"Forgive us our sins"
Back in 1976 Elton John sang a song that contained the following words:
"sorry seems to be the hardest word"
Now we don’t find it hard to say we’re sorry when we hear about a friend’s misfortune - perhaps they’ve had bad news after a visit to the doctor or perhaps they’ve lost their job and we quickly express our sadness, we say we’re sorry in such a situation an expression of sympathy.
Elton John wasn’t singing about that use of the word sorry.
The second use of the word is the one we find it harder to take on our lips. When we’ve done something wrong, something hurtful, something of which we’re ashamed then sorry is the word we ought to speak but often find a reluctance to front up. We try to justify our behaviour, to water-down its significance and to plead our good intentions – but what we need to say openly and honestly is "Sorry, please forgive me".
On Sunday mornings we’ve been looking together at the Lord’s prayer. One of his disciples had come to Jesus and asked him for help with prayer and Jesus had readily responded. The prayer is short but wonderfully profound. Many of you are able to quote Matthew’s version by heart. We are looking at Luke’s cut-down version and taking time to think about what these well-know phrases actually mean.
This morning we come to the opening words of v.4 where Jesus spoke about forgiveness and our need to ask for it.
What Forgiveness Really Is
In normal human relations forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, leading to an increased ability to wish the offender well.
To forgive is not the same as to condone. To condone fails/refuses to recognise that an action that has been committed is wrong and needs to be forgiven.
To forgive is not the same as excusing : to excuse suggests that the offender was not responsible for the action
To forgive is not the same as simply forgetting (There are times when the Bible does say that God promises to "forget". This is not the weakness of human forgetfulness but the strength of divine grace which deliberately refuses to allow any awareness of a pardoned offense to determine his behaviour towards us)
In the Lord’s prayer Jesus told his followers their need to ask forgiveness of God – the prayer begins as you’ll remember with "Father" - Jesus was not primarily concerned with inter-personal relationships but with our relationship with God.
And when God forgives he fully pardons the sinner. This means:
The forgiven sinner is no longer regarded as guilty of any crime.
The pardoned sinner is set free and reconciled to God.
The forgiven sinner is restored to enjoy a father-child relationship with his Heavenly Father.
How is such forgiveness possible?
Jesus! And only Jesus!
All this is possible because Jesus came and secured a wonderful salvation that is offered freely to whoever will receive it.
What can we learn from these words?
Just four words and you know them so well:
"Forgive us our sins". Lk.11:4a.
The trouble is that we can rush quickly on without thinking very much about them. I want to try to unpack them a little with you this morning. I’m not suggesting that our study will be exhaustive but we will take some time to consider three truths that are contained in these four words.
1. Jesus’ assessment of us.– we have sins, all of us.
When we compare ourselves to others we can all too easily draw the wrong conclusions from what we see. Many of us (if not all of us) are going to predisposed to think well of ourselves. When we compare ourselves with others we will say that we are similar to them, better than them or at least no worse than them. And if that is the case then we assume that we have nothing really to worry about; we think there is nothing to get steamed up about. And so we don’t see the danger we are actually in.
Travellers on the Titanic would have been foolish to imagine that just because there were so many of them onboard that they were not in danger when at 11.40pm on 14 th April 1912 the ship collided with an iceberg. Even though the ship was widely believed to be unsinkable in less than three hours later the Titanic sank with the loss of more than 1.500 lives or some 2/3 of the total number on board.
Passengers and crew were literally "all in the same boat" – and that meant all were in danger. In the event only a minority was saved.
That is akin to our situation. The iceberg of sin has collided with the entire human race and we are sinking, all of us.
But, you say, I’ve never done anything awful – how can you say that I am a sinner?
Well the assessment is not mine but that of the Lord Jesus Christ! And when he speaks so clearly we need to take his assessment seriously: we can’t afford to ignore it. Jesus’ assessment reflects his understanding of sin. We tend to restrict sin to just a small number of things that any particular society considers outrageous or unacceptable.
In the Westminster Catechism the answer to the question: What is sin? is "Sin is disobeying or not conforming to God’s law in any way."
1Jn.3:4 "Whoever sins is guilty of breaking God's law, because sin is a breaking of the law." (GNB)
You may have heard of the so-called seven deadly sins:
Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride.
But as you hear that list did you notice that it doesn’t include the things that our society considers unacceptable: murder, rape, child abuse, intolerance, theft etc.
The trouble with drawing up shortlists like this is that we can all too easily focus on things of which we do not think we are personally guilty. If you were to look up on the internet how many different sins are listed in the Bible you’d probably be a bit surprised by the range of estimates – they go all the way up to 667. Now I don’t want to confirm or deny the truthfulness of such claims but I mention it simply to point out that we limit our understanding of the far reaching nature of sin at our peril
2. Sin is serious
In Luke’s cut-down version of the Lord’s Prayer there are just five requests:
Two about God and
Three about us – one about physical needs and two about our spiritual needs – and both of these concern sin.
It is obvious when we think about this that Jesus did not consider sin something to be taken lightly.
But why? What is the seriousness of sin that caused Jesus to include the instruction to pray for its forgiveness?
Well, I suppose that we could suggest any number of reasons. For example we could say that sin is serious because of the way it messes up people’s lives. And of course that would be true: our newspapers are full of stories that highlight the sorry state of our world – ranging from ISIS terrorism abroad to domestic abuse at home. Muggings and thefts occur and when they do they can significantly affect the lives of the victims.
But when all is said and done sin is yet more serious than the hurt and the pain that is caused to our fellow human beings. And the reason for that is that sin is ultimately and primarily an offence committed against the thrice holy God himself.
This should be clear to us all when we remember that Jesus has already told his followers that they are to address their prayers to the Father and it is the forgiveness of the Father that they are to seek.
Our sin is serious therefore because it is the breaking of his law which is an expression of the holy and righteous character of God. Our sin is a serious matter because, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, "the wages of sin is death" (Rom.6:23).
In telling his followers then (and us now) that we must pray for forgiveness Jesus declares us to be sinners and in a dangerous situation because the nature of our sin is serious.
There is a third truth to which I want to draw your attention as we think about these four, well-known words and it is this:
There is forgiveness with God!
As the Psalmist put it hundreds of years earlier:
Ps.130:4 "But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared."
To be told we are sinners and that sin is exceedingly serious causing spiritual death and separating us from God and his love would be awful news if that was all the news there was to hear. There is hope! And Jesus sends us to the Father for just the help we need!
Sin is a problem and it is not an imaginary one either but it is not a problem that is without a solution. The matter turns on where we turn to find the solution.
So many folk think about Christianity as a message of morality and nothing else – we must all try harder is all they think about if they think about the Christian message at all.
But how wrong that is!
Jesus doesn’t send his followers away on a desperate mission of self-improvement or self-salvation instead he sends them to the Father with a petition, a request: "Forgive us our sins." How stupid this would be if the Father was not prepared to forgive sinners who turn to him!
And, my friends, Jesus is not stupid. No man ever spoke like this man...
He came from heaven to earth with the express intent of securing salvation for his followers. He lived a perfect life and then laid this perfect life down in sacrifice as payment for our sins.
The debt we had accrued due to our sin he has fully settled on our behalf rendering God able to forgive repenting sinners. There is indeed solid ground for this forgiveness – the Father doesn’t pretend that sin isn’t sin, nor does he pretend that it doesn’t matter, nor does he overlook it. His justice has been fully satisfied by his Son whom he sent to do just that. This is the way he is able at one and the same time to uphold his justice and to justify the one who has faith in Jesus.
Well we have come to the end of our reflections and all that remains to be done is to ensure that we all, every single one of us, follow this simple but life-changing instruction of Jesus.
Have you ever seriously and thoughtfully gone to the Father with these words of Jesus: "Father forgive us our sins"? Father, forgive ME MY sins.
Yes, you may have repeated the words parrot-fashion many times in the past but it is not mindless repetition that will do you any good. You must go to the Father recognising that you are a sinner, recognising that that your condition is serious and that something must be done about it. You must go to the Father like this because there is no other way that your sin will ever be forgiven.
How will you escape if you neglect so great a salvation and refuse to pray God the Father for the forgiveness of your sins.
May the Spirit give us sight to see and understand the light that is to be found in the Bible and which shines so brightly in the face of Jesus Christ.