Forgiven to Forgive

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 6:9-15
Ephesians 4:32-5:2

Though we are freely forgiven in Christ, he calls us to keep on praying both for forgiveness and for a forgiving heart.

Welcome to this sixth in our series on the Lord’s Prayer! What a prayer this is! It begins with Jesus’ call to remember that the most important thing about prayer is the one to whom we pray, the one whom we call Father. It’s a call to put God first in our prayers, praying for his name, his kingdom, and his will. And last time, we thought about the daily provision we ask for ourselves and for others. Today we look at another profound petition, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Or in the Lukan version, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Think first of what forgive means. One term in the biblical text is “to cover,” that is, “remove from view.” Another, “to carry away” so that there’s no longer a barrier, or to “let go” so that no anger or resentment remains. And in the New Testament, to forgive is to show grace, to treat graciously.

Throughout the Bible, it’s assumed that before forgiveness is given, there must be repentance, an acknowledgment of wrong, a turning from it to God. That is to happen over and over again. Today it’s “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive.”

Here’s a prayer in which every person on earth can join. There are many differences among us – “some wise, some witless, some scoundrels, some saintly, some high and mighty, others poor and lowly. But everyone, including me, and you, can join in this confession. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

We fall short in different ways, don’t we? The tax collector had his evils of extortion and greed; the Pharisee his of self-righteousness and self-praise. A young man’s evils are different from those of an aged woman. But all of us, according to the consistent witness of the Bible, must say in the presence of God, “Woe is me. I have sinned against you.”

Many Feel No Need of this Prayer

But many in our time feel no need to ask for forgiveness. Some believe that this universe came into being by chance, and that all standards of right and wrong are simply human inventions. For then there is no God to sin against, and thus no one to grant forgiveness. Nothing hinders them, they feel, from simply doing what they please.

But there are also professing Christians who decline to ask for forgiveness each day. “I believe in Jesus,” they say, “I am justified in God’s sight. All my sins, past, present, and future, have already been forgiven. Why should I ask to be forgiven?”

Still others believe that God has so transformed them already that they no longer commit sins. They feel that they no longer do evil and thus need no fresh forgiveness. They regard themselves, in other words, as fully sanctified, made perfect in love.

Jesus Teaches Simon Peter

As we think about those points of view among believers, let’s look afresh at Jesus’ words in John 13 when he was washing the feet of the disciples. You remember how when the Lord came to Peter, Peter said, “Lord, you’ll never wash my feet”? And Jesus said to him, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). That is, “if you don’t accept the cleansing I offer, you can’t belong to me.” Then Peter has a different reaction. He says, “Well, then, Lord, wash my head and my hands too!” But Jesus corrects him again, “He that is washed, who is bathed, doesn’t need to be bathed all over again but only to wash his feet.” In other words, there’s a general cleansing that we receive when we put our trust in Christ, and that doesn’t have to be repeated. We don’t have to become believers all over again.

But as we walk through this world, we do become defiled, and we need something like the washing of our feet. John Calvin once wrote, “Christ always finds in us something to cleanse.” According to Jesus, not even apostles are beyond that need. Though we are cleansed and renewed in Christ, we all continue to lapse into sin and to need God’s forgiveness anew.

As for the objection of being already justified by faith, totally forgiven, the Bible is equally clear. The apostle John teaches, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). He’s writing to believers. It’s clear that he sees all of us in continuing need of forgiveness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar. If we say that we presently have no sin, we’re deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. The consistent witness of the entire Bible is that there is not a just person on earth who does good and does not sin. The need for forgiveness day by day is universal. As the apostle says, “There is none righteous, no not one.” So friends, you can always feel that you are at home, that you belong, in this prayer.

Forgive Us Our Debts

It’s interesting that Jesus uses here the term “debts.” What’s a debt? An obligation you owe but have not discharged. It’s due, but you haven’t paid. The Bible makes it clear that sin is not only outward evils, the breaking of God’s commands. In fact, the New Testament seems to feature another kind of sin. Listen to James 4:17. “The one who knows to do good and does it not, to that one it is sin.” Think of the man given one talent in Jesus’ parable. He didn’t steal his master’s money or squander it. He was cast out because he failed to make use of it. The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan also appear as villains, not because they plotted a crime or gained its reward. Their evil was leaving a wounded man to die unhelped.

And think of that awesome spectacle when all are gathered together before the King and separated, the sheep from the goats. Those rejected and punished are not those who harmed their fellow human beings but those who did nothing for them in their need. They didn’t feed hungry ones or clothe naked ones. They didn’t welcome strangers or visit the sick and imprisoned.

Sometimes the most heartless evil we ever are guilty of is simply doing nothing. Some day the Lord may ask us about that sad-faced person that you saw but looked away from, the one who desperately needed a word of encouragement from you and you never spoke it. Why don’t we notice these needs? Why don’t we reach out to these who are so much in need? Goethe once said, “You only understand what you love.” True, isn’t it, that we don’t see, don’t notice, because we don’t really care.

Forgive Us Our Sins

In Luke’s expression of the Lord’s Prayer, we meet the word sins which points more clearly to our active disobedience, our transgressions against God’s loving will. And here again we pray with and for others. We look at the rampant evil in our world and we stand aghast. We can hardly take in the monstrous crimes of genocide in Kosovo or Rwanda, the slaughter of thousands in Darfur, Sudan, the ethnic and religious hatreds in Iraq, the tortures and assassinations, the bombs exploding in places of worship and celebration.

We reel at the corruptions of the entertainment world, the obscene payouts to corporate leaders at the expense of shareholders and employees, the women and children attacked by sexual predators. And that’s only to touch the fringe of an ocean of horrors. We pray “Forgive us our sins.” The danger is that we will only see the iniquity out there, and not within ourselves. These are members with us of a human race gone terribly wrong. The seeds of what we most despise in them are at least latent in our own hearts.

I’ll never forget the lesson that Russian hero Alexander Solzhenitsyn learned when he was a prisoner in the Gulag: “The line between good and evil runs not between groups, parties and nations, but through the middle of every human heart.” There’s some of the poison in all of us.

So we are asking God’s forgiveness for what nations do (including our own), for what ethnic groups do, armies do, secret police. We pray for what those in power do to the powerless, for the shocking cruelties done by apparently respectable people. And we are acknowledging also our share in it all.

In World War II Germany it was not only Hitler and his crazed henchmen, but also those citizens who looked the other way, who said nothing, did nothing to stop the horror. Who was it that said that “all that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” We’re saying, “O God, forgive it all, including my part in it.” And we wonder, “How is that possible that all that malignant evil can be forgiven?” Only as we trust in the One who prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them,” even as he took the whole crushing burden upon himself. And we sing: “What language shall I borrow, to thank thee dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end.” When we ask for forgiveness, friends, we’re asking for an incomparable treasure.

Remember in Pilgrim’s Progress how Christian looks and sees the cross and how the burden falls off his back and rolls down a hill and into the empty tomb. He jumps in the air and sings, “Blessed cross! Blessed sepulcher! Blessed rather be the man that there was put to shame for me!”

And when we receive that wonderful gift, the only fitting outcome is that we pass it on. To our Lord, one of the most dreadful things in the world is to cherish in our hearts an unforgiving spirit. He deliberately ties together God’s forgiving us, which means a restored relationship between us and God, with our forgiving others which means a restored relationship with them. When we pray for forgiveness and stand ready to forgive, we’re right with God and doing all we can from our side to make things right with others. But he tells us plainly that if we’re unwilling to forgive others, our own prayers for forgiveness will go unheard.

Looking to Jesus

As a pastor, the most fearful thing I ever encountered was someone about to die who still cherished an unforgiving spirit. Sometimes when we’re working with a person like that, we say, “Let it go. Give it up. That resentment will hurt only you. Tell it to Jesus. Give it up.” In Jesus Christ alone do we find forgiveness and the power by his Spirit to forgive others. In the name of Jesus. Amen.