“Why did they change the Lord’s Prayer?” That is a question often asked today. In past decades people learnt the prayer using these words from the Book of Common Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.” In later versions “trespasses” was changed to “sin” and “trespass” to “sin”. More recently they may have heard the prayer in words like these, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The reason is that there are 2 versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible. One is in Matthew 6:12 (NIV), “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The other is in Luke 11:4 (NIV) “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” However it is good to realise that they have virtually the same meaning as we shall see.
It is obvious that everyone needs to ask forgiveness from God because no one apart from Jesus has perfectly obeyed the 2 Great Commandments Jesus gave His disciples, Mat 22:37, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” We have failed in our duty towards Him and towards one another in not loving as we should. No one has loved God with every fibre of their being for every moment of their lives. Nor has anyone put others above themselves for every moment of their lives either. We have all broken the two Great Commandments. We all need forgiveness.
The Meaning In Matthew’s Version. Mat 6:12. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The word used twice in this verse for “forgive” is (aphiēmi). It means to let go, pardon, loose and remit as well as forgive. In this prayer we are asking God to forgive us the debts we owe to Him. But we qualify that by adding “as we have forgiven our debtors.” This past tense of the verb (have forgiven) is found in some texts but in many other manuscripts the verb is in the present tense (forgive), that is, “as we also are forgiving”. Both imply that it is necessary to forgive others if we are going to ask God to forgive us.
The word “debt” is (opheilēma) which can mean something owed or an obligation. It can also refer to something done to another that requires repayment in some way. “Debtors” (opheiletēs) is from the same root, and refers to those who for some reason owe a debt to another person. When we sin in some way against another person it is as though we have taken something from them. [See NOTE 1 below]
What we are doing when we pray these words is asking God to forgive us or to set us free of the guilt of our words and actions against Him and against others. But Jesus seemed to indicate that we can only do so when we have already forgiven (or are willing to forgive) those who owe us by sinning against us.) If we ask for His mercy we must be willing to extend mercy to others.
The Meaning In Luke’s Version. Luke 11:4. In Luke the same word is used for “forgive” but a different word is used instead of “debts”. It is “hamartia” which can mean missing the mark or failing to obtain a perfect score. Luke 11:4 “and forgive us our sins (Greek. hamartia), for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted (Gk. opheilō) to us.” [See NOTE 2 below]
Forgiveness involves forgiving or cancelling the debts people owe us. This is seen in the Parable of the Unmerciful servant, Mat 18:27 “The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.”
In simple terms humans sin against one another in the sight of God and they need to confess it before Him and to ask for His forgiveness. Not only that but they also need to confess to God that they have forgiven those who sinned against them as well.
Some Questions And Answers Concerning Forgiveness. (Please note that questions for consideration by individuals and groups is found at the end of this article.)
First Question. Does it mean that if someone prays the Lord’s Prayer they are automatically forgiven?
Answer. Not necessarily. We need to remember a number of truths.
i). The prayer is the family prayer for all believers, all who have put their trust in Christ for salvation. We can only truly pray “Our Father” when we have come into His family as His adopted children through faith in Jesus. [See NOTE 3 below]
Salvation and acceptance into the family of God is to be found in Christ alone, Acts 4:12 “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
ii). The ground for God’s forgiveness is not based on the fact that we asked for forgiveness. It is based on the shed blood of Jesus who gave Himself to redeem people from sin. But that forgiveness is only to be found in Him and in Him alone, Ephesians 1:7 “In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” and in Colossians 1:14 “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” When we receive Him into our lives as Saviour and Lord we receive, in Him, forgiveness for all our sins. As Peter declared in Acts 10:43 “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
iii). Praying for God to forgive us our sins is not the ground of our forgiveness. Rather it is the means by which we appropriate the forgiveness God offers us in Christ and we receive in Him. That is why the preaching in the early church focussed on Jesus as the only One who could save from sin and the only One who could bring forgiveness through His death and resurrection. Peter preached on the day of Pentecost that his hearers should repent of their sins and become committed to Christ in order to receive forgiveness, Acts 2:38 “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He also preached later on that those who did believe in Jesus would receive forgiveness, Acts 10:43 “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Second Question. Well, how does a person make sure that they are forgiven?
Answer. By receiving forgiveness in the only place it is to be found, in Christ. Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:3 that God has blessed us in the heavenly realms in Christ with every spiritual blessing in Him. And as verse 7 reminds us, it is in Him that we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.
Third Question. Does the believer then need to pray that part of the Lord’s Prayer if they already have forgiveness in Christ?
Answer. Yes, the prayer is meant to be prayed in full because it reminds us that we need to remain open to God so that we walk in true righteousness before Him. As we have seen above there is no one who can ever claim to have perfectly obeyed the 2 Great Commandments given by Jesus. It would be a deceived person who claimed that they no longer sin. It only takes a modicum of common sense to realise that everyone is guilty of breaches of love towards God or others. It is true as John wrote in 1John 1:8 “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” [See NOTE 4 below].
So every time we pray “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” we are coming before God allowing Him to show us how we have transgressed against Him and against other people, especially where we have not loved as we should have. We also allow Him to show us those people who have sinned against us so that we can recognise their sin and forgive them in His presence. Then we can confess all these things before Him to experience His forgiveness and His cleansing.
It can be seen then that these words “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” are not just throw-away lines in the midst of a nice prayer. Rather they are an opening of our hearts to God in a loving full and total commitment to Him so that we might not continue to sin in the ways He has shown us. It means that we are doing serious business with God, wanting to walk in the light and not wanting to be influenced by the deception that we can no longer sin. It means being a Christian living in reality and not in the unreality of self- righteousness.
POSTSCRIPT. A Concern
One of the things that concerns me in recent days is the number of younger preachers whom I have heard on the internet who have taken what I consider to be an extreme view of Romans 6:11 “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” They say that they have died to sin and one of them even suggested that he had not had a sinful thought for a number of years. But they fail to read on to the following verses where Paul writes, Rom 6:12 “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” Paul was showing that humans have free-will and have to make choices. The reality is that sin still exists and believers have to choose to present themselves to God moment by moment to have victory over sin. The reality as Paul saw it was that believers could still present their bodies to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but they had the choice of presenting themselves to God to be instruments of righteousness. (Dead people cannot make choices.)
Others say that they no longer have a sinful nature and now having God’s nature can live righteous lives all the time. However the 39 Articles of the Church of England and Anglican churches says this about our old nature in Article IX Of Original or Birth-Sin, “And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated.” We may be partakers of the divine nature as St Peter affirms in 2 Peter 1:4 “… by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” but the Bible states that the old nature remains in those who are born again. Paul exhorted the believers in Ephesus “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24.) The old self still existed but the believers had to choose to put on the new nature.
That is why even very senior Christians can get it wrong sometimes. Peter who wrote those wonderful words in 2 Peter 1:4 failed to live as he should after many years as a believer and as a church leader. Paul described what happened in Galatians 2:11-13, “But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. “ Paul knew the gospel message was being compromised by Peter and the others so he took action, Galatians 2:14 “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” If even Peter was guilty of sin after many years of victorious Christian living and ministry, one would think that less mature believers would need to be careful of claiming to be without sin.
It may be that these younger preachers today are confusing what is theirs potentially and what is their actual situation. It may be true that if someone had a 100% understanding of the will of God and lived in 100% obedience to His will and was motivated by 100% pure agape love towards God and towards their fellow humans, they could potentially live 100% pure lives. But that is not realistic. The only way it can become realistic in a person’s mind is to justify their behaviour by thinking they are dead to sin and (even unconsciously) lessening the sinfulness of sin. The reality is that no one apart from Jesus has been or ever will be sinless all the time.
So praying “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” is as necessary for our young preachers today as it is for the rest of us.
[NOTE 1] Being in debt to others. We may have taken things from people such as some of their material possessions. Or we may have damaged (or taken from them) their good name or reputation through criticism of them. Or we may have taken from them some of the peace they were enjoying before we spoke or acted towards them in a negative way. Every sin has a consequence. Every sin does damage to the sinner and to the one sinned against. It has to be dealt with or else the damage remains. We are in debt to the ones against whom we have sinned in some way or other and we need their forgiveness. Similarly those who have sinned against us are indebted to us and need to ask for and receive God’s forgiveness and hopefully ours as well.
[NOTE 2] Luke 11:4. Note the present tense in both the verb “we ourselves forgive” (we are forgiving) and the participle “indebted” (being indebted to us). It speaks of an on-going attitude of forgiveness to be adopted towards those who sin against us.
[NOTE 3] Receiving Christ as Saviour. We can see in the following verses that believing in Jesus and receiving Him are equated. Many of His own people did not believe in Him, nor receive Him and as a result were not born into God’s family. John wrote in John 1:11-12, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
[NOTE 4] It is important to note that in 1 John 1:9 that the verb “to cleanse” is present tense. In other words we could translate it as “God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to keep on cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” Some have called it “keeping short accounts with God” in order to receive the experience of forgiveness for sins of which we recently have become aware and for ongoing cleansing.
QUESTIONS FOR CONSIDERATION BY INDIVIDUALS AND GROUPS. (Added 30June 2016)
Question 1. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment of all He replied in Mat 22:36-40 giving two commandments that had to be obeyed. They were to love God with all one’s being and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. What is significant in the answer Jesus gave?
Question 2. How could you attempt to use these 2 Great Commandments to try to convince someone that they needed forgiveness?
Question 3. On what grounds can we ask God to forgive us? What is involved on His part and on our part?
Question 4. In the Postscript above, mention is made of St Peter being rebuked by St Paul in Galatia for behaving in a way that was contrary to the gospel message they were both preaching. Do you find that encouraging or discouraging as you seek to live for the Lord now? Why?
Question 5. In NOTE 1 above it is suggested that those who sin against us are indebted to us, or they owe us. Forgiveness involves cancelling those debts. Why do you think it is so difficult for people to forgive those who hurt them when they come to realise that they have to cancel all those debts?
Blog No.178. Jim Holbeck. Posted on Monday 21st March 2016. Revisited Thurs 30th June 2016