What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgiven and gladly do good to those who sin against us.
This petition has to do with our poor, miserable lives as sinner-saints. It is a prayer grounded in reality. We are the children of God, justified and holy in His sight as He gazes on us through crucified and risen Jesus. We are new creations in Christ Jesus through Baptism. Yet the old sinful nature remains, like a hulking wreck of a building awaiting its destruction. Though we have God’s name and His kingdom, though He exerts His will to save us and are fed in this life for the life to come with daily bread, nevertheless we daily stumble and sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment. The reflexes of our old selves are too strong. The habits of our heart turned from God are too ingrained. We sin in thought, word, and deed; by what we do and by what we fail to do.
That God doesn’t punish us, or anyone, is His gift of grace in Jesus. That Jesus Himself teaches us to pray for forgiveness is also God’s grace and gift.
Like every petition, this one is for our benefit, not God’s. God forgives even before we ask for forgiveness or even think of it. If God hadn’t already granted us the gift of faith and forgiveness, we would never be so bold as to ask to be forgiven. Without our prayer, out of His own goodness and mercy, God has sent His Son to die for all. He has given us the Gospel and the sacraments, which are nothing but pure forgiveness. He has given us the church and pastors to speak forgiveness of sins in His stead. All of this He does without our asking or invitation.
Just as we pray for daily bread, so we must pray for daily forgiveness. The Christian life is not one “once forgiven, always forgiven,” or “once saved, always saved,” but continually and daily saved and forgiven by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake. Were it not for this continual application of the death and resurrection of Christ to our lives, we would quickly be drawn into the muck and mire of our sinfulness, become self-absorbed with our guilt, and be drawn away from Christ and the Gospel. Our prayers would falter and our petitions would cease if we were not continually under the shelter of Christ’s forgiveness. Where our hearts are not right with God and our conscience is not quiet, we will be defensive toward God, fearful of Him. We will find ourselves praying according to the law, with our credentials, reminding God of all the good things we have done for Him lately and how obligated He is to help us. We will begin to pray like the pharisee who boasted how much better he was than other men, instead of like the tax collector, who couldn’t even lift his eyes toward heaven.
This petition flattens the field. We pray as fellow sinners for ourselves and our fellow sinners. Forgive us. This petition breaks our religious pride and keeps us humble beggars before God. Anyone who would boast in his or her goodness and look down on the wickedness of others must hear this petition. And anyone who prays this petition cannot look down on another, no matter how great that a sinner that person might be.
People who gripe over coffee or beer about their neighbors and make judgments concerning the miserable state of things in general are often themselves the most severe and judgmental. They resent having the law applied to themselves. They hate hearing sin-talk in church, applied to them. Outside the church, adjustments and accommodations can be made. Little pockets of pride can be carved out. Outside the church we can bemoan the breakdown of the family, the loss of morals and values in our culture, and the violence of our society without recognizing our own contribution to the breakdown of our families, our own inner immorality which may or may not manifest itself in outward action, and our own anger, prejudice and hatred.
But inside the church, sin must be taken absolutely seriously. In church sin is not a social condition, a disease, or the product of the past. Here you can’t simply grouse and complain about sin, vote it out of office, legislate it out of existence, or twelve step it under control. Sin must be killed, drowned in Baptism, nailed to the cross, dealt to death in the death of Jesus, before it damns you. Nailed to the cross of Jesus by faith, it is less easy to point the finger at Adolph Hitler or Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer or your neighbor. Here I must examine myself and see what my part I play in the collapse of the creation. Redemption, new creation, comes when I am forgiven for Jesus’ sake.
Forgiveness pours vertically from God to us, and then runs horizontally, from us to our neighbor. It is like the rain that showers down from the heavens and then runs along the channels of streams and creek beds. It is like a waterfall that gushes downward then turns into a river flowing and moving outward. God forgives, and His forgiveness propels His forgiven people to forgive. Our prayer for forgiveness and our forgiving others is offered in one, seamless, unbroken petition prayed in a single breath: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Forgiveness cannot be hoarded. It’s impossible to store for another day. It’s like the air we breath – inhaled and exhaled, but no holding your breath, at least not for every long. Forgiveness is made to flow, like the blood and water from Jesus’ side, from God to us and through us to those around us. Any blockage in the horizontal channel results in a back up in the vertical. Just as it is true that one cannot forgive without first being forgiven, it is also true that those who refuse to forgive others also refuse to be forgiven themselves and so shut off the flow of forgiveness from God “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Failure to forgive others as we have been forgiven is a contradiction of the cross of Jesus Christ. It is a contradiction in two ways. First, it contradicts Christ’s death once for all. If Christ died for all, then all are forgiven in Christ. And who are we to hold a grudge against one for whom Christ died? Second, unforgiveness on our part indicates that we do not fully grasp the size of the debt we have been forgiven by God. We imagine that we are “pretty good people” and measure out our forgiveness to other in proportion to the amount of forgiveness that we perceive we need.
Luther accurately translated this petition: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. There are many different words for sin in the Scripture. Sin is “missing the mark,” in the sense that it dehumanizes us. Sin is transgression, in the sense that we cross over and violate the boundaries and limits set by God. Sin is also a debt, an obligation of obedience that we owe God but cannot pay. The debt we have rung up is huge. We cannot pay it.
The word “debt” connects us to a parable that Jesus told concerning forgiveness. It comes on the heels of Peter’s attempt to pare down forgiveness to a more manageable size. Peter wanted to limit his forgiveness to a mere seven times. Jesus takes Peter’s puny pardon and multiplies to a heavenly seventy times seven. That’s how often we are to forgive others when they sin against us. And even that nowhere near approximates the size of the debt we have been forgiven by God.
Jesus told the story of a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. It turns out that one of his servants owed him millions of dollars. Out of sheer mercy, the king forgave the servant his debt and sent him on his way a free man. The servant in turn was owed a few dollars by a fellow servant. But the forgiven servant had his fellow servant thrown in debtor’s prison until the debt had been fully paid. When the king received word of this, he immediately summoned the servant he had forgiven and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And the king sent the servant to the jailors until the debt was paid.
We do the same. We minimize our debt to God. We maximize the debt of others to us. We want to get even. But Jesus warns, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” God has broken the vicious cycle of revenge. Grudges have no place with the free citizens of his kingdom. To not forgive another is to come under bondage, to renounce our own freedom. It is to return to the prison house of the law, keeping score on our spouses, our neighbors, the nations. If God has tossed away the tally sheets, why do we insist on hanging on to them? Unforgiveness diminishes our view and expectation of God’s forgiveness. It presumes that forgiveness is our work rather than God’s work. Stinginess on our part to forgive implies that God is stingy with His forgiveness, and ultimately we are robbed of comfort.
We must be very careful here. We do not pray, “Forgive us our debts because we have forgiven our debtors,” but “as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiving others is not the precondition for forgiveness or a credential for our prayer. “See how forgiving I am, O Lord.” Our forgiving others is the eagerly expected outcome and fruit of God’s forgiveness, but not the cause. God takes the initiative. He makes the first, bold, reckless move. He forgives us, unconditionally. Then we forgive one another, unconditionally. That is the radically new way of life for those who have been freed from their bondage to sin. We are free to forgive.
It changes our perspective. We see the size of our debt before God in the body of Jesus nailed to the cross. God made him sin for us, in our place. That is your debt hanging on the cross, paid for in the crucified flesh of Christ. The books have been reconciled. The debtor’s prison has been shut. The bankruptcy court has been adjourned. You are reconciled to God in Christ. Whatever stands between us and others is loose pocket change compared to what stood between God and us.
We acknowledge that when we exchange the peace of the Lord before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. We are reconciled with God and with one another by the sacrificial Body and Blood of Jesus. No longer may we indulge in the luxury of nursing grudges. We must renounce every break of love, for Christ makes us one in His body. That was taken with tremendous seriousness in the ancient church. Not permitted at church altars were church members whose bishops had doctrinal debts. Within the congregation, quarreling members could not commune until they were first reconciled and absolved, for their quarreling contradicted the Body and the Blood of Christ.
St. Paul wrote to the Colossian congregation: Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Col. 3:12-13)
It seems like a tall order, this life of forgiveness. But remember that Jesus prays this petition to our Father along with us as our brother. He is the only One in the family who does not have to pray “Forgive me my sins.” He has no sin to forgive. The sin He bore to the cross and to His death was ours. His victory over sin and death He gives to us, delivered in Holy Baptism, in Holy Absolution, in the Lord’s Supper, in the reconciling Word in all its wonderful ways. We live the sacramental reality of that forgiveness, forgiving other out of the overflow of Jesus’ victory. But then it’s no longer we who forgive, but Christ in and through us who forgives.
Luther summarized this petition with a little prayer: Dear Father, I come to you praying for forgiveness, not because I can make satisfaction or merit anything by my works, but because you have given the promise and have set your seal to it, making it as certain as an absolution pronounced by yourself.
The flow of forgiveness has an undertow, a backflow of assurance and comfort to the forgiver. As we hear ourselves forgiving others, we are hearing the fruit of the forgiveness that God in Christ has given us. Our forgiveness is a comfort and assurance of God’s forgiveness. When a husband says to his wife, “I forgive you,” or a wife to her husband, or a parent to a child, or a child to a parent, whenever a Christian forgives another, that is the sound of God’s forgiveness at work, spilling over, having its forgiving and reconciling way with both the forgiver and the one forgiven. “I forgive you.” Did you hear that? Listen for it. That’s the sound of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
What does this mean? God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.
“The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” Jesus could see the Tempter at work in His disciples. On the night when Jesus was betrayed to death, a time when their prayers should have been most intense and focused, with bellies full of the Passover, and more, His disciples slept while Jesus prayed. “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Jesus knew that He was putting His disciples on the front lines with Him. They were sent into the world, behind the royal banner of His cross. They were sent to actively engage a world that hated God, that crucified God in the flesh, that would seek their death as well. They were sent to be “in the world but not of the world,” as Jesus Himself is. They were not cloistered away in a monastery or convent or hermetically sealed up their own little corner of the world. Jesus sent them out into the world as fully human creatures, filled with passions and emotions and loves and concerns. They would be tempted, and all the more because they were disciples of the Lord Jesus.
All the disciples had for their defense, and the very best they had, was this tiny petition: “Lead us not into temptation.” Jesus knows that though we have the entire forgiveness of our sins in His name, that we have His body and blood, that we have already been crucified, buried, and raised with Him in Baptism, nevertheless we still have our stubborn sinful flesh born of Adam hanging about our necks. We have the world, which pushes our buttons daily and drives us to anger and impatience. We have the devil, the Tempter and Evil One, the Father of all Lies and Death, who fires his flaming darts of deception into our hearts to cause us to despise and neglect God’s gifts of His Word, Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper and to seek false terms of peace with God. We are constantly surrounded on every side by temptation, both from without and from within. And so we must daily pray: “Lead us not into temptation.”
God tempts no one. Make no mistake about that. Temptation is not God’s doing. James writes, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.” The triune God is not behind our temptations – the unholy trinity of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are. And they will pursue and torment us to the grave. But God tempts no one.
God does permit temptation to come upon us, however. Make no mistake about that, either. The disciple’s prayer is not, “Our Father, give me a life of ease, free from worry and temptation, and please don’t ever let anything bad or painful happen to me.” That is not the kind of prayer that Christ who hung on a cross would teach His disciples to pray. Temptation is not removed from the life of the Christian. Instead it is amplified and accented. To be human is to be tempted. Christ is most fully human and He was most fully tempted of all men by the devil and by the world, but not by His flesh for His flesh was without sin. To be a Christian, to die and live in Christ by faith, is to be most fully human, and most fully tempted.
Temptation is both testing and seduction. It is the devil’s seduction to taste of forbidden fruit, to reach over the limit of God’s Word and to be “like God” experiencing good and evil apart from God. Yet the same temptation is also testing. God takes the devil’s attempt to seduce us and uses it to exercise and strengthen our faith in Christ. Just as a muscle needs to be stretched and strained in order to become hard and strong, so faith in Christ needs to be exercised in the daily temptations of this life, as we are continually tested to see whether we will act like the baptismally reborn children of God that we are, or go back to the way of our natural birth as children of Adam.
The strongest Christians are often sorely tempted. St. Paul warned the spiritually secure Corinthians, “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” And then the apostle goes on to provide assurance in the midst of temptation. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
“Lead us not into temptation.” We are praying that God would guard and protect us from false identity, false meaning, false security. That He would bury our old Adam in the death of Jesus, that Jesus Christ would be our God and that we would look nowhere else for peace but to His wounds presented to us in the Word and the Sacrament, that He would be our shelter when everything around us is falling apart, that He would hide us in Christ as He hid Moses in the cleft of the rock.
We are praying that God would block every path and destroy every idol that leads to unbelief, shame, despair, and death. We are praying that God would give us the will and the strength to flee every temptation with the same terror as Joseph fleeing Potiphar’s seductive wife. We are praying that God would teach us to use His Word against temptation, as Jesus did in His one on one encounter with the devil in the wilderness. We are praying that God would keep us alert in prayer by His Holy Spirit, so that we would not succumb to the drowsiness of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Like the first three petitions of the Our Father, this one too is dangerous. We are placing into jeopardy the very things that tempt and distract us – our property, possessions, honor, family, success, self-esteem. And we are demanding that God would free us from anything that would cause us to doubt His Word of life and forgiveness spoken to us through His Son, that He would send us into battle fully clothed with the whole armor of God, so that we may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
To feel temptation is quite a different thing from consenting and yielding to it. The drunkard may pray, “lead us not into temptation,” but if he prays it while walking through the doors of a bar, it is not a petition which he intends for God to take seriously. Likewise a thief planning his next theft. Or an adulterer planning an adultery. Or a Christian planning to skip church. We will all feel temptation at one time or another. Young people are tempted by the things of the flesh, by pleasure and play. Older people are tempted by power, prestige and possessions. Others are tempted in spiritual matters by grave doubts and feelings of unbelief and despair. But we cannot be harmed by the mere feeling of temptation, no matter how strong it may be, so long as we struggle against it with the Word of God and prayer, and desire to be rid of such feelings once and for all.
Our comfort in every temptation is that Christ was tempted for us, and it is Christ who is tempted in us, and it is Christ who prays this petition with us. He is our strength and our victory. He has conquered the Tempter for us by dying on the cross, and we need not, indeed must not, go it alone. This petition guards and protects us from trying to deal with temptation apart from Jesus. Were we to try and go it alone without Him, we would only make things worse. But Christ has conquered the Tempter for us, and in Christ we are more than conquerors, with this petition on our lips. “Lead us not into temptation.”
What does this mean? We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.
In the Greek, this petition reads, “Deliver us from the Evil One.” Evil is not an abstract concept. Evil is personified and personalized as the work of the Evil One, the devil, Satan, the prince of darkness masquerading as an angel of light. He is the source of all trouble and mischief in the world: poverty, shame, misery, tragedy, suicide, flood, fire, hunger, war, plague, pestilence, disease, death, damnation. He takes the good gifts of God and uses in a Lie against God that God is not true to His Word. He taught Adam and Eve the Lie. He seeks to teach us the same Lie. “For if God did not support us, we would not be safe from him for a single hour.”
To personify evil in the person of the Evil One is not to relinquish personal responsibility. We are accountable for our actions. We are never permitted to play the blame game before God and say, as Eve said, “the devil made me do it.” The devil is powerless to make anyone do anything. His sole power is in his seductive Lie that says, “You can do anything you want to do and get away with it. You can be like God, experience good and evil.” But the devil doesn’t make you do anything. He must be prayed against daily. “Deliver us from the Evil One and the evil that he brings.”
Deliver us from false religion and false living, that does not hallow your Name, O Lord. Deliver us from every rule that competes with your gracious rule. Deliver us from every will that wars against your good and gracious will. Deliver us from everything that keeps daily bread from our tables. Deliver us from the refusal of your forgiveness and the refusal to forgive. Deliver us from every form of temptation that would turn us from you. In summary, deliver us from the evil one.
This petition is prayed last, not first. First God’s name must be made holy among us, on our lips and in our lives. First, God’s kingdom must come among us with His Word and Spirit. First, God’s will to save us must be exerted over us. Only then may we pray, “Deliver us from evil.” We are not praying to avoid conflict with the Evil One, we are praying in the heat of the conflict, with the enemy firing upon us hot and heavy, that God would deliver us from the assaults of the evil one, up to our last hour and breath.
To pray “deliver us from evil,” is ultimately to pray for a blessed death and departure from this life, that we die confident in the Lord Jesus and not in ourselves, and that He graciously take us from this valley of sorrow called “this life” to Himself in heaven. It is to pray with the confidence of St. Paul, who, facing his certain death, wrote, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). To be delivered from the evil one is ultimately to die in the certainty of the resurrection of the dead in Christ Jesus.
In one sense, our deliverance from evil has already occurred in our Baptism. “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). In another sense, our Baptism has yet to be brought to its fulfillment in our death and resurrection. Now we have eternal life by faith. But we do not as yet have it by sight. And so when we pray, “deliver us from evil,” we are praying to possess by sight what we now possess by faith in Jesus Christ crucified for us.
“Our Father, deliver us from evil, both now and in the hour of our death.”
What does this mean? This means that I should be certain that these petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven, and are heard by Him; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us. Amen, amen means “yes, yes, it shall be so.”
“Amen” is a Hebrew word that means, “it is certain, solid, sure. Yes, yes, it shall be so.” We can be certain that our Father has heard our prayer and will act on it in our best interests. Learning to pray means learning to say “amen.” “Amen” is faith talk. It is the confidence that God is faithful and true to His Word, and that He will hear this prayer not because of our own holiness or on account of the strength of our words, but because of His promise to hear through His Son Jesus. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him. That is why we utter the Amen through Him, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20).
It is a subtle and sneaky delusion when people pray in such a tentative and meek way that they cannot boldly say “amen” at the end of the prayer. Does God really hear my prayer? Will He really answer it? I am only a poor, unworthy sinner. Why should He regard me and my prayer, with all my faults and failures? Though that may sound like humility, it is actually unbelief and pride. When we focus on ourselves and our sin instead of God’s promises in Christ, we are looking to our works and worthiness instead of Jesus’ blood and righteousness. “Amen” says, “I look not to myself and my broken life, but to Christ and His life broken for me. That’s how I dare stand before God as His child and say “amen.”
“You must always make the Amen strong,” Luther told Peter, his barber, “never doubting that God is surely listening to you with all grace and saying Yes to your prayer. Remember that you are not kneeling or standing there alone, but that all Christendom, all devout Christians are standing there with you and you with them in one unanimous, united prayer which God cannot ignore. And never leave off praying without having said or thought: There now, this prayer has been heard by God; this I know of a certainty. That is what ‘amen’ means.”
And so the prayer that Jesus teaches His disciples ends as boldly as it begins. It begins by addressing God as “our Father.” And it ends with a confident, “Amen. Yes. It shall be so.” How dare you be so bold as to say Amen? Jesus said so. And He died and rose for you so that you could say, “Amen.”