“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
This petition, especially when coupled with the addendum in v. 14-15 (“if you do not forgive others the Lord will not forgive you”) has caused concern for some of God’s people. Let me say first that this passage is not concerned with forgiveness of sins and justification on the basis of the cross and resurrection. Certainly, that is not how the disciples would have understood Jesus.
Rather, what is in view here is our unfettered approach to God. How can we think of asking God to forgive us our debts and our sins (Luke 11:4) if we hypocritically refuse to forgive the debts and sins of others against us? Just as unconfessed sin stops our prayers from being effective, so an unforgiving heart will damage our fellowship with our Father, and hence our prayer life.
This petition requires us to look within ourselves for any traces of hypocrisy in our dealings with our fellow man. How many of God’s children harbor secret enmities, prejudices, envies and bitterness toward others? In some sense they must be to us as we would be to God.
Thus, as Andrew Murray says,
“In each prayer to the Father I must be able to say that I know of no one whom I do not heartily love.” (With Christ in the School of Prayer, 30.)
A prayer life that fails to include thorough self-examination is always going to be deficient. Although no man can know himself so well as to exclude all suspicion of his heart-motive, yet he must search his memory for sins still unconfessed and people yet unforgiven.
Craig Blomberg says it thus:
“Our pleas for continued forgiveness as believers, requesting the restoration of fellowship with God following the altercation sin produces, is predicated on our having forgiven those who have sinned against us.” (Matthew, NAC, 120.)
Christians are not to bear grudges. Prayer that trusts that God sees and cares will always be able to forgive the wrongs of others.