“Trespasses” or “Debts” in the Lord’s Prayer?

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Question: Why do people quote the Lord’s Prayer as “forgive us our trespasses” when Jesus said “debts?” Isn’t this the Roman Catholic version of the Lord’s prayer?

This question reminds me of the importance of context. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer uses the word “debts” (opheilema; Matt. 6:12). The question is, “What does Jesus mean by ‘debts?’” In the next two verses after the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15). The word trespass (paraptoma) means “a violation of moral standards” (BDAG) or “a deviation from living according to what has been revealed as the right way to live,” i.e., sin or transgression (Friberg). Jesus’ explanation helps us see that in context “forgive us our debts” is the same as “forgive us our trespasses.” If we have any remaining doubts on this point, we can look at Matthew 18:21-35 where Jesus illustrates the need for forgiveness of sins with a parable about a debtor whose vast debt was forgiven by his king.

Jesus illustrates the need for forgiveness of sins with a parable about a debtor whose vast debt was forgiven by his king.

The parallel account in Luke 11 uses a different wording: “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). In this version of Jesus’ prayer, Luke uses the standard Greek word for sin (hamartia) for the first part of the petition and the word for “debtor” in the second part. This confirms our understanding that by “debts” Jesus meant sins.

The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew was first translated using the word “trespasses” by William Tyndale in 1526. Tyndale translated it, “And forgeve vs oure treaspases even as we forgeve oure trespacers.” (Yes, that’s how the words were spelled back then!) Tyndale’s translation appears to have been adopted by the 1549 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Because of the wide use of the Book of Common Prayer, the “trespasses” form of the Lord’s Prayer became standard in English Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist congregations. Other English versions (Coverdale, Great Bible, Bishop’s, Geneva, King James) did not follow Tyndale and translated Matthew 6:12 using “debts” and “debtors.” For this reason, people who grew up using the KJV, generally learn that line of the Lord’s Prayer as “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Thus, there are three terms that Jesus uses when directing his followers to pray for forgiveness: debts, trespasses, and sins. My best understanding is that they all mean the same thing. Whether it is sin, trespass, or debt, Jesus has in mind violations of God’s will. Given the way the words sin and trespass are used in the NT, Jesus most likely has in mind intentional violations of God’s word, or as it is often phrased, “willful transgressions of a known law of God.” So, the answer to your second question is, “No, the ‘trespass’ form of the Lord’s Prayer is not Roman Catholic, but broadly shared by English Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists.”

The terms debts, trespasses, and sins all mean the same thing.

This topic raises another question. Why would Jesus teach His disciples to pray “forgive us our sins,” if he expected His disciples to “go and sin no more?” (John 8:11). A couple options are available; both may be correct. First, given the shortness of the Lord’s Prayer and the nature of its structure, it is likely that Jesus was providing His disciples a framework for prayer, not primarily a prayer to repeat verbatim. By a framework for prayer, I mean that each of the petitions directs us to topics that deserve our focused attention when we pray. Second, the petition “forgive us our sins” clearly conditions the request for forgiveness on whether we have forgiven others (“forgive us…as we have forgiven”). Obviously, others aren’t sinning against us constantly. It seems likely that this petition’s purpose is twofold: to motivate us to self-inspection and repentance (if necessary), and to remind us that we must forgive others if we desire to be forgiven.

Adapted from the God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).