What is meant by “forgiveness” in Matthew 6:12? Part 3

We are currently probing how to understand the condition given by the Lord in Matthew 6:12, “and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors,” (cf., vv. 14-15).

In the previous article (Part 2), we noted that Calvin gives two helpful, key reasons for this condition.

First, we discovered that this condition is partly intended to comfort the weakness of our faith. In other words, the sight of good works (i.e., the reflex act of faith) can in some measure serve to comfort and strengthen the believer’s faith.

We then highlighted how this first reason calls for both a word of caution and a word of encouragement.

First, we considered a word of caution.

Though, good works may serve to strengthen faith and serve as a secondary role for assurance, they must never be understood as the cause of holiness or the ultimate ground of assurance.

“The Gospel-Driven life maintains that the Gospel, the free promise of justification, is the primary ground for both sanctification and assurance.”

In contrast, the Gospel-Driven life maintains that the Gospel, the free promise of justification, is the primary ground for both sanctification and assurance. Thomas Wilcox, in his small yet famous piece entitled, A Drop of Honey from the Rock of Christ, writes,

“If you would see your graces, your sanctification, do not stand gazing upon them; but look at Christ’s righteousness in the first place; see the Son and you see all. Look at your graces in the second place. In believing, what you first look at, you expect stability from, and make the foundation of your hope. Go to Christ in sight of your sin and misery, not of your grace and holiness. Have nothing to do with your graces and sanctification,- they will but veil Christ,- till you have seen Him first. He that looks upon Christ through his own graces, is like one that sees the sun in water, which wavers and moves as the water does. Look upon Christ only as shining in the firmament of the Father’s love and grace,- then you will see Him in His own glory, which is unspeakable. That will comfort you.”

This brings us to a word of encouragement.

A word of encouragement

Believers (if they are honest) realize that they only possess a grain of faith the size of a mustard seed (or perhaps smaller!). They are keenly aware of much remaining unbelief and sin (Rom. 7:14-24; perhaps struggling with a bitter and unforgiving spirit; cf., Eph. 4:31-32). Even so, the Christian may still take comfort and rightly conclude that he is presently in a state of grace (Rom. 7:25; 8:1).

Sinless perfection is not the standard by which a believer finds comfort (let alone is driven to pursue holiness!).

Being in a state of grace does not mean sinless perfection.

Being in a state of grace does not mean denying that there are sinful, fleshly desires warring within you. Still further, being in a state of grace does not mean that we overlook the good in us and only focus on the bad. I grow weary of those who constantly harp on themselves about their sin! Worm-based theology is not Gospel-Driven but rather self-absorption! Constaint belittling and disparaging of oneself is not true gospel humility. In some cases it is actually a subtle form of pride because the focus becomes, “Me” instead of Christ! That is not true gospel humility.

To be sure, we all need to be humbled for our sins but only in a gospel-way.

Consider Marshall’s insightful words,

“True humility for sin is…a fruit of faith…Godly sorrow for sin is produced in you by believing the forgiving grace of God. Experience shows that a stubborn criminal will come to tears sooner from a pardon than from fear of prison. In this way the sinful woman was brought to wash Christ’s feet with her tears (Luke 7:37-38). You are not likely to be sorry for grieving God with your sins while you consider him an enemy. You will never grieve over your sin if you only see God as one who takes great pleasure in your everlasting destruction. You have to believe in God’s forgiving and accepting grace if you are ever going to sincerely confess your sins…A pardon will much sooner open your mouth to a real confession of sin than the words, “Confess or be hanged,” or “Confess or be condemned.” If you want to freely confess your sins, first believe the Gospel!”

“True humility and Godly sorrow for sin comes from believing the Gospel, i.e., the forgiving grace of God!”

Legalistic, fleshly principles never produce true holiness. Self-deprecating acts may give the appearance of humility but we must not rely upon these as that which procures one ounce of favor with God. We must not trust in these as works of righteousness. Instead, we must rely on the righteousness of Christ alone. We must trust in the free grace of God in Christ for our salvation (i.e., our justification and sanctification).

Thomas Wilcox remarks, “If you will see sin’s sinfulness to loathe it, and mourn, do not stand looking upon sin, but look upon Christ first, as suffering and satisfying for it.“ Again, Walter Marshall provides this valuable reminder, “Remember, that the New Testament is the ministration of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6); and the Spirit will sanctify us, not by legal, but by gospel principles.”

True evangelical humility is birthed from faith. It is a fruit of faith. True humility comes from understanding the truth behind the Latin slogan, simul iustus et peccator (i.e., justified and at the same time a sinner). This is the key to mature, Christian living and genuine Gospel-wrought humility. Paul Zahl offers this keen insight,

“My status from God’s side is unassailable and indefectible. My substance from my side, from the analysis of anyone who knows me, is good and bad at the same time, or rather, mostly the same old, same old that I have always been, though now covered over by the thin red line, the imputing blood of Christ. We could say that this position of the simul-iustus-et-peccator self is the last word in what the world want to call “maturity.” That is, the simul-iustus-et-peccator self is secure in the love of another, and at the same time cognizant of its limitations, faults, and insufficiencies- its sins, in other words.”

“The challenge with remaining and besetting sin is to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord.”

The challenge with remaining and besetting sin is to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 3:18) and to learn to walk worthy of one’s calling (Eph. 4:1; which is to walk by faith in Christ, cf., Gal. 2:20). The challenge is to find even the faintest smoldering wick within us and then to recall the Gospel promise that Christ will not quench it (cf., Isa. 42:1-3; Matt. 12:18-20). Praise God!

Richard Sibbes writes,

“Let us not therefore be discouraged at the small beginnings of grace, but look on ourselves as elected to be ‘holy and without blame’ (Eph. 1:4). Let us look on our imperfect beginning only to enforce further striving to perfection, and to keep us in a low opinion of ourselves. Otherwise, in case of discouragement, we must consider ourselves as Christ does, who looks on us as those he intends to fit for himself. Christ values us by what we shall be, and by what we are elected unto. We call a little plant a tree, because it is growing up to be so. ‘Who has despised the day of small things?’ (Zech. 4:10). Christ would not have us despise little things…Grace, though little in quantity, yet is much in vigour and worth.”

Such a Gospel-Driven view of sin is necessary to keep the believer from becoming discouraged and crippled by an acute awareness of his sin and failures.

A law-driven view of sin paralyzes one’s pursuit of holiness.

Without the Gospel at the center of the believer’s life, instead of directing, the law only reminds a Christian of his failures and the consequences for those failures. The law gives no pardon, no assurance, no grace and no mercy. The law does not grade on a curve. There is no middle way with the law. It’s standards are inflexible and its punishments severe.

Thus, a Christian will never be able to bring his heart and life to a free, joyful and spontaneous love for God (e.g., Lk. 7:36-50) as long as he is living under the crushing weight and burden of the law (cf., Gal. 3:3). The believer who lives under the law has no hope of holiness (Gal. 3:14). Ralph Erskine has rightly remarked, “…it is necessary that we die to the law, in point of justification, before we can live to God in point of sanctification.”

The Gospel, not law, effectually drives a believer in sanctification.

It is only by daily reminding ourselves of the amazing and staggering grace that has been lavishly bestowed on us (Eph. 1:7-8; Gal. 2:20) that our hearts will be driven to love God and others with joy and freedom. Indeed, the heart that truly comprehends the free justifying grace of God cannot but help to overflow with a heart of gratitude expressed in self-less acts of love for God and others (2 Cor. 5:14).

In order to live a life of love for God and others, Walter Marshall writes,

“You have to have faith in order to love the salvation of God. Have faith first, and your apprehension of God’s love for your soul will sweetly draw and compel you to love God and his service. “We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). You cannot love God before you understand his love for you. You must perceive his love if you are going to love him. If you look upon God as someone who is against you, who hates you, and who condemns you, your own innate self-love will breed hatred and rebellion against him. The love that is the end of the law must flow from an unhypocritical faith (1 Timothy 1:5)…The first right and holy thoughts you can have of God are thoughts of his grace and mercy to your soul in Christ. And, these thoughts can only come by the grace of faith. Get these thoughts first by believing in Christ, and they will produce in you love to God…You will see God as just and merciful, and you will extend his grace to others.”

When we possess this kind of Gospel-Driven view of God and of sin, the prayer of forgiveness serves as a continual reminder to the believer that he is forgiven only because of what Christ did for him at the cross. Only the Gospel can pay the price our sins have accrued. Thus, the petition for forgiveness serves as an ongoing reminder to the believer of his need for the Gospel (i.e., Christ).

When good works are viewed in this Gospel-Driven way, believers are strengthened and comforted but they never place their confidence in them. Rather, Gospel-driven believers look away from themselves and look to Christ alone wherein their only acceptance before a just and holy God lies. Additionally, they are quick to give all the praise and glory to God for their good works because they know they belong to Him alone.

This is the kind of Gospel encouragement believers must have on a daily basis if they are to bring their hearts and lives to a genuine love for God and others. And, this is how the condition in Matthew 6:12 is partly intended to comfort the weakness of our faith.

To be continued…


2 Responses to What is meant by “forgiveness” in Matthew 6:12? Part 3

  1. scott w says:

    I have, as much as I have read, greatly enjoyed your blog. I had a thought that I believe would be a further service to your readers. Though I see it would be extra work for you, I think it would benefit us if you could source your quotes with books, pages numbers, etc. I.e You quote, Erskine, Wilcox (you do give his title), Marshall (assuming you mean The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification), Sibbes (he wrote a lot!), Calvin (he also wrote a lot), and Paul Zahl (of whom I am not familiar, though the other names are familiar friends). Could you give us either a site bibliography or perhaps footnote your quotes so we can go dig up the rest of the context, etc for further mining. It would be greatly appreciated.


  2. John – I am amazed at how well you verbalize the “gospel-driven” life. Everything you write rings true to scripture, yet so counter-nature. Thank you for your efforts to put to words what is so easily lost and buried. Chris

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