Philip Ryken’s When You Pray is a very helpful resource for studying the Lord’s Prayer and for learning more about prayer and praying. When I recently studied the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts...”), I found the following paragraphs helpful:
“As soon as we start trying to figure out how to pay God what we owe for our sins, we realize how much trouble we are really in. Obviously, we cannot pay off our debts by ourselves. How could we ever make up for all the sins we have committed? Yet this is precisely the error most religions make, including false versions of Christianity. They all operate on the basis that human beings can do something to make things right with God. Their reasoning goes something like this: ‘Lord, I know I keep messing up, but I’m trying really, really hard to be good. In case you haven’t noticed, I have a list here of some of the good things I’ve done – charitable work, and that sort of thing. Yes, I know my list isn’t as long as it could be, but why don’t we just call it even?’ This kind of approach is based on the principle of works righteousness, the idea that doing good works can make someone good enough for God.”
“The truth is, however, that forgiveness is not something we can work for, it is only something we can ask for. Even if we worked for all eternity, laboring in the very pit of hell, we could never work off the debt we owe to God. What could we ever pay to God? Jesus posed the question this way: ‘What can a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mt. 16:26b NIV). The answer, of course, is nothing. Our souls are the most valuable thing we have. When, because of our sin and guilt, we owe God our very souls, there is nothing left for us to pay.”
Later Ryken notes that “we owe God far more than we or anyone else could ever pay.” So what can we do about our massive debt to God? The only thing we can do is beg God for forgiveness: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! (Lk. 18:13).
“This is precisely what we do in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. We ask our Father to forgive us our debts. With these words we declare our moral bankruptcy, freely admitting that we owe God more than everything we have. Then we do the only thing we can, which is to ask him to forgive us outright. Because he is our loving Father, God does what we ask. ‘He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities… As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (Ps. 103:10, 13 NIV). God the Father offers forgiveness as a free gift of his grace. When you go to him, weighed down with the debt of all your guilt and sin, he will not sit down with you to work out a payment plan. He will not scheme to charge you more interest. He will not send you to Purgatory or anywhere else to work off your debts. On the contrary, God is a loving Father who offers forgiveness full and free.”
Philip Graham Ryken, When You Pray (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2000), p. 125-6.
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015