When I was a child, I was always surprised to hear people saying, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” when they prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I had learned “trespasses” so I knew that this had to be the right way! I was even more surprised when I grew up and went to school and found that the original, the Greek version of the prayer in Matthew uses the word ojfeilhvmata, which means “debt,” or “that which is owed.”
In casual circumstances, we sometimes arrange debts with I.O.U.’s. An IOU a promissory note. Perhaps we borrowed money. Perhaps we received merchandise on credit. The IOU represents that which is owed. So this evening I chose to link the idea of the IOU and the idea of the debt from the Greek text of the Lord’s Prayer as we discuss the Fifth petition with the theme I.O.U.̓s.
The Fifth petition is “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, not deny our petitions because of them; for we are worthy of none of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them; but [we pray] that He would grant all of them to us by grace; for we are gross sinners every day and genuinely deserve nothing but punishment. So will we also forgive from the heart, and also freely do good to those who sin against us.
Most people think of sin as a mistake, a bad deed, or as some kind of corruption. Here in the Fifth petition it is presented as a debt. None of these ideas is wrong, nor do they contradict one another. They simply express different aspects of the same topic, Sin. Since we pray for forgiveness of sins in this petition, it might be useful to talk about the nature of sin at this time.
Sin is the breaking of, or violation of, the will of God. It is something we can do by actions, by speaking, or by thought. We can even sin by doing nothing. Sin is divided, for teaching purposes, into different kinds of sins and different ways of sinning. The two kinds of sin are Original sin (which we inherit and which completely corrupts our human nature) and Actual sin (which is the sin we personally do or “act out”). Both are sin, and both deserve eternal damnation. Then there are two basic ways of sinning.
The Church has long taught about sins of commission and sins of omission. A sin of commission is a sin you commit. Actually, it means that you do something which is wrong or sinful. A sin of Omission is a good thing you omit to do. This is not doing something forbidden, but failing to do something commanded, right, or necessary. The Bible says, James 4:17, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
Christians spend so much time talking about sin because it is so natural to man and so very deadly in effect. Sin is the issue, not just specific sinful actions, thoughts, or words. Sin is the basic state of rebellion, the twisted-ness of the heart which will not and cannot obey or love God. It is Sin in us which produces all those individual sins. Those individual sinful acts are not all that damns us, they are part of the problem, but they are really primarily the symptoms and the fruits of Sin in us, and it is Sin which brings about our condemnation.
The Bible talks about the ways of sinning – or doing sin – by using a number of different words. The New Testament word “sin” in the Greek means literally “to miss the mark.” We try and fail. We aim at good thoughts and have evil ones. We do not come up to the standard of holiness set for us. What we do is not what God wants - and often not what we want.
Another sin-word is Transgression. It means trespass (which is another sin-word). It means to step over the line, or go where you don̓t belong. Adultery is a transgression, going where we do not belong, using what we ought not even to touch. When we say or think, “Oh-oh! Now I’ve gone too far,” we have transgressed. God has drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, and we have stepped over it. You may desire to possess, but you are forbidden to covet. You are permitted to become angry, but you must forgive and not let the sun go down on your anger. You may righteously speak about a neighbor, but not gossip, judging him or her, and damaging his or her reputation. Too much or too little is transgression.
We use the word iniquity. It means un-equal, unjust, or uneven. Inconsistent behavior is iniquitous. It is behavior, speaking or thinking that doesn’t follow the even rule of the Law of God. Prejudice is iniquity, it has a basic inequity or inequality. When you treat someone poorly for no reason, or for a poor reason, that is iniquity. When you favor someone for their money or looks or some other inadequate reason, that is iniquity. James writes about this too, chapter 2, verses 2, 3 and 4, If a man comes into your church with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one wearing the find clothes and say “You sit here in a good place,“ and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,“ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
Wickedness is another term for sin. It suggests a twisted-ness. Luther spoke of man’s inclination to sin with the Latin phrase “Curvatus in se,” meaning ‘twisted in on one’s self’. Perversion, rape, incest, abortion, and the like are wickedness. They are twisted, and turn deliberately away from the way of God and the way of life. Homosexuality - male or female -is wickedness, twisting the natural relationships of men and women. Pornography is wickedness, it is twisted and perverse, using something delightful and holy for profane, cheap and illicit purposes.
Again, there is guile - deception, sneakiness, trickiness. These are the things we often hear called “good business”. Guile involves false weights and measures, fine print hidden to deceive, and such things. Guile is lying and cheating. But guile also includes clever advertising which suggests what it doesn’t clearly state, putting the best forward and just not mentioning the bad, painting over rust, or putting a good face on something bad. Even make-up, as used by some women can involve a measure of guile.
Finally, sin is lawlessness. Anything which does not recognize the order and will of God is lawlessness. Lawlessness acts as though it were free to do whatever it pleases. The false concept of freedom, which does not recognize the binding nature of laws, or the responsibility of the individual which always accompanies personal liberty, is lawlessness. My ‘rights’ become sinful if they do not balance my responsibilities and duties. The rights issues which are destroying the peace of America are just such sin. They are lawlessness, and God is a God of order, and of Law – although not only of Law.
And the wages of sin is death. I imagine that I have said things about sin this evening which make you uncomfortable. If I haven’t, raise your hand and I will try harder. We all sin. I have and so have you. We feel comfortable admitting past and minor-seeming sins, or generic sinfulness, as long as we don’t have to name the sin, the time and the place. We don’t mind the generalized and sanitized sin, but not one of us likes the thought that we are gross sinners, really wicked and evil people, every day - but you are. You sin all of the time, but those individual sins are not the issue - Sin is! And the wages of SIN is death. You and I deserve to die, right now, and go to hell. Everyone does. If you disagree with that, you argument is not with me, it is with God and with His Word.
And we pray in this petition that God would forgive us the sin, transgressions, iniquity, wickedness, guile, and lawlessness which we do and think and say every day. We pray that God would forgive us so that these sins will not stand in the way of His blessing us and loving us here in time, and from saving us and giving us eternal life in eternity. We ask God to forget what miserable sinners we really are and deal with us as though we have never sinned. We ask Him to bless us as though we were good people. We ask Him to deal with us according to His forgiveness in Jesus, because Jesus bought our forgiveness on the cross.
And – praise to His grace – He does! That is the good news of the gospel. He still loves us and he richly blesses us, because of Jesus. He listens to our prayers and answers, because Jesus took our sins to the cross and nailed them there in His flesh. Not just our sins, but Sin itself. Then He died to sin, and in baptism He connected us to His own death and resurrection, with the result that we are now spiritually dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. But our flesh is still sinful. It has not died yet, and so we ask God every time we pray this prayer to forgive us anew and help us to start over and to live for Him.
I told you a couple weeks ago that this prayer was the most dangerous prayer in the world. This is the petition that makes it so. You pray here for God to forgive you as you forgive others. “Forgive me God just like I forgive those who cheat me, steal from me, call me names, and are out to get me. Forgive me like I forgive the insults. Forgive me just the same way – and to the same degree – as I forgive my enemies and those who get in my way and those who hurt me.” That is what this prayer is about.
And Jesus makes it clear in Matthew that this is just the way God hears and answers this petition. He says, Matthew 6:14-15 - the verses immediately following the prayer, for if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
This prayer is dangerous, because you owe God your life. You owe God obedience. You owe God worship and praise and thanksgiving. You have piled up the IOU’s of deeds of righteousness undone, and obedience discarded. You owe Him holiness and glory and honor, but you give Him sin and selfishness and lawlessness and blasphemy and shame.
Then someone else who owes you courtesy forgets, someone else who owes you a kindness is rude, someone else who owes you love strikes you or robs you or calls you a name, or makes your life less pleasant, if only for a moment. They sin against you, and you get angry and hold their sins against them and stew.
God says, I will forgive you your entire life of debt to me, and now you must also forgive the debts of those who owe you.
God has nailed the bill of debt, the IOU of your sins on the cross with and in Jesus. The Bible uses almost those exact words. And then God tells us that we must do the same, we must forgive those who sin against us if we will receive His forgiveness.
So Luther says that we promise, in this petition, to forgive from the heart, and freely do good to those who sin against us. We remind ourselves that our forgiveness goes hand in hand with us forgiving others. The parable of the unjust steward, who was forgiven the 6 million dollar IOU but could not forgive the six hundred dollar debt is Jesus’ way of telling us again that this petition speaks the truth.
So if you want to carry the grudge - don’t pray this petition. If you feel that it is only right to remember the wrongs done to you, an unkind word, or a hurtful deed, then don’t pray this prayer. If you feel that the wrongs against you have been too often and too much, and now it is right to hold it against them, then don’t ask God to forgive you. You can say all of the God-words and Jesus-talk you want. If you don’t forgive others, all others, then you actually pray in this petition that God does not forgive you - and whether you pray it or not, He will not. If you cannot forgive others, you are not a Christian in any sense of the word which ought to bring comfort to anyone.
The whole of the Christian faith is wrapped up here. God forgives us for Jesus sake. His love and forgiveness transforms us into new creatures. We are dead to sin and alive to God because of and in connection with Christ Jesus. But if we cannot and will not be like Him and connected to Him so that we also forgive, then we are not in connection with Jesus, and then we are not really dead to sin or alive to God, and we are not forgiven either.
IOU̓s. We owe. God has forgiven our debts to Him. We owe Him to forgive others. That is a debt we will gladly pay, and we pray for it in this fifth petition. God grant our prayer to be forgiven and give us the grace to forgive others, for Christ’s sake.