Summary: Why receiving God’s forgiveness and extending forgiveness to others is essential to prayer.
This last week we’ve heard a lot of rhetoric in light of September 11th’s terrorist attack on our nation. We’ve heard our president use words like "dead or alive" and punishing evil doers. We’ve heard the military’s phrase "infinite justice." We’ve been bombarded with words like hate crimes, justice, vengeance, action, outrage, patriotism, and even war. But there’s one word we haven’t heard much these days. It’s a word I almost hesitate to use in these times, but it’s a word I believe is important. That word is the word forgiveness.
Frankly, forgiveness is not the topic I would’ve chosen to talk about this morning if it were up to me. I would’ve much preferred to talk about God’s final judgment against those who hurt innocent people. But we’ve been in a series on the Lord’s Prayer called "Teach Us to Pray" and today we come to that part of the Lord’s Prayer that deals with forgiveness. So whether we’re ready to hear about it or not, today we’re going to talk about forgiveness in our prayer lives. We’re going to examine this part of the Lord’s prayer and then talk in depth about what it means to receive God’s forgiveness and what it means to extend our forgiveness to others.
We begin by actually looking at this part of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12. When Jesus talks about forgiveness of our debts here, he’s not talking about canceling our Visa bill. This prayer reflects a Jewish concept that all our lives are on loan from God. Every time we act in a way that violates the creator’s principles for how to live, that puts us in debt before God, because we’ve violated the principles God created us to live by. So this word refers to "the moral debt incurred because of our sins" (Louw and Nida 88.299). It refers to our actions and our inactions, the things we should have done but didn’t do, as well as the things we did do but shouldn’t have done.
Now notice what this prayer is really saying. It doesn’t say, "Forgive us our debts as we promise to forgive our debtors" or, "Forgive us our debts as we will someday forgive our debtors." It’s past tense, to forgive us as we have already forgiven our debtors. That’s an amazing statement, that we’re asking God to treat our sins the same way we have treated those who have sinned against us. So whenever we pray this prayer with an unforgiving heart, we’re really asking God not to forgive our sins. We’re asking God to treat us the exact same way we’re treating those who’ve sinned against us.
Now I mentioned the first week of this series in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught this prayer on at least two separate occasions. In addition to teaching it on the sermon on the mount, here in Matthew, he also taught about prayer privately to his closest followers. That conversation is recorded in the 11th chapter of Luke, and the version of the Lord’s Prayer we find in Luke is a little different. There Jesus taught us to pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone who sins against us" (Luke 11:4 NIV).
There are no exceptions given in this prayer. It doesn’t say, "As we forgive those who are truly sorry for what they’ve done." Jesus doesn’t say, "As we forgive those who have a good excuse for their sins against us." He says "everyone."
Now this part of the Lord’s prayer deals with both receiving God’s forgiveness and extending forgiveness to others. So in our remaining time together, let’s talk about this.
Now the Bible talks about two different kinds of forgiveness we receive from God. Most Christians fail to understand these two distinct aspects of forgiveness, and this lack of understanding leads to all sorts of problems and misunderstandings in the spiritual life. It’s vitally important to understand these two distinct kinds of forgiveness.
The first kind of forgiveness the Bible talks about is a forgiven status, which is what the Bible calls justification Romans 5:1 is an example of this kind of forgiveness, which says, "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
The word "justified" or "justification" doesn’t get used much in our world today, at least not positively. We think of someone who tries to justify themselves by making excuses for what they’ve done. That certainly is not what the Bible is talking about here.
The Greek word here is a legal term that means to be made right with someone. This word pictures a person standing in a law court accused of some crime and the evidence is presented. If the judge determines that the person is not guilty of the crime, the judge acquits the person, declaring the person "not guilty." That action justifies the person, because the person is declared innocent of the accusation and therefore free to live their life.