Matthew: True Religion, Part 3: Prayer and Forgiveness

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on July 20, 1997

Matthew 6:9-15

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Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 6 as we continue our study in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.  The last time we were together in this passage, we were looking at our Lord’s teaching, contrasting what He expected His disciples to do in prayer with that which the Pharisees were practicing.  This week, we will begin to look at the prayer itself, the prayer in which the Lord instructed His disciples,  and more importantly the principles on which this prayer was based.  And I don’t simply mean rules or forms.  I mean as Gernall meant, that principle of new life in us which is necessary for us to be able to pray as Christ calls us to pray.  That is spiritually.  Let’s attend then to the word of the living God beginning in Matthew 6, verse 9.   

      “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. ‘Give us this day our daily bread. ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. {For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.}  “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. “But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” 

      Thus ends this reading of God’s holy word.  May He add His blessing to it.  Let’s look to Him again in prayer.   

      Our Father, we come again to a passage familiar to our ears and perhaps even to our hearts.  Protect us from over familiarity and speak to us by Your word.  Enlighten our minds perhaps oh God, You would remind us of something that we already know, but perhaps have long forgotten.  Or perhaps, oh God, in Your Word this day, you would spur us on to cause our practice to match our knowledge.  Or perhaps oh Lord, you would show us something new, that we have not seen in Your Word.  However You would do it, oh God, we lay our hearts open before You and ask this day that You would revive them in our love for You and so revive them in prayer.  And we ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

      This great prayer, a prayer which we repeat so often is the model prayer which our Lord gave to His disciples, a pattern for their life and practice of prayer.  And there are many things in addition to that, that it does for us.  The first thing that we have already mentioned that it does provide for us is a pattern, a track, a railway almost as it, were for prayer.  It was not written to be simply repeated, Sunday after Sunday, or day after day, but as a classification of and categories of things about which we ought to pray, including the priority or order in which we are to pray about them.  And so the Lord in this prayer gives us a model prayer, a pattern for prayer. 

      But also in this prayer we have an outline for the whole of the Christian life.  This prayer points us to the great priorities of life.  And because it points us to the great priorities of life, its categories actually remind us as we pray about life’s priorities.  By the very rehearsing of this prayer, we ought to be rehearsing what is most important in our life.  The Lord’s kingdom come, the Lord’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, all these things are to be the priorities of our life, and the God-centeredness of this prayer ought to be directing us to God-centered living, if we are listening and if we are praying as it is meant to be listened and prayed. 

      This prayer also reminds us of a very important linkage in the Christian life.  The linkage between God’s forgiveness of us, between our forgiveness of others and our ability to be great or strong in prayer.  Those three things you see, are linked.  God’s forgiveness of you is the foundation of your becoming great in prayer.  Until you have apprehended the mercy of God in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will not be great in prayer.  Oh, there are many pagans who, in their time, have lifted up prayers, and the Lord has graciously answered those prayers.  But they will never be mighty in prayer, because to be mighty in prayer is to know the one to whom we address ourselves in a living and saving relationship.  Those who are mighty in prayer, they must know His mercy.  And because they know His mercy, they must also be people whose hearts are enlarged by that mercy.  And those things in combination, give us great power in prayer.  This prayer sets that truth before us today.  There are many things that we could learn from this prayer that we do not have time to attend in this day.  We will be doing a series on each petition of this prayer, Lord willing, in the autumn of this year, on Wednesday evenings as we are going through the Catechism, many of you know that the Catechism has a beautiful exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, and we will be taking it petition by petition on those Wednesday nights.  But today, I want to focus on three important lessons, the underlying principles that we learn from this prayer. 

I.  The character of the true person of prayer is significant in that person’s ability to pray.
      It is apparent from this prayer that the character of the true person of prayer is of major significance in that person’s ability to pray.  One’s heart, in other words, has to say a great deal about how well we do in the practice of prayer as Christians. 

      And so Jesus teaches us in this great prayer itself that we must know and manifest our adoption if we are to be great in prayer.  We must both know that we adopted by the Lord, and we must manifest that adoption, if we are to be great in prayer.  Notice the words of verse 9.  “Our Father who is in heaven.”  Notice also the words of verse 12.  “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.”  In each of those phrases and in the two verses, verses 14 and verse 15, the Lord Jesus is actually putting before us the doctrine of adoption.  I will tell you how in just a moment. 

      But let me pause and say, for some who may not be familiar with the terminology of Christian theology, the doctrine of adoption is a glorious doctrine.  It is a doctrine that says this: that God has declared as an act of His grace, that we are not only saved from our sins and justified in His sight, but we are now children of His household.  The doctrine of adoption says that the Lord God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, has not only spared us the condemnation of sin, but also as a judicial act, He has made us to be children of His household, joint heirs with Christ, so that we are now the thorough inheritors of everything that Jesus Christ is due to inherit.  You have heard Charles Wesley sing it a few moments ago,  “Now Jesus and all in Him, are mine.” Both of them, when you have Christ, you have everything else that is Christ’s, that is in Christ.  And so the Lord Jesus is teaching about this doctrine of adoption and its importance of prayer in the passage before us.  And I want you to see three ways in which the Lord Jesus emphasizes why the doctrine of adoption is important for prayer. 

      And the first one we see in the invocation of the this prayer, Our Father.  There are three parts to the prayer.  The invocation, which begins, Our Father, who is in heaven.  The second part of the prayer has to do with the petitions.  The specific things which are lifted up to the Lord, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, give us this day our daily bread.  And then there is the conclusion to the prayer, which is a doxology, Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen. 

      Those are the three parts of the prayer.  In the invocation, our Father, the Lord Jesus is already putting before your eyes, your adoption.  He is asking  you to remember that you are able to say, Abba, Father, because of God’s regeneration of your spirit and because of His blessed grace of adoption.  He is putting before you that truth. 

      At the very beginning of the prayer, He wants you to remember that you are not entering into the throne room by right, you are entering into the throne room, by privilege.  You are not entering into the throne room by nature, you are entering into the throne room by covenant.  You are not entering into the throne room merely as a creature, but you are entering into the throne room as a child of God.

      And that should remind you of the mercy of God towards you.  God has showered His mercy on you.  You deserved condemnation.  But He has given you sonship.  You deserved destruction and punishment, but He has given you blessing and He has given you the status of joint heirs with Christ.  And you must allow that to impact your prayer to God.  Those who love little, will love in return little.  Those who have not sensed the love of God in their lives, will not love God with great love.  But like the one who broke the precious vile of perfume on her Lord’s feet, those who know the greatness of the mercy and the love shown to them, will return to God that same love and gratitude in force.  And so the Lord Jesus puts before us our adoption to remind us of the greatness of God’s mercy to us. 

      And notice also in the fifth petition in verse 12, He tells us to pray, forgive us our debts, our sins, our trespasses, our iniquities, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.  Notice again here the Lord is putting before us the link between our being forgiven, and our forgiving.  He is saying, if you have been forgiven much, you ought to be one who forgives much.  If God has spared you your sins, you should have a heart which is enlarged and is able to receive wounds without returning those wounds in time.  Why?  Because God has shown you a great mercy.  Now the Lord Jesus puts it in a very provocative way.  Forgive us Lord, forgive us like we are forgiving others.  He puts it in even more provocative in verses 14 and 15.  There he makes the same linkage in terms of a promise and a threat.  He promises that if you are forgiving person, you will be forgiven by God.  And He threatens that if we are not forgiving, we ourselves will not be forgiven. 

      Now don’t misunderstand what the Lord is saying.  He is not saying, you are forgiven by God because you forgive other people.  If that were the case, we would all be in trouble.  He is saying, your forgiveness of other people is a reflection that you have truly apprehended that God has forgiven you. You stand before the throne of God  and you marvel, and you say, God I deserve hell.  That is what I deserve.  And You have not only not given me hell, You have given me everything.  You have given me Christ.  You have given me His glory.  You have given me His people.  You have given me His hope. You have set my feet on lofty places.  You have taken me out of the mirey clay. You have given me everything.  We don’t stand there and say, “Why Lord, I am special, I deserve that.”  You stand there and you say, “I don’t understand this.  It doesn’t make any sense.  It is beyond my comprehension.”  And you can perhaps, sing and think and emote in language like that which Charles Wesley pours out in his glorious hymn, And Can It Be?  That is how your heat feels.  You just can’t believe that God could have forgiven you like that.  And that causes you to be a person who is ready to forgive.  Because you know how much has been forgiven you.  You can’t be censorious, at least all the time, without a sense of something being out of sorts that you have been shown this great mercy, and therefore you show mercy and forgiveness to others.  That is that link that the Lord Jesus Christ is making between prayer and forgiveness.  In prayer, the Lord Jesus says, we really manifest our hearts. 

      Do we know that we were sinners that deserved destruction and got what we didn’t deserve?  We got something so grand that Adam himself wouldn’t have dared ask the Lord God, in his perfection in the Garden.   The Lord God gave it to us, and contemplation of this grace of adoption is absolutely essential to healthy Christian experience and to prayer.  You see, realization of who we are, of what we are, sinners, and realization of what we deserve, and realization of what God has graciously given us, leads us to thankfulness, and it also leads us to mercifulness.  Because He has, in His dealing with us, shown us mercy.  And those who have tasted of that mercy, become merciful.  The spiritual gratitude which flows from that sense of what God has done for us is absolutely key to prayer. 

      But let me say, it has to be cultivated.  We may feel intensely from time to time about what the Lord has done for us.  We may be moved from tears, moved to tears in worship services from time to time, but you have to cultivate that act of gratitude and of mercifulness to others.  It is just like good manners.  Little boys don’t learn good manners by osmosis.  And they are not built into them inherently as every mother in this room knows.  They sometimes have to beaten into them.  So also this grace of gratitude must be cultivated.  It cannot simply be left to grow wild in the garden, it must be pruned from time to time, and it must be cared for and watered for.  We must give great attention to cultivating that spirit of gratitude and of forgiveness.  The great manifestation, you see, is what Jesus is saying here of adoption, that you have a relationship with the God of the universe, which is a saving and personal relationship of a child to a Father.  That is the most marvelous message that could ever, ever be told.  There is no message anywhere in the world’s religions that even approaches that message, my friends.  That message mocks the rest of the untruth which populates this world.  That understanding is key to a forgiving spirit.  And that is only worked in us, when our hearts are changed by the work of the Holy Spirit. 

      Now let me ask you a question.  Do you cultivate a forgiving spirit?  Are you cultivating a forgiving spirit in your life?  Now I am not talking about indulgence.  I really mean forgiveness.  And I don’t mean not having a sense of justice.  I don’t mean for you to say, “Oh well this is just not a big deal, or that is not a big deal, because we all run into things in our lives, that we know are big deals.”  And to forgive in those circumstances, really does take a supernatural act of grace.  Now are you cultivating that spirit of forgiveness?  Let me ask you to perhaps use this as a measure.   Think of that relationship in which your capacity to forgive is being most taxed right now.  Maybe it is your spouse that you have the hardest time forgiving.  I hope that is not true.  You spouse may be the person that you have to forgive the most frequently.  But I hope that your spouse isn’t the hardest person for you to forgive.  But it is entirely possible that there are husbands and wives in here who find the most difficult person in the world to forgive to be their spouse.  How are you doing in that area?  Are you cultivating forgiveness there?  Perhaps it is a child or a parent.  Or one who you once counted as friend, or maybe it is a colleague, or heaven forbid, a church member, or someone in the community which whom you have to work.  I don’t know, you have to think.  Ask  yourself, how am I doing in that area in forgiveness?  Perhaps it will show how far you have to go in really realizing how merciful God has been to you.  Friends, if you cannot grasp the mercy of God in Christ, you do not have the capacity to forgive others the wounds that they do to you.  Without a realization of how much God has forgiven you, you do not have either the motive force, or the stuff of being in yourself to be able to forgive other people.  But sometimes horrendous things that they do to us.  Dwell on that truth and know that you must know and manifest your adoption if you are to become great in prayer. 

II.  God must be the center of our prayer.
      There is a second thing I would point you to in this passage.  And it has to do with the priorities of prayer in life.  We have talked a little of how the heart of the prayer has to be changed before you can become great in prayer.  I would like to think with you a little about the priorities of life in prayer as they are set forth here in the Lord’s Prayer.  We learned in this prayer that we must seek first God’s kingdom, if we are to be great in prayer. 

      Notice how the prayer begins, our Father, who is in heaven, holy is Your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Notice the order of the prayer.  It begins with petitions, about God centering on God, centering on His will, centering on His plan, centering on His cause.  Only then, do we move to petitions about us.  Notice the order.  In verse 9, God’s name, in verse 10, God’s reign, verse 10, God’s will, then in verses 11, 12, and 13, our bread, our forgiveness, our protection.  First the cause of God.  First, the will of God.  First the plan of God.  First the reign of God, then our concerns.  God and His kingdom must always take priority in our life and in our prayer.

      But let me say that God’s kingdom and His cause is not contradictory to our good.  It is vital for you to understand that.  God made us to be God-centered.  When we are God-centered, we lose nothing, and we gain everything.  When we are man-centered, in our life and in our prayer, we lose all the blessings that God intends for us, because He made us to be God-centered and He knows how we work.  When we seek first His kingdom, we find that all of these things are added unto us.  Martin Luther once said, “It is due to the perversity of men that they seek first peace, and then righteousness, consequently then, they find no peace.” 

      But when we seek righteousness, when we seek His kingdom, then we find all the blessing so God showered around us.  This is how we are to pray, the Lord Jesus says. 

      Now you have perhaps heard a dozen preachers tell you that same thing in sermons on this particular passage.  Maybe you have heard it from a Sunday School teacher.  Maybe you have taught it yourself.  But this prayer begins with priorities of prayer about God’s cause and God’s concern.  But my friends, that is easier said than done, isn’t it?  I mean, we can say that here in the Sanctuary where we are supposed to say that, and we are supposed to nod our heads to being God-centered, but it really becomes difficult in practice, doesn’t it?  Our zeal in prayer is usually strongest when we are facing crisis in our own experience.  When our health is threatened.  When we face the loss of a job.  When we face the loss of a loved one, we can pray with genuine unfamed zeal to the living God.  We can pour out prayers to Him.  But it is more difficult, isn’t it, to pray for the expansion of the kingdom of God on earth.  It is hard to develop zeal there.  Those of us who are a little more sanctified can find great zeal in praying for others who are facing crisis in their experience.  As we grow in grace, we genuinely grow in a community of fellowship with one another.  We want to pray for one another.  And when a friend, or acquaintance in Christ is facing some dread illness, or some tremendous obstacle in their experience, we can pray with zeal for them, but when it comes to praying for the expansion of the church on earth for her spiritual welfare, for her sanctification, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is heaven.  That is just a little more abstract. 

      Is that a struggle for you?  Is it a struggle for you to have the same kind of zeal for those first three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer as you do for those last three petitions?  It is easy to pray to the Lord for Him to provide for you.  It is easy to pray to the Lord for Him to forgive you.  It is even easy to pray for the Lord to protect you.  But do you find it easy or do you find it correspondingly easy to develop the same zeal for praying for the cause of God?  If you do, let me suggest a couple of things to you. 

      The first thing I would ask you to do, is pray that the Lord would give you a heart, a zeal for the first things.  That is perhaps where we all ought to start.  When we cannot produce that zeal in ourselves,  it is a reminder that we must turn to God in dependence on Him.  Ask Him to give you a heart for the first things.  A zeal for His cause. 

      And second, translate temporal and earthly struggles into the spiritual categories as you pray for these things of God.  For instance, when you face cancer in you own life, or in the life of a friend, you know how you pray.  You know how deadly the illness is.  You know the danger which lurks.  You how insidiously the thing can grow and you pray against it.  You pray against the growth of the tumors.  You pray for the effectiveness of the treatment.  You know what you are looking for in terms of signs of healing.  Translate those temporary and earthly and physical prayers in spiritual categories as you pray for the first things of God.  Perhaps, they will become more real to you.  When you are praying for a lost friend, that may not seem as urgent as a friend who has cancer and is facing eminent death.  And yet the one is far more urgent than the other if that friend is in Christ who faces the physical malady.  Do you pray, O Lord God, this sin which is in the breast of my friend is as a cancer which is eating away at his soul.  If he does not see the diagnosis and attend to the great spiritual physician, he will be destroyed.  O God awaken him to the danger in which his soul exists now.  And cause him to apply to the only physician who can save him, and then I pray, O God, that by heaven power, You would extract the sin from his breast and you would turn him to Christ and you would show him the healing balm which only comes from God.  Perhaps in the very usage of those temporal categories of fear and anxiety you can translate the urgency of spiritual prayer and pray with zeal for the cause of God.   

III.  Jesus has given a pattern for prayer.
      This prayer before us is designed to be a pattern for our prayer.  It is not ultimately meant to be a prayer which we simply repeat by rote.  That would actually violate one of the principles which the Lord Himself has set down in this passage.  It is a perfectly appropriate, of course, to repeat it back to God, and to serve as a rubric for our prayer and for our worship. 

      But each petition that Christ gives us in this prayer is ultimately suggestive of a whole range of appropriate matters for prayer.  Jesus’ prayer focuses on the worship of the Father, and the kingdom of the Father, and the provision of the Father, and the grace of the Father, and the protection of the Father.  And all of those categories provide you hundreds of ideas for how you can pray to the living God.  Have you put to work these principles, the principles of this passage in your life of secret prayer. 

      Let me just say that our secret prayer in this congregation, while we are off by ourselves, will determine how effectively we are when we are together in our family prayers, and in our corporate prayers.  And if our corporate prayer is not fueled by a congregation of people seeking the Lord privately face to face, in their secret devotions, then we are simply going through the motions, and we will be undone.  Your practice of these things in secret prayer are just as important as our practice of them in corporate prayer. 

      If that is the case, then I would urge you to make prayer a new priority.  Make it a priority in your schedule.  Make prayer meeting a thing that you plan to come to and plan to pray in prayer meeting.  Even plan the petitions that you would lift up to the Lord in prayer ahead of time, before you come to prayer meeting, so that you are schooled an you can use an economy of words and yet import into those words a great rate of matter an feeling.  And so help the people of God as we lift up our petitions to the Lord corporately.  Come to the Saturday morning prayer breakfast and lift up intercessions for the concerns of the church.  Men have been gathering in that group for years and years faithfully lifting up the congregation and the matters of the Lord’s people before God.  Come and support that.  Look for opportunities to engage in corporate prayer.  Determine to read some books on prayer.  Not that  “how to pray” is the ultimate matter in prayer, but that the very study of prayer can lead us into prayer.  Follow the direction of the Lord in His prayer.  Prayer, I suspect, is the fuel most needed in our church and many evangelical churches today.  And our lack of prayer is probably a sign that we lack the sense of gratitude which is born in all those who are adopted by the living God. 

      When a group of Americans visited London last century to see C.H. Spurgeon, they asked him, what was the secret of his great congregation.  He took them to the boiler room, downstairs, where a large group of over a hundred men and women were gathered lifting up the services in prayer.  He says there is the secret, corporate prayer.  Secret prayer in the life of God’s people.  May we fuel us with the desire to pray.  And supply fuel for revival and reformation in our lives, and in our families, and in our time.  Let us pray. 

Our Lord and our God, we perhaps speak about prayer in our church today, across this land, more than we actually practice it, and so we would ask that you would help us put into the practice the things which we speak of.  Forgive us where we fall short and build in us a new desire to commune with the living God.  For we will give you the praise and the glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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