to love her? I love my children, but does that mean that they are not obligated
to me? Of course not!
Sin, then, is a failure to meet our obligations.
The first lesson that emerges from the fifth petition is that Jesus takes sin
seriously. Anselm, medieval theologian and scholar, wrote a treatise on the necessity for
Christ to become incarnate in order for him to be our Redeemerѕ
the book was called Cur Deus Homo, Why Did God become Man? In it, he portrays
a somewhat dense character, suitably called Bozo, who cannot follow his reasoning.
Exasperated, someone tells Bozo: Nondum considerasti quantum ponderis sit
peccatum, “You have not yet considered the greatness of the weight of sin.”
A failure to take sin seriously leads us into all kinds of moral and spiritual
failure. Sin, after all is why Jesus came into this world. It is the reason why he had to
become a servant, ѕ a suffering servant. It is sin that
necessitated him dying on a cross of shame.
We can never take sin lightly.
Alas! And did my Saviour bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Was it for crimes that I had done,
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
A second feature appears and it is this: sin is an ongoing issue for the
Christian. What I mean by that is this: there is a sense in which sin is dealt with in our
justification. The satisfaction that Jesus offered on the cross is sufficient to cleanse
us and to render us acceptable to God. Count Zinzendorf expresses the thought in the well
known hymn, Jesus Thy blood and righteousness this way:
Bold shall I stand in that great day,
For who ought to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through Thee I am,
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.
If that is true, if our sins are truly forgiven by reason of our justification, why do
we still ask for forgiveness?
Surprising as it may sound, I am frequently asked this question. Why do I, as a
believer, ask God to forgive my sin. Do I not realize that as a believer my sins are
already forgiven? Justification is God’s judicial act whereby he pardons our
sins on account of what Jesus Christ, His Son, has done and accomplished on our behalf.
Through justification we are made right with God. Through justification we
are reckoned as possessing “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21; c.f. Rom
3:23-26). Christ, as the “last Adam” rendered covenantal obedience to the
demands of the law, where Adam, our father, failed (1 Cor 15:45). Justification is the
judgment of the Las Day brought forward into the here and now. In Zinzendorf’s
words: “Bold shall I stand in that great day…” There is no
condemnation to fear for those who are in Christ (Rom 8:1).
Why, then, do I still ask for forgiveness. Answer: because I continue to sin!
This answer, though simple in itself, has not been obvious to all, even within the
Reformed community. During the time of the Westminster Assembly, for example (the
1640’s), a view was current that maintained that God takes no notice of the sins of
the justified. Their motivation was laudable enough: to maintain what they saw as the
certainty of the believer’s standing in Christ. These Antinomians (this is what
they were called for it is what they essentially were) lost sight of two things: that
there is a difference between the law as a covenant of works (which Adam failed to
fulfill, but which Christ did) and the law as a rule of life (something Calvin, for one,
saw clearly in maintaining what became known as the “third use of the law”); and
further, the distinction between justification (whereby God acts as judge) and adoption
(whereby God acts towards us as a father). The point is that God expects us as
adopted children to obey him and is displeased (and makes known his displeasure) when we
do not. Any other view is plain silly and more importantly unbiblical. Thus the
Westminster Confession, for one, safeguards this by saying:
God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and,
although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins,
fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored
unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their
faith and repentance. (11:5).
This is a far better way of understanding the place and significance of on-going sin
than other attempts, such as that of the Dutch theologian, William а Brakel who suggested
that in justification only past and present sins are forgiven (up to the point of our
justification in time), future sins are not. Justification, therefore is an on-going act,
something which is continuously taking place. This plainly contradicts statements of
the Bible which tell us that justification takes place once and once only
(c.f. Rom 5:1; 8:30). The American theologian, W. G. T. Shedd put it this way:
The justification of a sinner is an all-comprehending act of God. All
the sins of a believer, past, present, and future, are pardoned when he is justified. The
sum-total of his sin, all of which is before the Divine eye at the instant when God
pronounces him a justified person, is blotted out or covered over by one act of God.
Consequently, there is no repetition in the Divine mind of the act of justification; as
there is no repetition of the atoning death of Christ, upon which it rests.
This is precisely what Jesus was teaching in the foot-washing incident that forms the
prelude to the chapters describing the teaching of Jesus in the Upper Room prior to His
arrest and trial. Amongst other things, John 13 describes in pictorial language the
difference between justification and sanctification. “A person who has had a
bath,” Jesus suggested, “needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.
And you are clean, though not every one of you.” (John 13:10). Ongoing
forgiveness is a bit like the way we might wash our hands and faces prior to going to bed,
having had a bath a few hours earlier.
One implication of this petition is the need we have as Christians to keep short
accounts with God. We are to pray today about today’s sins.
Letting sins pile up is a bit like what happens when in our relationships with each
other or in the family, we let the sun go down on our problems. Resentment grows,
communication gets stifled and bitterness and coldness follow in their wake. “If we
confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from
all unrighteousness” is our great comfort here (1 John 1:9).
A third feature emerges from this petition by way of a qualification: our sins are only
forgiven so long as we forgive those who may sin against us.
An expansive comment is given in Matthew’s gospel on this in the verses that
immediately follow the account of the Lord’s Prayer: “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.” (Matt
Some will find these words difficult to accept. If forgiveness is conditional
upon something we do, how can it be gracious? The answer is to distinguish justification
from sanctification once again. It is the believer, not the unbeliever, to whom Jesus
addresses these words. The bestowal of on-going grace is determined by, and
conditional upon, the evidence of a life of grace already present. Works in the Christians
life evidence grace in the heart of a believer. Without them, there is no evidence
of rebirth, no testimony to the Spirit’s presence. The parable of the Unmerciful
Servant (Matt 18:21-35) is designed to teach this very lesson. To whom much is forgiven,
much is required. The one forgiven much must be ready and willing to forgive others who
ask him for forgiveness.
But is forgiveness on our part unconditional? Should we grant forgiveness,
for example, to those who are unrepentant? This is no ivory-tower scenario.
Here’s the situation: a woman has been brutally raped. The police catch the culprit
and he is arraigned, brought to trial and convicted. There is no doubt as to his
guilt. But at the sentence, he casts an evil eye at his victim. Some would-be counselor
now encourages the victim to forgive her attacker. “You will only know true rest
until you do,” she says. Whilst this may make psychological sense, is it the
Christian thing to do? Many would insist that it is.
Now, we need to get one thing straight: if the attacker is truly sorry for his crime,
begs her to forgive him, there is no ambivalence here: however difficult it may, it is our
moral duty to forgive. We forgive because Christ has forgiven us. But that is
not the scenario we now envision. What then?
Hard as it sounds, it seems to me that the insistence upon granting forgiveness to the
unrepentant is an unbiblical thing. It focus on ourselves (our psyche in particular)
rather than upon the true condition and ultimate well-being of those who have sinned
against us. The most important thing for us to do in any situation is to seek the ultimate
salvation of sinners. This can only be done by pointing out their sins not by
ignoring them. Salvation comes at the end of a process that involves conviction of our
sinfulness and unworthiness. To hint that forgiveness may be possible without
repentance is fly in the face of the gospel way. God does not forgive without
But there is another “hard” thing here: that genuine forgiveness is more than
just saying, “I’m sorry.” We talk about apologizing., but the Bible
doesn’t use this word. Saying, “I’m sorry” without admitting
your sin is a cheap way of circumventing the Scriptures demands for honesty and integrity.
Saying “I’m sorry” and nothing else means that we are still holding
the ball. What we need to say is: “I have asked God to forgive me, and now I am
asking you to do the same.” And in that case, the believer cannot refuse. He
dare not refuse. True “closure” will only come about as that forgiveness is
Anything less is hypocrisy.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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