Philip Ryken: Forgive Us Our Trespasses

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We need daily pardon and daily protection as well as daily provision. So after Jesus taught us to pray, “give us today our daily bread,” He also taught us to pray, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:12–13).

These petitions are for fallen sinners — for people who are often tempted to sin, and sometimes give in. Even before we face these temptations, we should ask God to keep us safe from what John Calvin called in his Institutes “the violent assaults of Satan.” In asking not to be led into temptation, we are not requesting that we will never be tempted at all, but that when we are tempted God will deliver us from Satan’s deadly attacks.

But what about the times when we do sin and fall into spiritual debt? How should we pray then?

The first thing to do when we fall into debt is to figure out how much we owe. So what debt do we owe to God because of our sin? We are guilty for what we have done and for what we have left undone, for sins of omission as well as commission. Our debt includes secret sins as well as public ones, deliberate sins as well as sins committed in relative ignorance. And when all our sins are added together, they place us in God’s eternal debt.

Yet Jesus has taught us to ask our Father to help us. “Our Father,” we are to pray, “forgive us our debts.” With these words we declare our moral bankruptcy, freely admitting that we owe God more than everything we have. Then we ask Him to forgive us outright. And because He is our loving Father, God does what we ask. When we go to Him weighed down with the debt of all our sin, He does not sit down with us to work out a payment plan. Instead, He offers full and free forgiveness.

When God remits our debts He is well within His legal rights, for the Scripture says that He took our sin away, “canceling the record of debt that stood against us” by “nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). This vivid image corresponds to the way debts were sometimes cancelled in the ancient world. When a debtor finally paid off all his debts, his creditor would strike a nail through the certificate of debt. In the same way, when Christ died on the cross, God drove a nail right through the infinite debt of our sin. There are no longer any outstanding charges against us.

The debts we ask God to forgive when we pray the way Jesus taught us to pray are the very debts that were crucified with Christ at Calvary. When Christ died on the cross, all our debts were cancelled. The Greek word for “cancel” (exaleipho), which Paul uses in Colossians 2, means “to blot out” or “to wipe away.” It means that the mountain of debt we once owed to God because of our sin has been completely erased.

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