Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Rick Ritchie
Tuesday, August 28th 2007
Jul/Aug 1993

"Oh, I forgive you as a Christian, of course; but there are some things one can never forget!" This line comes from C. S. Lewis's book The Great Divorce. While it is spoken in heaven, the character who speaks it is from hell. Lewis's point is that in heaven no one dares to think like this. The line makes all of us laugh because in it we see the all-too-human attempt to sanctify hard-heartedness. Not too far beneath the laughter, however, we shrivel inside as we wonder if we face the same future as the ghost who spoke the line. While Lewis's book was speculative fiction, he was thoroughly biblical in linking forgiving with being forgiven. The connection was drawn very clearly by Jesus in the Lord's Prayer. So where does that leave us when we fail to forgive?

I remember once reading a funny line about the Lord's Prayer in a humor book. It went something like "Being Southern means knowing that there is more to the difference between Presbyterians and Methodists than saying 'Forgive us our debts' instead of 'Forgive us our trespasses.'" I grew up in a Presbyterian church where we used the word "debts." My Lutheran relatives in Minnesota used the word "trespasses." I figured that Presbyterians spoke of debts because they were bankers, Lutherans of trespasses because they were farmers.

As the Southern humor book said, however, there is more to the issue than mere words. The great divide comes not between bankers and farmers, but between those who say that we must forgive before we can be forgiven and those who do not. The stakes are high. Our very souls hang in the balance.

A Deep Muddle

Christ says that if we forgive, we will be forgiven. If not, we will not (Matt. 6:14-15). Everything is quite simple until we look at ourselves and see how unforgiving we are. Then this passage is anything but simple. What about all those times we thought we had forgiven someone only to find the embers of rage have not quite gone out in our hearts? A little poking around in our memories and we find our anger very much alive, even when we have tried to be diligent in forgiving as Christ forgave us. And what about all the other times we couldn't forgive? Clearly this passage puts us into a tough spot.

The issue becomes even more cloudy when we try to square the natural reading of the passage with all we have learned of the grace of God. Strange questions take hold of us. Is unforgiveness a sin in a class by itself? Is it a more heinous sin than others? Will unforgiveness damn our souls even if we have faith in Christ? At this point we realize that we had better take a deeper look at the issue.

The surprise is that upon deeper study, the solution to this issue is found where many of us first tried to find it. From the very first, we wanted to see Jesus' command to forgive as a serious call to forgive, since Jesus' commands are always to be taken seriously (Matt. 7:26). For the same reason, we knew that it had to have a real power to make people guilty if they failed to forgive. But somehow, in addition, we knew that if we did fail to forgive, we needed to be able to turn again to Christ and ask him to forgive us for our unforgiveness. This intuition came not from the passage in the Lord's Prayer itself, but from our general familiarity with the grace of God as it is presented in the scriptures, especially in the Pauline Epistles.

It requires a deeper study to harmonize Jesus' requirement that we forgive with Jesus' forgiveness of us because ultimately, this is a study of the relationship between Law and Gospel, which is much more complex than we sometimes imagine. If we work through the New Testament teaching carefully, however, we will find that everything will work out cleanly. Even better, the result will be that next time we catch unforgiveness in ourselves, we need not despair of salvation.

The Great Divide

For the Reformers, the Law was by definition rigorous and unforgiving, while the Gospel demanded nothing. Jesus told us that if we forgave, we would be forgiven, and if we did not, we would not. If the Law is rigorous and unforgiving, then how could a passage like this which mentions the forgiveness of sins contain Law? Yet, if Christ is issuing a demand, how could this be Gospel? Were the Reformers wrong? Has the distinction between Law and Gospel broken down in the middle of the Lord's Prayer? We have been apprehensive about labeling Christ's statement in the Lord's Prayer as Law since forgiveness is mentioned. Our conviction that the Law is rigorous makes forgiveness seem out of place in a Law statement. Yet if we look again, the mention of forgiveness does not stop a commandment from being Law. Paul says that Moses describes the righteousness of the Law in the terms "the man who does these things shall live by them" (Rom. 10:5). The shape of Law, then, is that we must perform in order to receive life. What we often fail to recognize is that forgiveness and life are intimately connected.

In Scripture, a promise of forgiveness is to be regarded as a promise of life. The big difference between the Old Testament and New Testament is that in the Old Testament life itself is promised, while in the New Testament forgiveness is promised, which brings life. If Moses is right and we gain life by doing God's commands, then we must read all commandments as promises of life. In the Ten Commandments we are told, "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name" (Ex. 20:7). If we keep God's name holy, we will receive life, for that is what Moses said of those who did according to God's commands. If we misuse God's name, however, we will not be held guiltless. The contrast is between living if we do what God says, and being guilty if we do not.

Is this not exactly what we find in the Lord's Prayer? If we do according to Christ's command and forgive, we will be forgiven. If not, we will not be held guiltless, that is, we will not be forgiven. How does this differ from Moses? Life is promised if we obey, withheld if we do not. The fact that forgiveness is mentioned does not change that.

The nature of what is promised does not make a promise Law or Gospel. Both the Law and the Gospel promise the same thing in the Old and New Testaments. What determines whether a promise is Law or Gospel is what is required to receive the thing promised. The Law demands that we do the things commanded. The Gospel does not demand but delivers the promise to those who trust in the one who fulfilled the demands. Since Christ's promise to forgive those who are forgiving is conditional, it must be Law.

Another clue to the fact that Christ's demand is Law is the actual effect it has on the one hearing the command. We surely must conclude that Christ's intent in commanding us to forgive was to bring about a more forgiving world. Oh, if only those who knew that they had been forgiven by Christ would always forgive! Cycles of bitterness would be broken. Countless lives would be mended. Would not the world be changed?

But must we not all say with Paul, "the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death"? (Rom. 7:10). There are times in the heat of anger when all we want is justice from those who have wronged us. We could paraphrase Paul (Rom. 7:7-8) and say that we would have not known what hard-hearted unforgiveness and ingratitude were if Christ had not said to forgive. But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in us every type of unforgiving desire. Only now, sin seizes not only the opportunity afforded by the commandment, but that afforded by the Gospel as well. For there are times we could almost resent being forgiven when it deprives us of our right to demand perfect justice of those who have wronged us. Surely at this point "in order that sin might be recognized as sin through the commandment sin [has] become utterly sinful" (Rom. 7:13). Can we doubt that Christ's commandment to forgive is Law when it performs the function of the Mosaic Law exceedingly better than the Mosaic Law itself?

Child of Wrath, Child of Promise

While part of our confusion over Christ's statement came from not being able to distinguish Law from Gospel, another part comes because we have failed to recognize the dual moral nature of man. One theme which marks Reformation theology off from other more American theologies is that it insists that the Christian, though he or she has a new identity as a child of God, also has a sinful nature which still needs to be held in check. Luther referred to the new identity as the new man. The old identity he called the old man. The old man is still subject to the threats of the Law. His actions are by nature damnable, and God's Law condemns those actions. This does not invalidate the Gospel, however. Even while the threats still thunder, the promises hold. The old man hears the threat that "No thief shall inherit the kingdom of heaven," while the new man hears the promise, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise."

So Law and Gospel, threat and promise, are true for the Christian as well as his unsaved neighbor. But what about where the Bible sternly warns those who have heard of grace that bad things await them if they fall away? There seem to be places where the Gospel makes for greater condemnation than the Law!

Hold it! True, there are warnings like this. But have you noticed that there is a corresponding set of passages which promise greater care to those who have received grace? Let us examine a pair of these passages to see how these two types of passages relate to each other:

Sterner Law after Knowledge of Grace

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? (Heb. 2:1-3)

Sweeter Gospel after Knowledge of Grace

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Rom. 5:9-10)

The first passage shows a progression. The message spoken by the angels, the Law, brought condemnation on the disobedient. The disobedient were not capable of meeting the requirements of the Law, yet it condemned harshly. Now the disobedient are offered a way to escape their condemnation. If they reject this, they will be doubly guilty. Their initial guilt comes from violating the Law, their new guilt comes from spurning the generosity of their judge who has granted pardon!

If the first passage is enough to make us tremble, the second quiets us with a comforting message. If God chose to shower his grace upon us while we were hostile to him, how much more will he do now that we have been reconciled to him!

If the first passage demonstrated a progression where sin became more sinful in light of the graciousness of God, the second passage shows a different progression. In light of the fact that God has saved us by grace, we can expect even more from him! He saved us first when we were his enemies. Can we expect less of him now that he has adopted us? Elsewhere Paul says, "The law was added so that the trespass might increase. but where sin increased, grace increased all the more." (Rom. 5:20) It seems as if this happens to an even greater degree after grace. Our sin becomes more sinful when in addition to moral failure we must add our neglect of God's grace. But even so, the very grace which becomes an occasion for more heinous sin, that very grace increases on account of the new status it has given us as God's children!

So What Then?

At this point, many readers are probable wondering, if what I am saying is true, then why did Jesus even bother to command us to forgive? Without the threat, why bother to forgive?

The Apostle Paul knew that that was what some of his readers were thinking when he had presented the Gospel in the book of Romans. "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:1-2) was how he stated the question. Certainly grace is able to forgive our unforgiveness. It has a different end, however. Paul goes on to say that we were "buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom. 6:4). The very grace which keeps us from being condemned for our sin is to be the destroyer of the power of sin.

In relation to our forgiving of other people, we can see Paul's argument run as follows: Aha! Some of you have finally caught on to the fact that the Gospel even covers your unforgiveness of others. You are now asking "Should we go on unforgiving so that God's forgiveness toward us might increase?" No, friends. Never! God's bountiful forgiveness, which is great enough even to cover your hard-heartedness toward those who have wronged you, was given so that you might live a new life. You are now free to forgive. Unforgiveness shall not have dominion over you, for you are not forgiving out of compulsion, but in response to the grace of God.

At first glance this might seem like a weaker way to deal with unforgiveness. After all, God certainly has the right to expect us to forgive the piddly little things others have done to us after all he has forgiven us. No argument; this is true. God has the right to expect this of us. But what is the end result if he chooses to claim his right? He makes hypocrites of people who outwardly forgive so as to escape punishment. In fact, the bitterness often increases, for now we resent the fact that the Gospel makes the wrongs done to us by others a threat, not to their salvation, but ours! And now they have a blank check to hurt us and expect forgiveness from us. After we have managed to mumble a half-hearted "You're forgiven" we really feel the sting, for we know we didn't mean it from the heart. The offender gets a free ride, while his offense has caused us pain and despair.

Certainly God has every right to demand we forgive, and to withdraw forgiveness if we fail. But the results of that are predictably bad. The strong-arm tactic proves the weaker, for what God desires he does not achieve. Instead of producing more forgiveness, he produces bitterness.

But we have a better God than that. It is clear that our inability to forgive is just the power of sin that Paul says God cancels by his grace. While the Law does threaten us when we fail to forgive’even if we hold onto to smallest morsel of bitterness’the Law does not have the last word. The Law is there to show us how truly horrible our sin is, that even the Gospel has become an occasion for increasing our bitterness against God and others. But then the Gospel shows how truly great our God is, that even the condemnation of the Law has become an occasion for increasing our gratitude towards God. For after sin's sinfulness is shown for what it is, God's grace is all the sweeter, for we realize how much we need it.

We are like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). By right, our father could disown us for shaming him by not accepting our brothers who have sinned against us. But instead the father comes out to plead with us. When we come back into the feast, we realize that it is we who were the lost sons as much as those who sinned against us. Our father's mercy is overwhelming. He even forgives us even our unforgiveness; let us then forgive.

Photo of Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Tuesday, August 28th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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