When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he focused them in on something extremely important for their everyday walk of faith: recognition and confession of sin. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus taught his disciples to continually recognize and confess their sins and to ask God for gracious forgiveness. Why would he do this? Why would Jesus instruct his disciples to constantly remember their sinfulness? It was as if he wanted their sinfulness to be in the forefront of their minds. Wouldn’t this simply discourage them, beat them down, or make them feel worthless?
I get the sense that some Christians feel as if constantly remembering their sinfulness and utter need of God’s grace leads more to feelings of condemnation than feelings of comfort. It’s as if some Christians are content with their current depth of comprehension of their sinfulness as if they don’t want God to expose any more of their sinfulness to them. Is a weekly corporate confession of sin in worship too much? Do we really need to confess our sins to God every day, especially considering we just confessed the same ones yesterday? And what about the law? If preachers preach not only the gospel but also the law, is it over the top, extreme, too much for the congregation to handle? I think if we say or even feel, “Yes, it’s all a bit much,” we do not understand the law, the gospel, or the Lord’s Prayer as we ought. We do not understand that the Lord is using constant confession to comfort us in our struggles. Perhaps we don’t know how to be comforted by the gospel?
Before looking at Heidelberg 126, let’s consider Heidelberg 115. Really think about this. Heidelberg 115 asks, “If in this life no one can keep the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God have them preached so strictly?” When you show up to your church, your minister should preach the gospel to you, but he should also preach the law. If your minister doesn’t preach both law and gospel, you need to gently speak to him about his preaching deficiency. God desires His holy law to be preached to the people. Why? Heidelberg 115 answers:
First, that throughout our life we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ. Second, that we may be zealous for good deeds and constantly pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit that He may more and more renew us after God’s image until after this life we reach the goal of perfection.
That’s exactly right. How will we pray “forgive us our debts” with any sense of specificity, urgency, and fervor without God’s law making us more aware of our sinfulness? How will we eagerly seek God’s forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness without an ever-deepening awareness of our sin? Will we ask God for His grace and Holy Spirit if we assume we really don’t need them that much? Will our faith grow without an ever-deepening awareness of our sin and need for grace? Will we feel cared for, provided for, and loved if we don’t realize how God grants us His grace and Spirit despite our sinfulness?
As our awareness of our sin deepens, one direction we could go is despair, but that would be to forget the gospel and God’s love for us His children. Another direction to go is comfort in the gospel and dependence on Christ. As we seek God’s forgiveness in Christ, we receive it by faith, and the law no longer condemns us, it defines for us the right way we should go. Because we have God’s forgiveness in Christ, we are free to recognize our sin, confess our sin, ask for forgiveness, and without any condemnation enjoy a clear conscience, peace, and rest.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our debts,” it assumes his disciples would continue to sin. Their debt would continually increase. However, his grace covers the continual increase. So every time they confessed their sins and asked God for forgiveness was an opportunity to remember the gospel and how their sins are forgiven. Not condemnation, comfort. If continually confessing your sin to God leads you to feel condemned, you do not understand God’s mercy and grace in Christ as you ought. Your eyes are on you, not on Christ.
Now to Heidelberg 126:
What is the fifth petition? “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” That is: For the sake of Christ’s blood, do not impute to us, wretched sinners, any of our transgressions nor the evil which still clings to us as we also find this evidence of your grace in us that we are fully determined wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbor.
We are asking God to not count our sins against us. And because of Christ’s blood and righteousness imputed to us by grace alone through faith alone, what we ask for is given us. We are wretched sinners, yet, as God’s adopted and beloved children, by faith, we know that our Father does not count our sins against us because of the merits of Christ credited to us. We can ask God for forgiveness constantly, and though we may feel like broken records, our Father does actually forgive us because of Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Evil does still cling to us in this life of sorrow. We are still struggling. But every time we disappoint God, others, and ourselves by our sin, we remain loved and have another opportunity to remember the gospel. Because of Christ, when we ask for forgiveness we actually have forgiveness.
The law and the Lord’s Prayer work together. How would we ever know what to confess and ask forgiveness for without the law? We ask God to accomplish His will. How do we know what God’s will is apart from His law? When God graciously shows you your sin through the law, don’t begrudge Him or hate the law, don’t cry foul, don’t feel beat up, dear ones, feel loved because your God is exposing to you something that is hurting you and directing you toward something that will bless you. And when you come to God in confession for forgiveness, come boldly believing the gospel and receiving the good gift of forgiveness your Father intends you to enjoy. Not condemnation, comfort. Come to God in constant and contrite confession in order to receive comfort in Christ.
Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.