Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism - Lord's Day 51
Lord's Day 51
What is the fifth petition?
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
For the sake of Christ's blood,
do not impute to us,
any of our transgressions,
nor the evil which still clings to us,
as we also find this evidence of Thy grace in us
that we are fully determined
wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbour.
Q. & A. 126 And Forgive Us Our Debts As We Also Have Forgiven Our Debtors
- The last three petitions of the perfect prayer are all joined together by the conjunction, “and.” They form a unit. If the Lord were to give us one thing, such as bread, but not the other, such as forgiveness, we would still have nothing. It is different with the first three petitions. Each of them encompasses everything.
The Lord teaches us to speak of our debts. For our sins are not just deficiencies; by our sins we withhold from the Lord what we were obliged to give. Further, he teaches us to speak of our debts, in the plural, for our sins are many and great! The Catechism, in explaining the word “debts,” correctly distinguishes between our “transgressions,” i.e., our wrongful conduct in thought, word and deed, and “the evil which still clings to us,” i.e., our wrong attitude and inclination, the depravity of our existence, which makes us guilty just as much as our transgressions.
- We have nothing with which to pay our debts and to make things right again. For we increase our debt daily. We are “wretched sinners,” i.e., not pitiable sinners, but sinners who are powerless, who have no wherewithal to pay their debts. There is only one solution: forgiveness, remission of the debt. The Saviour teaches us to pray for that. And we may ask for it for the sake of Christ's blood, which is his sacrifice for reconciliation.
- We are guilty not just because of what we do ourselves. We share each other's guilt, for we share in each other's sins. Did we warn the other person? Did we set a wrong example? We may not be unmoved by anyone else, even if we did not share in his sin directly. That is why the Saviour teaches us to pray for the forgiveness of our sins.
- The addition, “as we also have forgiven our debtors,” does not provide the basis for forgiveness. That is solely Christ's sacrifice. It also does not indicate the measure of forgiveness, as though we pray that God should forgive us as much and to the same extent as we do to our debtors. But the rule is, according to Mt 6:15: "But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
For he who does not forgive another person has not recognized his own debts. And the Saviour wants us to keep this rule in mind when we pray for forgiveness. He structured the petition so that no one can ask it unless he is minded to forgive as well. He who wants to ask for forgiveness must find the evidence in himself of his complete determination wholeheartedly to forgive his neighbour. And the Catechism calls this “evidence of Thy grace,” for no one forgives unless he learns to do so by grace. Thus, this evidence is also our guarantee of God's willingness to forgive. Would he, who taught us to forgive, not forgive?
- What do you know about the last three petitions? What are our sins? Why are they called that? What distinction does the Catechism draw in its explanation of the word “debts”?
- Can we set our debts to rights? What is the only solution? What is the basis for this solution?
- Do we pray only because of our own debts? Do the debts of others concern us?
- What is the rule of forgiveness? Do the words “as we also . . . ” give the ground of forgiveness, or its measure? Why were they added to this petition?