These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
'When you pray, say: "Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us..." '
In learning from Jesus how to pray we should never allow one remarkable fact to escape our attention: Jesus himself had to pray. In humbling himself to become a man Jesus, the Son, left so many of the privileges of his face-to-face communion with the Father and had to talk to God in the same way we do; by prayer. Moreover, Jesus lived by the power of the same Spirit who lives in us. These facts in themselves ought to blow the roof off our expectations of what prayer can be. If Jesus himself knew unparalleled intimacy with the Father in heaven by prayer and by the Spirit, then he was showing how we could also enter into that. You can pray like Jesus, and you can pray by the power of the same Spirit.
However, in coming to this part of the prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins’, we are praying what Jesus never himself had to pray.
This part of the Lord’s Prayer has extraordinary power for a couple of reasons. First, because it tackles the universal problem of guilt, which by any reckoning (Christian, secular, or otherwise) is a huge deal; it's widely known that guilt is a universal human issue whatever your religious beliefs. And second, because those who learn to pray this prayer can experience the power of doing so *on the spot*, in other words, they can know the answer to their prayer even as they pray it.
Exactly how you pray this prayer is going to change depending on your relationship to God, and in particular, whether you have (to use the Bible’s language) been saved, born again, become part of God’s family. In other words, are you a Christian?
If you’re not then the most important priority in the world is to seek God’s forgiveness as Judge for the simple reason that you’re guilty. This is true in two senses; there is the objective verdict of guilt which is quite real regardless of how you feel about your life, and there is the subjective feeling of guilt which all of us (in our honest moments) know very well. Sadly, both of these truths are denied today.
Many reject the idea that God is a Judge who would condemn. But then, I ask, are there not things in the world of which you do not approve? And if there are, don’t you think God also disapproves of many things? And is it not then possible that there are things in you he disapproves of?
Many also try to get rid of their own sense of guilt by burying it, denying it, or absolving it. We bury guilt by finding ways to make ourselves feel better. We deny guilt by simply rejecting the moral standards that God has shown to us. And we try to absolve guilt by doing good things and going through religious motions. But however you deal with your guilt the Bible shows us that guilt is a powerful gift from God if it drives us to him. In fact, many of the greatest Christians in history tell their own stories of conversion by describing a season of profound soul-wrenching guilt that led to them understanding the Gospel and finding forgiveness from God. That can be true for you.
Look at how simple this prayer is. Jesus shows us that we don’t need to do anything more complicated or difficult than to ask God. The reason it is so simple is that Jesus himself has done the difficult thing in dying for us to make God's forgiveness possible.
Now what about if you’re a Christian? How do you pray this prayer? It seems to me that there is something of a puzzle we need to think through here. Martin Luther wrote as his first thesis nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, he willed that the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.’ But that raises the question; if we’ve been justified for all our sins – past, present, and future – in what sense do we need to keep repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness?
The answer is in understanding this distinction: we no longer seek the forgiveness of God as Judge since we are already justified (or declared ‘Righteous’), but rather we seek the forgiveness of God as Father.
The New Testament shows us that as Christians we can never be more accepted, more loved, more righteous, because we have the righteousness of Christ. And yet, it also teaches that we can live in such a way that either pleases or displeases God. Our day-to-day experience of the Fatherhood of God is impacted by our lives. JI Packer put it like this: ‘Regenerate persons know that sin when cherished becomes an obstacle to their enjoyment of fellowship with God’.
What does that feel like, when sin affects your relationship with God? You will feel miserable; perhaps not immediately, but inevitably you will lose your joy. The Psalmist wrote that ‘The rebellious live in a parched land’ (Psalm 68.6). You’ll be lacking peace (Isaiah 48.22). You may be suffering under God’s hand of discipline (Hebrews 12.5–11). Certainly, your love for God will grow cold if you keep walking in sin (Revelation 3.15).
That is why Jesus teaches us to keep coming back to our Father and seeking forgiveness. The Christian will feel a sense of loss when they’re not walking closely with the Father. That ought to drive you to repent with zeal and urgency.
This is not something that lessens as the Christian life goes on. It’s something that intensifies and deepens. Christians should never plateau or retire from the work of growing and repenting and becoming more like Christ. There’s nothing more depressing than a Christian who is cruising. All of their best days lie behind them and they are, for all intents and purposes, taking the Christian equivalent of a cruise round the Mediterranean. No! It ought to be the case that after you’ve been walking with Jesus for 70 years your experience of soul-searching repentance is deeper as you grow more like him.
Why did Jesus immediately add this line: ‘…for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.’ Sometimes it sounds like he’s giving a condition for receiving forgiveness from God (see Matthew 6.14-15). But that is to understand this in a back-to-front fashion. Think of it like this: what happens to the person who has truly experienced God’s forgiveness? The answer is that they have felt guilt, but now they feel gratitude and humbling at the grace of God. And what’s going on in the heart of a person who won’t forgive another? Instead of gratitude and humility they feel pride and self-righteousness as they judge their brother or sister, feeling that they are in some sense better and justified in holding this grudge. In other words, these two sets of emotions or mindsets are entirely incompatible. It is impossible for the person who truly grasps the grace of God in the Gospel to then turn round and hold other people’s debts against them!
Instead, in learning to pray this prayer we need to take the opportunity to come to God and search our hearts to see if we are holding any unforgiveness.