The fifth petition reminds us of our need to experience divine forgiveness and to extend it to others: "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." One of the wonders of the gospel is forgiveness. Because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross our sins are forgiven. He died the just for the unjust to bring us to God. By the sacrifice of himself, Jesus, our Great High Priest, has secured our deliverance from all that held us bound. He has freed us from both the penalty of sin and the power of sin to reign in our lives. As hymnwriter Philip P. Bliss has written: "Hallelujah, what a Savior!"
However, some people have become so taken by Jesus' work on the cross that they believe it is an act of unbelief for Christians to confess their sins on a daily basis. "Hasn't Jesus died to save us from our sins past, present and future?" they say. The answer is yes, of course he has. But that in no way rules out of place the daily confession on our part. We need to remember that in this fifth petition Jesus is speaking in the context of personal relationships. He is telling us that if we are to walk with our heavenly Father it is important that we keep short accounts with him. Where we sin and fall short of our high calling as Christians we need to acknowledge it openly and frankly before God. And we need to ask him to cleanse us afresh in the blood of his dear Son. The beloved apostle, John, teaches us the same thing in his first letter. In 1 Jn.1:8-9 he writes: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." John writes fully aware of the sacrifice of the Advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous One (1 Jn.2:1-2). And yet that does not stop him from encouraging us to confess our sins to the Lord. As Jesus taught his disciples in the upper-room, our feet get dirty as we walk through this world and need to be cleansed even though we are clean already because of his cleansing which he was about to accomplish on the cross (John 13:1-11 in context).
But the fifth petition is about more than just confessing our sins in order that we might experience God's forgiveness in our daily walk. It is also about forgiving others. In fact, we are to ask God to forgive our debts as we have forgiven our debtors! Some have suggested that this is salvation by works and reveals how different the theology of Jesus is from the free grace of Paul. But this is to miss the point entirely. Jesus puts the petition this way because he knows that those who have been forgiven by God will themselves extend forgiveness to others. He speaks about this principle at length in the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. Jesus understands that it is impossible for those of us who have been forgiven by the heavenly Master to go out and demand that others pay them what they owe. Not only is it hypocritical but proof that they have never been forgiven.
The matter of forgiveness is vital. How many professing Christians are stingy in this area. Instead of hearts that long to forgive at all times they insist that people who have wronged them grovel and feel the sting of their hurt and disapproval. Even where forgiveness is not requested Christians should still have a heart to forgive like Jesus who said from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). And where forgiveness is sought, how ready we should be to give it! Our problem in this regard is that we forget, or have never come to understand, the greatness of our own debt before God. We tend to minimize our own sinfulness while exaggerating the sinfulness of others. Jesus will have none of it and so he teaches us to pray: "Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors." Powerful words indeed!