By J.R. Miller
"Father, forgive us our debts." Matthew 6:12
In this petition, we come to the first sad note in the Lord's Prayer. The first three petitions, it has been said, angels and saints in heaven could offer. The fourth petition could have been used in Eden, for in innocency our first parents received their daily bread from God. But the fifth is only for sinners of our fallen race. It is a cry out of the depths; a cry however, which every mortal needs to make. Not to make it--is to remain in one's sins. The path of penitence is the only path that leads toward the gates of heaven!
The word "and" in this petition is suggestive and important. We need food, and we pray to our Father, asking him to give us what we need day by day. But though the needs of our body are supplied most abundantly, we would still perish forever--if that were all we received from heaven. God's most bountiful earthly gifts are not enough; with these we must obtain also God's mercy. The prayer which pleads "Father, give," must cry also "Father, forgive." It is an essential link, therefore, which binds together as in one--the two petitions, "GIVE us the day our daily bread, and FORGIVE us our debts." We must never rend them apart--but must always offer them in the same breath.
One of the most wonderful beatitudes in the Bible, is that for the forgiven man, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered." If we had written that beatitude, we would have put it, "Blessed is he who never has sinned, whose life is spotless and pure." But then it would have excluded all of our race, for there is not one who has not sinned. Only one Man in all the roll of the ages could have come under the bright white wings of the beatitude. As it reads, however, there is not one, however stained his life may be, who cannot claim and receive the blessing: "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered."
"Father, forgive us our debts." In Luke, the petition reads, "Forgive us our sins." The word for sin means missing the mark. The mark is perfect obedience, and we all miss it. Sin missed another mark, too--the blessedness of eternal life. God made us to live with himself--but through our failure we all come short of the divine glory. Sin brings ruin. "You have destroyed yourself!"
The word for sins used in Matthew's form of the Lord's Prayer is "debts." Our sins are debts. A debt is something we owe to another. Debt is a fearful burden which brings untold misery upon those who find themselves in its power. But the worst of all debts--are our sins!
To whom do we owe these debts? Are they debts to ourselves? In a sense they are. Whenever we sin--we rob ourselves, take something from our own life which leaves us poorer. Sin always harms the sinner. It wounds and scars his soul. It stains his life. "He who sins against me--wrongs his own soul." Shall we then say, in excuse for our sinning, that our life is our own and that we may do with it as we will? But our life is not our own. It is God's gift to us--and it still belongs to God! We shall have to account for it--when we stand before the judgment!
Nothing is taught more clearly in the Scriptures than that our life, with all its powers and talents, is something of God's, entrusted to us to be guarded by us and then brought back to God at the last. If it is faithfully kept and used, and returned at last without hurt or marring, its possibilities developed, we shall receive a reward. But if it be hurt, or if it be kept wrapped up in a napkin, an unused gift, we shall have a sad and fearful accounting, when we stand before Christ! Our life is not our own--to do with as we please! We may not harm it or destroy it--and think that we shall escape accounting for the ruin we have wrought. It is God's property we are wasting--and he will ask us for an account for it.
Nor can we say that our sins are debts to ourselves and that therefore we can forgive ourselves, can remit them, absolve ourselves from paying them. God alone, can forgive any sin. Any effort of ours to free ourselves from our debts--only binds the awful burden more firmly upon us. We are quite ready to try to forgive ourselves, excusing our sins, offering apologies and palliations for them--but we only add to our guilt and to our harming. Our sins are not merely debts owed to ourselves.
Then, are they debts to other people, to those against whom we commit them? Again, in a sense they are. We are bound up with people in inextricable bonds. We owe duties to everyone. The divine law requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves. This indicates the nature and extent of our obligations to others, what we owe to them. Paul, among the many wholesome counsels which shine in the pages of his epistles, gives this one, "Owe no man anything." He had seen how the course of debt had wrought its ruin in many lives, and he besought his friends to avoid it. But there was one debt he excluded. "Owe no man anything--except to love one another." Love is a debt we never can altogether pay off! Even if, at the close of a day, we could say that we had met every obligation of love to every individual in the world, we would rise next morning to find the debts all waiting for us, and we should have to begin anew to pay them.
Elsewhere, Paul said that he was debtor to every man. He did not mean that he owed money to everybody--but that he owed love--not only to the refined Greek--but also to the uncouth and unlovable barbarian. We all have a like debt to pay--we owe love to everyone.
Have we been paying all these debts? One of the bitterest ingredients in the cup of sorrow ofttimes, is the remembrance of failure in fulfilling love's duties. We stand by the coffins of our friends and recall, perhaps not unkindnesses--but neglect to show kindnesses, courtesies omitted, to those who are now beyond our reach. It is this class of sins, which the word "debts" specially suggests--duties which we owed--and did not pay. In the case of refined, cultivated people, there may well be no acts of cruelty, injustice, or wrong, committed against others. But there are few days in which the gentlest do leave undone many things they ought to have done, neglecting duties of encouragement, of comfort, of kindness, and of thoughtful help.
But is it only to our fellow-men that we owe these debts? Would their forgiveness of us, when we have failed in love's duty to them, set us free from the obligation? No, all our sins against others--are against God. Even a cruelty to a dumb animal--is a sin against God and God alone can forgive it. It is with God we have to do--in every thought or word or act. It is God's law we violate, when we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves. The calls of need that come to us, are not merely human voices--they are the echoes of the divine voice. "Behind the injured, neglected brother--God stands, the guardian of the brother's right; behind the neglected work--God stands, the real Employer who has entrusted us with talents and powers. Behind the misused or unused talents--stands the Giver of them, and demands his own." Our unpaid debts of love to others--are really debts to God. We may wrong our friends and neighbors--but we can sin only against God--and God only can forgive us.
David had wrecked a home, caused the death of a faithful soldier, and brought dishonor upon a nation--but he said truly, "Against you, you only, have I sinned." Jesus made it plain that our unpaid debts of love to men--are debts to God. In the judgment, those who have neglected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and care for the sick--are said to have failed in these duties to the Judge himself. He who sins against another--sins against God.
The word "our" is suggestive. Our sins are our own. Each one lives his own life separately. In the Fifty-first Psalm David speaks continually of "my sin," "my transgression," "my iniquity." He could blame his sins on no other. He could transfer his guilt to no other. No matter who tempted us, our sin is still our own. No one can compel us to sin. Temptation is not sin--the sin begins when we yield to it. "Resist the devil--and he will flee from you," say the Scriptures. Every man's soul is his castle, and no other, no evil spirit, no hosts of wicked powers, can force an entrance. Hence our sins are our own--and we never can lay the blame on any other. "Nothing," said Augustine, "is so much our own--as our sins." The most loving friend--could not take our sin and free us from it. David would have died for Absalom--but his love was powerless to do so. Everyone must give account of himself unto God.
What shall we do? Here is the only answer: "Father, forgive us our debts!" Can sin be forgiven? We are told that nature knows no forgiveness. You cannot get back the health lost in sinful indulgence. You cannot recall the bitter word which flew yesterday from your lips into a loving heart. You cannot undo the evil which caused an innocent person to fall. Yet from the beginning of the Bible to its close--we are assured that God is a God of mercy, and that however great our sins against him--he may forgive us. He loves to forgive. He is slow to wrath--but swift in mercy.
Confession is necessary. David tells us that while he kept silence--his bones waxed old, through his roaring all the day long. He found no peace. Unconfessed sin is unforgiven sin, and is a fire within the breast. If we cover our sins--we cannot prosper; but when we confess them and forsake them--we shall find mercy. God runs to meet the prodigal who returns with penitence.
What is God's forgiveness? Is it simply the remission of the penalty? Does God merely save us from punishment, and nothing more? Would that satisfy us--and give us peace? It is not the dread of the consequences of sin that is its most fearful element. It is the burden upon the soul, the sense of guilt, the anguish of remorse--this is what makes sin so terrible. Would then the lifting away of the penalty, while all the bitterness of sin itself stays in the heart, be a forgiveness that would bring joy? Would heaven make us happy if we could be taken into its glory, with all our woeful sin within?
No! the forgiveness that will bring blessing, must not only remit the penalty--but must also include the taking away of the sin itself, the undoing of the terrible ruin which sin has wrought in us, the new-creating of our life in the divine image, and the making of us--as though we had not sinned at all. Here it is that the work of Christ's redemption comes in. Salvation means more than the removal of guilt. The old legend says that a dove nestled on the cross when Jesus was dying. The suggestion is that the power of the Holy Spirit was necessary to complete the work of grace in the life cleansed by the blood of Christ. The Lamb of God takes away--not the penalty only of sin--but the sin itself.
There is another little word here which must not be overlooked: "Forgive US." Throughout all this prayer, we have been taught not to speak to God for ourselves alone. We approach the gates of prayer, crying, not, "My Father," but "Our Father." SELF must be effaced and selfishness must die--as we fall on our knees. In asking for bread, we are taught to think of others needs--as well as our own. So here, when we cry for forgiveness, we must include others.
There is a sense in which we must bring our own sins, alone, to God. They are our own and no one but ourselves can get them forgiven. We must confess our own sins and repent of our own sins. The Pharisee in the parable was free in confessing the publican's sins--but said not a word about his own sins! The publican's confession was the true one. He troubled himself only with his own personal unworthiness. "God be merciful to me a sinner!"
Yet, while we must pray for the forgiveness of our own personal sins, our prayer is not complete if we do not reach out and ask that others too, may be forgiven. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are therefore to be concerned about our neighbor's sins--as much as we are about our own. But are we? We may find it easy to see our neighbor's faults--and to blame him for his follies or shortcomings; but is that really being grieved for his sins? Do we not sometimes almost rejoice at learning that a neighbor has slipped or fallen? Yet if we have the mind that was in Christ Jesus--we will feel toward the sins of others as he did, and he wept over Jerusalem because the people would not repent.