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 forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us” (SC, The Fifth Petition).
We like that first clause of the petition, “Forgive us our trespasses,” but often despise the second, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We say a person needs to deserve our forgiveness before we forgive them. That is totally unlike God’s forgiveness. God does not wait until you deserve to be forgiven. If He did, He’d be waiting for all eternity! God forgives us not because we’ve done anything to deserve it but because Christ has earned it for us. He did only what God could do on the cross—offer a life of sinless perfection. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” He prayed as He bled and died (Luke 23:34). Only most of the time, we don’t get to plead ignorance. Most of the time, we confess our wilful decision to gladly sin; and we confess this before our Father in Heaven, and He forgives us for the sake of Christ. He doesn’t ask, “What have you done to earn My forgiveness? Where are the satisfactions?” For Christ is the satisfaction, the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:1-2). He simply sees the contrition in our hearts, and He gladly forgives, “for the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
We also say forgiving others is for our own good. Being at peace might be a result of forgiving others, but that is not the sole reason we forgive. We gladly forgive them because of the forgiveness Christ has won for us. Christ’s own forgiveness is for our own benefit and not His own; thus, our forgiving others is primarily for their benefit and not ours, for by forgiving them we preach Christ crucified. Forgiveness is a selfless act, not a selfish one.
If we ever think we don’t need to forgive someone, this petition is especially for us. Luther writes, “But this should serve God’s purpose of breaking our pride and keeping us humble. God has reserved this right for Himself: if anyone wants to boast of his godliness and despise others, that person is to think about himself and place this prayer before his eyes” (LC III, 90). We like to boast of our piety, but when it comes to forgiving others, our supposed godliness takes a back seat because pride reigns in our hearts. To be truly pious—truly godly—is to forgive as God forgives: totally unmerited, full of grace and truth, which means the act is full of joy because of the joy we have in Christ’s forgiveness. When forgiven, we do not want to keep this grace all to ourselves. Rather, because it is so great, it bursts at the seams and we want nothing more than to share it with all those around us.