When Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Mt. 6:12), we learn that seeking forgiveness is a continual process and that when we ask God for forgiveness, we must already be living a life of mercy towards others.
First, through the words of this simple prayer, Jesus teaches us that we need to be consistently seeking God’s forgiveness when we sin, not only when we “become saved.” It must be a part of our daily walk with God. Only our past sins are forgiven at conversion, not future sins that may yet still be committed. If and when we sin as Christians, we must humble ourselves before God in repentance and seek His forgiveness. This is not some formality that allows us to continue in our sin. No, we must be actively turning away from our wrongdoing in deed and not just word. God, who sees our heart, will cleanse us from our sin and purify us anew.
Second, Jesus assumes that when we request God’s forgiveness, we have already forgiven others in our lives. If we haven’t forgiven someone who’s sinned against us, we can not pray this prayer with a clear conscious. In fact, we would be lying to God. Only those that are merciful towards others, not holding resentment and hate in our hearts, can pray truly pray the Lord’s prayer.
Jesus’ word’s immediately after the prayer clarify the importance of forgiving others:
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Just as Jesus taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount that the merciful will be shown mercy (Mt. 5:7), so too here Jesus clarifies that the converse is also true. The unmerciful will not be shown mercy. If we don’t forgive others their sins, God will not forgive us.
Not only does this apply to unrepentant unbelievers, but it also holds true for Christians. In Matthew 28, Jesus relays a parable about the unmerciful servant. The servant is forgiven a great debt by his master. Rather than showing this same mercy towards others, he refuses to forgive the debts of a fellow servant. When the master, who represents God, finds out that the forgiven servant (representing those already forgiven, aka. Christians) has been unmerciful, he gives him over to be tortured for his former debts. Jesus makes it clear that God will treat us this way if we don’t forgive others after being forgiven. He says, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Mt. 18:35)
So when Jesus instructs us to pray, ““Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” there is an underlying truth that our forgiveness of others is necessary if God is to forgive us. As we are merciful to others, God’s mercy will abound to us.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” (Luke 6:36-38)
I recently published a related post, analyzing the often heard incorrect belief that at conversion, our present, past, and future sins are already forgiven. Read the whole post here.