ŇAnd forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.Ó Matthew 6:12
Christ having taught us in the former petition to pray for temporal blessings, and for grace to rely upon GodŐs provident dispensation for the things of this life, doth in this petition and the next, direct us to ask spiritual blessings for ourselves, to wit, remission of our sins, and strength against temptation. And the reasons of this order is this: Christ makes the former petition a step unto these; for a man must rest upon GodŐs providence for the preservation of his body, that will rely upon His mercy for the salvation of his soul. He that cannot be persuaded that God will give him bread, will hardly be resolved that he will forgive him his sins.
1. Where, first, we may note what is the faith of worldlings: they do not trust in God for food, raiment, and other temporal blessings. How then can we say that their faith is found for eternal mercies? He that believeth will not make haste (Isa. 28:16), but will stay GodŐs leisure, waiting for His blessings whereof he stands in need. But is this the practice of the world? No verily; for let a cross come, and men will not stick to use unlawful means for their deliverance. And so they deal, when hope of gain is offered, making little conscience of fraud, lying, oppression, etc., and so making haste to be rich, they overrun the provident hand of God that would lead them by ordinary lawful means.
2. Secondly, hence we learn how to enjoy and use all temporal blessings, food, raiment, and such like; namely, as helps and means to draw us towards GodŐs mercy in Christ. Thus did Jacob (Gen. 28:20,21), If God will be with me, and give me bread to eat, and clothes to put on, É. Then shall the Lord be my God. (John 6:27), Christ bids those whom He had fed miraculously, when they sought Him afterward for outward things, that they should not labour for that food which perisheth, resting therein, but for that which endureth unto everlasting life; leading them from bodily care and labour, to that which is heavenly and spiritual.
To come to the petition, wherein we will handle, first, the necessity of it; then the meaning; and lastly, the uses.
1. For the first: This petition may seem to be needless; for they that make it are GodŐs children, who have all their sins forgiven them, both past, present and to come. Answer: This indeed must be the daily petition of all GodŐs children in this world, and the necessity of it is great; for howsoever in the purpose of God, all sins are pardoned to true believers; yea, all sins past repented of, are so forgiven, that they shall never be again imputed; yet sins present, and to come, are not actually pardoned, till they be repented of. This experience teacheth, for who can feel the assurance of mercy for any sin committed, before he have repented of it? And though true repentance once had, set us forever in GodŐs favour, yet it must be daily renewed for our daily falls, or else we cannot know it to be true. Hence it is that Paul entreats the saints of God in Corinth (though they had truly repented at their conversion) to be reconciled unto God (2 Cor. 5:20), meaning, by renewing their repentance. And David was the true child of God, yet being left unto himself, he fell into two grievous sins, wherein he lay almost a whole year without repentance; during all which time he had not pardon of them actually; for Nathan rebuked him to bring him to repentance, and upon his confession, pronounced them pardoned; yea, and David himself afterward, for the fuller assurance of mercy to his soul, most earnestly entreated pardon hereof at the hands of God (Psa. 51). So that this petition is most necessary, as for the more full assurance of sins past.
2. The Meaning.
This petition is propounded in the form of a comparison, which naturally standeth thus: As we forgive out debtors, so forgive thou to us our debts. And it hath two parts: a request for pardon, and a reason thereof.
(1) Our request for pardon is this: Forgive us our debts.
In the word debt is a figurative kind of speech taken from bargaining, wherein God is resembled to the creditor; man is the debtor; the law is the bond or obligation; and sin is that debt of ours for which we stand bound to God by the law. This appears by this, that in the Evangelists, the word sin and debt are used promiscuously; as Luke 11:4 compared with this of Matthew and Luke 13:4. Now sin makes us debtors unto God, not for that we owe it unto Him, for we are bound by the law to yield the contrary obedience; but because upon default of obedience unto God, whereto we are bound by the law, we are bound for our sins unto punishment, which is as it were a second debt. Even as a man that is bound in an obligation to another, through default of performing the condition thereof, is bound to pay both the principal and the forfeiture; the punishment of sin which is eternal death, being that forfeiture whereto we stand bound before God, for want of obedience which is as it were principal.
The consideration of this resemblance for which sin is called a debt, serves to direct us in some points of religion:
(i) As, first, it confutes their opinion who hold that our whole justification consists in the remission of sins, and that the same is wrought by the shedding of ChristŐs blood alone; for we owe to God a double debt, first, obedience, and for default thereof we stand bound to punishment. These two debts are different and distinct one from another, and they must both be paid, and GodŐs justice satisfied either by ourselves or by a surety, before we can be accepted as righteous unto life. Now we ourselves can discharge neither; therefore Christ our surety must do both; and so He hath; for our second debt of sin whereby we stand bound to punishment, Christ discharged by His death and passion, wherein He made His Son a sacrifice for sin; and our debt of obedience in perfect love to God and man, He also paid to God in fulfilling the law for us. Whereupon it is true that the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in them which walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit (Rom. 8:4).
But (say they) the Scripture everywhere ascribes our whole redemption and justification to ChristŐs blood-shedding, and to His death and passion. Answer: ChristŐs blood-shedding must be considered two ways: first, as part of His passion, whereby we are discharged from punishment; secondly, as part of His obedience, wherein He testified singular love both to God His Father, and unto mankind; for in suffering He obeyed, and in obeying He suffered. Now because His blood-shedding is part of both, therefore is our whole redemption ascribed thereunto, not excluding, but including His actual obedience therein, it being a part thereof.
(ii) Secondly, debt in this place betokening sin as it binds unto punishment, sheweth plainly that sin and punishment go always together. And therefore the popish doctrine is false and erroneous which parteth them asunder by making some sins venial, not deserving the punishment of death, which is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23).
This forgiveness here asked, is a free and full discharge from sin and the punishment thereof, without any satisfaction on our part; and this God doth, when He is content for ChristŐs sake, not to impute sin unto us, but to account it as not committed, and the punishment thereof as not due unto us; being fully and freely contented with the all-sufficient satisfaction made by Christ in His death and passion. This forgiveness Hezekiah expressed, when he said to God (Isa. 38:17), Thou hast cast all our sins behind thy back; and Micah saying (Mic. 7:19), He will subdue our iniquities, and cast all our sins into the bottom of the sea. So that our request to God is this, that where our sin binds us to punishment, the Lord would be pleased for His SonŐs sake, freely to remit all our sins, and never to impute them unto us, and to be fully contented with the suffering of Christ, that the punishment of our sins be never laid upon us.
Question: But of what sins do we here ask pardon? Answer: Both of sins past and present; for howsoever the child of God hath his sins past fully pardoned at once on GodŐs part, upon his true repentance; yet he is not able so to receive pardon as God gives it, but must receive it by little and little, and as it were drop by drop. This we may see in David, who had the pardon of his sin pronounced by Nathan the prophet (2 Sam. 12:13); and yet after that he penned Psalm 51, wherein he begs mercy and forgiveness most earnestly for that sin which God had already pardoned, aiming no doubt at a more full and comfortable assurance of GodŐs pardon in his own heart. For this cause also in his old age, he prays for the pardon of the sins of his youth (Psa. 25:7). Again, here we pray for the pardon of sins present, both that they may actually be forgiven; and also that our hearts and consciences may be sealed in the assurance thereof.
1 Use. First, by this petition, we are taught to bewail our carnal security; for naturally we go on from day to day, in following the pleasures and profits of this world, and never think of our debt to God by sin, till the evil day of death or distress approach unto us; like to desperate bankrupts that never regard their debt till the serjeant be upon their back. This is that sin which Christ foretold should reign in the latter days (Matt. 24:39); and I appeal to the conscience in the view of all estates and conditions, whether it be not so; for though iniquity do abound, yet no man saith, What have I done? (Jer. 8:6); yea, this is the sin of many professors, for the nature of man is prone to encroach upon GodŐs favour. But we must know that this security cannot stand with this petition; for here we are taught to call to mind our sins, every day praying for the pardon of them.
2 Use. Secondly, here we see whereon we must rely and settle our hearts in all estates, in affliction, temptation, and death itself; namely, on the mere mercy of God in Christ, by faith in His blood for the pardon of our sins. Look to the prayers of all the saints of God in Scripture, and we shall find that they made this their rock and anchor of stay in all distress. (Dan. 9:18,19), O Lord, hear and beholdÉ. not for our own righteousness, but for thy great tender mercies: defer not, for thy own sake, oh my God. This we must observe to arm us against the damnable doctrine of the church of Rome, for they will grant that in his first conversion, a man must rely only on GodŐs mercy in ChristŐs blood; but after a man is made the child of God, he may rest upon his own good merits, so it be in modesty and sobriety. But this is the right way to hell, flat against this petition; for how can we dream of any merit, whenas we must every day ask mercy and forgiveness? For to ask mercy and to plead merit are contraries. Now by our daily sins, we add debt to debt, and so must still plead mercy and not merit, even after we are converted and sanctified; ever praising God that hath delivered us from the slavish bondage of that proud synagogue.
3 Use. Thirdly, here we see what we must do in respect of our daily sins whereinto we fall; we must not lie in them, but renew our estate by true humiliation and repentance. Also if thou be crossed in the things of this world, the way of comfort and deliverance is to be learned here; for as thou doest daily ask bread, so thou must ask forgiveness for thy sins; and when they are pardoned, thou hast title and interest in all GodŐs blessings. Now this daily humiliation stands in three things: (i) In the examination of ourselves for our debt unto God by sin; (ii) In confessing our debt unto our creditor, yielding ourselves into His hands; (iii) In humbling ourselves unto Him, craving pardon and remission earnestly for ChristŐs sake, as for life and death. Herein the children of God are precedents unto us (Psa. 32:5,6). David in great distress found no release while he held his tongue, but when he humbled himself, and confessed against himself, then he found mercy and ease; whereupon he professeth that he will be a pattern to every godly man for their behaviour in the time of distress.
4 Use. Fourthly, here we have a notable remedy against despair, wherewith the devil assaults many a child of God, when through infirmity they fall into some grievous sin, or commit the same sin often, which greatly wounds the conscience; for here Christ bids us ask forgiveness of our daily sins whatsoever they be, or how often soever committed. And no doubt, He bids us forgive our brethren that sin against us , though it were seven times in a day (Luke 17:4), if they seek it at our hands, will much more forgive us. This must not embolden any to sin presumptuously, for the Lord hath said He will not be merciful unto that man (Deut. 29:19); but if any fall through infirmity, hereon he hath to stay himself from despair.
5 Use. Fifthly, hereby we see that no man possibly can fulfil the law, for the apostles themselves were commanded to ask pardon of sin every day; whereby it is plain they could never fulfil the law. And therefore much less can any other.
6 Use. Sixthly, that which we pray for we must in all godly manner, endeavour after. And therefore as we pray for pardon of sin every day, so must we daily use the means whereby God gives assurance of remission to His children; as hear the Word, receive the sacraments, and pray unto God publicly and privately; endeavouring to resist all temptations, and to glorify God by new obedience; for it is gross hypocrisy to ask the pardon of sin, and still to live in the practice of it.
7 Use. Lastly, here we see we must pray not only for the pardon of our own sins, but of our brethrenŐs also – Forgive us; whereby Christ would teach us to be careful of the salvation of our brethren and neighbours. The good estate of their souls should be dear and precious unto us; and if this were so, happy would it be with the church of God; but alas, men are so far from care of the salvation of their neighbours, that men of the same family are careless of one anotherŐs souls; masters regard not their servants, nor parents their children; indeed they will provide for their bodies and outward estate, but for their souls they have no care. Wherein they bewray themselves to be cruel and merciless, having more care of their hogs and brute beasts than of their children and servants; for when their hogs have all needful provision, their children and servantsŐ souls shall want instruction.
(2) As we also forgive our debtors.
These words are here propounded as a condition of the former petition; and they include a reason thereof (Luke 11:4), Forgive us our sins, FOR even we forgive every man that is indebted to us. And this Christ addeth for weighty causes, even to cross the fraud and hypocrisy of our corrupt hearts, who would have forgiveness of God, and yet would not forgive our brethren, nor yet leave off the practice of sin ourselves. But this condition imports that we must exercise mercy towards our brethren, and so break off the course of our sins, if we look for mercy at GodŐs hands. Now the words here used are comparative, betokening a likelihood and similitude between GodŐs forgiving and ours; which must be rightly understood, because our forgiveness is mingled with much corruption through want of mercy; and therefore we must not understand it of the measure of our forgiveness, nor yet of the manner simply, but especially of the very act of forgiving, for thereto sometimes most similitudes be restrained; as (Matt 9:29), According to your faith be it unto you. And the force of the reason stands in the circumstance, thus: If we who have but a drop of mercy, do forgive others; then do thou who art the fountain of mercy forgive us: But we forgive other; therefore do thou forgive us.
Touching our forgiving others, three questions must be scanned:
1 Question. How can any man pardon a trespass, seeing God only forgiveth sins? Answer: In every trespass which one doth to his neighbour, be two things: the loss and damage whereby man is hindered in body, goods or name; and an offence against God, by a practice of injustice against His law. Now as a trespass is a damage unto man, so may a man forgive it; but as it is a sin against God in the transgression of the moral law, so God only pardons it. As when a man hath his goods stolen, that damage done to him a man may remit; but the breach of the eighth commandment therein, God only can forgive.
2 Question: How far is a man bound to forgive others that trespass against him? Answer: There is a threefold forgiveness: of revenge, of punishment and of judgment. (i) Forgiveness of revenge is when a man is not desirous of revenge from an inward grudge, but forbears to render like for like to those that wrong him. This is principally here meant; for we must always forgive our brethren in respect of revenge; for vengeance is mine saith the Lord, and I will repay (Rom. 12:19). (ii) Forgiveness of punishment is the remitting of that punishment which another manŐs wrongdoing deserves. This is not always to be granted, especially in the case of offence, which may tend to the public hurt; for then were the state of magistracy unlawful, whose office it is to punish offences. (iii) The forgiveness of judgment is the remitting of that censure which an evil deed doth justly deserve. Neither is this here meant, for being lawfully called thereunto, we may freely censure that which is evil done.
3 Question. Whether must we forgive those that wrong us, if they will not confess their fault, nor ask us forgiveness? Answer: We must forgive them freely, in respect of revenge. Objection: But it is said, if he repent, forgive him (Luke 17:3). Therefore, unless he repents, we need not to forgive him. Answer: That place is meant of ecclesiastical censures, that those must proceed no further, after the party offending doth repent.
Hereby is not meant such as we count debtors in the civil state; that is, such as owe us money, grain etc., but anyone that doth us injury or wrong; for no manŐs estate is so low, but in some degree God hath given one or more of these four things: honour, life, goods or good name; and he that hinders his neighbour in any of these is a debtor before God, and so standeth till he make recompense to the party, and repent toward God. Yea, further, we must know that besides the endamaging of our neighbour in these things, the very omission of preserving and furthering our neighbourŐs life, honour, goods and good name, makes us also debtors before God.
These words thus understood, must be conceived as a reason drawn, not from the cause, or like example, but from the sign and pledge of GodŐs forgiveness; for God hath made a promise to forgive us, if we forgive our brethren their trespasses (Mark 11:25). From whence, merciful men may gather assurance of pardon with God, from that inclination to compassion and readiness which they find in their own hearts, to forgive others that wrong them; for Christ teacheth them to reason thus: If we be those to whom thou hast promised pardon when they ask it, then Lord pardon us: But we are such, for we feel our hearts inclined to mercy; therefore Lord pardon us. So that this reason serves to move us to pray to God for pardon with confidence and assurance. Yea, further, they include a profession to God of new obedience in amendment of life; for under one duty of mercy towards our neighbour, is comprehended the whole practice of repentance, and the performance of our vow made in baptism.
1 Use. Mark here that asking pardon of God and testimony of repentance, go together. He that receives the one, must express the other; for where God gives pardon, there also He gives grace to repent, and mercy is not granted but on condition of repentance. (Acts 2:37,38), When the Jews that were pricked in conscience at PeterŐs sermon, asked what to do to find mercy, Peter said, Amend your lives etc. And therefore when he perceived want of repentance in Simon Magus (Acts 8:23), he tells him, Thou art yet in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity, though he had formerly baptised him. Whereby we see, first, with what affection we must come to God when we pray for pardon of our sins; namely, with humble and contrite hearts, having a true purpose not to sin wittingly and willingly, but to obey God in all His commandments. And the want of this is the cause of that small comfort in prayer which many find in themselves; for the promise of pardon is not given where the conscience of repentance is not performed. Secondly, this shews the gross and fearful error of the blind world, who sing this song while they live in sin, to their own hearts: God is merciful, Christ is a Saviour. But this trusting to GodŐs mercy they deceive themselves, for they trust to nothing; for mercy is not due where repentance is wanting; nay, the Lord hath said (Deut. 29:19), He will not be merciful to that man that shall bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace though I walk after the stubbornness of mine own heart, etc. Let us therefore see to this: that we practise repentance when we pray for pardon; and look to the purpose of our heart against sin, when we wait for mercy to our souls. We may not sever those things which God hath joined, but look how heartily we desire mercy, so earnestly must we hunger after grace to repent. If we truly seek both, we shall have both; but if we let slip repentance in ourselves, we shall come short of mercy with the Lord.
2 Use. The joining of this condition, implying repentance, to the petition, and the dependence of it on the former, teacheth us every day to renew our repentance, and to humble ourselves for our sins, seeking for a new supply of grace, that so our purpose not to sin may be more and more confirmed in our hearts; which is the infallible sign of a new creature.
3 Use. Here we see wherein the practice of true repentance standeth; namely, in exercising mercy, love, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness; for though forgiveness be only named, yet under it all other fruits of repentance are understood. Indeed to hear the Word, to receive the sacrament, to preach and pray, be excellent works; but yet the heart of man may more easily dissemble in them than in the duties of the second table. The most infallible mark of true grace is the practice of the love of God in works of love and mercy to our brethren. (Jam. 1:27), Pure religion and undefiled before God, is to visit the fatherless etc. (Jam. 3:17), The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits. And hence it is that love is called the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:10).
4 Use. Christ knitting our forgiving our brother with GodŐs forgiving us, doth here afford unto us a notable sign of pardon of sin; namely, a ready and willing mind to forgive our brother offending us. Our inclination to mercy in suppressing the desire of revenge when we are wronged, gives assurance to our conscience that we shall find mercy at GodŐs hands. Whereby it is plain that the child of God may know his own estate before God, in regard of His mercy in Christ, even by descending into his own heart, and there finding the affection of mercy, in forgiving those that have wronged him. And this we must labour for, if we would know GodŐs mercy in Christ to belong unto us.
5 Use. Hereby we are admonished to beware in ourselves of the common sin of this age, engrafted into our nature; to wit, desire of revenge, spite and grudging upon every occasion. For when we pray unto God with such malicious hearts, we do in effect desire the Lord to exercise His wrath, and to revenge His justice on us. And undoubtedly, many a man doth fearfully curse himself in his own prayers, while he is cruelly minded towards his brethren, and God oftentimes saith Amen to such curses most deservedly, seeing men are so cruel to their own souls to curse themselves. And therefore we had need to look to our hearts when we pray to God, that we forgive men, if we would be forgiven of God.
6 Use. Here note a general gross abuse in this age: most men will seek to be reconciled to their brethren, with whom they are at variance, when they come to the LordŐs table; but at other times they take their pleasure, thinking they may well enough perform all other duties of religion, though they retain malice and enmity towards their brethren. But here we may observe that we ought to be reconciled with our brethren, whensoever we go to God in prayer; for else, if we come in malice and envy towards our brethren, we curse ourselves and sin against our own souls. In prayer we bring the sacrifice of our hearts, and the salvation of our lips unto God; but before we offer it, we must reconcile ourselves unto our brethren, as we heard before.
7 Use. Here also we may see the gross hypocrisy of our nature; for as oft as we make this petition, we make profession of reformation of life in new obedience (for this one branch of brotherly reconciliation here professed, doth presuppose our conversion from all sin, sith that true repentance for our sin, cannot stand with a purpose to live in any other). And yet, behold, though men say this prayer often, yet still they continue in their old sins as in blasphemy, drunkenness, whoredom, oppression, lying, fraud, etc., as though it were nothing to dissemble with God. But God is not mocked. Either amend thy wicked conversation, or leave off to make this holy profession.
8 Use. In that Christ tieth our duty of forgiving our brethren to so weighty a condition, as is our forgiveness with God; hereby He would acquaint us with the horrible cruelty of our nature, and proneness to revenge. We must therefore take notice of it, and labour to see and bewail this corruption of our hearts; and on the other side, to hunger after love, mercy, gentleness, meekness, and to endeavour to practise the same continually.
9 Use. Lastly, join both parts of this petition together, and they shew us a way how to keep true peace of conscience for ever; namely, first, we must call upon God for the pardon of our sins every day; secondly, we must follow after peace with men in the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation when offences grow; for when we are at one with God and man, we have a blessed peace; and hence will follow peace in our own hearts, which is that peace which the world cannot give; which while we retain, we need not to fear any evil, no not death itself; for, if God be with us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31).