Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Lord’s Prayer: Forgiveness Received

Today, we will take a look at one of the key elements of the Christian faith: forgiveness. It makes sense that in the prayer that He calls His disciples to pray, Jesus includes this petition:

and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6:12

There is much going on here, much to understand and much to enjoy. So, we’ll just be looking at the first part of that petition today and return next week to look at the rest.

We’re going to start where we often start, by looking carefully at the words. Being sure to understand the words is so critically important. Many problems arise because people aren’t clear on the words. And much that will benefit can be missed because people aren’t clear on the words.

So, let’s consider the word ‘debts’. It’s obvious that Jesus is referring to our sin. What may not be so obvious is why He chooses this word, ‘debts’. He could have used the word ‘trespasses’ or even the simple word ‘sins’. He does use those words elsewhere, but He doesn’t use them here. Here, He uses the word ‘debts’.

So, what is it about this word ‘debts’ that Jesus wants us to get as we offer up this prayer? Well, what’s involved in a debt? It’s all about owing someone. We usually think of that in terms of money owed, but here Jesus uses it to describe our sins.

When we offer up this petition we are acknowledging something important about our sins. We are acknowledging that when it comes to our sins the Father is thinking, ‘You owe Me! You owe Me big time.’

Jesus does the same sort of thing in His parable about the two servants in Matthew 18. It’s a parable about forgiveness. This is how it starts.

…the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. Matthew 18:23-24

Now, I’m guessing that you don’t know how much ten thousand talents is. Let’s just say that it’s a ton of money. That servant owed the king a bazillion dollars, something that he could never repay. And yet, as the parable goes on to explain, his debt is forgiven. In this parable, Jesus is teaching about forgiveness, but the first thing that He does is make clear the immensity of our sin. We are that servant.

When we pray this petition, we are speaking to the Father about the great debt of our sins, the debt that we owe Him. The size of our debt owed to the Father is incalculable. It’s huge and far beyond our ability to repay.

And that explains something of why Jesus uses this word ‘debts’ in this prayer. He wants us to be confronted with the enormity of our sin against the Father. And He wants us to be confronted with that fact every time we pray this prayer.

Now, what about this other word, ‘forgive’? What’s going on here? What are we asking the Father to do when we ask for the forgiveness of our sins? When you say it without church words it really is quite striking. We are asking the Father to overlook what we just did. That awful thing that we did, that awful thing that has just added more to the pile that we owe the Father, that act that was the exact opposite of what is good and right - we’re asking the Father to just forget about it. We want Him to disregard it, to brush it aside. We want Him to refuse to collect on the debt. That’s what forgiveness is.

So, with all this in mind, let’s translate this petition. Let’s translate, ‘and forgive us our debts’. What are we actually praying?

‘Father, please ignore that sinful thing that I just did. Just act as if You didn’t notice that evil act and thought and attitude. And though the result of my having done that is like owing You a huge pile of money, please just zero out that debt.’

Well, what do you think? Isn’t that what we are asking the Father to do when we ask for the forgiveness of our sins?

Now, let’s take this request and consider it from a different perspective. Let’s translate it with some different issues in mind. Let’s translate it like this:

‘Father, please compromise Your character for my sake. Yes, You are the holy God who is all about justice. But I’m asking You to adjust who You are and set aside these qualities that display Your glory so that I won’t have to deal with the consequences of my sin. Please forget about Your holiness and justice and just let my sin slide. Compromise Yourself for my sake.’

Now, that sounds all wrong, but isn’t that how this prayer for forgiveness is often offered up? ‘Compromise Yourself for my sake.’

And what is the Father’s response to such a request? That’s easy. ‘Not a chance!’

Bear in mind how He has revealed Himself, how He has revealed these glorious qualities of His character to us, His holiness and His justice. Listen to just a few places where He does this.

Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them. Deuteronomy 27:26

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men… Romans 1:18

the soul who sins shall die. Ezekiel 18:4

Jesus adds this.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, ​and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 13:41-42

Jesus is talking about a punishment for sin that will never end. He’s talking about hell where there will be cursing and wrath for everyone who has sinned. He’s talking about eternal death.

So, asking the Father to simply forget about that sinful thing you did - it’s just not an option. The Father’s sense of holiness and justice, His zeal for His own glory - those are the things that are at stake here. Do you actually think that He will compromise those things for you?

Sadly, the all-too-common opinion is that the Father’s love will trump such things. He will, in fact, compromise. He will forgive because He loves. So, we don’t need to worry about things like His holiness and justice. Let’s not trouble ourselves about any zeal for His glory.

What wickedness! People who think this way do not understand God. In thinking like this they insult Him. That’s not a wise thing to do.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘But wait a minute. I believe in Jesus. Doesn’t that change all of this? Isn’t there forgiveness for Christians because of what Jesus has done?’ Oh, yes, there is forgiveness because of Jesus. But it’s important for you to grasp something. That doesn’t change the Father’s insistence on maintaining His holiness and justice. His zeal for His glory is not abated. It’s still true that He will not compromise what makes Him who He is. He will not compromise His glory for you. Never! But He will forgive you.

So, how does that work? How does God maintain His zeal for His glory and at the same time forgive your debt? And you know the answer. God takes all that cursing and wrath - He takes all that eternal death and puts it on Himself. God endures the punishment of hell. Oh, I know that it’s the Father who places all of that on the Son. But remember, we don’t worship three gods. There is only one God who exists in three persons. So, it is completely proper, and quite helpful, for me to say that God has taken the punishment for sin, for your sin, on Himself. And what motivated Him to do that? Well, it’s something else that displays His glory, that makes Him who He is. And that is His love.

So, again, what are you asking the Father to do when you ask for forgiveness? Let’s go back to how I translated this petition earlier, and see if it still works.

‘Father, please ignore that sinful thing that I just did. Just act as if You didn’t notice that evil act and thought and attitude. And though the result of my doing that is like owing You a huge pile of money, please just zero out that debt.’

What do you think? Is that what you are asking the Father to do? Is that what this petition is about? I actually think that it is a very good translation of our request for forgiveness. It captures what’s going on - as long as you add this sentence.

‘And do all of this by suffering Your own just and holy response against my sin: eternal cursing and wrath. Suffer eternal death for me.’

Every sin that you commit, every wicked act and thought and attitude, is like a debt you owe the Father. And each and every day, you add to that debt, you add lots to that debt. So, like that servant whose debt to the king was a pile of money that he could never repay, you owe the King of glory a debt that you could never repay. The Bible’s teaching about forgiveness will amount to nothing but sentimentalism if you don’t understand what you owe the Father. Your debt of sin is enormous.

And yet, at the same time, I want you to fully embrace this truth: the Father zeroes out all that you owe Him. He completely ignores the sinful thing that you did and acts as if you never did it. And that is amazing grace!

All of that is the forgiveness of the Gospel.

So, I will say here what I often say at this point. Believe the Gospel. Believe this part of the Gospel. It always comes back to that. You will never get beyond the Gospel.

So first, believe with all your heart that you are a sinner. You are a great sinner. The debt of your sins is immense, absolutely immense, beyond repayment, a bazillion dollars. You deserve hell. Maturity in the faith shows as a growing sense of how true that is.

Grasping that is crucial, but don’t stop there. Here is the second thing that I want you to believe. You are forgiven, completely forgiven. That huge debt that you owe the Father, the debt that is mountains high, it has been zeroed out. It’s gone. And even though you add to that debt every day - and you do - every day it is zeroed out. You owe nothing. So, at every moment the Father deals with you as if you’ve never sinned - never, not even once. You’re forgiven.

And here’s the third thing to believe. All of this is yours because of Jesus. This is what the Cross is about. On the Cross Jesus suffered your hell. And He did that willingly. The Cross is the display of God’s zeal, His zeal for His own glory, for the qualities that make Him who He is, His zeal for His holiness and His justice - and His zeal for His love. It is His zeal for such things that results in your debts being forgiven.

So, again, I would encourage you to make the Lord’s Prayer a regular part of your prayers. But pray it thoughtfully. Remember what you are praying about as you offer up each petition. Remember what you are praying about as you offer up this petition.

As you do that you will be changed. You will see reality more clearly. You will grow in wisdom because of how the Spirit will use this prayer in your life.

You will grow in wisdom because you will understand God better. He is the holy and just God who compromises His character for no one. But He is also the God who loves in amazing ways. He has suffered His own wrath for you.

You will grow in wisdom because you will understand yourself better. You are a sinner, and that sin isn’t just breaking some rules. It is much more personal than that. It’s like owing someone a pile of money. It’s borrowing and borrowing and borrowing, knowing that you will never be able to repay. And yet, you will also understand that you are forgiven. The debt is gone. Zeroed out. The Father views you as debt free. This is also who you are.

You will grow in wisdom because you will understand people better. Those who do not believe the Gospel have a huge debt, and at some level, they have some sense of that debt. It may just be some vague unease, but unless they have completely destroyed their conscience, they feel it. It used to be that the façade of belief in some god eased that feeling. But that facade is falling apart. And that is one reason why so many people are falling apart. They are in debt, and they feel it, but they have no solution to that problem. But all of that can be dealt with. The debt can be zeroed out. There is forgiveness in Jesus. They need to know these things so that they too will come to Jesus and believe the Gospel.

Believe the Gospel and make this petition a part of your prayers. As you do that the Spirit will act. He will open your eyes to see more and more of the beauty of the Gospel. And out of that will come things like joy and peace and heartfelt worship.