And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (6:12)
Opheilēma (debts) is one of five New Testament Greek terms for sin. Hamartia is the most common and carries the root idea of missing the mark. Sin misses the mark of God’s standard of righteousness. Paraptōma, often rendered “trespass,” is the sin of slipping or falling, and results more from carelessness than from intentional disobedience. Parabasis refers to stepping across the line, going beyond the limits prescribed by God, and is often translated “transgression.” This sin is more conscious and intentional than hamartia and paraptoma. Anomia means lawlessness, and is a still more intentional and flagrant sin. It is direct and open rebellion against God and His ways.
The noun opheilēma is used only a few times in the New Testament, but its verb form is found often. Of the some thirty times it is used in its verb form, twenty-five times it refers to moral or spiritual debts. Sin is a moral and spiritual debt to God that must be paid. In his account of this prayer, Luke uses hamartia (“sins”; Luke 11:4), clearly indicating that the reference is to sin, not to a financial debt. Matthew probably used debts because it corresponded to the most common Aramaic term (hôbā) for sin used by Jews of that day, which also represented moral or spiritual debt to God.
Sin is that which separates man from God, and is therefore man’s greatest enemy and greatest problem. Sin dominates the mind and heart of man. It has contaminated every human being and is the degenerative power that makes man susceptible to disease, illness, and every conceivable form of evil and unhappiness, temporal and eternal. The ultimate effects of sin are death and damnation, and the present effects are misery, dissatisfaction, and guilt. Sin is the common denominator of every crime, every theft, lie, murder, immorality, sickness, pain, and sorrow of mankind. It is also the moral and spiritual disease for which man has no cure. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23). The natural man does not want his sin cured, because he loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19).
Those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ have received God’s pardon for sin and are saved from eternal hell. And since, as we have seen, this prayer is given to believers, the debts referred to here are those incurred by Christians when they sin. Immeasurably more important than our need for daily bread is our need for continual forgiveness of sin.
Arthur Pink writes in An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), pp. 163–64:
As it is contrary to the holiness of God, sin is a defilement, a dishonor, and a reproach to us as it is a violation of His law. It is a crime, and as to the guilt which we contact thereby, it is a debt. As creatures we owe a debt of obedience unto our maker and governor, and through failure to render the same on account of our rank disobedience, we have incurred a debt of punishment; and it is for this that we implore a divine pardon.
Because man’s greatest problem is sin, his greatest need is forgiveness—and that is what God provides. Though we have been forgiven the ultimate penalty of sin, as Christians we need God’s constant forgiveness for the sins we continue to commit. We are to pray, therefore, forgive us. Forgiveness is the central theme of this entire passage (vv. 9–15), being mentioned six times in eight verses. Everything leads to or issues from forgiveness.
Believers have experienced once-for-all God’s judicial forgiveness, which they received the moment Christ was trusted as Savior. We are no longer condemned, no longer under judgment, no longer destined for hell (Rom. 8:1). The eternal Judge has declared us pardoned, justified, righteous. No one, human or satanic, can condemn or bring any “charge against God’s elect” (Rom. 8:33–34).
But because we still fall into sin, we frequently require God’s gracious forgiveness, His forgiveness not now as Judge but as Father. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” John warns believers. But, he goes on to assure us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
During the Last Supper, Jesus began washing the disciples’ feet as a demonstration of the humble, serving spirit they should have as His followers. At first Peter refused, but when Jesus said, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me,” Peter went to the other extreme, wanting to be bathed all over. Jesus replied, “ ‘He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.’ For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, ‘Not all of you are clean’ ” (John 13:5–11).
Jesus’ act of footwashing was therefore more than an example of humility; it was also a picture of the forgiveness God gives in His repeated cleansing of those who are already saved. Dirt on the feet symbolizes the daily surface contamination from sin that we experience as we walk through life. It does not, and cannot, make us entirely dirty, because we have been permanently cleansed from that. The positional purging of salvation that occurs at regeneration needs no repetition, but the practical purging is needed every day, because every day we fall short of God’s perfect holiness.
As Judge, God is eager to forgive sinners, and as Father He is even more eager to keep on forgiving His children. Hundreds of years before Christ, Nehemiah wrote, “Thou art a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness” (Neh. 9:17). As vast and pervasive as the sin of man is, God forgiveness is more vast and greater. Where sin abounds, God’s grace abounds even more (Rom. 5:20).
Asking forgiveness implies confession. Feet that are not presented to Christ cannot be washed by Him. Sin that is not confessed cannot be forgiven. That is the condition John makes plain in the text just quoted above: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). To confess means basically to agree with, and when we confess our sins we agree with God about them that they are wicked, evil, defiling, and have no part in those who belong to Him.
It is difficult to confess sins, and both Satan and our prideful nature fight against it. But it is the only way to the free and joyful life. “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion” (Prov. 28:13). John Stott says, “One of the surest antidotes to the process of moral hardening is the disciplined practice of uncovering our sins of thought and outlook, as well as of word and of deed, and the repentant forsaking of them” (Confess Your Sins [Waco, Tex.: Word, 1974], p. 19).
The true Christian does not see God’s promise of forgiveness as a license to sin, a way to abuse His love and presume on His grace. Rather he sees God’s gracious forgiveness as the means of spiritual growth and sanctification and continually gives thanks to God for His great love and willingness to forgive and forgive and forgive. It is also important to realize that confessing sin gives God the glory when He chastens the disobedient Christian because it removes any complaint that God is unfair when He disciplines.
A Puritan saint of many generations ago prayed, “Grant me never to lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, the exceeding righteousness of salvation, the exceeding glory of Christ, the exceeding beauty of holiness, and the exceeding wonder of grace.” At another time he prayed, “I am guilty but pardoned. I am lost but saved. I am wandering but found. I am sinning but cleansed. Give me perpetual broken-heartedness. Keep me always clinging to Thy cross” (Arthur Bennett, ed., The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975], pp. 76, 83).
Jesus gives the prerequisite for receiving forgiveness in the words, as we also have forgiven our debtors. The principle is simple but sobering: if we have forgiven, we will be forgiven; if we have not forgiven, we will not be forgiven.
We are to forgive because it is the character of righteousness, and therefore of the faithful Christian life, to forgive. Citizens of God’s kingdom are blessed and receive mercy because they themselves are merciful (Matt. 5:7). They love even their enemies because they have the nature of the loving heavenly Father within them (5:44–45, 48). Forgiveness is the mark of a truly regenerate heart. Still we fail to be consistent with that mark and need constant exhortation because of the strength of sinful flesh (Rom. 7:14–25).
We are also to be motivated to forgive because of Christ’s example. “Be kind to one another,” Paul says, “tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). John tells us, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Because it reflects God’s own gracious forgiveness, the forgiving of another person’s sin expresses the highest virtue of man. “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression” (Prov. 19:11).
Forgiving others also frees the conscience of guilt. Unforgiveness not only stands as a barrier to God’s forgiveness but also interferes with peace of mind, happiness, satisfaction, and even the proper functioning of the body.
Forgiving others is of great benefit to the whole congregation of believers. Probably few things have so short-circuited the power of the church as unresolved conflicts among its members. “If I regard wickedness in my heart,” the psalmist warns himself and every believer, “the Lord will not hear” (Ps. 66:18). The Holy Spirit cannot work freely among those who carry grudges and harbor resentment (see Matt. 5:23–24; 1 Cor. 1:10–13; 3:1–9).
Forgiving others also delivers us from God’s discipline. Where there is an unforgiving spirit, there is sin; and where there is sin, there will be chastening (Heb. 12:5–13). Unrepented sins in the church at Corinth caused many believers to be weak, sick, and even to die (1 Cor. 11:30).
But the most important reason for being forgiving is that it brings God’s forgiveness to the believer. That truth is so important that Jesus reinforces it after the close of the prayer (vv. 14–15). Nothing in the Christian life is more important than forgiveness—our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of us.
In the matter of forgiveness, God deals with us as we deal with others. We are to forgive others as freely and graciously as God forgives us. The Puritan writer Thomas Manton said, “There is none so tender to others as they which have received mercy themselves, for they know how gently God hath dealt with them.”
12. And forgive us our debts. Here it may be proper that we should be reminded of what I said a little before, that Christ, in arranging the prayers of his people, did not consider which was first or second in order. It is written, that our prayers are as it were a wall which hinders our approach to God, (Isa. 59:2,) or a cloud which prevents him from beholding us, (Isa. 44:22,) and that “he hath covered himself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through,” (Lam. 3:44.) We ought always, therefore, to begin with the forgiveness of sins: for the first hope of being heard by God beams upon us, when we obtain his favour; and there is no way in which he is “pacified toward us,” (Ezek. 16:63,) but by freely pardoning our sins. Christ has included in two petitions all that related to the eternal salvation of the soul, and to the spiritual life: for these are the two leading points of the divine covenant, in which all our salvation consists. He offers to us a free reconciliation by “not imputing our sins,” (2 Cor. 5:19,) and promises the Spirit, to engrave the righteousness of the law on our hearts. We are commanded to ask both, and the prayer for obtaining the forgiveness of sins is placed first.
In Matthew, sins are called debts, because they expose us to condemnation at the tribunal of God, and make us debtors; nay more, they alienate us entirely from God, so that there is no hope of obtaining peace and favour except by pardon. And so is fulfilled what Paul tells us, that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23,) “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God,” (Rom. 3:19.) For, though the righteousness of God shines, to some extent, in the saints, yet, so long as they are surrounded by the flesh, they lie under the burden of sins. None will be found so pure as not to need the mercy of God, and if we wish to partake of it, we must feel our wretchedness. Those who dream of attaining such perfection in this world, as to be free from every spot and blemish, not only renounce their sins, but renounce Christ himself, from whose Church they banish themselves. For, when he commands all his disciples to betake themselves to him daily for the forgiveness of sins, every one, who thinks that he has no need of such a remedy, is struck out of the number of the disciples.
Now, the forgiveness, which we here ask to be bestowed on us, is inconsistent with satisfaction, by which the world endeavours to purchase its own deliverance. For that creditor is not said to forgive, who has received payment and asks nothing more,—but he who willingly and generously departs from his just claim, and frees the debtor. The ordinary distinction between crime and punishment has no place here: for debts unquestionably mean liability to punishment. If they are freely forgiven us, all compensations must disappear. And there is no other meaning than this in the passage of Luke, though he calls them sins: for in no other way does God grant the pardon of them, than by removing the condemnation which they deserve.
As we forgive our debtors. This condition is added, that no one may presume to approach God and ask forgiveness, who is not pure and free from all resentment. And yet the forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others: but the design of Christ was, to exhort us, in this manner, to forgive the offences which have been committed against us, and at the same time, to give, as it were, the impression of his seal, to ratify the confidence in our own forgiveness. Nor is any thing inconsistent with this in the phrase used by Luke, καὶ γὰρ, for we also. Christ did not intend to point out the cause, but only to remind us of the feelings which we ought to cherish towards brethren, when we desire to be reconciled to God. And certainly, if the Spirit of God reigns in our hearts, every description of ill-will and revenge ought to be banished. The Spirit is the witness of our adoption, (Rom. 8:16,) and therefore this is put down simply as a mark, to distinguish the children of God from strangers. The name debtors is here given, not to those who owe us money, or any other service, but to those who are indebted to us on account of offences which they have committed.
12 The first three petitions stand independently from one another. The last three, however, are linked in Greek by “ands,” almost as if to say that life sustained by food is not enough. We also need forgiveness of sin and deliverance from temptation.
In Matthew, what we ask to be forgiven for is ta opheilēmata hēmōn (“our debts,” GK 4052); in Luke, it is our “sins.” Hill notes that the crucial word to opheilēma (“debt”) “means a literal ‘debt’ in the LXX and NT, except at this point.” And on this basis, S. T. Lachs (“On Matthew 6.12,” NovT 17 : 6–8) argues that in Matthew this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is not really dealing with sins but with loans in the sixth year, one year before the Jubilee. But the linguistic evidence can be read differently. The word opheilēma is rather rare in biblical Greek. It occurs only four times in the LXX (Dt 24:10 [2x]; 1 Esd 3:20; 1 Macc 15:8); and in Deuteronomy 24:10, where it occurs twice, it renders two different Hebrew words. In the NT, it appears only here and in Romans 4:4. On this basis it would be as accurate to say the word always means “sin” in the NT except at Romans 4:4 as to say it always means “debt” except at Matthew 6:12.
More important, the Aramaic word ḥôbā (“debt”) is often used (e.g., in the Targums) to mean “sin” or “transgression.” Deissmann (Bible Studies, 225) notes an instance of the cognate verb hamartian opheilō (lit., “I owe sin”). Probably Matthew has provided a literal rendering of the Aramaic Jesus most commonly used in preaching; and even Luke (Lk 11:4) uses the cognate participle in the second line, panti opheilonti hēmin (“everyone who sins against us”). There is therefore no reason to take “debts” to mean anything other than “sins,” here conceived as something owed God (whether sins of commission or omission).
Some have taken the second clause to mean that our forgiveness is the real cause of God’s forgiveness, i.e., that God’s forgiveness must be earned by our own. The problem is often judged more serious in Matthew than Luke, because the latter has the present “we forgive,” the former the aorist (not perfect, as many commentators assume) aphēkamen (“we have forgiven”; GK 918). Many follow the suggestion of Jeremias (Prayers of Jesus, 92–93), who says that Matthew has awkwardly rendered an Aramaic perfectum praesens (a “present perfect”): he renders the clause “as we also herewith forgive our debtors.”
The real solution is best expounded by C. F. D. Moule (“ ‘… As we forgive …’: a Note on the Distinction between Deserts and Capacity in the Understanding of Forgiveness,” in Donum Gentilicium [ed. E. Bammel et al.; Oxford: Clarendon 1978], 68–77), who, in addition to detailing the most important relevant Jewish literature, rightly insists on distinguishing “between, on the one hand, earning or meriting forgiveness, and, on the other hand, adopting an attitude which makes forgiveness possible—the distinction, that is, between deserts and capacity.… Real repentance, as contrasted with a merely self-regarding remorse, is certainly a sine qua non of receiving forgiveness—an indispensable condition” (pp. 71–72). “Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offense against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If, on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offenses of others, it proves that we have minimized our own” (Stott, Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 149–50; see comments at 5:5, 7; 18:23–35).
12. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. In connection with this petition, which sounds so simple, a few questions are in order:
- What is the difference between “debts” (verse 12) and “trespasses” (verses 14, 15)?
Answer: see on verse 14.
- Why should we pray for forgiveness, since we no longer sin?
Answer: We do, indeed, sin daily. See p. 317.
- Granted that we sin, why must we still daily pray for forgiveness, since through Christ’s atonement we are already cleansed (justified) from every sin?
Answer: It is true that the basis of our daily forgiveness has been established once for all by means of Christ’s atonement. Nothing need be and nothing can be added to that. But this total, objective cleansing needs daily application for the simple reason that we sin every day. A father may have bequeathed a large inheritance to his son. It now very definitely belongs to the son. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the latter is immediately allowed to withdraw the entire huge amount from the bank and spend it all within one week. Very wisely the father included a stipulation limiting the withdrawal privilege to a certain generous amount each month. So also when a person receives the grace of regeneration, this does not mean that all of that which Christ merited for him is immediately experienced by him. If it were, would it not overwhelm and crush his capacities? Rather, “He [God] giveth and giveth and giveth again.” See also John 13:10.
The prayer for forgiveness implies that the supplicant recognizes that there is no other method by which his debt can be wiped out. It is, therefore, a plea for grace.
However, a totally different difficulty arises in connection with “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This certainly cannot mean that our forgiving disposition earns God’s pardon. The forgiveness of our debts is based not on our merits—how could we have any?—but on Christ’s, applied to us. Consequently, from our point of view, forgiveness is based on God’s unmerited (not merited by us) favor, that is, on divine grace (Eph. 1:7), compassion (Matt. 18:27), and mercy (Luke 18:13). Nevertheless, our own forgiving disposition is very important. In fact, without it we ourselves cannot be forgiven. For us it is the indispensable condition of receiving the forgiveness of sins. That fact is stated clearly in verses 14 and 15, which, together with 18:21–35, is the best and simplest explanation of 6:12 one could ask for. It is with this as it is with salvation in general. We are not saved on the basis of our faith, as if faith had earning power. We are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8). Yet faith must be present if we are to be saved (hence, “by grace through faith”). Faith and one of its manifestations, namely, the disposition to forgive, are conditions that must be met and exercised if salvation and its component, pardon, are to be received. We must believe, we must forgive. God does not do these things for us. Nevertheless, it is God who plants in our hearts the seed of faith and of the forgiving disposition. Moreover, the power to believe and the power to forgive are from God. At every step—beginning, middle, and end, all along the way—God is both present and active. “With fear and trembling continue to work out your own salvation; for it is God who is working in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13). See also N.T.C. on Eph. 2:8 and on Phil. 2:12, 13. It is exactly as Greijdanus observes, in commenting on the parallel passage, Luke 11:4 (“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive every one indebted to us”). He writes, “In spite of for, this clause does not indicate the ground upon which God bestows forgiveness, but that which must be complied with for us to enjoy God’s forgiveness of our own sins.”
To be genuine, this forgiveness that we ourselves bestow upon our fellow men must be given gladly, generously, and with finality; not in the spirit of, “I’ll forgive, but I’m telling you that I’ll never forget.” Lord’s Day 51 of the Heidelberg Catechism gives a correct, succinct, and beautiful explanation of the fifth petition: “Be pleased, for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us, miserable sinners, any of our transgressions, nor the evil which always cleaves to us; as we also find this witness of thy grace in us that it is our full purpose heartily to forgive our neighbor.”
A possible objection to the explanation given must be briefly answered: “Does not this mean, then, that our act of kindness toward the one who has injured us precedes Christ’s act of kindness toward us?”
Answer. In the circle of salvation the beginning is always with God, never with us. See 1 John 4:19; cf. John 13:15; Eph. 4:32; and 1 Peter 2:21. Nevertheless, the forgiving love of Christ not only precedes but also accompanies and even follows the love with which we love him and the neighbor.
Our sincere purpose to forgive those who have injured us, and thus also our experience of the pardoning love and grace of God in Christ, can be enhanced by the following considerations:
Extend forgiveness to others, for
- God so commands. Vengeance belongs to him, not to us (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19).
- We should follow the example Christ himself has given us (Luke 23:34; John 13:12–15; Eph. 4:32; 5:1, 2; Col. 3:13).
- We cannot be forgiven unless we forgive, as has been shown.
- The man who injured us needs our sympathy and love. We owe him this love (Rom. 13:8).
- Harboring a grudge and planning revenge is not only wicked but also foolish, for it deprives us of the strength we need to do effective work. We should have the forward look (Phil. 2:13).
- Forgiving others will impart peace of heart and mind to us, the peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7, 9).
- Thus, thus alone, will God be glorified, which should be our aim in all we do (1 Cor. 10:31).
The fourth petition is linked to the fifth, and the fifth to the sixth, by the conjunction and. All three represent human needs, and are closely connected. The connection between the fourth and fifth has already been indicated. Very close is also the relation between the fifth and the sixth, and this in at least the following respect: we are in need not only of forgiveness of past sins, but also of God’s protecting care so that in the future we may not fall into the clutches of Satan.
Between “And lead us not into temptation” and “deliver us from the evil one” there is no conjunction and. On the contrary, the conjunction but shows that the petition simply continues, the negative request being balanced by the positive in one petition. These two are, as it were, the two sides of the same coin. Accordingly, I am in agreement with all those who accept six, not seven, petitions.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 1, pp. 325–327). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.