Debts or Trespasses

Image from Wikipedia by J-P M. Bongayon
Image from Wikipedia by J-P M. Bongayon

When it comes to the subject of public prayer, the one public prayer said most often by Christians has to be what has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer.  A version of it can be found in both the Gospel of Matthew and that of Luke.

Many of us know it beginning as follows:

Our Father who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread…

The words that come next depend on the church.  Many add the line, “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  However, those who grew up in the Presbyterian tradition usually say “and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  As a result, during my travels as I visit Methodist Churches on behalf of my own church, I often find myself using the term “debts” as opposed to “trespasses”.  But why is there the difference?

According to Wikipedia, “As early as the third century, Origen of Alexandria used the word trespasses (παραπτώματα) in the prayer. Though the Latin form that was traditionally used in Western Europe has debita (debts), most English-speaking Christians (except Scottish Presbyterians and some others of the Reformed tradition), use trespasses.”

In my experience with my local Presbyterian Church, the topic of money seemed to come up a lot.  Therefore, using the word debts does make some sense.  However, it seems to me that using it in the Lord’s Prayer makes it sound like the most important issue is our financial relationships.  Yes, one can owe all sorts of debts not related to money. defines debt as “Theology. an offense requiring reparation; a sin; a trespass.”  However, the far more common understanding of the word is “something that is owed or that one is bound to pay to or perform for another.”  Therefore, I would argue that using the word debts in the Lord’s Prayer leaves us incomplete.

In the same way, trespasses doesn’t seem quite right either.  Much like debt, trespass can mean “to commit a transgression or offense; transgress; offend; sin.” but in common understanding I would assume most people these days consider trespass to be “a wrongful entry upon the lands of another”.  Although I strongly support property rights, I believe the Lord’s Prayer should encompass more.

If we are to use a different word than debt or trespass, what should we say?  Well, ideally we ought to follow the original text.  For example, the shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke uses the term sins.

Father, may your name be honored.

May your kingdom come soon.

Give us our food day by day.

And forgive us our sins-

just as we forgive those who have sinned against us.

And don’t let us yield to temptation. Luke 11:2-4 (NLT)

Although we are constantly encouraged to forgive those who wrong us, one potential pitfall with the use of this language is that it may lead some people to believe that they have the ability to forgive sins.  After all, if sinning is a transgression of divine law, who can absolve us of this transgression other than the lawgiver?

Jesus addresses this issue in the book of Mark:

Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “My son, your sins are forgiven.

But some of the teachers of religious law who were sitting there said to themselves, “What?  This is blasphemy!  Who but God can forgive sins!”

Jesus knew what they were discussing among themselves, so he said to them, “Why do you think this is blasphemy?  Is it easier to say to the paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or Get up, pick up your mat, and walk?”  Mark 2:5-9 (NLT)

Then Jesus adds this next important statement.

“I will prove that I, the Son of Man, have the authority on earth to forgive sins.” Mark 2:6 (NLT)

Without this authority, which is granted by God, a person does not have the power to absolve someone of his or her sins.  Later, in the Gospel of John, Jesus transfers this authority to his disciples.

Then he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven.  If you refuse to forgive them, they are unforgiven. John 20:22-23 (NLT)

Keeping this thought in mind, any of us can and should forgive those who have wronged us.  So long as we are mindful that we are able to forgive those who have sinned against us but not the sin itself, as it is written in Luke, I would argue that using the word “sin” in the Lord’s Prayer would be more appropriate than either “debts” or “trespasses”.

One Reply to “Debts or Trespasses”

  1. Nice lovey-dovey, touchy-feely talk! HOWEVER, most “devout Christians” that I’ve ever encountered WILL NEVER apologize for anything they’ve done to you, nor do they ever actually think they are wrong in any way, shape, or form! Interestingly enough, I’ve found the same type behavior thread with most modern liberal folks too! Go figure, huh????? 😉

    So that brings me to my question – must we forgive those who are NEVER apologetic to us? Or, am I asking for way, way too much humility from both modern “devout Christians” and modern liberals (including modern liberal-tarians)?????

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