Forgive us Our Debts and Trespasses

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-ed85-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rIn our last post, we considered the variety found in praying the petition for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer.  Forgive us our…sins? debts? trespasses? Each of these forms of the petition has something to be said for them.  But, let’s drill down a little bit into the two metaphors Jesus uses for sin: “debts” in Matthew 6:12 and “trespasses” in Matthew 6:14.

A metaphor is non-literal language.  It is a way of saying what something (in this case “sin”) is like.  Though non-literal, it is still unfolding truth.  The image isn’t literal, but the truth is.  Sin is like a debt; sin is like a trespass.  Jesus uses both metaphors.  And both are important, because each highlights a different aspect of sin.  Each reveals something about what sin is like.

Sin is like a trespass.  We violate God’s Law.  We transgress God’s express commandments.  God says, “Thou shalt not murder.” But, we’re all murderers.  We murder our fellow man in our unrighteous anger (Matt 5:21-22).  We lie, cheat, deceive.  God’s law lays down boundaries, borders, and we are told, “Do not cross that line!”  But we do cross that line.  We’re trespassers.

Sin as trespass is a vivid picture of sins of commission – doing those things which we ought not to do.  We are responsible to respect, obey, and submit to the authority of God.  But we are rebels at heart.

Sin is like a debt.  We owe God.  He made us to know, love, and serve him, with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.  We are obligated to do so (we also find our greatest joy in doing so – this is for our good).  But we don’t fulfill that requirement.  We have run up an enormous debit in the divine ledger, and we have no means of providing any credit therein, apart from his gracious provision for us.

Sin as debt is a wonderful way of portraying sins of omission – those things which we ought to do, but fail in.  We should be kind, generous, loving, forgiving – but we fail to do so.  Sin isn’t just doing bad stuff; it is failing to do all the good stuff we were made to do.  And we are all debtors of a sum that we could never hope to repay.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism captures both dimensions of sin succinctly in Question 14:

What is sin? A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

Sin is any “want of conformity unto the law of God” – that is to say, it is any way we that are debtors to God, any way in which we are guilty of a sin of omission, failing to do that which we are supposed to do.

Sin is any “transgression of the law of God” – that is to say, it is any way that we are trespassers against God, any way in which we are guilty of a sin of commission, doing that which are not supposed to do.

Another way of saying all of this is to say that God requires of us both our active righteousness and our passive righteousness.  Active righteousness would mean doing all that we’re supposed to do, with no omissions, no debts to God.  Passive righteousness would mean not doing any of that which we are not supposed to do, no commissions of sin, no trespasses against God.

We fail on both counts!  We are doubly sinners.  The good news:

2 Corinthians 5:21  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

We have no active righteousness, but Christ does. We have no passive righteousness, but Christ does.

Hebrews 4:15   15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are– yet was without sin.

He fulfills all righteousness on our behalf – his righteousness is credited to our bankrupt account.  The penalty for our trespasses is paid at the cross.  Forgive us, Lord!