Practical Meditations on the Lord's Prayer
Newman Hall, 1889
THE FIFTH PETITION--
"AND FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS, AS WE ALSO HAVE FORGIVEN OUR DEBTORS."
It has been remarked, that whereas the first three petitions might be offered by angels as well as by men, and the fourth would have been suitable for the devotions of Eden, the fifth and the sixth are suited only for sinners. The word "forgive" is the first sad note sounded in this litany. In jubilant tones we may ask that our Father's name may be hallowed, His Kingdom come, His Will be done, and His daily gifts bestowed, but here we approach His throne as guilty suppliants, seeking mercy. The first four petitions presuppose forgiveness. Rebellious children must have repented before they can truly say, "Father, hallowed be Your Name." Here there is a renewed confession of sin and a fresh application for pardon. The little word "and" has a great significance, linking the prayer for bread with that for pardon. I deserve not the supply of my bare necessities. I have forfeited as a rebel my claim as a creature. Bread has little value under sentence of death. No luxuries can relieve the hunger of a soul convinced of sin. "Father, feed me! but at the same time pardon me! Give us bread and forgive our debts."
Man has three chief necessities—bread for the body, quiet for the conscience, righteousness for the soul; and these three needs we urge in the last three petitions. With every lawful claim of the body fully met, the conscience may be oppressed with guilt. There can be no peace without pardon. This has been recognized under all forms of religion. Prehistoric cromlechs, Egyptian monoliths, Grecian temples, Gothic spires, all utter the prayer "Forgive," or at least ask, "What must I do to be saved?" Penance, sacrifice, oblation, supplication, in all their varied forms, have ever acknowledged man's sense of sin, his fear of punishment and need of pardon.
I—SIN CONSIDERED AS A DEBT TO GOD
The words "sin" and "debt" are interchanged, as if synonymous. Luke describes not only as sin what Matthew describes as debt, but connects the forgiveness of our sins with our own remission of our fellow-creatures' debts. A debt is what is due; what we owe; "oughtness." We ought to render to God all righteousness, and this is a debt due from every being endowed with a moral nature. Paul says, "We are debtors, not to the flesh;" implying that we are debtors to God, to live according to His Spirit, and thus to fulfill His purposes in the creation of our own spirit. This obligation to be holy we do not ask to have remitted. "Abatement of rent" may often be equitably asked between man and man, but there can be no lowering of the claims of a perfectly righteous God without dishonor to Himself and injury to His creatures. We ought not to desire it. It would be impossible for God to grant it. His law is a transcript of His perfect Will. To wish for a lower standard would be unworthy of ourselves as well as of Him. It is the glory of man to recognize this obligation, to confess this debt. But we have failed to discharge it, and so have incurred the penalty of disobedience. This includes the displeasure of God. If He delights in holiness, He must regard its opposite with displeasure. No one can be perfectly good who does not hate evil. Besides this, sin injures the sinner's own nature and exposes him to the righteous retribution of the Law. Having failed in duty, we have incurred penalty, and this debt is due to God.
Many sins are committed against ourselves. Abuse of natural faculties brings its own punishment. How often by sensual excesses the constitution is impaired, disease contracted, and life shortened! Indolence entails poverty, and dissipation social disgrace and a premature grave. And if not, every sin dishonors though it may not destroy the body which is the agent of it. The tongue is disgraced by every false and injurious word, the hand by every evil deed, the foot by every step it takes in the service of a corrupted will. The intellect is degraded by thoughts of wickedness, the imagination when its lofty powers are impressed in the mean servitude of vice. Who can estimate the suicidal injury to conscience, when dragged from its viceregal throne, and gagged lest it even utter its indignant protests; the damage and dishonor to the grand nature God gave us, when, contrary to His purpose, we compel the higher to serve the lower instincts, and bind reason to the chariot-wheels of lust! The physical consequences of violating natural laws are not obviated by my repentance. Self -reproach however sincere, tears however plentiful, will not restore a shattered constitution. Laments for past folly will not call back the wasted property, and regrets however poignant will not regain the social position once forfeited. If they could, the damage done to my moral nature would remain, and memory would never lose the record. In sinning against myself, I have sinned still more against my Maker. Could I neutralize the evil consequences or accept and submit to them, I should still be a debtor to God. My body and mind belong to Him as their Maker; therefore by injuring myself I injure His property, by violating the laws of my own being I rebel against the Author of those laws.
Even the lower animals have rights, the violation of which creates a debt to God. Man is lord of the lower animals to use them for his need, not to torture them for his pleasure. To urge them to labor beyond their strength, to treat them with coward tyranny or heartless negligence, to kill them not for necessary food but for the pleasure of killing, cannot be according to the Will of that beneficent Creator who gave them physical sensitiveness for their good, a sensitiveness which we share and therefore should respect. If there are many who feel with the poet—
"I would not enter on my list of friends,
Though graced with polished manners and fine sense,
Yet wanting sensibility, the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm;"
much less can the universal Father regard as friends those who deliberately torment the creatures which with ourselves are the objects of His care. The Israelites, when delivered from the cruel oppressions of Egypt, were taught compassion to God's inferior yet not uncared-for creatures. The fallen donkey or ox was to be lifted up, and the mother-bird sitting on the young or on the eggs was to be set free. The Son of God said, "Your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father." It is vain to plead that they are our own property; they are God's supremely, and ours only as stewards who must render account, and answer for all debts incurred by violation of the Will of Him who is their Protector and our Judge.
"But many a crime, deemed innocent on earth,
Is registered in heaven; and these, no doubt,
Have each their record, with a curse annexed.
Man may dismiss compassion from his heart,
But God will never." —Cowper
More obviously, all offences against our fellow-men are debts to God. Wrongs to the property of our neighbor include not only willful injury and open robbery, but all unfairness, however sanctioned by the customs of trade and disguised by terms of political economy. Oppression of the laborer by inadequate wages, or defrauding of the employer in the quality of the work; misrepresentations or unrighteous suppression of the truth in commercial transactions; depreciation of goods when we purchase, exaggeration when we sell; advantage taken of distress; debts incurred without reasonable prospect of payment; speculation with the property of others without their consent; withholding what is due when we possess the means of payment; all swell our debts to God. To these are to be added wrongs to our neighbor's reputation—not only by inventing calumnious charges and bearing false witness, but by "taking up a reproach against our neighbor;" by finding pleasure in giving currency to coin minted by others bearing some injurious charge, without any endeavor to certify its truth, and not knowing but it may be altogether false; thus entailing on him possibly loss of property, together with that of the good opinion and perhaps the friendship that he values more than gold. Wrongs to his person include not only acts of violence, but threats which may disturb his peace, and angry and unkind words which may provoke or grieve him. How often has a sarcastic speech been a lifelong sore, a passionate invective more bruising than any blow, a proud or chilling look an abiding heart-grief! To these are to be added faults of omission. As brethren invoking the same Father, we are bound to show brotherly kindness to each other. Alas for the lost opportunities of helping the needy, tending the sick, cheering the sad, encouraging the timid, warning the foolish, saving the lost! How many might have been rescued from sinking in despair by one kindly word! How many might have been brought back to virtue and God by one helping hand-grasp!
"Alas! I have walked through life
Too heedless where I trod;
No, helping to trample my fellow-worm,
And fill the burial sod—
Forgetting that even the sparrow falls
Not unmarked of God!
The wounds I might have healed!
The human sorrow and smart!
And yet it never was in my soul
To play so ill a part:
But evil is wrought by want of
Thought, As well as want of Heart." —Hood
Can we plead that all the evil we have done and all the good we have neglected was never intentional? Alas for the money, time, influence which have been employed merely for self-pleasing; the much we have spent extravagantly or hoarded covetously compared with the little given, and that often grudgingly, to benefit others! And when we consider the priceless treasure of the gospel committed to us, not merely for our own salvation but to communicate to others, how great becomes the debt contracted in our neglect of opportunities! This debt to our neighbors we cannot discharge nor they remit. In most cases the injury cannot be redressed. The slander which went forth from our lips was spread from mouth to mouth, and no published refutation would ever overtake it. The occasion of doing a kindness cannot recur. Other opportunities will arise, but that one is gone forever. Many whom we have wronged have disappeared in the crowd or have entered another world. But could they be all convened and their forgiveness obtained, the debt against God would remain. The "false balance" was "abomination to the Lord." "The hire of the laborers kept back by fraud cries" to heaven against the oppressor; "and the cries of those who have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth." Every wrong to man is a sin against man's Maker. David was deeply sensible of this. His great crime was an incalculable injury to the individual wronged, and to the whole nation whom his example had so dishonored and whose respect for law it had so weakened. But when bowed down in overwhelming contrition, his sense of the wrong done to his fellow-creatures was overshadowed by the still greater wrong done to God. "Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight." Above the human law is the Divine Will which appoints it, and which demands payment of the debt. "We have broken a law which was not framed on earth, and cannot be repealed on earth."
To these must now be added sins immediately committed against God. The cherished purpose of evil is a sin against the Searcher of hearts. The permitted idea, the allowed wish, bears with it the character of the act. Thus the lustful passion is adultery, and the cherished revenge is murder. How great the debt thus accumulated in the records of Him who "ponders the hearts"! Duties owing to God not thus relating to our neighbor have been already suggested by the invocation "Our Father." We owe to Him habitual reverence, cheerful obedience, constant gratitude, filial trust, devout worship. This we should render every day. Alas! how often we have forgotten God altogether, received His gifts without thankfulness, murmured at His dispensations, disobeyed His laws! What excuses we have made for setting aside His authority, for resisting the voice of conscience, for pleasing ourselves! When we think of His love in redemption, our neglect of such mercy is an additional debt. How little we have studied and tried to practice the Will of God! How often we have refused to listen to the voice of Jesus! How often we have grieved the Spirit of God by not heeding His persuasions, by resisting His inward striving! If our chief end is to glorify God, how much of life has been abused! "Sins of omission, of which many think little, are far the larger half and no less deadly, even as hunger, if unfed, is no less deadly than sickness" (Hare). To live without seeking to please our Maker is to incur this debt. "The God in whose hand your breath is, and whose are all your ways, have you not glorified." When we consider the varied opportunities within our reach of glorifying God in all the circumstances of daily life, and how little we have acted up to the Divine ideal of duty, we may well tremble at the thought of the great debt incurred.
Sins against God may be illustrated by the word "debts" for the following reasons—They are entered in His books. Conscience is one of these, and its records are sternly kept. All sins against God are wounds on ourselves, and leave their mark. Divine Justice is another; the record in the mind of Him "from whom no secrets are hidden," and who "will bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing." "The books were opened, and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." A record is being kept unobserved by us. As a traveler calls for what he needs at his hotel, and no demand is made at the time for payment, though every item is carefully recorded, so it is with our daily incurred debts against God. Sins record themselves. As a multitude entering some place of resort pass individually through the turnstile, and a record is unerringly made, out of sight of the visitor; and as mechanical contrivances in factories register every beat of the piston and every fraction of the result produced, so, by the law of God impressed on our own nature, all our actions are registered, all our debts recorded. They increase; not merely by the addition of new sins but by accretions to the old debt, as interest and compound interest in human transactions. Non-repentance for a sin committed and non-renunciation of it augment the amount. Every day's delay not only increases the old fault, but renders more easy its repetition. If committed and not renounced, such a seed is prolific after its own kind. One sin also often begets another of a different kind, as falsehood to conceal vice, as murder to destroy evidence. It also produces increased alienation from God. As a man in debt without either the ability or inclination to pay it avoids the presence of his creditor, and often cherishes towards him ill-will, so an impenitent sinner, conscious of guilt, increasingly shuns the thought of the God he has offended. "The carnal mind is enmity against God." Thus, like earthly debts, sin ever tends to augment its amount and degree.
These debts can never be discharged. We are more severe with comparatively trivial injuries by man towards man than with offences against Heaven because of our own liability to be injured." Fools make a mock at sin." When some crime strikes at the very foundation of society and threatens the principle of government which upholds all civil rights, we are alive to an evil which far exceeds the injury done to the individual. But who can adequately estimate the evil of sin as committed against the Sovereign Ruler, by obedience to whom the happiness of intelligent beings can be alone secured? If the majesty of a ruler and the relationship of a father unite with the best interests of the community to require obedience to a law identified with Truth and Righteousness, disregard of that law is proportionably culpable. In this case the Ruler is the Infinite God, our Father in heaven. Our Lord indicated the greatness of our debt in the parable of the unforgiving servant, who, unrelenting to his debtor of one hundred pence, owed his lord ten thousand talents and was unable to pay. In vain we say, "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay You all; "since all that is in our power to render is due each day, and the payment of it would leave the former debt undiminished. This also our Lord taught in His description of the servant who, in waiting diligently on his master, only performed his bare duty. "So also you, when you shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants—we have done that which was our duty to do." There can be no "composition with the Creditor," no "payment by installments;" the debts are recorded, are ever augmenting, and can never be paid.
They cannot be transferred to any fellow-creature. No friend can interpose and say, "Put that to my account," since each is equally unable to pay his own debt. There is no treasury of good works in the keeping of the Church which can be allotted as a set-off to the debt of any applicant; for the Church is composed of members every one of whom has incurred a debt he has not discharged, and therefore there can be no balance in favor of the aggregate; no works of supererogation when every member of the Church has come short in ordinary duty. We ask that God would forgive "our debts." Ours they emphatically are, and can belong to us alone. Augustine says, "Nothing is so much our own as our sins." Our bodies are God's creation; our mental faculties His endowment; our daily bread His gift; but our voluntary actions are our own, and our sins are all stamped with our own image and superscription. There is always a tendency to transfer them. Adam laid the blame on Eve, Eve on the serpent. Faults are attributed to organization, external circumstances, companionships, prevalent customs, the devil, or fate. But if the action was voluntary, our will made it our own. No such plea in justification would be admitted by an earthly tribunal, and those who urge it are condemned by their own conscience, their treatment of others, and their own daily life. Unless God deliver us, we must carry our burden or be crushed beneath it. These are debts we cannot escape by lapse of years. There is no "Statute of Limitations" which annuls them after a certain period. If unforgiven, they are valid at the end of the longest life. David in old age prayed, "Remember not the sins of my youth." We cannot escape them by change of residence. To whatever country we migrate, we carry with us this burden. We cannot go beyond the reach of the King's writ. "Where shall I flee from Your presence? If I take the wings of the morning and dwell at the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me." We cannot escape them by death. This event cancels human debts, but only sums up the account with heaven, and is a summons for payment. "Death is God's arrest." Payment will be claimed. It is not a nominal debt, recorded but never to be exacted. "Be not deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap." A day is coming to each with the summons, "Give an account of your stewardship." It may seem delayed, but is surely approaching. "After a long time the Lord of those servants comes and reckons with them." How wretched men may be when they know themselves encumbered with financial obligations they cannot meet! Their seeming prosperity, by contrast with their real circumstances, aggravates their distress. The comfortable house, the costly furniture, the pictures, the grounds, the consideration paid them on account of their supposed wealth, seem to mock them. How ill at ease they feel in the presence of their creditor; in what daily apprehension they live; how a knock at the door, or the arrival of a letter, may startle them; what a burden is this debt, whatever the time granted for payment; what a relief when it is cleared off! So is it with sinners. They carry a heavy load which impedes their progress and destroys their comfort. They are tied and bound by a chain which hinders their activity. So they try to dismiss the memory of the debt, as if by forgetting they could be quit of it. But it is forgotten only for a season. The record may be written in invisible ink, but it is written, and at any moment may become terribly legible. Yes, we must give account for "duties unfulfilled, words unspoken or spoken violently and untruly, holy relationships neglected, days wasted forever, evil thoughts cherished, talents cast away, affections trifled with, light within turned to darkness. So speaks the conscience; in some it may be a feeble voice, soon lost in the noises of the outward world, or silenced by violent efforts, or choked by the senses, or bribed by the fancy. In others, it is loud and terrible today, then comes a reaction of fierce merriment or a temporary lull. In some it is a low but perpetually sounding knell, witnessing of a death begun and going on in themselves; of the past accursed, the present withered, the future vaguely terrible…These obligations sit like nightmares upon him, stop his breathing, hold him chained. Why cannot he cast them from him as dreams of the night? They come back with fearful distinctness; every circumstance, look, tone, clearly recorded; it is no dream of the night. The voice is a real one which says, 'It is done, and cannot be undone, and you are the man.' What signifies it that years have passed away? The act is gone, but you are still the same. The act is gone into Eternity, and there it will meet you" (Maurice).
The writer once conversed with a man who had been recently rescued from seeming death by drowning. He described his vain efforts to keep afloat, then his gradual sinking until he lay flat at the bottom. In a moment his whole life seemed to pass before him in review. Scenes and actions long unthought of stood out vividly on the canvas of memory. Then he saw his deliverer diving down for him, and lost further consciousness. The man who rescued him had plunged after him within a few seconds of his sinking. Thus in the case of everyone, debts long ago forgotten may in a moment start into life and demand payment. Full of solemn warning is the word of Abraham to Dives, "Son, remember!" Even in the present life we feel respecting these debts to God, "The remembrance of them is grievous to us; the burden of them is intolerable." But if, even until death, a sinner remains unconvinced of guilt, his unconsciousness of debt does not alter the fact. Many a man is insolvent without knowing it. Carelessly or wilfully ignorant, he goes on blindly in reckless expenditure without considering whether his income can meet it. He neglects to take stock until sudden ruin overtakes him. "O that they were wise, that they would consider their latter end! "
The vastness of our debt to God has often been overlooked in the light of the gospel which proclaims remission. But we cannot rightly appreciate the pardon without a due sense of the sin; as only those conscious of sickness seek the physician, their earnestness in applying to him and their recognition of cure being in proportion to their sense of pain or peril. When sin is regarded as a trifle, the atoning sacrifice is undervalued or altogether denied. A light estimate of past sin will render us less watchful in the future. If the debt already incurred can be easily set aside, no great harm need be feared from fresh trespasses. If our violation of God's law were excusable error and not a debt recorded, indelible, augmenting, beyond all power of ours to discharge, and which will be brought against us in judgment, such repentance as the Word of God describes would be excessive, and such a provision as the gospel announces for its remission would be unnecessary.
II—THE DEBTS OF GOD'S PARDONED CHILDREN
Can those who have repented and are forgiven appropriately present this prayer? All who truly call God "Father," who desire that His name may be hallowed, that His kingdom may come and His holy Will be done, must have been welcomed home as His adopted children. He gave them the kiss of forgiveness, and put on them "the best robe." What need to come day by day for the pardon received once for all? And why ever again confess themselves "miserable sinners," instead of exulting as God's happy children?
When a sinner unfeignedly repents, he is forgiven and reconciled; but as long as he is liable to transgress, it is suitable and necessary to ask for pardon. Unless he has attained a state of absolute perfection, he needs still to pray, "Forgive us our debts." Our Lord said to Peter, "He who is bathed only needs to wash his feet, but is completely clean" (John 13:10). By repentance and faith the converted sinner is bathed in "the fountain opened for sin and uncleanness." But as in walking from the has the feet are soiled and need cleansing, so a pardoned sinner, though justified as regards his former ungodly life, is liable to contract fresh stains which make the prayer for pardon as appropriate each day as that for daily bread.
To avoid this inference, some interpreters maintain that this prayer is not evangelical, because given to those still under the Law, and prior to the crucifixion. But it was twice recorded long after that event for those who were under the New Covenant. It is true that when a sinner repents he is pardoned and becomes "a new creature," is "turned from darkness to light," and "walks not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." John says, "Whoever is born of God does not commit sin;" but this same beloved disciple teaches in the same epistle, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us," which Dean Alford thus interprets—"John is writing to persons whose sins have been forgiven them (2:2), and therefore necessarily the present tense refers not to any previous state of sinful life before conversion, but to their now existing state, and the sins to which they are liable in that state. This state of needing cleansing from all present sin is veritably that of all of us; and our recognition and confession of it is the very first essential of walking in light." The preceding verse teaches us that "if we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin;" the cleansing here spoken of being the pardon of the faults of the children of light who have already, in repentance and faith, been cleansed from their old sins. Again, John connects a state of sanctification with the continued need of pardon when he says, "These things write I to you that you sin not. And if any man sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." "They cannot sin" if truly "born of God," as they once did when wandering in rebellion; they cannot sin habitually, encouraging it, persevering in it; they hate it, resist it, mourn over it; yet are they liable to be overcome by occasional temptation; but they are not on this account to despair as though no fresh pardon were possible, since those who believe have One who always pleads their cause with God. (1 John 2:1, 2) Paul teaches the same truth by warnings to believers in every epistle. Exhortations to holiness show that perfection was far from having been reached. He says of himself, "Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect. Brethren, I count not myself yet to have apprehended, but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
The two classes of statement are in beautiful harmony. When a sinner repents, his sins are pardoned and the Holy Spirit is given, but he is still liable to the influence of the flesh, he is still in a world full of snares, and exposed to the crafts and assaults of the devil. Sin is now alien to his nature, and when he falls into it he has no peace until he repents of it. But he has often occasion to lament such failures. He still with the tax-collector prays, "God be merciful to me a sinner." The larger knowledge which, by the Spirit, He now enjoys of God, shows the vast interval between himself and Divine perfection. An increasing sense of obligation with growing love to God makes him more sensitive to his failures. The more he advances in holiness, the more he perceives his imperfections. The stronger the light, the more obvious the stains; the brighter the sunbeam, the plainer the motes. The summit of the mountain piercing the skies with its glittering pinnacles and spotless dome is not seen from the low-lying valley, and he who wishes to climb has a very imperfect notion of the task before him. The precipice concealing the distance must first be surmounted, requiring his utmost efforts. But when, after much toil and peril, this has been conquered, instead of thinking he has gained the goal, he is filled with admiring awe as he beholds the mountain rising far, far beyond and above him. The sinner first seeking pardon has no such conception of his need of it while climbing the craggy cliffs of penitence, as when from the tableland of forgiveness he gazes upwards at the mountain-heights of God's holiness.
"Christian perfection" is obedience to God by men on earth similar to that of angels in heaven. This all should hold as the true ideal; but when the term is used as actually characterizing individuals, the real meaning intended is generally that of maturity of character, habitual faith in God, a steady purpose of obedience, and progress heavenward. To profess to have reached the goal indicates a low ideal; to be unconscious of defect betrays a dullness of the spiritual sense; to be satisfied with the service rendered reveals rather the weakness than the strength of love. The Rev. C. H. Spurgeon remarked to the writer respecting one who held the opinion here questioned, "I always thought him perfect until he told me he was."
Some speak of Sanctification as attainable instantaneously by a simple act of faith. As a sinner believing is at once released from debt, so, they say, if we believe in Christ as the Sanctifier, we are at once freed from the liability to sin again. But the two great blessings of salvation, while inseparable in fact, are essentially distinct in development. In Justification, Divine Grace annuls the sentence of condemnation; in Sanctification, the Divine Spirit produces holiness of thought, motive, habit, conduct, character. In the nature of things this must be gradual and continuous. The seed is sown as soon as we believe; there is no interval between the pardon of a sinner and his reception of the germ of the new and heavenly life, but this has to grow and blossom and bear fruit. The chains are struck off the captive, and he is animated with new courage and strength; but the battle has only begun, though the final victory is promised. The leaven has been put into the meal, but the whole lump is not immediately leavened. Thus we are admonished to "grow in grace;" to "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling." This has been the concurrent experience of the holiest of God's children. Few of ancient times were nearer perfection than Daniel, yet he says, "While I was praying and confessing my sin." There is scarcely one of the Bible saints of whom some fault is not recorded. David says, "Who can understand his errors? cleanse me from secret faults;" and Solomon, "There is not a just man upon earth that does good and sins not;" and James, "In many things we all stumble." Paul repudiated any claim to be perfect; for though he triumphed in the assurance of final victory, he was conscious of a liability to temporary reverses. It was said of the Romans that they might be worsted in battle but never in war; and the soldiers of Christ, when most hopeful of the result, are most aware of temporary failures, and confess them with penitence lest they should become permanent. Augustine speaks of "sins of a daily infirmity in which even he who watches most will yet be entangled; scarcely without some of the world's dust adhering to him will even the faithful man walk through the world's paths. But in this prayer there is the shaking off this dust before it has settled and hardened upon him."
There are occasional seasons of spiritual calm when a believer may be induced to suppose that peace of mind means freedom from sin. "It may be under some great affliction, it may be in some eminent enjoyment of God, in the sense of the sweetness of blessed communion with Christ, we have been ready to say that sin was dead and gone forever. But have we not found by experience the contrary? Has it not manifested that it was only retired into some unsearchable recesses of the heart, as to its nature, though greatly weakened in its power? God's delight is with the humble and contrite ones, and such are we only when we have a due sense of our own vile condition. This will beget reverence of God, sense of our distance from Him, admiration of His grace and condescension, a due valuation of mercy, far above those light, verbal, airy attainments that some have boasted of" (Owen). To suppose perfection already reached, is not merely a theological error, but a moral defect and disguised peril. It lowers the standard of duty to think we have reached it; it lessens the sense of obligation to consider we have discharged it; it weakens the motive to watchfulness to imagine the foe is slain. "Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall." Because the faults of God's children differ from the daring sins of rebels, they do not therefore lose the character of sin, nor cease to incur a debt which must be cancelled or paid. It is possible to receive pardon of some great trespass, and by repeated commission of smaller sins to perish. It is only when God's pardoned children continue to "add on their part all diligence," that they are "not idle nor unfruitful;" whereas "he who lacks these things is blind, having forgotten the cleansing from his old sins. Wherefore, brethren, give the more diligence to make your calling and election sure." Lack of diligence in repenting of the smaller sins of God's children weakens such surety. Little expenses multiplied may ruin a business or impoverish a family. Debts neglected because each is small, may so accumulate as to cause bankruptcy. Buildups of rust, each particle invisible, may stop a watch or fasten up a door. Augustine says, "It is of little drops that mighty rivers, yes ruinous and wide-wasting inundations, are made up. The leak may be trifling, yet if waters are always coming in, and not being continually pumped out, they will in the end sink the ship. A mountain of minute grains of sand will as effectually crush out the life, as the same bulk of solid lead. Little venomous insects, if only there are enough of them, will kill a man with their multitudinous bites, as certainly as some wild beast with its single one. But in this prayer there is for the man who faithfully uses it, the pledge and power of a daily cleansing, the medicine of his slight but ever-recurring hurts" (Trench).
The sins of God's children have a speciality which forbids us to treat them as trifles. When a friendship is peculiarly tender, we feel sensitive to every hasty word which may grieve. The greater our obligation, the greater our regret for any seeming ingratitude. The pardoning love of our Father, and our privileges and joys now that we are at home, form a new obligation specially strong and tender. We know more of His loving heart and the goodness of His laws. Those who have tasted the bliss of filial relationship feel that acts of negligence have now a guilt which in kind, if not in degree, could not attach to acts of willful disobedience committed when strangers to their Father's love. More knowledge of His Will increases the guilt of resisting it; higher privileges entail heavier responsibilities; filial love gives to conscience additional sensitivity; and the child at home, without ever doubting the Father's favor, is conscious of frequent defects in his own love and obedience.
This very prayer serves to convince us of our need of this petition. Our Father—but how often I fail in the reverence, trust, love, and obedience due from a child! Hallowed be Your Name—but how have I come short in cherishing befitting reverence of it myself, and promoting it in others! Your Kingdom, come—but how little I have done to advance it! Your Will be done on earth as in heaven—but how inferior my obedience to that of angels! Give us this day our daily bread—but how often I have doubted or murmured, or been unthankful to the Giver! If then I need to come "day by day" for "daily bread," I need also to come day by day for daily pardon.
A dear friend now in glory, who on earth manifested more of angelic piety than is often the privilege of men to witness, and who was a distinguished member and minister of a church including "Christian perfection" in its doctrinal system, thus records his own sense of daily need of seeking remission of debts contracted as a child of God—
Sins Sins unnumbered I confess,
Of exceeding sinfulness,
Sins against Yourself alone,
Only to Omniscience known;
Deafness to Your whispered calls;
Rashness 'midst remembered falls;
Transient fears beneath the rod;
Treacherous trifling with my God;
Tasting that the Lord is good,
Pining then for poisoned food;
At the fountain of the skies
Craving creaturely supplies;
Worldly cares at worship-time;
Groveling aims in works sublime;
Pride, when God is passing by;
Sloth, when souls in darkness die.
O be merciful to me
Now in bitterness for You;
Father, pardon through Your Son,
Sins against the Spirit done." —W. Bunting
III—OUR FATHER'S FORGIVENESS
Belief in the possibility of pardon is essential to the asking it. "He who comes to God must believe that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." But is pardon within the possibility of such reward? The "Forgiveness of Sins" is an article of the Creed much more easily pronounced than explained. The universe is under the great law of Cause and Effect. Every grain of sand and drop of dew, the rolling planets and the central sun, alike obey it. Influences once set in motion continue their operation both in the material and moral worlds. Violation of physical law entails physical suffering, of social law social disgrace, of moral law deterioration of character, of governmental law legal penalty. Conduct has appropriate consequences, and "whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap." But in asking pardon, we ask for an intervention between cause and effect, for the neutralizing of influences actually at work. We ask for the stone that has been flung to be stopped, for the flood that has been let loose to be arrested, for the fire that has been lighted to be quenched, and not only so, but also for the precious things it has ruined to be restored.
Nature does not forgive. Health enfeebled by folly is not renovated by remorse. The spendthrift's riches do not fly back at the call of regret. Repentance does not atone for crime, acquit the criminal, or restore him to his former social position. Thus it has been questioned whether there can ever be forgiveness of sin, and men under various systems have endeavored by methods of their own to neutralize their guilt and its consequences, without any assurance of success. Socrates doubted whether sin could be forgiven. Without revelation, sinful men could never be free from fear. Job felt the difficulty when he said that if he should justify himself, his own mouth would condemn him; that if he made his hands never so clean, he would still be as one plunged in a ditch; that God was not as a man to come together with him in judgment; that there needed some intermediary to effect reconciliation; but that, alas! there was no such arbitrator to lay his hand on both. "The one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus," does "lay His hand on both," and by His atonement declares and explains forgiveness.
"When Christ came, He spoke of forgiveness as the most difficult of all God's secrets. He said that no one could tell of Atonement but He who had been in heaven. If it were not for Christ's clear revelation, I could not believe in a free forgiveness. Cause and effect, antecedent and consequence, are so bound together on God's earth, that the idea of their severance—which is, in other words, the release of the soul who has sinned from the death which sin merits—can only be accepted as the explicit assertion, the direct revelation, of Him who knows all things" (Vaughan).
Jehovah had revealed Himself to Moses as "merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin;" although "He will not always clear the guilty." The holy God who will uphold His law and punish willful transgressors, is the pardoning God. This truth is extolled by the Psalmist, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, who forgives all your iniquities;" and by the Prophet, "Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity? because He delights in mercy." The typical sacrifices connected with the confession of sin were about to be set aside when the Baptist said, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." Jesus said of Himself that He came "to give His life a ransom for many." Him the apostles proclaimed as "a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins." When Saul the persecutor was himself forgiven, he proclaimed to all that "through this Man is preached the forgiveness of sins." Though "all have sinned," those who repent are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, by His blood, to show His righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime." "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses." Christ is the medium of forgiveness, to whom all whose debts are cancelled owe their deliverance, however defective their knowledge of Him. "In none other is there salvation—for neither is there any other name under heaven that is given among men, wherein we must be saved." However mysterious the doctrine of the Atonement, the apostle plainly taught the fact "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." "He was wounded for our transgressions, and with His stripes we are healed; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." The truth that, "the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin," is the theme of the new song of heaven. "To Him who loves us, and loosed us from our sins by His blood, be the glory and the dominion forever and ever."
Dr. Dale, commenting on Eph. 1:7, "In Christ we have our redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of His grace," says—"To those who have known the power of the Divine forgiveness to cancel the guilt of sin, the act is as clearly supernatural as any of the miracles recorded in the Gospels, and it is more wonderful, for it reveals the ascendency of the Divine will in a region of life far nobler than that in which the physical miracles of the Gospels were wrought…That the ground of our forgiveness is in Christ, not in ourselves, and that His death has a unique relation to the remission of sins, are facts which lie at the foundation of the faith, and hope, and life of the Christian Church…The death of Christ was an act in which there was a revelation of the righteousness of God which must otherwise have been revealed in the infliction of the penalty of sin on the human race…Theories of the Atonement have exercised and baffled the speculation of a long series of theologians, but the Atonement itself has continued to give consolation and courage to all penitent hearts, transforming their despair into hope, their misery into peace, and their terror into perfect joy in the righteousness and love of God."
Some have supposed that Christ actually paid the debt we have incurred, His sufferings being exactly an equivalent for our punishment. If so, it follows that the debt once paid cannot be justly exacted afterwards. But if any for whom Christ suffered should themselves suffer, it is inferred that their debt would be twice paid; and as many do actually perish, some theological logicians have taught that for them Christ did not die, while all whose debts were included in His Atonement must necessarily be saved. Let it suffice here to say that Scripture nowhere teaches the absolute payment by Christ of our debts, but that His sacrifice is a sufficient provision for the pardon of all who, by repentance and faith, are willing to receive it. If only one transgressor is pardoned, the law seems to need to be honored and righteousness vindicated; no, we feel this to be needed for the mere offering of pardon. The difficulty is that of reconciling the holiness of God and His rule of the universe with His proclamation of pardon. When this is removed, we cease to feel a difficulty in reconciling the holiness of God with the pardon of any multitude of penitent sinners. If the amnesty may righteously be proclaimed, it may righteously be ratified. For one sinner to cross the great gulf dividing us from heaven, a bridge seemed to be needed which Deity alone could construct, but which, needed for one, was sufficient to bear all mankind. Yet if any refuse to cross, their ruin is the fault, not of the bridge, but of their own will. All may receive forgiveness, but those who reject the mercy will bear their own burden, although provision was made for its remission in the case of all who "repent and believe."
The gospel explains the mystery. The evil wrought by sin is counteracted by Him who died for sin. The cross of Christ interposes between the sinner who believes and the punishment due to violated law. If forgiveness through the Atonement is mysterious, forgiveness without an atonement is inexplicable. Sin as a cause does not result in punishment as its effect, because the Atonement accomplishes that for which punishment would have been required in relation to the Divine government; and, in relation to our own nature, the injury of sin is counteracted by a new spiritual life produced in Regeneration, whereby the power of the former habit of sin is counteracted and eventually destroyed. Left to ourselves and the natural effects of sin, the bad seed sown must grow, producing its present and future harvest of "corruption." But by the heavenly life imparted this seed is destroyed; old things have passed away, and all things have "become new." The converted sinner has passed "from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God." This perfects the Divine forgiveness. The record is effaced from the tablets of character. We are "new creatures in Christ Jesus." Sanctification, the result of Regeneration, is evidence of forgiveness; it is the canceling of the debt accumulated within us, it is the very sending away, the dismissal, the absolute discharge we pray for… the penalty of sin being remitted by deliverance not only from future punishment by God, but from present pollution in ourselves. Thus God remits sin; in Justification saving from its deserved penalty, in Sanctification from its resulting influence.
The doctrine of Forgiveness needs, however, to be explained consistently with certain revealed truths and natural facts. God is said to "visit the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation." Those children may themselves be penitent and pardoned and yet suffer from the sins of their parents, as by inherited disease, poverty, disgrace; and in the case of nations, one generation may have to bear the debts incurred and the animosities fomented by wars they blush to think of. So an individual may suffer disease, poverty, dishonor, long after he has repented of the sins that caused them. God not only does not interpose to arrest these results, but may even specially appoint suffering as a sequence of sin the pardon of which has been assured. So it was with David. Though he repented and was forgiven, the temporal evils did come upon him, in the bitter shame that overshadowed his own home through Absalom. He was assured of pardon, yet was adjudged to suffer. "The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Howbeit, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die."
The sorrows resulting from sins forgiven are to be regarded not as penal but as disciplinary. They are often needed to illustrate the evil of sin, to show that even the children of God must suffer if they do wrong, and to deter others from similar faults. They are needed to teach the transgressors to cultivate humility, watchfulness, prayer and gratitude. In the case of a pardoned child of God, the sad consequences of sin are not a sign of wrath but of loving discipline. "Whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." The injury to character, though at once subjected to remedial influence, is not at once effaced. The habits of long years of sin need to be supplanted by habits of holiness. From the pages of memory the records and images of evil do not at once fade away, nor can those pages become at once crowded with recollections of evil conquered and good achieved. The Jews, although forgiveness was promised, were warned of the sorrows resulting from the memory of sin. "Then shall you remember your ways, and be ashamed—and you shall know that I am the Lord; that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth any more because of your shame, when I am pacified toward you for all that you have done, says the Lord God." When God promises that our sins and iniquities He will remember no more, the meaning is that He will act towards us as if He forgot them. He would cease to be Omniscient if any fact were to fade from His mind. It is questionable whether anything that has once left its impress even on our finite minds is absolutely forgotten. Paul, when rejoicing that God had "forgiven all trespasses," did not cease to remember with self-abasement that he had persecuted the Church of God. And saints in glory give thanks to Him who "washed them from their sins," thus showing that the memory of sin remains. But as God acts towards us as if He did not remember our sins, treating us as if we had never sinned, so He can cause our joy to abound in spite of our own memory of transgression—a memory which, while encouraging humility, will also prompt to more intense gratitude and deeper tones of praise.
With these explanations we may rejoice to know that the remission of our debts by God is absolute remission; no arrears remain, no penal demands to be paid either in this world or the next. It is immediate, for no sooner is the prayer truly offered than the answer is recorded, "Your sins are forgiven you." The guilt is at once removed, the sentence cancelled, and the work of progressive sanctification commenced, never to end but in the absolute removal from the soul of every taint of sin. Nothing is now owing. The liberated debtor is treated as if he had never been in debt—unlike the case of earthly debtors, who may be cleared by legal process but do not recover their former credit. The sinner whom God forgives is trusted, adopted into His family, loved and treated as a child. The prodigal son is not kept in the outer court with the servants, but welcomed to the inner chamber and folded to the Father's heart. The completeness of this pardon is expressed in the strongest language. "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." God says He will cast all our sins "into the depths of the sea;" "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us;" "He delights in mercy." We may safely appeal to Him as One "whose nature and property is ever to have mercy and to forgive." In nothing so much as in forgiveness are His own words illustrated—"As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."
"Kind hearts are here; yet would the tenderest one
Have limits to its mercy—God has none!
And man's forgiveness may be true and sweet,
But yet he stoops to give it. More complete
Is Love that lays forgiveness at your feet,
And pleads with you to raise it. Only Heaven
Means crowned, not vanquished, when it says Forgiven."
There is pardon for the chief of sinners. "Him who comes to me I will in no wise cast out." A sin for which there is no possible forgiveness is one for which there is no actual repentance. No one is shut out by God from remission who does not shut himself out by persevering in sin. Pardon is inseparable from penitence. Christ "is exalted to give repentance and remission of sins." These gifts are indissoluble. The first is a pledge of the second. Repentance is our actually moving out from the shadow of death across the boundary into the sunshine of life and love. He who repents is already in the region of pardon and the light of God.
Christ the High Priest, through whose sacrifice and intercession this pardon is conferred, is the only Mediator at whose hands we receive it, by whose word we are assured of it. It is the privilege and duty of all who are forgiven to declare and pronounce to all others, being penitent, the same absolution and remission of sin which they have received; but it is Christ alone who can bestow it, and authoritatively declare and confirm it. He said to the man whom He cured of the palsy, "Your sins are forgiven," and claimed that "the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sin;" and as "none can forgive sins but God only," none but Christ may assume this function. In the words of the Dean of Llandaff, "I cannot believe that Christ meant any man to come, even as a helper, even as an abettor, between the soul and its God. It is the glory, it is the originality, it is the power of the Gospel, that it brings together, face to face, without any intermediate, the two Beings which are at issue, God and the soul. You say you can aid this meeting? Take heed that you do not hinder it" (Vaughan). Luther said, "A pope or bishop has no more power to remit sin than the humblest priest, and even without any priest the humblest Christian, even though a woman or a child, can do the same. For if a simple believer say to you, 'God pardon your sin in the name of Jesus Christ,' and you receive that word with firm faith, and as though God Himself spoke it to you, you are absolved." The absolution Christ bestows is plenary, immediate, complete. If we have a multitude of transgressions to confess, He has a "multitude of tender mercies" with which to hide them. "Our sin in respect to His mercy is as a spark to the ocean; and cannot the ocean quench a spark?" Can the food be insufficient for the guests whom He invites? Can the lifeboat He equips be too small for the shipwrecked crew?
IV—PRAYER FOR PARDON
God, by His Ambassador of mercy, bids us say, "Forgive us our debts," and encourages us by the promise, "Everyone who asks receives." He who "was in the bosom of the Father," and knows His purpose, the Christ who Himself suffered for our sins, teaches us thus to pray. The High Priest who intercedes above instructs us how to plead below, so that our prayers and His may blend, and "Him the Father hears always." Thus instructed by the Son of God, we pray to a Father who pities His children and calls them to Himself. Round about the throne of Majesty is the rainbow of Mercy dispelling our fear. Acceptable prayer for pardon includes
1. Conviction of guilt. We must recognize our indebtedness. Fallacies must be put away by which we have tried to persuade ourselves that we are not guilty before God. We must not make weakness an excuse for wickedness. If helpless as a worm, if lifeless as a corpse, we cannot be guilty as men. God has endowed us with capacities which make it possible for us to obey Him, but we have abused those capacities, and so have incurred a debt which was both due and in our power to pay. Nor may we plead temperament, circumstances, or the devil. We never yield but by our own consent, and this is our sin. Let us beware of the false humility that pleads helplessness, and cultivate the true humility that confesses our abuse of ability and a depraved proneness to evil.
2. Contrition. Sorrow because of sin is an essential condition of the pardon of it; sorrow, not merely for the consequences but for the act. Many criminals are sorry when captured, arraigned and condemned, who, were they to escape, would forget their grief; and many sinners against God are sorry, not because they have sinned but because they cannot sin with impunity, or because their sins are about to be judged. Godly sorrow mourns for the sin itself, as evil in its own nature, as rebellion against our Creator, as ingratitude towards our Benefactor, as undutifulness towards our Father. "Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Thus the tax-collector in the parable bows his head with shame and smites his bosom for sorrow, while he cries, "God be merciful to me a sinner." The Psalms are full of the groanings of contrite hearts. All Christian biography records the anguish caused by sin. Without such sorrow there will be no true joy. "Blessed are those who mourn, fur they shall be comforted." The hope of pardon does not altogether remove this sorrow. God forgives us, but we do not forgive ourselves. The wound is healed, but the scar remains. A little boy was told by his father to drive a nail into a plank for every offence committed. Whenever he did something worthy of praise, a nail was withdrawn. At length the father said with joy, "See, they are all gone now." "Yes, father," said the son, "but the marks are there." The remembrance of some act of unkindness to a friend, who, though grieved at the time, has perfectly forgiven and forgotten it, is long afterwards recalled with an inward blush; and the sorrow caused to parents in the days of youthful heedlessness is a source of deep regret even in old age. Paul never ceased to reflect with sorrow that he was once a "persecutor, and injurious." The writer cannot forget an illustration of such sorrow in the case of a very poor field-laborer who was groaning in extreme agony. When there seemed a little abatement of suffering, some words of sympathy were uttered, to which the dying man replied," My biggest pain is to think that I ever grieved my dear Lord Jesus." Such sorrow is a mark of sonship and a sign of pardon. "The seal is set on wax when it melts; so God sets pardon on melting hearts." Such sorrow is a means of reformation. The seeds of truth watered by penitential tears will bear fruit in the heavenly paradise.
"He who lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend.
Eternity mourns that." —H. Taylor
3. Confession. The burden on the soul seeks relief by utterance—"Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." We should confess an injury to our neighbor as a step towards redressing it. "Confess your faults one to another"—the faults committed by one against another. So our faults against God are to be confessed to God. "He who covers his sins shall not prosper." If we wish God to hide them, we must not hide them ourselves. If we would be healed, we must show our wound to the Physician. If we would get our debt remitted, we must acknowledge our obligation. "When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my groaning all the day long. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity have I not hidden. I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord; and You forgave the iniquity of my sin." As God alone forgives, so to God we are to confess. No fellow-sinner may stand between ourselves and Him, except the One High Priest who alone has power to absolve. To substitute auricular confession to a man for spiritual confession to God, and to be satisfied with a fellow-sinner's assurance of absolution, is calculated to encourage us in a continual vibration between false comfort and fresh sin, like the see-saw of children's play. The comfort which some say they find in frequent confession to a priest may be really found by daily confession to God. When there are no willful sins burdening the conscience, relief by daily confession is still needed from the oppressive sense of frequent imperfections, such as tainted motives, wandering thoughts, ingratitude, distrust, indolence, neglect of opportunities, selfish abuse of stewardship, and the long, long interval between our attainments and the perfect Example. If these are habitually passed over as not needing to be confessed, we cannot rejoice as we might in the full assurance of pardon, and our own character must suffer from the tacit allowance of such imperfection. The most loving children are the most sensitive, and are not happy until any disrespectful word, any act of negligence, is confessed, and the parent's kiss of forgiveness received. And thus the children of God will daily cultivate their filial graces, relieve the burden on their loving hearts, and seek the reassurance of their Father's pardoning mercy by repeated, acts of confession, not "dissembling and cloaking their sins before the face of Almighty God our Heavenly Father, but confessing them with a humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart." But we are not required to ransack memory for every item, as though remission depended on exact enumeration. Many faults escape consciousness when committed, and others soon fade from remembrance. Our Father accepts us when we come to Him with a humble sense of indebtedness, without imposing on us the burden of detailing all the particulars. "One earnest gaze upon Christ is worth a thousand scrutinies of self—the man who beholds the cross, and beholding it weeps, cannot be really blind nor perilously self-ignorant" (Vaughan). No one need fear that a sin neglected in the catalogue of confession is omitted in the royal charter of pardon, if in self-abasement yet filial trust he says, "Our Father, forgive!"
4. Purpose of reformation. Pardon is promised only to those who repent; and repentance is a change of mind in regard to sin and God. Sorrow for sin involves detestation of it; confession implies a resolution to forsake it. It would be contrary to God's holiness to pardon the sins of those who intend to go on sinning. He is Holy, and the object of His mercy no less than of His law is to promote the holiness of His creatures. "There is forgiveness with You that You may be feared." The promise, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow," immediately follows the precept, "Wash, make clean; cease to do evil, learn to do well. Come now and let us reason together, says the Lord." The promise is linked with the precept, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and let him return to the Lord, for He will abundantly pardon." The purpose of Christ in redemption was not primarily to remit penalty but to purify the heart, the former being a means towards the latter. "The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us, to the intent that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly and righteously and godly in this present world." Pardon is obtained only by the mediation of Him whose very Name declares Him to be a Savior, not from punishment merely, but from sin. "His Name shall be called Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins." None can believe in Him without accepting this salvation, and therefore resolving to renounce the sins they confess. Every prayer for pardon is a pledge of reformation, and every debt remitted as penalty increases the obligation of gratitude and is an additional motive to obedience. The cost of our redemption being "not corruptible things as silver and gold, but the precious blood of Christ," supplies the strongest motive to forsake the sins the forgiveness of which we ask through such a sacrifice. To feel that every sin must be confessed will surely help us to abstain from committing it. If the evil I do must be as far as possible redressed, why do it? If it must be sorrowed over, why give myself this pain as well as grieve the Spirit of my Father? "He will speak peace to His people, and to His saints; but let them not turn again to folly."
This petition, like the rest, looks beyond the individual. First of all, we pray each for his own pardon—"Have mercy upon me, a sinner." But having learned the brotherhood of humanity, we embrace our neighbors in our request. We pray for the household, the congregation, the church, the world, when we say, "Forgive us our debts;" and this helps us to comply with the condition attached to the prayer. But in this community of prayer there must be no merging our individual guilt, no lessening our contrition because others share in the necessity for it. A deep sense of our own sin helps us to feel for others, and to bear them on our hearts at the throne of grace.
Some resolve to seek pardon at the eleventh hour, like the dying thief. They do not consider that the present hour may be to them the very last, that the end may approach unobserved, and that it may find them less disposed than ever to seek forgiveness, owing to the strengthened habit of impenitent delay. They seem to think that repentance can be summoned to their bedside like the doctor, and that having been resolutely ordered during many years to keep far away, it will come at a moment and at a word. The repentance which precedes pardon is not a sudden regret for the past or fear of the future, but a change of mind and heart. The dying thief was not saved without such change. Reverence towards the Most High was indicated in his appeal to his companion, "Do you not fear God?" confession of sin in the words, "We indeed justly;" admiration of goodness in the testimony, "This man has done nothing amiss;" faith in the royalty of Him whom men derided in the address to Christ, "Lord, when You come in Your kingdom;" humble prayer in the request, "Lord, remember me"—these, with avowal of his own allegiance and care for the soul of his companion, indicated a complete transformation of character. It took place suddenly in this case; but can such repentance be reckoned on in the case of those who, unlike him, have long known of Christ and neglected to seek mercy? Such repentance needs the assistance of the Divine Spirit, but it is still our work. "God commands all men to repent." It is a work so important and difficult, that not a day should be lost in commencing it. If not one single true Christian can be found willing deliberately to spare one day from his religious life, so that for one day he should cease to pray and to resist sin; if those who have had years of experience in religion so value one single day in continuing to work out their own salvation, is it not the utmost folly for those who have not yet even begun the work, to delay it for months and years? "Today if you will hear His voice, harden not your hearts. Behold, now is the day of salvation."
Let this daily petition remind us of our sins, and help us to renounce them. Our debt is in God's book; let us bring it to remembrance, that it may be confessed and cancelled before the account be closed. Some neglect to seek pardon because they under-estimate their debt; others despair because it is so great. "The devil shows some men their sins at the little end of the perspective glass, and they seem little or none at all; but he shows others their sins at the great end of the perspective, and these frighten them into despair." They try to rid themselves of the burden of fear as though they could thus be rid of the burden of guilt. There can be no true peace but in pardon. "When conscience is troubled, they will try what merry company can do, or drink, or cards; perhaps a Lent-whipping will do the deed, or business so take up the time that they have no leisure to hear the clamors of conscience; but still the wound bleeds inwardly, and they can have no peace. Suppose a man has a thorn in his foot, which puts him to pain; let him anoint it, or wrap it up, and keep it warm; yet, until the thorn be plucked out, it aches and swells, and he has no ease" (Watson). Many a wounded soldier would recover if the bullet were extracted, but while it remains in the wound there can be no cure. So must sin be removed from us by penitence and pardon, or death must result.
Many on what has seemed their dying bed have expressed a repentance which, on their recovery, has been proved unreal. How perilous to postpone such a work until there will be the briefest time for it and the least capacity! as if a man should defer a task needing great exertion until he was weak and weary, or one needing the clearest vision until the sun had set and the shadows of night had fallen; as if the torrent could be stemmed more easily when the boat had been drawn more into mid-channel; as if the precipice could be better avoided after slipping partly over the impending slope; as if a fire could be more effectually quenched when the flames had gained greater mastery of the fuel; as if a disease could be better cured when its force had more fully developed, and the patient had less strength to rally! Every day's delay increases the debt, lessens the opportunity of pardon, and weakens the inclination to seek it. To no work more than to this does the exhortation apply, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave where you go." Therefore "give no sleep to your eyes nor slumber to your eyelids. Deliver yourself as a roe from the hand of the hunter, and as a bird from the hand of the fowler." Luther said there were three things he dared not think of without Christ—Sin, Death, Judgment. But if sin be pardoned, the sting of death is extracted, and the judgment has no terrors. How "blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes not iniquity"! "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." If poor in this world, countless wealth is in the assurance, "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." The sick are healed when they hear His word, "Your sins are forgiven." If dying, behold we live when our Father says, "This my son was dead, and is alive again."
This petition blends with those that precede. "Our Father;" being this, pity and pardon Your erring children. "Hallowed be Your Name;" by the exercise of the mercy it implies, and in the hearts of grateful penitents. "Your Kingdom come;" in the extension of forgiveness, in the increased number of the forgiven. "Your Will be done;" by the manifestation of Your love in the canceling of debt. "Give us this day our daily bread;" but in vain the supply of all temporal wants unless the hunger of the soul is satisfied "Forgive us our debts."
V—FORGIVENESS OF ONE ANOTHER
The appended clause, "As we forgive our debtors," indicates a necessary qualification for presenting the request, for only those who forgive are in a state of mind truly to ask to be forgiven; it lays down a condition of obtaining the boon, for none may expect forgiveness who do not themselves forgive. Many who offer the prayer overlook the condition; they desire the benefit, but are not anxious to perform the duty; they seem to think they may confidently expect forgiveness, while only admitting that it is their duty to exercise it; at best, they seem to think that the wish or the intention to forgive entitles them to expect actual and immediate forgiveness from God.
Some, out of mistaken regard for evangelical truth, interpret the qualification less literally than the petition. They ask, How can any good quality in ourselves recommend us to Divine favor? How can works be a plea when we are suppliants for mercy? How can we dare to mention our imperfect forgiveness of each other's trivial faults, when we seek such full forgiveness of so great a debt from God? And how can we venture to ask Him to pardon us in the manner and degree in which we pardon our brethren? Thus the mental interpretation given to the clause is frequently this—"Forgive us our debts, and help us to forgive our debtors;" or, "Forgive us, and then enable us to forgive others." But the petition is conditional not on a purpose, but on a fact; not on the admission of a duty, but on the performance of it; not on something to be done hereafter, but done already. It is a precedent necessity, not a resulting effect. So the R.V. accurately renders it. Luke expresses the habitual state of mind of the petitioners "For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us;" Matthew, the already-accomplished fact—"As we also have forgiven our debtors."
1. Human forgiveness—A difficult duty. Our depraved nature is characterized by self-seeking. Our predominant thoughts, desires, exertions have reference to our own safety, property, honor. We think more of our rights than of our obligations, of what others owe us rather than of what we owe them. We are apt to demand all; we are impatient of delay or excuses, stand up for our rights, resent injuries, and insist on the uttermost farthing. This is seen in the attitude of nations, which are but combinations of individuals. Why are armies and navies maintained at such prodigious cost, if not sternly to demand national rights? How often some slight to an ambassador or insult to a flag is supposed to justify wholesale slaughter! Most wars would have been prevented had there been a mutual disposition to forgive a debt, instead of a blind determination to enforce it. Beyond all reasonable plea of order and defense, are there not many professed Christians who consider that national honor demands the enforcing of national debts at whatever cost? If this spirit is regarded as legitimate in public affairs, it is not surprising that it should influence private life. But it is opposed to the plain teaching of Christ and His apostles—"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who despitefully use you. Avenge not yourselves. If your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink. Charity suffers long, and is kind; is not easily provoked." In this prayer our Lord specially emphasized this appended condition—"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you—but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
What is meant by this forgiveness of one another? The term debt is figurative as regards our relations with God, and means guilt and liability to penalty. In relation to ourselves, therefore, the term does not necessarily mean monetary obligations. If all such debts are to be remitted, none would be incurred; no one would lend if lending were equivalent to giving; credit would be unknown in business, and commerce would be almost impossible. Monetary obligations ought to be held sacred by the debtor; but though the creditor may rightly claim payment, he ought, in the spirit of this prayer, not to exercise undue pressure, not to take advantage of the debtor's difficulties, but if misfortune has overtaken him and he is unable to pay, to exercise patience and abate the claim rather than risk the ruin of the debtor. Nor does the condition involve the loosening of moral obligations. There are social and relative duties always owing from one to another. We are not called on to submit to injustice. The interests of society require that law should be upheld. "The magistrate bears not the sword in vain." True humanity requires that law-breakers be punished. A Christian, asking forgiveness from God, may therefore consistently prosecute the ruffian and the thief, whose immunity would encourage them in further outrage. But in thus vindicating law a Christian should not indulge personal revenge, but feel kindly towards the wrong-doer even when he calls upon the law to exact its righteous debt.
Moreover, forgiveness by man must necessarily be very different to forgiveness by God. Weak, selfish, sinful, our forgiveness must be as inferior to His as we are to Himself; and debts incurred to His supreme majesty must be immeasurably greater than any of the petty obligations we incur towards each other. When therefore we ask God to forgive us "as we forgive our debtors," we do not mean that our forgiveness can measure His either in nature or amount. But notwithstanding such considerations, the duty of forgiving as God forgives must not be explained away. Certain resemblances are essential.
Our forgiveness must be sincere. Much that passes current as forgiveness is so in appearance only. Sometimes payment is not exacted because there is no power to exact—"we do not bite because we have no teeth;" sometimes because we deem it inexpedient, fearing discredit or retaliation; sometimes because we only postpone exaction for a better opportunity; and sometimes non-exaction is counterbalanced by cherished ill-will, alienation, detraction, and the lingering resentment, "Though I forgive, I can never forget." This is not forgiving as God forgives. "He makes His sun to shine on the evil and on the good;" and those who are truly His children must cherish kind feelings even towards their foes. Our perfect Exemplar, "when He was reviled, reviled not again," but prayed for His murderers. Our forgiveness must be genuine; no secret grudge must be cherished; our state of mind should be as free from bitterness as if the record of the wrong had completely faded away from our memory.
But is not the repentance of one who has wronged us a condition of our pardon, even as our repentance is a condition of God's pardon? "If your brother trespasses against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him." If God does not receive us until we repent, we are not required to assure of forgiveness any wrong-doer until he has expressed sorrow. But prior to our repentance God cherishes pity, shows kindness, waits to be gracious, is ready to pardon, makes advances, calls us to Himself, beseeches us to be reconciled. "Return to me, and I will abundantly pardon." Therefore we, on our part, before a "brother" who has offended us asks forgiveness, are bound to cherish kind feelings towards him, to pray for him, and to be willing to express forgiveness when he repents. Many who are not Christians might profess to forgive an enemy crouching for pardon, for their pride might be satisfied with his humiliation; but a child of God is to overcome his resentment prior to the repentance of the evil-doer, and to be ready to forgive before forgiveness is sought. Although "the wrath of God abides" on all sinners who persist in sin, his mercy is waiting to pardon—an ocean ready to flow out towards the sinner and cover all his transgressions, as soon as the sinner's repentance opens the floodgate. If thus we are to cherish forgiveness even towards those who do not repent, how surely should we pardon generously, gladly, all who do!
When an offender has been forgiven and repeats the offense, we are apt to feel discharged from further leniency. But this our Lord forbids. When Peter said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? until seven times? Jesus said to him, I say not to you, Until seven times, but until seventy times seven." The apostles replied, "Lord, increase our faith;" as much as to say that such forgiveness was impossible without strong faith; to which He answered, "If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this sycamore tree, Be plucked up by the root, and be planted in the sea; and it should obey you." What is impossible in our own strength becomes easy by the power of Christ, and this becomes ours by faith; so that we shall be able in the fullness of its meaning to say, "Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us."
In Voices from Calvary, on "Father, forgive them," Dr. Stanford says, "This forgiveness is not to be on one side only. The way some have treated us has really been very bad; but have they not some ground to say the same thing of us? If we obey this voice, 'forgiving one another even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you,' this forgiveness is going on all round. You forgive me; I forgive you; individuals, individuals; churches, churches; let bygones be bygones. O Lamb of God once slain! steep us in the spirit of Your passion, show us the glory of Your cross, let Your mighty love melt our hardness, quell our pride, and so master us all, that each one may forgive his brother though seventy times seven he has sinned against him. O Lord, our Vine, dwell in us richly, that so we may live with Your life, and love with Your love, more and more, forever and ever."
2. Human forgiveness a condition of Divine—Our forgiveness of each other is linked with forgiveness from God. The parable of the unmerciful servant is recorded immediately after the precept to forgive "until seventy times seven," with the solemn warning—"So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses." "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Does then our mercifulness to man deserve mercy from God? Some have encouraged this notion by a false interpretation of the text, "Charity covers a multitude of sins:" as though a forgiving disposition towards others atones for a man's own sins against God. The meaning is clear from Prov. 10:12—"Hatred stirs up strifes—but love covers all transgression;" and 17:9—"He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separate friends." So "charity suffers long, and is kind," and instead of noticing every offense, "is not easily provoked." How can the pardon fellow-sinners give each other be a title to pardon from the God they have all offended? As well might a company of rebels plead that as they had forgiven each other their petty wrongs in prison, they might all claim exemption from the penalties of high treason! This is a statement not of claim, but of fact—a fact the principle of which is involved in every true asking of pardon from God. There cannot be any genuine prayer for pardon unless we are ourselves cultivating a forgiving spirit; for the following reasons—
1. Pardon is always linked with repentance of sins, and these include an unforgiving spirit—I must "cease to do evil" if I would plead the promise of the scarlet becoming white as snow. The unrighteous man must "forsake his thoughts," if he would hope that God will "abundantly pardon." Therefore he ceases from cherishing an unforgiving spirit, with which the penitence implied in the prayer is incompatible. My faults against God include faults against men. I say to God, "I am very sorry for words, actions, thoughts, injurious to my fellow-men; sorry for a proud, exacting, unforgiving spirit. Forgive me this debt!" How can I be encouraging that for which I am sorry? My asking pardon means that I renounce the sins confessed. If penitent, I have a humbling sense of my debts to God, and must therefore be humble as regards debts to myself. Without saying the words "for we also forgive," the fact is implied in the prayer, "Forgive us."
2. Faith in God's mercy is incompatible with unmercifulness in ourselves—True prayer for pardon implies reliance on God's pardoning mercy. We believe that He has great forgiveness for our great guilt; and to this we appeal. Can we at the same time be cherishing an unforgiving spirit? To say, "Forgive me, although I do not forgive others," is a prayer which cannot reach the throne of grace. "When you stand praying, forgive, if you have ought against any; that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses." The forgiveness is to be exercised then and there; not postponed. It must precede the prayer; it is a condition of the answer. Whatever may be our sense of the justice of our claim and the wrong done us, we cannot as sinners truly ask or reasonably expect remission of our debt against Divine justice, unless cultivating in ourselves a merciful spirit to others.
"Though justice be your plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation—we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer does teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy."
3. Gratitude to God for pardon received or expected prompts forgiveness of others—Is this our daily prayer? Then yesterday we received pardon in reply to yesterday's petition; and today we should gratefully remember the many pardons of the past. The prayer of faith we now present anticipates a renewal of the gift and augments our obligation. Gratefulness urges us to please our Benefactor, and God who forgives us bids us glorify Him by forgiving others. Gratitude produces gladness and inspires beneficence. I am happy in release from debt, and adore God's mercy. Must not this produce mercifulness? My debt to God is infinitely greater than any debt of my fellow-servant to myself. If God loves me in spite of my many sins, may I not see something to love in the fellow-servant who wrongs me?" Believers are not forgiven because they forgive; no, they forgive because they are forgiven; and thus it is, that feeling themselves forgiven by God, they are lovingly constrained to forgive" (J. de Valdez, tr. Betts).
4. The prayer includes those who wrong us—It is not "Forgive me," but "Forgive us." We appear before God in company with those who are our debtors. We pray for our enemies—"O God, forgive us; with me, forgive also this man who has injured my property, reputation, honor; this man who has cheated, maligned and hates me; for in so acting towards me he has sinned against You, and his debt to You exceeds that which he owes to me; our Father, forgive him!" How obvious it is that in truly offering this prayer, "Our Father, forgive us," we have already ourselves forgiven!
5. It is the prayer of a child of God—Those who truly say, "Our Father," love and resemble Him, and are "merciful even as their Father who is in heaven is merciful." "If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar—for he who loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?" God's children do already "love one another," and "are in charity with their neighbors," with all who under the same Fatherhood are brethren. Without a forgiving spirit, we can have no true assurance of belonging to this Brotherhood. Its absence invalidates our repentance and contradicts our prayer. Sin cannot have been forgiven while unrenounced. What is our prevailing spirit towards men? Are we chiefly bent on maintaining "our rights," and compelling others to pay their dues? If so, is it not likely that we may in our hearts ascribe to God the same disposition? "With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again." If in ourselves a spirit of exaction rather than of forgiveness is cherished, is it not reasonable that we should lose confidence in the Divine forbearance? A master harsh in his requirements, a parent severe towards his children, a citizen claiming all his rights regardless of others, a man of business stern in enforcing all his dues, will naturally regard God rather as a stern ruler than a forgiving Father, transferring to Him their own spirit of exaction rather than attributing to Him delight in showing mercy.
"Pay me what you owe; is not that our first natural thought? There is abundance of good-natured charity afloat in the world; but this is the fretwork of the building—the pillars of it, we seem to think, are our rights; rights to position, property, rank, the homage of others, their gratitude. It is the most fantastic of all dreams that a man can cut his being into two portions, call one of them religious and the other mundane, and administer them on directly opposite principles. One or other must come to nothing. If we believe that individual Right is the great principle we are to assert in all common transactions, that principle will be carried to the highest ground, and so far as we acknowledge a Divine Being at all, we shall regard Him as one like ourselves; we shall feel that His main desire is to assert His rights over us. If self-will governs the world, if we confess it to be our lord, it holds us in its iron bonds; we are in prison, the evil spirit is our jailor, and we cannot come out until we have paid the uttermost farthing" (Maurice). On the contrary, may I not hope that God who has helped me to exercise compassion has had compassion on me? If in my heart a pardoning rather than an exacting spirit prevails, is it not likely that my own appeal will find response when I pray, "Father! forgive"?
In this model-prayer our Lord has undoubtedly linked together the duty of forgiveness with the prayer for it. The connection always existed, but it is here so expressed that no one may ask the blessing without being reminded of the duty. Knowing how apt we are to neglect mutual forgiveness, He gave us a prayer so expressed, that in applying for daily pardon we are compelled to profess our readiness to pardon each other. Forgiveness is the law of Redemption, binding God to men, and men to men. "Forbearing one another and forgiving one another; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do you." The obligation is involved in every clause of the prayer. "Our Father;" therefore we are brethren and should forgive each other. "Hallowed be Your Name; "we hallow it by cultivating the compassion it reveals. "Your kingdom come;" it is based on reconciliation, and comes in proportion as men live together in forbearing love. "Your will be done;" this is His will, that we forgive those who are indebted to us. "Give us bread;" should we not forgive those who with ourselves are dependent on the same fatherly care? "Forgive us;" should not we forgive who require so much forgiveness?
This petition passes a solemn condemnation on those who refuse to forgive. It almost amounts to asking God not to forgive them! Chrysostom says, "God appoints you yourself the master of the verdict. The judgment you pass upon yourself He will pass upon you." And Luther says, "This prayer will, in the sight of God, be a sin; for when you say, 'I will not forgive,' and stand before God with your precious prayer, and mumble with your mouth, Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, what is that but saying, O God, I am a debtor to You, and there is one who is the same to myself. Now, I will not forgive him, and so do not forgive me. I will not obey Your command, although You have told me to forgive; I will rather renounce You and Your heaven, and all, and go to the devil forevermore."
Let us then cultivate this grace of mercy. One means of conquering an unforgiving spirit is ceasing to look back on the injuries which provoked it. Memory is good, but sometimes forgetfulness is better. Let us treasure the records of kindnesses to stimulate gratitude, but erase those of injuries lest they continue to rouse ill-will. When Antony showed the dagger-rents in Caesar's robe, the people were roused to fury as if they beheld the murder in the very act. So imagination may brood over wrongs until they become a constant presence, rousing ever fresh indignation. Let us rather supplant such pictures by their opposites. Let us think of any good qualities in our enemies, any wrongs done by ourselves. Let us not only extinguish the spark, but bury the powder. Let us bear in mind our great debt to God and His great remission-that these injuries from men were permitted by God, and that in submission to Him we should cease to be angry with them—and also that we possess in Himself infinitely more than will compensate for any injury from man. If every wrong which pains us becomes an occasion of renewed communion with God, we should feel that with such a refuge we ought not to be vexed with the storm which drives us into it; that with such an exhaustless treasury to supply the loss, we ought not to be reluctant to forgive the thief; and that God's love and Christ's example should have more effect in producing gentleness than any injuries from man in stirring up wrath.
Forgiveness produces in us real happiness, while an unforgiving spirit is ever a source of disquiet. We attain a higher dignity when we remit than when we resent. "Greater is he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. It is the glory of a man to pass by a transgression." Does our foe raise clouds of anxiety, a tempest of passion? A forgiving spirit says to the troubled waters, "Peace, be still." Does he rob us of wealth or reputation? To forgive him more than restores it; our treasury becomes richer by this seeming loss. Like those who fire in retreat, we conquer when we seem to yield. Our escutcheon is the brighter by the dishonor flung at it. "When I am weak, then am I strong." Anger may cast our foe prostrate, but forgiveness may raise him as a friend. Wrath can do no more than slay him, but love transforms and makes him an ally. I may conquer him by force, but to forgive is to conquer my own spirit by love, and so makes me "more than a conqueror." "To render evil for good is devil-like; to render evil for evil is beast-like; to render good for good is man-like; to render good for evil is Godlike."
"The quality of mercy is not strained;
It drops as the gentle dew from heaven
Upon the place beneath—it is twice blessed,
It blesses him that gives and him that takes."
Our Father, forgive us. We all have sinned against both You and one another. By Your grace we have been enabled to forgive others. This is no proof of merit in us, but the result of mercy in You. Grant us more grace to forgive the small debts due to us from our brother, and grant us day by day forgiveness of the great debts due from us to You.