Debtors, Trespassers or Sinners?

Matthew 6:  12

12 And forgive us our debts,

There are three very common versions of this verse, firstly the one which is traditional with us Presbyterians as above, secondly ‘forgive us our trespasses’ as favoured by our Anglican friends, and thirdly ‘forgive us our sins’ which is usual in America. The great New Testament scholar Prof Rev Howard Marshall always told us it was easy to remember which tradition used which; the Anglicans are forever trespassing on others, the Americans obsessed with sin and Scots always trying to get out of debt.

When you have a fairly international group of students as Aberdeen Divinity Faculty did in the 90’s this verse also caused problems at the weekly chapter service, as when reciting the prayer each of us would use whatever we had been brought up with meaning the whole thing sounded dreadful as 40 odd voices tried to exclaim each of the three. Future Moderator Prof Ian Torrance sought to put an end to this when he took the service one Friday stating before the prayers “We shall all use the traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer” and started to lead us in prayer.  Unfortunately the Lord’s Prayer was still a cacophony as he had failed to tell us which tradition he meant so we all used our usual one.

To be serious for a while, to need forgiveness we must like an addict know that we need to be forgiven. It is no use asking for forgiveness unless we acknowledge that we have of our own self will sinned. Again back at Uni our chaplain used to lead a daily devotion just before the start of lectures one morning in her prayer went on for some time, so much we started glancing at watches to see if we might be late for the first lecture of the day, and the prayer mostly consisted of asking for forgiveness. At the end as we hurriedly got up to leave someone mentioned “Gillean you seemed to be asking for a lot of forgiveness today” She replied “Well I need a lot of forgiveness at the moment” Why? We never asked!

As I have said often the Greeks have several words for anything, and sin is no exception. In Biblical terms there are five words used:

Firstly, a word that comes from a shooting context and means to miss the target. In this sense sin means to be less than we could be, to fail to use the gifts we have to their maximum. How often have we heard it said of someone he could have achieved so much if only …? To fail to fulfil our potential is in these terms a sin.

Secondly, a word that means to step across a line, in other words when we make a conscious decision to do something we know to be wrong.

Thirdly, a similar word that means to slip across where we may not deliberately choose to do something but through carelessness or laziness we allow ourselves to drift into sin. Possibly the most common form of sin as even the best can be caught off guard in a moment of distraction or weakness.

Fourthly, a word that literally means lawlessness, the deliberate flouting of laws regulations and customs wantonly.  Where we ignore a law abiding life and embrace illegality not once as in the case of two but continually as a way of life.

Finally, and three cheers for the Presbyterian team a word that means to leave a debt unpaid and it is this word most commonly found in early versions of the Lord’s Prayer. It is a failure of duty and even the greatest of saints must admit that on occasion they have failed in their duty to God and humanity.

That is why we all need to pray for forgiveness. A very good Christian I know had been ill in bed for two days and on the second night as he said his prayers he came to where he usually asked for forgiveness but he realized that unwell in his sickbed he had not had the opportunity, or indeed inclination, to sin but yet he said he still had to ask for forgiveness because he was a sinner and no matter how he tried he would always fall short of God’s plan for him.

And so too do we.



Lord God our loving Father in Heaven, forgive us when we go astray deliberately, forgive us when we go astray because we are not paying attention, and forgive us when we forget the debt we owe because your son paid our ransom.

In your Mercy hear our prayer,