Prayer – Forgiveness for Daily Bread
The disciples once witnessed Jesus praying. When He was finished, one of the twelve asked Jesus to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). In answer to that question, the Lord told His disciples – by means of what we call the Lord's Prayer – that the focus of all prayer to God was to be that His Name be hallowed the more.
That hallowing of God's wonderful name occurs in a context of war; in God's kingdom are many rebels, persons who don't acknowledge His kingship. He taught also that God's kingdom is made to come and His name is given the glory when sinners obey God's commands. Hence the third petition: 'Your will be done.' And in order that the disciples have the where-with-all to do the will of God (that in turn His kingdom is made to come and His name glorified), they needed to ask God to "give us day by day our daily bread."
This request for bodily needs was not the last petition Jesus taught His disciples. It could not be the end of Jesus' instruction about prayer because the disciples invariably misused the good gifts God gave in answer to the fourth petition.
Jesus gave His instruction about prayer on a particular day. The twelve disciples – and they were all gathered around Jesus listening to His instruction – had all received so many bits and pieces earlier in the day already. They'd received from God's hand the gift of sleep, the health to get out of bed that morning, clothes to put on, breakfast to eat, strength to do their chores, etc. It had all come from God's hand, and had been given so that Andrew and Nathaniel and Matthew and Thomas and the rest of the disciples might obey God's commands for them in their circumstances – so that in turn God's kingdom was made to come and His name be glorified.
But: what had the disciples done with the many good gifts God had given that day? The Bible is so clear on the point: the disciples invariably had not used God's good gifts only for the praise of God's glorious name. The Scriptures of the Old Testament speak of every person being evil, of none being righteous, of none seeking after God, of all having turned aside to do their own thing (Psalm 14:1 ff; cf. Romans 3:10 ff). Indeed, even our best works are defiled with sin (Isaiah 64:6). In the words of Lord's Day 51: men are "wretched sinners.” This was material the disciples could know from their Bibles; God taught them that they had invariably misused all the "bodily needs" God had given them that morning already.
The disciples could know also that God hated this misuse of His gifts. They were familiar with passages of Scripture as Deuteronomy 32. The passage relates the fact that God supplied Israel's bodily needs most abundantly;
God gave curds from the cattle, and milk of the flock, with fat of lambs; And rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, with the choicest of wheat. (vss 13 f).
But – the passage continues – Israel did not use God's gift of abundant daily bread in order to do His will in their circumstances, did not use it to make His kingdom come, glorify His name. Rather – vs. 15- "Jeshurun" (and that's a name for Israel; see 33:5,26; Is 44:2) "grew fat and kicked”, bucked against the Lord who gave so much. What is God's response to this misuse of His abundant gifts? Vs 19: "when the Lord saw it, He spurned them.., And He said: I will hide My face from them."
See there God's reaction to His people's misuse of His gracious gifts.
On the particular day when Jesus spoke to His disciples about prayer, they had received so much already from the Lord. The disciples knew from Scripture too that they had not used it all to God's glory. More, they knew from Scripture what God's reaction was to their misuse of His gifts. Given that they knew this, how could they seek God's face in prayer?! Given that they had misused so much of God's gracious gifts to them, how could they ever ask God again for daily bread – even if they ask it so that they might have the where-with-all to do God's will, to make His kingdom come, to hallow His name? They dare not seek His face any more with such a petition, simply because they'd misused the gifts God had already given today. Then ask for more daily bread tomorrow?! That's not on! It's exactly our dogged misuse of God's gifts that makes praying so difficult!
In this setting, Jesus' instruction about prayer is surprising, encouraging! It is as if Jesus tells His disciples, 'I know that God has given you much this morning already, and I know also that you have not used all God's gifts simply and only for the glory of the Giver. But, My disciples, that does not mean that you should despair, that you should quit praying. Rather, the fact that you have misused Father's gracious gifts to you today – be it the gift of energy, of food, of health, of speech, of intellect, etc – should prompt you to pray for forgiveness.' Says Jesus to His disciples: 'it is true that you have chalked up a debt with God through your misuse of the bodily needs God gave to you this morning.' But, Jesus adds, 'don't let the existence of the debt stop you from praying. Rather, mention the reality of the debt to Him. Tell Him in so many words that you have a debt with God. Tell Him that you've misused His gifts, tell Him that you have not used His gifts to obey His will alone, tell Him that you've used the tongue He gave you to speak evil of another, tell Him that you've used the energy and the intellect He gave you in order to build up your own ego and reputation. Remind Him of that debt – go ahead.'
Jesus goes further than instructing the disciples to remind God of the debt. Jesus tells His disciples not just to confess the reality of having a debt; He tells them also to ask God please to forgive that debt!
What might the notion of 'forgive' mean? The request that God please 'forgive' is not a plea that God please ignore the debt we've accumulated with Him through our misuse of His gifts. Nor is it a plea that God simply write off that debt. Both those concepts – to ignore and to write off – imply that the debt leave its traces on God's books, is still 'discoverable' so that it can one day be dragged up again and possibly be held against us. The concept 'forgiveness' has a far richer content. 'Forgiveness' captures the notion that sins are gone, irretrievably gone. I think of the words of David in Psalm 103:
As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (vs. 12).
Our day of rapid transportation draws east pretty close to west; one need but travel for a day to reach the far side of the globe. In David's day, though, east was impossibly far from west; what was lost in the west was irretrievable for the man of the east. If sins are removed as far as east from west extends, those sins are gone, irretrievably gone.
The prophet Micah speaks of sins being "pardoned", "passed over'', and then describes these sins as being "cast into the depths of the sea" (7: 18 f) Again, with today's technology one can retrieve what is cast into the depths of the sea. It was not possible, however, in the days of Micah. And that's the point sins are removed, irretrievably removed so that they cannot be dragged up again.
Consider the gravy left over on your dinner plate. Once that plate is washed, the gravy washed away, you cannot retrieve it, cannot reconstruct the mess on the plate. It's washed away, gone, irretrievably gone. That's the notion of 'forgiveness'. And that, says Jesus to His disciples, is what they are to ask God to do with the debt they've piled up with Him through their misuse of the breakfast, the energy, the money, die time, the talents, the 'bodily needs' God gave them that day.
Though the Lord gave the disciples so many blessings day by day, they invariably misused God's good gifts. This misuse implied that they built up a debt with God of such magnitude that they had no right to appeal to God again for daily bread. With such a debt, prayer is effectively impossible.
Jesus' instruction to the twelve, though, was that they should mention the debt to God very honestly. More, they should ask God in heaven to forgive this debt. With this instruction, Jesus taught His disciples to ask God to take that debt away so that it was irretrievably gone – like the gravy stain washed off the dinner plate.
Ground for Forgiveness
Why could Jesus give a petition as this? Here is the gospel of free grace, as God had proclaimed it in the Old Testament. All those sacrifices of the old dispensation and among those numerous sacrifices were offerings that had to be made day by day – heralded to the people of Israel (including the disciples standing around Jesus!) that forgiveness of sins was God's free gift to His unworthy people. Whereas the Israelite ought to die on account of his sins, whereas the sinner ought to remain eternally in God's debt and so spend an eternity in hell, God was pleased to wipe sins away so that the sinner might go free, totally and eternally free; the animal died in his place.
The sacrifices of the temple foreshadowed the coming sacrifice of the Perfect Man on the cross. In the words of Isaiah the prophet:
He was Wounded for our transgressions, He was braised for our iniquities; The, chastisement for our peace was upon Him, – And by His stripes we are healed (53:5).
This was the teaching of the Old Testament, upon which Jesus built His instruction to the disciples to pray for forgiveness of the debt they daily accumulated with God. It was a teaching He was Himself to fulfil on the cross of Calvary. Jesus would die in place of the sinner, so that the sinner might go free.
So there was David who received from the Lord's gracious hand his daily bread, be it health and a home, be it marriage and children, be it food and drink, even the throne of the land. But David did not appreciate God's good gifts, did not use them to do God's will in his circumstances (and so glorify God's name); David instead used his health and his home, his humour and his figure to entice Bathsheba into his bed – sin. God gave to this king in Israel the power and mind to rule over His people, but David did not use God's gifts to do God's will in His circumstances; he instead used his power and his army to kill innocent Uriah.
This is the man, though, who spoke so gloriously of sins being forgiven. This is the man who could say in Psalm 32:
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity (vss 1 f).
This, David knew, is the God of Scripture: He freely forgives those who confess their debt before Him – though that debt be so enormously huge. It's a forgiveness granted to die sinner not because the sinner has earned it; on the contrary, the fact that the sinner has a debt implies that the sinner has not earned forgiveness. It's a forgiveness granted out of free grace, granted because the Jesus who taught His disciples to pray would Himself go to the cross of Calvary to pay the debts accumulated by His people through their sins, go to the cross to wash those sins away.
Peter stood with the twelve as Jesus instructed His disciples about prayer. Not so very long afterward he denied vehemently that he so much as knew who Jesus was (Luke 22:54 ff). Here was sin; here was a debt with God that Peter could not begin to pay off. But on the day of Pentecost, this very same Peter could speak of forgiveness of sins to the crowds who were dismayed at the thought that they had killed God's greatest gift to them; said Peter:
Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.Acts 2:38
Amazing, but this is the gospel: even a debt as massive as is implied when one killed the Son of God Himself can be forgiven! The point is: repent, tell the Lord of your evil, confess it, come clean of it, and that sin is washed away, forgiven for Jesus' sake! That's what Peter can say, because he knows his own debts with God are forgiven. That's what Peter can say, because he knows God forgives the sins of all who believe in Jesus Christ. Yes, it's a promise valid for everyone whom God calls to Himself (vs. 39): God for Jesus' sake forgives, freely forgives the massive debts we build up with Him! No sin is too awful for forgiveness; no debt is too big to be taken away.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews describes the effects of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Since there is forgiveness for sins through the blood of Christ, God's people are boldly to enter the presence of God Himself by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19). Jesus' payment for sin on the cross has torn apart the curtain that prevented access to God, so that God's people may freely speak their minds to holy God Himself.
Let us draw near, says the apostle, with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (10:22).
That is: with Jesus' instruction in the fifth petition He told the twelve what to pray to make prayer as a whole possible! In the face of all their misuse of God's gifts, in the face of all the selfishness that characterised their lives, in the face of all the disobedience to God's will that abounded in their lives day by day, they could not speak with God unless there was forgiveness of sins. And forgiveness was what God promised in the Old Testament, yes, forgiveness was what Jesus obtained on the cross, and so access is readily available again to God. So the disciples should pray the fifth petition, daily. And we are to pray that same petition also, daily. Though our misuse of God's bountiful gifts lead us to conclude that we dare not appear in God's holy presence again – He cannot but be terribly angry with us – Jesus tells us here to meet the obstacle to prayer head on, to confess sin, to ask for free remission of that debt – for Jesus' sake. In the words of the Catechism:
for the sake of Christ's blood, do not impute to us, wretched sinners, any of our transgressions, nor the evil which still clings to us (Lord's Day 51).
Then prayer as a whole is possible again.
The disciples sought instruction from Jesus about prayer. He told them to ask God to forgive the debt they daily accumulated with God through their misuse of His blessings. Forgiveness was possible because the Lord Jesus Christ would die to pay for sin, as prophesied in the Old Testament, because of His forgiving work, God's people again have access to the divine majesty", and should boldly seek God's face in prayer.
What, now, might the results be of such a prayer for forgiveness? I mention three.
Forgiveness is Certain
In the first place, we may fully expect that our sins definitely will be forgiven. I say this because of Jesus' words to the disciples when He taught them to pray. After He gave them the Lord's Prayer, He told them the following; said Jesus: "…ask, and it will be given to you" (Luke 11:9). And again: ''For everyone who asks receives" (Luke 11:10).
Says Jesus to the disciples standing around Him (and this word is true for all God's people of every time and place): 'ask according to the instruction of the Lord's Prayer, and God in heaven will definitely supply. He will, because He has promised – witness the Old Testament sacrifices, witness My coming death on the cross. He will wash away sin, He will forgive your misuse of the daily bread He gives – no matter how horrendous your sins are. So: don't shy away from praying, don't think that God will be angry with you forever, don't let your guilty conscience prevent you from going on your knees. Rather, confess sins and then dare to work with God's promise of forgiveness, dare to ask for forgiveness. He has promised forgiveness; work with that promise, ask Him to forgive the enormous debt you've built up with Him. And be convinced: 'God in heaven will answer, will forgive, will wash away every last bit of the debt you daily build with your God.' That's the first result.
Daily Bread Assured
The second result is this: if God in fact does forgive my sins so that I have no debt with God at all, I may again ask for daily bread, yes, and expect to receive what I need also. Deuteronomy 32 told us of how God would discard Israel because of their hardened misuse of His gifts, of the daily bread He gave. But once that debt with God is gone, once there is forgiveness, God returns again in favour to His people and supplies again their daily – needs. Psalm 85 speaks of God having "forgiven the iniquity of Your people; You have covered all their sin" (vs. 2). That is: here is answer to the fifth petition. But the same psalm mentions the result of this forgiveness as it relates to the fourth petition. I read this:
Yes, the Lord will give what is good; And our land will yield its increase (vs. 12).
Though sin, misuse of God's gifts, should lead to God's hand being forever closed to sinners; though misuse of the gifts God has given in answer to the fourth petition should lead to God denying every other request according to the fourth petition, God in infinite mercy is pleased to forgive sin (the fifth petition) – and so answer the fourth petition again too! That's the promise of Holy Scripture: we may pray confidently for daily bread because all our sins of misuse of God's gifts are forgiven for Jesus' sake! So, dear reader: pray, pray for all you need day by day to live for God's glory, all you need to make His kingdom come, all you need to do God's will. Pray for your needs, even while you know you've misused God's ample gifts this morning already. Pray for your needs, confident that your Father in Jesus Christ graciously forgives your sins. Pray, and seek grace too to use God's many gifts to His greater glory – and not your own satisfaction.
I Forgive the Other
The third result of such a gospel is this: I readily forgive those who trespass against me. Jesus put it like this:
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.Matthew 6:14f
In simple terms: to hold a grudge against the neighbour on account of his wrongs against me means there is no forgiveness for me in the courts of God. And we know: if there is no forgiveness for us from God, there is no blessing from God either; there is only the curse. Then we can pray for bodily needs till the cows come home, but there is no answer… And prayer is so hard, so frustrating. I want, then, to be able to pray? I shall need readily to forgive my neighbour whatever evil or hurt he has done to me.
The disciples wanted to know how to pray. Jesus in infinite mercy taught them not just four petitions; He added a fifth – the one that makes approaching God possible in the first place. Given that instruction, it is for us to go on our knees before the Majesty on high, confess our sins and seek forgiveness of our debts with God. And our Father in Jesus Christ will hear, and graciously supply all we daily need to live to His greater glory.
That the promise.