Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:12d “. . .our debtors.”
Augustine called “as we forgive our debtors” the terrible petition. It forces us to include our enemies in our prayers, to reckon with God over people we don’t like. When interceding, “me, my four, and a few friendly more” is out the door.
We can not be made right with God until willing to be made right with people. Anyone who forgives not others is not forgiven by God. If we forgive not others, we break the bridge over which we have to cross to be forgiven. Unforgiving, unforgiven. “God cannot enter the frozen heart of him who hates” (Hunter).
Divine and human forgiveness are woven of the same cloth. They go together as a package deal. General Oglethorp, founder and first governor of the colony of Georgia, outraged at a servant on a trip to America, said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” The preacher promptly replied, “Then I hope you never sin.”
An inward flow of God’s forgiveness into us is impossible apart from an outward flow of human forgiveness out of us. God sends His benefits through us as He passes them on their way to others. God loves to channel His blessings into a person He knows will pass them on. He likes to bestow gifts where they will be multiplied into benefits for many. God dispenses no blessings down a dead-end street. Don’t expect Him to forgive any who will not convey it to others. Offering us a flame, He expects us to pass on a spark. Giving us an ocean, He requires from us a drop.
We are to forgive others even as God hath forgiven us (EP 4:32). Thus, our willingness to forgive must be a predisposition, an ongoing unconditional state of mind rather than something we decide whether or not to do based on how we feel after each incident. We are not to take time to measure how badly hurt we are, and then choose whether or not to forgive. We rather decide in advance to forgive, whatever happens. A believer should forgive almost before the wrong is done.
If one hurts us seven times a day and apologizes each time, we must forgive all (LK 17:4). We can do this only if our willingness to forgive is a decision made in advance, a result of regularly walking so close to God that no affront can rile us.
God help us forbear, forgive, and forget affronts against us. Forbear, be slow to be stirred up. Forgive, remembering we need God’s forgiveness. Forget, not as in erasing it from memory–this can not be done–but as in treating the other as if the offense never happened. Do not be foolish–once burned, twice cautious–but as best we can, seek with God’s help to act as if no offense were ever given.
One more thought before leaving this text–for many, this could be the most liberating verse in the Bible. When obeyed, it sets us free from being flustered at the whims of others. All who do not forgive are helpless slaves of their antagonists, totally at the mercy of any who seek to arouse them. By having us live in a predisposition to forgive, God removes poison from our system. He wants what is best for us, and forgiving others is almost as healthful as being forgiven by God.
Charles Sheldon says the most helpful way to offer this prayer is to pray, “Forgive me as I forgive “–inserting the name of a particularly offensive person. Pray it till we mean it, till in forgiving we sense God’s forgiving smile.
Matt. 6:13a “And. . .”
Note the conjunction. In the spiritual realm, future success is inextricably connected to rightfully handling the past. “No man should go into the future with God till he has a clear heart” (Vaughan, in B.I.) about the past. Once forgiveness is secured, though, the battle is not over. Forgiveness for past sin is not enough. We also need prevention of future sin. People truly forgiven display two traits: they do not want to sin again, and have an increased sense of personal weakness.
First, a forgiven sinner does not want to sin again. Truly repentant believers so despise the sin they committed that they want to avoid any possibility of ever slipping into it again. Forgiven of past guilt, we seek to avoid future guilt, having a “holy horror at the very thought of falling again into sin” (Spurgeon). Having gone through the humiliating throes of sin, and having been forgiven, we desire never again to return to the shameful folly of pleasing Satan and dishonoring God.
Second, a forgiven sinner has an increased sense of personal weakness. Our text is the cry of a humble self-distrusting sinner who realizes he is ever in danger of becoming a worse sinner still. “The footfall of the fiend falls on the startled ear of the timid penitent; he quivers like an aspen leaf, and cries out” (Spurgeon). A forgiven sinner pleads, “Oh, Lord, please do not let the devil run roughshod over me again. Surround me with thy hedge of protection. Be a wall of fire about me.”
Forgiven sinners know there never comes an hour when we are invincible, and can let down our guard. Past forgiveness does not remove the inevitability of future conflicts. Our old man, our sin nature, our tendency to sin remains ever in us. “Evil may be forced out of the heart while it is yet in the blood” (Maclaren).
Beware a false sense of security. Let our text serve as a safeguard against presumption and self-sufficiency. Nothing intensifies temptation more than does over-confidence. The very disciple who recklessly said he would not deny Jesus became the one who did deny Him. May God grant us all a sacred self-suspicion.
Bloody Queen Mary once put two men in the same cell to await martyrdom for being Protestants. While one boasted loudly of his manly devotion and said he looked forward to his execution as eagerly as a bride longs for her wedding, the other prisoner was paralyzed with fear. He claimed he was overly sensitive and weak, with a low tolerance for pain. He spent much time crying out to God for strength. He begged the bolder man to pray with him, but the latter rebuked him for his weakness. At the stake, the boisterous one saw the fiery fagot, renounced his faith, and sank ignominiously into an apostate’s life, but the poor trembler stood firm as a rock, praising and magnifying God while burned to a cinder.
Let us never boast of our own strength or congratulate ourselves on our own power. A dear preacher friend of our family, upon hearing that a fellow pastor had fallen into sex sins, boldly declared, “No woman will ever ruin my ministry.” I do not even have to tell the rest of that story. Its conclusion is sadly obvious. I am reminded of King Ahab’s response to the blustering of King Benhadad, “Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off” (1 K 20:11 NAS).
Our weakness is our strength; our strength our weakness–strange, but true. To be strong before Satan, be weak before God. To be fearless before evil, tremble before God. Many presumptuous saints lie strewn alongside the path of righteousness. Careful circumspection is our best hope for steady progress to the end. Even great Paul walked gingerly, for fear he might become a castaway (1 C 9:27).