This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(126) Q. What does the fifth petition mean?
A. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” means: Because of Christ’s blood, do not impute to us, poor sinners that we are, any of the transgressions we do or the evil that constantly clings to us. Forgive us just as we are fully determined, as evidence of your grace in us, wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbors.
When Christians confess the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm our belief in “the forgiveness of sins.” As an article of faith, we trust that God will not hold our sins against us because of the sacrifice of his Son. This is a precious truth.
But more than a truth to be believed, the forgiveness of sins must shape our relationship with God and our relationships with others. Believing in forgiveness means receiving forgiveness from God and reflecting God’s forgiveness toward others. This is how Jesus teaches us to pray in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
Pray that You Would Receive God’s Forgiveness
Receiving God’s forgiveness requires an exchange of seeking and accepting a cure that only God can give.
We must seek God’s forgiveness.
As we need daily bread (Matt. 6:11), so we need daily forgiveness. We persistently transgress God’s law by overstepping his boundaries. More fundamentally, “evil … constantly clings to us.” Even on our best-behaved days, we live in a “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). The gospel guarantees that our recurring sin does not jeopardize our salvation. “The pardon granted in justification applies to all sins, past, present, and future, and involves the removal of all guilt and of every penalty.” As far as God our judge is concerned, justified believers have no debts. But sin does disrupt our experience of relating to God. We still “become soiled and tarnished by sin, as we walk through this world.” The guilt of sin “produces in believers a feeling of … separation from God, and of sorrow” along with “an urge to confess it.” We pray for forgiveness like the lost son in Jesus’s parable who swallowed his pride and admitted, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:18–19).
But it isn’t enough to merely take responsibility for our sin and request pardon.
We must accept God’s forgiveness.
“We desire to have the forgiveness of sins. We desire to possess it, to be assured of it in our deepest heart. We long to know and be assured that God has so forgiven, dismissed, cancelled my debts, and so clothed me with eternal righteousness that I am still the object of his favor, and that He gives me eternal life.” We don’t ask God to compromise his holiness by looking the other way. We ask God not to “impute to us, poor sinners that we are” either our actual sins or inherent sinfulness “because of Christ’s blood.” We can pray for grace because we believe that God in Christ is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth (Exod. 34:6; cf. Ps. 86:5). So we pray for forgiveness not as a doubtful wish but as those who file a guaranteed claim.
Scripture teaches that those who are forgiven will also be forgiving (Matt. 18:21–35).
Pray that You Would Reflect God’s Forgiveness
All of us feel the strain of sin in our relationships. We cannot go a single day without being sinned against. Often our spiritual debtors are people close to us, like family and church members, who have the potential to deeply wound us. We’re tempted to respond in kind. But when we hold grudges against others, we rob ourselves of the joy of deep friendships and diminish our confidence in God’s forgiveness of us.
But we also can’t simply pretend that others’ sins against us don’t matter. They do. They are significant enough to have sent Jesus to the cross. The only way to become right with our debtors is to forgive.
We forgive penitent sinners by refusing to hold their sins against them. The root idea of forgiveness is to leave a thing behind, overlook it, or send it away. We must let go of grievances we have against repentant sinners. This doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting, but we pledge not to keep others’ offenses fresh in our minds or constantly on our tongues. God promises to “tread our iniquities underfoot” and “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). In forgiving others, we pledge to do likewise. Be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
And we must try to work through our differences. “Forgiveness is a declaration to the offender proceeding from the heart of the offended party that he…is inclined to live in peace and love with him.” The second clause of the fifth petition requires us to “willingly cast from the mind wrath, hatred, desire for revenge, and … try to get back into our enemies’ good graces.”
Forgiving others is hard. And our debtors don’t always help. Their failures can be regular. Their requests for forgiveness can seem insincere. But if we have a hard time forgiving others, let’s try seeing our obligation through the lens of God’s grace. Our sins arraigned Jesus and nailed him to the tree. And yet we ask, “Lord, grant to us remission; Life through death restore; Yea, grant us the fruition of life forevermore.”
By pardoning our insurmountable debt, God has impressed upon us the beauty of forgiveness. It’s our privilege and responsibility to testify to God’s grace by showing compassion toward others, just as God has pitied us (Matt. 18:33). This is why we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). That second clause might seem like a condition, as if how we forgive others regulates how God forgives us. But God’s gracious actions are not conditioned by ours. The only ground for God’s forgiveness is his grace. The word “as” describes not a condition but a comparison or reflection. Our forgiveness of others is a “testimony” of God’s forgiveness of us. When God showers his forgiving mercy into our hearts, we overflow in forgiveness toward others. Conversely, holding grudges and making others grovel for forgiveness can indicate a graceless soul. Refusal to forgive is evidence of unbelief. So it isn’t too strong to say that “the Lord excludes from the number of his children those persons who” are “eager for revenge and slow to forgive.”
Let’s pray that the Lord would make us “fully determined, as evidence of [his] grace in us, wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbors.”
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 514.
 D. Martyn Lloyd Jones Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 2.73.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 515.
 Herman Hoeksema, The Triple Knowledge, 3.594
 Wilhelmus a Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1994), 3.566.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.45.
 Arthur T. Russel, Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 349.
 Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 194.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.45.