Forgive Us Our Debts


Forgive Us Our Debts

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 105)
by Bob Burridge ©2012

One of the hard lessons we have to learn as children is to know when it is right and good to forgive people who do hurtful things. It does not get much easier when we get older. We have a sense that bad things should not be ignored. There should be consequences. On the other hand we know that there are times when we have to end our grudges and anger. It is often not easy for us to do it.

God created us and this world in which we live to show a balance between Justice and Mercy. When we forgive someone, that act of mercy should never violate the principle of justice.

God is the perfect balance of justice and mercy. He both punishes and forgives. Since we were created in God’s image, we need to balance these things too. But God’s image in us is distorted and confused because of our fallen nature. We inherited corrupted souls from Adam. To complicate that, we grow up in a sea of fallen humanity that has distorted views and values. Fear or personal guilt can make it hard to hold others responsible for the harm they cause. Selfish cruelty can make people want others to suffer beyond what they deserve.

Distorted ideas about Justice can make people unmerciful. Justice can become a word used to justify a vengeful love for cruelty. It can make you refuse to forgive in situations where you should forgive.

Mercy can be distorted too. It can be twisted to where it promotes injustice. A twisted view of mercy might let criminals go free to hurt others. It can enable the wicked to continue doing evil without consequences. It can make you forgive where you have no right to do so.

Because of these imperfections we are sometimes conflicted inwardly about what to do. When people hurt us we want justice to be done, but we also know we need to show mercy. We pray for God’s mercy even though we know we are not innocent. Justice demands that our sins and guilt should be punished forever, yet God promises to forgive some, and to make them his dearly loved children.

Both Justice and Mercy are good things. God is both just and merciful. Therefore they cannot truly be in conflict with one another.

We need to get rid of the distortions and bring these two qualities together. We need to understand about God’s forgiveness to us, and about when we ought to forgive others.


Jesus taught us to pray about forgiveness
in the model we call the Lord’s Prayer.

In Matthew 6:12 Jesus said, “And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors.” In Luke 11:4 Jesus put it this way, “And forgive us our sins, For we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. …”

After the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 Jesus immediately expanded on that point. He said in verses 14-15, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” the NASB has “transgressions” instead of “trespasses.”

Together, these verses help us understand what we should mean when we pray for forgiveness.

The answer to Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 105 is, “In the fifth petition, which is, And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, we pray that God, for Christ’s sake, would freely pardon all our sins; which we are the rather encouraged to ask, because by his grace we are enabled from the heart to forgive others.”


First, we need to understand what
things are being forgiven.

There are three different words used in these verses: “debt”, “sins”, and “trespasses”. They all clearly refer to the same basic thing, but each brings unique meanings to the situation. They are offenses that become barriers to our fellowship with God or with others.

The word “debt” in Matthew 6:12 is a translation of the Greek word opheilaema (ὀφείλημα). This is the usual word used for a debt, owing something to somebody. You are a debtor to God because you have disobeyed your moral obligations to him. Your sin obligates you to its penalty, an infinite debt you can never pay off on your own. People become debtors to others when they mistreat them, or owe them something. They are obligated to make things right if they borrow, hurt, inconvenience, or harm someone.

The word “sin” in Luke 11:4 is the Greek word hamartia (ἁμαρτία). It comes from an ancient Greek root meaning “to miss what you aim at.” It came to be the usual word for sin. It was used pretty much the way we use the word sin today. We sin against God when we miss the target of what he tells us is right and good. Sin is when we do things we should not do, or when we neglect doing what we should do.

The word “trespasses” in Matthew 6:14-15 is the Greek word paraptoma (παράπτωμα). It means taking a wrong step, going where you should not go. A transgression of God’s law is when you do what he forbids or neglect what he commands. People trespass against us when they do bad things against us. They violate our safety, take what belongs to us, lie about us, cheat us, break agreements, show disrespect, or violate our trust.

These three words have a common theme and share the same basic meaning. They are violations of an obligation to someone. They create a barrier of offense. These are the kinds of things Jesus says should be forgiven by us toward others.


But what does it mean to forgive these things?

The true forgiveness Jesus was talking about is a mercy that respects the demands of justice. When we pray “forgive us our debts …” we are asking for God’s mercy to settle what we owe.

First we need to understand what needs to be forgiven. There is a deep offense that separates us from God. It is the infinite and impenetrable barrier of guilt from sin. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death.”

This moral debt we owe is far greater than most people realize. Sin has real consequences. As sinners we all fall short of what God expects of us. We inherit Adam’s fallen nature and guilt, and we add to that by our own sins. This guilt condemns us to spiritual death. That means total separation from God’s fellowship for all eternity. It is a debt we all owe as members of the fallen human race.

God’s mercy had to deal with the demands of Justice. Jesus was the promised Messiah. He came to redeem his people from their debt. In his perfect life, and in his death and resurrection, he represented all those given to him by the Father. He paid their debt by dying in their place satisfying all the demands of God’s justice. He removed the offense that separated them from their holy Creator.

To simply forgive us by overlooking our sins would contradict part of God’s own nature. Divine justice demands that our moral debt against God must be paid, not just set aside. So Jesus paid the debt.

Those who put their hope in Christ, and renounce any other imagined way to innocence, show evidence that their debt is paid in full. The barrier of offense is removed, and their fellowship with God is restored. The life produced by that work in them changes their attitudes and moral values. It convicts them of sin, stirs them to sincerely repent, enables them to trust in the gospel promise, and starts them growing in their desire to obey God’s moral principles.

Forgiveness is not just forgetting about sins, it is about dealing with them. We are forgiven when the sin and guilt is washed away in Christ. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

So, God does not forgive us just as an act of kindness by overlooking our debt of sin. He pays for our sins with the awesome price of his own suffering in our place. Only the perfectly holy and Sovereign God could make that kind of substitution. It was not just a kind thing to do as an example to us. It was necessary if we were to be redeemed without violating divine justice.

Jesus said in Matthew 26:28, “for this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”

God’s mercy never ignores or violates the demands of justice. It satisfies those demands.


In a similar way, we should forgive one another.

First we need to clear up a common error. Some misread what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount. He did not say, “… forgive us our debts because we forgive others.” He said, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive others.” That is, “in the same way”

God is not waiting for us to forgive others before he forgives us. We are not the cause of God’s mercy. His love that sent our Savior to the cross is why we are forgiven. It is not because of what we do.

Those forgiven ought to be forgiving people. There is a way in which we forgive that is a model of what God does for us. That is exactly what Paul taught when he wrote to the churches. in Colossians 3:13 he said, “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” In Ephesians 4:32 to 5:1 Paul wrote, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.”

There should be forgiveness that emerges in those who are forgiven. They are changed people. But how can we satisfy justice for someone else so that we can be merciful? Obviously we cannot do what only the Savior could do. We are not able to be substitutes paying the judicial debt of others.

However, there is another sense in which the word forgiveness is used in Scripture. What Jesus did for us provided for a “judicial forgiveness”. Beyond that, and upon the basis of that, God treats us as his own children. This is “personal forgiveness”.

The Judicial kind of forgiveness is about our legal standing before the law. A person is forgiven legally for a crime when the penalty is paid or when he is pardoned. That removes the legal penalty the person deserved.

The Personal kind of forgiveness has to do with our attitude toward another person. It removes the grudge we might hold against an offender. We do not have the right personally to declare the person innocent before the law, but we can treat the person with kindness and forgive the offense we feel against us.

Forgiving someone cannot mean that you declare them innocent of what they did. If someone murders, God’s justice demands they pay the penalty required by civil law. We have no right to forgive them and set them free. That would not be mercy, it would be a horrible injustice. If someone steals, God requires that they make full restitution to the victim. We have no right to forgive them from meeting the demands of God’s law. Again, that would not be mercy, it would be injustice.

But, there is another part of forgiveness in Scripture. Once we are reconciled to God by the death of Christ, he treats us as his family. We cannot remove an offender’s guilt, but we can treat him with kindness and compassion.

As redeemed people we are told to show the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Galatians 5:22-23 lists these characteristics, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”

The first of these qualities is love. It does not only apply to those who treat us well. Matthew 5:44, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”

We are not to ignore what God demands. The State ought to execute convicted murderers, force criminals to pay their debts, and use deadly force when necessary to defend our safety, liberty, and land. The church is told to bar the unrepentant and contentious from the sacraments. It is not mercy to neglect these things, it is injustice. We are not to punish the guilty with a sense of personal vengeance or anger. We should treat all life with respect, though with contempt that a life created to declare God’s glory has been used immorally.

Only those properly authorized by God’s word can carry out his justice here on earth. As individuals, we have a different attitude than the world’s. When it is not criminal, but a personal offense, we should show the fruit of the Holy Spirit toward the offender.

We forgive others because we are forgiven. The renewed heart should want to forgive others. If we are sons of God, we should be becoming more like our Father. If we are regenerated this is one of the changes that should be growing in us.

When you personally forgive it means you do not hold a grudge against others. You treat them with understanding and mercy. They, like you, are merely sinners. If a person is redeemed, it is by God’s grace alone. When the work of grace is applied to us, our hearts are changed. One thing implanted in that renewed heart is that sense of forgiveness. Changed hearts should be learning to forgive others as Christ forgives them.


The true state of the heart is
betrayed by its ability to forgive or not.

Just as forgiveness emerges from a redeemed heart, persisting unforgiveness warns of an unregenerated one. To be able to fulfill your duty in forgiving others, you need to be sure that God has forgiven you for your sin and guilt. God’s law shows us that when there are tensions between people, even if someone has done something directly against you, you are obligated as a Christian to demonstrate the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life.

Let the civil authorities deal with crimes. On the personal side, show compassion for fellow sinners in need of Christ.

Exodus 23:4-5 gives an application to a particular case, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it.”

What God tells us to do teaches us about what God is and does. God forgives, and we should forgive others too. We have a responsibility to treat everyone kindly, patiently, humbly, gently, and meekly.

I saw a moving example on television several years ago. A mother was testifying in court in a sentencing hearing. A man who showed no remorse had been convicted of brutally murdering her child. She said that as a Christian she must, and did, forgive him. But then she pleaded for the court to hand out the maximum sentence for the sake of justice, and to protect others from the unremorseful criminal. Though not a theologian, she had an amazingly good grasp of this biblical principle.

This is not something that can be found or conjured up in an unredeemed heart. God redeemed you to be different. You’re to be a light in the world, not just someone who talks about light. But shining is not easy. This is why you should pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”.

When you pray this part of the Lord’s Prayer you are calling upon God in Christ to wash away your sins and keep your heart pure in its renewed estate. You are begging for the innocence Christ provided by grace alone. You are confessing that you have no other claim to innocence, but that he paid your debt. And you are asking for help in forgiving those who are debtors to you. You cannot do it on your own, but in Christ you can. As Paul said for our benefit in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Never let hatred and unforgiveness eat away at your heart and add pain to others. Attack the poisonous grudges that go beyond what justice demands, and stir up more hatred. Make the places where you live good places for others to be. Forgive others as Christ has forgiven you.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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