How and Why We Pray For Forgiveness
By Drs. John M. Frame and Steven L. Childers
When we keep asking God to forgive our sins, we’re not phasing in and out of God’s love and forgiveness in between our times of repentance and faith. Instead, the Bible teaches God continues cleansing believers from all our sins by the blood of Jesus as we continue confessing our sins. God does not keep cleansing us (forgiving us) from our sin because we keep confessing our sin. All believers will inevitably die with some measure of unconfessed sin.
So why should believers who are justified continue to confess their sins?
In Theology of Hope Course Lesson 5, you’ll learn how and why Jesus teaches his followers to pray for forgiveness.
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Read Chapter 5 of the Theology of Hope: A Biblical Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer below.
Learning Tip: Don’t miss reading the “going deeper” footnotes!
Chapter 5: How and Why We Pray For Forgiveness
A Biblical Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer
Drs. John M. Frame and Steven L. Childers
We must have God’s forgiveness to experience the fullness of his unfolding purposes for our lives. So after Jesus teaches us to pray for our necessary physical provisions, he instructs us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
The Greek word translated forgive (ἀφίημι) conveys the ideas of letting something go, giving something up, or releasing something. The word translated debt (ὀφείλημα) refers to something that someone owes, that which is justly or legally required.
Therefore, to forgive a debt means to release it by considering it no longer owed or required. In the rabbinic teachings of the first century and the parables of Jesus, a person’s failure to obey God is like a debt someone owes to a king, landowner, or someone else.
Jesus uses monetary debt as a metaphor of the debt we owe to God because of our failure to obey his will. God’s will is for us to honor him by loving him and doing what he commands. When we disobey God’s will by doing something he commands us not to do (sin of commission) or by not doing what he commands us to do (sin of omission), we are failing to fulfill our obligations to God and accumulating a great debt to him.
Jesus uses other words and metaphors to help us understand the nature of sin. But the specific metaphor that Jesus gives us in this second horizontal petition is that of unpaid debts (ὀφείλημα) we owe to God because of our many failures to obey his will.
Since God’s moral law, revealed especially in the Ten Commandments, requires our perfect obedience, Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Jesus teaches we owe God a perfect love for him and others.
But since we cannot and have not loved God and others perfectly, the Scriptures teach we owe God an enormous debt that we cannot pay. As a result, we’re all guilty before God and under his just condemnation.
God’s Forgiveness of Our Debts
The great dilemma presented to us in Scripture is how a perfectly holy and just God can forgive our sins without being unjust. God’s holy justice requires him to be strongly and personally active in opposition to all evil. God promises to punish sin. “I will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exod. 34:7).
The Bible teaches that there are certain things God cannot do. For example, God cannot lie, God cannot change his mind, and God cannot break a promise. And because of God’s perfect holiness, he cannot overlook evil and sin. He must punish it, or he would be unjust.
God could create the world out of nothing, by the power of his word, but God cannot forgive us by overlooking our sin and just “deciding to forgive us” like a political leader can decide to grant amnesty and pardon a criminal. This is because God’s righteous nature demands that sin be punished with the full outpouring of his wrath. God’s mercy is infinite, but so is his justice, so it’s with deep sorrow that he must punish sin. (1 Pet. 1:16, Mt. 5:21–28, James 2:10)
The Scriptures teach that God graciously provides for us in Jesus Christ what he justly demands of us in his law. Through Jesus’ sinless life and sacrificial death on the cross in our place, he perfectly obeyed all of God’s laws for us so that he could fully satisfy all of God’s just demands of us. Justification is God’s astonishing declaration that all who are in Christ by faith are considered by him to be perfectly righteous (just) based on Jesus’ blood and righteousness. (Rom. 3:21-25, Gal. 2:16)
When we believe in Christ, a great exchange takes place in the heavenly court. “For our sake he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) God treated Jesus like a sinner so he could treat us like Jesus. God satisfied his own just demands by substituting his own Son on the cross for us. John Stott writes,
“The biblical meaning of the cross must always have at its center this principle of divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution. The biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us.” [Italics mine]
Therefore, forgiving the sins of all who have faith in Jesus is now a perfectly just thing for God to do because he fully satisfied all the demands of his holy justice through the sinless life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ in our place.
Our Prayer for God’s Forgiveness of Our Debts
God does not forgive our sins merely because we ask him for forgiveness by praying, “Forgive us our debts.” Instead, the Bible teaches that the forgiveness of sins comes only through repentance and faith in Christ. The prayer through which we ask our Father in heaven to “forgive us our debts” is an expression of our repentance and faith in Christ.
The Bible also uses words like “confess” to describe aspects of repentance and faith–such as when the Apostle John writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9). When we ask our heavenly Father to “forgive us our debts” we are repenting, believing, and confessing our sins.
If our heavenly Father completely forgives our sins when we repent and believe in Jesus Christ, why does Jesus teach us to keep asking our Father to forgive us our sins?
The Bible teaches that our justification is a one-time event that occurs when we first repent and believe, and it lasts forever. We will never be more justified, even when we’re in heaven, than we are now. So when we keep asking God to forgive our sins, we’re not phasing in and out of God’s love and forgiveness in between our times of repentance and faith.
The Apostle John teaches that all justified believers continue to sin. He writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But he also teaches that God continues cleansing believers from all their sins by the blood of Jesus as they continue confessing their sins.
“If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:7, 9)
God does not keep cleansing us (forgiving us) from our sin because we keep confessing our sin. All believers will inevitably die with some measure of unconfessed sin. Our ongoing confession, repentance, and faith are not “good works” we keep offering to God so that he will keep forgiving us.
So why should believers who are justified continue to confess their sins?
Although our sins do not result in the loss of our heavenly Father’s love and forgiveness, the Scriptures teach that our sins displease and grieve God and quench the transforming work of God’s Spirit in our lives, shaping us into the image of Jesus. But through our confession of sin, God promises to pour out his mercy and grace to restore our broken fellowship with him and help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4:14,16)
Paul tells us that King David was forgiven and considered by God to be his righteous (justified) son. (Rom. 4:6-8) But David’s sin corrupted his soul, broke his transforming fellowship with God, and robbed him of the joy of his salvation. Through David’s confession of sin, his relationship with God was restored. God graciously recorded his confession for us.
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” (Ps. 51:7-12)
When the Apostle John tells us that God promises to “forgive us our sins” when we confess them, he is not using the word forgive in a legal sense. It’s more like the forgiveness of a father for his dearly loved child when his child has done something wrong.
To help strengthen our experience of God’s love and forgiveness when we sin, John reminds us of the ongoing, intercessory work of Jesus for us as our Advocate. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
Jesus’ death and resurrection was not the end of his saving work for us. He ascended back to the right hand of God the Father to be our living, exalted High Priest who is always interceding for us before the Father’s throne of grace. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).
This doesn’t mean Jesus is trying to convince our heavenly Father to be merciful and not punish us for our sins, like a lawyer trying to convince a judge of the innocence of a client. It’s not as if Jesus is for us but our Father is against us.
Instead, as strange as it may sound, Jesus’ “case” on our behalf is an argument for us to receive God’s justice. When we ask our Father to forgive our sins, God would be unjust to deny our request because he already condemned Jesus for our sin and promised to accept us as perfectly righteous (justified) in his sight based on Jesus’ perfect righteousness.
When we pray and ask our Father to forgive us, we’re not alone. Instead, we’re joining our prayers with the prayers of Jesus as our High Priest before God’s throne to receive God’s mercy and find grace to help us.
“Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:14,16).
Paul writes, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6). We receive Christ through repentance and faith in him, and we continue walking in Christ the same way–through our ongoing repentance and faith in him as we continue asking our heavenly Father to forgive us our debts.
When we ask our heavenly Father to “forgive us our debts,” Jesus instructs us to include in our prayer the statement “as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12) In Luke’s record he writes, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).
Jesus clearly teaches that it is necessary for us to forgive others to receive the forgiveness of our heavenly Father. Immediately after his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).
But our forgiveness of others is not the cause of our forgiveness; it’s the evidence that we are forgiven. Similarly, we’re not justified by our good works. We’re justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is revealed in our good works. Also, we’re not forgiven by confessing our sins. We’re forgiven by Christ alone. However, those who are forgiven reveal it in their confession of sin.
Likewise, God does not forgive us because we forgive others. God forgives us because Jesus died for us. But we reveal our forgiveness by forgiving others. Therefore, we should not ask God to forgive us unless we’re willing to forgive those who sin against us.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. It doesn’t rationalize or minimize injustice and sin. It means that we imitate Christ by taking on ourselves the painful debt of the person who sinned against us by completely releasing them from the just penalty they deserve for their sin against us. When we forgive those who sin against us, we follow Jesus who paid our debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.
Augustine called this the terrible petition in the Lord’s Prayer. But it’s also a liberating one that includes not only our liberation from sin by being forgiven, but also our liberation from our bondage and bitterness toward those who sin against us.
“Forgive our sins as we forgive,”
—you taught us, Lord, to pray;
but you alone can grant us grace
to live the words we say.
How can your pardon reach and bless
the unforgiving heart
that broods on wrongs, and will not let
old bitterness depart?
In blazing light your Cross reveals
the truth we dimly knew,
how small the debts men owe to us,
how great our debt to you.
Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls,
and bid resentment cease;
then, reconciled to God and man,
our lives will spread your peace.
 Jesus taught a parable about a servant who could not repay a large debt he owed a king, so he pled for mercy and the king forgave his debt. But later the ungrateful servant did not forgive a much smaller debt to someone who owed him. (Matt.18:21-35) Jesus also taught about a lender who forgave two debtors, one with a large debt and the other with a small one. The debtor with the large debt loved the lender more than the one with the smaller one. (Luke 7:36-50)
 The Westminster Catechisms define sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God” (Larger Catechism Q . 24). But the Scriptures present sin as more than violating a known law of God. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer declares, “Sin is that which we have done, or left undone, known and unknown, and includes any intimation or embodiment of not loving God with our whole heart or not loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
 Immediately after giving us the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, he uses another Greek word for sin translated “trespasses” (παραπτώματα) that conveys the picture of someone crossing over a forbidden line or border. (Matt. 6:14-15) In Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus uses a Greek word translated “sins” (ἁμαρτίας) that portrays someone missing a target or mark. (Luke 11:4) And later in the Sermon on the Mount, he uses a Greek word for sin translated “lawlessness” (ἀνομία) describing someone failing to observe a law. (Matt. 7:23)
 “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it” (Num 23:19). “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18a).
 Leon Morris writes, “Unpalatable though it may be, our sins, my sins, are the object of God’s wrath. We must realize that every sin is displeasing to God and that unless something is done about the evil we have committed we face ultimately nothing less than the divine anger. Leon Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p. 175
 This presents us with one of the most profound mysteries and questions in the universe. Now that sin has entered the world, how can God be both fully just and fully merciful? Horatious Bonar writes, “God is a Father; but He is no less a Judge. Shall the Judge give way to the Father, or the Father give way to the Judge? God loves the sinner; but He hates the sin. Shall He sink His love to the sinner in His hatred of the sin, or His hatred of the sin in His love to the sinner?…Which is the more unchangeable and irreversible, the vow of pity or the oath of justice?…Law and love must be reconciled…the one cannot give way to the other. Both must stand, else the pillars of the universe will be shaken.” Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness. pp. 3,4
 Justification is God’s astonishing declaration that all who are in Christ are righteous, based on two things: 1) the forgiveness of sin by Jesus’ blood and 2) the imputation of Jesus righteousness. For Jesus to accomplish our salvation, he had to meet the two-fold demand of God’s law by: 1) perfectly obeying the law’s demands of righteousness, so that he could then 2) perfectly pay the just penalty for our sin by coming under the full curse and condemnation of the law we deserve. The Bible teaches that all human beings are born “in Adam” and under God’s just curse of condemnation. Jesus came to regain for us what we lost “in Adam” by becoming the “last Adam” for us, perfectly obeying God in the face of all the temptations that caused the first Adam to fail. Because of the “last Adam’s” perfect righteousness for us, he alone could make the perfect sacrifice of his shed blood for us.
 John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 158-159.
 Paul teaches that the purpose of Jesus’ death was not only to redeem us by his blood (propitiation) to forgive our sins, but also to demonstrate God’s justice by requiring nothing less than Jesus’ blood to satisfy it. This was “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26) Although God is always just, he didn’t always look just during the Old Testament eras because he allowed people not to receive the penalty they deserved from him for their many sins. Paul tells us that this is not a demonstration of God’s injustice, but a demonstration of God’s forbearance because in God’s “divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Rom. 3:25).
 The resurrected Jesus told the Apostles that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). We see Peter’s obedience to this command in his preaching. “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
 Repentance and faith are presented in Scripture as two sides of the same coin. Through repentance we turn away from our sin, and through faith we turn to Christ as our Savior. When the Bible only mentions repentance, faith is assumed–such as when Paul proclaims, “Now he [God] commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30) And when the Bible only mentions faith, repentance is assumed–such as when Paul proclaims, “Believe [have faith] in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)
 Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
 Paul teaches that since we are “in Christ,” God’s love for us cannot be broken, because it’s the same unbreakable love that the Father has for his only Son. (Rom. 8:31-39)
 Some Christians are troubled when they think about failing to confess all their sins, especially before their death. Certainly we should confess all our known sins. But it’s not possible to know the depth of sin in our hearts. Jesus teaches, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). The Apostle John teaches that God does more than forgive the sins we know and confess. God is also faithful and just “to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
 Instead, we keep confessing our sin because God promises to keep cleansing us from our sin through the blood of Jesus Christ. We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is not alone–it always shows itself in our ongoing confession, repentance, and faith. Our justification does not depend on our confession of sin but those who are justified confess their sins.
 “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Eph. 4:30) “Do not quench the Spirit.” (1 Thess. 5:19) “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Heb. 13:16) “And without faith it is impossible to please him.” (Heb. 11:6) And because we are his children, God promises to use all our sinful failures and trials not for our punishment but for our good, to help us grow and mature to be like his Son (Heb 12:10).
 David’s prayer, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). reflects the enormous depth of his anxiety and despair over his horrendous sins of adultery and murder. (2 Sam 12) David was fearful that God would condemn him and remove the grace of his Holy Spirit from him. He knows that if God judged him rightly for his sins, his deserved end can only be destruction under the just outpouring of God’s wrath. So David begs the Lord for two things: 1) to forgive his sins (Ps. 51:1-6) and 2) to restore his corrupt soul (Ps. 51:7-12). There is significant discontinuity between how God forgave Old Testament believers and indwelled them by his Holy Spirit, and how God does this with believers in Christ. But the Scriptures teach that there is a also significant continuity found in God’s unfolding Covenant of Grace revealed in both Old and New Covenants. The Bible reveals a consistency throughout, regarding how our unchanging God forgives and transforms his people in all ages. Therefore, it is reasonable to affirm that David’s experience and prayer does not teach us that God will condemn and remove his Holy Spirit from his people because of their sins. David’s prayer should be seen as a genuine expression of his realization that God does not owe him forgiveness and restoration. David knew that God would be perfectly just to condemn him for his sin and take his Holy Spirit from him. So David pleaded with God not to give him what he deserved, but to show him grace. God did that for David and he promises to do that for all his people through Christ by grace. From first to last, the Christian life is a matter of grace. God’s grace initiates our salvation, sustains our salvation, and will complete our salvation.
 Paul writes, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34-35).
 God has made a covenant promise to always forgive us and cleanse us through Jesus’ blood. So when we confess our sins, God demonstrates not only his mercy but also his faithfulness and justice. God would not be just if he punished a believer in Christ. That would be like double jeopardy in a court of law. God cannot punish those who are in Christ because he already punished Jesus for their sins. As a believer, there is nothing you can do to cause God to love you any more, and there’s nothing you can do to cause God to love you any less. The love he has for you is the same love he has for his one and only Son. You can please him by your faithfulness, and you can displease him by your sin. But he will never, and can never, reject you or disown you as his own. This is amazing grace.
 Our experience of God’s love and the forgiveness of our sins through faith in Christ has a past, present, and future tense: 1) We have been forgiven through Jesus’ blood and righteousness when we first believed. This is our justification–a onetime event in the past–through which we have been saved from sin’s penalty. 2) We are being forgiven through Jesus’ blood and righteousness as we continue believing. This is our sanctification–an ongoing experience in the present–through which we are being saved from sin’s power. 3) We will be forgiven through Jesus’ blood and righteousness at the judgment day and forever in the new earth. This is our glorification in the future–through which we will be saved from sin’s presence.
 Here’s a helpful example of a prayer of confession. “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.” Anglican Book of Common Prayer
 In Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, a man could not repay an enormous debt he owed a king, so he pled for mercy and the king graciously forgave him all his debt. But later the man did not forgive a much smaller debt to someone who owed him. This enraged his master, who summoned the servant and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. (Matt. 18:32-35) James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13).
 J. I. Packer writes, Those who live by God’s forgiveness must imitate it; one whose only hope is that God will not hold his faults against him forfeits his right to hold others’ faults against them. Do as you would be done by is the rule here, and the unforgiving Christian brands himself a hypocrite. Packer, J. I.. Growing in Christ, p. 193, Crossway. Leon Morris writes, “We have no right to seek forgiveness for our own sins if we are withholding forgiveness from others.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 147.
 Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, used to pray the Lord’s prayer with his family everyday. One day, in the middle of this prayer, he got up from his knees and left the room. His wife ran after him thinking that he was ill. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Are you ill?” “No,” he answered, “but I am not fit to pray the Lord’s Prayer today.”
 Ibid. 194
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