Matthew 6:12

and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors. [1]

Sometimes you may hear preachers urge you to pray on the grounds that prayer is “easy.” But scripture suggests no such thing. Many of the prayers you find in the Psalms drip with agony. It is true that we who trust into Christ do not have to merit entrance into the presence of God, and it is true we come to a God who is our Dear Heavenly Father. It is also true we have brought clouds of sin into our relationship with our Father, and often all but obliterated the rays of his grace. To suggest that prayer should always be easy for sinners is, therefore, naive, and less than biblical.[2]

Fortunately for us, Jesus is more realistic. That is why he teaches his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts.” He knows that we come to our Father with the burden and nagging pain of our guilt. Jesus is teaching us to keep short accounts with God. We ask for forgiveness. We specify the debts that we know we have. We no longer try to hide them from the Lord. We admit them, bring them to the surface, mention them by name in his presence, and praise him for the forgiveness we have already received in Christ Jesus.


If we are to understand this petition, we have to realize that it is primarily speaking of forgiveness that is given after justification of the disobedient child of God. And we must realize that before this kind of forgiveness is possible it must be preceded by another type of forgiveness by which a person becomes a member of God’s family in the first place.

The petition Jesus commands is certainly not a prayer for the forgiveness that follows justification flowing out of trust into Christ’s perfectly lived righteous life and sacrificial blood shedding death for sin. That initial forgiveness flows out of Holy-Spirit-given trust into Christ’s person and work as the one sufficient sacrifice for our sins past, present, and future. That is something God does once for all.

If the 5th petition is referring to this initial forgiveness, then we can have no real security before God. We cannot say with Paul that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). We cannot say with Jeremiah that God will “remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Nor could we ever say, “as far as the east is from the West, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

All of those promises would be meaningless if justifying forgiveness is the subject of this petition. Remember, Jesus is teaching his disciples who trust into him already. The Lord is not speaking of the forgiveness we receive at the moment of our salvation. He is speaking of forgiveness that comes later, that comes repeatedly, a forgiveness that restores a broken relationship with God and his children.


Most believers certainly understand the need for a distinction between initial justifying forgiveness and the ongoing forgiveness of sin. Unfortunately, there are Christians who feel that sin can be eradicated in this earthly life. Since they generally apply that idea to themselves, they come to wrongly believe that they no longer need to seek the ongoing forgiveness for which Jesus instructs us to seek.

We need to rightly understand one great principle. When a sinful human being becomes a Christian, they do not cease to be a sinner any more than they cease to be a human being. We are given a new nature by God and that new nature does not sin. The new nature constantly encourages us along the path of holiness. But we also have a sinful, fallen nature that we cannot eradicate in this life.

Our old nature, being in rebellion against God and his will, leads us to sin and idolatry time after time. And every time our sin breaks out, we will also find it breaks the fullness of our fellowship with God. What do we do in those circumstances? The Bible teaches that we are to return to the Lord repeatedly and confess our sin and ask for forgiveness and cleansing. Neglecting to do this will not result in the loss of our salvation. But it will cause us to lose all the joy of our salvation. If we ask for forgiveness, we will enter increasingly into the joy of a deepening fellowship with God.

Confessing our sins to God and seeking his cleansing restores to us the joy of our initial justification and our initial once-for-all forgiveness we were gifted in our justification. Additionally, this will involve our attitude toward others. We cannot experience the fullness of God’s forgiveness toward us, according to Jesus, unless we extend the same forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Jesus says in verses 14 and 15:

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [3]

Jesus is not teaching that God waits for us to earn his forgiveness by our forgiving others. We are completely unable to earn any of God’s favors. If your heart is not right horizontally, with other people, your relationship with God will be hindered. If your relationship with God is not right, your relationship with others will be harmed. Jesus teaches us here that an ideal prayer contains a request for personal forgiveness and a request for a forgiving spirit.

The New Testament states this several times. In Matthew 5:7 Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” A merciless, unforgiving heart will receive neither forgiveness nor mercy. James 2:13 says the same: “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.

And Jesus’ powerful parable of the man who was forgiven 10,000 talents by his lord but refused to forgive his own slave a 100-denarii debt ends with this terrifying warning: “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:32-35)

We do not receive forgiveness because we forgive others, but because we cast ourselves upon the mercy of God. But we cannot receive forgiveness without forgiving others. The person who merely mouths this petition but will not forgive others their debts has not begun to understand the weight of his own sin. If he did, in light of his being forgiven, he would be prepared to forgive his brother 77 times (Matthew 18:22).[4]

God does not work by halves. He does not want us to come to him confessing half a sin while hanging on to the other half. It must be all or nothing. So, if we confess our sin, that confession must involve a forgiving attitude towards others in the gospel community. Hanging on to our horizontal grudges demonstrates that we have not yet fully understood the depth of our own sin and the height and breadth of God’s grace. Again, this has nothing to do with losing the eternal forgiveness one receives at the moment of salvation. It simply means that we have not truly learned the value of our eternal salvation and all of its implications.

Jesus tells us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This certainly means, among other things, that we are to pattern the scope of our own forgiveness upon God’s.[5]

If the words “as we also have forgiven our debtors” stick in our throats, if they cannot be spoken without the names and faces of those we have refused to forgive coming to mind, then the first part of our prayer falls to the ground. The two parts are inseparably linked, because the man who knows his debt before God and turns to him for forgiveness is the recipient of such grace that he cannot but share it with others. Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another with the love of forgiveness (1 John 4:11).[6]

We are not referring to those who find that bitterness and hatred recur even though they have forgiven the offender. The fact that you have forgiven and continue to forgive is a sign of grace. We are not talking about people who are struggling with forgiveness. It is those who have no desire to forgive who are in spiritual danger. There may also be some who have been recently offended and are still in emotional shock and so have not been able to properly respond with forgiveness. The point is: If we are Christians, we can and will forgive![7]


We cannot move forward without pausing to consider one other great truth about this matter of forgiveness. When a person comes to God through Jesus Christ confessing his sin and seeking forgiveness, he can be certain of the outcome. God provides what he promises.

How can we be certain of that fact? We can only be certain of that fact in the same way we can be sure of anything else of a spiritual nature. How can we be sure that the death of the Lord Jesus Christ was the one sufficient sacrifice for our sins? Because God says so. St Author of Hebrews wrote “Because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).

How can we be sure that once we have trusted into Jesus Christ we will never be lost? Because God says so. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). How can we be certain that God will forgive our sin when we come to him to confess it? Because God says so. We read in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

There cannot be a simpler nor greater promise than that. We can be absolutely certain of the forgiveness of sins and certain the forgiveness is based upon the faithfulness and justice of God. God is faithful to his promises. He has promised to forgive, and he does not break his word.

His forgiveness is just (fair, righteous) because the Lord Jesus Christ has paid the full price for all of our sins. God’s justice necessarily requires him to grant us full forgiveness. Full forgiveness! What a wonderful truth. It means that God has made provision in advance for our daily and often hourly cleansings from sin and that his faithfulness and justice stand behind the promises.

That is the kind of assurance that allows us to confess our sins to those we have wronged, including our Dear Father. The world, the flesh, and the devil have always been a cancel culture. The devil loves to convince you that you aren’t good enough and that your sin may not be fully forgiven so you need to keep it concealed. Admit nothing; deny everything; and make counter accusations. Protect your horizontal reputation at all costs, the devil will tell you. Admit to no weaknesses or imperfections, he says.

God has granted you full provision in advance for every sin into which your old nature leads you, and he has done this precisely that you might be kept from sinning. Nothing in you can ever astonish God or take him by surprise. He knows exactly what you are. Jesus knows your sins more infinitely than you do because he suffered infinitely and intimately for them on Calvary. He recommends his love to you on the basis of the fact while you were still a sinner Christ died for you (Romans 5:8).


There is one more thing to notice in this great text. It concerns the word “debts.”  We learn the fuller sense of the word from the parable in Matthew 18:23-35 from which we read earlier. One scholar explains the meaning this way:

…the introductory question and answer in 18:21–22 make it clear that debt is a metaphor for offenses which need to be forgiven. Here too any purely monetary understanding of debt is ruled out by the fact that it is debts to God for which forgiveness is asked. The substitution in vv. 14–15 of “offenses” (and cf. the “sins” of Luke 11:4a), gives a more prosaic but undoubtedly correct interpretation of the graphic metaphor of debt.”[8]

So, in Matthew’s context, the word debt refers to our sin, and the verse is a prayer for forgiveness. In this sense, by means of confession that accesses God’s forgiveness, we cease to become debtors to sin.

After we have come confessing our sin and we receive the forgiveness that is always ours through the person and work of Christ Jesus, we become debtors in another sense. That sense occurs in Romans 1:14-15 where Paul writes, “I am obligated [indebted] both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I’m so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.

This is a debt on two levels. First, we are debtors to God for our unmerited salvation. We were nothing before him. We were determined to live our own life in our own way. We were serving ourselves and our idols. We had no understanding of spiritual things. But God came to us first through the earthly person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then he came to each one of us personally in the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to his truth and to lead us in his way. Because of these things we are debtors to God to serve him with all our heart and soul and mind and to conduct his purposes in this life.

But Paul’s statement indicates we are also debtors to men. Do you know God’s forgiveness? If you have ever come to him confessing your sin and your need for his Son to be your Savior, you have confessed that you know the gospel. When you come to the Lord’s Supper, eating the bread, and drinking the wine that stand for the broken body and shed blood of Christ, you have declared your knowledge of God’s forgiveness.

You are indebted to proclaim this with your siblings in Christ as you partake of the Supper. You are indebted to proclaim it to them as they struggle through life’s trials. And you are indebted to proclaim God’s offer to full and total forgiveness to all who do not trust into the perfectly-lived life and sacrificial death of the crucified, risen, ascended and glorified Lord Jesus Christ. You’re constrained to tell them. Jesus declared, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 6:12.

[2] Ferguson, 129.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 6:14–15.

[4] Ferguson, 130.

[5] Boice, 197.

[6] Ferguson, 130.

[7] Hughes, R. Kent. The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Preaching the Word). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[8] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 249–250.