The Lord’s Prayer
August 14, 2011
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Luke 11:4
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, nor on their account deny our prayer; for we are worthy of none of the things for which we pray, neither have we deserved them; but that He would grant them all to us by grace; for we daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment. So will we also heartily forgive, and readily do good to, those who sin against us.
The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer address our Father in heaven who comes to earth and makes his home here on earth. He hallows his name among us. He brings his kingdom to us. His good and gracious will is done for us. He gives us the world in which we live as a fatherly gift of pure love. Even after we brought his curse upon this world by our sin, he still blesses us by governing this world for the benefit of his holy Christian Church on earth. Whenever we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” he answers by giving us everything we need to support our physical lives here in this world.
In the final three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray for what will bring us from this world to heaven. We pray that God will forgive us our sins, lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil. This is how God will take us from this world that is filled with sin into heaven where no sin can enter. This world is not our eternal home. God will destroy it. But Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:3) When Thomas asked how to get to where Jesus was going Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) Jesus is the only way to the Father. Jesus is the only way to heaven. Jesus is the only way to the Father because Jesus alone is the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. Jesus is the only way to the Father because only Jesus has obeyed the law as the representative of the human race. He literally earned eternal life for everyone by doing what the law requires everyone to do. Jesus is the only way to the Father because only Jesus has suffered for the sin of the world. When Jesus then invites us to pray to our Father in heaven for the forgiveness of our sins we can be sure that for Jesus’ sake God will forgive us our sins. Those who have received the forgiveness of their sins have received heaven.
That’s not to say we are in heaven. We’re not. If we were, we wouldn’t have to pray the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. The fact that Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness tells us that Jesus knows we will need forgiveness. He knows ahead of time that we will sin. He who bore all our sin knows the nature of sin. It constitutes a debt that the sinner owes to God. In St. Matthew’s Gospel the Lord’s Prayer reads “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In St. Luke’s Gospel the Lord’s Prayer reads “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” A trespass or sin is a debt that is owed. Only he who paid the debt we owed to God fully understands the nature of that debt. Jesus experienced our sin when our sin was imputed to him in his suffering. When he cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried out as the greatest sinner who ever lived. What does guilt feel like? He felt it. How does it feel to be shamed? He felt it. What is it like to be forsaken by God? Jesus knows. When Jesus urges us to pray, “Forgive us our sins,” he urges us as one who understands what sin does to someone and why we need constantly to be asking for God’s forgiveness.
In Acts 2:42 St. Luke tells us that those who were baptized on Pentecost “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” The breaking of bread is a reference to the Lord’s Supper. The prayers that were spoken in connection with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper always included the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Prayer go together. The forgiveness for which we pray in our need is given to us concretely as Christ’s body and blood are put into our mouths. There can be no doubt that God forgives us all our sin when we receive the same body and blood by which our debt of sin was fully paid. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we should think of how Jesus gave up his body and blood for us on the cross and how he graciously gives us to eat and to drink his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
Without the forgiveness of sins we would be poor, miserable, and lost. If God did not forgive us all our sins we would have to pay for them ourselves. They would constitute a debt far too great for us to pay. We would never have any peace. Our souls would never be at rest. We would be filled with dread every time we seriously considered our relationship with God. Since that would become intolerable, we would invent whatever religious fiction was necessary to bring us peace. St. Augustine was right to say to God in his famous prayer, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in thee.” The reason that we find our rest and peace in Jesus and in his suffering for us is because it is only in Jesus’ suffering that we find forgiveness of sins. Sinners who don’t trust in the blood of Jesus will excuse their sin, blame it on others, or come up with some other way of getting rid of it. But only the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, can wash away our sins.
And it does. Forgiveness is a powerful thing. When God forgives us, he gives us power. We don’t have power over God because God is God. We remain under his authority, whether his legal authority to tell us what we must do or his evangelical authority to forgive us when we do wrong. But when God exercises the authority of the gospel upon you and tells you that you are forgiven of your sins, he gives you a power that you can find nowhere else. He gives you the power to forgive. And that is nothing to ignore. That is something to use!
Jesus gave to the church the pastoral office whose incumbents are to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. Through these means of grace God forgives sinners and gives to them the Holy Spirit who sanctifies them. Jesus also gave the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive sins to all Christians. You don’t have to be called and ordained to tell someone who is suffering under a burden of guilt that he has a Savior in Jesus. Since Jesus died for everyone, we can tell anyone who wants to listen that his or her sins are forgiven by God’s grace for Christ’s sake. Only those who admit their sins will trust in the forgiveness of sins. No one trusts in what he doesn’t need. The only way a sinner can learn to see his need for forgiveness is by hearing God’s law. This is why the church through her preachers must not neglect to preach God’s law in all its exacting severity. But God’s law is not his final word. The gospel is. The law condemns us so that we will be prepared to listen to the gospel and to trust in it. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins is a solid and unmovable truth of God’s holy word, a truth guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The very fact that Jesus – who bore everyone’s sins – rose from the dead proves that God forgives all sinners for Christ’s sake.
And so do we. We forgive those who sin against us. Throughout the Lord’s Prayer we promise God only this one thing. We promise that we will forgive. We don’t promise to forgive all people in general. We promise to forgive those people who do us wrong. We don’t promise to forgive those who deserve our forgiveness. We promise to forgive those who don’t deserve anyone’s forgiveness. We are not promising to forgive those whose love and affection and support are important to us. We are promising to forgive those whom we would rather have nothing to do with. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Love forgives. That’s what it does. And it doesn’t ask whether or not the sinner is sufficiently sorry for the wrong he’s done. Love forgives. It doesn’t even ask if the sinner wants to be forgiven. God didn’t ask if this world wanted a Savior. Had he waited for the world to ask, the Savior would never have been born and we would all be lost in our sin. Divine love takes the initiative and forgives even before the sin is confessed. When the Holy Spirit, through the gospel and sacraments, gives to us the forgiveness of our sins he also pours God’s love into our hearts. Not only does a Christian have the power to forgive those who do him wrong; he has the desire to forgive. He wants to do for others what God did for him. He wants to give to others what God gave to him.
The refusal to forgive those who sin against us is a deadly spiritual poison that can destroy us. Hatred parades itself as high principle. It disguises itself by lies and comes up with all sorts of reasons to hate. But we Christians know better. While our sinful flesh will want its pound of flesh and will insist on retribution the Holy Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are children of God. When we feel hatred well up within us and attempt to take control over us we know we are facing a deadly enemy who needs to be confronted with no less a power than the gospel itself. We consider the one who has wronged us. We consider the wrong done. We consider the defiance, the impenitence, the arrogant unconcern, and instead of hating we look to the One who bore all the hatred of all the haters who ever lived. We look to Jesus whose love confronted hatred and conquered it. There all our sins against God were washed away before we were even aware of them. There we place the sins committed against us. We don’t wait for those who sin against us to repent or to confess. We forgive them and pray for their repentance.
Jesus isn’t teaching us to condone sin or excuse it. He is teaching us to forgive it. There’s a big difference. God didn’t condone our sin when he placed it upon his only begotten Son. He paid for it. We are forgiven on account of that holy sacrifice of divine love. And on account of that sacrifice we forgive.
The Jesus who bore our sins of hatred on the cross gives us his Holy Spirit who empowers us to love even the most unlovable. The same Holy Spirit who gives us the forgiveness of our sins enables us to forgive those who sin against us. When we confess our sins to God we include in that confession of sin our sinful refusal to forgive those who have sinned against us. We confess the bitterness within hearts. We confess it all. And God forgives it all because Jesus took it all away by his holy, innocent, bitter, suffering, and death. Only from being forgiven by God for Christ’s sake can we learn to forgive. And so we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen