Cornelius Hanko is an emeritus minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Ques. 126. What is the fifth petition? 

Answer. “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”; that is, be pleased for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us poor sinners, our transgressions, nor that depravity, which always cleaves to us; even as we feel the evidence of thy grace in us, that it is our firm resolution from the heart to forgive our neighbor. 

Heid. Cat. Lord’s Day 51

Our Father, which art in heaven!

Thou hast taught us in Thy Word that all things are of Thee, through Thee, and unto Thee, to whom be the glory forever! Thus also our Lord teaches us in the perfect prayer to ask: “Hallowed be Thy Name!” By Thy grace and through faith we stammer that prayer.

We also learn to pray for the coming of Thy kingdom, and the carrying out of Thy counsel; and on our part, for obedience and surrender to Thy perfect will.

It is with these petitions in mind that we now pray: “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Our sins!

Thou hast set before us that perfect standard or mark, the perfect goal for our lives, that whether we eat, or drink, or whatever we do, we do it all to the glory of Thy most holy Name! (I Cor. 10:31)

Yet we always sin; without fail we miss the mark. Instead of having Thee always foremost in all our thoughts, we desire, will, think, speak, and act as if Thou hast no place in our lives. We seek ourselves instead of Thee, we strive for our own vain glory rather than Thine, we trust in our own strength rather than putting our trust in Thee, and we labor for the bread that perishes rather than for the Bread that endures forever. Far be it from us to speak of the good that sinners do, for in our flesh dwells no good. Sins of omission and of commission cleave to us in all that we say and do, for even our best works are still polluted with sin. We even try to defend and condone our wrong doing, rationalizing why we may do what we are doing, even when we condemn those deeds in others. There are also still those secret sins, unknown as yet to us, yet very really offensive to Thee.

But that is not all. I must add that, “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” I do not say that to excuse myself, but rather because it weighs heavily upon my soul that I am prone by nature to hate Thee and my neighbor. I am incapable of any good, only inclined to all that is evil. I stand with my back to Thee and aim the “arrows” of my life in the very opposite direction from the mark, the standard of Thy law which Thou hast set before .me. I am aware of character sins, which are so definitely mine, yet which I can see in others far better than I see them in myself. Even my reading of Thy Word, my daily prayers, my church attendance, my listening to the preaching of Thy Word, my partaking of the sacraments are still so very imperfect that I hide my face in shame. When I would do the good, the evil is present with me. O wretched man that I am!

All of this adds up to an immense debt, far greater than the national debt, to be compared only with the impossible sum of the ten thousand talents of gold, of which Jesus speaks in the parable. (Matthew 18) Sin is transgression of Thy law. Transgression implies guilt, the guilt is debt. This debt must be paid, if ever restitution shall be made in thy sight. Thou hast said that the soul that sins must die. For in Thy righteous judgment Thou hast declared, “Accursed is every one that continueth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law, to do them.”

Humbly I confess that I have grossly transgressed, not one or two of Thy commandments, but all of them. I have kept none of them. Nor am I able to keep any one of them. I confess my personal sins, and I also do that in the company of all Thy saints as a part of the household of faith. I realize my communal responsibility for the sins of myself, my family, my fellow saints. And therefore I ask: Forgiveus our debts, as we forgive our debtors!

Forgive, Father!

As the words leave my lips I realize that this is a very bold request. To forgive means to erase, to wipe out my sins as if they never existed.

I may not, I dare not, even though there are voices that say that I may, appeal to some sort of universal love for all men, or love for sinners. I know that Thou art too holy of eyes, too righteous to ignore, excuse, or condone sin! My conscience tells me that I deserve Thy just condemnation even unto everlasting torments of hell. I have no right to plead for mercy! If Thou shouldst mark transgressions, who could stand in Thy holy presence? As for me, poor sinner, forgiveness, if dependent upon me, would be forever impossible!

Yet what is impossible with us is possible with Thee. From all eternity hast Thou in Thy infinite mercy prepared the way of salvation for Thy chosen in Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Thou hast laid upon Him the iniquity of us all, holding Him accountable for our sin-debt, that by His complete surrender unto Thee by the death of the cross He should merit for us eternal life!

Thou wert in Christ reconciling us unto Thyself, never to impute our sins unto us. Justice and mercy met together at Calvary, where Thou didst pour out all Thy wrath against our sins upon Jesus, and where He became the perfect propitiation for our sins. Thou gavest Thy Son, and He laid down His life to bring us to glory!

It is no less a wonder of Thy grace that Thou dost freely bestow on us Thy gift of living faith, that rich assurance in our hearts that we belong to this faithful Savior with body and soul, in life and in death, even unto all eternity. His righteousness is so fully imputed unto us as if we in our own bodies had atoned for our sins, yea, as if we never had had any sin and had always kept Thy just commands. Thou seest us, not as we are in ourselves, but as clothed in the righteousness of Christ, who is now in heaven, and intercedes for us before Thy throne. It is alone in that confidence that we dare to lift up our voices to Thee to plead for mercy!

Forgive us our sins!

No, we do not ask this in doubt, as if we question that complete atonement once made on the cross by Thy precious blood. Nor do we waver in the faith, questioning whether the merited righteousness of Christ applies to us. But we realize that in this body of sin and death we have a daily fight against sin that wars in our members. Sin is always present in us; we sin every moment of our lives in all we say and do. Thou requirest of us that we love Thee with our whole being, with all our being, actions, and life; yet we are prone by nature to hate Thee and the neighbor. Our daily plea must be:

With my burden of transgression

Heavy laden, overborne,

Humbled low I make confession,

For my folly now I mourn.

In this awareness we need to be assured that Thou forgivest all our transgressions, and wilt never reckon them against us, even as if they never existed. We need to hear the voice of Jesus saying unto us by His Spirit in our hearts, “Thy sins, though ever so great, are forgiven thee; go in peace.” We must know that as a father has compassion upon his children, so Thou, Father, hast compassion upon us. Our troubled souls must find assurance in the confidence that as far as the east is from the west, so far hast Thou removed our transgressions from us, that the righteousness of Christ is freely imputed to us.

Therefore our daily prayer must be, personally and with. our families, and on the Sabbath day with Thy people, “Forgive us our debts!” Only then can we meet together before Thy throne and confess,

How blest is he whose trespass hath freely been forgiven,

Whose sin is wholly covered before the sight of heaven.

Blest he to whom Jehovah imputeth not his sin,

Who hath a guileless spirit, whose heart is true within.

As we forgive our debtors.

Even as we pray, we are aware that there are those who sin against us, who offend both Thee and us by their sins. Shamefacedly we admit that the offence against us troubles us much more than the offence against Thee. Yet what does that minimal debt to us amount to in comparison with the tremendous debt of sin we owe to Thee? It is Thy great goodness that we may confess our sins at the foot of the cross to Thee and to one another, and find mercy. It is Thy boundless grace that creates in our hearts the desire and firm resolution to forgive one another, even as Thou in Christ hast forgiven us.

That, and only that, makes the communion of saints possible, and opens the way to Thy throne.

Therefore we ask that Thou wilt forgive us, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.

We do not ask that Thou wilt forgive them on the condition that we forgive. Thou art never in any sense dependent upon us.

Nor do we ask that Thou wilt forgive us because we forgive others. The only basis for any forgiveness is in the cross of Thy dear Son.

But we do ask that Thou wilt forgive us, even as Thou hast already created in us the desire and firm resolve to forgive the brother.

In the fellowship of the Spirit we experience Thy forgiving mercies in our own hearts, in our families, and wherever Thy people meet.

O, the blessedness!

Teach us, Father, to bring this petition before Thee in an ever richer, fuller measure. For Jesus’ sake!