There is a sense in which we owe everything to God. We owe him our existence. Our very lives are on loan from him, for he is the one who made us and sustains us. We are indebted to God for our gifts and talents, for our daily bread, and for every other good thing. Since we are God's creatures, we also owe him our perfect obedience.
The trouble with us, however, is that we do not glorify God and will not obey him. Therefore, we owe God a great debt because of our sin. We are guilty both for what we have done and for what we have left undone, for sins of commission as well as omission. Our debt includes secret sins as well as public ones, deliberate sins as well as sins committed in ignorance. We have not kept what Jesus called the two greatest commandments: love for God and love for our neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39). We have not loved God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Nor have we loved our neighbors as ourselves, if we have loved them at all.
The two greatest commandments, in turn, can be divided into the Ten Commandments- four for the love of God and six for the love of neighbor. These we have broken as well. We have put other deities in God's place. We have cursed our Creator and the world he has made. We have been angry with people, even hated them. We have indulged in various kinds of sexual sin. We have taken things that did not belong to us, and we have stretched the truth. In short, we have sinned in every way, shape, and form, and every single sin adds to the sum total of our indebtedness.
When all our sins are added together, they place us in God's eternal debt. For we are obligated to keep God's law, and whenever we break that law, we become liable to its penalty - the wrath and curse of God. When we pray the way Jesus taught us to pray, therefore, we come as guilty sinners. We accept our legal status as God's debtors. We agree that we deserve to receive his just punishment for our sins.
More Than We Can Pay
After figuring out exactly how enormous the debt is, the next thing is to set up a plan to begin paying it off. It is imperative to start making payments as soon as possible.
However, when we start trying to figure out how to pay God what we owe for our sins, we quickly realize how much trouble we are really in. Obviously, we cannot pay off our debt by ourselves. How could we ever make up for all the sins we have committed? Yet this is precisely the error most religions make, including every false version of Christianity. They all operate on the basis of something human beings can do to make things right with God.
The truth is, however, that forgiveness is not something we can work for; it is only something we can ask for. Even if we worked for all eternity, laboring in the very pit of hell, we could never work off the debt we owe to God. What could we ever pay to God? No one else can pay for us either, because everyone else has his own debts to worry about. The whole world is full of God's debtors. Asking someone else to settle our account with God would be like asking for a handout from a man heading for bankruptcy court!
This is our financial condition, spiritually speaking: we owe God far more than we or anyone else could ever pay. So where can we turn for help? Often when people get into real financial difficulty, they ask their parents for help. The Lord's Prayer works the same way. From beginning to end, the whole prayer is addressed to our Father in heaven. When we ask for our debts to be forgiven, therefore, we are asking our Father to forgive them.
Jesus once told a story about a young man who fell into debt. He was sick of home, tired of living under the authority of his father, and he decided to ask for his share of the inheritance before the old man died. Then he took the money and ran away from home. When he got to a far country, he squandered his wealth on wild living. Soon the young man's entire inheritance was spent, and he fell into bankruptcy.
In desperation the prodigal went out and did what his father probably had always wanted him to do: He started looking for a job. He was able to find a temporary position working on a hog farm. It was a miserable business, but he had no choice. Then one day, as he was slopping the pigs, his thoughts suddenly turned to his father's house. Jesus told the story like this: "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called you son; make me like one of your hired men'" (Luke 15:17-19).
So the young man set off for home, hoping his dad would give him a job in the family business. There was only one flaw in his thinking: He underestimated his father's capacity for forgiveness. He was still thinking like a debtor, expecting to have to work off his debts. Then to the son's amazement, "While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to this son, threw his arms around him and kissed him" (Luke 15:20b).
Then the son make his little speech: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:21). But there was no talk then of becoming a hired hand. It was all robes and sandals, golden rings and fatted calves. There was no need for the son to slave away in his father's fields; he had been welcomed into the embrace of his father's forgiveness. For this is what forgiveness means: "To let go without a sense of guilt, obligation, or punishment." [Spiros Zodhiates, The Lord's Prayer, rev. ed. (Chattanooga, Tenn.: AMG, 1991), 229.]
This is precisely what we ask God to do in the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer. We ask our Father to forgive our debts. We declare our moral bankruptcy, freely admitting that we owe God more than everything we have. Then we do the only thing we can do, which is ask him to forgive us outright. Because he is our loving Father, God does what we ask. When we go to him, weighed down with the debt of all our guilt and sin, he does not sit down with us to work out a payment plan. Instead, he offers forgiveness full and free.
Nailed to the Cross
When God remits our debts, he is well within his legal rights. The Scripture says that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins" (1 John 1:9, emphasis mine). The reason God can justly forgive is because his children's debts have already been paid.
This is why Jesus Christ came into the world. God the Father grants us forgiveness through God the Son. He forgave our debt by personally nailing it to the cross: "He took it away, nailing it to the cross" (Col. 2:14). What makes this such a vivid image is that it corresponds to the way debts were sometimes cancelled in the ancient world. When a debtor finally paid off all his debts, his creditor would strike a nail through the certificate of debt. In the same way, when Christ died on the cross, God was driving a nail right through the infinite debt of our sin. Now there are no longer any outstanding charges against us.
Horatio Spafford had this image from Colossians in mind when he wrote the triumphant third verse of the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul":
My sin- O the bliss of this glorious thought! -
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
The debts we ask God to forgive when we pray the way Jesus taught us to pray are the very debts that were crucified with Christ at Calvary. When Christ died on the cross, all our debts were cancelled. The Greek word for "cancel" (exaleipho), which Paul used in Colossians 2, means "to blot out" or "to wipe away." It means that the mountain of debt we once owed to God because of our sin has been completely removed.
Renewing Our Repentance
This leaves us with an important practical question: Why do we still need to ask for God's forgiveness? If all our debts have been paid, why do we still need to be pardoned?
The Lord's Prayer makes asking forgiveness part of our daily prayers. The fifth petition is joined to the fourth petition by the conjunction "and": "Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts" (Matt. 6:11-12). We need God to "forgive us" as well as to "give us" every day. We are asking him for daily pardon as well as daily provision. But how can this be? God has already forgiven all our sins once and for all through the death of Jesus Christ. Why then do we need to keep on asking for his forgiveness?
The answer, of course, is that we are not perfect and never will be on earth. We keep on sinning. We break God's commandments every day in thought, word, and deed. And although all our sins have been forgiven - past, present, and future - sin still has a way of disturbing our fellowship with God. It interferes with our intimacy with him, estranging us from his holiness. When we sin, therefore, our personal relationship with God needs to be restored. The Puritans called this "renewing our repentance." It means asking God to take the forgiveness he has already granted through Christ's death on the cross and to apply it freshly and directly to our sins.
To understand why we will need to ask for God's forgiveness in this way, it helps to remember that when we confess our sins, we are speaking to our Father. Once we are in Christ, our status as his children is never in jeopardy. But just because he is our Father, we need and want to ask for his forgiveness whenever we sin.
Once, when my son was a small boy, I tried to explain to him why we need the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer. I said, "If you did something really, really naughty, would I ever throw you out of the house?" The idea sounded so preposterous to my son that he laughed. He knew that his place in his father's heart was absolutely secure. Then I said, "But you would still need to ask for my forgiveness, wouldn't you?" He admitted that he would, because he had learned to prize his fellowship with his father. Jesus prizes our fellowship with his Father all the more. Although we are guilty sinners, he wants us to have the same kind of intimacy with the Father that he has. Thus he taught us to pray in these words: "Our Father in heaven... forgive us our debts."