This article is an excerpt from my book, The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down: The Lord’s Prayer as a Manifesto for Revolution. This post is the sixth in an eight part series on the Lord’s Prayer.
The Gospel Foundation of the Lord's Prayer
We are a nation of debtors. Millions of young people are on the verge of bankruptcy with unpayable credit card debt that compounds yet more interest every month. The problem of school debt, often running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, has now become a national crisis. Even the federal government is in debt--debt that has soared into untold trillions of dollars.
Yet while many Americans view debt as an annoyance, in the ancient world debt was punishable by prison sentence. In the Roman Empire, prisons were not generally filled with criminals; they were populated with debtors. Most convicted criminals were executed or were forced to serve some other form of punishment for their crimes, but those who could not make good on their payments were incarcerated until they could pay what they owed. This system was meant to put pressure on the families of the incarcerated debtor to find the necessary money to pay their debts to free their loved one from prison.
In the Roman Empire, then, debt typically meant severe pain and tragedy for an individual and a family. In our day we experience frustration and anxiety with debt, but in the days of Jesus, debt was a matter of life and death. This is the context in which Jesus teaches us to pray "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Jesus' use of the word debts is meant to evoke in our mind both a serious offense and a corresponding serious punishment. To be forgiven a debt was no mere trifle, but an act of extravagant mercy.
If the petition "give us this day our daily bread" emphasizes our most urgent physical needs, the petition "forgive us our debts" emphasizes our most urgent spiritual need. Saying we owe a debt to God means that we have failed to pay up. Thus, as sinners, we stand before God condemned, rightly deserving his just wrath. Only God's forgiveness can clear our guilt and establish a meaningful relationship between God and us.
This petition reminds us that the Lord's Prayer is not a casual prayer for the generically religious. This prayer is a gospel prayer. We can only say these words and ask these things of God when we stand on the finished, atoning work of Jesus Christ. Indeed, this petition demonstrates that the theological bedrock of the Lord's Prayer is nothing less than the gospel. We can only rightly pray the Lord's Prayer when we recognize that we are deeply sinful and only God's grace in Christ can remedy our souls.
Getting the Gospel Right
The logic of this particular petition in the Lord's Prayer has been misconstrued so often that we would do well to remind ourselves of what Scripture teaches about the gospel. Nothing is more central to the message of Scripture than the gospel. If we err on this point, we err on all others. Many interpreters believe that Jesus is saying that God only forgives us when we earn his forgiveness through forgiving others. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this petition does not say "forgive us our debts because we forgive our debtors," but "forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors." The difference between those two phrases, as we shall see, is the difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ and no gospel at all.
The sum and substance of the gospel is that a holy and righteous God who must claim a full penalty for our sin both demands that penalty and provides it. His self-substitution is Jesus Christ the Son, whose perfect obedience and perfectly accomplished atonement on the cross purchased all that is necessary for our salvation. Jesus Christ met the full demands of the righteousness and justice of God against our sin.
Paul summarized the work of Christ in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Christ is our substitute and his life is sacrificed for our sin so that God's wrath against us is removed.
How then do we benefit from the sacrifice of Christ for us? Paul answered that we do not earn the righteousness of God in Christ; instead it is given to us freely when we believe the gospel: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23-24). Indeed, nothing in us or achieved by us is the grounds of our acceptance with God. Instead, as Paul made clear, "To the one who does not work but believes in him who justified the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Rom. 4:5)...
The apostle was very clear. We are saved by faith alone in the work of Christ. All this comes from the grace of God. But we are not freed just from the penalty of sin; we are also freed from the power of sin. While our salvation is not a "result of works," Paul noted that it does result in works, ones that God himself prepared for us to do. The portrait of the gospel is indeed astounding. We are saved by grace along through faith alone in Christ alone, which then results in our being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Indeed the whole of our salvation proclaims the glory of God...
If you have ever been tempted to think that the gospel is nowhere present in the Lord's Prayer, think again! This petition only makes sense in the context of Christ's provision for us. By agreeing with God that we are sinners and repenting of that sin by asking for forgiveness, God clears our debts on account of Christ's work for us.
If this does not shock us, then we have grown fare too familiar with the gospel and the glory of God's grace. The extravagant mercy of God shown in this petition should be on our lips and in our hearts daily. When we recognize we are debtors, then we see ourselves as we truly are, beggars at the throne of grace. Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the sixteenth century, certainly understood and reveled in this truth. When Luther came to die, his last moments were characterized by delirium and moving in and out of consciousness. Yet in one last moment of clarity Luther said (mixing German with Latin), "Wir sind bettler. Hoc est verum"--We are beggars, this is true.