If you were teaching the Lord’s Prayer to someone for the first time — a child, a neighbor, a co-worker, or friend — which line would you feel the most need to explain?
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9–13)
As you rehearse those familiar lines, which one begs for more explanation? Maybe it’s the first, Why do we call the God of the universe “Father”? Or perhaps the second, What does it mean to “hallow” something, much less a name? What about the will of God — what is it and how would we recognize it on earth? Or that haunting last line, What kind of evil is surrounding and threatening us?
However we might answer, we have Jesus’s answer to the question. He chooses to say more about just one line, and it’s not the one many of us might think.
Do You Pray for Your Sin?
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he started with the kingdom of God, the will of God, and the glory of God — you can almost hear the replies, Amen! Amen! Amen! And then, as suddenly as he entered the manger, he climbed down into the nitty-gritty of our earthly lives: “Give us this day our daily bread . . .” Give us all we need for today. Who could refuse such provision?
The next line, however, may have been more jarring:
. . . and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
When you pray, Jesus says, remember how you have offended God. Remember how you’ve failed him again today, how far short you have fallen of his kingdom, his will, his glory — and then ask him for forgiveness.
Whatever else you pray, he teaches, make sure you pray for this. Each day that you wake up, you will need to eat and you will need to be forgiven. Your stomach will rumble and your soul will rebel. So pray and live accordingly.
Hunger Pangs of the Heart
Most Christians pray daily for bread (if not for God to provide it before it comes, then to thank him once it’s on the table). How many of us, however, pray as persistently for our sin as we do for our meals? Why might that be?
Well, for one, because we viscerally sense our need for food. We ache. We may be able to skip meals here and there, but not many and not for long. And when we do, our bodies let us hear about it. We take it for granted, but there’s a magic tying our brains to our intestines, telling us when we need to eat. We don’t have to constantly record what we eat to survive; our bodies push notifications when it’s time for lunch or a snack or a drink of water. We’re less likely to forget food because our hunger eventually shouts over everything else.
For various reasons, though, we often have a harder time hearing the rumblings of our sinful hearts. The heart has its own voice, but it doesn’t physically overwhelm us like hunger can. The pangs of the heart reveal as much or more as hunger, but we learn to live with them. Restlessness. Anxiety. Irritability. Sluggishness. Impatience. Grumbling. If we notice them at all, we learn to excuse them instead of addressing them.
The symptoms of remaining sin are saying what Jesus clearly taught: We need to be forgiven — and far more often than we want to acknowledge. The prayer, “Forgive us our sins,” is an honest, gracious, and daily reminder of a constant need.
Isn’t Forgiveness Finished?
We also might not pray more often for forgiveness, though, because we assume we’ve already been forgiven. If our debt is already paid in full, why would we need to keep asking God to forgive us? When Jesus died on the cross, he announced that his atoning work was complete: “It is finished” (John 19:30). So why would he teach us to pray as if forgiveness was somehow an ongoing need?
Justification — full acceptance with God, through faith alone — is not a new need each day, like our need for daily bread. If you’re justified by grace through faith today, you do not need to be re-justified tomorrow. “Since we have been justified by faith,” Romans 5:1, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Since we have been justified, we have peace with God — and that peace isn’t undone by today’s or tomorrow’s sins. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Eternal condemnation isn’t a weed that creeps back into the garden overnight. For those truly in Christ, it’s dead and gone for good.
“By regularly asking for forgiveness, we draw the finished work of Christ into today’s temptations and failures.”
Still Jesus teaches us to pray (and keep praying), “Forgive us our debts.” Why? Because justified sinners are still sinners, and sin still disrupts our communion with God. Sin cannot damn the truly justified — their debt has been canceled, their curse lifted, their wrath removed. That doesn’t mean sin isn’t offensive or damaging to relationships, including with God. By regularly asking for forgiveness, we draw the finished work of Christ into today’s temptations and failures — and we renew and sweeten the fellowship we enjoy with him because of that finished work.
We see this dynamic when James exhorts us, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). These believers have already been justified, but they’re still sinning and still feeling the awful consequences of sin, which leads them to pray, confess, and ask for forgiveness. And as they pray, they push back the painful havoc sin causes. In this case, they’re healed.
How Not to Be Forgiven
We still haven’t heard Jesus explain this line in the prayer, though. After he finishes the prayer, he specifically returns to the petition for forgiveness:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14–15)
He doesn’t dig further into God’s will or shed light on the dangers of evil; no, he impresses on them how spiritually urgent it is that they forgive. He warns them that their prayers — all their prayers for everything else — will fall on deaf ears if they harbor bitterness and withhold forgiveness. The warning’s baked directly into the prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The prayer for God to forgive presumes we’ve already done forgiving ourselves — so have we?
At least as often as we’ll need to eat, we’ll need to be forgiven. And almost as often as we’ll need to be forgiven, we’ll need to forgive. And we won’t be forgiven if we don’t go and do likewise. So who do you need to forgive? We cannot pray the rest of the Lord’s Prayer in any meaningful way if we refuse to forgive like he does.
Forgiveness Makes Prayer Possible
Jesus’s simple prayer reminds us that our sin problem is a daily problem. Every day, we do what we shouldn’t and don’t do what we should. We say what we shouldn’t and don’t say what we should. We think what we shouldn’t and don’t think what we should. The Lord’s Prayer exposes the rotten leftovers of our mutiny against God. And it reminds us, as often as we pray, that God still forgives — even today, even you, if you’ll humble yourself and ask him to.
“Even before Jesus received the nails, the thorns, the beams, he was teaching his friends how to receive the cross.”
Jesus didn’t say, “Remember your sin and wallow in shame and guilt.” No, he taught them to bring their sin and expect forgiveness in return. And why could they presume to be forgiven? Because, he knew his wounds would soon make this kind of prayer possible. He didn’t just teach them how to pray; he would die to give their prayers life and power before the throne. Even before he received the nails, the thorns, the beams, he was teaching his friends how to receive the cross.
So, when you pray, plead boldly for forgiveness in the name of Jesus. And before you pray, forgive like God so gladly forgives you.