In Matthew 6:12, Jesus teaches His disciples to pray for the forgiveness of their debts (cf., Lk. 11:4, “sins”):
“and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Many often wonder, what is meant by “forgiveness?” Before exploring what is meant by forgiveness, it will be helpful to clarify what this passage is not teaching.
The condition, “as we also have forgiven our debtors,” is not the cause of God’s forgiveness. Believers do not deserve God’s forgiveness because they forgive. Neither asking for forgiveness nor forgiving others earns God’s forgiveness. Calvin succinctly writes, “…the forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others…”
The forgiveness of our debts/sins is not based on our merit for we have none (Gen. 2:16-17; Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:9-19; 5:12; Eph. 2:1-9; Col 2:13). Rather, the forgiveness of our sins is based solely on God’s unmerited favor on account of Christ (Matt. 26:28; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Heb. 9:22).
In the Institutes, Calvin writes,
“He calls sins “debts” because we owe penalty for them, and we would in no way satisfy it unless we were released by this forgiveness. This pardon comes out of his free mercy, by which He Himself generously wipes out these debts, exacting no payment from us but making satisfaction to himself by his own mercy in Christ, who once for all gave himself as a ransom [cf. Rom. 3:24]. Therefore, those who trust that God is satisfied with their own or others’ merits, and that by such satisfaction forgiveness of sins is paid for and purchased, share not at all in this free gift.” (3.20.45)
Grace is the sine qua non of faith and all good works.
Faith and good works are given to believers purely out of God’s good pleasure (Rom. 3:27; Eph. 2:8; Philip. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:9). This petition for forgiveness does not depend on the forgiveness we grant to others. Forgiveness of sins is not the result of the believer’s compassion and mercy but rather the Lord’s compassion (cf., Matt. 18:27) and mercy (Dan. 9:19; Lk. 18:13). It is God who gives faith to believers and causes them to obey (Ezek. 36:27). It is the Spirit who engraves the righteousness of God’s law on their hearts (Jer. 31:33). Included in this gracious work of the Spirit is the fruit of forgiveness (to be sure not perfect in this life but nonetheless present, cf., HC, Lord’s Day 44; Question 114).
God’s forgiveness always precedes our acts of forgiveness (Eph. 4:32). We forgive because we have been forgiven. We love because we have been loved (Lk. 7:47; 1 John 4:19). Confession of sin and the petition for forgiveness of sin is the cry of a justified heart (Dan. 9:19; Matt. 6:12; 1 John 1:9). All good works from the beginning of faith to the final perseverance of the believer are a divine gift. St. Prosper of Aquitaine (disciple of Augustine), in the 5th century wrote, “…a man’s merit from the beginning of faith to final perseverance is a gift and work of God.”
“Confession of sin and the petition for forgiveness of sin is the cry of a justified heart.”
To be sure, God does not believe, love or forgive for us. We are commanded to believe (Acts 16:31), love (John 13:34) and forgive (Eph. 4:32). God’s forgiveness is not given to those who ask for it while at the same time, with impunity, harbor feelings of hatred and seek opportunities for revenge and contemplate occasions to hurt and lash out at others. By this kind of prayer, Calvin warns, “…we entreat God not to forgive our sins. For we ask that he do to us as we do to others [cf. Matt. 7:12]. This, indeed, is to petition him not to do it to us unless we ourselves do it. What do people of this sort gain from their petition but a heavier judgment?” (3.20.45)
Yet, believers’ works are never the basis for God’s forgiveness. They can never be the whole or even part of the believer’s righteousness before God (cf., HC, Lord’s Day 24; Question 62). Why? The Heidelberg Catechism concisely answers, “Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, (a) and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin (b) [(a) Gal.3:10; Deut.27:26 (b) Isa.64:6].
Believers are not justified or sanctified by their works.
Good works (e.g., asking for forgiveness or forgiving others) are simply the fruit of justification and the evidence of sanctification. Believers are not even saved by their faith, as if the act of believing had any merit before God. We are saved by grace through the instrument of faith (Eph. 2:5, 8). And though faith and its accompanying fruits (e.g., forgiveness) must be present for there to be genuine saving faith (cf., James 2:14-26), faith is not a meritorious work but is also a gift of grace (Eph. 2:8-10).
Robert Traill provides this concise and fitting insight regarding faith, “Believing in Jesus Christ is no work, but a resting on Jesus Christ; and that this pretence is as unreasonable as if a man wearied with a journey and unable to go one step further should argue, ‘I am so tired that I am not able to lie down,’ when indeed he can neither stand nor go.”
What then are we to make of this condition laid down by our Lord in Matthew 6:12? How are we to understand it?
To be continued…