The Formula for Forgiveness
9. After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11. Give us this day our daily bread.
12. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…” When Jesus gave us an example prayer, it did not include a request for unconditional forgiveness of sins. There was an important condition attached: the request was for forgiveness in proportion to the amount that the supplicant had forgiven others. This point was reinforced immediately after this example prayer:
14. For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
15. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Jesus said forgiveness is conditional! To obtain forgiveness requires giving forgiveness!
This leads to an immediate theonomical problem. Paul talks extensively on unconditional grace, notably in the book of Romans. Many Christians latch onto these words and build entire doctrines upon them. By latching onto Paul’s words, we can safely ignore Jesus’ statements above.
Ignore Jesus?? Should Christians do that?
On the surface it appears that Paul does contradict Jesus when he talks of unconditional grace. But have a care! Paul’s talk of grace is part of a long and complicated argument, originally presented in Greek to an audience whom he had met in person. Was Paul talking about grace from all sins? Or just those committed before baptism or reception of the gospel? Or was he making some other subtle point?
I have no definitive answer. I intend to look harder at the subject in a future essay, where I will explore the issue of the fate of non-Christians and the multiple afterlife fates mentioned in the New Testament. (There are more than two.) For now, I will note that Jesus’ words are plain while Paul’s are part of a long and convoluted argument. Further, keep in mind that Peter warned of the dangers of misinterpreting Paul’s epistles [2 Peter 3:15-17].
Many theologians argue that the grace Paul refers to was instigated when Jesus was crucified. Perhaps so, but still: Why would Jesus bother to describe a condition on divine forgiveness if that condition was due to be dropped in a few years? This does not make sense to me. If salvation is free and we are all under grace, why bother going to church? Why not go fishing instead? Why tithe? Why do any of the Christian mandates which aren’t fun? And what about entry into the Kingdom being like a “pearl of great price?” [Matthew 13:45]
Jesus said that one needs to enter the Kingdom as a child. A child can respond to a clearly stated mandate, but a child is likely to lose interest in a convoluted theological discourse. For this reason and others, I opt to focus my actions on that which is clearly stated and leave the rest for future pondering.
Forgiveness as Mercy
Throughout this article I treat forgiveness and mercy as virtually interchangeable. The dictionary definition of mercy includes both clemency and charity. Both are implied in the Lord’s Prayer. To see this, we need to think about the meaning of debts under the Law.
57. Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?
58. When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison.
59. I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite.
Well off Hebrews were expected to give zero interest loans to their neighbors in need [Deuteronomy 15:7-10]. However, this requirement was just a loan. If the neighbor did not pay it back, then he was to become a bondservant to his creditor until the year of release (every 7 years). To forgive a debt is to forgo either the repayment of the loan or this time of service. Forgiving a debt under this circumstance is the equivalent of the modern idea of charity. It is giving outright to those in need.
Forgiveness of debts also refers to clemency. Under the Law a thief was required to pay back double the amount stolen (or more for certain livestock). If the thief could not pay, then the thief became a bondservant just like any other debtor. In other words, to forgive a thief is to forgive a debtor. The only difference is that an ordinary debtor who borrows $1000 owes $1000 under the Law, while a thief who steals $1000 owes $2000.
So, when Jesus spoke of forgiving debts, he referred to both forgiving criminals and to giving money to the poor. These are both very liberal mandates.
So why is Christian fundamentalism so often associated with the Right?
23. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
24. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.
25. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
26. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
27. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
28. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
29. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
30. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
31. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
32. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
33. Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
34. And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
35. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
Copyright© 2006, Carl S. Milsted, Jr. All rights reserved.
Quotations from the NET Bible®, copyright© 1996-2006 Biblical Studies Press L.L.C. All rights reserved. Used by permission from http://bible.org. (The NET Bible is available in its entirety as a free download or online use at http://netbible.org)