The "As" Clause
"Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." We stumble over this. Luther comments, "Who would believe that this petition would affect and accuse so many people." Listen when we pray the Lord's Prayer together. Is it my imagination, or do we say the 5th petition quieter? Don't we say this less boldly than the others? Our problem is not with the petition itself, "forgive us our sins." No, it's with the clause "AS we forgive those who sin against us." That bothers us because we don't understand it.
To begin with "as we forgive those who sin against us" is a REALITY clause. The Large Catechism expresses the reality bluntly, "If therefore you do not forgive, then do not think that God forgives you." Our Small Catechism too is frank saying, "So we too will forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us." And if our Catechisms are not clear enough, read Matthew 6: 14 & 15, "If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
That's reality, but we try to weasel around it, don't we? "Sure, I forgive them; I just don't want anything to do with them." Is that really "gladly doing good to them" as our Small Catechism says we should? Or we say, "Sure I'd forgive them if they were sorry." But that's not what the Lord taught us to pray. He did not teach us to pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who APOLOGIZE" or those who are SORRY, NICE, or THOSE WHO MAKE IT UP TO US."
What mockery that sort of "forgiveness" is. Is this what our Lord taught? Is this what you see our Lord doing during Lent? Doesn't He in fact freely absolve, forgive, pardon all those who treated Him so terribly? On the cross, doesn't He forgive the church leaders who hit and slapped Him, the soldiers who spit at and mocked Him, Pontius Pilate who willingly sent Him to the cross though he knew for sure He was innocent? Did any of them ever apologize to Jesus? Did any of them promise not to do it again? Didn't they in fact mock and torment Him right up until death? On the cross we find Jesus with blood, spit, and tears trickling down His face, pious church leaders screaming insults at Him, criminals jeering Him, and His own mother watching as her Son is dreadfully degraded. Yet He says, "Forgive them Father." Not, "Make them apologize Father." "Forgive them Father," not, "Forgive them after they have repented Father." "Forgive them Father," not, "Forgive them IF," no just, "Forgive them."
Jesus freely sends their sins away, no strings attached. And the reality is that's how you and are to forgive those who sin against us. But be careful that you do not turn the reality clause into a causal one. Christ taught us to pray, "Forgive us our sins AS we forgive others, not because we forgive others." Your forgiving others does not cause God to forgive you. How could it? That would mean your forgiving others would have to precede Christ forgiving you. How could that be? How could you give what you didn't have? Can forgiveness originate in our hearts? No. It's impossible for fallen, grudge inclined hearts like ours to forgive anyone. O maybe if someone makes up for their sin first, maybe if someone makes us feel they're really sorry we'll forgive. But to freely let sins go is something that God must do in us.
On top of this, if our forgiveness causes God's forgiveness then all Christ's sufferings would have been pointless. There would have been no need for Him to suffer under Pontius Pilate and to be crucified to win our forgiveness. We could have won it ourselves simply by forgiving others. Christ wouldn't have had to been mocked, tortured, beaten, and spit upon for us and for our salvation. Instead, all He would have had to do is teach us how to be more forgiving, how not to hold grudges, how to live peaceably with others. That should sound familiar to you because forgiveness is something that psychologists think they can teach. They, and some churches go along with them, think you can train people to be forgiving. They think it's a skill that can be taught. That's because they view it as something people do rather than something only God can do.
Forgiveness is something that only Christ and those in Him can ever do or understand. The miraculous nature of forgiveness is what makes the AS clause not just a REALITY clause but an ASSURANCE clause. When we let the sins of other go AS God has let ours go, that is proof that we have been touched by the miraculous, free, forgiving grace of God. The forgiveness we freely share with others is proof that everything we have ever done is "forgiven and pardoned" freely by God our Father for Christ's sake.
Follow me now: Legitimate miracles can only come from God. Forgiveness is a true miracle, so it too can only come from God. In the Large Catechism we hear that God forgives sins even without our prayer "before we prayed or even thought of it." And "God does it altogether freely, out of pure grace," "without ceasing" says our Large Catechism. Surely you see this in the Passion Reading? Those who abused Christ so terribly didn't want or ask for forgiveness. Yet, when Christ was suffering on the cross, their sins were there, weren't they? On Easter morning when the Father raised Christ from the dead, did He or did He not pronounce even their sins forgiven? He did; this is the Gospel. That while all of us were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us ungodly sinners. That Christ is the propitiation not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world.
You and I have never earned, deserved, or worked for forgiveness in anyway. Not even our prayer "forgive us" causes God to forgive. God miraculously looked down on us wallowing in our sins, and declared, "I forgive you." And be clear on this, in whatever way we were wallowing in our sins, we were actually spitting, striking, or scourging the meek, innocent Jesus. Our sins of the mouth put salvia on His face. Our sins of the hands put blows on His body. And our sins of heart plowed deep, bleeding wounds on His back. Yet, Jesus looking down from the cross where our sins had impaled Him freely said, "I forgive you. Go, you are free." And the Father looking down from heaven upon His tortured Son, though He saw an evil world still laughing over it, said, "I forgive them for Jesus' sake."
That's a miracle. Our Lord doesn't ask for any promises first, any penance, any payback. He simply says, "I forgive you." And that's why we can daily, hourly if need be, pray, "Forgive us our sins" because wonders of wonders, amazing as it is, there IS forgiveness with God! He doesn't mark our iniquities, so we can boldly stand before Him and pray, "Forgive us our sins." Do you see? It's not as people commonly believe: That Christ gave us this petition to show us that forgiveness does not exist until we pray for it. On the absolute contrary, according to C.F. W. Walther in Law and Gospel, Christ has given us this petition to remind us of the fact that His forgiveness is always there for us (176).
But what about the "as" clause? It too is to teach us how ready, willing, and eager God is to forgive us our sins. He can't wait to do it. Luther calls "as we forgive those who sin against us" a "consolatory addition." That is, the Lord Jesus gave us the "as" clause so that we might be consoled NOT convicted.
Luther does a beautiful job of showing this in the Large Catechism. He says that our sinful flesh does not trust and believe God (Those of you who are constantly troubled by the fact that you don't feel very believing please listen.). Our flesh never trusts or believes in forgiveness, and this same flesh is constantly aroused by evil desires leading us into daily sins. So our conscience becomes restless because not only do we have sins of the flesh, but we have a flesh that will not believe in forgiveness, a flesh that constantly fears God's wrath and displeasure. So we lose the comfort and confidence of the Gospel. Therefore God has given us this petition, particularly the AS clause, says Luther so that we can "constantly turn to this petition for the comfort that will restore our conscience."
But how in the world does the "as" clause restore our conscience? By providing us the comfort and the confidence of the Gospel. The Large Catechism says the "as" clause functions just like the Sacraments do. This clause, says Luther, can "strengthen and gladden our conscience" the same way that Baptism and the Lord's Supper do. There is a difference though. The "as" clause of the Lord's Prayer has been instituted for us to use every hour wherever we go.
Friends, every time you say this petition you are reminded that as easily as you let go of the sins of those you love; that's how easy the Father lets go of your sins. Now, stop thinking of the worse case scenario like forgiving some ax murderer who killed your family; think of how you forgive the sins of those you know, love, and certainly don't want to hurt. That certainly describes God's attitude toward you, doesn't it? He knows you in Christ. He loves you in Christ, and He hurt Christ just so He didn't have to hurt you.
So, as your heart breaks when someone you love will not be comforted by your forgiveness, that's how your Father's heart breaks when you refuse to be comforted. As you cannot wait to put the heart of someone you love at ease, so the Father cannot wait to put your heart at ease. As you put away so easily the sins of your children, that's how easily your heavenly Father puts away yours. As your children cannot out sin your love, so you cannot out sin His. As your grace gets bigger when your children's sins do, that's what God says happens to His grace toward you.
This is very bold Gospel. It's just plain unbelievable and miraculous. Who would believe this if God hadn't revealed it? Imagine: our Father in heaven freely forgives sins as if we were His dear children and He was our dear Father. Think of it: He lets go of our sins as if He were some dear friend who couldn't bear the thought of His best friend being bothered by some silly thing he or she did to Him. He lets go of our sins as we have done with the sins of others.
Let me illustrate: Over the years I have gone fishing with many members. I have managed to do some legendary stupid things. I have crossed lines, knocked off fish, broke poles, scratched boats, and lost bait (I don't mean the bait on my line; I mean the whole bait bucket.) You name the fishing "law", and I guarantee I have sinned against it. Even so, all of my members have acted like it was no big deal; well most of them have; well at least one or two of them did anyway.
You know why you smile at that? Because all of you know that no member has ever did anything but freely and gladly forgiven his pastor for some silly thing he did fishing. Well, that's how God views your sins; as silly little things you did that He has long since forgiven and forgotten about. The last thing God wants you to do is fret about them in anyway. He would be as appalled as you would be if you found out my conscience was bothering me because of some fishing "sin" I did against you.
So friends, shout the "as" clause out. It's there to testify to you that God's heart isn't some deep, dark place where your sins are treasured up. No, His heart is as yours is towards someone you love and for whom you only want good things. He lets your sins go that easily, that completely, that frequently. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Wednesday, Lent IV (3-13-02), Fifth Petition