Needy People Need Continual Forgiveness
The early church Didache says, "You shall not approach prayer with an evil conscience" (4:14). Our Large Catechism says the 5th Petition is for a "joyful and undespairing conscience" (III, 92). Before Luther no exegete had "so penetratingly pointed to God's continual forgiveness" in this petition (Peters, Lord's Prayer, 161). Yes, needy people need continual forgiveness.
Why? Because, if God mercifully grants us the knowledge, we know our trespasses and debts are unbearable. Just as God can forgive sin and guilt quietly without our feeling or perceiving it, so He may retain our sin and guilt without our noticing it (Ibid., 162). That means a person could get all the way till the Last Day or his last day and not realize that his sins have separated him from his God (Is. 59:2) until he hears those dreaded words, "Depart from me you worker of iniquity." Narratives on the [Small] Catechism says If we were as "displeased with ourselves in life as we are in death, we would then pray this petition more heartily" (96).
May you know now, today that you're that needy of a person. That you have in the traditional rendering of this Petition trespassed. You've crossed a line. You've been someplace you never should have been. You been on property not belonging to you. The Commandments all draw lines. The 5th around your neighbor's life and well-being; the 6th around your neighbor's sexuality and spouse; the 7th around his property; the 8th around his name. But mainly the line you've crossed is God's. Although David violated Bathsheba and murdered her husband, he prays in Psalm 51, "Against Thee only have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight." Even if no one else has seen you cross a line, even if you've jumped back before anyone could. God saw.
In Luke Jesus teaches us that we have sins that need forgiving. In Matthew He teaches us it's debts. So, some say, "Forgive us our debts." This is helpful. Translate that feeling of being indebted monetarily. How that debt hung over you; how you lost sleep; maybe couldn't eat; or knew you couldn't pay it back. Well your debt of sinfulness just for today; just for this evening; just since you got here is beyond your ability to pay. Be sorry all you want; beat yourself up for your staggering amount of indebtedness, but realize that you're being sorry no more can pay off a spiritual debt than it can a material one.
Jesus teaches us to pray daily "forgive us our sins" to break our pride and keep us humble (LC, III, 90). And it's important that we do this not only daily in a private setting but publicly. We say this in our Confessions: Because "all of us are guilty of sinning against one another; therefore, we may and should publicly confess this before everyone without shrinking in one another's presence" (LC, V, 10 Reader's Edition, 1st).
But the chief reason we pray this petition is certainly not to wallow in our trespasses or debts but to receive the continual forgiveness us needy people need, and thanks be to God this is what He bought and paid for in Christ. Aren't you touchy about getting what you paid for? Haven't you gotten bent out of shape when McDonald's shorted you just an order of fries? How much more must God want you to walk out of here with all the forgiveness His Son paid for?
What we see playing out in our Passion Reading is the Son of God putting up His innocent life as payment. Even when they try to trump up charges they can't convict Him of guilt. The only reason they convict Him to death is because He is the Christ the Son of the Blessed One. He is convicted because He confesses to being who He really is: God in our flesh and blood. And what follows next is what pays for our sins. "By His wounds we are healed," says Isaiah. The spit that runs down His holy face wins the waters of Baptism to run down ours. The fists of fury that strike His face pay for the Absolution that wipes our hands clean. His eyes are blindfolded in order that we might see on the altar the Body and Blood He gave and shed for our sins.
Now this was a one and done event. We aren't Roman Catholics who believe God needs to be appeased by a re-sacrificing of Christ in an unbloody manner in the Mass every day. There is not a continual need for God to be propitiated, but we have a continual need to be forgiven because "we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment." That's what we say in the Small Catechism, and that's what we say in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession "Christ does not stop being the mediator after our renewal. We must always be sure that for His sake we have a gracious God in spite of our unworthiness" (IV, 162-3). And "since we never satisfy the Law. we must always go back to the promise" (Ibid., 165). And right here you have the difference between Judas and Peter.
Get this straight. On our own we can only be Judas'; we can only despair of being forgiven. On our own we can only conclude what the errant church did when responding to Judas' confession, "I have sinned". We can only conclude it's our responsibility. That we must, as they literally said, "See to it ourself!" On our own we can only do what Judas did: Try to relieve our guilt by undoing what we can of our sin. But that doesn't work; ask Judas.
Apart from the look of Jesus that recalled Peter which breaks our will and calls us home, we will be lost in our trespasses, crushed under our debts. Look at artwork of this scene. I don't think anyone catches it; perhaps it can't be caught. A 1926 black and white print by Harrach comes close, but Peter isn't looking at Jesus. He doesn't see himself "with a look recalled." But the face of Jesus does convey "come back" not "how could you".
We come back daily when we pray "forgive us our trespasses". We come back to font of forgiveness that bubbles forth from our Baptism which is well of grace; "forgive us our trespasses" brings us back to the Absolution where are sins are sent out of sight so "that our Father in heaven would not see our sins;" "forgive us our trespasses" brings us back to the Divine Service where we pray it right before communing with Christ's Body and Blood present again on earth. This Body given and Blood shed made it impossible for our Father to deny our prayer because of our sins.
Needy people need continual forgiveness because our daily trespasses and debts are unbearable and because continual forgiveness is what God bought and paid for in Christ. Our continually being forgiven will show up in our life. Where? In our willingness to forgive others. Jesus adds the "as clause", "as we forgive those who trespasses against us" not as a condemnatory clause but as consoling clause. That's what we call it in the Large Catechism (III, 93). Luther saw our forgiving of others as a sign or seal the Lord adds to comfort us. Our reciprocative forgiveness is a sign of our forgiveness by God which precedes it (Peters, 157).
Jesus does plainly say, "If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours" (Mt. 6:15). But in the Lord's prayer we're to be thinking about how we do forgive others, and not as a condition of ourselves being forgiven but as consequence. If you make it a condition of being forgiven, you'll always be in doubt because you build God's certain forgiveness on your uncertain forgiving. From doing just this came Luther's "awful crisis of conscience and inner struggles." He said that making God's forgiveness of us conditional on us "'wreaks all misfortune'" (Peters, 155). Being certain of his forgiveness led Peter to dying for the faith; being uncertain led to Judas dying in despair of the faith.
Luther grew to this understanding of the 5th Petition's "as clause", so it might take you some time too. In 1519, just two years after the 95 Theses, he does interpret it as conditional. We forgive beforehand our debtors. If that is done, then we may say forgive us our sins. The Small Catechism, 10 years later, inverts the relationship. "For the first time God's forgiveness gives us sinners the power and freedom to practice forgiveness among one another" (Ibid., 147-8). "So [having been forgiven of our sins] we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us."
The proper relation between the Petition and the as' clause is seen in the Greek. Matthew has an aorist tense, "as we have forgiven our debtors." This tense links to the completed nature of Christ's work of suffering, sacrificing, bleeding, and dying to pay for the sins of all. Having forgiven, past tense, our debtors, we show that we have applied Christ's past work on the cross to those in the present. Having received Christ's past work of forgiveness in answer to our prayer to be forgiven now, we show we have it by regarding others as having been forgiven already here and now.
Luke has the present tense in his record of the Lord's pray "forgive us as we forgive". The present tense could be translated "for we also forgive again and again everyone who is indebted to us" (Peters, 147). From our forgiveness by God for Jesus' sake comes the miracle of our continual readiness to forgive (Ibid., 148, fn. 19). Surely, you have seen this miracle reported and even recorded by our jaded, unbelieving media. A person's loved one has been murdered, or themselves abused or harmed, and says that because Jesus has forgiven them, they have forgiven and do forgive the one who harmed them. That's a miracle; that can't come from fallen hearts that "daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment."
George Washington's in his prayer book speaks of his neediness. He says, "'I have called on Thee for pardon and forgiveness of sins, but so coldly and carelessly, that my prayers are become my sins and stand in need of pardon'" (Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, 131). Can't we all say that? Shouldn't we all say this? Yes, and when God in His mercy shows us our great need, may we realize that no sooner than we see it does He rush to our side, our heart, our conscience, with more forgiveness than we have sins. He doesn't leave us alone to deal with let alone to slay the monstrosities of our sins or sinfulness. He turned instantly towards Peter as soon as Peter saw his sin for what it was. He does the same for all needy people. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Midweek III (20180228); Lord's Prayer V, Passion Reading 3