And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matthew 6:12)
Those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ have received God’s pardon for sin and are saved from eternal hell. And since, as we have seen, this prayer is given to believers, the debts referred to here are those incurred by Christians when they sin. Immeasurably more important than our need for daily bread is our need for continual forgiveness of sin.
Because man’s greatest problem is sin, his greatest need is forgiveness-and that is what God provides. Though we have been forgiven the ultimate penalty of sin, as Christians we need God’s constant forgiveness for the sins we continue to commit. We are to pray, therefore, forgive us. Forgiveness is the central theme of this entire passage (vv. 9–15), being mentioned six times in eight verses. Everything leads to or issues from forgiveness.
Believers have experienced once-for-all God’s judicial forgiveness, which they received the moment Christ was trusted as Savior. We are no longer condemned, no longer under judgment, no longer destined for hell (Rom. 8:1). The eternal Judge has declared us pardoned, justified, righteous. No one, human or satanic, can condemn or bring any “charge against God’s elect” (Rom. 8:33–34).
But because we still fall into sin, we frequently require God’s gracious forgiveness, His forgiveness not now as Judge but as Father. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” John warns believers. But, he goes on to assure us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
Jesus gives the prerequisite for receiving forgiveness in the words, as we also have forgiven our debtors. The principle is simple but sobering: if we have forgiven, we will be forgiven; if we have not forgiven, we will not be forgiven.
We are to forgive because it is the character of righteousness, and therefore of the faithful Christian life, to forgive. Citizens of God’s kingdom are blessed and receive mercy because they themselves are merciful (Matt. 5:7). They love even their enemies because they have the nature of the loving heavenly Father within them (5:44–45, 48). Forgiveness is the mark of a truly regenerate heart. Still we fail to be consistent with that mark and need constant exhortation because of the strength of sinful flesh (Rom. 7:14–25).
We are also to be motivated to forgive because of Christp’s example. “Be kind to one another,” Paul says, “tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). John tells us, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Because it reflects God’s own gracious forgiveness, the forgiving of another person’s sin expresses the highest virtue of man. “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression” (Prov. 19:11).
Forgiving others also frees the conscience of guilt. Unforgiveness not only stands as a barrier to God’s forgiveness but also interferes with peace of mind, happiness, satisfaction, and even the proper functioning of the body.
Forgiving others is of great benefit to the whole congregation of believers. Probably few things have so short-circuited the power of the church as unresolved conflicts among its members. “If I regard wickedness in my heart,” the psalmist warns himself and every believer, “the Lord will not hear” (Ps. 66:18). The Holy Spirit cannot work freely among those who carry grudges and harbor resentment (see Matt. 5:23–24; 1 Cor. 1:10–13; 3:1–9).
Forgiving others also delivers us from God’s discipline. Where there is an unforgiving spirit, there is sin; and where there is sin, there will be chastening (Heb. 12:5–13). Unrepented sins in the church at Corinth caused many believers to be weak, sick, and even to die (1 Cor. 11:30).
But the most important reason for being forgiving is that it brings God’s forgiveness to the believer. That truth is so important that Jesus reinforces it after the close of the prayer (vv. 14–15). Nothing in the Christian life is more important than forgiveness-our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of us.
In the matter of forgiveness, God deals with us as we deal with others. We are to forgive others as freely and graciously as God forgives us. The Puritan writer Thomas Manton said, “There is none so tender to others as they which have received mercy themselves, for they know how gently God hath dealt with them.”