Heidelbasics: Brief Weekly Reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism by Rev. David Fagrey, Pastor of Grace Reformed Church of Rapid City, SD
126. What is the fifth petition?
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;” that is, be pleased, for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us miserable sinners our manifold transgressions, nor the evil which always cleaves to us; as we also find this witness of Your grace in us, that it is our full purpose heartily to forgive our neighbor.
To forgive a debt is to not demand the payment that is owed (Matt. 18:27). When God forgives our sins He no longer demands the eternal punishment we owe Him. And the only reason why God can forgive the punishment we owe Him is because Jesus Christ suffered that punishment on the cross. God cannot forgive sin without sin being punished: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). We must pray that our heavenly Father would be pleased, for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us our many sins. To impute is to charge to one’s account (Philemon 1:18). Our sins were charged to Christ’s account, and He was punished for them; which is why God will not charge them to our account and punish us for them. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Cor. 5:19). God grants forgiveness only to those who desire and ask for it for the sake of Christ’s shed blood on the cross (1 John 1:7). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
“Forgive us our debts” is a prayer we must pray every day, for even as Christians we sin every day. Sanctification does not remove all the evil in our hearts. Jesus said to His disciples, “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children” (Matt. 7:11). Paul said, “evil is present with the one who desires to do good” (Rom. 7:21). This does not mean that every time we sin we are in danger of going to hell unless we ask for forgiveness. Since Jesus Christ endured the eternal punishment of our sins, we will never suffer that punishment! But it does mean that every time we sin, we must realize the only reason we are not in danger of going to hell is because of Christ’s blood. We must always pray with humility: not confident of our own righteousness, but pleading the blood of Jesus (Psalm 51:1-2; 143:2; Luke 18:13).
We receive assurance that God has forgiven our debts as we forgive our debtors (those who sin against us). “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” God commands us to forgive one another as He has forgiven us. “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). “To forgive another person’s sins means not to hold them against him any longer. And though we cannot forget injuries done to us, we should try not to think about them and not talk about them. We must also assure the forgiven person that we have forgiven them” (Jones, Study Helps, 326). “This willingness to forgive others is caused by the grace of God in our own heart. It is this same grace that causes us to beg of God His forgiveness… Refusal to forgive indicates that the grace of God is lacking in the heart” (Ibid.). “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will Your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15; cf. 18:21-35).
Thus, “Forgive us for Christ’s sake and make us willing to forgive others.”