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Matthew 6:12 "Jesus' Example of Prayer, Part 5: Forgiveness of Debts"

And forgive us our debts, as also we forgive our debtors.

The initial καὶ (and) is significant because it links this request with the petition for physical sustenance on a similar plain. By modeling a request of forgiveness, Jesus has not changed subjects. Rather, He is creating a list of connected ideas. We must think of man’s need for sustenance as connected to man’s need of forgiveness. Because man is created as both a physical and spiritual being, it is nonsensical to pit man’s physical needs against his spiritual needs as if one were somehow of greater value than the other. That forgiveness of sin is in view seems obvious, yet Jesus frames the discussion with the imagery of debt (ὀφείλημα) and debtors (ὀφειλέτης). The concept is not hard to understand (a moral debt as an outstanding duty that was neglected: right worship, obedience, etc.) yet it should be recognized that neither debt nor debtor are frequent terms in the New Testament (ὀφείλημα 2x: Matt. 6:12; Rom. 4:4 – ὀφειλέτης 7x: Matt. 6:12; 18:24; Lk. 13:4; Rom. 1:14; 8:12; 15:27; Gal 5:3) and that in these few instances, there is perhaps only one or two instances where they are used in specific reference to sin (Matt. 6:12; Lk. 13:4(?)). The related verb ὀφείλω appears 35x in the New Testament in the contexts of either an outstanding financial or moral obligation. Never does ὀφείλω directly refer to sin. In their explanation of v. 12, some skip v. 13 all together and draw a hard connection between to vv. 14-15, apparently ignoring that Jesus uses the term transgressions (παράπτωμα) rather than debts (ὀφείλημα). Even in English, it is difficult to imagine transgressions and debts as synonyms. The question then becomes: why does Jesus use the language of debt?

This request also comes with what appears to be a comparative clause: as also we forgive our debtors (ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν). That this clause is supposed to explain or in some way modify the request is again obvious, but in what way? Does ὡς (as) introduce a comparison of proportion (forgive us in the proportion that we forgive), cause (forgive us because we forgive), or result (forgive us so that we forgive)? There are now two distinct questions we must answer about this prayer request: (1) Why does Jesus use the language of debt to speak about sin and (2) what is the connection between divine forgiveness and human forgiveness?

Understanding the Request: And Forgive Us Our Debts – The term forgive (ἀφίημι) appears with some frequency in Matthew’s gospel. The verb has a basic meaning of to send away, let go, dismiss and can thus be used in a variety of contexts. When John was confused by Jesus’ request to be baptized, Jesus responds by telling him to permit it (ἄφες ἄρτι) or let it go (3:15). After Jesus rebuked the devil, he left or departed (τότε ἀφίησιν αὐτον ὁ διάβολος) from Jesus (4:11). Likewise, the disciples left or departed from their nets (ἀφέντες τὰ δίκτυα) and their boat (ἀφέντες τὸ πλοῖον) to follow Jesus (4:20, 22). Regarding those who need to be reconciled, Jesus commands them to leave (ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου) their offering at the temple and then go be reconciled (5:24). Here, the object of the verb is neither a concept, a person, nor an object but a person’s debts (τὰ ὀφειλήματα). To dismiss or send away one’s debt is to cancel the account and thus pardon the outstanding balance. It is in this way that we get the translation forgive.

This language is significant because it acknowledges (1) the reality of the debt and (2) the inability to pay that same debt. One cannot ask for forgiveness without first confessing and admitting their indebtedness. Perhaps we should not press too hard on the language at this point, but by using the image of debt rather than transgressions (παράπτωμα – a violation of moral standard), trespass (παράβασις – a deviation from an established boundary), or sin (ἁμαρτία – to fall short of a set standard), Jesus emphasizes what is failed to be done rather than what was done incorrectly or inappropriately. Most terms that describe man’s depraved state do so in a positive manner, that is to say that they describe man’s active rebellion against God. To frame the discussion as debt looks at the other side of the coin. A debt is a failure to pay what is owed or to perform an obligated duty. In this light, debt to the Father may include failure to praise Him for His character and promises, failure to obey and trust Him, failure to worship Him as He has ordered and decreed. When we begin thinking in this line it becomes obvious that man’s debt to the Father must be incalculable. Yet, this request does not ask for more time to pay the debt or even for the debt to be reduced. The plain implication is that this debt is not within the ability of the debtor to pay. The only options are (a) for the one who holds the debt (the Father) to call the debt in and thus reducing the debtor slavery or prison or (b) to cancel the dept outright. Because this prayer is modeled for a blessed son of God (5:9, 16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9), the request is for pardon rather than reduced payment. On the basis of the Father-son relationship, the son trusts the grace of the Father for forgiveness.

Understanding the Connection: As also We Forgive Our Debtors – The conjunction ὡς (as) has given no small amount of heartburn to readers and commentators for it appears at first glance that Jesus ties the forgiveness to be expected from the Father to the proportion of forgiveness we extend to others. This cannot be the case for at least two reasons. First, this would place the condition of forgiveness squarely in the control of one seeking forgiveness. The request is therefore made moot because all one must do for their own forgiveness to be secured is to forgive their debtors. Forgiveness of divine debt would therefore be assured by works rather than faith. Second, this is hardly a comforting thought because we all know how imperfect human forgiveness is. If God’s forgiveness of man’s debt is in proportion to man’s forgiveness of others, there is no hope what so ever of being truly and thoroughly forgiven on the last day. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that ὡς is being used in a comparative fashion. Just as unlikely would be a causal reading (forgive us because we forgive our debtors) for many of the same reasons. It is therefore best to take ὡς temporally (forgive us our debts as/while we forgive our debtors). The Father’s forgiveness is therefore not in proportion to man’s forgiveness, nor is man’s forgiveness the basis for the Father’s. Rather, the two are placed side by side as one mirroring the other. At this point, several observations should be made.

First, and most obvious, is the fact that the Father’s forgiveness is greater than man’s forgiveness. It is necessary to establish which is the original and which is the mirror image. Jesus’ disciples are to exemplify the Father (5:48) not the other way around. Thus, man’s forgiveness mirrors the Father’s.

Second, the grammar indicates a purposeful comparison of the two in the sense that Jesus invites the reader to view these two examples of forgiveness side by side. The aorist imperative (ἄφες) requests the Father’s forgiveness in a strong yet general way. The aorist imperative does not indicate the desired initiation of forgiveness and does not include any idea of the cessation of forgiveness. The request simply asks to be extended forgiveness without any comment on the beginning, duration, or end. The same is true of the way man’s forgiveness is presented. The aorist indicative (ἀφήκαμεν) describes the forgiveness that Jesus’ disciples extend toward their debtors in the same big-picture manner. The aorist is not necessarily indicating past time (as we forgave) nor is it indicating a completed action (as we have forgiven). The gnomic aorist presents the action as a complete idea, simply stating that it happened. The idea is then something like this: we ask the Father’s pardon while we also pardon.

Third, the use of debt language combined with forgiveness of human debt connected with divine provision points to a specific Old Testament allusion: The sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:1-22; Deut. 15:1-6, 12-18). Every seventh year was to be a yearlong rest in the land of Israel. Just as God provided manna on the sixth day for two days (Ex. 16:22-23), so shall Yhwh provide for Israel on the seventh year so that the harvest of the sixth year will feed them through the seventh year and into the eighth (Lev. 25:20-22). In addition to rest and relying upon God’s good provision, this seventh year was to be a time when all debts were dismissed or forgiven (Deut. 15:1). Any native Israelite who was forced to sell himself as a slave was to be released and sent off in style in the way Yhwh released Israel from slavery and abundantly provided for them (Deut. 15:12-15). The forgiveness of debts (Matt. 6:12) is therefore linked with the provision of daily needs (Matt. 6:11) in this reference to the sabbatical year. In addition to the sabbatical year is the year of Jubilee. The year after the seventh sabbatical year (every 50 years) is an extended year-long celebration. In addition to debt forgiveness and physical provision without daily labor is the return of the land to its original occupants. In the case that any Israelite was forced to sell off part or all of his allotted portion of the Promised Land, it will revert back to the original family in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:23-28). Each sabbatical year is an anticipation of the Jubilee. Set at every seven years, every man, woman, and child could expect to enjoy seven or eight such celebrations. With the year of Jubilee set at once every fifty years, most people would only experience one such celebration in their lifetime. These celebrations of Yhwh’s blessing demanded that Israel trust Yhwh’s provision and obeyed Yhwh’s commands. Otherwise, there was nothing much to look forward to. These celebrations were designed to provide a taste of the kingdom to come where there is redemption of debt, regathering to the land, and provision for every need.

Putting this all together, to ask the Father to give our daily bread and to forgive debts is a request for Jubilee-like provision and restoration. To link this with the forgiveness of others is to point to the disciple’s obedience in forgiving the debts of others. This obedience is not the basis for God’s forgiveness (works-based forgiveness) but is presented as the fruit of faith that trusts in God’s ultimate forgiveness. To ask God to be forgiven assumes that one trusts that God will forgive. If one trusts God to forgive, then that faith will be evidenced in similar fashion: forgiving others. It would be moronic for an ancient Israelite to expect God to provide a sixth-year harvest so bountiful to last through the sabbatical year and into the planting season of the eighth year if he was unwilling to follow Yhwh’s command to relinquish the debts of others. Clearly, such a man has no real faith that God will provide. Likewise, Jesus’ disciples demonstrate their faith in God’s forgiveness by extending forgiveness to others. This is present application and anticipation of future debt remission. Jesus models this prayer for His disciples who are to be those who practice the forgiveness of the sabbatical year every day. The kingdom is not anticipated once every seven years but every single day.


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