Chapter 1: The Prayer for Forgiveness 

In the gospel narratives there are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the one occurring in Matthew 6, the other inLuke 11. The former is part of the Sermon on the Mount; the latter was given in answer to a request by the disciples that the Lord would teach them to pray. Now in these two versions two different words for sin are used in the petition for forgiveness. In Matthew we find the word that is properly translated by our commonly used English word debts, while in Luke we find the word that in the Bible is most generally used for sin and that denotes an aiming at the wrong mark, a striving after a wrong purpose, a missing of the proper mark. We may well combine these two meanings into a single conception, for they belong together. To begin with the last mentioned term, it implies that God has so created us that in all our actions we are engaged as rational, moral creatures, and that therefore we must have an aim, a purpose for which we strive, a reason why we do things, an inner motive that urges us to act. It also presupposes that God has appointed for man the purpose for which he must strive 5n all that he does, and the motive by which he must be actuated in his whole life. In other words, God sets before man the mark at which he must always aim. That mark is, of course, the highest end of all things, for which, however, man must consciously and willingly strive: the glory of God. In all his life, inner and outward, in his thinking and willing, his desires and aspirations, in his speech and actions, in his personal life and in his relationships to others and to the whole creation, man has the calling to strive for the glory of God. This is the only end, which man must always reach. It is the only mark, at which he must always aim. This implies, of course, that man must always be actuated by the pure motive of the love of God. He must love the Lord his God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. For only when he is motivated by that love of God can he reach the end and aim at the mark, God’s glory. The word for sin which we are now discussing means, therefore, that the sinner is missing that mark; not by accident or in ignorance, not in spite of the fact that he exerts all his effort to aim at it, but willfully and deliberately. For by nature he is an enemy of God, and he will not seek God’s glory. He deliberately aims at something else, his own glory, the satisfaction of the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. That, then, is sin. Whatever forms sin may assume, in its deepest sense it always means not to live from the love of God, and therefore deliberately to aim at another mark, to strive for another purpose than that of the glory of God. This is closely connected with the meaning of the word for debts, which we find in the Lord’s Prayer according to the gospel of Matthew. Sin is debt. It is guilt. By not reaching the mark in all our life we come into arrears with God. We did not meet our obligations with the living God. The more we sin the higher we pile up our debt. And seeing we can never pay that debt, we become guilty and liable to punishment. 

Now in this fifth petition we pray that God may forgive us our debts. What does that mean? We ask God to do something with our sins. What is that something? We ask Him to forgive us our debts. The word used in the original for forgive really means to send away, to dismiss. This is very significant, for it denotes that forgiveness is something very wonderful, that the prayer for forgiveness is a very bold and amazing request. It means that we implore God to dismiss our debts, to cancel them, in other words. And this implies, in the first place, that He dismiss them from His own heart and mind, so that He will never recall them again, never make mention of them anymore, that He completely obliterates them from His book of remembrance, so blots them out that they can never be found any more. As the Heidelberg Catechism has it, we implore God never to impute our sins to us anymore. It means, therefore, that God will never hold it against us that we have always missed the mark, always trampled His glory under foot, always violated His good commandments. But this implies more. In the judgment of God we can never appear as neutral persons. And therefore the prayer for the forgiveness of sins implies something positive. It means not only that God will not impute our sibs unto us, that He cancels our debts, but also that He will judge us righteous and so consider us as if we had always been nothing but obedient children, that never once transgressed His holy law. And so this prayer to dismiss our debts implies, secondly, that God will not at all be angry with us for halving missed the high mark of our calling, the glory of His name. We know that our sins are a fact. We are aware that God is terribly displeased with all sin. But we ask Him to dismiss our sins from His mind that He will never be angry with us. And again, this too has a positive meaning. For God’s attitude toward us cannot be neutral. In this petition tie therefore ask for God’s favor, for His loving kindness, His grace, His blessed friendship. So dismiss our debts that they never provoke Thy holy wrath against us, and thus consider us righteous, that we may be worthy objects of Thy favor. Such is the meaning of this petition. And finally, it follows that forgiveness means that God does not deal with us as sinners in His wrath, but that He treats us as righteous in His eternal favor. For in His wrath He must needs curse us, but in His favor He will bless us with all the goodness of His house, eternal life. 

Chapter 2: Asking For Complete Remission 

We must not overlook the fact that this is a sprayer, a prayer for the forgiveness of sins. In this petition, as well as in all the other petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for something. We desire a blessing of God’s grace. We do not merely request that God do something, that He cancel my sins and blot them out, that He dismiss them from His own mind; but we desire an answer from the Most High, so that we feel in our hearts that He heard our prayer. 

That for which we ask is, as we have already explained, the blessing. of the forgiveness of sips, which, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, implies not only that God does not impute our transgressions to us, but also that He forgive unto us the depravity of our’ nature. 

In this connection we may we that in both passages, in Matthew and Luke, in which the Lord’s Prayer occurs, the word for sin stands in the plural. In Matthew 6:12 we read: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” The word for debt denotes that which we owe to God, which is that we love God with our whole being, all our mind and soul and strength. In Luke 11:4, however, we read: “And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.” Here the word for sin, as we have already explained, means that we miss the mark of the love of God. But what we wish to indicate in this connection is that in both cases the term denoting sin stands in the plural. In Matthew we find “And forgive us our debts . . . ;” and in Luke, “And forgive us our sins . . .” 

This is significant. 

The plural denotes that we have many sins, and besides, all kinds of sins, sins of our whole being, of our entire nature and life. There are, in the first place, secret sins, sins of the mind and of the will. They never come to manifestation and expression in our life and walk. Some of them are even hid in our sub-conscious mind. They are not known even to ourselves, even though we understand very well that they are there. To these the psalmist in Psalm 19:12 refers undoubtedly, when he writes: “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults.” But other of those secret sins are known to ourselves only. We hide them before others because we are ashamed of them. Not infrequently we try to cover them up by an expression and manifestation in our outward walk, our facial expression, our words and gestures, which are the very opposite of the thoughts and feelings we have in our mind and heart. They are evil thoughts and desires, thoughts about God and man, vain and rebellious thoughts, dissatisfaction with God’s ways, murderous thoughts and desires, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life. But often these secret sins come to expression in the outward manifestation of our life. There are the sins of the tongue, which are so vividly described to us in James 3:2-12: “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, tie put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may, obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and. cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.” Of these sins of the tongue we are all guilty: sins of profanity, of failure to confess the flame of our God where we ought, sins of boasting, lying, slander, backbiting, and blacking the name of the brother. And then, finally, there are the sins of the deed, by which we violate the whole law, and every one of its precepts. To, these many sins, which are more than the hairs of our head the fifth petition refers when it puts the word for sin or debt in the plural. 

But there is more. 

The plural also denotes that in our prayer for forgiveness we do not deal with an abstract notion of sin, but with very concrete sins, which are known unto us and which we confess id this prayer before God with sorrow of heart. O, it is so easy to approach the throne, of grace and ask that God will forgive all our iniquity and all our sin in general. Then we deal with the general concept sin, without any specific content. Then there is nothing personal in our prayer. We do not bring our own personal, individual corruptions before the throne of grace and ask concretely for forgiveness. But such is not the meaning of the fifth petit&. It presupposes that we have clearly before our mind our concrete, individual transgressions, which we have committed and still do commit when we utter this fifth petition before the face of God.