Debts and Trespasses

And forgive us our debts . . . (Matt. 6:12 ESV).

Debts or trespasses: which is it?

I grew up in Baptist churches saying “trespasses.”  Now that I’m a Presbyterian, I say “debts.” My vocabulary has changed, but my life hasn’t. The bottom line is I need forgiveness.  

I need forgiveness for my trespasses: A trespass is crossing a line . . . breaking the rule . . . ignoring and exceeding a limit. To trespass is to go where I should not have gone. That’s fairly easy to understand.

But I also need forgiveness for my debts: My debt is a little harder to grasp when it comes to God and God’s forgiveness. Maybe the idea is simply that I owe God the full devotion and allegiance of my life. I am to love the Lord with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. I have refused to do so. I have loved other things. What I owe to God I have given to other things and thus I owe a debt.

In Jesus’ ministry forgiveness figures prominently in both parable and prayer. When Jesus taught us to pray, he taught us to ask for forgiveness, and in one of his best-known stories he described forgiveness in terms of debt (Matt. 18:21-35).

Again, call them what you will: Trespasses, debts. What matters more than our failures is what we do with them. More importantly, what matters is what God does with them.

No Threats

We live in a world that basically deals with trespasses and debts by making threats. If you own a piece of land, you can easily purchase paper signs that can be stapled to fence posts and trees warning in large letters NO TRESPASSING. Usually in smaller letters you’ll see the threat: “Violators will be prosecuted.” We answer trespasses with a threat.

Likewise, debts will eventually be answered with a threat. A letter may come initially as a gentle reminder. The letters will gradually become less gentle. After enough time you’ll get mail from an agency or firm of some kind that specializes in the language of threat. They want what you owe and something bad is promised if you can’t pay up.

God does not respond to trespasses and debts that way. What God offers and what Jesus taught us to ask for is forgiveness. Far too many people think of God and relate to God in a context of threat. We’re all aware of trespasses and debts, our own and others.’ That’s not really news. What is news is that God’s response is not threat and punishment.

Forgiven and Forgiving

God answers trespasses and debts with mercy and forgiveness. Yes, there’s more to say about our repentance and our sorrow for sin, but don’t miss the bottom line. God delights in mercy and revels in removing the stain of sin from us (Isaiah 1:18). Our God is a forgiving God. That’s the deep conviction that undergirds the prayer Jesus gave us: “Forgive us . . . as we forgive.”  

We’ll close our reflections this week with two questions. We’ve already seen that they sit quietly behind the words Jesus gave us to pray. First, why do so many live their days unforgiven, failing to find the peace that forgiveness brings, never knowing deep down the grace that God so much wants to give? Second, why do we find it so hard to forgive others, to relinquish the hurt and bitterness of the wrongs done against us?  

Forgiven people are forgiving people. As we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, we’re asking for the help of God’s Spirit. By the gift of his grace, we can become both.    


Cause me to know the full extent of my debt, O God. Let me sense the weight of it and the futility of thinking that somehow, I’ll work it off.  And then in your mercy, let me sense the freedom that comes in Jesus and his full payment on my behalf. Let it sink in deep, so that I might become a person who knows what it is to be forgiven and thus one who knows how to forgive, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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