For an Informed Love of God
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Do we ask God to Forgive our Sins or our Trespasses? (Matt 6:12)?
Have you ever been in a new church and were asked to say the Lord’s Prayer out loud? What almost always happens? You say, “Give us this day our daily bread ...” and then you pause. Does this church say “debts” or “trespasses”? What is the difference, and why?
The Greek is, “forgive us our ὀφειλήματα, as we also forgive those who ὀφειλέταις against us..” The basic meaning of ὀφείλημα is “to have an obligation.” It can be used in a financial sense (Rom 4:4) or in a moral sense (our passage and its parallel, Luke 11:4).
Translating ὀφείλημα as “sins” pictures our sins as putting us in obligation to God, as something that needs to be forgiven. Using “trespasses” may be more understandable (but who uses the word “trespasses” any more?) but it loses the sense of indebtedness. Stylistically, it also forces us to be expansive in the second half of the verse — “those who have trespassed against” — which is poorer English style.
Most English translations go with “debts” since it is closer in meaning of the actual Greek word. The parallel passage in Luke 11:4 uses both “sins” and “debts.” “Forgive us our sins (ἁμαρτίας), for we also forgive everyone who is indebted (ὀφείλοντι) to us.” The combination of “sin” and “debt” is also behind the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:23–35) in which Jesus concludes, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Because God is a holy God, our violations of his character not only break his laws but create an indebtedness to him. This debt is paid for on the cross, and yet requires our continual confession to maintain a healthy relationship with him (Matt. 6:14–15).
The relationship between forgiveness and confession is helpful to understand. Forgiveness is what I do for myself; I am required to turn sins against me over to God and allow him to execute his perfect vengeance in his way and in his time. This is what frees me. But when I have sinned against someone, because such an act in-debts me to God, I am required to confess my sin first to God (Ps 51:4) and then to the person I have offended (Matt 5:24). The degree to which I am freed from the consequence of my sin is the same degree to which I confess. He who confesses little is freed little.
The model of forgiveness is Psalm 51. For more information, check out my talk on the passage on BiblicalTraining.org.
Speaking of sin, I am currently in Albania speaking to the staff of CRU (Campus Crusade for Christ) on discipleship and the Pastorals. Albania is a very poor country decimated by communism, and many of the CRU staff live on $400/month, not enough money to even buy books so they can learn the Bible and theology much less ever go to seminary. Given that the average US church spends 93% of its income on itself, I wonder what our corporate debt to God must be, much less our debt to our brothers and sisters here who gladly give themselves to a life of impoverished service? While I don’t personally enjoy travel, it is a reminder of how much of the world does live and my role in helping and encouraging them.