Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 51 - Forgive Us
Question 126: What is the fifth petition?
Answer 126: 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 your grace in us
that we are fully determined
wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbour.
People who pray the Lord’s Prayer do not feel a little less guilty after each petition. It is rather the other way around. When they come to the end of their prayer, they still start talking about their debts. There must be a reason for this, for otherwise Christ would not have taught it to them like this. They still call themselves “wretched sinners”. Did they then make so little progress?
This petition reads slightly differently in Luke than it does in Matthew: “and forgive us our sins...” Luke uses the generic word “sins” (hamartias: failings, misdeeds), while Matthew chooses: “forgive us our debts”. The word “debts” (opheilēmata) is striking. We have come to think of it as a commonplace term because it has been given a permanent place in the standard text of the Lord’s Prayer. As a result, it sounds rather familiar to us. However, nowhere else in the New Testament is the term “debts” used as a designation of sins except here.“1
Matthew and Luke report on two different lessons of Christ on prayer.2 So the difference between the versions at Matthew and Luke goes back to Christ’s own choice of words. He apparently chose the unusual word “debts” on purpose the first time. That is why it demands our attention.
Debt is a familiar concept from the financial world. In general, there is no shame in being in debt, but in this case the word has a negative connotation. Someone is not fulfilling his obligations. He may not be doing things that bring disgrace upon anyone, however he is making one serious mistake. He is acting as if he can do whatever he wants with other people’s money. He buys whatever he wants and in doing so falls hopelessly behind with his payments. He runs up an overdraft and paying off his debt becomes an illusion. For a while he can ignore all the reminders and live on as if he is without any debt. One day that will stop. He will be forced to pay up.
This metaphor makes it clear what sin represents: people do not fulfill their obligations to God. They do whatever they want. Perhaps they live an exemplary life. They meet all their financial and social obligations. They never come into conflict with the law. They give to each his own. That is why they give themselves a high grade. Meanwhile, they do not care about God. He keeps track of this. Their debts are piling up. One day the bill will be presented. He demands payment. Those who recognize that sins are primarily shortcomings toward God are no longer satisfied with themselves.
Someone rightly pointed out that the world sometimes speaks of the debt of decent people. One can think in particular of the insatiable thirst for wealth and luxury. Because of this we all make the earth unliveable. This is what is also called “our collective guilt”.3 Christians must not pass over this debt lightly. Our indebtedness also includes the unbridled consumerism of the rich West. However it needs to be noted that our debts do not only consist of shortcomings toward the environment or humanity, but in the first place toward the Creator. Those who do not understand the latter will never be able to discover what their true debt actually represents: we are short-changing God.
Those who pray the Lord’s Prayer recognize this more and more. That is why they start talking about their debts in this penultimate petition. They have asked a lot of God: grant that we praise your Name. Grant that we submit to your royal power. Grant that we fulfill our task as faithfully as the angels. Give also that for our bread we put all our trust in you alone.
They are sure that God gives them all of this. They are grateful for that. But when they think of themselves, they are ashamed. Is God’s Name now being praised through them and in them? Are they living as citizens of his kingdom? Are they really as willing as the angels? Do they rely entirely on their Father for their bread and butter?
After each petition they become more aware of their own shortcomings. That is why they still call themselves “poor” or “wretched” sinners. This is not meant to be pitiful. Poor sinners are not poor victims. Their debts are “misdeeds”. That is the other word Christ uses, according to Luke. So not only do they fail to do what they should be doing, but also the things they are doing are wrong. They commit wrongdoings, not just against humanity but also against God. And they continue to do so. They recognize that “there is always evil that clings to us”. Even while they are aware of their guilt in praying for forgiveness, they cannot shake off this evil. It remains active. They are not in a position to finally put a stop to getting into debt and committing wrongs. It continues to go on and on. On what basis can God grant their request to be pardoned? After all, they have no leg to stand on.
The Blood of Christ
To forgive is a radical way of sending away. The word was used for hurling projectiles. Poor wretched sinners are asking if God will do that to their debts. Thus forgiveness takes on the meaning of: do not impute. It ties in nicely with what Psalm 103:11 said centuries earlier: “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Sinners ask for pardon — for grace. They repent of what they have done wrong. But they cannot promise that it has been for the last time. There is still evil living in them. That too is part of their debt. In fact, they are asking God to accept them as they are — with all their evil. They do not have any valid motive for this. Their only hope is Christ. Although this is not mentioned in the prayer itself it does not prevent the Catechism from explicitly mentioning his precious blood. Only through Christ’s sacrifice does God absolve them of all their debts, including the debt that they still have a sinful nature. In this prayer we recognize the heartbeat of the gospel of pure grace for sinners.
Let no one conclude from this that asking for forgiveness is merely a formality. Christ does not give this prayer as a formula for getting rid of our debts quickly and conveniently. It is not like a PIN code that allows you to smoothly and routinely transfer money from an automated teller machine. Forgiveness does not come from an ATM, but it comes from deep down in God’s heart. That is why he seeks for personal contact with all those who ask him for forgiveness. He wants to hear from them personally how grateful they are for his mercy. This is what they say in the second half of this petition.
As We Also Have Forgiven: Proof of Gratitude
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors — Matthew 6:12.
For we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us— Luke 11:4.
This is the only time in the prayer when people explicitly say something about themselves. What they say should surprise themselves. Although they are wretched sinners, they are remarkably positive about themselves in one respect: we too forgive. That is no small thing! Forgiving does not end with accepting someone’s apology. So does the world. Forgiving someone else requires self-denial.
“As we also forgive...” They say that out loud to God himself. Are they asking him to follow their good example? That can never be the intention. Besides, it would be their downfall. If he really took their lack of being inclined to forgive others as a standard, he would never be able to forgive their misdeeds — including their still present wicked nature — and could never forgive them.
Meanwhile, we need to leave this as it is written. With Matthew, “this prayer sounds like the utterance of people who let it be known that they have forgiven once and for all the debts committed towards them, and are therefore in a position to receive a corresponding treatment from God”.4 With Luke, they declare that they are always ready to forgive all debts towards them.5 What they are asking of God (forgiveness), they are willing to give to others. They have already shown this.
How indispensable is this inclination of forgiveness for their own forgiveness? Two verses after the “amen” of this prayer, Jesus makes this clear: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).
Jesus simply means that God only forgives those who are poor sinners and who are ready to acknowledge this. Those who adamantly refuse to forgive someone else are too unimpressed with their own guilt and insufficiently grateful for their acquittal. This is how God regards this. He does not demand that victims take lightly what another has done to them. He does expect however that they do not focus blindly on this, grateful as they are for what God has forgiven them. That is why he pays attention to how they treat their opponents. Their attitude toward their own debtors is for him the measure of their appreciation of their own acquittal. That is why he wants to hear from them in clear and unambiguous terms what they intend to do with their own debtors. It depends on this whether they themselves receive forgiveness. The parable of Matthew 18:23-35 provides an illustration of this.6
A king settles accounts with his servants. They are to report on their management of his possessions. One of them — apparently a high-ranking person — has done very badly. Mismanagement has left a deficit of ten thousand talents — an enormous amount. Ten thousand was the largest number people used in their calculations and a talent was the biggest currency.7 The slave is not in a position to ever repay the capital entrusted to him. Therefore the king orders him to be sold as a slave, together with his wife, his children and all his possessions. He no longer belongs to the king’s kingdom. It is finished. All he can ask for is a reprieve. He claims that he will pay everything when he is allowed to continue his work. It may be that, on account of his high position, this was not an impossibility “a priori”.8
Be that as it may, the king forgives him everything and releases him. That will have implied that his dismissal would also have been withdrawn and that he could return to his high position.
However, on the heels of this grand pardon he manages to as yet undo this royal act of forgiveness. He grabs a fellow servant by his throat and has him thrown into prison without mercy for a trifling amount of money. Often people pretend that he was actually entitled to this money, because the other person had borrowed it from him. That other person, however, is a “fellow servant” and thus in the service of the same king. Therefore, it is obvious that this fellow servant is also ultimately in debt to the same king. Apparently this second servant had to settle his debt through his colleague who had been returned to his high position. The latter remains completely mute about the generous royal remission. He coldly takes an old bill from his file folder and does not mention the fact that the king has put a line through all the debts! Without pity he demands payment right down to the last penny. He wants to use that money to line his own pockets. So he demands payment of a debt that no longer even exists!
In this way he himself cancels the royal remission. This gives the king the full right to as yet demand payment of all his accounts. What grieves the king the most is the fact that his pity left this servant as cold as a stone: “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?”
No one will stand up for this villain. You can hardly imagine that someone could be like it. That is why it is thought-provoking that Jesus tells this parable to Peter in particular. Peter considered himself to be very forgiving. He had asked Jesus if it was enough to forgive a fellow man up to seven times. No doubt he had counted on a pat on the back from Jesus. Perhaps Jesus thought seven times was a bit much. Instead Jesus gave this parable. Peter had to look in the mirror. If he did not grant forgiveness to someone after seven times, he was not unlike this hard servant.
Jesus makes us look in the same mirror. What does someone who has done something against us — even if it was seventy times seven times — notice about gratitude for our own acquittal? Imagine that God has already cancelled his debt, and we still have not done so! Are we then all that much different from that cold and harsh servant?
But now let us move on to the actual practice. After all, our debtors are generally not as pathetic as that poor “fellow servant” from the parable.
What does God expect from us when we tell him that we forgive our debtors? We forgive the one more easily than the other. All kinds of factors come into play. What has been done to us? Who is the perpetrator? Is there any evidence of repentance?
We note that the petition itself does not add any nuance to the group of debtors. Both the seriousness of the crime as well as the attitude of the offender are left out of consideration. Our debtors are apparently all our debtors. Without any reservations, the people in this petition declare that they forgive their debtors—and that is final! In principle they have already done so (Matthew) or they are always ready to do so (Luke). Therefore, the Catechism can say that they “are fully determined to forgive their neighbour wholeheartedly”.
What does forgiveness imply? First and foremost, you can only forgive a debtor. Those who forgive take someone’s debt completely seriously. Forgiving is not a way of relativizing a debt. Stephen makes that clear. He prayed for forgiveness for his murderers. He had called them “traitors and murderers” of God’s righteous Son. They responded by stoning him to death. As he was dying, he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”9 In doing so, he first of all underscored the gravity of their guilt. Meanwhile, there was no vindictiveness in his heart and he sought deliverance for these “traitors and murderers” who did not (as yet) show any repentance.10
Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting or covering up or keeping the police out of it. It is: no longer imputing a real debt and no longer judging the other person on it. This paves the way to even pray for the wellbeing of the offender. In doing this, victims relinquish their judgment and leave it with God. With his help they do not endlessly bring the dark past back into their minds. Gradually they let go of it, and over time they close the book. This requires self-denial, especially when they still feel the pain or when the other person does not repent. How can they ever forgive him or her?
As We Also Have Forgiven: a Demonstration of God’s Grace
According to Christ those who do not forgive and have no intentions to do so will not receive forgiveness. But how do wretched sinners get this far as, for instance, Stephen when he was dying? No one reaches that point in their own strength. It is beautiful mention of the Catechism that it characterizes their willingness to forgive not as a proof of good behaviour, but of God’s grace.
In these words we detect a decree of amazement. They themselves do not understand why they try so hard to be ready and prepared to forgive. It is not because they are so accommodating in and of themselves. Even the realization that the precious blood of Christ is needed for their own acquittal is insufficient to get them to the point that Stephen has reached. Resentment is tough to deal with. Christians who ask for pardon themselves are not automatically lenient toward their own debtors. This is because there is always evil left in them. This includes also the inability and unwillingness to forgive. That is why they are surprised that they are willing to forgive their debtors. They sense that they are becoming different people. They no longer blame and fault another person. They become compliant in making amends to the conflicts. They notice in themselves that they have the firm intent to “wholeheartedly forgive” someone who has offended or maltreated them in their life.
They have only one explanation for their readiness to forgive: it is evidence of God’s grace. He pardoned them. They know this for sure. They are feeling the proof of it in their hearts.11 After all, they are willing to “forgive their neighbour wholeheartedly”. They promise to do so. For them it is encouraging evidence that God’s grace is actually achieving its work in them. They gratefully make mention of it in this petition. The grace that has already been shown to them gives them all the more courage to continue to knock time and again on God’s door.