One of the most persistent temptations Christians face is that of turning the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. As we pray we must always be reminded that we, who trust in Jesus Christ as our substitute and Mediator, are not in a covenant of works but in a covenant of grace. You know what a covenant of works is, even if you have never read the term before. The colorful metaphor used by our Lord himself in the fifth petition, “debts” (ὀφειλήματα in Matt 6:12) or “owing” (ὀφείλοντι in Luke 11:4) drives home the point quite powerfully. Borrowing and repaying money is a covenant of works. There was a time when debtors who could or would not repay a loan faced not only repayment but prison for failure to repay. Perhaps you have never had dealings with debt collectors. It is not pretty and it is not meant to be. Collectors intentionally make things as miserable as they can in order to encourage debtors to pay up. Many years ago I a friend of mine, who worked in the debt collection business, warned me never to run afoul of them because, as he said, “we do not hire nice people to collect debts.” He was not kidding. When a bank loans you money, they expect to be repaid. If you fail to pay the mortgage, eventually a sheriff’s deputy will appear at your house. You will be evicted and the house will be repossessed and sold to repay the mortgage. If you fail to make the payments on your car loan, the “repo” man will take your car back. Pleading will change nothing. They have heard it all. They do not get paid for being merciful and gracious. They get paid for recovering the house or the car. That is a covenant of works.
Christians, i.e., those who have true faith, are not in a covenant of works because Jesus Christ has fulfilled the covenant of works for them. Those are gospel words: “for me.” The Pelagian says, “I have done.” The Romanist and the Arminian says, “by grace (and my free cooperation with grace) I have done.” The confessional, evangelical Protestant says “Christ has done for me.” Paul says:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:12, 18–19; ESV)
God offered Adam eternal life, communion with him, and glory on the condition that he obeyed the moral law summarized by the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam disobeyed God’s moral law and plunged himself and all humanity in corruption and death (Eph 2:1–4). As Paul says in Romans 5, sin brings death. When he says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) he is thinking of Adam and of us in Adam. We need another federal head, another representative, a substitute. Jesus the Messiah is that substitute for all who believe.
As the principal lies unpaid and the interest on the debt continues to compound, the debtors misery grows daily. Every debtor wishes that someone, somehow would come and help. If only the debt could be wiped out. For those who believe, God imputes our debts, our sins, to Jesus. This is the teaching of our Lord himself (Luke 22:37). Our translators do not always help us because they use a variety of English words for the same Greek word (λογίζομαι), “to impute” or “to reckon.” This is the language of accounting or banking and this is why the metaphor debt is so apt. By the fall we all became debtors to God and divine justice is such that he must collect. Grace is that God the Son covenanted with the Father before all time (Ps 110; John 17) to come as our substitute to pay the debt we incurred but would not and could not pay. That is beyond mercy, e.g., forgiving the interest. That is grace. He paid the entire debt, principal and interest. This is why Scripture says in Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:3 that “Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him as righteousness. Paul goes on immediately in v. 4 to explain the difference between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace: In the covenant of works “his wage is not credited to him as grace but what is owed.” In a covenant of grace, “to the one who does not work but believes him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is imputed as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). Because Christ has fulfilled the covenant of works for us, in our place, as our substitute, believers are in a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. Thus, we confess:
126. What is the fifth petition?
“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” that is: Be pleased for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us miserable sinners our manifold transgressions, nor the evil which still always cleaves to us; as we also find this witness of your grace in us, that it is our full purpose heartily to forgive our neighbor.
The Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11 says “forgive us our sins (ἁμαρτίας; Luke 11:4) for also we forgive everyone owing us.” In Matthew 6 it says, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” we are tempted to turn that “as” into a cause or instrument of our forgiveness, as if, in the Lord’s Prayer, we are placed on a legal, conditional, works footing before God. That is not at all what our Lord is teaching here. If the forgiveness we receive is proportional to the forgiveness we give, then we are all damned because none of us has forgiven perfectly. Rather, we forgive because we have been forgiven.
Zacharias Ursinus explains,
…for the particle as, as used in this petition, does not signify the degree of forgiveness, or teach that the forgiveness which we extend to others is equal to that which God extends to us; but it signifies the kind of forgiveness, or the truth and sincerity of the forgiveness which we and God extend, that God will as truly forgive us as we certainly and truly forgive our neighbor from the heart; or to express it more briefly, we may say, that there is here not a comparison according to the degrees, but according to the truth and reality of the thing, so that the sense is, God so perfectly forgives us our sins as, we truly and certainly forgive our neighbor.
As believers we are conscious of our sins and as believers we continue ask for forgiveness. We are not presumptuous. We receive the forgiveness of sins freely, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, but as believers we know we need to ask for it. We see that in Psalm 51. David confesses his sin, he begs for forgiveness and for sanctification. He approaches God in prayer as a sinner. As such he has no claim, in himself, on God. David knows his sin. He confesses it (vv. 2, 3,4). He knows the source of his sin, that he was born corrupt (v.4). He knows that he by nature unrighteous but God is by nature righteous (v. 6) and that only God can justify him and cleanse him (v. 7). God must hide his face, as it were, from David’s sins. He needs his transgressions covered over and taken away. He needs to be washed. Failing God’s grace, David must be “cast away” from God’s face (v. 11). He has blood guilt. Left to himself he is lost. He must be restored. Only then can he experience the joy of being in the presence of God.
This is the prayer of the tax collector (Luke 18:13), “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus says that the one who prays that prayer goes home justified, not on the basis of the quality of his prayer nor on the basis of anything done by him or wrought in him (WCF 11) but only for the sake of Christ’s righteousness credited (imputed) to him and received through faith alone (sola fide).
Unbelievers do not pray this prayer. Unbelievers are dead in sin and dead men do not pray. Those, however, to whom God freely gives life, come to see themselves for what they are, apart from grace. Psalm 51 and Luke 18 reflect the prayers of believers. We still sin. We need forgiveness. Yes, we are forgiven for Christ’s sake. No, our forgiveness is not contingent upon the perfection of our forgiveness of others but we do forgive others because we have been forgiven. That is why we forgive others seventy times seven (Matt 18:22). That is why we forgive and restore the penitent (2 Cor 2:7) so that he is not overcome “with excessive sorrow” (ESV). It is as forgiven people that we forgive one another (Eph 4:32). Our Lord is teaching us just what Paul says in Colossians 3:13, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (ESV).
Because Christ has met the terms of the covenant of works for us (“do this and live”) and because God has made a covenant of grace with us, in Christ, there is free acceptance with God and free salvation and free sanctification by the Spirit. As members of the covenant of grace we ask for forgiveness of our sins with confidence, knowing that we are forgiven freely for Christ’s sake. We pray with appropriate sorrow for sin (we are not presumptuous) and we beg him earnestly for the grace to continue grow in conformity to Christ. More about that under the sixth petition.