A Debtor to Mercy Alone
by Derek Thomas
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer asks for pardon. It is fully appropriate given that we continue to be sinners, despite our justification. As Martin Luther said, we are at the same time saints and sinners. And, as Dutch theologian Herman Witsius noted:
We are chargeable with debts,—debts of every description,—Original, imputed, inherent;—actual,—debts of omission and commission, of ignorance, infirmity and deliberate wickedness, without limit and … number.
Some of us are more familiar with the wording, “forgive us our trespasses” rather than “forgive us our debts.” But, as a friend of mine once said, living as most of us do in a capitalist society, it is far more appropriate to say “debts.” Furthermore, “debts” is a more accurate translation of the Greek word in Matthew 6:12.
Owing more than we have resources to pay is familiar to many. And what counsel does one give debtors? Answer: find out exactly how much the debt is. No proposed solution to financial difficulty is sound unless it addresses the actual problem. And what is the extent of our debt to God? More than we can ever imagine. Two hymns express this thought concretely. The first is by Augustus Toplady:
A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing.
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.
The second is by Thomas Kelly:
Praise the Savior, ye who know Him!
Who can tell how much we owe him?
Gladly let us render to him
All we are and have.
But there’s a sting in the tail: “as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiveness is related to our willingness to forgive. C.H. Spurgeon, in a sermon on Ephesians 4:32, wrote, “Unless you have forgiven others you read your own death-warrant when you repeat the Lord’s prayer.” These are terrifying words—but they are true.
The question, then, that we must ask ourselves is this: Are we holding on to something—some issue in the past that continues to eat us up from the inside? If so, we must resolve immediately to have a forgiving spirit. Nothing must come between us and our Savior’s love. “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13). This is not negotiable; it is a requirement motivated by the gospel. We must imitate the forgiveness we have known by forgiving others. Those unwilling to forgive have lost sight of how much God has forgiven them.