“FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES”
The Sermon Text, St. Luke 23:33-34. 33 And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots.
Lord, this is Your Word and these are Your words. Sanctify us by the truth. Your Word is truth. O Lord Jesus, You pleaded for those who crucified You, and You live to make intercession for us: We humbly beseech You, show Your mercy upon us, and by Your Passion forgive all our sins, those we know and those we do not know about, that from this time forward we may live as those whom You have redeemed with Your most precious blood. Amen. (Parish Prayers, p. 74)
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ, for whose sake we are forgiven by God:
Isn’t it unthinkable to us that on the cross Jesus forgives the people who put Him there? I mean, if you think about it it’s unthinkable. But there’s a way we actually don’t think much about it. Everyone loves these words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But who exactly are “they” whom Jesus is forgiving?
They are the ones who inflict so much pain on Jesus, can’t get enough of watching Him suffer, beat Him senseless, demand His death, lie about Him under oath, yell and hurl insults at Him, want Him to be without a friend, drive and push Him all the way to Calvary, pound the nails in, callously gamble for His garments, and – Jesus knows even as He says these words – in the hours to come, while He is hanging on the cross, they still won’t be satisfied, won’t be silent, will still spew hatred at Him and not let Him have a moment’s peace even as the life-blood is draining from His veins.
And Jesus says, “Father forgive …” them?! It’s just unthinkable. Shouldn’t Jesus wait until they’re sorry first? Shouldn’t they say they are sorry before He says they’re forgiven? Isn’t this in the wrong order?
This is the surprise of the 5th petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses.” Martin Luther says in the Large Catechism that God can and does “forgive sin without and even before our prayer. He has given us the Gospel, in which is pure forgiveness before we prayed or ever thought about it” (Large Catechism: Lord’s Prayer, para. 88).
This is important, because we tend to think that we’re forgiven because we are sorry. That forgiveness works this way: I say I’m sorry, then God will forgive me. This can lead to thinking God forgives you because you are so sorry – or to doubt that you’re sorry or sincere enough for Him to forgive.
See what this is doing? Turning forgiveness into yet another thing that we earn. You see this especially when it’s really hard to bring yourself to forgive someone. If they hurt you too badly for you to forgive, or if they need to show their remorse before you do, really you’re making the have to be worthy of your forgiveness. This shows what you think of God forgiving you. It’s because you’ve done what’s necessary for Him to forgive you.
This is why Jesus includes “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How we forgive others is connected to what we believe about God forgiving us. So, “forgive us our trespasses” isn’t just about receiving forgiveness. It is about what your faith is regarding God’s forgiveness.
The first part is what you think of your sin. This brings us back to Jesus’ enemies who weren’t sorry yet. They were acting as His enemies; but the Bible says “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son when we were enemies.” It says we are those enemies. Does it hurt to be called His enemies? That is what the Law does. Who are the ones who “know not what they do”? You can look back and see that every day it’s been true of you.
But Jesus says, “I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15). The only way this is true is if there is forgiveness for His enemies. God the Father sent His Son to say on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” All your forgiveness is contained not in you being so sorry, but totally and only in His love for you the sinner, which you see in Him on the cross.
Jesus, on the cross, praying for His enemies, is where God shows us what this prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses,” looks like.
When we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses,” we admit we have sins. We ask God not to look upon them. This is the way God always has forgiven sin.
When David repented, Nathan said right away “God has put away your sin” (2Sa 12:13). In Micah 7:19 it says, “You will cast all our sins into the depth of the sea.” And in Psalm 103, that He has put our sins “as far as the east is from the west.” God is always putting our sins out of His sight. He does this in Christ. So in this prayer for forgiveness we ask Him not to look upon our sins, but to look at Christ Crucified. We ask Him to look at His Son.
This is why Jesus said, “Father.” If the Father looks at our sins laid on Jesus, when He looks at us He sees no sins. It isn’t even due to how sorry we are, but only for Jesus’ sake. He gives us grace – forgiveness. Then He will hear our prayers. How can you be sure he will hear yours? Because Jesus said, “Forgive them” – the ones who “know not what they do.” That’s us!
Take comfort in Jesus’ word “them.” He’s speaking of you. Because your sins cry out against you, Jesus speaks up for you. When Jesus says, “Father, forgive them,” He is taking your sins upon Himself and away from you. His blood that He shed on the cross purchased your forgiveness. He pleads for you with His blood. This is Jesus “interceding.” He says, “Father, forgive!”
Then God the Father no longer looks upon your sins when He looks at you. There are no sins. He doesn’t deny your prayer, even the prayer for forgiveness. He forgives you for Jesus’ sake.
He forgives even before you ask. He’s ready to give this before you even desire it or recognize how much you need it. Then what’s the point of praying, “Forgive us our trespasses?” To learn God’s grace. To see how open His arms are toward you. So that you are not hesitant to come to Him with anything, since He forgives you this way.
What He does for you, you can do for others. If it’s hard to forgive someone yourself, begin by bringing their forgiveness to God in prayer, interceding for them as Jesus intercedes for you. You can ask for help to forgive. He’ll give it to you. He gives you everything by grace. Amen!