Matthew 6:12 appears toward the end of what is often referred to as the Lord’s Prayer, part of the Sermon on the Mount, a discourse on the kingdom of heaven. In this model prayer, Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Some may wonder why believers, who are forgiven of their sin, need to ask God to “forgive us our debts.”
When exploring the forgiveness of sins, it’s important to note there are three aspects of salvation: positional, progressive, and ultimate. Positional salvation is often thought of as synonymous with justification—the state of being declared righteous. Progressive salvation involves the process of becoming holy or righteous, as we are set apart in this world for God’s purposes. Ultimate salvation is our glorification, when we are removed from the presence of sin and made complete in holiness. All three aspects of salvation are acts of God completed by grace through faith (John 3:16; Romans 3:21–28).
The Christian is positionally righteous, but not practically so. We are declared innocent in Christ, but we still sin day to day in this world. That’s why we still need to ask God “to forgive us our debts” and why we still need to forgive the debts of others. The “debts” Jesus refers to are sins.
John addresses the same matter: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9). Christians should acknowledge their sins and offenses against God and confess them to the only One who can forgive.
Jesus, in Matthew 6, teaches humility and praying for God’s recognition rather than man’s (cf. Matthew 6:1, 5). He’s speaking to a Jewish audience, showing them that their law-based righteousness is not enough to enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matthew 5:20, 48). John is speaking to “brethren,” pointing to a Christian audience, both Jew and Gentile (1 John 3:13, 14, 16). This is critical to understand, as it means the principle of asking God to forgive our debts is universal.
Belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ leads to justification (John 3:16; John 6:47; 1 John 5:1–5; Romans 4:1–3; 1 Corinthians 15:1–4). A repeated request for forgiveness is not required for salvation in this sense. Post-salvation confession of sin and requests for forgiveness are for the purpose of a healthy relationship with God. We must ask God to forgive our debts for the continuance and strengthening of our fellowship with Him. A daily prayer that God would “forgive us our debts” is not necessary for justification but instead is an aspect of the continuing process of sanctification.