These words take us into a tricky bit of theology. When Jesus says “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” it would be easy to say, “Well, then, God will only forgive my sins after I have forgiven anyone who has sinned against me.” Right? But we know that can’t be the case, because the Bible is so very clear that God’s forgiveness of the debt that we owe is based solely on the finished work of Jesus on the cross.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
“he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5).
Adding anything to that—even the requirement that we forgive before God will forgive us—makes our salvation a “work,” a “righteous thing” that we must do. Okay, so if it’s not a prerequisite for salvation, why must we forgive those who have sinned against us? Albert Mohler explains it this way:
“Jesus is decidedly not saying that we are forgiven by God because we have forgiven other people. That would make the grounds of our acceptance with God our own works and not God’s grace. Scripture is very clear that we are justified before God by faith alone, not by works of the law.
“What Jesus is affirming in these words is that when we experience God’s forgiveness, we are fundamentally transformed into forgiving people. In other words, one way we can know if we have experienced God’s forgiveness is to see if we have become a forgiving people.”
John Calvin was a bit more blunt. He said, “If we retain feelings of hatred in our hearts, if we plot revenge and ponder any occasion to cause harm, and even if we do not try to get back into our enemies’ good graces, by every sort of good office deserve well of them, and commend ourselves to them, by this prayer we entreat God not to forgive our sins.”
So the key to this petition is, first, our recognition of the overwhelming nature of our sin against a holy God. Even those things which we might consider minor, just “little white lies,” are an insult to His holiness. Do you have any concept at all of just how “holy,” how pure, how “other,” God is? As Richard Lints put it, “God is not just a little bit holy. God is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY holy…. The core idea behind holiness is absolute moral purity. God is not only perfectly good; he is the very source and standard of goodness”
All that to say, because God is holy, He cannot and will not ignore sins, regardless of how minor we may think they are.
Secondly, God—that holy, righteous, merciful, gracious God—loves us. Because He loves us, He wants to have a relationship with us. Our sin stands as an impenetrable barrier between us and a relationship with a holy God.
Don’t skip past this verse just because it’s so familiar: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That’s an eternity in a loving relationship with God. It only cost Him His son.
“But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)” (Eph 2:4-5)
Paul goes on in Ephesians 2 to say, “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it…. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (vv. 8-10).
One of those “good things” we do, one of the things we are compelled to do, is forgive, because we have been forgiven.
“Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great minister of London, wrote, ‘Whenever I see myself before God and realize something of what my blessed Lord has done for me at Calvary, I am ready to forgive anybody anything. I cannot withhold it. I do not even want to withhold it.’”
Like the sinful woman in Luke 7:47, we understand that those who have been forgiven much know (and show) great love. Those who do not understand “what an incredible quality of love the Father has shown us” (1 John 3:1), will be unwilling to forgive the sins of others.